The word “growth” has become one of the focal points of the climate crisis debate. There are those who are worried that pricing carbon will slow down economic growth. And there are those who believe that the only way we can overcome the climate crisis is through degrowth. I fear that most of those debates will be people shouting past each other as the word growth has come to capture entire philosophies of thought. And so instead of having meaningful in-depth arguments about what kind of society we want, we dig into entrenched positions that suggest there simply cannot be common ground between people who disagree about growth.
In my podcast episode with Jason Jacobs I said that we have to stop praying at the altar of GDP. That could be interpreted as putting me in the “degrowth” camp. I want to unpack what I meant and how I think about growth. There are many things that we could grow, some of which we absolutely need to and others which hare highly dubious. The problem with GDP as a measure is that it draws no distinction between these.
Things we absolutely need to grow
- Knowledge (e.g. how to build nuclear fusion)
- Infrastructure (e.g. transportation)
- Purpose (e.g. what each one of us is here for)
- Wellness (e.g. cheaper more accessible healthcare)
Things we can almost certainly stop growing or even degrow
- Time spent working dangerous, boring jobs (e.g., anything we can automate)
- Excessive consumption (e.g. living in McMansions, hundreds of pairs of shoes)
Things we definitely, urgently need to degrow
- Greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. actually reduce CO2 in the atmosphere)
This list is not supposed to be exhaustive, it is just meant to show that once you add some detail around growth you can get past the idea that you have to be either for or against growth.
Now I suspect that the one item on the list above that may strike some people as controversial is the “Excessive Consumption” one. Their objection will be: who gets to define that? In World After Capital, my answer is that I believe individuals can come to realize that this does not actually contribute to living a good life. That we can go back to drawing a clear distinction between needs and wants. And that we can build a culture that celebrates this kind of self limitation – which is incidentally what we have had several times before (on this point I recommend both Limits by Giorgos Kallis and How Much is Enough? by Edward and Robert Skidelsky).