The case for reparations

 

Yesterday I stood in the hall of the Durham Union to argue for the proposition: “This house believes Britain owes reparations to its former colonies”. The following is the text of my ten-minute speech, followed by five brief reflections on the opposition’s arguments.

I still remember the first time I taught colonial history at the LSE.

LSE students are among Britain’s finest: they graduate from top schools, perform brilliantly on their A-level exams. And yet when I gave a lecture about the Indian famines of the late 19th century to a classroom full of third years, I was met with blank stares. As a direct result of British policy, 30 million Indians died needlessly of hunger between 1875 and 1902.  Laid head to foot, their corpses would stretch the length of England, from Dover to the Scottish borders, 85 times over.

No one in the classroom had ever heard of it.

And this tragedy was not an isolated incident. There were many more.  The Great Bengal Famine in 1770 killed 10 million people, one third of the region’s population. Here too historians blame British policy: brutal tax collection, enclosure of forests and waterways, forcing farmers to rip up their rice to plant crops for export. Similar policies imposed over the following decades claimed the lives of another 22 million people, all while record agricultural exports were being siphoned away to London. 

Historian Mike Davis has famously likened these famines to the holocaust. And yet the corpses that the British left strewn across India have been almost entirely forgotten. Tell me: would we ever tolerate such amnesia when it comes to the crimes of Nazi Germany? Never. Any such ignorance is rebuked, and rightly so. Yet when it comes to the crimes of the British Empire, an insidious form of holocaust denialism vipers right through our culture.

While he was Prime Minister, David Cameron went on record saying: “There’s an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did.”  Why?  Because the British brought “development” and whatnot.  Or so the argument goes.

But there isn’t a shred of evidence to back this up. During the entire 200-year history of British rule in India, there was zero increase in per capita income. In fact, during the last half of the 19th century—the heyday of British intervention—income in India collapsed by half. The average life expectancy of Indians dropped by a fifth from 1870 to 1920.   

India wasn’t “developed” under British rule – it was de-developed.  And not just in terms of social welfare.  British policy was designed to destroy India’s domestic industries by imposing asymmetrical tariffs, by dismantling the institutions that trained up producers, and in some cases even by maiming skilled artisans – all to create captive markets for British goods.  During the course of British rule, India’s share of the global economy shrank from 27% to 3%.

Yet despite this litany of violence, a recent YouGov survey found that 80% of Britons do not regret colonialism. 44% are actively proud of it.  How is this possible? I hear it all the time: pundits and politicians arguing that colonialism brought democracy, property rights, rule of law, railroads…

What a strange twist of reason this requires.

Democracy? British rule was dictatorship!  Africans and Asians struggled and bled for the right to vote in their own countries.  Property rights? The whole point of colonialism was dispossession—securing the rights of the colonizers to the property of the colonized: land, gold, diamonds, taxes, even the bodies of the colonized themselves. Rule of law? The object of colonial legal codes was to deny equal rights to colonial subjects.  And India’s railroads were used to pump resources—grain and timber—out of the hinterlands to the ports for British use.

Even if we accept that useful things were shared during colonialism – universities, for instance – that is not the same as saying they were a benefit of colonization. Colonialism is not a necessary vector for the transfer of knowledge or technology. Britain has long enjoyed the Arabic numeral system, algorithms, and even algebra itself, without ever submitting to Arab invasion. It takes a warped mind to believe that the best way to share ideas with other humans is to colonize them.

But we have barely scratched the surface.  Let’s not forget that Britain’s first forays into colonialism were linked to the consummate expression of barbarism: the Atlantic slave trade. 300 years of state-sponsored human trafficking. 14 million souls shipped across the sea. Countless bodies shackled to British plantations and churned into the sugar and cotton that fueled Britain’s industrial rise. 

And yet in the book I was made to read to become a British citizen, this long, dark history was reduced to three sentences. You can visit Glasgow, Bristol, London, Liverpool and every other British city that grew rich on the slave trade without encountering a single memorial.  Denialism vipers through our culture.

We could spend all night listing off Britain’s crimes against humanity.  But that is not the point I want to make. This is not just about a list of crimes. The denialism runs much deeper than that. 

You see, we have this story we tell ourselves, that Britain’s crowning moment of greatness, the Industrial Revolution, emerged sui generis from within Britain’s borders – robust institutions, good markets, advanced science and technology.  This is the story that’s written into our children’s textbooks: we must all be proud of Mr. James Watt and his inventions. 

But scholars remind us that there is much more to the story than we are normally told.  From historians like Sven Beckert, Kenneth Pomeranz, Ellen Wood, Parthasarathi and Karl Polanyi, the evidence is clear: the Industrial Revolution was built on state violence, slavery and colonization. Britain’s economic rise depended on cotton, sown and harvested by enslaved Africans on land expropriated from indigenous Americans; depended on the theft of agricultural products from Indian farmers; and depended on the forced de-industrialization of Asia.

But, I can hear you say, that was all in the past.  It ended more than 70 years ago. Things are different now. 

Are they?  Only if you’re willing to forget what happened afterward.  Only if you’re willing to forget the British-backed coup that deposed Mohammed Mossadegh, the first elected leader of Iran, when he tried to regain control of the country’s oil reserves from Britain.  Only if you’re willing to forget the British-backed coup that deposed Kwame Nkrumah, the first elected leader of Ghana, when he sought to reduce his country’s dependence on British imports.  Only if you’re willing to forget the structural adjustment programs that Britain helped impose across its former colonies in the 80s and 90s, one after the other, reversing the progressive policies of the postcolonial era to restore British access to cheap labour, raw materials and markets, devastating the livelihoods of ordinary people in the process, adding hundreds of millions to the ranks of the poor.

But we’ve forgotten all that.  And we’ve forgotten much more besides, including things that are happening right now.  We’ve forgotten that the City of London operates at the center of the world’s tax haven network, which helps facilitate illicit financial flows that cost the South more than $1 trillion per year.  Colonialism may be over, but the system that it created – a system designed to siphon wealth from South to North – remains very much in place.  The word “reparations” suggests that the problem is in the past.  It is not. 

Frantz Fanon had it right when he wrote, in Wretched of the Earth, that “Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn from our territories. The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.”

So go ahead – I challenge you: chalk up the billions of hours that enslaved Africans worked on British plantations, pay it at a living wage.  Tally up compensation for the 60 million souls sacrificed to famine for the sake of British surplus.  Boost it all by 200 years of compound interest, and add that to the trillions lost during structural adjustment and the trillions more in stolen cash that flows through Guildhall.  Try it.  The numbers begin to swell.  They rise like a chorus of voices from the forgotten corners of our past. They march like an army of ghosts who demand a reckoning. 

And then it strikes you…. Then it strikes you that there is not enough money in all of Britain to compensate for these injustices.  And you realize, that if Britain paid reparations – real, honest, courageous reparations – there would be nothing left.  Britain would not exist.

And that is exactly what people find so terrifying about the question of reparations.  It’s not that they fear the actual prospect of paying.  It is that even just thinking about what is owed reveals the hard truth: that what is owed, is everything. 

But really, this is not about the money.  This is about something far more important… this is about the story.  The real reparations we need are narrative reparations.  So this is what I ask of this house tonight – that we demand, at minimum, repair of the broken story we tell ourselves: an end to the denial that has festered among us for too long.  Let us demand the truth be told in our schools and in our town halls. Let us demand that alongside every statue celebrating Victoria and Churchill there be memorials to their victims. Let us demand that the real story of Britain’s rise be worn like poppies upon our breasts.

As Aime Cesaire put it, “A nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonization, is a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased.”  So what is at stake here, in the end, is not only justice for the dispossessed, but Britain’s own healing.  Britain’s own humanity.  To repair this broken story will cost you nothing, and yet you have everything to gain.

  

* * *

My opponent, John Hemmings, responded with a number of common arguments that are worth exploring.  I paraphrase and reflect on five of them here.

 

1. “It’s true, Britain’s imperial past was riddled with horrible violence.  But there is a lot of violence in world history.  Mao’s famines.  Stalin’s gulags.  Why put special blame on Britain?”

In a way, this exactly proves my point.  We all know about the crimes of Mao and Stalin – in fact, they feature routinely in our media narratives.  They are wielded as proof that totalitarian communist regimes are horrible and destructive – in stark contrast to the supposedly liberal capitalism promoted around the world by a supposedly benevolent Britain.  And it’s true, totalitarian communism was disastrous.  But that’s no reason to pretend that the history of capitalism wasn’t itself brutally violent: from enclosure to the slave trade to colonization to famine – why is our narrative about Western capitalism so routinely sanitized of these core elements?  That is what we need to repair.

  

2. “There were lots of empires in world history: the Mongols, Rome, Japan and so on.  If Britain must pay reparations, then we should demand reparations from all historical empires, and that is absurd.”

You certainly won’t find a defense of these past empires on my lips.  I am a staunch anti-imperialist, and always will be.  Give me a chance to broaden my argument, to critique empire itself, and I will gladly do so.  But two points.  First, the proposition in question has to do with Britain – that is what’s under debate.  So this is a red herring.  Second, the Mongols did not design a global economic system that remains in place today.  Britain did – and this is precisely the core of my argument: that there is a fundamental continuity between the international economic system that was consolidated from 1600 to 1950, and the one that exists today. 

There are some obvious signs of this.  Who controls the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, the three key institutions that govern the rules of the global economy? Voting power in the WB and IMF is monopolized by a small handful of rich nations: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Japan.  Meanwhile the global South, which has some 85% of the world’s population, has less than 50% of the vote.  In other words, even if the vast majority of the world voted to change WB and IMF policy, they would not be able to do so. 

What about the WTO?  Bargaining power in the WTO is determined by market size, so economies like Britain virtually always get their way.  In other words, the inequalities that were generated during the colonial era now structure who has power in the global economy.  Inequality begets inequality.  This is hardly surprising.  Remember: the Bretton Woods institutions were founded in 1944, before the end of colonialism.  That’s why colonies like India were integrated into the system on profoundly unequal terms.  Indeed, that was the whole point.

3. “Britain cannot be blamed for the continued suffering of the South.  Colonialism is over.  If poor countries remain poor, it is their own fault.”

For this argument to work, you need to somehow demonstrate that (a) the international economic system that was consolidated from 1600 to 1950, which generated such immense inequality between colonizers and colonies, is now gone and has been replaced by an entirely new one; and (b) that the global economy is now fundamentally fair, such that poor countries face no structural barriers to success, external to their own domestic affairs.  The evidence against this assumption is tremendous.  See point 2, for a start. But there is more…

The claim that corruption is a major cause of continued poverty in the South is a common one.  John invokes the Corruption Perceptions Index that is published by Transparency International each year, which shows the global South smeared in the deep red that depicts high levels of corruption, while Britain and other rich economies enjoy the bright yellow that suggests no corruption at all.

Let’s think about this more carefully.  Is corruption a problem in the South?  Definitely!  But two points.  First, many of the South’s most corrupt regimes were installed by Western powers, quite often after deposing democratically elected leaders: Pinochet, Mobutu, Idi Amin, the Shah of Iran, a number of military juntas across SS Africa and Latin America… and then France’s massively corrupt Francafrique strategy to hand-pick the presidents of Francophone Africa in the post-independence era in order to guarantee continued access to the region’s resources.

Tell me, which is more corrupt?  The petty dictatorship, or the superpower that installed it?

Of course, this doesn’t explain all corruption – far from it!  And it’s true, corruption costs the South a tremendous amount of money: some $60 billion per year, according to the World Bank.  But compare those losses to the losses sustained by the South at the hands of corporate tax evasion and illicit financial flows – some $1 trillion per year, according to Global Financial Integrity.  And this system is facilitated by a shadowy network of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions that is almost entirely controlled by rich nations, with about half of it controlled by the City of London.  If this isn’t corruption on a grand scale, I don’t know what is.

So why does Britain suffer no accusations of corruption by Transparency International? Because we don’t perceive Britain as corrupt.  It’s not part of our story.  That’s why our story – as I have been at pains to point out – needs to be fixed. (Sources here).

  

4. “We need to be nuanced about the legacy of colonialism.  The British built universities, for instance, which to this day remain paragons of excellence in the South.  There were good things that came out of colonization.”

Again, colonization is not a necessary vector for the transfer of knowledge and infrastructure.  It is obscene to believe otherwise. One can build universities without colonizing other countries – indeed, it is done regularly today.  But more importantly, the idea that there was some kind of “net good” that came out of colonialism is deeply disturbing.  Even if there was some kind of empirical evidence for this, it is a chilling calculus. As if erecting universities somehow justifies 200 years of violent dispossession; as if the Victoria Memorial stacks up against 60 million corpses. 

Consider this. As Aime Cesaire has argued, the logic of colonization was fundamentally similar to that of Nazism: an expansionist project built on racial hierarchies.  It is telling that, in public discourse, one can be “nuanced” about the legacy of colonialism but not about the legacy of Nazism. It is impossible to imagine a British politician or pundit arguing that there were some good things that came out of Nazism. Even if there were, we would never use that to soften our horror at Nazi violence. Why the double standard?

There is another important point to be made here. Even if there was a kind of “net good” that came out of colonialism, that is not a defense that would be admissible in any court of law. Imagine if we were trying a man for murdering one of his children, and his defense was that he was good to his family most of the time, fed and clothed them, and even sometimes bought them nice things. Such a defense would obviously be absurd. Indeed, even if the man had treated his family like royalty, this clearly would not compensate for the fact that he murdered his child. We would never say of such a man, “Well, overall he was a good person, so let us leave him alone.”

Only a jury committed to preserving the absolute rights of patriarchy would ever acquit such a man on these grounds. So too, only those who on some level presuppose European supremacy would ever acquit Britain on the grounds of some kind of “net good” argument.

  

5. Someone in the audience argued: “Britain already gives a tremendous amount of aid to poor nations, most of which are former colonies.  So reparations are, in effect, already being paid. Indeed, isn’t this kind of development assistance vastly better than simply handing out reparations? Aren’t there better ways we can help?”

The narrative of aid is precisely the opposite of the narrative I have called for.  The aid narrative goes like this: Britain became rich because of its own brilliance and hard work and good institutions, and now reaches out across the chasm to give generously of its surplus to poor countries, helping them up the development ladder.  This story presupposes a fundamental disjuncture between the wealth of rich nations and the poverty of poor ones, as if the two have nothing at all to do with one another, either historically or today.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, the aid that the North gives to the South is vastly outstripped by financial resources that flow the other direction, in the form of interest on external debt, profit repatriation, illicit financial flows and so on.  In fact, for every dollar of aid that the North gives to the South, the South loses up to $24 in net outflows because of how the global economy is structured.  The South is a net creditor to the North. Poor countries are effectively developing rich countries, not the other way around.

The aid narrative obscures this reality.  It makes the takers in the system seem like givers, and grants them a kind of moral high ground.  It prevents us from understanding how the global economy actually works, and directs our attention away from the real root causes of poverty and inequality.  That is precisely the illusion that we need to correct.  We need a more honest story of how our world came to be as divided as it is today, and why that divide persists.

This brings me to a final point. If the question is how Britain can best help poor countries, the answer is simple: by working to make the global economy fundamentally fairer for the world’s majority. Democratize the World Bank and the IMF and the WTO, put an end to structural adjustment conditions on finance, close down the tax havens, roll out a global minimum wage. Once again, the concept of reparations assumes that the injustice is in the past. It is not. It persists today, in the form of a profoundly inequitable and undemocratic global economy. Any rational call for reparations must begin with a demand for justice now.

*For a more complete articulation of all of the points above, see The Divide

 

Soothing Noah Smith’s fears about a post-growth world

 

Last week Foreign Policy published an article I wrote titled “Why growth can’t be green.”  It stirred a lively online discussion – and of course attracted dissenters.  Among them was one Noah Smith, who penned a critical op-ed in Bloomberg.  You can read it here

I wrote to Noah and asked whether he would let me respond on the same platform, where he contributes a regular column.  To my delight, he agreed.  So I pitched to his editor, copying Noah.  But I received no response.  Perhaps he’s less interested in the debate than he initially let on.  Poor form, by my lights – but oh well.  Here are some of the points I would have made.

1. It’s about resource use, not energy

The main problem with Noah’s piece is that the whole thing is based on either awkward confusion or intentional sleight of hand.

My argument in FP was that it is impossible to achieve absolute decoupling of resource use from GDP on a global scale, even with rapid efficiency gains and aggressive taxes on resource extraction.  This is the conclusion reached by literally every existing study that has been conducted on the matter (you can follow links to the original research here).  The reason is simple: the rate of decoupling is outstripped by the normal rate of GDP growth, even in high-efficiency scenarios.  To make matters worse, there are physical limits to resource efficiency, and as we approach them the rate of improvement slows down, giving yet more force to the scale effect of GDP growth.

In an era in which we are already dramatically overshooting the planetary boundary on material footprint, this means that aggregate global economic growth cannot continue if we want to avoid chewing through the web of life on which our civilization depends.  

But Noah is not bothered by such evidence.  In fact, he doesn’t speak to even a single shred of my actual argument (making me wonder a bit about Bloomberg’s editorial standards; I’ve never met an editor who would let me get away with something so bizarre).  Instead, he says: “Don’t worry!  We can continue growing forever because of renewable energy!”

There’s no question that we are making rapid gains toward renewable energy.  Unlike resource use, GDP can (thankfully) be dramatically decoupled from carbon emissions.  But this solves only one dimension of our ecological poly-crisis.  Even if we magically switched to a completely clean and renewable energy system tomorrow, we would be no closer to reversing our overshoot of all the other critical planetary boundaries: biodiversity collapse, chemical loading, deforestation, etc. 

Think about it. What are we going to do with all that clean energy?  The same things we’re doing with fossil fuels: raze forests, intensify agricultural extraction, produce mountains of stuff, send waste to landfill – and do all of this at an ever-increasing rate, because our economic system is programmed to require endless expansion. 

This paradox is brilliantly captured by Joan Wong’s illustration for the FP: a solar-powered civilization that has nonetheless laid waste to the planet. 

2. This doesn’t mean that poor countries can’t grow

Noah is concerned that if we were to stop global growth, poor countries would be “stuck” at their present level of poverty.  But I have never said that poor countries shouldn’t grow – nor has anyone in this field of study (which Noah would know had he read any of the relevant literature).  I have simply said that we can’t continue with aggregate global growth. What we need, then, is a fairer distribution of global income, with much more of it going to poor countries (and poor people within rich countries).  If we share what we already have more fairly, we won’t have to plunder the earth for more. 

But then Noah switches tack, acknowledging this point but saying that a fairer distribution of global income is politically and logistically impossible. 

Logistically impossible?  Hardly.  I can think of lots of ways to do it: by introducing a global minimum wage, for instance, or by democratizing the institutions of global economic governance, or by allowing poor countries to use subsidies and tariffs without fear of brutal retaliation, or by cancelling unpayable debts, or by rolling out a world basic income.  I discuss all of this and much more in The Divide, along with practical ideas for how to make it happen.

Is it politically impossible?  Well, it would certainly require a struggle.  But it’s far less impossible than Noah’s preferred alternative, namely, to transcend the laws of physics.

3. So don’t worry about the fertility thing

Noah is concerned about the consequences of post-growth economics for reproduction rates. “Once countries pass per-capita gross domestic product of $10,000,” he writes, “fertility rates rapidly drop to or below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Halting growth now would leave most African countries trapped well below that magic level, meaning their population growth — and thus, the world’s population growth — would continue without limit.”

First, population can’t grow without limit, for the same reason that GDP can’t.  It’s silly to imagine otherwise.  Still, I take the point. But see #2 above: no one says that poor countries can’t grow their economies.  Yet more importantly, the real cause of lower fertility isn’t higher GDP but rather better girls’ education.  GDP is a confounding factor.  In Cuba – which has a high education index and strong gender parity – the fertility rate is only 1.6 births per woman.  GDP per capita is $7,000.  Saudi Arabia’s fertility rate is much higher, at 2.7 births per woman, despite a per capita GDP that is three times that of Cuba, and double the “magic” threshold of $10,000. 

This brings me to a crucial point.  While poor countries may need some GDP growth, that should never – for any nation, rich or poor – be the objective as such.  The objective should be to improve human well-being: better health, better education, better housing, happiness, etc.  The strategy should be to target these things directly, without blindly hoping that GDP growth will somehow magically deliver the results we want (usually it does not: the vast majority of new income from growth goes to the rich).  To the extent that achieving these goals entails some growth, so be it.  But that’s quite different from saying that GDP needs to grow forever. 

4. Switching to services doesn’t reduce resource use

Noah seems to believe that shifting the economy from goods to services will help reduce the material intensity of GDP.  Happily, this relationship is already accounted for in the models I cited.  To be fair, though, it’s easy to miss if you’re not reading closely. Plus, it seems like a reasonable assumption – and it frequently appears in green-growth rhetoric.

Unfortunately, the data do not support the theory.  As a proportion of world GDP, services have grown from 66% in 2002 to 68% in 2013.  But during this same period global material use has continued to rise, and indeed its rate of growth has accelerated to the point of outstripping the rate of global GDP growth. The same is true of rich nations as a group.  Services represent more than 74% of GDP in rich nations (a share that has grown rapidly since the 1990s), but material footprint growth is nonetheless outpacing GDP growth. 

Why is this?  First, because services require resource-intensive inputs.  Consider the airline industry, or the tourism industry.  These are services, but of course rely on a massive material base (airports, resorts, roads, buses, etc.).  Second, the income that people earn from selling services gets used to buy resource-intensive consumer goods.  So you might earn your salary as a banker (or an op-ed columnist) but spend the money buying cars and yachts and televisions.  Third, it may be that the resource intensity of primary and secondary sectors has increased to the point of outstripping any gains made by switching to services.

Either way, there is no evidence that relying on a switch to services, in and of itself, reduces the material throughput of the global economy.

5. We can’t decarbonize fast enough for 2C

Let me conclude by circling back to Noah’s argument about energy.  Noah says “Since about 1990, emissions from the U.S. and EU have fallen, while emissions from developing countries, especially China and India, have exploded.”  First, a note of caution. Noah relies here on territorial emissions, but what we really need to look at is consumption-based emissions.  The US and EU have outsourced much of the production of the goods they consume – and therefore their emissions – to the global South, particularly to China.  That needs to be accounted for.

Furthermore, it just doesn’t make sense to compare China and the US/EU in terms of total emissions.  Emissions need to be judged on a per capita basis.  By that metric, China’s emissions are significantly less than emissions from rich countries. 

But here is the more important point. While we obviously need to throw everything we have into shifting to a renewable energy system, it is unlikely that we will be able to do this fast enough to keep us from blowing the carbon budget for 2C (which, on our present trajectory, is only 19 years away). 

Consider this.  Rich nations need to cut their emissions by more than 10% per year, starting now.  If rich nations continue growing at the present average rate of 1.86% per year, that means decarbonization needs to happen at a rate of 13.2% per year.  For perspective, this is seven times faster than the historic rate of decarbonization in rich nations (which has, incidentally, been slowing in recent decades), and exceeds the decarbonization rate implied by the average G20 Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement by a factor of four.

There is no existing evidence that suggests that improvements in technologically efficiency alone will allow us to decarbonize fast enough to stay within 2C.  Why?  Because the scale effect of growth is wiping out most of our gains. We need all the technological innovation we can get - but it will only really start to work once we stop blindly marching up the ever-rising exponential curve of GDP.

 

Why growth can't be green

 

Warnings about ecological breakdown have become ubiquitous. Over the past few years, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Times, have carried alarming stories on soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. These crises are being driven by global economic growth, and its accompanying consumption, which is destroying the Earth’s biosphere and blowing past key planetary boundaries that scientists say must be respected to avoid triggering collapse.

Many policymakers have responded by pushing for what has come to be called “green growth.” All we need to do, they argue, is invest in more efficient technology and introduce the right incentives, and we’ll be able to keep growing while simultaneously reducing our impact on the natural world, which is already at an unsustainable level. In technical terms, the goal is to achieve “absolute decoupling” of GDP from the total use of natural resources, according to the U.N. definition.

It sounds like an elegant solution to an otherwise catastrophic problem. There’s just one hitch: New evidence suggests that green growth isn’t the panacea everyone has been hoping for. In fact, it isn’t even possible.

Green growth first became a buzz phrase in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. In the run-up to the conference, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the U.N. Environment Program all produced reports promoting green growth. Today, it is a core plank of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

But the promise of green growth turns out to have been based more on wishful thinking than on evidence. In the years since the Rio conference, three major empirical studies have arrived at the same rather troubling conclusion: Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

A team of scientists led by the German researcher Monika Dittrich first raised doubts in 2012. The group ran a sophisticated computer model that predicted what would happen to global resource use if economic growth continued on its current trajectory, increasing at about 2 to 3 percent per year. It found that human consumption of natural resources (including fish, livestock, forests, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels) would rise from 70 billion metric tons per year in 2012 to 180 billion metric tons per year by 2050. For reference, a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 billion metric tons per year—a boundary we breached back in 2000.

The team then reran the model to see what would happen if every nation on Earth immediately adopted best practice in efficient resource use (an extremely optimistic assumption). The results improved; resource consumption would hit only 93 billion metric tons by 2050. But that is still a lot more than we’re consuming today. Burning through all those resources could hardly be described as absolute decoupling or green growth.

In 2016, a second team of scientists tested a different premise: one in which the world’s nations all agreed to go above and beyond existing best practice. In their best-case scenario, the researchers assumed a tax that would raise the global price of carbon from $50 to $236 per metric ton and imagined technological innovations that would double the efficiency with which we use resources. The results were almost exactly the same as in Dittrich’s study. Under these conditions, if the global economy kept growing by 3 percent each year, we’d still hit about 95 billion metric tons of resource use by 2050. Bottom line: no absolute decoupling.

Finally, last year the U.N. Environment Program—once one of the main cheerleaders of green growth theory—weighed in on the debate. It tested a scenario with carbon priced at a whopping $573 per metric ton, slapped on a resource extraction tax, and assumed rapid technological innovation spurred by strong government support. The result? We hit 132 billion metric tons by 2050. This finding is worse than those of the two previous studies because the researchers accounted for the “rebound effect,” whereby improvements in resource efficiency drive down prices and cause demand to rise—thus canceling out some of the gains.

Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.

Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.

These problems throw the entire concept of green growth into doubt and necessitate some radical rethinking. Remember that each of the three studies used highly optimistic assumptions. We are nowhere near imposing a global carbon tax today, much less one of nearly $600 per metric ton, and resource efficiency is currently getting worse, not better. Yet the studies suggest that even if we do everything right, decoupling economic growth with resource use will remain elusive and our environmental problems will continue to worsen.

Preventing that outcome will require a whole new paradigm. High taxes and technological innovation will help, but they’re not going to be enough. The only realistic shot humanity has at averting ecological collapse is to impose hard caps on resource use, as the economist Daniel O’Neill recently proposed. Such caps, enforced by national governments or by international treaties, could ensure that we do not extract more from the land and the seas than the Earth can safely regenerate. We could also ditch GDP as an indicator of economic success and adopt a more balanced measure like the genuine progress indicator (GPI), which accounts for pollution and natural asset depletion. Using GPI would help us maximize socially good outcomes while minimizing ecologically bad ones.

But there’s no escaping the obvious conclusion. Ultimately, bringing our civilization back within planetary boundaries is going to require that we liberate ourselves from our dependence on economic growth—starting with rich nations. This might sound scarier than it really is. Ending growth doesn’t mean shutting down economic activity—it simply means that next year we can’t produce and consume more than we are doing this year. It might also mean shrinking certain sectors that are particularly damaging to our ecology and that are unnecessary for human flourishing, such as advertising, commuting, and single-use products.

But ending growth doesn’t mean that living standards need to take a hit. Our planet provides more than enough for all of us; the problem is that its resources are not equally distributed. We can improve people’s lives right now simply by sharing what we already have more fairly, rather than plundering the Earth for more. Maybe this means better public services. Maybe it means basic income. Maybe it means a shorter working week that allows us to scale down production while still delivering full employment. Policies such as these—and countless others—will be crucial to not only surviving the 21st century but also flourishing in it.

*This article and image originally appeared in Foreign Policy magazine in 2018.

 

The moral egregiousness of poverty is worse than ever before in history

 

Last week Twitter erupted in a heated debate about global poverty.  The question was whether it’s better to measure our progress against poverty (or lack thereof) by looking at the total number of people in poverty or by looking at poverty as a proportion of the world’s population. 

Over the past few decades, the proportion of people living under $7.40/day, which is the minimum necessary to achieve basic nutrition and normal life expectancy, has fallen from 71.8% in 1990 to 58.1% in 2013.  Not a great improvement, but certainly some progress. But if we look at it in terms of absolute numbers, a very different story emerges.  The number of people living under $7.40/day has grown from 3.78 billion in 1990 to 4.16 billion in 2013.  With numbers like that on the table, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there’s something wrong with the progress narrative.

As the debate continues, it’s clear that there is no single simple narrative we can tell about progress against global poverty.  I have argued that absolute numbers matter because that's the metric that the world’s governments agreed to focus on when they first pledged to tackle poverty in the Rome Declaration.  But both measures are analytically important; they tell us different things about the world. 

There is a third approach, however, proposed by Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge.  Pogge argues that the morally relevant metric of progress against poverty is neither absolute numbers nor proportions, but rather the extent of global poverty compared to our capacity to end it.  By that metric, he says, we are doing worse than at any time in history.

Is he right?  And, if so, is there some way to demonstrate this with hard data?

The first step is to measure our relative capacity to end poverty.   One conceptually easy way is to determine the cost of lifting everyone above the poverty line (the "poverty gap" as calculated by the World Bank) as a percentage of total global GDP (in constant 2011$ PPP).  Then we can compare that metric against the actual extent of global poverty (using proportions, to be generous to my critics), and chart the change in this relationship over time.

So if the poverty rate stays the same while our capacity to end it doubles, then the moral egregiousness of poverty is twice as bad as it used to be.  And if the poverty rate improves by a factor of two while our capacity to end it stays the same, then the moral egregiousness of poverty is half as bad.

Let’s flesh this out with some real-world figures.  In 1990, it would have cost 10.5% of world GDP to lift everyone above the poverty line.  In 2013, it would have cost only 3.3%.  Our capacity to end poverty has improved by a factor of 3.18.  Meanwhile, the poverty rate has improved only by a factor of 1.23.  This means that the moral egregiousness of poverty is 2.58 times worse than it was in 1990. 

Pogge is right: by this metric, poverty is worse now than ever before.  Our world is replete with unprecedented riches, and yet we cannot ensure that everyone has a decent basic share of it.  Morally, we have regressed as a civilization.

But this is a crude way to think about our capacity to end poverty.  We shouldn’t be looking at the cost of ending poverty as a percentage of total world income, but rather as a percentage of the income of all the people who are not poor; say, those who live on more than double the poverty line.  In 1990, it would have cost 12.9% of their total income to end poverty.  In 2013, it would have cost only 3.9%.  According to this measure, our capacity to end poverty has improved by a factor of 3.31. 

By this method, the moral egregiousness of poverty is 2.69 times worse than it was in 1990.  The difference between the two results is due to increasing global inequality; because the incomes of the global rich have grown more than the incomes of everyone else, the cost of ending poverty is a faster-shrinking share of their income compared to total world income.

The numbers above are all rounded off for easy reading, and so you can repeat the calculations yourself.  The graph below is based on the actual figures associated with the second method (all data is derived from the World Bank).  It gives us a visual depiction of the egregiousness of poverty since 1990. 

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We live in an age where more than 4 billion people – some 60% of the human population – live on less than what is required for meeting basic human needs.  This is a ringing indictment of the global economy by any standard.  But it is particularly unjust given that their suffering could be ended with only 4% of the income of the world’s richest quintile.   

Such a transfer could be made either directly, with progressive taxes on financial transactions, wealth, carbon, resource extraction etc, or – better yet – by changing the rules of the global economy to make it fairer to poor nations: democratizing the World Bank and IMF, cancelling unpayable debts, rolling out a global minimum wage, ending structural adjustment conditions on finance, etc (see Chapter 8 of The Divide for more).

 

*I’ll be working on refining this method further, testing different thresholds, and exploring national-level results.  If you have any suggestions, please feel free to share them either through my contact form or in the comments below. 

 

 

Technical notes: (a) The poverty data is notoriously messy, so this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  One potential problem is that at very low levels, poverty is defined according to consumption rather than income as such, so it is a bit tricky to compare this to global GDP.  (b) In many contexts people who earn more than $14.80 per day are still very poor; obviously it would make little sense to “tax” them in order to improve the incomes of those who are even poorer.  The transfer should be borne by the rich on a progressive scale.  (c) This metric may be over-sensitive to the difference between the proportion of people living in poverty vs the poverty gap.  One can imagine a scenario where 4 billion people are only 5% under the poverty line; the proportion of people in poverty would be high but the cost of ending poverty would be very small.  This would distort the result.  One way to correct for this might be to use the poverty gap in the numerator.  By that metric the egregiousness of poverty has increased by a factor of 2.25 since 1990.

 

The problem with the Human Development Index in an era of ecological breakdown

 

If you haven’t come across the Global Footprint Network yet, check them out.   Based in Oakland, CA, they produce fantastic data on the Ecological Footprint (EF) of nations around the world.  EF is measured in units known as “global hectares” – an omnibus measure that includes resource use, waste and emissions.

The researchers at the Global Footprint Network calculate that our planet presently has enough biocapacity for each of us to consume about 1.8 global hectares per year.  Anything over this means a degree of resource consumption that the Earth cannot replenish, or waste that it cannot absorb, and contributes to ecological breakdown.  1.8 global hectares is roughly what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes.   By contrast, Europeans consume 4.7 global hectares, while in the US and Canada the average person consumes about 8 – many times their fair share.

This data raises an important question.  What is the relationship between consumption (as measured by Ecological Footprint) and development?  Of course, we know that EF is tightly coupled to GDP.  But what about human development indicators?  What about well-being?  Is it possible for a nation to live within the threshold for biocapacity while at the same time having high standards of living?  Ghana and Guatemala are hardly exemplary in terms of their social indicators... are there better models out there?

The researchers at GFN have answered these questions with a fascinating chart that plots the Ecological Footprint of nations against their score in the Human Development Index (HDI).

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The results are striking.  They show that as HDI rises, so too does EF.  The two seem to be quite tightly coupled, such that achieving the higher levels of HDI generally means vastly outstripping biocapacity.  There are a few outliers: countries that achieve "high" HDI (above 0.7) while nonetheless remaining within biocapacity.  But all of the nations that achieve “very high” HDI (0.8) outstrip the biocapacity limit.  Depressingly, there are no nations that fit within the box for sustainable development at very high HDI, although one country – Cuba, represented in grey – comes very close.

This seems like a sensible approach, on the face of it.  And the goal, of course, is for each nation to become more efficient at converting ecological footprint into human well-being, finding ways to enhance human flourishing with minimal pressure on the planet.  But if that’s the objective, there are problems with using HDI. 

HDI is calculated as the average of three different indicators: life expectancy index, education index, and income (where 1 = GNI per capita of $75,000, on a logarithmic scale).  Of course, it makes perfect sense to compare life expectancy and education against EF.  But it does not make sense to compare income against EF.  The reason is because income, like GDP, is inextricably linked to EF.  While it is possible to achieve enormous gains in life expectancy and education with relatively little EF, it is not possible to grow average income up to $75,000 without vastly outstripping biocapacity.  Sure, we can achieve some relative decoupling of GNI from EF (with rapid technological innovation and aggressive taxes on carbon and resource extraction) but not absolute decoupling.  Income cannot go up to $75,000 while EF goes down to 1.8.  It is a physical impossibility. 

So the HDI approach is self-defeating.  As long as income counts as 33% of HDI, achieving very high HDI by definition requires growth to the point of outstripping biocapacity.  If all nations in the world were to pursue the highest HDI (which is of course presently the plan), we would “develop” ourselves into ecological collapse.

We need a better measure, one better suited for the Anthropocene.  As I see it, the income component of HDI is underjustified.  Average income does not tell us very much about well-being. There are a number of countries with relatively low income that nonetheless have high levels of human well-being.  Costa Rica, for example, has a higher life expectancy than the US and happiness indicators that rival those of Scandinavian nations.  But its average income is only $11,000, less than one-fifth that of the US.

If you take income out of HDI, then Costa Rica qualifies as having “very high” human development.  And its EF (2.8) fits well under the biocapacity line of 1961.  Many other countries are also in the very high category with even lower EF, including Serbia, Romania, Albania.  Cuba qualifies as very high, with an EF of only 1.95, extremely close to today’s biocapacity limit.  And Georgia qualifies as very high with an EF of only 1.58. 

The problem with HDI is that it is an unreformed indicator; it still has a strong element of the old GDP-focused development mindset in it, and so is not fit for purpose when it comes to pursuing truly sustainable development.  Indeed, some middle-income nations – like the ones listed above – excel at human development and yet are punished in the HDI rankings for having lower income.  Why punish them thus?  Shouldn’t we instead look at them as models to emulate, and build on, as we try to reverse ecological breakdown?

Of course, income may contribute to well-being in ways that health and education indicators cannot capture.  But there may be other indicators that we could include to get at this, such as happiness or life satisfaction.  Or, alternatively, we could put a “cap” on the income component so that anything above, say, $15,000 counts as 1, rather than requiring nations to grow to excess in order to achieve that standing. 

Because HDI is lashed to income, it works against the possibility of a shift toward a post-growth economy.

Consider this thought experiment.  Let us say that rich nations choose to follow post-growth and de-growth principles, slowing down ecologically harmful and socially unnecessary economic activity (fracking, advertising, McMansion building, SUV production, beef farming, single-use plastics, food waste, planned obsolescence and so on) in order to reduce their ecological footprint.  At the same time, they introduce pro-human policies: increasing the minimum wage and improving labour laws so that workers claim a bigger share of total income, socializing healthcare and education, controlling house prices by regulating speculation, shortening the working week and introducing a job guarantee. 

In such a scenario, average income would go down, but there would theoretically be no drop in quality of life – indeed, quality of life might even improve.  People would likely be happier because they would have to work less, freeing them to spend more time with their loved ones and to engage in useful and creative pursuits. Assuming health and education indicators stayed the same (in reality they would probably improve), HDI would fall – but this would not be an accurate indicator of what is really going on.  Indeed, it would obscure the most important part of the story.

HDI was invented in 1990 as an antidote to the GDP-based conception of development.  It was considered progressive for its time, but it is clear now that it did not go quite far enough.  Nearly 30 years on, it’s time for a better measure – one that will aid rather than hinder us in our efforts to build a more ecological model of development.

 

Ecomodernism and the Sacred Shibboleth

 

I recently wrote a post criticizing ecomodernism as “magical thinking”.  I argued that it ignores key scientific studies on the unviability of absolute decoupling in order to advance an ecologically reckless insistence on growth.  Not surprisingly, ecomodernists were not particularly happy about this.  Linus Blomqvist of the Breakthrough Institute posted a rebuttal.  It’s worth reading, because it gives a useful indication of the arguments that ecomodernists fall back on when challenged, and presents an opportunity to stress-test them.  This is an important process.

And the results are revealing.

Blomqvist does not dispute the fact that absolute decoupling of material use from GDP is impossible on a global scale.  He simply chooses to ignore this fact in favor of pointing to specific dimensions of resource use that he says are more hopeful.  Here he relies on a single example: that “land use by agriculture… has been in slight decline since the mid-1990s, even as consumption of crops and meat has increased by 60%.”  This is good news, he says, because it shows that absolute decoupling is possible after all.

Blomqvist says that he draws this conclusion from FAO data.  But unfortunately the FAO’s data don’t in fact jive with his story.  Since 1990 total land use (for cropland and grazing) has grown from 4.79 billion hectares to 4.87 billion hectares. True, during the first decade of the 21st century agricultural land use held basically steady, but it’s been rising again since 2010, having increased by 50 million hectares – roughly the size of Spain. So this is not in fact an example of absolute decoupling, and it is frankly irresponsible for Blomqvist to invoke it as such.  Relative decoupling, yes.  But that’s not good enough.

Even if land use did represent a story of absolute decoupling, we can't so easily claim, as Blomqvist does, that decoupling of this one impact means we can achieve decoupling across all key impacts.  Indeed, isolating “good news” stories risks violating the basic principle of ecology – namely, that everything is connected. 

Land use is a good case in point.  We have been able to increase agricultural yields by pumping the land full of industrial chemicals.  But at what cost?  We are dramatically overshooting the planetary boundaries for phosphorous loading and nitrogen loading, with all sorts of devastating consequences: (a) insect populations are collapsing, including pollinators, and birds are going down with them; (b) coastal waters are scarred by enormous “dead zones” from chemical runoff, which have quadrupled in size since 1950; (c) soil depletion has reached crisis levels, with scientists warning that on our present trajectory topsoils will only support another 60 years of harvests; and (d) dying soils are emitting immense plumes of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing substantially to global warming.

These are not minor problems. They are existential threats, widely recognized as such by the scientific community.  But Blomqvist dismisses this evidence as “vague appeals to ecological connectedness”.  Because, as we’re beginning to learn, in Ecomodernist Land evidence doesn’t really matter very much if it gets in the way of growth.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.  Blomqvist agrees that the objective should be to reduce agricultural land use.  He agrees that this is ecologically important.  But he thinks that the best way to do this is to continue to intensify our extraction from the land so that we can keep growing the industrial agricultural sector – exponentially, forever.  Because whatever else, the mantra of growth must not be questioned.  It is the sacred shibboleth.

There’s a much easier and more sensible way to reduce agricultural land use: waste less food, and distribute food more fairly.  We already produce enough food for 10 billion people, but a disproportionate amount of the world’s food ends up flowing to rich countries, where much of it ends up as waste.  In the US and Europe, consumers bin up to half the food they purchase.  The UN finds that cutting global food waste by only a quarter and redirecting it to where it is needed most would eradicate global hunger in a single stroke.  (For citations see The Divide, where I develop this argument more fully).

This would allow us to simultaneously improve human well-being, making people healthier and happier and more food-secure, while at the same time reducing land use as well as reducing chemical loading.  But it would also mean that the industrial agricultural sector would shrink.  It would de-grow.  Is Blomqvist against this idea?  Against eliminating food waste and redistributing food more fairly?  I’d love to hear his answer.  Because really this is what it all comes down to.  Indeed, this is precisely the purpose of de-growth: to scale down ecologically destructive output that is not necessary for human well-being. 

Now, to Blomqvist’s next point.  He writes “There is substantial reason to doubt that reducing GDP growth in the developed world will have the environmental benefit that Hickel seemingly believes it must, given that it is in developed countries that the promising decoupling trends have emerged.”  This is a favorite line of the ecomodernists.  The argument, when you state it plainly, is that growth is the solution to ecological collapse. We need more growth – more production and more consumption, exponentially, forever – so that we can become technologically advanced enough to decouple growth from environmental impact. 

The circular reasoning here is truly astounding. Remember, in my last post I challenged Blomqvist to explain why he thinks that endless exponential growth in rich nations is a desirable objective, given that it does nothing to improve social indicators or human well-being.  His answer, bizarrely, is that it is ecologically necessary

Now, if there was even a shred of evidence that absolute decoupling was possible across all key impacts, and at sufficiently rapid rates to reverse ecological collapse, we might have a conversation.  But there is not.  Here again, Blomqvist’s position is reckless and unscientific.  There’s just no other way to put it. 

Blomqvist suggests that rich nations need to continue growing, not because it improves human lives, but because it is the only way to achieve decoupling. This is a remarkable turn of logic.  What’s happened here is that decoupling itself has become the goal.  The ecomodernists, having failed to offer compelling reasons for why growth is socially necessary, have turned their sticking point into their sole raison d’etre.  It’s like saying that we need to chop down more trees each year on an exponential curve, not because we need the wood, but simply so that we can learn how to chop down trees more efficiently. 

But this is where things get really odd.  Blomqvist says “There is substantial reason to doubt that reducing GDP growth in the developed world will have environmental benefit.”  Really?  Is this really the ecomodernist argument?  Is Blomqvist seriously proposing that there would be zero ecological benefits if rich nations consumed less?  The suggestion boggles the mind.  If GDP is tightly coupled to material use, and material use is tightly coupled to ecological impact, then if GDP goes down then ecological impact goes down.  If rich nations were to consume fewer SUVs, fewer McMansions, fewer single-use plastics, fewer commercial flights, and less beef – as de-growth proposals suggest – their GDP would go down.  Blomqvist offers not a shred of evidence that this would somehow magically not reduce ecological impact.

And then of course there is the strawman.  Blomqvist accuses me of wanting to de-grow developing countries – “a problematic political and ethical proposition, given how much these countries would benefit from higher incomes, better infrastructure, more employment”.  But I have never once called for de-growth in developing countries, so this is a non-argument.  It is not poor people who are the problem when it comes to ecological collapse.  It is rich people.  People in low-income nations consume only 2 tonnes of material stuff per person per year – way under the planetary boundary (7 tonnes).  People in rich nations, by contrast, consume a staggering 28 tonnes per person per year. 

So Blomqvist is concerned about poverty in developing countries.  Good – me too.  And that’s precisely why we should care about overconsumption in rich countries.  After all, we know that the ecological impact of the latter is disproportionately inflicted on the developing world.  Developing countries are responsible for only 30% of historical greenhouse gas emissions, and yet bear 82% of the costs of climate-change (nearly $571 billion in 2010), and suffer 98% of climate-change related deaths (400,000 in 2010). Even the World Bank is now warning that climate change is on track to cause mass famine and human displacement across the South, this century, sending global hunger and poverty rates up (once again, full citations are available in The Divide).

Here’s the real “problematic political and ethical proposition”: to assume that it’s okay for rich nations to continue growing needlessly while knowing that this is actively destroying the lives of poor people across the South. If we want to be serious about eradicating poverty in poor nations, de-growth in rich nations is going to have to be part of the equation.

 

The Magical Thinking of Ecomodernism

 

I recently wrote an article for Fast Company explaining why “green growth” is not a thing.  I looked at three high-profile studies showing that even aggressive taxes and rapid improvements in technological efficiency will not be enough to cut global resource use as long as we keep growing the world economy.  Right now we are consuming about 85 billion tons of material stuff per year, exceeding the sustainable threshold by 70%.  According to the UN, our resource use will rise to at least 132 billion tons per year by 2050, and possibly as high as 180 billion tons. 

It is on this basis that scientists have concluded that absolute decoupling of GDP from aggregate resource use is not possible.  But the ecomodernists at the Breakthrough Institute aren’t convinced.  Linus Blomqvist wrote a blog post responding to my article, arguing that focusing on aggregate material flows is “misleading”, and that in reality absolute decoupling “is still a very real possibility.”  The stakes are high.  After all, decoupling is the central objective of ecomodernism.  No decoupling, no ecomodernism.

Blomqvist seems to agree that absolute decoupling of GDP from aggregate material use is not possible; or at least he doesn’t dispute the point.  But we needn’t worry about this fact, he says; it doesn’t matter if we keep using more and more resources each year, because aggregate material use is not a meaningful proxy for environmental impact.  Industrial and construction materials, for instance, “account for a pretty small portion of environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions or land use,” and while biomass use keeps growing, land use has peaked (at least for now). 

But this is cherrypicking indicators.  Industrial and construction materials may contribute relatively little to greenhouse gas emissions and land use, but anyone who has ever seen (or lived next to) an open pit mine will know that they are ecological disaster zones in all sorts of other ways.  Plus, Blomqvist’s claim about emissions and land just isn’t true (and he provides no evidence for it): the production of cement, iron and steel alone contributes 10% of anthropogenic CO2, and the use of the end products is clearly linked to fossil fuel consumption. 

As for biomass: let’s not pretend that land use is all that matters here. Our current method for extracting higher yields from land involves aggressive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have already pushed us well over the planetary boundaries for biogeochemical flows.  And those same chemicals are causing insect populations – including pollinators – to collapse, and bird populations along with them.  Indeed, the inputs involved in industrial agriculture are a major driver of biodiversity loss, regardless of whether or not more land is being used.  And they drive soil depletion too, which in turn drives carbon emissions from the land.  

This is the thing about ecology, you see: everything is connected.  The biomass bone is connected to the biogeochemical bone is connected to the insect bone.  And that’s why aggregate material flows are in fact an important indicator of what’s happening to our planet.  Sure, some material use has more dramatic impact than others.  But no material use is impact-free.  You can’t keep increasing aggregate material extraction and consumption indefinitely without increasing environmental impact right along with it.  To believe that doubling or tripling our existing aggregate resource draw isn’t going to cause problems is magical thinking. 

Blomqvist’s next move is similar to the first.  He says that while absolute decoupling of aggregate resource use may not be possible (and sadly even relative decoupling of emissions has come to a halt), there are some happy isolated cases where it does seem to be happening.  Water extraction has peaked in the US, for example.  And several pollutants (like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide) have peaked or declined globally.  Blomqvist says this counts as “significant progress”. 

If this is the best the ecomodernists have to offer, I despair.  First of all, you can’t look at nations (and particularly rich nations like the US) in isolation, because they have outsourced much of their environmental impact abroad.  If you count all the water extraction involved in producing and shipping the imports that the US consumes, American water use is going up, not down.  As for sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide – yes, there have been gains, and we should celebrate them.  But pollutants like these constitute one of the few examples where the much-misunderstood Environmental Kuznets Curve actually works.  Ecologists have pointed out for years that the EKC doesn’t hold for most other impacts.  So as a defense for endless growth, I’m afraid Blomqvist’s example just won’t do.

I agree with Blomqvist that we should strive to accelerate resource efficiency.  Of course we should!  We need all the efficiency gains we can get.  But unfortunately it’s not going to be enough, in and of itself – and we need to face up to this fact.  Tellingly, Blomqvist doesn’t engage with my claim about the rebound effect, nor about the physical limits to efficiency gains (the paper I cite by Ward et al concludes that “permanent decoupling is impossible for essential, non-substitutable resources because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits”).  We can’t just ignore these realities.

If absolute decoupling isn’t a thing, then ultimately we’re going to have to scale down global economic activity.  Blomqvist doesn’t actually explain why he dislikes this conclusion so much.  All he says is that degrowth “seems far-fetched”.  I have no idea what he means by this. But could it really be more far-fetched than achieving what is physically impossible?  Perhaps Blomqvist – or anyone at the Breakthrough Institute – could explain why they think that rich, high-consuming nations (like the US, for instance) need to keep growing their GDP (forever?), when we know that additional growth is not generating any better social outcomes.  Given how powerful the scale effect of growth is when it comes to driving ecological breakdown, it just doesn't make sense to take it off the table.  

 

This isn't just about pensions anymore - there's a revolution afoot

 

It was a strategic error, on their part.  Universities UK and USS thought they could score an easy win, but they started a revolution.  The pension thing was the straw that broke the camel’s back, apparently, and it has triggered the greatest wave of staff-student mobilization the sector has seen in decades. 

What did they think lecturers would do while on the picket lines for three weeks?  Chat about the weather?  Snack on cucumber sandwiches?  And what about students?  Were they going to stay at home and sleep?

Hardly.  For starters, we learned a few things.  We learned that there is no “deficit” in the pension fund; in fact, there is a surplus.  We learned that the whole thing is a ruse to justify offloading financial risk onto pensioners so that universities can get cheaper credit to buy new buildings – which has somehow become the raison d’etre of higher education in the UK.  We learned that richer universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, were instrumental to this scheme.  We learned that women are going to be hardest hit by the pension cuts.  We learned that pension bosses make obscene amounts of money, in excess of £1.2 million per year.  And we learned that UUK and USS are opaque and anti-democratic.

But we’ve also been thinking way beyond pensions.  Pensions are the last thing on our minds now.  What we’re really after is nothing short of reclaiming our universities from the banal and reductive logic of neoliberal capitalism - including the uberization of lecturers, the CEO-ification of managers, and the customerization of students.  Because really, what’s at stake here is the public university itself.  Across the country, staff and students are forming groups, sharing ideas, discussing strategy, even staging occupations toward the goal of making our universities fairer, more caring, more democratic places.    We’re not content to weed around the edges of this broken system.  We’re going straight to the heart of it. 

Demands are snowballing.  Everything is on the table.  Some of us have found inspiration in a list of ideas posted by Jacob Bard-Rosenberg from Birkbeck.  I’ve reproduced some of them here, and added others that seem to be gaining traction.  This list is only partial, of course – and it’s just the beginning.  

• Reject the proposed cuts to pensions.  More specifically, demand an immediate re-valuation of USS.  There is zero reason for this process to take 3 years.

• Abolish tuition fees, and restore adequate block-grant funding to higher education.  Public universities should be publicly funded with progressive taxation.

• Democratize university governance. Open the Academic Board (and the vote) to all academic staff, including post-docs and fractional workers, and extend the powers of the Academic Board to include the right to review decisions made by the Council and the Vice Chancellor.  Once we have meaningful democratic power over university management, we will be able to enact much of our broader vision, including many of the points listed below.

• Include service staff on university management committees all the way to the top, including those on the lowest pay such as cleaners.

• Demand transparency at UUK and USS.  Subject UUK to the Freedom of Information Act, and require USS to publish its valuation reports and methodology.  Bring UUK/USS salaries in line with normal salaries in the HE sector.

• Demand that all university staff receive annual pay rises in line with inflation as a contractual right.  And introduce reasonable fixed pay ratios between lowest-paid workers and highest-paid managers.

• Demand an end to outsourced labour; bring all university staff in-house and guarantee them equal working conditions (pensions, holiday, sick leave, etc).

• Demand an end to zero hours contracts in the sector.

• Refuse to take part in REF and TEF, which show no evidence of improving research or teaching and which create destructive competition and hierarchies.

• Refuse to publish anything held behind paywalls (the knowledge monopolies of Elsevier, Springer, and Co. must be ended).  Set up free online alternatives where necessary (as anthropologists have done with Hau and Anthropology of This Century).

• Refuse to publish books with academic presses where books are so expensive only institutions can purchase them.   Set up alternative presses where necessary (publishing is now remarkably cheap).

• Refuse to take part in league-tables, which create destructive competition and hierarchies.

• Demand a student-staff ratio cap, so that increases in student numbers are matched by new academic hires.

• Demand an end to PREVENT, and an end to the use of lecturers as a surveillance mechanism against students who are not UK citizens.

• Allow departments to review the use of marks and time-bound exams, which often narrow the meaning of learning and trigger unnecessary anxiety for students.

• Ensure that students have access to adequate and affordable accommodation

• Abolish the position of Vice Chancellor and replace it with an internally elected role in service of democratic bodies like the Academic Board and Council, paid like a public sector worker rather than a corporate CEO.

After the pensions dispute is over, the status quo will no longer be an option.  Our employers are kidding themselves if they assume otherwise.  Ideas are proliferating like a thousand butterflies.  What once seemed impossible now seems imminent.  

 

A letter to my students about the UCU strike

 

Dear students,

For some time now I have been mulling over what to say about the upcoming strike by the University and College Union.  I know it must be frustrating for you, to have your education disrupted like this.  I know that some employers have chosen to cast this as a selfish act by staff more interested in defending their pensions than in teaching their students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  

To understand why, you need to know that what is at stake here is not really pensions.  What is at stake is the public university itself.  

When tuition fees were introduced a number of years ago, faculty across the nation raised their voices in loud dissent.  We joined our students to march in the streets, day after day, facing down lines of aggressive police.  We did it because, like our students, we fundamentally rejected what fees do.  They commoditize education, they render students as consumers and put them at financial risk.  They individualize and atomize, and they break down the solidarities that underpin the university as a public good - as a commons. 

The present crisis is just the latest wave of the same broad attack on the public university.  First it was fees, now it's pensions.  The privatization of pensions places lecturers at financial risk, and severs the social contract we have with the public.  You see, we lecturers are public sector workers, and we are paid as such.  Most of us could earn double or triple in the private sector, but we choose to take low salaries because we believe in our jobs, we believe in our students, and we believe in the value of public education.  It is a moral decision.  The social contract we have with the public is that in return for this service we will get stable retirement.  We will never be rich - quite unlike the management bosses who take home salaries in excess of £300,000 a year - but we can rely on a modicum of decency in old age.  It is part of our collective commons.  

Now that is being severed.  First with students, now with lecturers, our commons are being enclosed and we too are being made into objects of financialization and risk.  

As I see it, we are in this battle together.  Just as we stood with your predecessors to fight the imposition of fees, we now ask you to stand with us to fight this latest attack on the public university.  But we should not simply be defensive about this.  On the contrary, we should seize the offensive.  Instead of just demanding that they leave the pension system alone, we should demand that they abolish tuition fees too.  Let us bring that battle back.  Let us make it clear that we see these struggles as connected.  Let us demand the full restoration of the public university, and reclaim our commons. 

The truth is that you students have much more power than staff do.  The administration doesn't care if we strike.  They only care if students get upset.  And get upset you should!  There are many things you can do.  You can join the picket lines.  You can write to the members of the Senior Management Team to express your opinions.  You can demand a refund of your tuition, leveraging the logic of fees against those who have imposed them.  And - possibly best of all - you can get your parents to phone the administration.  There are many other tactics I'm sure you'll come up with yourselves.  New student movements across the world - from Chile to South Africa - have recently staged successful campaigns for public education.  We can join them - and we can learn from their tactics.  

I am reminded of that quote I shared with you from Angela Davis at the beginning of the term.  "You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time."  After all, power has never ceded anything without a demand.  If we want to reclaim the public university, we'll have to fight for it.  Together.

In solidarity,

Jason

 

human flourishing doesn't require endless GDP growth

 

Martin Ravallion, a former World Bank economist, recently wrote a blog post attacking my views on de-growth as “fallacious”.  Since his post seems to be offered in good faith, I thought I would take a few minutes to respond.  I admire Ravallion’s work.  He’s an impressive scholar.  But I’m afraid his argument about de-growth is a bit muddled.  Let me see if I can clarify things, in the spirit of mutual learning.

Ravallion questions a central tenet of de-growth theory, namely, that the ecology-busting levels of income and consumption characteristic of rich nations are not necessary in order to maintain their strong social outcomes.  We can say this because there are a number of countries that are able to achieve equally strong social outcomes with vastly less income and consumption.  

Costa Rica is one of them. With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and far outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $11,000, one fifth that of the US.  In this sense, Costa Rica is one of the most efficient economies on Earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment. 

How do they do it?  Professors Martínez-Franzoni and Sánchez-Ancochea argue that it has to do with Costa Rica’s longstanding commitment to strong social policy, which guarantees everyone equal access to generous, high-quality healthcare, education and social security, regardless of income. 

Examples like Costa Rica are important.  We know that if we want to avert climate catastrophe, rich nations are going to have to scale down their bloated economies to get back in sync with the planet’s ecology.  The science on this is clear.  Fortunately, Costa Rica proves that this needn’t entail immizeration; it simply requires that we share our resources more fairly, and find ways to efficiently convert those resources into human flourishing.  We can do it; we know it's possible.  And this is good news. 

But Ravallion doesn’t think so.  He writes: “The problem in this argument is that better social outcomes are not only attributable to better social policies. Higher average incomes have also played a role, both directly (through poor people’s greater command over commodities that matter to those outcomes) and indirectly (by creating the resource availability needed to finance better social policies).”

Ravallion’s attack is leveled against a straw man.  Of course higher average incomes play a role in achieving better social outcomes!  That’s why Costa Rica does better than, say, my home country of Swaziland, which has a per capita income of only $3,000.  Regardless of how much Swaziland invests its meager resources in social policy, it probably won’t be able to match Costa Rica’s outcomes.   

My argument is not that social outcomes have nothing to do with income (indeed, no de-growther has ever claimed such a thing!).  My argument is that high social outcomes can be achieved with relatively modest income – and certainly much less than rich nations currently command.  

Ravallion’s second point is more interesting.  He says that the story of Costa Rica is not just a story of good social policy.  It is also a story of growth: after all, its real GDP per capita has tripled since 1960.  So he concludes: “Costa Rica is definitely not an example of how good social outcomes are possible without economic growth.”

Once again, Ravallion misses my argument.  Of course growth is part of Costa Rica’s story!  Strong, state-led development policies brought Costa Rica’s income from less than $3,000 in 1960 to $5,000 in 1980.  And with that very modest level of income they built up strong social policy and raised their life expectancy from just 61 years (way behind the US) all the way up to 71, nearly matching that of the richest nations in the world at the time. 

Herein lies Ravallion’s mistake.  Degrowthers have never argued that poor countries don’t need to grow.  Growth may indeed be necessary for very poor countries (like Swaziland) to generate the resources necessary to build social policy and achieve strong social outcomes.  But this does not require endless growth; it requires sufficient growth – in other words, growth up to a point of sufficient income.  It's not growth as such that matters, but sufficiency.  Ravallion confuses the two. 

In fact, Costa Rica proves that growth past a certain point growth is not necessary for continued improvement in social outcomes.  Here’s the story:

During the 1980s, the US leveraged the Third World debt crisis to destroy state-led development programs and social policy all across the global South through structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank.  Incomes collapsed virtually everywhere as a result.  In Costa Rica, GDP per capita plunged from 1980 to 1983, and didn’t recover until 1991, more than a decade later.  Yet during that decade, Costa Rica’s life expectancy continued to rise at a world-leading rate, from 71 years to 76, catching up to and surpassing the United States with a GDP per capita that was one-seventh the size, and stagnant.

If growth as such is necessary to improve social outcomes – as Ravallion claims – how did Costa Rica manage this miracle?  Presumably not by magic.  No, it was because Costa Rica – thanks to savvy political maneuvering – was able to defy the Washington Consensus and keep its social policy system intact.  It was one of the only countries in the South that managed to do so: a rare beacon amid the wreckage of structural adjustment.

Of course, Costa Rica is not a de-growth economy.  We point to Costa Rica not as an example of de-growth, but as an example of what can be achieved with relatively modest levels of mean income.  That's an important distinction. 

But all of this is really beside the point.  Again, we de-growthers do not target our critique at poor countries.  We target rich countries.  We argue that rich countries have grown too much, and that they could maintain or even improve their social indicators with vastly fewer resources than they presently consume.

Ravallion insists that this is a fallacy: "The fact that some countries have better social outcomes at a given level of mean income does not imply that richer countries can attain the same social outcomes at lower mean income," he writes.  But why not?  Unfortunately he doesn't explain.  Meanwhile, Europe achieves better social indicators than the US with 40% less income.  And we know that the US in the 1970s had better wages, higher levels of happiness, and lower poverty than it does today, with roughly half the real GDP per capita.

Ravallion's response?  "One must seriously doubt that halving today’s average income in the US will restore the social outcomes of 50 years ago.”  But this is another straw man.  Literally nobody has ever argued that cutting the average income of rich nations would automatically produce better social outcomes.  That Ravallion makes this strange assertion leads me to worry that he is not serious about engaging with the literature on de-growth and ecological economics.  If he was, he would find that we carefully and studiously think through the policies that would be necessary in order to maintain and improve social outcomes while scaling down economic activity.  We do not, as Ravallion claimed in a tweet, blindly “hope that economic contraction comes with pro-poor redistribution”.

Take Peter Victor’s work, for example.  In Managing Without Growth, Victor runs a standard economic model that shows that if you stop or reduce GDP growth, then poverty and unemployment suddenly shoot up.  That’s obviously bad.  It happens because our economies are structurally dependent on growth.  But they needn't be.  Victor shows that if we introduce new policies into the model, like new measures of economic progress; a carbon price; more generous social policies; limits on material, energy, waste and land use; a shorter working week; etc., then you can actually reduce poverty and unemployment in a zero-growth scenario. 

Strangely, for a man who has devoted much of his career to thinking about how to achieve human flourishing, Ravallion seems uninterested in such research.  Instead, he says (in another tweet), let’s stick with growth and “try harder on the environmental policies”. 

Yes, we need to get the environmental policies right.  But unfortunately this, in and of itself, is not going to be enough.  Schandl et al (2016) show that even if we (a) impose a carbon price of $50 per ton, rising by an extraordinary 4% per year to $250 per ton, and (b) somehow miraculously manage to double the material efficiency of our economies more or less immediately, rich nations will still only be able to achieve decarbonization of max 4.7% per year. But this doesn’t get us anywhere near the emissions reductions we need to keep from blowing the 2C carbon budget (viz, 10-12% per year).  Plus, with a background growth rate of 2%, nearly half of that decarbonization will be wiped out.  Schandl et al also find that the same best-case scenario achieves no absolute reduction in material footprint in the long term. 

There’s no way around it.  Averting climate catastrophe and ecological collapse is going to require that rich countries right-size their economies.  Our task now is to figure out how to make that happen in a way that enhances - rather than erodes - human flourishing.  This is the single biggest challenge of the 21st century, and I hope that Ravallion will join us in rising to it.

 

De-growth is feasible: people want a new economy

 

Branko Milanovic has written a response to my argument.  As I read it, I was struck by two things – both quite significant.  

First, Branko now seems to accept the science on how “green growth” is not a thing, and has backed off his assumption that endless growth is (a) possible, and (b) something we should promote.  Or at least he has chosen not to defend his earlier claims on this matter.  This is quite a shift. 

Second, Branko does not insist that growth is necessary in rich nations.  In fact, he seems to agree that we can maintain well-being in rich nations while reducing material consumption.  And he accepts the notion that we can accomplish this by shifting to a different kind of economy, along the lines of my suggestions.  “I do not think that this program is illogical,” he says.

So far, then, we’re on the same page.

But Branko doubles down on one bit of his earlier argument: that degrowth is not politically feasible.  “It is just so enormous, outside of anything that we normally can expect to implement, that it verges, I am afraid, on absurdity,” he writes.  He claims that people are so penetrated by the ideology of competitive consumerism that they would never voluntarily walk away from the system.  So it will be impossible to put degrowth into practice in a democracy.

I do not disagree with Branko that the task is enormous; I have complete empathy with this perspective.  Indeed, it is the single greatest problem of our century – how to enable human flourishing while reducing emissions and material throughput – and it demands our total focus.  But let me offer three thoughts that give me hope.

1. People are not just consumption bots.

Branko advances a dystopic vision of people who identify totally with the extrinsic values of competitive consumerism and growth.

First, it’s just not true.  People over-consume not because it aligns with their inner values, but because they feel compelled to do so, and because our economy is structured so as to incentivize it.  The system requires endlessly growing consumption, and so externalizes true costs and bombards us with messages and ads to provoke consumptive behavior, seeding us with discontent and anxiety that is particularly acute in conditions of high inequality. 

It will be difficult to overcome these forces, to be sure. We need to change the messages, change the incentives, internalize costs, and ultimately change the logic of the economy itself. But we have on our side the fact that people already yearn for something different.  According to recent consumer research, 70% of people in middle- and high-income countries believe overconsumption is putting our planet and society at risk. A similar majority also believe we should strive to buy and own less, and that doing so would not compromise our happiness.

This is not surprising.  Nobody wants to live in an economy that is so obviously programmed to ruin the planet we call home.  It makes us feel horrible.

Importantly, there is a massive literature in happiness economics, anthropology and social psychology that finds that people have much more nuanced visions of the good life than the old homo economicus model would suggest: that they aspire to good health, intimate relationships, community, knowledge, and time, and are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose rather than monetary reward.  We need only appeal to the better angels of our nature.

As for growth, check this out: 81% of people in Britain believe that the government’s prime objective should be “the greatest happiness” instead of “the greatest wealth.”  This throws a wrench in Branko’s argument.  And it brings me to my next point:

2. Democracy is the answer.

Branko articulates a common worry: that the only way to degrow an economy is to have some kind of authoritarian dictatorship do it for us.

I completely disagree. Imagine: what if we had an open, democratic conversation about what kind of economy we really want?  What would the economy look like?  What kinds of objectives would it have?  How would it distribute resources?  The evidence I've cited above leads me to believe it wouldn’t be anything like our current system, with its tyrannical obsession with endless GDP growth and pro-rich resource distribution. 

We have never had this conversation on a mass scale, because (a) our media is controlled by a small number of mega-corporations that are structurally disinclined to facilitate such a conversation; and (b) we do not live in real democracies.  As a recent study pointed out, the United States resembles an oligarchy with the policy preferences of elites routinely overriding those of the majority. The same is likely true in every nation where money buys political outcomes.

So, as George Monbiot put it in an elegant proposal on Viewsnight recently, kick big money out of politics, dismantle the media conglomerates, and let’s have a real discussion about the economy.  Our vision of a different economy does not require totalitarianism.  Quite the opposite: it requires the exercise of democracy against the violent tyranny of growth.

3. There is already a movement for change.

Branko concludes on a frustrated note, saying, basically: “if you really believe in degrowth, then why don’t you try to make it happen?”  He assumes that we are crying out in the wilderness, and that nobody will actually accept what we propose. 

I’m not so pessimistic.  But let me be clear: is there widespread public support for de-growth?  Not yet.  And that's hardly surprising: as I have been at pains to point out, degrowth is structurally impossible in our existing economy.  So the first step is to change the logic of the economy.  And on this front the movement is surging. 

The US states of Vermont and Maryland have already adopted an alternative to GDP – the Genuine Progress Indicator – and a number of European governments are considering the same.  Key economists like Stiglitz and Sen support this shift, and it appears as a goal in the SDGs.  As for decommoditizing social goods, there is overwhelming popular support for this in most rich nations.  About debt: there is the Jubilee campaign, and the anti-debt movement among US students, and virtually everyone in Greece.  And on fractional reserve banking there is Positive Money, and the Chicago Plan promoted in a recent IMF report.

A carbon tax would be a key step – something that Branko himself supports, along with a growing chorus of others, as a way of internalizing costs.  I bet getting rid of the $5.3 trillion fossil fuel subsidy would be popular too (look at the divestment movement for proof of mass resistance to fossil fuels).  As for redistribution as a substitute for growth: is there momentum there?  Just look at Occupy, the Bernie campaign, the Corbyn Labour Party – or talk to any person on the street. 

Speaking of Labour, Dr Dan O’Neill, a prominent degrowth economist, was invited to write a policy brief that the Labour Party has publicized, highlighting a number of sensible objectives, including limits on resource use and waste production, and a shorter working week.  These ideas were unthinkable even a decade ago.  Now they are shooting into Europe’s biggest political party – and finding concrete expression all over the place, from the local food movement and Transition Towns to alternative currencies and regenerative farming. 

This is just a small fraction of what’s out there.  We are already building the new economy.  Nearly everyone I meet is inspired by this – and students and young people rally around it with energy and passion.  Still, we have a lot of work to do.  I hope that Branko will join us.

*          *          *

Our demands are not “absurd”, as Branko claims.  What is absurd is to believe we can continue with the status quo, against the rising tide (literally) of evidence to the contrary.  Fortunately, we have one thing in our favor: while it may not be possible to change the laws of physics, it is possible to change social and economic systems – we have done it many times in the past, and we will do it again.  We have to.

This brings me to another thought.  In service of his bleak view of consumption bots, Branko recruits the image of Sudanese immigrants crammed into tiny compartments on trains so that they can make it to France and… “buy more stuff.” 

I bet any actual migrant would object.  As someone who has spent years living with migrants and researching migration, I know I do.  They’re not risking their lives because they want to buy more stuff, but because they want to survive, and – if luck is on their side – live a decent life.  Many risk the journey because they’ve been displaced by violent military intervention in the service of Western capital, or in order to flee the ravages of climate change in their home countries.  It is coercion, not choice.

If we zoom out, it becomes clear that these refugees are in many cases victims of Western over-consumption and excess growth, not disciples of it.  They are a living, breathing reason for why we need to change the system.

*          *          *

Let me finish by clarifying one key point.  On a couple of occasions Branko has tweeted his dismay that we simultaneously call for degrowth while also calling for the end of austerity.  But this is not a contradiction.

Think about it: the whole point of austerity is to slash public goods in order to re-start economic growth, with devastating consequences for the poor.  Austerity is a violent expression of our system’s need for endless growth.  In this sense, de-growth is the exact opposite of austerity.  It calls for redistribution (in support of public goods, for example) in order to render growth unnecessary.  It names the violence of the growth imperative and calls for something better.

 

Why Branko Milanovic is wrong about de-growth

 

Branko Milanovic has written a blog post titled “The illusion of degrowth in a poor and unequal world.”  He penned it, he says, following a conversation he had with a proponent of degrowth. 

As it turns out, that proponent was me. 

First, let me say that I have a lot of respect for Milanovic's work on inequality.  I cite him all the time.  But unfortunately he doesn't have a strong grasp of degrowth.  Let's look at his argument in detail:

Milanovic rejects degrowth because he believes it is unfeasible.  He notes, correctly, that if we were to cap global GDP at its present level then the only way to eradicate poverty would be through redistribution: reduce the income share of the richest and shift it to the poorest.  He thinks this is a terrible idea.  If we bring all of the poorest up to $5,500 per person per year (the global mean income), then in order to stay within the GDP cap everyone above this level (almost all of whom live in the West) will have to take an income cut, with the richest taking the biggest hit.  This would also require “gradual and sustained reduction of production” in rich nations, with economic activity slashed to one-third of its present size. 

Milanovic calls this “the immiseration of the West,” and he dismisses it as “not even vaguely likely to find any political support anywhere.”  Forget about it, he says; we need growth.  Let’s focus instead on reducing our consumption of emissions-intensive goods and services by taxing them, and “think about how new technologies can be harnessed to make the world more environmentally friendly.”

This is exactly the argument that Milanovic articulated during our email exchange.  I responded by pointing out some of its problems and by gesturing in the direction of relevant literature he might find useful, but he never replied.  Apparently he had made up his mind, and was ready to take a public stance.  So let me publicly lay out some thoughts in response.

1. Degrowth does not call for immiseration.

Milanovic’s argument is levelled against a straw man.  If he had read the literature on degrowth, he would know that it does not call for immiseration. 

Imagine cutting the GDP per capita of the US down to less than half its present size, in real terms.  This might sound horrible on the face of it, but it would be equivalent to US GDP per capita in the 1970s.  Folks who lived through the 70s remember them as heady days.  And the poverty rate was lower back then – and happiness levels higher – than now.  Real wages were higher, too.  The only difference is that people consumed less unnecessary stuff.  It’s not clear why Milanovic considers this to be so dreadful.

There are lots of other examples we might cite.  The GDP per capita of Europe is 40% lower than that of the US.  I live in Europe: it is hardly a dystopia.  Costa Rica has a GDP per capita that is one-fifth that of the US, but it has life expectancy that outstrips that of Americans, and levels of happiness that rival those of Scandinavians.  All of these examples prove that we don’t need ecology-busting levels of income and consumption to live good lives.  The literature is very clear on this: just check out Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth, Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, Firamonti's Well-Being Economy, Raworth's Doughnut Economics, or anything by Giorgos Kallis. 

2. In fact, degrowth calls for human flourishing. 

Proponents of degrowth don’t just want to redistribute income within the already-existing economy, as Milanovic wrongly assumes.  We want to redistribute income in a way that improves social goods, like universal healthcare and education, which are key to reducing poverty and improving people’s lives.  Not only are universal systems cheaper and more efficient at achieving these outcomes than private ones (healthcare in the UK costs one-third that in the US), but having them in place also improves the "purchasing power" (if you will) of incomes.  Think about it: if Americans didn’t have to pay exorbitant prices for healthcare and higher education, they would need a lot less income to live good lives. 

In this way, decommoditizing key social goods is a good way to take pressure off the planet.  We can even extend this insight to housing.  Housing in London, where I live, is obscenely expensive.  Most people spend half of their income just to keep a roof over their heads.  If the housing stock was even partially decommoditized, Londoners would be able to work much less than they do now – producing less unnecessary stuff in the process – and still have the same quality of life that they presently enjoy. 

3.  Degrowth demands a different kind of economy.

Of course, all of this requires that we shift to a different kind of economy altogether – one that supports and promotes the commons, and focuses on improving human well-being rather than only on improving monetary incomes.  This is where Milanovic makes a key mistake.  The point of degrowth is to reduce the material throughput of the economy not by shrinking the existing one (which would surely be painful), but by shifting to a better one: one more in line with our planet’s ecology.

To be honest, I'm surprised that Milanovic didn’t jump on a more obvious issue, namely, that if our economy stopped growing it would more or less immediately bump up against financial crisis.  Why?  Because our economy is shot through with debt, and debt comes with interest; and because interest is a compound function, all of us have to run around producing more and more each year, shoveling money into the pockets of the rich, just to pay it down.  If we halt the rat race, the whole house of cards will collapse. And it doesn’t help that, given fractional reserve banking, our money system itself is based on debt.

So if we want to throw off the tyranny of growth we’ll have to have some kind of debt jubilee, and get rid of our debt-based money system.  These necessary changes are not compatible with the logic of the existing economy.  We need a different kind of economy. 

4.  Trying to eradicate poverty through growth is going to immiserate everyone. 

Milanovic rejects degrowth and claims that we should stick with the existing plan for eradicating poverty: more growth.  But he hasn’t thought through the implications of this. 

We need to remember that the existing distribution of global growth is skewed heavily toward the rich.  David Woodward points out that even during the most equitable period of the past few decades, only 5% of new income from annual global growth went to the poorest 60% of humanity.  At this rate of trickle-down, it will take more than 100 years to get everyone above $1.25 per day, and 207 years to get everyone above $5 per day.  And in order to get there we will have to grow the global economy to 175 times its present size. 

That’s 175 times more extraction, production and consumption than we’re already doing.  And to reach Milanovic’s minimum of $5,500 per year would require much more than this by far.  Even if this kind of growth was physically possible, it would cause catastrophic ecological crisis that would more than wipe out any gains made against poverty.  Redistribution may not seem feasible to Milanovic, but the existing plan is much less feasible still.

Yes, one might argue that we can improve the share of growth that goes to the poorest.  That would be an important first step, to be sure.  But as long as the rest of the world continues to grow, increasing aggregate material throughput and emissions, we’re going to be in trouble.  In fact, we’re already in trouble even at existing levels of throughput and emissions, and we can see it all around us: rapid deforestation, collapsing fish stocks, mass species extinction, soil depletion and of course climate change, with the poorest getting hit hardest by far. 

Milanovic believes we can reign these problems in with more “environmentally friendly” growth.  But that’s a pipe dream.  And this brings me to my last point:

5.  Green growth is not a thing.

Milanovic likes to run numbers, so let’s look at some. 

First, emissions.  As we know, emissions rise more or less in line with GDP growth.  Climate scientists Anderson and Bows (2011) say that if we want to stay under 2C, rich nations will have to reduce emissions by 8-10% per year.  Since the dominant assumption in the literature is that reductions greater than 3-4% per year are incompatible with a growing economy (Stern 2006; UK CCC 2008; Hof and Vuuren 2009), they conclude that the only way to prevent catastrophic climate change is by reducing economic activity

This conclusion is in keeping with that of other studies (e.g., Raftery et al 2017).  Keep in mind that the existing rate of decarbonization is only about 1.6% per year.  Schandl et al (2016) suggest that some rich nations might be able to bump this up to a maximum of 4.7% per year in the future if they roll out a high and fast-rising carbon price, and somehow manage to double their material efficiency.  But even this extreme best-case scenario is a far cry from the 10% we need.

Of course, some think we’ll be able to buy time by deploying new technology, the most “promising” being bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.  But there is a growing consensus that BECCS won’t work. The technology has never been proven at scale, and it probably won’t appear in time to prevent us blowing the 2C budget (which is only 19 years away). Even if it did, it would require that we create plantations for biofuel equivalent to three times the size of India. Think about the consequences for the global food supply: hardly good for poverty-reduction.

But let’s be charitable and assume that Milanovic is right – that we can somehow manage to reduce emissions by reducing the consumption of high-emission goods and services.  Of course, in order to keep the economy growing, we would still have to increase the consumption of other goods and services.  Milanovic sees no problem with this.  I don’t know why.  Maybe he believes that new technology will make us more efficient, and we will be able to grow the GDP without growing material throughput.

This is known as “absolute decoupling”.  But unfortunately absolute decoupling is not a thing.  Take two recent studies:

Ward et al (2016) find that even the most optimistic projections of efficiency improvements yield no absolute decoupling in the medium and long term. The authors state: “this result is a robust rebuttal to the claim of absolute decoupling”; “decoupling of GDP growth from resource use, whether relative or absolute, is at best only temporary. Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is impossible… because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits.”

Schandl et al (2016) find the same thing.  Even in their best-case scenario projection, global material consumption still grows steadily.  The authors conclude: “Our research shows that while some relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.”

*          *          *

I laid all this evidence out for Milanovic, but he didn’t engage with it.  Instead, he chooses to believe, against all available evidence, that we can continue with indefinite exponential GDP growth without causing ecological collapse. 

Milanovic accuses us – incorrectly – of wanting “the immiseration of the West” in order to eradicate poverty in the global South.  But his blind faith in growth, and his implicit denial of scientific evidence, is sure to lead to ecological collapse – entrenching the misery of the poor and immiserating the rest of us in the process.  

 

**NOTE: Milanovic responded to this post insisting that degrowth is not politically feasible.  But I disagree: people are ready for a new economy.  See my argument here.