Why green growth won’t save the world

I originally pitched this short opinion piece to Stuff to follow on from an earlier piece on degrowth. However, when I submitted the finished piece, the editor declined to publish, stating that ‘it was too like other pieces published lately’ and that the audience had reached saturation point on green growth and degrowth issues. (A deeply ironic statement given that almost everything published in mainstream media is supportive and unquestioning of a growth-oriented narrative.) I also felt it would be prescient given the upcoming debate on degrowth versus green growth hosted by University of Victoria.

In light of Stuff publishing this opinion piece in response to the debate, in which the author seems to be calculatedly stirring up Red Menace anxieties reminiscent of the Cold War era by selectively cherry-picking the likes of Marxist scholar Kohei Saito’s writings as if representative of degrowth scholarship, I thought I needed to get my original piece out there one way or another.

As I have argued previously, for the future of our country and our planet, we urgently need a mature and evidence-based discussion. This kind of fear-mongering (degrowth is a thinly-veiled Marxist plot and without growth we will no longer have cancer drugs or dialysis machines) and sneering academic elitism (‘degrowth is intellectually chaotic’ – not to mention one of its main advocates is an anthropologist who believes he has expertise on the economy!?) certainly fulfils mainstream media’s desperation for click-baity headlines, but does nothing to progress a reasoned, open-minded debate on arguably the most important issue of our time.

As I have argued elsewhere, every New Zealander has a right to have a say on the future of our economy and our planet – this should not be be the preserve of economists institutionalised within government or academia. So here is the piece that Stuff refused to publish.

A growing number of New Zealanders are expressing deep concern about climate change, particularly as recent extreme weather events on our shores show that this is no longer a remote issue that only affects people in other countries. It is affecting us here, now: destroying homes and livelihoods, disrupting communities, causing heartbreak and distress, and in the most tragic cases, loss of life.

But despite our growing concern, many of us remain quietly optimistic about the future – reassured by daily offerings from mainstream media filled with stories of innovators developing new technology that will instantly create clean energy, suck up carbon dioxide by the truck-load, and turn waste into energy or other useful things like car-seat covers. The message is, we can carry on living the energy- and resource-intensive lives we do now because clever scientists, innovators and tech geniuses will find a way out of this.

Green growth adds to the bright shiny promise that we can keep on living the way we do now (using resources at a rate equivalent to one and three-quarter Earths). Green growth promises that we can carry on pursuing growth (after all, if we don’t have growth, how will we pay to fix all the damage we are causing?) – all we need to do is decouple it from greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental harm. This can be done, green growth advocates tell us, by increasing productivity and efficiency, moving to a more circular economy, and reducing waste. All without making a dent in growth!

And indeed, relative and even absolute decoupling has been achieved in some countries for a period of time – though in many cases at least in part due to the ‘offshoring’ of carbon-intensive industries. (Happily, there is always a developing country ready to take a wealthier country’s dirty industry!) Nevertheless, this decoupling is not happening at anything close to the scale and speed required to keep warming within the 1.5 C limit. In fact, global emissions continue to go up year on year.

Through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate scientists have delivered their final warning: we need to take bold action urgently to avert the untold environmental and human tragedy of irreversible climate breakdown. So, if the promise of green growth (or its affable cousin, ‘sustainable growth’) hasn’t been realised yet and there is no evidence that it will at the rate and scale required, isn’t it time we gave up on that idea and moved on to something that does give us – and more importantly, our children and their children – a chance?

That ‘something’ is degrowth. If that sounds a bit subversive, steady-state economy, doughnut economics or wellbeing economy are other economic models that embrace the same foundational principle: that is, an economic system that puts human wellbeing and ecological balance at the centre, not the blind pursuit of growth.

As discussed in this earlier piece published on Stuff, degrowth does not advocate for the carte blanche downscaling of the economy as a whole – rather it argues for the upscaling of the parts of the economy that will enhance human wellbeing while reducing our impact on the planet. These sectors include renewable energy generation, public transport, education and health and care sectors, sustainable food production, energy-efficient homes and repairable long-lasting goods. At the same time, it argues for the downscaling of the parts of our economy that are damaging to the environment, with little or no benefit for our collective wellbeing – such as single-use products and designed-in obsolescence, private vehicles, air travel, fast fashion and industrialised meat and dairy production.

And it is important to remember too, that while perpetual, compounding growth, as measured by GDP, has become the central goal for which all ‘modern’ economies strive, it has only been so since the 1950s. Since then we have become entranced by it glittering promises of ever-growing wealth for all; simultaneously blinded to all the damage that our ever-expanding global economy is doing to our planet’s seas, forests, freshwaters, atmosphere and – ultimately – to our descendants’ chances of being able to lead flourishing, fulfilling lives.

Isn’t it time we found another guiding star for our economy – that of wellbeing for all, including the living things we share this planet with?

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