This is the third piece in an exchange with Jason Hickel on growth. Hickel's response will be the last piece in the series.
Jason Hickel responded to my earlier piece on degrowth arguing that in fact, economic growth is inconsistent with a sustainable environment and that we have to get people to reject growth as an economic goal if we are going to limit the damage from climate change and excessive resource use more generally.
First, let me point out where we do agree. It is necessary to take drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly. The world is falling far behind a path of emissions reductions (they are still rising) that will prevent excessive damage to the planet. Going beyond the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, we also have to take steps to reduce resource use more generally. The planet is rapidly losing habitat and species in ways that are irreversible.
I’m sure Hickel knows the data in these areas better than me, but I would not argue on the basic point. The question is whether degrowth needs to somehow fit into the picture. I will raise two points, one a question of logic and one a practical political issue.
On the logical point, I am at loss to understand why we would have a war on growth. Granted, we need to massively reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and over time other material inputs, but I am afraid I don’t see how that this precludes growth.
I am certainly willing to believe that a period of rapid increases in carbon taxes may lead to a recession, although I would not even take this as a foregone conclusion. If we spend enough in other areas, it is possible to offset sharp reductions in the sectors of the economy that are heavy users of fossil fuels. (Yes, I know people have modeled this scenario, but I’m afraid that I don’t view such modeling as sacrosanct. Almost no economic models projected the collapse of the housing bubble and the Great Recession. I don’t think economists who can’t tell us what will happen next year in ordinary times suddenly have perfect foresight when we talk about an unprecedented transition in energy use.)
But let’s say that the transition brings about a recession. How does that preclude further subsequent growth? The Federal Reserve Board has brought on nine recessions since World War II. Would anyone say the Fed precludes growth?
Concretely, when we get to our sustainable level of resource use, I assume we will still have clothes, shelter, computers, etc. These items all wear out. When we replace them, is there some reason the new items would not be better (e.g. longer lasting, clothes that are warmer or cooler etc.) than the ones they replaced? If so, that sure sounds like growth to me.
Hickel tells us that capitalism can only exist as a system of exploitation and extraction. Well, we certainly have in the past seen plenty of exploitation and extraction. We can also throw in racism and sexism which have always been with us. However, the necessary link to capitalism is simply an assertion. If I make clothes that last longer than my competitors’ or keep people warmer in the winter, I’m afraid I don’t see how that means that I must be exploiting others or nature.
But getting beyond the logical issues, I don’t see how telling people we don’t care about growth is going to advance an environmental agenda. As I said in my first piece, growth is an abstraction that is probably meaningless to 99 percent of the population.
People know if they have a secure job and health care, they know if their wages are rising, they don’t have a clue what the growth rate is. You can find many periods where the economy was growing just fine, such as the early 90s and 00s, but people’s assessment of the economy was poor. The problem was that many workers couldn’t find jobs and wages were not keeping pace with prices.
We need people to stop driving SUVs, to not travel to Europe in the summer, to forget about vacation homes. That will mean policies like huge tax increases on gas and jet fuel. Will the public be more supportive of these measures because we tell them we aren’t interested in GDP growth?
Hickel seems to think the public is already there, reporting a poll showing that 70 percent felt that protecting the environment is more important than growth. I question whether this translates into support for the policies needed to get us on a sustainable economic path.
In last month’s elections, California voters rejected a repeal of a gas tax by 11 percentage points. While that may seem like good news, California is one of the most progressive states in the country, and the tax was just 12 cents a gallon. Try a $4.00 a gallon tax and see how it flies in Texas. We have lots of work that needs to be done.
In short, the public needs to be convinced that global warming is a serious enough and immediate threat that it is necessary for them to change their consumption patterns in big ways. I don’t see how telling them we don’t want growth helps in this process.
Hickel and I agree that sharply reducing inequality has to be a big part of the story. Emanuel Macron, France’s president, has given us a textbook example of how environmental measures that worsen inequality will be rejected by the public.
I’m interested in policies that reduce inequality largely by reversing the policies that created inequality, such as patent and copyright monopolies, protectionism for doctors and other highly paid professionals, and coddling a bloated financial sector. (The larger story is in Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer [it’s free]) If we aggressively pursue these policies, coupled with the right tax and incentive structure, we have a shot at getting us to a sustainable economy. In that context, attacking growth as a concept is a distraction.