The answer isn’t degrowth. The answer is abundance,” writes William Rinehart, senior research fellow at The Center for Growth and Opportunity of Utah State University. On its webpage, the organisation advertises itself as “world-class research” providing “real-world solutions,” which is tragically ironic since it published one of the most scientifically ungrounded, starry-eyed pieces I’ve read in a while.

The article is about a $90 million wildlife crossing project in Los Angeles, a bridge built on top of a road to allow animals to cross safely. “Only rich societies can build this kind of infrastructure,” the author writes explaining that the project was primarily financed by private donations. “Rich societies can do a lot more for their citizens” because they have “more fiscal capacity.” “Wealthier societies can also spend more to mitigate the effects of climate change,” for example by building dams and investing in carbon removal technology, and they can also “afford the disruption that comes with adapting to climate change.” So, in the end, the only problem that really requires solving is this: “how to make everyone wealthy enough to be able to do this?”

“The largest economies have been able to decouple their growth from emissions,” the author claims referencing a blog post from Our World in Data. “The United States is back down to the emission levels of the early 1990s,” he argues, citing another graph from the same blog. Now, it doesn’t take too much effort to notice that these footprints are production-based, meaning that they do not account for imported emissions. In fact, the very same webpage shows another graph with consumption-based emissions, and guess what, it contradicts the author’s claim. The United States has increased its carbon footprint from 5.03 billion tonnes in 1990 to 5.63 tonnes in 2019. If you think stabilising emissions is a victory, you haven’t really understood what mitigating climate change means. It means reducing emissions (for example, by 50-52% in 2030 according the US Nationally Determined Contribution, and by much more if you’re serious about limiting global warming to 1.5°C).

And here is another wrinkle: decarbonising your economy is not enough to make it ecologically sustainable because greenhouse gas emissions are only one among several environmental pressures. Take material footprint, for example. The 2018 US economy weights 7.2 billion tons of materials or 29.7 tonnes per capita, and this footprint is 35% bigger in 2019 than it was in 1992. Again, if you think this is fine because GDP has increased by so much more during the period (which is true, it increased by 97%), you haven’t really grasped the concept of planetary boundaries. Mitigation means reduction. Regardless of how fast we increase GDP, it’s game over if we don’t manage to rapidly decrease the quantity of resources we use and the impact this use has on ecosystems.

Anyone who has worked on the economics of climate change knows that these reductions are not only necessary but also urgent. Reducing emissions in 2050 after a massive overshoot is no victory. Climate mitigation must happen before the carbon budget is exhausted (if you don’t understand this sentence, it is due time you read the IPCC report). “The only way to make Earth a better place is by joining abundance and ingenuity,” writes the author. This is a touching tagline for mugs and t-shirts, and would probably sell well in business schools and corporate conferences, but it’s hogwash. The only way to make Earth a better place, starting with avoiding climate breakdown, is to reduce levels of resource use and emissions right now. Whatever does that, and whatever you want to call it (degrowth, post-growth, prosperous descent, sufficiency, the simpler way, the doughnut economy, etc.) is the solution we need.

After a decade spent pondering the issue, I see no other solution than reducing levels of production and consumption in high-income countries. You might find a thousand reasons to be sceptical of degrowth (my preferred term for this downscaling of production and consumption), but asking us to demonstrate that it will actually decrease emissions is absurd. We argue that producing and consuming less will reduce material use and emissions (pretty straightforward), but you argue that producing and consuming more will reduce material use and emissions.

Who should inherit of the burden of proof? If rich economies want to get down to sustainable levels of resource use and emissions, the fastest, most fail-safe way is to fly fewer planes, drive fewer cars, eat less meat, build fewer roads, etc.  (Before you get all worked up shuffling Our World in Data graphs, be aware there are at least 835 empirical studies on that topic, and none so far has managed to bring proof that high-income countries can keep economic growth while bringing down their footprints to a sustainable level fast enough.)

What the author considers a “defeatist mindset” I call biophysical pragmatism. I’m not the only one; there is actually a full chapter on demand-side strategies in the latest IPCC report which argues that sufficiency is our best shot at stopping global warming. Will this lower GDP? Yes. Does this mean misery? No, simply because a targeted reduction of consumption levels (especially for the richest) can reap a double dividend in terms of sustainability and well-being. Here is what the IPCC says about it:

“Consumption reductions, both voluntary and policy-induced, can have positive and double-dividend effects on efficiency as well as reductions in energy and materials use. […] Less waste, better emissions control and more effective carbon policies lead to better governance and stronger democracies. Systems-dynamics models linking strong emissions-reducing policies and strong social equity policies show that a low-carbon transition in conjunction with social sustainability is possible, even without economic growth. […] Such degrowth pathways may be crucial in combining technical feasibility of mitigation with social development goals” (Chap 5, p.32).

Degrowth is indeed a “world of less” when it comes to material and energy use, but it is a world of more in terms of equality, democracy, health, and well-being. This is what Jason Hickel, whom William Rinehart criticises in this article, means when he writes that less is more or describe degrowth as radical abundance.

But what about big cats, coyotes, deer, lizards, snakes, and all the other creatures who, without their $90 million bridge, won’t be able to cross the road? Well, first, if you reduce demand in mobility and especially car-use (a demand-side sufficiency strategy), you won’t even need to build such bridges because you won’t have that many roads. What’s the point of building fiscal capacity to pay to repair stuff you could avoid breaking in the first place? Degrowth is the ultimate ingenuous solution since it treats the problem at the source.

And even though you would still need to build such a bridge, I don’t see why you would need to grow the economy as a whole – including advertising, gadgets, financial products, bigger cars, etc. – just to scrape a few dollars through taxation and philanthropy to build your bridge. In fact, degrowing certain sectors will liberate materials, energy, and labour time for activities that are perhaps less lucrative but that contributes to wellbeing (including your bridge).

Let me quote the IPCC report again (Chap 5, p.17): what we need is to abandon the “global high-carbon, consumption and GDP growth oriented economy” to transition to a “low-carbon energy services, well-being, and equity-oriented economy.”

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The history of science is not kind to feeble theories, and that’s a good thing. In the very same month the IPCC publishes an 8-year in the making, almost 3,000-page report, I find it scientifically insulting that someone dares to cobble a few graphs together in defence of a crackpot hypothesis whose scientific legitimacy has come close to Flat Earth theory. Of course, this is science, and if you want to prove that rich countries can both produce and consume more while radically reducing their resource use and emissions, you’re welcome to try. You won’t be the first one to try and you won’t be the first one to fail. But it will take more than a flimsy blogpost to do so.

 

Teaser photo credit: “Animals’ Bridge,” on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, used by grizzly and black bears, deer, elk, mountain lions, and others. By Djembayz – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17891198