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Can democracies kick the growth habit? A debate with Tim Jackson

July 8, 2010
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Last month I spent an enjoyable hour debating zero growth with Tim Jackson in his back garden, for a slot in the July issue of New Tim JacksonInternationalist magazine. Tim is the UK’s first Professor of Sustainable Development (at Surrey University) and author of the excellent Prosperity Without Growth (reviewed here).

We largely went over the ground covered in previous posts on his work: Total global carbon emissions = GDP multiplied by grams of carbon per $ of output. To reduce emissions you either improve the carbon efficiency of the economy (fewer grams per $, known as ‘decoupling’), or accept a reduction in GDP, or both.

But Tim reckons that decoupling growth from carbon emissions at the required speed isn’t going to happen, so if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, the rich countries will have to move to a post-growth paradigm, not least in order to make room for poor countries to keep growing. The justification for the different approaches in rich v poor countries is that, once you get past a certain level of GDP, growth delivers diminishing returns in terms of well-being.

degrowth in action?

degrowth in action?

Tim argues that zero or negative growth is not possible in the current system, not least because firms compete to increase productivity, and finance and investment restlessly seek profits based on productivity, and as productivity rises, you have to grow to soak up the newly unemployed. Because of this, growth is like a bicycle – if it stops, you fall off (my analogy, not his). His answer is a broad brush shift away from the emphasis on consumption, and a new model of investment that recognizes environmental constraints on economic activity.

We kicked around some ideas for how this might happen, drawing analogies with other parts of the economy. Carbon accounting systems would have to be developed in a way similar to financial accounting; firms would be required to manage climate risk, for example paying higher taxes on emissions over a certain level.

But what struck me most was when we got onto the political system needed to deliver what is at least in part a war economy, with a centrally agreed figure for total carbon emissions (and usage of other finite environmental goods). Such an economy would require a combination of carbon markets  and hard and soft regulation (eg rationing, prohibiting some kinds of technology, or debt-driven industrial expansion; penalties for excess carbon emissions; mandatory carbon emissions accounting).

Politics becomes far harder in a zero or negative growth economy. In a growing economy, everyone can have a larger slice of pie; in a static economy your gain is someone else’s loss and distributive conflicts are bound to rise. Tim sees growth as necessary for political as well as economic stability under the current system. No wonder that politicians routinely dismiss any talk of limiting growth.

Collective action problems would also abound – if one firm or country decided to go for zero growth, for example by stopping investing in new technologies, but other firms continued to do so, they would rapidly gain a competitive edge and push the others out of business. At an international level you would require enforceable coordination mechanisms to a far higher degree than currently exists – something close to global government, in fact.

Which leaves me with the nagging question, ‘are democracy and individual rights compatible with the ‘managed contraction’ of the economy?’ I was left thinking that the systemic obstacles to zero growth are at least as great as those preventing a drastic acceleration of technologies to decouple production from emissions, e.g. through the launch of 20 Manhattan Projects. And both would require a far higher centralization of power.

My conclusion? A successful long-term containment of climate change will come through a combination of partial decoupling, perhaps driven by big climate shocks, and maybe combined with fragmented shifts to a post-growth paradigm, but it will be very messy indeed and may not look very democratic.

In the end we agreed on an unlikely combination of Sherlock Holmes and Antonio Gramsci – ‘When you’ve eliminated the impossible, then whatever’s left, however improbable, has to be the truth’, and ‘I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will’.
 
And as always, it’s far easier to pick holes in other people’s arguments than provide solutions of your own, but it’s important to think through the politics of these kind of big new ideas. I would dearly love to be convinced that zero growth is both achievable and compatible with human rights – over to you.

6 comments

  1. It is possible that counter to your argument, it is decentralisation of power which is the only possible route to a sustainable economy.

    Managing a move from centralised energy to community owned energy will give communities control over how much they use.

    The role of government therefore is not so much to police people’s personal carbon usage, but to regulate (or abolish?) the major energy corporations and support this transfer of power. This would increase the power of ordinary people, and extend the human rights of those currently abused by major energy companies.

    The other role of government will be to reduce consumption by extending collective goods – access to parks, libraries, bike pools, toy libraries, community housing, public transport etc.

    By distributing goods further, access is to resources is increased while waste is decreased.

    Essentially the goal is to move everything that possibly can be moved out out of the monetary economy in to the social economy.

    This way we can have more freedom, more sustainability, more wealth, and less growth

  2. Thanks again for some interesting thoughts Duncan.

    I feel bound to question, however, why zero growth might ever be desirable (as you and Tim Jackson appear to suggest – even if caveated).

    Growth is essentially technological progress, the discovery of knowledge. It’s absence does not magically produce fairness (in distributions) nor a new concern for the environment.

    More importantly perhaps, it is worth remembering why climate change is such a big problem in the first place: because it undermines growth and the associated development in the poorest parts of the world!

    Of course, we also value the environment for it’s own sake and diversity but the earth has undergone rapid and severe temperature changes in the past and will do so again. The added dimension this time is the human effect.

    Even if you do believe zero growth is an important part of avoiding catastrophic climate change, then (assuming you think climate change is bad because it harms development/growth) you need to emphasise that any zero-growth period would be an unfortunate and, most importantly, temporary measure.

  3. I´ve read Tim Jackson´s book, and find myself agreeing with the vast majority of it. I do think however that, for political expediency at least, the real focus should be on zero growth of resource inputs, rather than stopping economic growth. Of course, it may well be the case that the two do indeed amount to the same thing, but it seems that focusing on the resource inputs (i.e. coal and oil) would make it easier to get a slightly broader consensus among policymakers and some economists, rather than explicitly setting out ‘zero growth’ as a goal. Many neoclassical economists argue that there is no inherent link between economic growth and ever expanding resource inputs:- if they really believe that, then they shouldn´t have any objections to restricting the use of coal and oil. In such an economy, growth could only continue if the environmental productivity (i.e. GDP per unit of energy) improved significantly.

  4. But seeing as this is primarily a development blog, perhaps the real questions we should be asking should be about the implications for the developing world. It´s one thing saying that the rich countries should have responsibility, and should reduce growth in order to allow poorer countries the ‘space’ to grow, but we can´t deny the reality that much of developing country growth is dependent on unsustainable consumption in developed countries. Which means that you can´t just cut growth in the developed world, and assume that the developing world won´t be affected. There are so many ways in which there could be impacts (although in other places, maybe there could be positive impacts too), some of which I tried to cover on today´s Due South post, at http://www.iied.org/sustainable-markets/blog/what-would-sustainability-north-mean-for-development-south . I´d be grateful if anyone had any suggestions!

  5. Great post! Tim is an amazing author, and his ability to take everything into perspective in his work is incredibly refreshing.

    I think you have hit the nail squarely on the head. It seems as though we are locked in to our current growth-driven society and can see the better post-growth society, yet it is across a moat of a difficult, awkward, long and most certainly treacherous transition.

    This moat that separates these two societies could very well spell the end of us, yet certainly continued economic growth will also lead us down a path to possibly far more treacherous waters.

    This leaves us at an impasse: every direction is treacherous. But surely the dangers associated with action towards a prosperous, post-growth society present a far more noble path than ignorance or complacency of the inevitable dangers posed by inaction and business as usual.

    Cheers,
    Joshua

  6. The part of Tim’s book I most enjoyed and pondered was the question of values and their transformation. That a ‘zero growth’ economy requires a significant shift in what we value (in practice) and how that shapes our choices – and it is that shift and how to bring it about that stumps me (except in response to the necessities imposed by climate shocks). But we neglect the ‘soft’ sciences (and arts) of shifting cultures at our peril in the discussion of economic policy options etc.

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