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From “Green Growth” to Post-Growth

Green growth is still unsustainable for a finite planet.

The seduction of economic growth is all-pervasive. Even within progressive circles that claim to understand that growth is causing ecological destruction, there is hope in a new type of salvation: “green growth.” This is the idea that technology will become more efficient and allow us to grow the economy while reducing our impact on the environment. In other words, we will be able to decouple gross domestic product (GDP) from resource use and carbon emissions.

This is appealing to the liberal mind — it provides an apparent middle ground and removes the need to question the logic of the global economy. We can continue on our current trajectory if we make the “right” reforms and get the “right” kind of technology.

The hope of green growth is embedded everywhere, from the majority of domestic economic plans to major international policy schemes like the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. By uncritically supporting these policies, we are unwittingly perpetuating the neoliberal fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet.

The Logic of “Green Growth”

In some ways, the math is quite simple. We know that the Earth can only safely sustain our consumption at or below 50 billion tons of stuff each year. This includes everything from raw materials to livestock, minerals to metals: everything humans consume. Right now, we’re using about 80 billion tons each year — roughly 60 percent more than the safe limit. In order for growth to be “green,” or at least not life-destroying, we need to get back down to 50 billion tons while continuing to grow GDP.

A team of scientists ran a model showing that, under the current business-as-usual conditions, growth will drive global resource use to a staggering 180 billion tons per year by 2050. That’s more than three times the safe limit. This type of economic growth threatens all life on this planet.

In the hopes of finding more optimistic results, the UN Environment Program conducted its own research last year. The team introduced various optimistic assumptions, including a carbon price of $573 per ton and a material extraction tax, and assumed rapid technological innovation. They found that even with these policies, we will still hit 132 billion tons of consumption per a year by 2050.

In a recent article in Fast Company, Jason Hickel, a leading economic anthropologist, argues that there is no evidence to support green growth hopes. He concludes that although we will need all the strong policies we can get — carbon taxes, resources extraction taxes, more efficient technology, etc. — the only way to bring our economy back in line with our planet’s ecology is to reduce our consumption and production.

This is the core problem that no one wants to address. This is the taboo of Western civilization — the ground zero of values. It is the reason we make up fictions like green growth.

In order to start imagining and achieving real alternatives, we first have to dispose of the false solutions and distractions that pervade the discourse on social change. Right now, it is incumbent on the progressive movement to challenge green growth or any other prophylactic logic that keeps us bound within the ideological concrete of growth as our only option.

Growth as Distributed Fascism

Our global economy is a Ponzi scheme. We have a debt-based economic system that requires growth to exceed interest rates in order for money to be valuable. The World Bank and others tell us that we have to grow the global economy at a minimum of 3 percent per year in order to avoid recession. That means we will double the size of the global economy every 20 years.

For capital holders — rich countries and the rich within countries — this makes complete sense. They disproportionately benefit from the growth system. Growth is the source of their power. It is what keeps them not just rich, but ever-richer — which means ever-more powerful. They are where they are in this system because their interests align with the “Prime Directive” of the system: more capital for its own sake. The reason the people currently in power are in power is because they believe in growth, and because they are good at delivering it. That is the sole qualification for their jobs. Of course, they are not going to be able to see the problems growth causes; they are, by job-definition and personal identity, growth-fanatics.

As for the rest of us, we are tied into this system because growth is the basis for our livelihood, it is the source of our jobs, and our jobs are what allow us to survive in the debt regime.

It’s a tightly woven system that requires our collective complicity. Although we may know that every dollar of wealth created heats up the planet and creates more inequality, we are tied into the system through necessity and a set of values that tells us that selfishness is rational, and indeed, the innately and rightly dominant human behavior we must orient around. We’re coerced into a form of distributed fascism where we as individuals extract more, consume more, destroy more and accumulate more, without ever being able to step back to see the totality of a more holistic worldview.

Post-Growth as Localism

So, what must be done? The first place to start is to challenge the growth dependency of the current operating system. Then we start looking for the antidote logic. Capitalism is characterized by its imposition of monolithic values — the final outcome of the “American Dream” is for everyone to live as consumers in pre-fabricated houses; leveraged by Wells Fargo mortgages; living off Citibank credit cards; wearing Nike shoes; distracted by Facebook, Google and Apple products; drinking Nestle bottled water; and eating Monsanto laboratory foods, while bobbing our heads to Miley Cyrus or Jay-Z.

The antigen to monoculture is polyculture — many ways of being and living. This requires a transition to localism, which is another way of saying ways of life in which we are connected to our environment, so we see and understand the impacts of our consumption. Localism creates contexts in which we can look into the eyes of the people who make our clothes and grow our food, so that our choices can be informed by their impact on human relationships and well-being, not just convenience and a price tag.

This means working to strengthen local communities and create far more self-sufficient economies. Luckily, we have on hand ready guides and knowledge in the Indigenous cultures that have survived longest on this planet, and whose way of organizing and being are in greatest harmony with the biosphere. It means actively opting out of globalized industrialism as much as we can, by creating interdependence through sharing and cooperation, rather than dependence on economic trade and extraction.

At a national level, we could start by ditching GDP as an indicator of success in favor of more holistic measures, like the Genuine Progress Indicator or a Bhutanese style Gross National Happiness, which are built around life-centric, intrinsic values and take account of negative externalities like pollution and resource degradation. We could roll out a new money system that doesn’t necessitate endless growth and debt. And we could put caps on material use, so that we never extract more than the planet can regenerate.

This type of post-growth thinking must become the central organizing principle of society the way “self-determination” was the operating principle of post-World War I society (at least in rhetoric). Localization should be the rallying cry of both nation-states and communities alike who are nimble and brave enough to transcend the shadows of scarcity and self-interest. Localism requires a sensitivity and attunement to local contexts, geographies, histories and cultures. It requires us to contract new types of relationships with each other, with ourselves, with the state, and with Nature itself.

There is no traditional blueprint for these types of economic models. This may seem daunting. But our current trajectory is even more daunting. Unless a politically significant mass of people actively rejects the false god of growth and chooses a different path, our current economic system will crash under its own weight and take most life as we know it with it. As the late British economist David Fleming reminds us, “Localisation stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative.”

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