Post-growth is about meeting humanity’s needs in a way that achieves high wellbeing for all while respecting the limits of our bountiful yet finite planet. There are so many reasons why the transition to a post-growth world is necessary and desirable. But the reason that really lends it a sense of urgency is the climate crisis.
Governments, corporations and the World Bank are convinced that we can tackle climate change while continuing to grow the global economy. In fact, they argue climate action will actually ramp up growth, completely failing to understand that climate change is a symptom of growth.
The ‘Better Growth – Better Climate’ report is frequently quoted for justification. The report is flawed for at least two reasons: firstly, it’s written by economists and business leaders, not climate scientists. Secondly, the carefully-worded executive summary makes it sound like growth and a safe climate can be achieved together, but deep in the body text lies the admission that the ‘climate action’ which can take place in a growing economy will not be enough to keep us below 2C (Better Growth – Better Climate report, 2014, p.296). The director of the International Energy Agency says we must decouple growth from carbon pollution, yet there is no evidence that this is possible in the timescale demanded by climate change. Since 1970, the global carbon intensity of economic activity (total carbon emissions divided by world GDP) has been falling by an average of 1.3% per year. In 2014 we managed 2.7% (the steepest decline yet) but briefly after the millennium we actually went the other way and increased carbon intensity slightly. The Low Carbon Economy Index 2015 calculates we need to be reducing carbon intensity by 6.3% per year. Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth puts this figure higher, at 11%. But decreasing carbon intensity is not enough: even if last year’s trend continues and we decrease it significantly, carbon emissions will still be rising – just not as quickly as GDP. Decoupling cannot get us to zero emissions. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) puts it bluntly: “Continuing economic growth in high-income countries will make it impossible to achieve urgent carbon reduction targets”.
As the stark choice between growthism and a safe climate emerges, it is endangering the survival of human civilisation not to choose the latter. Although carbon pollution can’t be decoupled from growth, wellbeing certainly can. Two of our co-directors, Jen Hinton and Donnie Maclurcan, are working on their upcoming book, How on Earth? Flourishing in a Not-For-Profit World by 2050, which sets out a post-growth economic model based around not-for-profit enterprise. A shift to a not-for-profit economic model would accelerate and facilitate climate action in three key ways.
Removing the driver
The growth economy constantly demands expansion, which in practical terms means the consumption of raw materials and energy and the production of wastes, including carbon emissions. A post-growth economy, which is geared towards wellbeing and need fulfilment not profit and need creation, instantly loses this systemic incentive for carbon pollution. On the level of individual firms, without the pressure to constantly grow and deliver higher profits they would lose the incentive to cut corners on environmental protection and employee safety.
Evening it up
A post-growth economy would have a much more equal distribution of wealth than we have today. More equal societies have been shown to have smaller ecological footprints, by many researchers including Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. This is partly due to the way a highly unequal society drives up status-driven consumerism and competition. Not-for-profit enterprise addresses inequality at its root by only paying fair wages, with no distribution of profits to individuals (which are instead reinvested into the business’s social mission). Wilkinson and Pickett’s research also shows that more equal societies do better across a range of outcomes, from happiness and health to crime and education. This suggests more equality could meet needs that people would otherwise be trying to fulfil with material consumption. Lastly, a more equal society fosters the kind of solidarity needed for sacrifices that may need to be made to adapt to the climate effects already locked in and mitigate against further impacts.
Reclaiming our time
A post-growth economy will likely involve a shift to a much shorter work week, to spread employment out between those clocking unhealthy levels of overtime and those unable to get a job. As NEF explains, this would also have a beneficial impact on our carbon footprints. Having more free time will allow people to meet more of their needs outside the market, which tends to be a lower carbon option. Playing with your kids is lower carbon than buying them toys and growing your own vegetables is lower carbon than buying them. Those things have negligible environmental impact, but they do take a lot of the most precious resource: time. The frantic fast-paced tempo of so called ‘advanced’ capitalist societies has many undesirable impacts on our physical and mental health, our relationships and our community engagement. The Voluntary Simplicity and Slow Food movements illustrate how, for many people today, slowing down can improve wellbeing.
There are a lot of positive trends in the run-up to COP21, the UN’s Climate Conference in Paris this winter (November 30th – December 11th), and I am hopeful that a deal will be struck. But while governments cling to the myth of decoupling, our climate efforts will likely be thwarted by the engine of growth. We must spread the word that it really is growth vs a stable and safe climate – we can’t have both. Even more importantly, we must spread the word that we can have a prosperous market economy that does a much better job of meeting humanity’s needs, without growth.
Whatever happens in Paris, a post-growth world is our future.
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Image credits: Meme (1) and book cover (2) both from Post Growth Institute.