The Follies of Growth and Climate Denial

The rising tide of economic growth has failed to lift all boats and is now promising to be environmentally disastrous. In the face of anthropogenic climate change, global poverty and growing inequality, we must urgently reassess our obsession with GDP, argues Rajesh Makwana.

For perhaps the first time ever in England, undergraduates at a formal debate supported the views of popular climate change sceptics and voted in favour of maintaining the status quo. Whilst on the surface this is quite alarming given the traditionally progressive influence that students have, it is perhaps less surprising if we consider the wider context of the recent Oxford Union Society debate.

The schismatic choice offered by the Union was reflected in the motion: 'This House would put economic growth before combating climate change'. Some would call this a false choice as both are arguably important - although not for the notable global warming sceptics who stood firmly in support of preserving growth and not the climate: Viscount Monkton, Lords Lawson and Leach, and James Delingpole.

In a sense they were right - it's not a false choice; governments will never solve the climate crisis unless they rethink their obsession with economic growth. But my opponents didn't agree with this perspective. Their reaction to my address was summarised by Delingpole in his Telegraph blog the following day, where I was branded a communist - a sentiment liberally applied during the debate to any other 'greens' who might express a concern for the environment. His views represent a common and defensive overreaction to the simple fact that endless economic growth on a planet with finite resources is unsustainable, and to the suggestion that we need to reconsider the role of growth as a panacea to all the world's problems, particularly climate change.

Whilst a charmingly unbalanced Monkton entertained The House with his soliloquies and mathematical formulae, it became clear to me that the debate over anthropogenic climate change is a red herring - the science alone is conclusive enough. Of greater concern was how the sceptics dismissed the view that growth is unsustainable by justifying its pursuit for the sake of ending world poverty. The real challenge for those who take a more holistic view on the converging crises of climate change, global poverty and inequality is how to confront the dogmatic belief that humanity's prosperity is entirely dependent on the growth of GDP.

As pointed out by an enthusiastic interjection during the debate, even parties on the left of the political spectrum are guided by the assumption that the economy must always grow. But the snares of this belief have long been identified by progressive economists, and even a cursory analysis of economic growth reveals its dangerous shortcomings: growth pursued at all costs is ecologically unsustainable, socially unjust, and often unnecessary.

The 'limits to growth' argument is well documented, and surely even the most scientific of climate change deniers couldn't disagree that nature's resources are in short supply. Our economic activity is dependent upon the ecological limits of the planet - limits that we have already pushed far beyond. We are currently consuming resources 40 percent faster than nature can either replenish them or reabsorb the pollution and waste that our economic activity generates.

The notion that improvements in efficiency from technological advances can deliver us from this ecological destruction has also been discredited. The Sustainable Development Commission (UK) clearly detailed how, if we want to tackle climate change by decarbonising a growth-based economy, the carbon intensity of every single dollar in 2050 will have to be 130 times less than it is today. This scenario assumes a moderate growth in total population, and a global economy that would be (at a conservative estimate) 15 times bigger than it is today. Efficiencies of this magnitude are the stuff of science fiction, and only possible if a superhuman being soon reveals an unknown technology that can transform our life beyond all recognition.

But what about ending poverty? Climate change deniers pursue growth, it seems, for altruistic reasons - to secure a prosperous future for the 3 billion people who continue to live on less than $2.50 a day (an aggregate number that has actually increased since the World Bank's global poverty figures began in 1981). The fact that decades of economic growth has not made a significant dent in global poverty is enough evidence that the proceeds of growth are not sufficiently 'trickling down'. In fact, any trickle there may have been is rapidly drying up despite any increases in the size of the economic pie; in the 1980's, 2.2 percent of global growth went to the poor, compared to only 0.6 percent in the 1990's.

The consequence of this skewed distribution of growth is, unsurprisingly, that the world is increasingly unequal, with the richest ten percent having accumulated 3,000 times more wealth than the poorest ten percent. The benefits of growth have been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of big corporations, as well as 500 well-placed billionaires who have seen their fortunes soar in spite of the global financial crisis.

The 'rising tide' has failed to lift all boats, and is now promising to be environmentally disastrous. A more sustainable and just economy could still include economic growth, but - in the face of resource depletion, peak oil and environmental pollution - that growth can no longer afford to neglect the ecological limits of the planet. And in the face of unprecedented levels of global hunger and poverty, is it really an assertion of 'communism' or simply common sense to state that growth must be rooted more locally, allowing communities to drive the creation of economic activity and benefit most from its rewards?

The options available to policy-makers to achieve this transformation are plentiful; what is missing, as always, is the necessary political will. Perhaps the biggest barrier to sustainable development is the sheer stubbornness of many within the political establishment to consider an alternative to GDP growth, and the reluctance of those who benefit most from the status quo to open their minds to simple reason.

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