Debate: Is “Degrowth” the Way to Reduce Greenhouse Gases?

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Yves here. This Real News Network segment (hat tip John G) gets at some issues that are debated regularly by members of the NC commentariat. A key questions is what is the best mix of conservation versus investment in newer, cleaner tech, which requires an initial environmental cost.

Please note that the Real News Network transcript didn’t include any apostrophes, which meant it was fully of typos. I cleaned it up a bit but I am sure many remain.

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

For the first time since the industrial revolution, we are seeing rising GDP without further increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the stated goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda. According to a recent report from the World Resource Institute, 21 countries have managed to reduce carbon emissions while growing their gross domestic product. There are, however, two camps in the world of green economics. One says that we can continue to grow our world and national economies while reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of cleaner technology and green jobs, and those who say to achieve the stated goals that the scientists say we must achieve to curb CO2 emissions, degrowth is necessary for ecological sustainability.

With us to discuss these two positions are key figures in the debate: Professor Robert Pollin and Professor Peter Victor. For sustainable growth we have Robert Pollin, who is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He’s the author of several books, including Greening the Global Economy. And for degrowth position we have Peter Victor. He is an environmental studies professor at York University in Toronto, and he has served as assistant deputy minister of the Environmental Sciences and Standards Division of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and he’s a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Gentlemen, thank you both for joining me today.

ROBERT POLLIN: Thank you for having me.

PETER VICTOR: Thank you.

PERIES: So let me start with you, Victor, because Bob has done several interviews with us on this topic, and he also has a book that addresses the topic, and he has an article in the Nation magazine. So we have not heard your position on this, Peter. So let me give you an opportunity to address degrowth, and why you think it’’s a vital strategy for reducing emissions.

VICTOR: Sure. First of all, I want to say that degrowth isn’’t a word that I use in my vocabulary a great deal. However, I’m very close to the people who do like to use the term. So let’’s be clear that it’’s a more complicated term than simply reducing the growth of the economy as is conventionally measured. Degrowth is all about challenging the growth paradigm, which means challenging the priority that’’s given to the pursuit of economic growth even in the richest of countries, when there are so many indications that the material and energy requirements that are necessary to support economic growth are overloading the capacity of the biosphere when we dispose of those materials and energy as waste.

So it’’s a much bigger problem than simply greenhouse gases and climate change, and it’’s a more complicated set of issues than simply saying do we want GDP to rise or fall.

PERIES: All right. So, Bob, let me give you an opportunity to state your position.

POLLIN: Okay. Thanks again for having me on. I want to say, first of all, that I certainly share a lot of the concerns that Peter and many other proponents of degrowth, or variations thereof, have with respect, first of all, to using GDP as a measure of welfare, thinking that GDP is the be-all, end-all, that economies have to grow to make living standards better. I share all of those concerns.

I want to focus strictly on the issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, CO2 emissions, which constitute about 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And my point is very straightforward. We have to, if we take even the conservative assumptions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, we have to reduce emissions somewhere in the range of 40 percent within 20 years, 80 percent by 2050, 35 years, and certainly by the end of this century eliminate CO2 emissions from energy altogether.

In order to do that, we simply can’’t get close to that goal by reducing GDP alone. GDP reduction, degrowth, is not a solution to climate stabilization. What we have to do instead is invest massively in clean technologies, renewable energy, and in high energy efficiency. That in my view is the only way, even if you’re a proponent of degrowth for other reasons, it is simply not a solution in terms of climate stabilization.

PERIES: Peter, let’’s get your response to Bob’s very pointed argument about the limitations of degrowth for climate stabilization.

VICTOR: Yes, I’m happy to respond to Bob’s point. But let me just say that degrowth isn’’t narrow. It’’s regarding it as simply a question of reducing GDP, according that degrowth. That’’s not what the degrowth proponents are saying at all, and I don’’t know of a single degrowth proponent who would say that simply by reducing GDP is the single and best way to deal with climate change. I think that’’s a bit of a strawman.

But let’’s just talk about this announcement that you mentioned in your introduction, Sharmini. The idea that carbon dioxide emissions didn’t increase, apparently, from 2014-2015, even though global GDP did rise. Okay, a couple of qualifications on that that are really important. First of all, that’’s only carbon dioxide. It’’s not all greenhouse gases. And as Bob said before, carbon dioxide is only about 80, I’d say slightly less than 80, percent of all greenhouse gases. And secondly, it’’s only carbon dioxide from energy sources. When you put those two factors together it’’s a statistic of stability that refers to only half of the greenhouse gases emitted that year. We really don’’t know yet what happened to the other greenhouse gases, but historically they’ve continued to rise even though carbon dioxide emissions haven’t.

So I think the celebration is far too premature. Second point I want to make, and this is really fundamental, Bob says that you can’’t solve this problem of greenhouse gas emissions and bringing them down substantially just by reducing GDP. But I would make the same statement, or equivalent statement, that it’’s way too ambitious to think that you can just do it by efficiency. In other words, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of GDP. Now, let me just say one more thing on this. If we’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by mid-century, we have to do that at roughly 8 percent a year. We have to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions per dollar at about 8 percent a year. It’’s roughly 5 percent faster than the growth rate of the economy.

So what happened between 2014-2015 was that the world’s economy grew about 3 percent, and the greenhouse gas emissions per dollar fell about about 3 percent. So at least the CO2 from energy, that stayed constant. But don’’t you realize what that means? It means we’ve actually fallen further behind than we were a year ago. We’ve now got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of GDP even faster than we would have had to have done if we’d got it right a year earlier.

So my position on this is very much that we have to look at both components of this problem. We’ve got to look at improving efficiency. And I’m all for plenty of green investment. But we’ve also got to back away from thinking that unless we can expand GDP at the same time we don’’t have a viable way forward, and I think that’’s a mistake.

PERIES: And Bob, you’’ve done a lot of modeling on this issue. Have we fallen behind?

POLLIN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I appreciate what Peter said with respect to the statistics on decoupling. In fact, the numbers that you’’ve quoted, and they’ve got a lot of attention a few weeks ago, Sharmini, are accurate, 21 countries did increase GDP at the same time that their emissions, CO2 emissions, at least, were falling. But that is not true for the world as a whole. Over this same period, 2000-2014, overall emissions, CO2 emissions in the world, actually continued rising despite the fact that you’’ve got that reduction in CO2 emissions for the 21 countries.

So the magnitude of the problem is immense, and I completely agree with Peter on that. Now, when I say we need to invest in clean energy, efficiency is the single most important source of gain, of investments. And it’’s also the cheapest. The other way is expanding clean renewable energy, i.e. solar, wind, geothermal, small-scale hydro, and low-emissions bioenergy. Over time the clean renewables are the most critical, because they are going to start to supplant fossil fuels. At that point you can grow, you can have an economy grow. You can consume energy, as long as it’’s clean energy, and it doesn’’t generate any emissions.

And yes, from my models what I’’ve tried to show, and I’’ve modeled it in various ways, is the critical thing is as GDP grows that you link investments and expanding clean renewables and efficiency to growth. So if we say roughly 1.5-2.0 percent of GDP every year, for every country, so if a country–if China’’s growing at 6 percent a year, then their investments in clean energy grow at 6 percent each year. They remain at 1.5 percent of the economy every year. If you do that, my models show that you can get to, at the 2035 goal, you can get global emissions down by 40 percent. You can get global emissions down by 80 percent in 35 years. And these are based on pretty conservative cost assumptions coming out of entirely mainstream sources like the U.S. Energy Agency, the National Academy of Sciences, the IRENA International Renewable Energy Agency, and so forth.

So that’’s how, basically, I have this optimistic framework in terms of linking clean investments to GDP growth. And that’’s the way through which GDP growth does not generate this malign result of higher and higher emissions.

PERIES: And Peter?

VICTOR: Well, I’m happy to respond to that. The 21 country story can be quite misleading, because what that refers to are the emissions that take place within the geography of those countries. But what really matters is the emissions that take place because of the consumption that takes place in those countries. And when you look at that you get quite a different story. You find that countries such as the U.S., even Canada, which is known as a significant emitter of greenhouse gases because of our oil sands industry and other sources, we are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions because of what we consume, and is imported largely from China where they produce the products, then what we produce domestically.

So it’’s not surprising that countries such as Britain, which have had a declining manufacturing sector for a long time, should also show a decline in their own domestic emissions. But it’’s a different story when you look at emissions for which they’’re responsible through their consumption.

The second point I want to make is I’m, you know, Bob and I of course agree on quite a lot. One of the things we agree on is the importance of a whole variety of green investments to improve the relationship between the economy and the environment. But that doesn’’t get away from the point that the faster the economy grows, the more of that investment you simply have to do. And that, I think, is a problem for his side of the argument. My side of the argument, there’s an advantage for the economy to grow more slowly, because it means you don’’t have to be quite as successful with your green investment. It’’s not such an ambitious, such an ambitious program.

And the third point I’d like to make is that, and it goes back to my opening statement, we’re talking about a much more complicated set of environmental issues than simply climate change. And even to the extent that we can have further growth in GDP at the same time as having cleaner energy sources, we have to worry about all of the other environmental problems that that growth, continued growth, will exacerbate. And that’’s why it’’s a more complicated problem than just climate change.

And finally, if I could just say this, there is–I can’’t even think of one. There is really no ultimate source of ‘clean’ energy. When we talk about clean energy, often people will think of wind turbines, photovoltaics, wonderful technologies. But they all need to be produced. They all need materials in order for them to be produced. And they all need energy for their production. And one of the concerns that’’s out there, and I’m sure Bob has given some thought to this, is that the net energy we get from these technologies doesn’’t compare with the net energy that we’ve had from fossil fuels in the past, plus the intermittency problem. So the idea of transforming our economy from one based on fossil fuels primarily to one based on these kind of technologies, in a matter of decades, for people at [inaud.] University of Manitoba, he just thinks it’’s just way, way to optimistic to think that we can do that and continue to grow the economies as if nothing else has changed.

PERIES: Gentlemen, we are at our halfway point in this discussion, so let’’s take a breather and come right back.

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  1. Marco

    So a breathless announcement that 21 countries increased GDP while reducing CO2 emissions. Of course these numbers do NOT include the CO2 related to goods consumed domestically but manufactured abroad? WTF?

      1. cnchal

        At least there is starting to be a dim awareness among more enlightened economists that the current cemented in system of production and consumption, whereby minerals from all areas of the world are dug up and shipped to China and processed into finished goods to be shipped all over the world in the most extreme polluting way possible, perhaps wasn’t the best idea.

        For the non enlightened economists, it’s an ignored externality, and dismissed with the paraphrase ‘we exploit them for their own good’.

    1. Jef

      Financial shenanigans to the tune of trillions, which this blog and many others document on a daily basis, are all added to the plus side of GDP as if they were actually productive.

      This is not done by mistake or otherwise. The thinking is that by deregulating banking/finance everyone (well at least those who matter) will become wealthy enough to afford the future where everything is more expensive because of all the constraints bearing down on us.

      Charming notion but WRONG!

    2. Left in Wisconsin

      Yes, there was some discussion here a few weeks back about Sweden, which is one of the countries showing declining energy usage but at the same time increased manufacturing trade deficits.

  2. Alex morfesis

    Is degrowth just another form of afluenza ?…I got mine good luck fellow earthlings ?? And another marxist millionaire trust fund baby for our enjoyment…almost as much fun as varoufakis not thinking it was too important to mention his dad was the head of the greek version of us steel and the current finance minister forgetting to mention his relative was part of the greek junta…

    feel much better now…

    smarter building codes and zoning would reduce ecological costs…at least in the usa…and we are told we are among the worst disruptors of Gaia…I personally dislike giant wind turbines…would rather see smaller turbines attached to communication towers…easier to maintain and smaller means they can be caged to prevent bird evaporations…and using micro hydro to use the kinetic energy of our current water supply system…no fish to worry about grinding…Gaia provides us with everything we need…the sauds burn off natural gas instead of using it for desalination…there are edible crops which can be grown in saltwater and pumping salt water into deserts would seem like a fairly straight forward way to deal with long turn nutritional needs from growth of mouths to feed…
    Better growth of foods with higher nutritional value would reduce obesity from better intake, while expanding the value from existing agricultural lands…nuff said…time to prep for the storm down here…

    Smart growth…degrowth is not possible unless one really means serfdom forever for those who dont already live with modern comforts with no brownouts and clean water to drink…

    1. Synoia

      1. Building codes do nothing for existing building stock. Whose numbers dwarf new building stock.
      2. Small turbines on communication towers will break the towers. They The are designed to host antennae, with little drag, not windmills with large drag.
      3. Micro turbines cannot power cities.

      We need to loose the suburban lifestyle and live in dense housing without cars.

      Step One is to make driving so expensive no one wants it.
      Step two is to rezone the near suburbs to dense housing servedby public transport.
      Step Three is to demolish the outer suburbs and grow our food locally.
      Step four is to place a 200% tariff on all imports.
      Step five is a 90% death tax, and no giving wealth to non-arms length foundations.
      Step six is very high graduated income taxes.
      Step seven is public funding of elections
      Step eight is public funding of the Commons’s including schooling, universities, housing, health care and pensions.

      I apologize for the incomplete list.

      And what’s proposed is roughly the UK in the ’50s and ’60s.

      Finally I hate autocorrect because it turns a spelling error into a mess. (Insert homily about computers here).

      1. dw

        we could also work to reduce the population, though with a semi high standard of living we are actually a lot of that work already. we could just raise the cost of having children to the rate that it becomes difficult if not all but impossible to afford to have kids. not really sure any one wants grow food any where near a bigger city unless its in a green house, as the land has been used as a dumping ground for decades now. and its actually becoming questionable to do it in rural areas, as they have been to profligate with fertilize, pesticides etc. never the use of pharmaceuticals (steroids, etc), which have all been dumped into the land. and a lot of ends up in the ocean, which has created a few dead zones at sea. course we also need to make it so that you arent far from work, so you dont need a car, unless you do this, public transportation isnt really practical in some cities because they are so spread out . course you could make the employer responsible to transport their workers. that will encourage them to hire locally. course you could also encourage work from home.

  3. Tenar

    Thank you Yves for posting this very interesting debate. It’s good to see de-growth getting some attention in the U.S. Here in France “décroissance” is very present in the ecological debate – there are even classes on it at my university.

    What seems clear to me as someone whose interest in economics developed out of an interest in environmental protection is that, in all of the talk about and importance given to economic growth, we have lost sight of the fact that growth is a means to and end, not an end in an of itself. If we can protect the environment and create prosperity with growth that’s great. If not, then we need to let go of something that historically brought prosperity to many people, but that is not effective at confronting the ecological crises that we face.

    A couple of additional thoughts (I apologize if I merely repeat points that have already been discussed at length on NC. It’s hard to keep up with all of the wonderful commentary and articles, although I do try!):

    I especially appreciated the point made by Peter Victor on carbon leakage. It’s easy to reduce GHG emissions while growing the economy if most of the goods you consume are produced elsewhere:

    As for the idea of “decoupling”: many proponents of green growth do not differentiate between “relative” and “absolute” decoupling (i.e. when there is a decline in the ecological intensity per unit of economic output vs. an absolute decline in resource impacts). There is also the question of the rate of technological advances in efficiency – it is dangerous to assume that just because we are a smart species that we will make enough technological gains in efficiency in a short span of time to meaningfully address climate change. Thus the question of managing demand is fundamental. The economist/sociologist Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth, has done wonderful work on this subject:

  4. James Levy

    Here’s the problem as I see it: we have no mechanism, cultural, political, economic, to allocate scare (or in the case of energy, potentially or actually dangerous) resources fairly. We can’t even approach defining what “fair” is. So any “degrowth” is going to be handled by the old “market mechanisms”, i.e. the rich get everything left.

    Americans have a mania for competition. They have little sense of the common good. “Degrowth” is likely to happen, and we have no way of regulating it. The prospects are grim.

    1. Norb

      Rebuilding community is the only way forward. Currently, people are desperately trying to hold on as what remains is relentlessly dismantled. Or convince themselves that the delusional belief system they are relentlessly conditioned to accept somehow has validity.

      Fair is defined as common human needs are met. Food, shelter, and clothing at a bare minimum. Fair is having free public spaces available for enjoyment and leisure. Community brought together in brotherhood and sisterhood, not as a means of profit generation.

      It will take reclaiming ourselves as human beings, not consumers. That means rejecting the current social order and acting accordingly.

      This entails building new social structures because the current ones are mostly irrevocably compromised.

      1. jrs

        That is nice sounding, what does any of it mean in practice? Our communities can’t even provide affordable housing at this point, surely any change needs to start with pushing for things like that? What are new social structures? The Sanders movement? The Green party?

        1. Norb

          When I drive thru impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, one thing that catches my eye is there are NO gardens. Why are poor people not growing their own food in summer? Where is the family structure or leadership demanding basic human survival skills, regardless of the pressures imposed by the ruling class? People are waiting to be saved and that just isn’t going to happen. So why do nothing or be so ineffectual?

          New relationships must be built regardless of what the ruling class does. These structures must be based not on competition, but cooperation. Shared living spaces, community gardens, cooperative food establishments, and businesses centered on providing services for the community above profit. If people could be educated to see the benefits and power of this cooperative action then we can move forward. This has to come first, then a broader political force can be projected.

          1. reslez

            Why would anyone grow a garden when they’re constantly being evicted and thrown out of their rental housing and homes. Lack of community is not due to people needing to be “educated”, unless you mean the rentiers.

            Utopian solutions always sound great but let’s focus on the people who cause the problem, the ones who build the systems that create and profit from broken communities. A couple generations ago most of us were farmers.

    2. RabidGandhi

      Agreed 1000%, and the debate was short in the details in this regard. When I hear de-growth it is always a banner raised by somebody rich, but it will inevitably be the poor who suffer from it (eg: as Tenar noted above, there are courses on it in French universities, but you won’t find any such courses at public universities in the underdeveloped world). Given this power relationship, any person in a relative position of power who proposes deceleration/degrowth is morally required to also present concrete proposals to have said deceleration/degrowth affect those with the most resources and not those who are struggling as it is.

      As one example just within the developed world, look at food transportation. This is a huge contributor to CO2 emissions, and, obviously it could be ameliorated greatly by eating organically/locally. But if degrowth policies were to suddenly take the ostensibly positive step of making it more expensive/burdensome to ship mass grown monoculture foods but without a major programme to make local foods inexpensive and readily available, then it would inevitably be those most in need who bear the price of the decreased growth. And this example is just within the developed world; the contrast becomes even more extreme when we speak of billions of people in the developing world who do not even have decent sewers.

      Otherwise, degrowth just becomes another excuse for austerity.

    3. tongorad

      Before we can build and distribute a commons of goods and services, we have to a spiritual and intellectual commons. I can’t imagine that kind of widespread solidarity in my lifetime.
      Solidarity that coalesces around what? The labor movement is a quaint museum piece at this point. Unions, or rather one big union is probably the best road forward, given our acute class warfare, but American’s headspace is still owned by consumer paradise fantasies.
      I work with young people for a living, and from what I can tell, their solidarity movement is cell phone consumption.
      It’s a dire situation.

      1. Norb

        Solidarity that coalesces around the respect and awareness for life over death. How to get this accross-growing your own food in any capacity and having to personally kill an animal for food is a start. I’m not talking about the crazy Ted Nugent viewpoint about hunting, but the primal spiritual acceptance that we all live by the death of another. Without that emotional and visceral experience, connection to the world is lost. You cannot begin to comprehend the meaning of the violence brought upon the world in the current system without that. Making it possible so everyone can shop in a grocery store is the root cause of our problems. When people don’t know where there food comes form- and don’t care- that is the definition of a sick society. Abuse of the world and all its inhabitants can continue unabated. There is no connection to the world except the satisfying of personal desires and wants.

        Shocking images of slaughter is what we have to look forward too. Corporations have been successful in hiding the destruction form the public, but soon it will be personally experienced by all. The trouble is, since most have been sheltered from contemplating the true violent nature of our society, they are ill prepared to deal with the experience. In that sense, we are all acting like children in our responsibilities toward the world.

  5. sittingstill

    I think that de-growth is the only way to avoid cataclysm, but I’d like to hear thoughts on whether de-growth is possible in a fractional reserve banking system? Would it not implode?

    1. DanB

      Three years ago I delivered a paper at the Canadian Ecological Economics meetings, and Bill Rees, who led in the development of the Ecological Footprint concept, was in the audience. I presented about neoliberalism, degrowth and the future of health care and public health systems. Rees asked me how health systems could be brought into alignment with ecological realities -in essence, how to stop the overconsumption of scarce and finite resources. I said with neoliberalism in command “Mother Nature is the most likely candidate”to bring about change. He replied, “that’s the scenario we’re trying to avoid.” I agreed but said I saw no evidence in the health sciences for humans to act strategically regarding ecological dilemmas or neoliberal madness.

  6. Norb

    “Degrowth” will be managed from the bottom up- people forced into a form of exile form the prevailing economic system will have to invent new structures and ways of living. As things get worse, it will be harder for the rich to maintain their position. They maintain it now by secrecy and intimidation, along with the added benefit of historical momentum. Well, that momentum is running out and they have nothing left to offer except hardship and despair.

    Co-ops, worker self directed enterprises, self-reliant individuals, stronger local communities, and rejection of competition conditioning will all lead to more positive results in the future. The mind must be changed first and then we can get down to the business of building these structures and protecting them. Its happening now.

    The youth vote supporting Sanders points to this positive take on the future. They KNOW instinctively and thru experience that the current system is rigged against them and offers them nothing. They are the generation that can make a difference- they just need to act and receive support.

    Envisioning, designing, and financing local projects to promote sustainable systems supplying goods and services that satisfy actual human needs is what needs to take place. That is the power of public banking and true private investment. The working class needs to start investing in itself and protect their own interests.

    This is not a matter of overt violence or overthrow. It is a rejection of competition as some natural dominant trait of human beings. Corporation and care for others is a more prevalent trait, and the very characteristic that is suppressed and distorted under the current system. The most aggressive, self-destructive individuals are rewarded under the current system instead of regulated and controlled. They will never change themselves.

    The only way forward is to make the mental leap of faith to choose systems of life over death. To choose to reconnect to the living world and dedicate oneself to learning how to use technology in the service of supporting life instead of ending it. As more people do this, there is a hope of restoring a sense of balance in the world.

    1. jrs

      ““Degrowth” will be managed from the bottom up- people forced into a form of exile form the prevailing economic system will have to invent new structures and ways of living.”

      Oh I see this all the time, they are called tent cities. Tent cities of homeless people, they are the new structures and new ways of living that actually exist in reality and not just in theory.

      The working class at this point barely has any money left to invest in themselves, ok some of the working class still does, but frankly I don’t even think it’s a majority at this point.

      “The only way forward is to make the mental leap of faith to choose systems of life over death. To choose to reconnect to the living world and dedicate oneself to learning how to use technology in the service of supporting life instead of ending it. As more people do this, there is a hope of restoring a sense of balance in the world.”

      I think that can work for some, the truth is I think one needs a certain level of privilege to even be there (and I don’t even mean it’s not very risky even then because I don’t mean rich, I just mean from dire poverty I don’t think you can get there).

      1. Norb

        Rejecting the current economic system and social arrangements is the only thing that will save us. It could well be that some social leader will arise from the tent city, having the experience and vision to discredit the frauds that currently run things.

        It is a demand for justice that must be heard and who better to exclaim it than one of the oppressed.

        Same goes for the military. Who better to illuminate the farce of our military than those who have served our nation honorably. It is when there is a division in the status quo that change is possible.

        As long as we talk about getting our individual fair share, nothing will change. Getting a fair share in a corrupt and wasteful system is pointless. In the long run it will fail. We need to direct the conversation to building just systems.

  7. Eleanor

    I realized reading this that I don’t really know what ‘growth’ means. More stuff in circulation? More money made? By who? Is the financial superstructure included? It has no utility I can see. I also don’t understand ‘degrowth.’ Maybe the next installment of this discussion will explain all.

    1. diptherio

      I don’t really know what ‘growth’ means. More stuff in circulation? More money made? By who?

      This is where the term “groaf” comes from and what it indicates. Growth, technically speaking, generally refers to an increase in GDP, or overall spending in an economy. War and epidemics are great for groaf.

  8. oho

    7+ billion people. barely 1 billion living at true first world standards.

    most optimistically, population will plateau at 10+ billion.

    choose between noticeably reduced first world standard of living or markedly increased reliance on GMO, chemical-heavy agriculture and more expensive energy costs should the first world transition largely to non-CO2 energy.

    don’t flame me for being realistic.

    no easy solutions when population is growing exponentially and obviously you can’t relegate those in the developing world to eating the crumbs of the first world.

    1. Vatch

      Thank you for mentioning the elephant in the room that most people try to ignore: overpopulation. I notice that the words “population”, “contraception”, “birth”, “fertility”, and “family planning” do not appear in the transcript. Very disappointing, but hardly surprising.

      1. oho

        It’s PC to be pro-Islam .

        It’s PC to be pro-women’s rights/personal control over reproduction.

        The two are not compatible as even mainstream “moderate” Islam is very conservative by modern secular Western standards. (Catholicism and fundamental protestantism are just as bad regarding female body control).

        I’m just the messenger.

    2. jrs

      But you aren’t being realistic. Yes population growth is a problem. But what isn’t realistic is thinking GMOs outproduce non GMOs when they don’t, or thinking chemical agriculture outproduces, it doesn’t.

    3. Minor Heretic

      In terms of the environment, it’s first world population control that is the priority. A farm family in the third world isn’t driving 14k miles a year in an SUV or living in a 4,000 square foot climate-controlled McMansion, or any of the other resource hungry and pollution heavy habits we have.

      A baby born in the U.S. will have about 35 times the environmental impact of a baby born in India and about 12 times the impact of a baby born in Brazil. Seven kids in Mumbai have one-fifth the effect of an only child in American suburbia.

      Another comparison: The electrical energy that appliances in the U.S. use just while idling (off, but not really off) would power an entire eastern European nation such as Romania.

      As for reduced standard of living, yes, but maybe not initially so bad. I had my house insulation and air sealing upgraded and dropped my propane consumption by 70%. Adding solar hot water dropped it to almost zero. Our wasteful ways are, perversely, our salvation. We can cut a lot of really stupid waste out of our system without freezing in the dark.

      We have to redefine “first world standards” in terms of end results rather than existing energy consumption models.

      1. Norb

        Our current system tries to convince people that we live in a world of scarcity, when in fact, technology has given us the tools to transcend this limitation of existence. Scarcity is unavoidable when the system plans for obsolescence. The second great conditioning response is the notion of competition. We are told we are all competing for scarce resources. What makes the resources scarce is how inefficiently they are used or consumed in the first place.

        1. Rid ourselves of the scourge of planned obsolescence.
        2. Design products to be fully recyclable and long lived.
        3. Access to goods and services is more important than ownership
        4. Productivity results in more free time away form labor. We need a system that does not penalize for working less
        5. Fundamental social services are provided by the community thru collective financing and effort. Because this effort was provided by the community, it has the right and duty to determine what goods and services are provided as a subsidy. Examples would be:
        Healthcare, public transportation, public housing, Energy production, education, research, military, public services and government.
        6. the common good is more important that the individual.
        7. The current system will fail because it rewards antisocial behavior- greed and corruption.
        8. All systems are planned- power determines who does the planning.

  9. TomFinn

    Excuse me, I think that after 35 years of watching/participating in this conversation I have to go. It really seems as if we’ve gone from rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, to ‘discussing’ rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, so far as truly solving the situation.
    The population of the world seems to negate a shift from a centralized manufacturing distribuion model, a major influence in the environmental effects which the planet has to enact in reaction.

    Perhaps it is because birth/life is a fatal disease that we are suicidal as a species.
    Kill one’s car, kill one’sTV, kill one’s computer, cut up all credit cards…or accept that one is part of the problem. Yes, I know I left out killing one’s self, It may actually come to that someday; ‘Suicide to Save the Planet’, a quicker version of what we’re doing.

  10. washunate

    Pollin seems caught in that awkard state of trying to straddle both sides of the fence, simultaneously acknowledging problems with groaf yet not being willing to say that it’s irrelevant. Who cares if GDP rises or falls a few percentage points? GDP at the margins does not measure anything useful for our present situation.

  11. Min

    We humans think of ourselves as the dominant species on earth. But I recall reading that in ecology, one characteristic of the dominant species in an ecosystem is that it is in energy balance with its surroundings. We are not. We are polluting and heating our environment in an unsustainable fashion. I have heard that an “ecologist from Mars” would think that grasses are the dominant species on earth. As for humans, they cultivate and care for a number of grasses, and may be said to be Servants of the Corn. ;)

    Economists say that economic growth does not depend upon energy imbalance, and I suppose that that is so. Examples of economies that experienced growth while being in relative energy balance with their environment were those of ancient Egypt after the desertification of the Sahara, and Tokugawa Japan, which had isolated itself from the rest of the world. I suspect that their economic growth was slow by modern standards.

  12. Jonathan Morse

    There are some fundamental mistakes made in this discussion that changes the way this is looked at. Robert Pollin says,
    ” We have to, if we take even the conservative assumptions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, we have to reduce emissions somewhere in the range of 40 percent within 20 years, 80 percent by 2050, 35 years, and certainly by the end of this century eliminate CO2 emissions from energy altogether.”

    For years the IPCC and policymakers talked about emissions as x% by 2050 or 2100. AR5, the most recent IPCC report, finally began using the scientific way of looking at the problem and thus we have cumulative emissions budgets. For someone to look more into about what these budgets are, what they mean in terms of responses, and actually specifically this debate regarding degrowth being necessary or not I would suggest looking at some of the speeches/presentations of Dr. Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre in the U.K. He is actually very good at explaining the technical science parts of this issue in a way for layman’s to understand without getting confused. He has a 4-5 talks/presentations on Youtube that I’m aware of some going back to 2011 up to more recent ones around the beginning of this year and back in December 2015 around Paris.

    Just to quickly highlight some of the key takeaways, for the science just watch his videos. But, we have wasted away our budget so that our even technically possible outcomes is the one that gives a 33% of staying below 2 degree c increase in temperature (and it is only just technically possible to do.) Non-Annex 1 countries would have to peak emissions by 2025, make around 10% emissions reduction annually until a fully decarbonised energy systems by 2050. That would mean for the Annex 1 nations would need at least 10% reductions of emissions annually (he said this was slightly out-of-date and thus higher,) with a 50% reduction by 2020 (c.f. 1990), 75% reduction by 2025, 90% reduction by 2030 and fully decarbonise all energy by 2035. Again, this is for the 33% chance of staying below 2 degree c. Thus, growth as it is currently understood will be required to be re-evaluated and will necessarily be required in the short term to even hope to try and meet those goals.

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