Isn’t It Time To Challenge The Growth Paradigm? – OpEd


At the end of July, the International Monetary Fund warned of a “gloomy outlook” for the world economy. It was doing so not because of a spike in poverty, a widening of inequality, or a surge in carbon emissions. Quite the contrary: the IMF was making its pessimistic assessment because it was revising down its forecast for global GDP growth for 2022 from 3.6 percent to 3.2 percent. In other words, the global economy was growing, but not enough, and that for the IMF was cause for concern.

At the same time that the IMF was making its announcement, the U.S. government was trying to dispel concerns that a second successive quarter of economic contraction—a decline of .9 percent that followed a 1.6 percent decrease in the first quarter of 2022—meant that the country was on the verge of a recession. The U.S. economy was not growing, and that for the government was cause for even greater concern.

Economic expansion remains the yardstick of success at the global and national levels. Robust growth garners positive headlines; anemic growth and contraction generate anxious forecasts. This remains the case despite the widely acknowledged link between economic growth and the climate crisis, a connection reinforced during the COVID pandemic when carbon emissions dropped considerably as a result of the economic shutdowns in many countries.

“The goal of almost all economists and politicians is continued economic growth,” explains Josh Farley, a professor in Community Development & Applied Economics and Public Administration at the University of Vermont, in a Zoom seminar sponsored by Global Just Transition. “For anyone who knows anything about complex systems, exponential growth is always ephemeral. It cannot be sustained in any finite system. Exponential growth must always collapse.”

One way of postponing collapse, and to combine growth and environmental protection, has been “sustainable development.” But as Ashish Kothari, the co-founder of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group in India, points out, “even sustainable development is a very superficial way of trying to deal with the multiple crises that we are in. It doesn’t address the structural roots of the crises, which can be found in much older systems of racism and patriarchy or new systems of capitalism and nation-state domination.”

More recently, the “Green New Deal” has been an effort to combine decarbonization with an economic shift to clean energy that nevertheless promises a growth in jobs and benefits to disadvantaged communities. “The Green New Deal faces opposition and also resistance from movements and governments in the Global South because it is seen as a northern approach,” says Dorothy Guerrero, the head of policy and advocacy at Global Justice Now in the United Kingdom. “It is indeed a big task for Green New Deal politics to counter that view that it’s a northern alternative and break down the prevailing neo-liberal politics that pits workers and jobs against environment.”

More radical attempts have been made to identify economic models that are not predicated on exponential growth. Some of these are national-level models of a “steady-state” economy. Others focus on local alternatives that stress more democratic politics and a more integrated approach to nature. But as Katharine Nora Farrell, an associate professor in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota, notes, the challenge is not just theoretical or even practical, but moral as well.

“We need to take responsibility in social and economic contexts for our role in stipulating how systems function,” she notes. “The failure to face up to this is part of the problem. It’s embarrassing to say that ‘I have these good things because you are being exploited.’ It’s hard to be moral toward someone when you discover that you have your heel on their neck.”

Unsustainable economic growth relies on just such a heel: on the necks of workers, marginalized communities and nature itself. But that growth is now coming under enhanced scrutiny and greater criticism, from within the status quo and from those who have suffered the most from its effects.

The Problem with Growth

For 3,000 years, until 1750, economic growth per person averaged about .01 percent per year. After 1750 and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, however, that rate went up to 1.5 percent. To express this radical change a different way, the global economy took 6,000 years to double before 1750. Afterward, the economy doubled every 50 years.

“When the World Bank says that there’s 3.2 percent economic growth, that doubles the size of the global economy every 24 years,” Josh Farley notes. “In the past 100 years, we’ve quadrupled the human population and increased the per capita consumption nine-fold for a 36-fold increase in the size of the economy. That can’t be sustained.”

One popular image of economic growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats. But in reality, economic growth lifts yachts much higher than dinghies. “All forms of monetary wealth grow much faster than the economy as a whole,” Farley continues. “Not only is this unsustainable, we’re systematically transferring our resources to the owners of capital.” Similarly, the growth in interest-bearing debt “shifts resources from debtors to creditors, the people that the government gave the right to create money out of thin air.”

Farley uses two comparisons to drive home the unsustainability of growth. “If your lilies are doubling in a pond every few days so that in 30 days it’s full, when is the pond half full? In 29 days. So, if we use up half our oil, it’s all used up after one more doubling period,” he says. “I was growing exponentially until I reached 18 and then I stopped growing. We’ve all reached maturity and we need to stop growing,”

Economic growth is also unsustainable because it requires enormous inputs of resources, and those resources are limited. The climate crisis is one indication of many that economic growth has outstripped the resource capacities of the planet. “The Biden administration’s plan calls for a shift to electric cars,” Ashish Kothari points out. “That sounds good but where will all the mining take place to get all the materials for those cars? Again, this is based on the inequality between north and south, including patterns of consumption.”

Yet, as Dorothy Guerrero adds, a consensus is emerging that humanity has to reduce its reliance on these resources. “The idea of leaving fossil fuels in the ground has gained legitimacy as the most viable response to climate change,” she explains. “The political consensus among climate activists and scientists is that renewable energy must now be fast-tracked and developed where it is not developed.”

“We need to develop an economy whose main goal is not growth but secure sufficiency for all,” concludes Josh Farley. “Our planet is too small to achieve much more than sufficiency. More and more consumption can no longer be our goal. We should instead be focusing on systems in which production is fun. Collaborating with others to meet our basic needs should be our reward.”

The Role of Markets

Economic growth is at the heart of capitalism, and markets have played a central role in generating growth.

“Capitalism is defined by private property rights, individual choice, competition, and pursuit of individual profit,” Josh Farley points out. “But for the social dilemmas that we’re facing—global climate change, loss of biodiversity, loss of the ozone layer—private property rights are not worth talking about, and individual choice is impossible. I cannot choose how stable a climate I want. We are faced with situations in which the physical characteristics of the resources are no long compatible with a capitalist system. This isn’t to say that we necessarily eliminate capitalism altogether, but we can’t rely on it to solve certain problems.”

The capitalist system encompasses much of the world, north and south. But markets, despite the ideology of a disinterested “invisible hand,” favor certain parts of the world over others.

“In addressing the current climate emergency, who will reap the benefits and who will pay for the costs of the adjustment?” asks Dorothy Guerrero. “There has been an unequal ecological exchange between core countries and countries on the periphery. We need to address the issue of monopoly capitalism where, in the case of vaccines, corporations have introduced life-saving vaccines for their own profit. The transition to clean energy—whether it’s orderly or destructive, peaceful or violent, market-led or regulated—will be determined by the conflicts between north and south, between core and periphery as well as the balance of forces within societies.”

Like it or not, globalized capitalism is the system “we are dealing with today,” Katharine Nora Farrell points out. “Unregulated markets can and do generate enormous damage, human and environmental. But it’s a poor musician that blames their instrument. Markets are created by human societies, relying on norms and customs established by humans. Sometimes those norms are consolidated into law, sometimes not. Rather than say that markets are all bad or all good, we have to determine when and how and under what conditions markets work or do not work.”

The market economy is not the only game in town. “I ask my students, ‘what type of economy has most affected your life,’ and they say, ‘Oh, we’re a market economy,’” says Josh Farley. “And I reply, ‘Oh, really? Your parents charge you for room and board?’ Your main experience is the core economy, the economy of reciprocity and gifting and providing for your close kin and community, which is totally outside the market.”

The market with its emphasis on self-interest, he continues, is not well-suited to the social dilemmas that humans currently face. “If I catch all the fish, I get all the benefits even if I wipe out the population and future generations suffer,” he continues. “If I spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, I get the benefit while others suffer. Instead of the invisible hand that Smith talked about, social dilemmas create an invisible foot that kicks the common good to pieces.”

Moving toward Transformation

Many of the proposed solutions to the climate crisis are market-driven, such as carbon trading systems. Some are even predicated on growth strategies.

“We are confronting so-called solutions that are coming to us from the systems that created the problems in the first place,” explains Ashish Kothari. “These are mostly Band-Aids, such as techno-engineering solutions or the ‘net zero’ that most countries have said that they will achieve in terms of carbon emissions by 2050 or 2060 or 2070. These so-called solutions tend to sustain these structures and even greenwash them.”

The origin of many transformative solutions, on the other hand, come from resistance on the ground to mining, large-scale hydroelectric plants, and similar efforts to generate the electricity and inputs to sustain economic growth at unsustainable levels. Kothari recalls the movement in central India 30 years ago against two large hydroelectric projects. “We didn’t want these projects not just because they would displace our villages and destroy our livelihoods, but because the river on which these dams are built is our mother and we won’t let our mother be shackled by your dreams of progress,” he says. “You can see in this resistance movement alternative ways of being, acting, dreaming, and relating to each other and to nature.”

This alternative way of relating to nature challenges the anthropocentrism that lies at the heart of unsustainable economic growth. “In Western modernity, there is a divide between humans and nature,” he continues. “You can see it even in the way we speak. We don’t say ‘humans and the rest of the nature.’ At school we learned about a pyramid in which humans are on top. Actually, there is a circle of life in which all species have equality.”

This different approach to nature, he continues, can be found “in the solidarity economy, in movements for food and energy sovereignty, and among those fighting for self-determination like the Zapatistas who say that we will be the ones who will govern our communities in ways that are more equitable and just.”

The challenge is to inject this kind of thinking into the efforts to address global challenges.

“What we lack–and what ecological economics is trying to promote—are economic institutions that preserve, enhance, and restore the biotic community of which humans are a part,” Josh Farley adds. “Over the last 50 years, we have been through a neoliberal revolution that has taken everything from the care economy and the public sector economy and put it all into the market. We’re now trying to put the natural resource base into the market. This is the wrong approach because of the physical characteristics of the resources. We need to flip the dialog around and start taking things out of the market economy and put them into other sectors of the economy.”

Mechanisms of Change

The current economic system is ill-suited to handle challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. Worse, it is directly responsible for these problems in the first place. Alternatives exist, but are they replicable and scalable?

“While we have amazing examples of alternatives around the world, we need to create scale to challenge the mega-problems,” Ashish Kothari explains. “We need much greater horizontal networking among these amazing initiatives. It’s not about upscaling but outscaling across horizontal networks of solidarity, then creating the critical mass to affect those larger problems.”

Alternatives like the Zapatista struggle, he adds, “are not replicable. You can’t copy them in India and make them successful. But we can learn and exchange these values and ethics and principles and create horizontal solidarity networks around the world. We can become more resilient based on the understanding that there is a pluriverse of politics, ideologies, ecologies, and economies, all of which are important and worth respecting in so far as they do not undermine other ecologies, ideologies, and so on. These are expressed in different languages as swaraj, ubuntu, buen vivir, and so on.”

The role of cooperation—as opposed to the competition fostered by markets—will prove critical in any response to the climate crisis. “Mainstream economists argue that humans are inherently selfish, that we always act in our own self-interest and can’t cooperate, which is absolutely absurd,” Josh Farley argues. “Humans are the most cooperative species ever to evolve. Think about what you had for breakfast. How many people were involved in getting the food to your plate, between truckers and farmers and producers of fertilizers and farm machinery. Think about how many people were involved in developing the knowledge necessary to do that—agronomy, metallurgy, geology. The knowledge required to meet your basic needs every day was generated by billions of people over thousands of years. Humans cannot live apart from society any better than a cell can live apart from an individual body.”

Farley sees culture as the medium through which cooperative ideas and approaches can evolve at a rapid pace. “Within a society, the most selfish individuals outcompete other individuals,” he notes. “But the most cooperative and altruistic group outcompetes other groups. So, we have dual forces selecting for self-interested and cooperative behavior. We need to evolve to cooperate at larger and larger scales, at the scale of problems like climate change.”

Humans pass on their genes to successive generations. Bacteria, on the other hand, “swap genetic information called plasmids horizontally,” he continues. “At times of stress and difficulty, they do so more quickly. For humans it’s culture where we swap ideas horizontally. We’re at a time of crisis. We need to grab ideas from other cultures. That’s this pluriverse idea. There is not one idea; different cultures and ecosystems need different solutions. A socially just, sustainable transition is the goal, and we need to test all our policies against that goal. If the policies work toward that goal, we accept them; if not, we reject them.”

Species evolution takes multiple generations. “Cultural evolution can be astonishingly fast,” Farley adds. “Look at World War II. The United States went from being a capitalist economy to a form of state capitalism very quickly. How many cars did we produce in Detroit in World War II for the public? Zero. The government just took over the industry. We suddenly rationed everything—food, gasoline—and people accepted it. We faced a serious challenge, we stopped focusing on individual needs and started focusing on collective needs, and we did this very fast.”

Ashish Kothari agrees. “There are elements in the Green New Deal or some of the other programs around the world that we can encourage,” he says. “Which of these transitions will lead to systemic transformations and which ones will entrench the current system? A shift from fossil fuel to electric cars only entrenches the system of inequality between north and south. But if we’re talking about a transition from private cars to public transportation, that would lead toward a more transformative system. A transition also has to move toward radical forms of democracy or self-determination (swaraj or ubuntu). It has to move toward economic democracy, worker control, cooperatives, and a social economy that does not use GDP as yardstick of progress.”

Kothari points to a number of examples of local initiatives that move in this direction, including forms of agriculture that don’t require much in the way of external energy inputs. “There are 5,000 Dalit women farmers in south India who are growing not just enough for their families but also enough to participate in the local market and provide food relief to others during COVID,” he relates. “They’re doing this with dryland farming, completely rain-fed, with their own seeds and no external inputs. They’re relying entirely on their own knowledge and labor.”

Another example comes from the Ladakh region of India. “We have two models there,” he continues. “One is mega solar built by corporations, and the other is decentralized passive and active solar. Ladakh has over 300 days of sunlight in a year. By constructing buildings with a blend of traditional and new technology, you can trap the sunlight during the day and it warms you without artificial heating even when its minus 20 degrees at night.”

Farley similarly identifies the commons as a key element of any socially just transition. That includes a “Green knowledge commons,” which shares knowledge transnationally, as well as a social media commons where the algorithms encourage people to focus on ecological limits and social justice rather than on buying more stuff and and the polarizing images and language that facilitate that commerce. And it would include an atmospheric commons that asserts that no one owns the atmosphere.

Dorothy Guerrero puts ownership at the top of the list of factors to consider. “Any conversation that doesn’t put nationalization on the table would mean leaving the terms of transition to fossil fuel executives,” she notes. “Acknowledging that we can’t do this transition overnight, we have to discuss what we do with existing fossil fuel? First, we take control of it. If states don’t own these resources, they can’t control them or design a program of transition involving them. I don’t disregard totally the small, the independent, because they have roles to play. But when you talk about transition, it has to be at a certain scale, at a national level, and there should be national ownership. Yes, small is beautiful but big is beautiful too because that is how we control geopolitics”

Nationalization implies a focus on the national or state level. “I often say that one weakness of the left is that we’re so good at being in opposition, but it is so difficult when it comes to us governing,” notes Guerrero. “There are many discussions in Latin America now with Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and hopefully Brazil: will it be the pink tide again and will there be more red in the pink? What were the economic problems that weren’t addressed before? Politically it was a success. But even the radical governments didn’t make very radical changes in the economic realm, because they were also scared of being crushed—and they would be crushed by the United States not wanting them to succeed.”

National control applies equally to renewable energy. “We have to ask what this energy is for,” she says. “We need to clarify who will build it up, where and for what purpose. There is also a threat that fossil fuel companies are portraying themselves as key players in renewable energy buildup but they are not actually investing in the development of renewable energy.” Meanwhile, the countries that are already investing in the infrastructure of renewable energy will control this technology through patent protections. “This debate will determine which countries will dominate and which countries will be excluded,” she continues. “The United States, China, and Germany are competing to see who will dominate the renewable energy sector. But Haiti and Bangladesh won’t be players.”

For climate justice movements and those pushing against fossil fuels, “we need to increase solidarity with mineral-producing countries,” she continues. “OPEC is a an important example that we need to look at. At the same time, we have to avoid weakening the labor movements in those countries. We need solidarity in both political and economic terms. During a transition, someone will pay, and it’s usually those without voice or bargaining power.”

Implementing change at a local, national, and global level will not be easy. For one, powerful forces benefit from the current status quo. “It’s not enough to wish and work for alternatives but to be aware that the stronger the alternatives, the greater the forces against them,” Dorothy Guerrero warns.

Another challenge is the time frame. Serious decarbonization should have started decades ago. “If scientists tell us that we have only 10 years left to reverse the climate crisis, we can’t transform the situation in 10 years,” says Kothari. “We’re talking about a multigenerational transformation. We ‘re dealing with structural forces that have been around in some cases for thousands of years like patriarchy or hundreds of years like capitalism. To say that we need to do this in a single generation is unrealistic.”

Truth and Reconciliation

When Pope Francis visited the Nunavit region of Canada this summer, he apologized to the indigenous community for the role played by the Catholic Church in Europe’s colonization of the country and the forced assimilation of native peoples. Some responded that that apology has not been matched by action. But in Manitoba, the Pope received a very visible token of appreciation: a headdress that he wore during the event.

“This stunning image of Pope Francis wearing an indigenous headdress placed on his head by the representatives of a consortium of indigenous chiefs of Canada was a ritualistic act and very symbolic,” says Katharine Nora Farrell. “We have to deal with reconciliation and peace and apology, as well as embarrassment and shame for all the horrible things that have been done.”

“It’s not just about the pope but about these incredible indigenous leaders,” she continues. “They’re saying, ‘You came here in good faith to apologize and we’re not going to rub your face in it. Instead, we’re going to say you’re just like us and we’re going to do this in the most majestic and symbolic way by giving you this headdress. You can’t wear this headdress unless you have earned it. By placing it on his head, they said that he had earned their respect.”

The crimes of colonialism and forced assimilation also have had an ecological dimension since the land of indigenous peoples was often stolen for precisely the kind of polluting industry responsible for the huge uptick in carbon emissions during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the Global North bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for all the carbon emissions currently in the atmosphere.

“Climate reparations are at the center of the climate justice struggle,” Dorothy Guerrero says. “We need to highlight the need to create historically informed approaches that confront colonialism and imperialism and the climate crisis simultaneously. That’s gaining traction in the UK among young people who see the role of the UK in extracting resources from countries and impoverishing those countries by doing so.”

Such reparations can be understood as not only an apology for past actions but also a concrete effort to repair the harm done. What the Pope attempted in Canada is taking a different form in Colombia where Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez recently took over as leaders. “Marquez, the vice president, is the winner of Goldman Environmental Prize,” Farrell says, referring to a picture of Marquez. “She’s angry in this photo and she’s right to be angry. And the people of the Choco region, with a large Afro-Colombian population, are also right to be angry. It’s a mega-biodiverse region with a lot of violence inhabited mostly by poor people. Marquez appealed to these voters in the last days of the election and many people think that’s what swung the election. She said, ‘if you’re a nobody, vote for me, because I’m a nobody. This will be a government of the nobodies.’ She and Petro have put together an incredible coalition of individuals in the new government with plans to introduce agricultural tax reform and manage the resource economy.”

“We need to recognize that economic processes are anthropogenic,” Farrell continues. “We have to link ecological economics to moral theories connected to questions of responsibility. “These issues motivate activists to get involved. Look at the indignation in Greta Thunberg’s arguments. Someone has to answer for what has happened. Only then we can get involved in fixing it. The damage done has been brutal. Until we as a global community comprehend this great tragedy, I don’t think we’ll able to pick and move beyond this.”

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus. This article is part of the new Global Just Transition project.

John Feffer

John Feffer is an author and columnist and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

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