Page last updated at 12:14 GMT, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Economic growth cannot buy the planet more time

Andrew Simms
Andrew Simms

Global economic growth - in its current form - cannot continue if nations are serious about curbing climate change, says Andrew Simms. In this week's Green Room, he warns that the consumer society cannot "have its planet and eat it".

A hamster (Image: PA)
The world has "bears" and "bulls", but thankfully not "hamster markets"

From birth until it reaches sexual maturity at about six weeks, a hamster doubles its weight each week.

If, instead of levelling-off in maturity, it carried on growing - continuing to double its weight each week - we would be facing a nine-billion-tonne hamster on its first birthday.

If it kept eating at the same ratio of food to bodyweight, the hamster's daily intake would be greater than the total, annual amount of maize produced worldwide.

In nature, there is a reason why things do not grow indefinitely.

Yet the entire canon of mainstream contemporary economics seems to believe that economics exists independent of the laws of biology, chemistry and physics.

It assumes, without exception, that infinite economic growth on a finite planet is both desirable and possible.

'Limits to growth'

To suggest that growth might ultimately be bounded by physical constraints, of course, is not new on the very margins of economics or in other disciplines.

Market trader with his hands on his head (Image: AP)
We have less excuse than usual to blissfully ignore how our impressive looking growth economies hide a negative ecological cash flow

For example, a group of researchers in 1972 used an early computer model to compare available natural resources with rates of human consumption. Their "world model" was published as the famous Limits to Growth report.

Back then, much less data and processing power were available. As a result, for some it acted as a wake-up call, but many others mocked it and used the report to brand the wider environmental movement as alarmist.

In 2008, a physicist called Graham Turner decided to look again at the controversial report. He compared its original projections with 30 years' worth of subsequent observed trends.

Amazingly, given the available technology and data, he concluded that they "compared favourably". The authors of Limits to Growth had been broadly right all along.

We shouldn't be surprised. At what point, and on what basis, did consumer society ever truly believe that it could have its planet and eat it?

Jared Diamond's book Collapse tells the history of societies throughout history that fell by overshooting their environmental life support systems.

He charts how wealth too often comes at the expense of liquidating natural capital and how, in environmental terms, "an impressive-looking bank account may conceal a negative cash flow".

Now, standing in the shadow of the banking crisis, we have less excuse than usual to blissfully ignore how our impressive looking growth economies hide a negative ecological cash flow.

Take just one example. A new report from our team at Nef (the New Economics Foundation) looks in detail at the relationship between economic growth and the need to avert runaway climate change.

Based on the leading models for climate change and the global economy's use of fossil fuels, the report - called Growth Isn't Possible - comes to a seemingly inescapable and self-explanatory conclusion.

It asks whether global economic growth can be maintained, while keeping a good likelihood of limiting global temperature rise to 2C (3.6F) - the agreed political objective of the European Union, and widely considered the maximum rise to which humanity can adapt without serious difficulty.

'Ecological bankruptcy'

Some nations, of course, face difficulty at much lower rises, such as small island states.

None of the models studied, including the most optimistic variations of low-carbon energy and efficiency, could square the circle of endless global economic growth with climate safety.

shopper in supermarket
The link between rising GDP and higher life satisfaction broke down decades ago

Over the last decade, carbon intensity has not gone down, it has generally flat-lined and, in some years, even gone up.

Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University, UK, concluded in another study that: "Economic growth in [industrialised nations] cannot be reconciled with a 2, 3 or even 4C characterisation of dangerous climate change."

There is also a growing appreciation that it has not all to do with climate change.

The latest set of accounts for humanity's ecological footprint reveal that, conservatively, it takes the Earth nearly 18 months to produce the ecological services that humanity uses in one year.

The negative cash flow is getting worse.

In a unique study, published in the science journal Nature in September 2009, a group of 29 leading international scientists identified nine processes in the biosphere for which they considered it necessary to "define planetary boundaries".

Of the nine, three boundaries had already been transgressed: climate change, interference in the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity loss.

Assuming that humanity does not deliberately wish to destroy its own foundations, and with so much science and sophisticated monitoring available, why is this happening?

For all the promise of magic bullet technologies, continual growth drowns out energy and natural resource efficiency gains.

Even efficiency gains themselves do not necessarily reduce consumption. Counter-intuitively, greater energy efficiency tends to reduce costs and drive up overall consumption.

There is a growing awareness too that, at least where rich countries are concerned, the downside of growth comes with very little or no upside.

For most of these nations, the link between rising GDP and higher life satisfaction broke down decades ago.

Lord Adair Turner, chairman of both the UK Financial Services Authority and the UK Climate Change Committee, recently described the pursuit of endless rich country growth a "false god".

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said GDP growth was "proving to be an extremely harmful way of measuring economic progress".

The reason is that in economic commentary, growth is always assumed to be good. But you can also have "uneconomic growth", when it is jobless, socially divisive or environmentally destructive. A parallel in nature might be growth like that in cancer.

Burden of proof

Are alternative measures of success available? Yes, many. But politicians and the business press remain uncritically spellbound by the equation "all GDP growth is good".

Here is an irony: the hard science of climate change is subjected continually to the most extraordinary degree of critical scrutiny in the media.

Given their actual number, informed sceptics are given disproportionate airtime and column inches.

But where the "dismal science" of economics is concerned, the daily reporting of its central tenet - growth is good - passes unchallenged.

The much vaunted journalistic balance is abandoned. Why? Perhaps it is because this type of economics is not science at all, but doctrine. To question doctrine makes you a heretic, and heretics get excommunicated.

The time has come to question. Now, the burden of proof lies on those who promise endless growth to demonstrate how it will be possible.

In the meantime, the pressing task for everyone else is to work out how all of us on the planet can have good lives while living within its means.

Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation (Nef) and co-author with Dr Victoria Johnson of Growth Isn't Possible: Why We Need a New Economic Direction, published by Nef and Schumacher College

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Andrew Simms? Is global economic growth threatening to leave the world "ecologically bankrupt"? Is limiting future temperature rises to 2C (3.6F) an impossible aspiration? Or is economic growth essential in order to deliver the technological innovations needed to save the planet?

To those that disagree with Mr. Simms - it's easier, isn't it, to dismiss his piece (along with similar pieces) as socialist ranting from the far-left, doom-saying, eco-loonies and climate change fanatics because it makes you feel better and allows you to avoid dealing with the core issue of his article: How is perpetual growth possible on a finite planet? Try coming out from the protective blanket of your ad-hominem dismissal and respond to the well-laid-out issue for a change.
Seb, London

"Everyone wants more goodies and to make more money." someone wrote, along with many similar comments of people panicked that they will be prevented from money grabbing as usual.

We really do need a shift in values. We need to see how not sexy it is to want more, how businessmen with sports cars are just like apes in bicycles in a circus. We need to see that it is uncool to want more, that people that hide behind rich condos are insecure and afraid of the outside world.

People who incessantly want more are generally more stupid, less attractive, insecure little creatures that need to buy more to hide how pathetically fragile they are. We need to take the "red pill" that makes step outside these lies that we have been told just so that we keep on buying. We need leaders to show the way too. Strong women and men that are the envy of their peers and refuse to reach decadent levels of wealth while there are human beings starving in the world.
Dinis, Lisbon, Portugal

I think people, as usual, are misunderstanding the challenge to the growth-for-growth's-sake dogma. The OECD has pointed out (in report Growing Unequal?) that our current growth models are inefficient and have caused greater disparity and inequality. The European Commission has released communication on GDP highlighting that it is a poor indicator of value and growth and in many cases can be counter productive and blocking our view of the negative impacts of economic growth - especially in the new contexts of globalisation and climate change. Suffice to say, people need to get over their outdated ideologies and we need to challenge conventional wisdom
Simon, Cardiff

The problem with Mr Simms is that his solution -no growth - would condemn billions to starvation, and deny the cash required to invest in sustainable future technologies. It is only through growth that humanity can survive. In this article, he proposes a death sentence for the vast majority of humanity here and he does so in the form of a self righteous moralistic homily. This is truly a very dangerous, reckless and foolish article. As it happens, man made climate change is manifestly not happening. The "science" of climate scientists is bogus in methodology, by not comparing like with like - we switch arbitterally from aggregate proxies which if take to the present day show literally no warming, to instrument data which if taken in isolation reveal the present temperatures to be broadly commensurate with that in the 1930's , only a wholly unscientific amalgam of two fundamentally incompatible sets of data reveal the supposed "inconclusive" rise: Not hard science at all - there is none. The attempt to declare the science settled as evidenced here has backfired on warming advocates. Asked to provide the pfoof they resort to insult, assertion and supposed certainty. They are aloof, arrogant and much worse, simply wrong in their basic assumptions on man made climate change.
Gary Winter, Strathmiglo Fife

Apart from the elephant in the room - population - surely when we talk about growth we should distinguish between growth in the use of energy, materials, resources and money. It is surely only because these are so tightly linked that growth in the 'economy' means greater consumption of resources and currently, resources are used profligately. To clarify part of what I mean, if I have £500 to spend, I can go to Primark and buy everything in the store, most will be discarded. The same money might stretch to a designer item that might be worn once (less resources used but still profligate) or a quality bespoke garment that will last many years and can be repaired. Same £500 being earned and spent, against massive consumption and waste or minimal consumption. I don't think we need a drop in economic growth, what we need to do is move away from a system where waste is the norm. Basically, resources including energy are far too cheap!
Simon Mallett, Maidstone, Kent

Who said economic growth has to be the only way to limit man's involment with the changing envioment. Ther are two type of people, one kind wants to build things the other wants to destroy things, what kind of person are you Mr. Simms?
Peter Vernier, Baytown Tx. USA

Of course if there is a movement to lower GDP growth, the only way in which the poorer sectors of society can feel they get a fair share is for redistribution of wealth. So far, the "poor" have been told they've never had it so good and it can only get better, which so far has been largely true. Try telling them it will never get better (unless the rich relinquish their hereditory stranglehold) or try telling the rich to share. Neither will happen without enormous resistence, which, in democratic terms, means never.
Jay Raspin, London, UK

Andrew Simms is well known for delivering doom-laden tomes from the climate pulpit. The fact is that humanity, inherently, will always seek to derive the greatest benefit from exploiting the resources of this planet. As such global economic growth will continue irrespective of climate science, climate change policy or the rantings of the eco-loonies.
Malcolm McCandless, Dundee, Scotland

Andrew Simms seems to pin his thesis to the 'growth versus climate' premise. Yet he ignores the obvious, too many people can and do destroy life-quality, irrespective of their putative climatic impact. To say the obvious is to invite accusations of racism, condemnation for irreligious expression and ridicule for denial of economic 'neccessity'. Hence his choice of focus, perhaps..?
Bill Yoxall, Seaford

A better analogy than a single hamster which won't stop growing is a population of hamsters. There are natural limits on most populations which keep them in balance with the resources available. Scientific advances have allowed us to exceed our natural population density. The problem is not how much we consume, but how many of us are doing the consuming.
Alex, Brighton

This is funny, the wheels are well and truly coming off the AGW band-wagon, and here you are trying to convince us that we should accept a low/no growth economy - with the loss of personal wealth that will entail. To make matters worse the concept of sustainability, which this piece is rehashing, is pure pseudo-science.
Gary Moran, Birmingham

No, I don't agree with Simms. It's all nonsense. There's plenty of room in the world for development, and plenty for nature conservancy. As a matter of fact, only the most affluent societies can afford to look after nature... and do so. The way forward is through further technological, economic, cultural and political progress for all people in the world, elimination of poverty and tyranny. People in the Third World especially need to have energy, roads, transportation, education and professional opportunities, as we do. And we do not have to sacrifice our own way of life for this. They should build it for themselves and by themselves, as our own ancestors have done, and as people of China, India and Brazil are doing today.
Zdzislaw Meglicki, Bloomington, Indiana, USA

Organisations like Nef are part of the problem, they are not part of the solution. The world needs to invest more money in science and engineering, and not waste money on people who only know how to complain about the fact that the rest of the planet aspires to the living standards that they have. The BBC pays far too much attention to these academic middle class control freaks. And Simms does not even mention population once. Presumably he will be happy for the planet to have 9 billion people as long as they all live in mud shacks and are starving to death (excepting himself and his friends, of course).
W Boucher, Cambridge, UK

I totally agree that economic growth cannot continue. That is why I joined The Green Party in 1982 when it was called The Ecology Party. The problem is making this idea a main stream idea with the big political parties. They are not going to like the implications of what a stable, non growing economy would bring.
Timothy Rowe, Fordingbridge, Hants

This article openly reveals the radical agenda behind many climate change fanatics. Reality check: the world is not going to be manipulated into socialism to satisfy the manipulative among the far-left. Climate change will eventually be arrested by technology and not economic strangulation.
John, Fort collins Colorado

Its nice to finally hear this self-evident truth getting the air-time it deserves. Infinite growth based on finite resources is clearly impossible yet many people live with just that belief. What's more, many out there aggressively defend their "rights" to all the material possessions and entitlements they currently enjoy and treat any attempt at reduction as unthinkably immoral and criminal.
It is quite possible for a person living in an industrialized nation to live a long, happy, comfortable life with a fraction of what they currently possess but heaven help the messenger who tries to give us that message.
Kamose, Virginia, USA

Perhaps given current technologies economic growth and keeping climate change in check are mutually exclusive. But it is when we consign ourselves to choosing one or the other that we are likely to lose both. Advancement and growth of free-market economics goes hand-in-hand with the development of new technologies and methods that are cleaner, more efficient, and more profitable.
Bjorn Mellem, Northfield, USA

Mr Simms comments are a breath of fresh air. The problem is how to get the vested interests to agree to change their ways. This has always been one of the major causes of societal collapse and, as far as I can see will continue to be. It almost seems as if collapse is the only way real change can occur. Mr Simms has a good point but I'm not optimistic.
Hal Cronkhite, HUntsville, Alabama USA

Whilst this article does make a valid point, that consumption cannot continue to grow to an infinite point without infinite resources, it fails to differentiate between growth in service industrys, which consume mainly human time, and production industires, which consume mainly natural resources. This is important because the avalibility of human time increases with the population, whilst the amount of natural resouces avalable decreases over time as they are consumed.
Rory Yeung, Ipswich, suffolk

At present, rich countries should invest their money in innovative technology which could keep the world in sustainable balanced as well as green planet. So, the picture is economic growth is essential in order to deliver the technological innovations needed to save the planet
Engineer Md Abdus Salam, LGED,Bangladesh

Having just read the responses on here may I suggest something? Of course this is heresey the moderators have obviously disliked this POV - I have read [Have Your Say] for years and it has two pretty much even camps - These responses prove the BBC is biased towards infinate growth - Seriously Shame on you moderators and the BBC for employing them!

The steady state economy as proposed by the far left leadership of Greenpeace and the increasing population in the Third World is a recipe for disaster!! It will ignite a war between The Haves and The Havenots. Advances in Science-Engineering, Family Planning and Ethics are the way forward!!!
robert p.curtin, santos-brazil

The idea that growth is needed to fund the expense of dealing with the consequences of growth is rather like " my brakes are faulty so I am speeding to get home before I have an accident".
Paul, Teddington UK

So, is the author going to be the first convert of this new economic policy? Is he going to turn down a pay raise in order to "help the environment?" No, of course not.
It is all well and good to try and limit GDP, but that will never happen. Everyone wants more goodies and to make more money. If you seriously want to limit GDP then be the first to refuse a raise and somehow convince everyone else to do so as well. Maybe a populist wave will change things - but I doubt you'll manage to convince anyone of that.
Andy Koch, MI, USA

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