Economy featured

The Magical Thinking of Ecomodernism

April 5, 2018

I recently wrote an article for Fast Company explaining why “green growth” is not a thing.  I looked at three high-profile studies showing that even aggressive taxes and rapid improvements in technological efficiency will not be enough to cut global resource use as long as we keep growing the world economy.  Right now we are consuming about 85 billion tons of material stuff per year, exceeding the sustainable threshold by 70%.  According to the UN, our resource use will rise to at least 132 billion tons per year by 2050, and possibly as high as 180 billion tons.

It is on this basis that scientists have concluded that absolute decoupling of GDP from aggregate resource use is not possible.  But the ecomodernists at the Breakthrough Institute aren’t convinced.  Linus Blomqvist wrote a blog post responding to my article, arguing that focusing on aggregate material flows is “misleading”, and that in reality absolute decoupling “is still a very real possibility.”  The stakes are high.  After all, decoupling is the central objective of ecomodernism.  No decoupling, no ecomodernism.

Blomqvist seems to agree that absolute decoupling of GDP from aggregate material use is not possible; or at least he doesn’t dispute the point.  But we needn’t worry about this fact, he says; it doesn’t matter if we keep using more and more resources each year, because aggregate material use is not a meaningful proxy for environmental impact.  Industrial and construction materials, for instance, “account for a pretty small portion of environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions or land use,” and while biomass use keeps growing, land use has peaked (at least for now).

But this is cherrypicking indicators.  Industrial and construction materials may contribute relatively little to greenhouse gas emissions and land use, but anyone who has ever seen (or lived next to) an open pit mine will know that they are ecological disaster zones in all sorts of other ways.  Plus, Blomqvist’s claim about emissions and land just isn’t true (and he provides no evidence for it): cement production alone contributes 10% of anthropogenic CO2, and the transport, production and use of industrial materials is clearly linked to fossil fuel consumption.

As for biomass: let’s not pretend that land use is all that matters here. Our current method for extracting higher yields from land involves aggressive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have already pushed us well over the planetary boundaries for biogeochemical flows.  And those same chemicals are causing insect populations – including pollinators – to collapse, and bird populations along with them.  Indeed, the inputs involved in industrial agriculture are a major driver of biodiversity loss, regardless of whether or not more land is being used.  They are also a major driver of soil depletion, which in turn drives greenhouse gas emissions from farmland.

This is the thing about ecology, you see: everything is connected.  The biomass bone is connected to the biogeochemical bone is connected to the insect bone.  And that’s why aggregate material flows are in fact an important indicator of what’s happening to our planet.  Sure, some material use has more dramatic impact than others.  But no material use is impact-free.  You can’t keep increasing aggregate material extraction and consumption indefinitely without increasing environmental impact right along with it.  To believe that doubling or tripling our existing aggregate resource draw isn’t going to cause problems is magical thinking.

Blomqvist’s next move is similar to the first.  He says that while absolute decoupling of aggregate resource use may not be possible (and sadly even relative decoupling of emissions has come to a halt), there are some happy isolated cases where it does seem to be happening.  Water extraction has peaked in the US, for example.  And several pollutants (like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide) have peaked or declined globally.  Blomqvist says this counts as “significant progress”.

If this is the best the ecomodernists have to offer, I despair.  First of all, you can’t look at nations (and particularly rich nations like the US) in isolation, because they have outsourced much of their environmental impact abroad.  If you count all the water extraction involved in producing and shipping the imports that the US consumes, American water use is going up, not down.  As for sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide – yes, there have been gains, and we should celebrate them.  But pollutants like these constitute one of the few examples where the much-misunderstood Environmental Kuznets Curve actually works.  Ecologists have pointed out for years that the EKC doesn’t hold for most other impacts.  So as a defense for endless growth, I’m afraid Blomqvist’s example just won’t do.

I agree with Blomqvist that we should strive to accelerate resource efficiency.  Of course we should!  We need all the efficiency gains we can get.  But unfortunately it’s not going to be enough, in and of itself – and we need to face up to this fact.  Tellingly, Blomqvist doesn’t engage with my claim about the rebound effect, nor about the physical limits to efficiency gains (the paper I cite by Ward et al concludes that “permanent decoupling is impossible for essential, non-substitutable resources because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits”).  We can’t just ignore these realities.

If absolute decoupling isn’t a thing, then ultimately we’re going to have to scale down global economic activity.  Blomqvist doesn’t actually explain why he dislikes this conclusion so much.  All he says is that degrowth “seems far-fetched”.  I have no idea what he means by this. But could it really be more far-fetched than achieving what is physically impossible?  Perhaps Blomqvist – or anyone at the Breakthrough Institute – could explain why they think that rich, high-consuming nations (like the US, for instance) need to keep growing their GDP (forever?), when we know that additional growth is not generating any better social outcomes.  Given how powerful the scale effect of growth is when it comes to driving ecological breakdown, it just doesn’t make sense to take it off the table.


Teaser photo credit: By Ende Gelände – Ende_Gelände_2017_CHB_23, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Jason Hickel

Dr. Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  He is Professor at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, and Chair Professor of Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo. He is Associate Editor of the journal World Development, and serves on the Climate and Macroeconomics Roundtable of the National Academy of Sciences, the Statistical Advisory Panel for the UN Human Development Report, the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe, the Harvard-Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice, and the Lancet Commission on Sustainable Health.

Jason's research focuses on global political economy, inequality, and ecological economics, which are the subjects of his two most recent books: The

Tags: decoupling emissions from economic growth, ecomodernism, economic growth