Some people claim that humans—called breatharians—can live on air alone. Others claim we can have economic growth without increasing our resource use, so-called decoupling. Neither claim withstands scrutiny though here I am only going to deal with the second one.

Hidden beneath the claim of decoupling is the assertion that human well-being and economic growth are synonymous. But, human well-being is far from a one-dimensional economic variable linked unalterably to more income and consumption. So, saying that economic growth must at some point come to an end to maintain the habitability of the planet is not the same as saying that human well-being must also stop improving.

On the contrary, a stable society in harmony with the workings of the natural world in a way that maintains the habitability of the biosphere for humans would seem to be an essential characteristic of a society which offers a high degree of well-being to humans. Destroying that habitability through endless economic growth then is contrary to human well-being in the long run.

All of this should seem obvious. But so often the advocates of growth or “sustainable” growth tell us that ending growth would destroy the chance for countless people to attain well-being in our modern industrial world. While that has some truth within the narrow context that measures well-being as a function of economic output, it misses the point above. An uninhabitable world is really, really bad for human well-being.

The answer these advocates say is economic growth decoupled from increased resource use. But as two recent papers suggest, this is an oxymoron.

As “Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible?” explains,while society has been getting gradually more efficient at producing goods and services, we are not anywhere near economic growth without increased resource use. The apparent decoupling in Germany and some other countries is probably due to the following factors:

1) substitution of one resource for another; 2) the financialization of one or more components of GDP that involves increasing monetary flows without a concomitant rise in material and/or energy throughput, and 3) the exporting of environmental impact to another nation or region of the world (i.e. the separation of production and consumption).

Moreover, there are limits to how efficient we can be. Each increment of efficiency becomes more and more expensive, rising steeply and prohibitively as we approach zero increase in resource use for any increment of growth—or as we move toward zero resource use from current levels while achieving the same level of economic output, a no-growth scenario. In short, we are never going to become breatharians.

A second paper suggests that matters are even worse because we are using the wrong measure.  Instead of using output per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we should be looking at resource use per capita. By that measure resource use has become far less efficient, expanding by 60 percent per person between 1900 and 2009. Of course, the goods and services provided have also expanded greatly. (But here again we would be making a direct and proportional link between human well-being and consumption when well-being is much more complex.)

The authors contrast this finding with one that claims that resource consumption dropped by 63 percent in that period—a claim that is true within the narrow context of output per unit of GDP, a measure of relative impact (relative to money) rather than absolute impact on the planet.

We humans would like to believe that we can achieve a society with all the material benefits we enjoy today widely distributed across the globe—but without the material. We can’t do that without destroying the habitability of the planet. What we can do is focus on what really produces human well-being (and not just GDP growth) and make that the locus of our efforts while finding ways to reduce our impact on the planet on an absolute rather than a relative basis.

Image: Utopien 04 (2007). Painting by Makis E. Warlamis. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010_Utopien_arche04.jpg