Instead of Decoupling, we need Recoupling

November 8, 2018

Decoupling is not only a pipe dream, it is also not desirable, instead we need “recoupling”, re-embedding the human society and economy in the ecological context. 

Proponents of the Green Economy and the like mostly claim that it is possbile to maintain continuous economic growth while reducing our impact on the environment. It is certainly true that there can be instances and periods of relative decoupling, i.e. that resource use doesn’t automatically increase at the same rate as the economy grows. It is also possible to find examples of absolute de-coupling on national level for some environmental parameters. For instance, even if we include emissions embedded in imports, Swedish consumer based emissions of greenhouse gases have shrunk the last twenty years while the economy has kept on growing. But that is if we measure greenhouse gas intensity, but there are many other resources used in the economy, which uses have kept increasing. Decoupling through substitution is obviously possible and I doubt anybody claimed the opposite. Absolute decoupling of the total resources put into the economy is not only missing empirically, it is actually also impossible from a theoretical perspective. The GDP is basically made up of the cost of production, and cost of production is made up of labour, capital costs and resources used in the production. If a product or a service use less resources (including labour) prices will fall and the contribution to GDP will also fall. If you doubt it continue reading my more elaborate explanation here.

Be that as it may, I will also argue that “decoupling” is also not desirable.

Recognizing the modern agriculture wreaks havoc in nature and destroys bio-diversity in an alarming rate, many people turn to alternative ways of producing food, indoor farming, aquaponics, etc. Some go even further in their eco-modernism. In a recent article in the Guardian, Georg Monbiot asks:

“But could we go beyond even a plant-based diet? Could we go beyond agriculture itself? What if, instead of producing food from soil, we were to produce it from air? What if, instead of basing our nutrition on photosynthesis, we were to use electricity to fuel a process whose conversion of sunlight into food is 10 times more efficient?”

And later in the article he says ”yes it can” (well, not literally).

Most likely “we can’t”. Or we can but it will not be economically viable. Already in 1937 Time Magazine reported that hydroponics could be the way to produce food in the future. It worked already then, and it works today, but, despite LED-lights and all sorts of improvements it is still only commercially viable for weed, capsicum, basil and  the like. There is basically no real food produced with this technology, despite 80 years of development.

People often mix up a theoretical possibility and even a technical break-through with practical and economic realization. The reality is that in each of these four steps just some 10 percent of the bright ideas survive. And for those that survive, the adaptation is mostly slower than expected, especially those that are essential for the material basis for human civilization.

But….Let’s assume that George is right. We solve that food dilemma with electric food produced out of thin air (which is in essence what he suggests). And we do the same for housing, transport and all other things we humans need. We let nature be by itself as we harm it as soon as we use it and live in it.

There is where he loses my interest. I think George is talking about de-materialization of the human civilization, and for me that is not an appealing future. As a matter of fact, there is little difference between this vision and the transhuman dreams. I believe there are many material reasons for why this dream will never come through, but my main objection is that it will not have any meaning. In that dream we have not only broken through the material limits for our civilization, we have also, literally, broken out of our skin, we don’t even accept the limits of our own body. Perhaps this is the Buddhist nirvana, but while it will free us from suffering and from all those annoying limits set by the material world, it will also free us from meaning.

The path to meaning – and real sustainability – is the opposite; it is through recoupling with nature. Instead of denying that we are an integral part of nature in which we swim, live, mate, laugh, cry and die, we need to embrace that fact. Instead of de-materializing economic growth and ultimately de-materializing humanity, we need to live in and by nature. We can only do that by re-embedding the human civilization, including its economy, in the natural world. By re-connecting to the land and relocalizing our economy, we can also get meaningful lives.

Admittedly, that is no path that will be so simple and it will not always be smooth. But for me at least, it seems like a both more realistic and also more desirable future than the path humanity is at now, with or without electric food.


Teaser photo credit: By Bryghtknyght – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, connection to nature, decoupling emissions from economic growth, hydroponics