Going beyond growth for climate justice

Going beyond growth for climate justice

By: James O'Nions
Date: 16 September 2019
Campaigns: Climate

Our political discourse is obsessed with growth. Despite numerous critiques, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth remains the key indicator of the health of the economy for politicians and economists alike. There are good reasons for this. Just like a bicycle which falls over when it stops moving forward, capitalism without growth cannot sustain itself for long. Privatisation, globalisation, financialisation – all these phenomena are driven by the constant search for new areas of growth.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that when politicians on both the right and centre-left talk about dealing with climate change, they reach for the phrase ‘green growth’. Even some of the most successful ecological parties such as the German Greens speak this language. The idea is that we can shift entirely to renewable energy, increase rates of recycling and so on, and the underlying structure of the economy does not need to change. The problem is that it just doesn’t work.

A recent report by the European Environmental Bureau, a coalition of mainstream European environmental organisations, titled Decoupling Debunked, looked specifically at the viability of a green growth strategy. It concluded that there is no evidence that ‘decoupling’ growth from environmental destruction had happened or has any likelihood of happening at the scale, pace or in as generalised a way as is needed to combat climate breakdown. It suggested, rather cautiously in the circumstances, that “addressing environmental breakdown may require a direct downscaling of economic production and consumption in the wealthiest countries”.

To put it another way, if the global economy grows at 3% per year, it will have doubled in size by 2043. Even with widespread energy efficiency measures, shifting to renewable energy on this scale would be an enormous task. And the raw materials required for renewable energy infrastructure – lithium, copper, rare earth minerals – are themselves not inexhaustible and in some cases based on mining processes which have serious environmental and human rights consequences in the global south.

Of course, electricity production is not the most difficult area for reducing carbon emissions. Industrial agriculture is driving deforestation and driving down the capacity for soil to absorb carbon. There are currently no viable alternatives to fossil fuels in air travel, which continues to expand. And carbon emissions from the production of goods have so far largely been shifted to the global south, creating a false sense of progress in the global north.

A post-growth economy

So what would it mean to actually shift to a post-growth economy? There are plenty of practical measures which could reduce material consumption – tough legislation around the durability of goods and the outlawing of planned obsolescence; massive curbs on advertising; introducing a right to repair; organisations to promote collective use instead of ownership, like car and tool clubs. Combined with an expansion of public services and the commons in housing, for instance, this would allow people to lead good lives without high incomes.

In order to deal with this scaling down of economic activity, we would also need to shorten the working week and consider something like a universal basic income. This would also free up time for people to undertake low carbon activities, from caring work to growing food.

But crucially, all this needs to happen within a framework of a reduction of inequality and a redistribution of wealth. In this context, relocalisation means not just reducing food miles but bringing big corporations and banks back ‘onshore’ – ensuring we can tax them through eliminating tax havens.

In fact, as economist Ann Pettifor described at our conference on growth and climate justice earlier this year, dealing with the power of the financial sector is crucial, as its current power to create debt without much in the way of limit or oversight is a key driver of the continued need for economic growth. The capitalist requirement for growth isn’t just down to the greed of the few, it’s a product of the need for returns on investment, and the financial sector is at the centre of that.

Jason Hickel describes the state of affairs we should be aiming towards as one of ‘radical abundance’: using the resources we have to create collective wellbeing rather than an economy of profit-maximising growth. We would have less material consumption, but actually more of other things – social care, health, education, free time, cultural life – with needs met and rights realised collectively. It is undoubtedly one which would have to challenge the power not just of fossil fuel corporations but the whole system, so how we get there is important.

The Green New Deal plus

The Green New Deal, a concept which has been gaining ground among progressives recently, could be an important bridge. Green MP Caroline Lucas describes it as “a huge investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, programmes to insulate every building in Britain, a move to a more sustainable farming system and to bring hope and jobs to communities hollowed out by deindustrialisation”.

Labour thinking is moving along similar lines, though so far the party leadership has more often described it as a Green Industrial Strategy, while also emphasising important changes to ownership such as the nationalisation of the energy industry, which would take power out of the hands of corporations. The grassroots Labour for a Green New Deal campaign has been asking party branches to submit motions to its autumn conference which also emphasise a just transition to green jobs, transfers of technology and finance to the global south, and welcoming climate refugees.

All these policies are vitally important and we need to mobilise around them. But if the focus is growth, then emissions could continue to rise. In 2009, South Korea announced a US$38 billion investment into environmental projects aimed to create a million jobs. Its emissions were 15 percent higher in 2014 than in 2008.

Growth and the global south

Where does a post-growth agenda leave the global south? Human wellbeing is still so low for many in the global south, that some kind of economic growth is surely needed, though the kind currently taking place there is often ratcheting up inequality. Of course it is high income countries who are currently consuming at levels which overshoot planetary ecological boundaries so severely, so it’s here that we need to deal with growth most urgently.

But while social movements in the global south are often understandably dubious about the idea of ‘degrowth’ per se, they have often developed over the past decades a politics which combines social justice with living in harmony with nature. It is corporate globalisation, pursued relentlessly by governments in the global north, which has pushed in the opposite direction on both these fronts.

In fact, the critique of growth and the western development model coming from the global south is one we can learn from. For instance, Walden Bello’s concept of deglobalisation focuses on how we can undo the power of transnational corporations in order to achieve economic and climate justice. This isn’t about a simple return to the nation state, but new forms of international governance which redistribute wealth and undercut exploitation.

Meanwhile La Via Campesina, the global movement of small farmers, uses the slogan ‘peasant agriculture cools down the Earth’, and has worked to spread agroecology as an alternative to industrial farming. The concept isn’t just about organic farming but also democratising production in the hands of producers and consumers.

As we stare down the barrel of the climate breakdown gun, talking about the problem of growth can seem like one difficult argument too far. But concern about climate change is reaching unprecedented levels internationally. If we can talk about solving it through building community, solidarity and egalitarian abundance, then the kind of systemic change we need might start to sound like common sense.


This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.

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Photo: Youth climate strike in Manila, May 2019. Credit: Leo Sabangan II/350.org