October 23, 2018

Beyond Growth

“Many of us already know about dying polar bears, the garbage-truck-worth of plastic that humanity dumps into oceans every minute, and the tens of millions of climate refugees expected to flee their homes in the next decade. But serious efforts to address any of these problems run afoul of a view held sacred in the United States: environmental rules kill growth. In 2017, when President Trump stood in the White House rose garden announcing America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, he argued that, under its mandates, “Our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.”

Supporters of environmental protections responded, in large part, by saying that Trump presented a false choice. We can grow the economy with new green jobs for solar panel installers and plant-based biodegradable plastics, they argued. But to an increasing number of activists and academics working at the intersection of ecology and economics, the dilemma that Trump articulated is indeed real. They have a different reply, of course, though just as firm: to stave off the most devastating environmental peril, we must give up the ideal of economic growth.

This concept, sometimes called “degrowth,” sounds to many in the economic and political mainstream absolutely absurd. (Given Americans’ boundless love of all things material, it may not be surprising that the idea has taken off faster in Europe.) Last year, James Pethokoukis, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote dismissively, “Advanced economies just ran a fascinating, real-world degrowth experiment. It was called the Global Financial Crisis. An economic shock followed by a decade of sub-par economic growth.” Some critics argue that economic expansion can be “decoupled” from material growth—the economy could shift away from extraction and production while ramping up ecologically beneficial projects like wetlands restoration and relatively carbon-neutral industries such as education and health care.”

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