The Case for A-Growth, Not De-Growth

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.

Bildschirmfoto - 30.01.2014 - 21:08:52

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

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13 thoughts on “The Case for A-Growth, Not De-Growth

  1. Interesting post and I am very sympathetic to non-GDP approaches. Nonetheless, I don’t think we can say that GDP is a “largely worthless indicator”. Stevenson and Wolfers have rather blown a whole in the Easterlin Paradox in terms of life satisfaction (evaluative measures of happiness). Moreover, Deaton and Kahneman’s work has a quite high income threshold before we see evidence of satiation in terms of positive and negative affect (hedonic measures of happiness). So for most of the planet, higher GDP per head makes people happier on a whole variety of levels.

    You could argue, and I would argue, that humans are not good at discounting future happiness. Accordingly, climate change has created an appreciable risk that a large part of humanity will not be happy in the year 2100 if we create a rise in global mean temperature of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius. But for the time being, the negative externalities of climate change and resource depletion are just not showing up in the happiness indicators (and our data collection and analysis in this field has exploded in depth and sophistication over the last decade).

    To repeat, for most people, rising GDP per head is translating into greater happiness and the politicians know this.

    All is not lost, however, since I think we can achieve higher levels of happiness through promoting less energy- and carbon-intensive GDP growth, and we can also exploit the fact that there exist non-GDP dependent policy measure that lift happiness. Moreover, just as with cigarette smoking, people can be educated to recognise the trade-off between immediate gratification and future welfare-impairment.

    But to ignore the role of GDP is to ignore the data, and this will fatally undermine the effectiveness of any green policy proposals as the movement will come across as anti-empirical at best and completely detached from reality at worst.

  2. First, thanks for your comment. I will try to take a look at the work by Stevenson and Wolfers soon.

    Now, let’s turn to the essense: I beg to disagree with your argument. I took a look at a paper by Stevenson and Wolfers and what striked me is the variance of the relationship GDP-Happiness/Life Satisfaction. My interpretation is the following: GDP and subjective well-being may be correlated, but I do not believe that there is a causal relationship. (Subjective) well-being is not so much dependent on incomes, but on things like good health, political freedom, safety, social capital etc. While some of these variables are themselves loosely correlated with income, there is a large variance here, depending on many factors independent of GDP/incomes. By focusing on GDP, we take on too narrow a perspective. It’s essentially a cum hoc ergo propter hoc, a spurious correlation between GDP and subjective well-being. Instead of blinding ourselves with this statistic, we would fare much better by focusing on the things that really do contribute to well-being. Income may be one of them – but it is only one of many and certainly not the most important one.

    Another difficulty I have with your argument is that it focuses on subjective well-being. As I wrote here, subjective well-being is a very limited indicator of a “good life”. I personally find Amartya Sen’s capability approach much more convincing, since it focuses on what people can or cannot potentially achieve – subjective well-being being one of the relevant factors, but, again, not necessarily the most important one.

  3. By the way: here is a recent response of Easterlin’s to his critics. Regarding Stevenson and Wolfers, the authors write:

    The third and most serious critique, based on time series data, is in a 2008 article by Stevenson and Wolfers (24). The main problem with the Stevenson and Wolfers (S-W) analysis is that they, in fact, estimate a positive short-term relationship between life satisfaction and GDP, rather than the long-term relationship, which is nil.

    • The Easterlin response has met with a very mixed reception from the academic economist community, especially since the publication of Stevenson and Wolfers 2013 paper. Indeed, I think Easterlin is on the back foot. But I think for those of a heterodox persuasion (like myself), this doesn’t mean we should deny Wolfers and Stevenson’s evidence.

      Moreover, I don’t think an attack on causation gets us anywhere. Generally, those indicators of self-evaluated happiness like heath are very highly correlated with income, and the causation is going the right way.

      The Amartya Sen hypothesis is also a very false friend if you want to push back against the link between income and happiness. Sen stresses that agency is a vital part of happiness and the idea that low income inhabitants are happy peasants is a neo-colonial construct. Money gives individuals a choice between life outcomes. This is a massive source of happiness, however you wish to define the term.

      I think there are three avenues open for those supportive of sustainable low growth outcomes. First, there is a difference between self-evaluated happiness and experiential happiness as Daniel Kahneman deftly explains. I just covered this in a post here:

      http://therationalpessimist.com/2014/02/01/on-sustainability-and-happiness-part-2/

      Second, there is a huge difference between one’s imaged future self and the actual true future self. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert is brilliant at explaining this and I really urge you to look at his work. It basically provides a framework for why we discount the future so badly,

      Lastly, I will go back to an essay by Easterlin called “Is Economic Growth Creating a New Post Materialistic Society”. Strangely, he is both dismissive of worries over climate change and resource depletion in this essay and approvingly quotes Julian Simon (the economic guru of abundance). But he also says something quite telling:

      ” But these preferences are themselves a direct result of economic growth – of the immersion of young people as they grow up in the materialistic and individualistic culture that economic growth creates.”

      So happiness has become a construct of capitalism.

      So what is the point of all my observations? It is that if we truly believe that climate change and resource depletion are a threat to the broadly defined ‘happiness’ of our present and future society, then we need to make sure that our arguments are empirically justifiable. To say that GDP doesn’t matter when on so many levels it actually does, will debase everything we have to say. The better message is to say that our goal is to create present and future happiness (broadly defined to encompass all of its aspects) without a dependence on GDP.

  4. our goal is to create present and future happiness (broadly defined to encompass all of its aspects) without a dependence on GDP.

    I don’t see what the difference is to saying that GDP is meaningless. And I still do not think that the (spurious) relationship between GDP and happiness, if there is any, is reason enough to keep this metric. There are just too many things GDP doesn’t capture or is distorted by as a “welfare indicator”, from inequality, resigned adaptation, short-term focus, etc. Not to mention that, as shown by Partha Dasgupta and Karl-Göran Mäler (and later also Kenneth Arrow), GDP is not a suitable proxy for social well-being even from a theoretical perspective.

    Regarding the Easterlin Paradox, I must admit that I just cannot imagine that income increases per se, beyond a certain (rather low) threshold can meaningfully influence our well-being as defined in a broader sense than subjective happiness. Yes, Easterlin talks about subjective happiness, so it may be that he is wrong. But this doesn’t change my argument for I find the subjective well-being perspective too narrow.

    Sen stresses that agency is a vital part of happiness

    Sen isn’t talking about “happiness”, but about “good life”. And he stresses that there is a decisive difference between the two notions, because happiness is only one of many parts of good life. Resigned adaptation is one of the reasons he names for this conviction. But also short-term thinking, bounded rationality (knowledge limitations) etc.

  5. I think my last sentence was poorly written. It should really read:

    “our goal is to create present and future happiness (broadly defined to encompass all of its aspects) without a complete dependence on GDP.”

    I think GDP should be in the mix, but is not in and of itself the only indicator we should track.

    More importantly, I think the goal of social policy is to promote broadly defined happiness in a temporal context. This includes self-evaluated well-being, positive and negative affect (hedonics) and perhaps some concept of eudaimonia or the good life, but I would be very cautious there.

    I have never been entirely comfortable with Sen’s functionings and capabilities approach. For a start, subjective well-being captures capabilities. When you ask someone to rate their life on a scale of 1 to 10, their answer will contain a high degree of agency assessment; that is, they will rate their capabilities or ability to make choices. And the number one giver of agency is income.

    Subjective well-being is also a worthy object of study because a) it is measurable and b) it corresponds with objective measures. Here I am in complete alignment with Easterlin who argues that since people believe happiness is important as a concept then we should treat it as important as a concept. Moreover. subjective well-being measures tie in closely with such objective phenomena as suicide rates, anti-depressive drug prescription rates, Duchenne smiles and so on. Experiential happiness evaluations tie in with heart rate, brain scan patterns, hormone levels/changes and so on. Data collection (in numerous countries) covering self-evaluated and experiential happiness and associated physiological phenomena has exploded over the last 10 years, so we are now in a position to tap into it when making policy.

    We also know that income is a major determinant of self-evaluated happiness and a lesser determinant of experiential happiness. And an inequality adjusted GDP per capita measure gives us a good idea of income. So GDP is useful, it is just not the only indicator we need to track.

    Finally, concepts like ‘eudaimonia’ and the ‘good life’ are impossible to measure and are not grounded in physiological phenomena. For this reason, I think they are open to abuse by governments, and indeed the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan all created state-directed conceptions of the good life to obvious ill effect. So we need to take great care in directing the population to follow ‘the good life’ if the definition of ‘the good life’ rests with the state and not the people. We may not life what an individual chooses as his or her ‘good life’ but as long as such a ‘good life’ doesn’t produce externalities for others, we should leave it well alone.

  6. And again, I beg to disagree. First, I think we should discriminate between individual well-being and social well-being. The former is completely subjective and as such, prone to short-sightedness. I agree that it may be correlated with income (however, I have some remarks to what you’ve written on your blog – I will make those remarks there in a minute). And I agree that it is important (so does Sen). But what I am more concerned with is social well-being. And as shown by Dasgupta and Mäler (see link above), GDP and related measures are not suitable as indicators or proxies of social well-being, which is mainly because social well-being has more to do with wealth (stock) than with income (flow). So, while I do not claim that subjective well-being is irrelevant, I do not think that it is in itself sufficient for judging social progress.

    subjective well-being captures capabilities

    I would rather say, it is the other way around. The problem with subjective well-being as opposed to capabilities is that we easily get “distracted” – by status comparisons, by resigned adaptation, by lacks of knowledge, by our inability to deal with uncertainties, by addictions etc. Furthermore, Sen’s concept of second-order preferences is important here – we may make a choice according to a preference ordering existing “in our heads”, I be happy about the choice. At the same time, we may feel, according to a meta-ordering of preference orderings, that we should actually act according to other preferences (e.g., quit smoking, even though smoking makes us happy). You cannot capture such considerations when you measure happiness or satisfaction or whatever subjective well-being metric alone. Therefore, even for the judgement of individual well-being, subjective feelings alone won’t do. You need some more “objective” measures. This said, it is clear that these measures are not to be set top-down. Indeed, Sen argued that they should be subject to public debate, in line with Habermas’ deliberative democracy principles.

    That should suffice for the moment. I turn to your blog post now.

  7. Another problem that could be mentioned here is that GDP growth (widely shared) income growth. Indeed, for some (somewhat unknown) value of redistribution, subjective well-being and income would go up sharply among many and decrease among the few. (And if we look at long-term happiness of the few, coping likely means that the very rich who came under higher redistributive pressure would be very angry in the short term and somewhat less in the long-term, and if properly managed–through public goods like education, infrastructure improvement, as well as some direct redistribution via lowered taxes/tax credits for lower income people and higher wages–the gain among the less well-off would be long-term.) Part of my obsession with de-growth or arguing against GDP measures is that growth almost always is used to argue for a Pareto optimization approach to management: let’s make the worst off better off by making everyone better off. While appealing, this is both an unsustainable approach in the long term and not guaranteed to work in the short term (that is, current approaches to growth and Pareto optimization tend to be of the “well, if the best off just keep getting better off without directly lowering the well-being of others, either (a) let’s not worry about it because at least someone’s better off, or (b) let’s be patient, it’s bound to get to the rest of the folks some day). The appeal to me of de-growth is that it necessitates a conversation of who, how, and why: who will be asked to “de-grow”, how should it be done, and why that group and that method of de-growth. Growth as a strategy can be used as an argument against deliberation; de-growth as a strategy immediately causes clashes of interest and at the very least, a conversation about how it is to be done. In other words: as a biologist, “trade-offs” are a key part of my training, though in different way than economists–biological trade-offs tend to acknowledge constraints much more readily. I think we should be deliberating on trade-offs rather than wishing them away.

    Besides this, an appeal to de-growth to me is its ecological pragmatism. The amount of flow-through in our current ecosystems in terms of energy and material is almost certainly not sustainable. “A-growth” seems to downplay the need to, at some point, limit net consumption. As Herman Daly said, we’re not sure that this is politically possible, but we *know* continued growth is not biophysically possible, so I’ll take the unlikely over the impossible. Beyond which, we *know* from common property research that people are willing to self-limit consumption given certain requisites. Can these be “scaled up”? Who knows. But the fact that self-limitation is possible, and “reciprocal altruism” is present (http://bostonreview.net/samuel-bowles-herbert-gintis-is-equality-passe) means that we do have the human “raw materials” necessary for a transition to a-growth and possibly de-growth. I often feel like we underplay our ability to innovate social forms and correspondingly over-rely on our ability to innovate technological solutions. Human social structure has changed in ways large and small over our evolution, and some ways have *changed* our evolution. We have the “materials” to promote alternative ways of being already existing in our biology; to speak overly simplistically, it seems to me the crux of our task is to create environments that reward these traits over the medium term. (And indeed, deliberation is part of the way to avoid the abuses mentioned above; as Donella Meadows reminded us, the problem with dictators was not that they had a vision, but that it was a vision that was not build in collaboration with those they tormented–building shared visions and, to my mind, creating ways to reward a “strong reciprocity society” punish but not persecute non-cooperators is fundamentally different than the abuses above).

    Lastly, on the economics of happiness, I wonder about this recent piece: http://entrepreneurshipmatters.com/2013/12/04/economic-development-can-only-buy-happiness-up-to-a-sweet-spot-of-36000-gdp-per-person/

    That notwithstanding, I’d still say GDP does not even measure *income* well (Buffett gaining bunches raises GDP without necessarily touching those worst off) so even in an income-centric view, GDP is a poor standby to what we really want to measure–happiness and capabilities of those most limited in both. Beyond which, income’s correlation to power to fulfill capabilities could itself be seen as a problem, and rather than suggesting its own solution (more income for everyone!) could suggest two alternatives: more equal income for everyone! (radical redistribution) or re-aligning power for everyone (agnostic as to exact methods, but they’ll likely be some form of strong democracy imho: http://crookedtimber.org/2012/05/23/cognitive-democracy/)

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree with your general argument, but I would nevertheless like to make some comments on a few details you mentioned. First of all: I don’t think that van den Bergh’s argument against de-growth downplays the ecological component of growth critique. I would rather say that it is quite the contrary: as pointed out by Herman Daly, whom you quote, what is called “growth” in economics is actually two different things. Daly calls them growth (a quantitative change) and development (a qualitative change). When we are talking about (de-)growth, we mostly mean growth in terms of GDP. According to Daly, we cannot differentiate then between the two components, one of which is “good” (or at least neutral), the other being clearly “bad” in most cases. So, van den Bergh’s call to stop focusing on growth is a call to focus on the “bads” only.

      But there is also an argument against interpreting de-growth in terms of material throughput. You have mentioned trade-offs, so it should be clear to you that some increases in material throughput may be necessary to achieve certain social goals in particular periods. De-growing then may be counter-productive. Furthermore, as pointed out by van den Bergh, calls for physical de-growth are necessarily blind to details. Here, again, it is about trade-offs: you may not be able to de-grow the use of every single natural resource, so you have to choose which ones can be still used intensely and which ones should not. As soon as you do that, you are not talking/thinking about de-growth any more, because de-growth is too broad for that. So maybe it is more sensible to “skip” this broad concept and directly focus on the relevant trade-offs.

      One short remark with regard to common property research: I assume that you are referring to the work of Elinor Ostrom. Her research is extremely important, but the conclusion cannot be easily generalized. Her list of “conditions for success” in management of common pool resources is quite demanding and she has also shown impressively many cases in which they do not hold and the management doesn’t work (most prominently, of course, with regard to open access resources, such as the atmosphere as a carbon reservoir or high-sea fisheries). So, I would not put too much hope in Ostrom’s work as a panacea for our problems.

      • I wouldn’t put any hope in Ostrom’s work as a panacea, though she seemed to hold a lot of optimism for polycentrism. Further, I don’t hold it as a panacea but rather a hint that it may be possible to devise institutions that replicate the success seen under the stringent conditions of CPRs. This, together with Bowles & Gintis (and many others’) research on cooperation, gives us like I said, many “raw materials” for “innovation”.

        I haven’t read van den Bergh so I am of course missing the nuances of the argument. But the exact elements you point to in terms of de-growth–that it immediately requires intense consideration to figure out what it means–was exactly my point for it, at least rhetorically: it focuses us immediately on the fact that trade-offs must be made. I don’t think “a-growth” has the same rhetorical force. “We should be indifferent to [GDP] growth and think about development” does not, to me, immediately bring to mind the fact that trade-offs must be made.

        Ken Dahlberg points to larger and larger throughputs of matter and energy as being a characteristic of modern systems, and I would align my de-growth thoughts with decreasing these flows. I do not think total material flow-through growth is wise or sustainable, and I certainly don’t think it *necessary*. It is *necessary* only once redistribution is taken off the table entirely, as we could sizably shrink total material flow-through and increase the consumption of much of the world. It of course requires sacrifice of certain things on the part of many. I do not think redistribution should be taken off the table; especially given that “socially unthinkable” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Daly, Costanza and others have pointed out that one can show the immense value of (what is essentially) capabilities to people and show them how capabilities can remain the same or expand, even with lower resource consumption.

        Daly makes this distinction as the “allocation” question, I believe, and I think Nathan Pelletier also pointed out the moral and ecological necessity for redistribution. “A-growth” does not demand redistribution be put on the table, at least, and considered. “De-growth”, to my mind, does, and is therefore rhetorically a more useful starting point (especially since people’s intuitions about the size of current distribution skews are way off, and given proper information about the skew, belief in redistribution is likely to increase, not decrease).

  8. Sorry, but to add: if one takes seriously the “stocks” argument, if we are drawing down stocks it seems hard to argue for (long-term) growth of material flow-through. It is definitionally unsustainable. GDP generally correlates very well with matter and energy flow-through, actually, from what I’ve seen. (Especially given that information–“order” against entropy–still consumes energy, even in a “dematerialized” economy.)

    We of course shouldn’t focus only on the “bads”, but I don’t see why “de-growth” is too broad a term for distinguishing the reduction in flows of different resources, and I don’t feel “a-growth” captures the necessity to “degrow” in some of them.

    I feel like we have a high degree of underlying agreement, but are somewhat stuck on terms. I agree with much of the distinctions you’re making, but I suppose I don’t agree that it necessitates a term different than de-growth (rather than nuanced discussions of it). And frankly, if the appropriate discussions are had, I don’t care what it’s called. Rhetorically, I find de-growth more amenable to pointing out trade-offs to students, friends, and colleagues; a-growth does not bring to mind *constraints* to me.

    That’s what I’ve been grasping towards–constraints. There simply must be constraints in all resources given our understanding of biology and physics. I would argue most of these constraints are becoming human-relevant (some, for example, like the availability of solar energy, are not relevant on human time scales). I suppose my “de-growth” bias also comes from the constraint-based view of Tainter and others, e.g. http://ecologicalsociology.blogspot.com/2011/01/integrating-economic-gain-in-biosocial.html . How do you view that area of work, if you’re familiar with it? Tainter, of course, thinks that there is essentially zero possibility of voluntary simplfication, but since complexity breeds escalating costs, there is no solution other than (a) expansion to other planets/asteroid mining (unlikely), or (b) collapse and reformation (leading to another future collapse). Again, I think the escalating costs of complexity argument is compelling, and aligns with an overall argument of de-growth (though it is not incompatible with a-growth).

    But any conversation that acknowledges *limits* is fine with me, whatever we call it. But I feel very fundamentally that limits must be part of the understanding. If that’s a given, then I’m on board with a-growth I suppose.

  9. I agree with most of your arguments, but I still do not think that GDP or related measures should be of any relevance in the transition towards sustainability. However, I think that in this case, this is rather a detail we can agree to disagree on without this having much negative impact for our agreement on a more general level.

    I am not familiar with Tainter’s work, but I “sympathise” with his second option, i.e., collapse and reformation. I do not know whether our society will really collapse, but I do not see another option.

    I actually didn’t think that you consider Ostrom’s ideas a panacea, it was just meant to make the point that her findings are of limited potential to be generalised. But, as already stated, I think her results are not to be overlooked and of tremendous importance for environmental economics/sociology/policy/whatever you call it.

    “A-growth” does not demand redistribution be put on the table, at least, and considered.

    I don’t see why de-growth does. Furthermore, “a-growth” is actually not meant to be a slogan, but rather an approach, call it as you like: it is the idea to focus on multiple sub-goals (including redistribution) that lead to the overarching goal of sustainability. I guess, van den Bergh used the term just to make it poignant that he proposes something different from “de-growth” (and to make the title of his paper more catchy), not to replace one slogan with another. (But see the first paragraph of this comment for my assessment of the importance of this last remark of mine;-)).

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