Against growthism, and how to understand the Green New Deal

Some forms of growth are of course more damaging than others. And: It is of course in principle possible to have economic growth that does not do environmental damage. It is in principle possible to separate economic growth from negative impacts and from increased throughput of ‘raw materials’. But (1) There is no evidence that economic growth is in general even now compatible with reducing emissions, impacts etc. – the ‘lockstep’ between CO2 emissions and growth has not been obliterated; (2) There is good reason to believe that it is in principle as well as in practice impossible to have endless economic growth without devastating environmental impacts – what Aubrey Meyer calls, with irony, the ‘angelisation’ of economic growth (evaporation of impacts of economic activity) is probably impossible, (3) One such good reason is that growth to infinity is simply absurd, on a finite planet, (4) If you have a real increase in economic activity without any increase in materials throughput, then, unless you have exponentially improving technology and efficiency forever (which is an absurd Polyanna-ish idea which again will itself run up against absolute physical limits), such increased economic activity has to involve increased labour and decreased leisure, & (5) Increased economic activity does not equate to increased well-being.

Of course the Green New Deal can be understood as simply about getting back on the treadmill of economic growth. That is what ‘green ‘stimulus” packages seem to involve (they sound to me like gruesomely stimulating a corpse). But our way (the Green way) of thinking of the Green New Deal is different. For us, the Green New Deal is about stablising the economy, and thus avoiding a ‘double dip recession’ or Depression. We want to oppose (most) cuts, and save jobs and create green jobs. But not for the sake of pointlessly restarting the engine of growth. Our vision is rather to stabilise the economy, to equalise social classes, to build down the structural deficit, and then to begin to build down the level of economic activity to a level that is long-term sustainable, and to improve well-being in the process. I.e. We look to Herman Daly and Tim Jackson and Richard Douthwaite et al, not to Keynesian/neoclassical economists, for our medium- to long term- vision.

Ultimately, we have to use this crisis as an opportunity to talk about why the debt- and growth- treadmills and finance bubbles etc need to be put aside, and a vision of economic stability and environmental stability take their place.

4 thoughts on “Against growthism, and how to understand the Green New Deal”

  1. Hi Rupert,

    I really don’t understand why we talk about ‘growth’ at all – it’s such an arbitrary measure. I agree that endless growth in material consumption is a bad thing, and that endless growth in labour hours is a bad thing. I also agree that, ultimately, we should be re-distributing hours of work more than through the creation of un-needed jobs.

    However, at the moment, there are many jobs that need doing, and there are many people looking for work. We urgently need to transform our economy to one which is both low carbon, and much fairer. This requires the building of infrastructure, the education of a generation – and huge amount more work besides. Some may call this increase in the amount of work ‘growth’ – but I think there are much better ways to measure it – it is a cut in unemployment, it is an increase in the tax base funding our public services, and it is the urgently needed transformation of our economy. Once the ship is turned round, it needs to slow down. But the job of turning the ship around is a huge one.

    See my blog post on a similar matter from a week or two ago:


  2. Thanks Adam. I agree – the point is that Greens must signal their difference from the ‘mainstream’, where the mantra that ‘growth is good’ is taken for granted. We must ensure that the distinctiveness of our macro-economic approach is recognised, so that our pursuit of green jobs, our defence of public services etc. is not confused with wanting to increase GDP, being happy with increased material throughput, etc.

  3. Most economic growth inevitably is damaging. Adding value through any other means than through _genuine_ technological or _genuine_ social advance is damaging. Because one is then either working humans harder or working the environment harder.

  4. sorry to be pedantic Rupert but you say: “It is of course in principle possible to have economic growth that does not do environmental damage”.

    Surely our very existence = ‘environmental’ damage of some sort. The lo-tech bicycle requires metal extraction. Even a lo-impact existence has some environmental impact.

    My lower-impact organic allotmenting has impact – the micro-mesh I buy to protect my veg from crop-destroying grubs.

    the technological gadgetry that you employ for your online existence Rupert… – lots of toxic metals in electronic circuitry.


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