Post-Growth, Credit, Interest and Money

As impressively (though unwittingly) shown by Francis Fukuyama, attempts to imagine the future of societies are likely to go wrong. Extrapolation of trends can well be a bad idea. On the other hand, some idea about what the future is to look like is needed when a major transformation of the society is to be attempted. The transformation towards a post-growth society is no exception here. It would be naive to expect an exacting outline of how a post-growth society is supposed to work, but it is important that those advocating it at least try to give answers to some inconvenient questions: what about productivity growth? Can universal basic income, supported by many in the degrowth movement, work? And what about the monetary and financial systems? The latter question has gained some attention recently, and some argue that monetary factors might be a main obstacle for a post-growth society. Their arguments should get proper consideration if we do not want to choose the wrong transition “trajectory”, given path dependencies so common in socio-economic systems. Continue reading

The Not-So-New Climate Economy Report

An alliance of the most influential global institutions, including the UN, World Bank, IMF and OECD, just issued a report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by Felipe Calderón and Nicholas Stern. The report’s title is Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy. In a nutshell, it says that not only is climate action compatible with economic growth, but the two may actually work as a positive feedback loop: more climate action leading to more growth, “smart” growth-spurring policies reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. By and large, the report does not contain any new arguments, as it is more of a synthesis of existing research. Alas, it is a synthesis of only a part of existing research, which can be already seen in the title: economic growth is a main objective along with the mitigation of climate change. You’ll vainly look for any reference to the degrowth and a-growth debates, and so the report, while valuable in some respects, reproduces many of the common errors of growth-enthusiasts. Continue reading

On Economic Valuation and Sick Mothers

I have spent most time this week at the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, which takes place in Leipzig. In one of the sessions today, my doctoral father had the pleasure(?) to defend the economic (valuation) approach to environmental problems in a panel discussion. Most arguments used in this discussion against the economic approach were, I say it frankly, nonsense. Either they resulted from misunderstanding or from confusion or they just didn’t have anything to do with the issue. The only two valid arguments I was able to filter out were: a) that economists often treat ecosystems atomistically in that they value single ecosystem services and then just “add them up”, which is a practice I am very concerned about, too, and b) that the economic approach hasn’t achieved anything so far (which is debatable, but still a valid critique, as there is no systematic assessment of this issue to be checked against). Today, however, I would like to respond to one of the misconception-based arguments, for I think that it shows in an impressive way what economics is (not) and why we need economic analysis. Continue reading

Stanley Jevons’s Prophecy

In his famous treatise The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probably Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines, published almost 150 years ago, the British economist William Stanley Jevons described a phenomenon whose importance today might be even higher than back in 1865–the so-called rebound effect, also known under the names of second-order effect, Khazzoom-Brookes effect, backfire or Jevons’s paradox. Jevons argued that the increased efficiency of steam engines shall lead to increased use of them and thus, counter-intuitively, to an increase in coal consumption. His insights have surprising relevance for today’s debates on economic growth and climate change. Continue reading

Productivity Growth in a Post-Growth Society

In Robert Solow‘s (in)famous growth model, perhaps the most important part was what is now called the “Solow residual” or “Total Factor Productivity” (TFP)–the part of economic growth that cannot be explained by changes in the input of the factors “capital” and “labour”, which is, in effect, the result of technological progress. In other words, TFP is a reflection of us learning how to produce more with the same amount of input. A recurrent theme in this blog is that quantitative GDP growth is highly problematic, mainly due to the related pressures on natural ecosystems. However, even if we decide to stop growing–or, better, to stop focusing on growth–, it is not obvious that we can actually achieve it. And TFP is one of the reasons why this isn’t as simple as many in the degrowth movement seem to believe. Continue reading

Talking About Green Jobs Might Impede Action on Climate Change

Advocates of true action on climate change do not have an easy job to do. Scientists keep producing evidence of dangerous man-made climate change, the IPCC keeps producing reports that summarize that evidence, activists keep doing their activism… Meanwhile, politicians, and decision-makers more generally, keep talking and the society at large sticks to business-as-usual. No wonder that the “alarmists”, as we are sometimes called, are steadily looking for new powerful arguments. In hope either that a specific single argument will suddenly make people wake up and act on climate change, or that the accumulated mass of arguments will do. One such argument is about so-called “green jobs”. Clean technology investments are presented as a great opportunity to create jobs, as a growth booster. However, in this specific case, the well-intentioned pro-climate-action argument might actually be a shot in the cause’s foot. Continue reading

3 Reasons Why a Post-Growth Society Is Not Within Reach

For reasons explained elsewhere (see, e.g., this post and that one), I am among those dreaming of a post-growth society. Of course, it is not entirely clear what a post-growth society would look like, and even less is known about the road there. Still, many people around the world–for instance those coming to Leipzig in September for the 4th International Degrowth Conference–agree that one of the greatest problems of the current societal-economic model is that it is heavily dependent on economic growth. And that at least the first steps towards it should be done soon, for the longer we wait the more we put our civilisation at danger of collapse of one kind or another. Nevertheless, there are numerous obstacles that hinder the urgently needed transition. In what follows, I would like to present three reasons why a post-growth society is not within reach, which are related to three aspects of human psychology: laziness, narratives and conservative inertia. Continue reading

“The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources”

As almost every societal movement, the sustainability movement has its personalized evils, its specific foes. One of them is Robert M. Solow, the famous creator of the growth model that supposedly is the source of all evils in this world. Moreover, a quote of his can often be encountered (including in the German Wikipedia article about him) that comes from a lecture he gave in 1974, where he said:

The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Rationale for Being a Sceptical Economist

Recently I have renamed my blog to “The Sceptical Economist”. Partly, it is an ironic allusion to the self-called Skeptical* Environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg. Another reason for choosing this name is my dedication to rationality, pragmatism and scepticism – the foundation I try to base my worldview on. The last reason rationalizing my choice is my deep scepticism toward the dominant orthodoxy in the discipline I’m trained in – economics. This last reason I would like to explain more comprehensively today. Continue reading

Peak Everything, Backstop Technology and Economic Growth

And interesting, though also frightening characteristic of today’s world is that it seems to be peaking all the time. Peak Oil, Peak Metals, Peak Soil, Peak Uranium, Peak Rare Earths. Peak Everything, to put it bluntly. Some of these slogans may be exaggerated, at least if taken literally. On the other hand, given high and rising demand for oil, coal, uranium, rare earths, metals, agricultural land and other essential resources – demand that is going to be increasing for decades to come, as China, India and especially Africa will become both richer and more populous -, there is a strong case for taking seriously concerns regarding the diminishing resource base, even if there is still much left. Continue reading

The Myth of Decoupling

It is something probably every junkie dreams of – to be able to keep taking drugs and feeling free, careless or just high, but without all the unpleasant side-effects like health issues, financial ruin, destroyed social networks etc. This, however, is illusion and no reasonable person would deny that it is. It is therefore astonishing how many otherwise reasonable persons fall prey to this illusion with regard to the great societal addiction – economic growth. They invoke the idea of decoupling GDP growth from resource use, environmental pollution and the like. But decoupling growth has nothing to do with reality, it is a myth. Continue reading

Limits to Growth and Extrapolation of Trends

I already once wrote about what may be regarded the conventional economist’s obsession – virtually every time they wants to refute allegations that there may exist limits to economic growth, economists use the 1972 report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, as a virtual “opponent”. As if Donella Meadows and her co-authors were the only ones concerned about the infinite growth assumption in conventional economics, and as if their argument were the only one (or even: the most convincing one) speaking for the limits to growth hypothesis. But even when we focus on The Limits to Growth, there is a serious fallacy in the economists’ criticism. Continue reading

Where Does Technological Progress Lead – Ancient Greece or “Beggars in Spain”?

Ancient Greek polis are often thought to be the ideal form of participative democracy and vital cultural life of a society. Political discussions, philosophy, science and arts – male Greeks enjoyed a real “highlife” that many in the educated “elites” of today dream of. However, to engage in politics, arts, philosophy and science, one needs a significant amount of free time. Indeed, Greek vivid public life rested on a peculiar foundation: slaves. Greek citizens were free of doing most of the less pleasant (but necessary) work like washing, cleaning, production of simple everyday-use goods etc. Therefore they had lots of time to visit the Agora or the Amphitheatre. Continue reading

Limitations of GDP as Welfare Indicator

GDP (and its derivatives) is a measure of economic activity, actually. Narrowly understood economic activity, one should add. However, this does not prevent economists and policy makers from making welfare comparisons across countries and across time on its basis. The argument goes as follows: GDP is a good proxy of the consumption possibilities people have, and consumption is a good proxy of well-being/welfare. Therefore, we allegedly can use GDP per capita for comparing welfare between countries and GDP growth as an indicator of social progress within a society. This may sound compelling to many and, indeed, we are used to this rhetoric from authorities and the media. But it is wrong to assume that GDP or any of its common derivatives provides a measure of social welfare, for a number of reasons. Continue reading

The Need to Decouple from Growth

Not first since the recent Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro there has been much talk about the need to make the world economy “green”. The problem with this mention, somewhat similar to “sustainability”, is that everyone has a different picture of what constitutes a “green” economy (thus the decision in Rio to leave the definition in the national domain…). Astonishingly many view the “green economy” as one that still relies on economic growth – but without all the negative side-effects, such as climate change and environmental degradation in general. This is the idea of “decoupling growth“. It is just as tempting as flawed. Continue reading

Reposted: Green Growth or Steady State?

Forty years ago, a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology declared that civilisation had a problem: it was fast approaching a cliff. The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, was a wake-up call for a society then only dimly aware of the finite resources of the Earth. Through its marshalling of hard statistics and what was then cutting-edge computer modeling, Limits to Growth kicked off a debate that is still burning today: can economic growth be reconciled with environmental constraints? […]

If you’d like to read this quite interesting article comparing the arguments of green growth and steady-state (no-growth) advocats, go here.

Stop Debating Growth and Focus on What Is Important

For years already, there is a debate ongoing about the role of economic growth (in terms of GDP and related measures) with regard to well-being and environmental sustainability. While some claim that GDP growth is a well-suited tool for economic policy-making and should not be questioned as a social indicator as well, most see this as problematic. It is widely believed that within the current economic system, economic growth causes disruptions both in social and environmental systems – in the latter particularly. But this let to another debate emerge, regarding whether GDP growth and environmental impacts can be decoupled or whether a transition to a no-growth economy is the only solution of anthropogenic environmental problems. But is this ongoing debate not detracting our attention from more real problems? Continue reading

Ideas Lost in Time

The process of societal change – in attitudes, institutions, values, relationship patterns etc. – is accelerating steadily in modern societies. Their members are losing their ability to accommodate to these changes. Furthermore, since our basic needs are fulfilled, we engage more and more in competition for goods that some can have – but not all at the same time, not without serious quality deterioration at least. Moreover, we are working much to be able to pay for consumer goods that we cannot really consume because our time budget does not allow for it any more. This does not stop us from desiring even more consumer foods and from uselessly working to earn the money we need to pay for them. At the same time, whereas GDP has been growing continuously (with only minor periods of regress) for years, the satisfaction we draw from our lives has been at best stable in that time, since our aspirations change as fast as the economy (and our incomes) grows. Last but not least, this growth in production and consumption, as well as population, has led to a terrible, unsustainable level of use of Nature’s resources and services, which can in effect lead to a break down of the world economy.

What do these insights have in common? They were all made some 40 years ago, and little seems to have changed to the better – rather the contrary. Continue reading

Where Does the Compulsion to Grow Come from?

There has been much writing here, in this blog, about the limits to economic growth – both ecological and social. It is not yet consensus that growth is a “bad thing” but there are many proponents of this stance and the debate has been going for some 40 years already. However, capitalist economies have been growing all the time – and if they didn’t, in times of crisis, they struggled terribly. The consequence mostly was unemployment and other unpleasant effects. This leads to the speculation that the current economic system is dependent on growth. There are numerous sources for this dependency. In the following post I would like to present one simple but deeply compelling explanation for where the compulsion to grow comes from. Continue reading