The first decade of the twenty-first century saw a rapid expansion of the global economy to the continued detriment of the global ecosystem. With growing awareness of and concern for climate change, biodiversity loss and peak oil, the physical limits of these systems are now the subject of two movements to mitigate – or prevent – an impending environmental collapse.
The first and mainstream model has been “Sustainable Development,” the aim of which has been to incorporate environmental sustainability into continued economic growth. “De-growth,” an alternative and more radical approach are critical of further development in the face of a stressed ecosystem – advocating for significant reductions in resource consumption and limits to economic development.
The concept of “Sustainable Development” first gained public attention following the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The Commission affirmed that the survival of human society depends on the adoption of practices of “sustainable development”. Its findings were published in the “Brundtland Report,” (its full title is Our Common Future, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development) which famously defines these practices as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The sustainable development model recommends measures that are in line with the carrying capacity of the environment, to lessen the impact of economic growth on ecological systems. In practice, this model encourages integrating “eco-efficiencies” into existing systems and projects, such as reductions in material or energy use in building construction, or in improvements to the recyclability of consumer products. Analogous to sound economic practices, sound sustainable practices make efficient use of (natural) capital and energy – in support of continued growth.
“Sustainable Development” an Oxy-Moron
Sustainable development is criticized by de-growth proponents as self-contradictory, in that development and economic growth involve the consumption of resources, which further worsens the condition of the environment. Although sustainable growth aims to introduce environmental sustainability practices into current systems, it nonetheless furthers economic growth, which contributes to the degradation, thus failing to improve human lives. Sustainable development is, therefore, an inadequate model for averting ecological collapse.
Rooted in mainstream development ideas that aim to increase capital and consumption, sustainable development tends to incorporate slow, incremental improvements that do not disrupt overall growth. Critics point out that this model is not radical enough to reverse the quickening ecological decline. The De-growth model, in contrast, recognizes limits to the natural systems that impinge upon economic systems, and so advocates reversing economic growth while introducing non-consumptive approaches to sustainability (for example, by developing a gift economy or furthering arts and cultural projects).
The Roots of the De-Growth Movement
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a scholar of modern economics, developed the theoretical grounding for De-growth theory and the “bioeconomy” in his 1971 work The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. In it, he applies the tools of physics to modern productive economic theory to show its failure to account for the physical limits imposed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics: that entropy increases as “useful energy get dissipated.” As with other physical systems, economic growth cannot continue indefinitely.
With the rapid growth in industry, manufacturing and urban expansion of Western nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there has been a high per-capita use of energy – mainly through the combustion of non-renewable resources such as oil and coal. In The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Georgescu-Roegen describes this process, “as the entropic transformation of valuable natural resources (low entropy) into valueless waste (high entropy).”
This energetic growth has translated into a high standard of living for some (De-growth advocates also point out the social inequity created under market capitalist consumption). However, the cost has been irreversible environmental and biodiversity degradation, including the generation of large quantities of greenhouse gases and pollution. Neoclassical economic accounting, such as in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), mistakes this depletion of resources and energy for wealth creation. The financial system can increase the debts, and mistake this expansion of credit for the creation of real wealth, which relies on the dissipation of non-renewable energy sources.
De-Growth a Tough Sell for Some
De-growth is plainly antithetical to the principles of market capitalism, which prescribe continued economic expansion to build capital for investment. Economists further argue that the market is a far more efficient mechanism to control the supply and demand of scarce resources over enforced reductions. In fact, economic de-growth is synonymous with “recession,” in neoclassical terms, which has historically resulted in massive injections of public funds to minimize job losses and productivity shortfalls.
Consequently, sustainable development is considered preferable to de-growth not only by “Green” politicians and business leaders but also Third-World nations looking to grow their economies. With the latter, the development model of a national economy takes the growth of capital and leading to a higher standard of living as requisites for reaching an acceptable quality of life.
Nations such as China and India are expending enormous amounts of energy to grow their manufacturing and industrial output, and although they may accept environmental regulations and emissions caps, it is unlikely they would allow limits to production and consumption. Given that the wealthy 20% of the global population consumes 80% of the World’s resources, it is difficult to imagine poorer nations supporting their economic de-growth. De-growth proponents counter, however, that the expanding use of resources by first-world countries satisfy lifestyles that consume more food and energy, and produce greater waste, at the expense of the Third World.
De-Growth and Technology
Some also criticize the “De-growth” movement for being short-sighted in its view of future advances in technology. Increased efficiency may render old, inefficient technologies obsolete and optimize the use of natural resources. Sustainable development depends on such advancements to ensure eco-efficiencies that lessen “collateral” environmental damage with growth. Unfortunately, such expectations are deterministic and normally incremental.