It is always a very nice feeling when you find thoughts similar to yours in an influential publication. Once upon a time, some 1 1/2 years ago, I published here a text entitled Stop Debating Growth and Focus on What Is Important (yeah, I admit that titles are not quite a strength of mine). Today I read a paper by Jeroen van den Bergh, published two years ago in the Ecological Economics journal, entitled Environment versus growth — A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth”. To my pleasure, his credo is very similar to what I wanted to emphasize in the Stop Debating text.
In it, I argued that the anti-growth debate suffers from a preoccupation of the growth paradigm‘s critics with… growth. As an alternative, I proposed to focus on what is really important in terms of social development within ecological boundaries – we might then check if policies guided by such indicators as unemployment, public health, an intact environment etc. influence GDP growth positively or negatively or not at all, if we wished. But this is actually not relevant. The policies themselves and the goals they pursue are important, not their effect on growth.
In his highly interesting and, for some, provoking article, van den Bergh criticizes the increasingly popular idea of degrowth [the link is to an upcoming conference on degrowth, which will take place in September 2014 in Leipzig and is being co-organized by some of my colleagues from the UFZ]. He first notes the vagueness of the term, which has been used in many different meanings. Five meanings are distinguished in his article: GDP degrowth, consumption degrowth, work-time degrowth, radical degrowth, physical degrowth. None of these interpretations is deemed satisfactory by van den Bergh, at least not according to the criteria he uses: environmental effectiveness, social-political feasibility, economic efficiency and the potential to limit rebound effects (the former two being the main criteria). The results of his analysis, including van den Bergh’s own alternative, which he calls a-growth, are summarized in the table below [click to enlarge]. Basically, the problem with the degrowth idea is that it is mostly very vague regarding the specific means to achieve it (except for work-time degrowth, which seems to be van den Bergh’s “favourite” interpretation) and/or lacks the potential to be embraced by the broader public. The latter point is particularly true for “radical degrowth” (one of whose proponents is Niko Paech, about whom I already wrote here a few times). Also, van den Bergh bemoans the lack of specific proposals as to how the changes needed to degrow are to be achieved institutionally (i.e., mainly via legislation), a common criticism against the degrowth movement. In some cases, particularly GDP degrowth, he points out that there is no guarantee that the policies guided by this principle will actually lead to more environmental sustainability.
In the end, van den Bergh’s argument boils down to the following: we know that GDP growth is not useful as an indicator of social progress. Also, we know that it is still used as a social progress proxy, sadly. So,
the only solution is to ignore it and as a result be completely indifferent about GDP growth. GDP growth is good in some periods or for some countries, but unconditional growth is not a wise aim. GDP growth is not generally necessary or sufficient for progress. Neither is GDP degrowth necessary or sufficient for sustainability. Correlations between GDP and welfare or between GDP and environmental impact are not constant and fixed over time. One can therefore not exclude the possibility of “dirty GDP degrowth” or a degrowth which hardly reduces environmental impact. (p. 885)
This is, more or less, the core of the argument I myself once made, though van den Bergh put it in a more clear-cut way. In the last part of his article, he offers then an “effective policy package”, which he views as an alternative to degrowth and a way to deal with environmental, social and economic issues without GDP growth having to be taken into account. His six proposals are the following:
- International agreements to tackle trans-boundary environmental problems. Van den Bergh is convinced that this is the only way to master climate change or biodiversity loss without the risk of rebound and “leakage” effects. (I must admit that, while generally agreeing with this, I am increasingly pessimistic with regard to the feasibility of such agreements.)
- Reform of the labour markets to encourage more flexible, part-time work. Here, van den Bergh may be granted some authority due to his nationality – the Netherlands are well-known for his successes in this field. However, I still have had the feeling that he oversees the potential for social dilemmas in this context, when he calls for voluntary work-time limitations by employees (though in a political and legal environment that encourages this).
- Regulation of commercial advertisement. Van den Bergh believes that advertisement particularly of status goods with heavy environmental impacts should be constrained as to decrease social drivers of consumerism (status-seeking).
- Pro-environmental education. According to van den Bergh, behavioural research suggests that people are willing to make some voluntary sacrifices to protect the environment – however, they often do not know what exactly they can do. Here, education, communication and information are crucial. Nonetheless, regulation by legal means cannot be substituted by this. Both strategies are rather complementary to each other.
- Ignoring GDP. This recommendation is the essence of van den Bergh (and my) argument – we do not help the environment or the society by sticking to this awkward indicator. The less we consider the effect of particular policies on GDP, the easier it will be to tailor policies that really achieve something in terms of sustainability.
- Public investment in environmental R&D. Corrected market forces (e.g., through environmental taxation or emissions trading schemes) are important, but there is a large need for “clean” technologies to be developed and implemented. Public support is indispensable here.
Let me sum-up: 1. We know that GDP is a largely worthless indicator. 2. Degrowth ideas, while often interesting, exhibit a kind of obsession regarding GDP. 3. If we want to achieve sustainability, we cannot but ignore GDP. Whether the pro-environmental policies we adopt affect it positively or negatively, may be of theoretical interest. But it does not matter for practical reasons. So, stop debating (de-)growth and focus on what is important!