Why Degrowth Is the Only Responsible Way Forward

Yves here. Degrowth seems to be an inevitable climate change end game. But do we have the collective will and maturity to manage that process?

By Joël Foramitti, an environmental activist and a PhD candidate at ICTA-UAB in Barcelona., Marula Tsagkari, a PhD candidate in Energy Policy & Economics at the University of Barcelona, and Christos Zografos, Ramón y Cajal Senior Research Fellow with the Johns Hopkins University – Pompeu Fabra University (JHU-UPF) Public Policy Centre in Barcelona, Spain. Originally published at openDemocracy

Moss Graffiti. Image: Kulturlabor Trial&Error, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

To sustain the natural basis of our life, we must slow down. We have to reduce the amount of extraction, pollution, and waste throughout our economy. This implies less production, less consumption, and probably also less work.

The responsibility to do so must lie mainly on the rich, who currently enjoy a disproportionate share of our resources. But we should also do things differently, as much of today’s economic activity is of little benefit to human wellbeing. Imagine what could be if we organized democratically to produce what we actually need, distributed those resources fairly, and shared them in common. This, in a nutshell, is the vision of degrowth: a good life for all within planetary boundaries. And while this might seem utopian, there are already concrete policy ideas to start such a transformation.

In a recent article, Leigh Phillips argues that this is a delusion. He brings forth three main critiques: degrowth is (1) not necessary, (2) unjust, and (3) marks the end of progress. He suggests that we should “take over the machine, not turn it off”, expressing his concern that an end to growth would mean an end to all the things that makes our lives so rich, like for example fridges. This reminds him of the likes of Malthus or Thatcher, whose ideologies have supported the imposition of unjust limits onto the poorer parts of society.

In this response, we want to investigate the world-view behind Phillips’s critique and argue that degrowth is, in fact, very different than what he claims it is. This is not the first time that this debate has been had (see here, here, or here). Our aim is not to create further division. Instead, we want to point towards common values that degrowth shares with socialist perspectives. We claim that Phillips employs an inordinate optimism about technological possibilities, and discuss how his views are framed by a rather narrow and liberal conception of freedom and progress. We argue that an increase in social value does not depend on economic growth, allowing for further human flourishing within limits.

Degrowth Is Necessary

Phillips acknowledges that we need to stay within planetary boundaries. But as an ecomodernist, he believes that all environmental problems can be solved by a shift in technology. All we need to do is become more efficient. This version of post-environmentalism has received a lot of support, as it aligns well with existing powerful interests in the economy. But it is problematic for many reasons.

First, there is no evidence for this claim. The potential of our current technology is limited. And the potential of future innovation is uncertain. As Phillips acknowledges himself, it will take considerable time until new technology arrives. We should not gamble away our future on ideas with such a low (if even known at all) probability of success.

Let us illustrate this in relation to climate change. The latest IPCC report to limit global warming to 1.5° presents four scenarios. Three of them strongly depend on negative emission technologies, which are highly controversial as they have not been proven to work at the required scale and represent an “unjust and high-stakes gamble”. The IPCC also provides a fourth scenario that does not rely on negative emissions, but which notably requires that “global material production and consumption declines significantly”.

Some demand reduction could be achieved through efficiency improvements. But these might be less effective than they appear. As long as we keep pursuing growth, such improvements will be used for further expansion. This can counteract possible environmental gains. Simply put, efficiency improvements make things cheaper and therefore push up consumption. Such a rebound effect has been found both in different countries and industries.

What is more, technological shifts always come at an environmental cost. Every sector of our economy is still based on some form of extraction, pollution, and waste. And all of them depend on carbon. Renewable energy, in particular, requires a great amount of rare minerals and land-use. The same goes for nuclear energy, which demands considerable resources in order to mine uranium, construct power plants, and deal with its waste. Even digital technology has environmental impacts.

Phillips tries to argue against this by pointing at past solutions to environmental problems, like the ozone layer or deforestation. However, he does acknowledge that those examples do not compare well to a bigger challenge like climate change. Some of those challenges were solvable because they only affected a single sector and an easy technological replacement was available.

Additionally, many past environmental challenges have not been overcome, but have simply been reshaped and displaced. Philips points towards the fact that net deforestation ceases in rich countries. But this is mainly because agricultural production is outsourced to poorer ones. The study he uses to show the increase in global tree-cover also shows an alarming reduction in tropical areas. The recent Amazon fires in Brazil, for example, are connected to increased deforestation efforts for agricultural expansion in the territory of the world’s 22nd largest export economy. The total amount of environmental degradation caused by our economy remains coupled to economic activity.

Finally, it is important to understand that environmental issues are all interrelated. Even the successful ozone depletion is nowadays under threat as climate change could reverse the recovery of the ozone layer. The deforestation study mentioned above shows that climate change has contributed to both increases and decreases of vegetation in different parts of the world. Mass extinction is another serious threat that our planet is experiencing at the moment, which is also connected to deforestation. And we know that most mass extinctions of the past “had something to do with rapid climate changes”.

All this means that it is hard to see a way around a reduction of economic activity. Of course it is theoretically possible that we could grow and produce more within our limits if technology improves. But so far this hasn’t happened, there is little to show that it will, and as long as it doesn’t, we need a practical plan. The logic of eco-modernism – to blindly bet on future innovation – has already caused us to delay action for more than thirty years, and there is simply no time left. We need to act now, and within our current technological means.

Degrowth Should Be Just

A central question of degrowth is how to achieve this necessary decline in a way that is equitable. This is a serious question as there already are extreme inequalities and injustices all around the world. We should therefore focus efforts on reducing what is less useful to human wellbeing and more harmful to the environment. For this to be a just transformation, the direction of this focus needs to be a democratic decision, building on direct participation and local autonomy.

Phillips is concerned with austerity. And he is right in the sense that a lack of expansion in our current economy leads to disaster. We are systematically dependent on both economic growth and inequality. Without it, we face unemployment, investment bubbles, and competitive disadvantages, sliding into another economic depression. But austerity is, contrary to Phillips’s belief, a measure taken in order to achieve growth. Take Greece, where such measures were taken in order to return to previous growth levels. The Greek government as well as international financial institutions and analysts regularly portrayed the suffering of austerity as a necessary sacrifice of the present in order to arrive at a more abundant future. Instead of more, we should care about leaving our children something that is better and, notably, an environment that can sustain human life.

It is time to get rid of this dependency on economic growth. We must restructure our economic system so that an end to growth does not create further injustice. Essential to this are policies that reduce financial speculation and redistribute the immense amount of material wealth that has accumulated in the hands of a few. Like Phillips, many degrowth proponents are excited about a comprehensive ecological reform, and have contributed to the recently proposed Green New Deal for Europe. There are also economic models that examine how a post-growth economy would work in detail (see here or here), although more work is needed on that end.

Without such a transformation, there can also be no equitable mitigation of climate change. Phillips claims that efforts so far have failed because they were market-based. And degrowth advocates agree with his critique of the free market ideology. But existing carbon prices have been ineffective simply because they are too low. And Phillips’s best example of a planned intervention – France’s reduction of emissions by 4.5% through a shift to nuclear power – also proves little about effectiveness on the magnitude that is needed. As stated above, the only IPCC scenario without technological speculation requires a reduction of demand. This remains true independent of the policy instrument that is used to achieve mitigation. And as long as we are systematically dependent on growth, such a reduction will likely lead to another crisis.

But the most important perspective of justice might be that of global inequalities. A full length response to Leigh Phillips on this perspective has been published here. Essentially, the riches of the wealthy part of the world are based on the exploitation of both nature and people in poorer countries. This is why the responsibility of reducing economic activity should lie upon the wealthy part of the world. If we want to share our cake equally, rich countries must reduce their disproportionate share. This would pay back ecological debt, giving poorer countries the possibility to produce what they need and have more autonomy over their resources.

Finally, Phillips argues that green goods should be cheaper so that all people can afford them. On a similar note, he is worried that income would be too low for a good life, i.e. be stuck at 5500$ if we assume current global wages to be equalized (there is already a response to this argument here). But wages could not be higher (or prices lower) than what would give people the power to consume more than what is possible within natural limits. All we can do is distribute our resources fairly and try to produce what is needed within natural limits. Technological innovation can help us with that. But, as argued above, its potential is uncertain. This is why degrowth envisions a type of human flourishing that does not depend on better technology, although it includes innovation.

Degrowth Marks a Different Kind of Progress

Will natural limits put a limit to freedom and progress? That mainly depends on what is meant by these words. For Phillips, progress refers to the expansion of freedom through the domination of nature through technological advance, allowing “each one of us to become the master of our fate”. This is a notably liberal view, as it imagines freedom as being a full emancipation from any toil, care labor, and suffering. But life must involve work – caring for others, caring for the vulnerable, sharing not only our joys but also our suffering. Marx said: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. This describes a relation between toiling, connected human creatures. He didn’t say “from each to each more and more, with robots doing the work”.

We also need to be careful with the notion of progress as the ultimate, unquestionable project for human freedom. This has often been used to justify action for the higher cause of ‘humanity’ against the opinion of people affected. Prime examples for this are western colonialism or the mass dispossessions and environmental harm in the name of development.

The strive for human flourishing should include all people, and it cannot be thought of apart from nature. That doesn’t reduce the human capacity to be free. But freedom here does not mean freedom from any and every limit, but freedom to choose our limits and care for one another and for non-human beings. This simply confirms that humans are not alone in our march to freedom, and that its pursuit has effects upon others and our environment. It also won’t stop innovation, but rather channel it into a direction that is actually useful (unlike this). That does not always need to be high-end technology. Progress could also come in the form of social innovations that adapt society’s institutions to the challenges of abrupt environmental changes, such as the Native American ‘seasonal round’.

Phillips’s claim that there can be no progress without economic growth and no good life without high wages shows a failure of imagination. If we free our imagination from the liberal idea that well-being is best measured by the amount of stuff that we consume, we may discover that a good life could also be materially light. This is the idea of voluntary sufficiency. If we manage to decide collectively and democratically what is necessary and enough for a good life, then we could have plenty.

In that sense, degrowth has also been called a theory of radical abundance, not scarcity. Scarcity represents the problem of limited resources in the face of unlimited ends, and is the driving force of capitalism. Degrowth, in contrast, talks about a conscious and democratic limitation of ends, making resources abundant in turn. This is the critical difference between the ideas of degrowth and Malthus, who essentially was a proponent of growth. This is not about ‘Thatcherite’ limits forced upon people from the top, but about a social choice of self-limitation.

But what if it is not enough? What if what we want is not ecologically feasible to produce? In that case, the desires that capitalism has convinced us that we have are simply not compatible with the planet that we live on. The objective should then be to focus on what we actually need – to find more sustainable ways of reaching for a good life. If we cannot be happy without weekend trips to Thailand, than we might as well reflect about what actual desires are fulfilled by such a trip and try to satisfy them with other kinds of activities.

But what if it is the most basic needs that we cannot cover? A recent study has found that this might be a possibility. In that case, Phillips is right that the dilemma in front of us is difficult. However, this alone does not make the technological innovation at the scale he imagines possible, even if it would be necessary. Degrowth proponents believe that there is a lot of potential for social innovation that could improve our wellbeing and sustainability at the same time. Many people in rich countries currently live with unnecessary excess (while many of them lack basic needs at the same time). There is a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick, so to say, before we can declare that there is not enough to satisfy everyone’s basic needs with a sustainable amount of energy and resources.

Let us illustrate that with Phillips’s example of fridges. He claims that forbidding more fridges holds back the global south from vital access to fresh food and the global north from access to better nutrition and reduced food waste. Under a degrowth scenario, fridges would not be forbidden where they are needed (remember that degrowth calls for democracy and autonomy). But consider the global North: in Britain, people consume and throw away more food than half a century ago when just two per cent of households owned a fridge. Supermarkets have removed doors from fridges to boost sales of frozen food that often travels across the planet and replaces local agriculture. Most energy that wealthy countries put into refrigeration is unnecessarily wasted. Even less energy would be needed if we consider communal use like the solidarity fridges in Spain and communal fridges in Berlin.

The same goes with health, transport, diets – you name it. We don’t need an abundance of unnecessary waste. In contrast to Phillips’s claim, degrowth does not impose what has social value or not. It rather calls for more reflection on, and more democratic ways of deciding, what is important to produce and how, and then to focus production on that. This is a much more promising conception of freedom for a socialist project than that of Phillips. In this sense, degrowth both supports and entitles many alternative proposals and sustainable practices with a potential to increase human well-being. Among them are the ideas of shared ownership, not-for-profit cooperatives, cohousing, community gardens, open software, repair cafés, community-supported agriculture, and solidarity economy networks.

A decline in economic activity would further give us back what might be one of the most important ingredients of a good life: time. By having to work less, we could focus our energy on conviviality and care, ending the age of loneliness. We could have more freedom to pursue our personal ambitions. And the time that we spend at work, as well, could be more fulfilling if we know that it actually serves a meaningful purpose.

Degrowth, in this sense, is about the opportunity to improve our lives without increasing our use of resources. It therefore represents a feasible way of expanding human freedom within current technological and ecological means. This is not so different from Phillips’s own description of socialist growth: an “increase in the creation of new value that does not undermine the ecosystem services upon which human flourishing depends”. What is important, though, is to disentangle the idea of social value from that of economic growth.

How To Move Forward

To conclude, we want to emphasize the need for different progressive movements to work together. A critique on growth is complementary to other critical perspectives, especially those of socialism. As Giorgos Kallis puts it in his discussion on socialism and growth: “there is nothing intrinsic in socialism that will make it pursue degrowth and a steady-state economy or throughput. Yet, unlike capitalism there is nothing that makes a socialist economy unstable without growth”.

Both degrowth and socialism center around the idea of sharing. Based on the same fundamental values, we could have much more interesting debates about what is truly important. We don’t need growth to reach a good life for all. What we do need is a genuinely democratic and radical transformation of our economy.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I’m not altogether sure its a very helpful argument – for a start, you could write multiple books on just defining the term ‘growth’.

    To take an example: transport. We can either keep travelling as much as we can, just develop super efficient electric cars and trains and buses and aircraft. Or we can travel less, or travel using existing less polluting ways (e.g. getting a bus or cycling rather than driving).

    Clearly, only the latter option can be done right now, using existing technology. We need to change our holiday (vacation) culture from multiple flight trips per year to only doing long distance/foreign travel every few years, but spending more time having fun within train/bus time of our homes (staycations if you like). We need to ban/restrict cars from our cities and promote cycling and public transport. We need to provide a dedicated bus lane on every single highway to make fast long distance buses viable. We need to switch all money from building highways to building public transport. We need to encourage people to buy and use bikes, scooters, and whatever else is available to get them out of their cars.

    Or take food. We can stay as we are, or we can remove the incentives for overproducing corn/beef/milk, promote more local mixed farming methods and encourage more plant based diets through changes in financial incentives (lets not forget grain/meat farming is highly subsidised), education and ‘nudges’. We can break up the big Ag monopolies to encourage more innovative (sorry!) family farms, with farmers markets open every day in every neighbourhood and town to sell local produce. We need to stop people eating frozen macaroni and cheese and start them eating salads with as much locally grown and seasonal and organic as possible.

    Or take domestic energy use. We can use changing financial incentives to insulate/weatherize every single home, convert them to the most efficient space/water heating technology, while using regulation to ensure that all appliances are as efficient as technically possible. We need to encourage people living in oversized houses to downsize to more convenient downtown homes and apartments where possible – this can be done through regulation and/or financial incentives.

    All three of these are essential and achievable goals, all are technically and financially achievable, but all require culture changes. But none of them are either ‘growth’ or ‘regrowth’ strategies. They are simply changing the way we do things. Lets stop arguing about abstract concepts and focus on what can be done, right now.

    1. Ignacio

      One way to account for this sort of measures to reduce emissions as growth would be by writing in the national accounting books the consumption of fossil fuels as a future liability that reduces current and past growth. Any saving measure would reduce those liabilities and increase growth. With these accounting practices de-growth could be ruled out.

      1. John Wright

        This is similar to the attempt of some economists to make GDP a better measurement of welfare.

        I am not sanguine that much will be done as the USA has many politically connected sectors that promote energy intensive growth and consumption such as consumer spending (financial industry), energy intensive travel, home-building and automotive use.

        And suggesting USA population degrowth, as in Japan, is always immediately countered in the media as producing a future “demographic time-bomb”.

        Given that almost any large problem/advancement “solved” in the last century (WWI, WWII, Marshall Plan, Great Depression, Space exploration, medical advancements, agricultural advancements, nuclear power) involved a large expenditure of hydrocarbon energy, it seems unlikely, to me, that climate change will be “solved” in a similar way.

        I have watched as new ever-larger homes are rebuilt in this fire prone region of Northern California as economists have promoted the need to build even more homes.

        De-growth will be forced on humanity, similar to what we humans are doing to birds, insects and large mammals.

        1. Ignacio

          Framing the issue as growth vs de-growth is an oversimplification of the issues and the political roadmap for de-growth (as defined in the article) painted as “democratic de-growth” is utopical and impractical. We are faraway from any democratical an orderly retreat from carbon sources because, to start with, that international democracy does not exist. Second, it is impractical because you are not offering anything in exchange of not doing things — surely cleaner air, and less pollution and probably — but sitting in the dock of the bay for millions doesn’t look promising. There is no challenge to offer, no promise for better life, and almost certainly complete absence of enthusiasm in the process. A better framing would be to challenge the world to forced decarbonization. Force the societies to live with less extracted carbon, oil and natural gas, reducing the amount of extractable fuels every year. Exactly the opposite of what the US is doing rigth now and has been doing in recent history. Rationing fossil fuels globally is again utopic but I bet that the countries that do it become more resilient when collapse arrives.

          Regarding your commentary, about de-growth that will be imposed on humanity I don’t call it de-growth but collapse or failure of the humanity. This has nothing to do with the de-growth proposals mentioned in the article.

          1. JTMcPhee

            The US military industrial thing has a plan for surfing the collapse, which their bright thinkers see as inevitable. There’s a whole bunch of strategic-planning documents that are all about securing a continued supply of fossil fuels for the military, “managing” and controlling the vectors of collapse, involving big corporations in the build-out (lots of steel and concrete and heavy equipment transactions) needed to harden the US warfighting infrastructure and that of other little places where the gentle guidance of Uncle Sam will be needed to address the “threat to national and global security” that is the reality of incipient climate collapse. Here’s one collection of contracted reports by the “military advisory board,” which notes that climate change is best seen as a “force multiplier,” and that there are both threats and “opportunities” (like the “opening of the Arctic to exploitation”) in all of this. Here’s the now dated but still valid doc I first came across: “Report of the Defense Science Board on Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security,” https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a552760.pdf Long read, but lays out the War Department’s preferred road map for managing the crisis.

            Thinking that somehow the juggernaut of imperial and corporate thought processes, and the beliefs and expectations of 7.8 billion humans, can be brought around to some kind of “just” and managed “progress” as redefined, to me is the airiest kind of academic “socialist” pipe-dreaming.

            1. Ignacio

              Thank you JTMcPhee for your reply and the link. It makes a lot of sense for the military to make these plans even if they are not precisely the best from a wider perspective. I will take a look at those plans.

    2. hemeantwell

      All three of these are essential and achievable goals, all are technically and financially achievable, but all require culture changes. But none of them are either ‘growth’ or ‘regrowth’ strategies

      Agreed. I wish the writer had taken up Robert Pollin’s recent work, which has the virtue of detailing a sharp transition to greater energy efficiency. I realize there are objections to Pollin’s scheme, but a tie-in to this article would help it be more than a stew of big good ideas against some bad ones.

    3. a different chris

      From a US centric perspective multiple comments:

      One problem with your “changes” is that they again, require us all to *buy* something that is freshly manufactured. “Super efficient” cars – or even widening mass transit *in the US* requires a lot of tearing stuff out of the ground and applying stunning amounts of heat to transform it into useful materials and then form it into useful shapes.

      A second thing that sticks out is “We need to change our holiday (vacation) culture from multiple flight trips per year”….hahahaha. I have finally achieved 20 days of vacation after a decade on the job… and that’s because I work for a European company or it would still be stuck at 15. Everybody has to take 5 days or so to sit in doctor’s offices and the like…so nobody I know even at the top levels does more than one personal flight a year.

      Food ideas are good, but note again in America being “open every day” better mean evening hours or we just can’t get there… and we are likely to get there by car in any case.

      The domestic energy use has the same problem as transportation, so much energy needs to go into making stuff and transporting it to the suburbs how much energy really gets saved… 25 year old refrigerators for sure, 10 year old ones not so sure. And the new refrigerators just don’t last 25 years so more tearing stuff out of the ground and applying heat to replace.

      Sorry to be such a downer, nobody gets more bummed out by this stuff than I do.

      1. jrs

        “A second thing that sticks out is “We need to change our holiday (vacation) culture from multiple flight trips per year”….hahahaha.”

        I know, I know, this has to be the most out of touch thing ever. What vacation culture? The top 20%? Vacation time? What with so many workers working without any paid time off, and those who have it saving it for the occasional extra 3 day weekend which is about all they can take given they need to save some for the sick time they barely get should they get sick. What vacation culture?

        But they probably aren’t in the U.S., Brits maybe, so ..

          1. KiWeTO


            At 1.6 overseas holidays a year… and 60% traveling overseas(ferry, train, fly), perhaps the math will show that the top 20% do fly abroad in multiples?
            (Versus the bottom 40% not holidaying abroad at all…)

            Holiday Habits Report 2018 -ABTA

            I had just read the passing statistic in a Guardian article on the Thomas Cook collapse, and followed up with an quick online search for the source, and thought it pertinent to discuss reported figures?

    4. False Solace

      That’s all great but misses the reality that most emissions and pollution are not the result of consumer activity, but actually created by a small number of industries and corporations. That is where we need to focus. Not shaming average people trying to go about their lives in a system they didn’t create.

      I prefer Lambert’s approach of examining emissions in terms of tranches. Consumer transportation is a tranche, to be sure, but it’s far from the largest. We need to focus on the big rocks first, because the solutions to those problems will dictate the shape of everything else.

      1. John Wright

        I’ll assert the “small number of industries and corporations” you mention produce output that is eventually consumed by the human end user either by direct consumption (gasoline or electrical energy) or indirectly as factors in manufactured goods and their transport.

        These companies will wither and die if they continue to produce something they cannot sell.

        Drop end user consumption and these industries would automatically see their revenue and CO2 footprint shrink .

        That is why, to me, the Climate change problem appears intractable as humans around the world seek a “better life” which usually involves more energy and resource consumption.

        What US politician will tackle the climate change problem if it means their donor money and popular votes will be at risk?

        Instead, I expect we will hear heartfelt speeches about the need to tackle climate change but little resultant activity, following the HRC “public vs private position” playbook.

        Maybe I’m too cynical.

  2. ChrisPacific

    I think this is the best debunking of the ecomodernist argument I’ve seen:


    The key point is that it doesn’t really matter how you define growth, because it’s inevitably bounded by energy consumption, and there are long term limits to how much we can grow energy consumption. I think we are starting to see this play out in the climate change scenario, where oil and fossil fuels are one of the biggest contributors but also underpin pretty much all of the global economy, so attempts to reduce their use pretty quickly bring you into direct conflict with macroeconomic factors.

    Once you accept that an end to current growth rates is inevitable, the only question remaining is how it happens. Examples from nature show that the default position is increasing resource scarcity, leading to large scale depopulation from factors like conflict and starvation, followed by resumed growth from a much lower baseline. I’d like to think that we as a civilized species can do better than that, but it requires answering some hard questions.

    1. laodan

      Thanks for the link.

      I found the following in a comment by Nancy Parker on 2012-04-15 at 10:55. It addresses the question ” Why Degrowth Is the Only Responsible Way Forward “…

      ” No growth in fact requires the population to shrink one way or the other. Either we choose to have fewer children and train them better for the more technological jobs that will still exist, or the jobless underclass will A: starve, B: attack the upper class and destroy quite a lot of the infrastructure in the process. Current economic policy seems geared to letting A happen and keeping it out of sight of the privileged. “

      1. ChrisPacific

        Yes, I think this is why the current blue-green fad (which is essentially the idea that we can fix the environmental problems while keeping our current class and political system) is a dangerous delusion. The local Green party is often criticised for supposedly conflating environmental advocacy with left wing economic policies, but they argue the two are indivisible, and I agree with them.

      2. Dan

        We should stop allowing people into our country who have large families within our much higher fossil fuel consumptive society.

        Central American fertility map

        Eliminate the tax deduction for the the third and beyond natural born child in the U.S. tax code. i.e. Have all the kids you want, but don’t expect us to subsidize them with a tax deduction.

        Why am I subsidizing breeders, the MIC and oil companies?

        1. Dirk77

          Yes. That liberals are at least as fuzzy headed as conservatives comes out when you bring up this point with them. Or the old Sierra Club argument that more people = less space for other animals. I’ve never heard a valid counter argument from liberals. They just go on their merry way.

    2. Dirk77

      Yes, thanks for the link. Also the book, Ecological Economics, by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, cited in that article, seems like a worthwhile read.

    3. Carolinian

      Yes the word “population” oddly doesn’t come up in the above article whereas the greatest driver of growth is of course our human zeal to increase and multiply. Even the conspicuous over consumption you see in countries like the US is defended as providing jobs for ever increasing numbers. And while Americans in general could certainly consume less and be comfortable that is not true in the developing world where people struggle just to have enough to eat and a place to live.

      So it’s not enough to blame it all on greed and billionaires. Rather one must admit that far more admirable emotions are involved such as our love for our children and desire for them to have a better life. Will the “responsible” way forward be a worldwide one child policy and how will that go down and who will enforce it?

      1. anon in so cal

        Taboo topic: massive demographic de-growth is the only way to mitigate climate change and slow the extirpation of all other living species.

        7.7 billion people currently on the planet, with a population projection of 8.5 billion people in 10 years.

        Intensive agriculture is already taking a catastrophic toll on bird and insect species. How feed billions more without further damage?

        More people means more road and housing construction, habitat loss, deforestation, energy and resource consumption, toxic waste, etc. Ending capitalism won’t quickly usher in a drastic cultural change such that humans crave fewer status markers.

        1. Alex Cox

          Paul Erlich made the point years ago with The Population Bomb. Nothing will fix the growth problem except massive degrowth in human numbers.
          And good luck with that, given the awesome power of the Vatican (abortion a crme in all circumstances in many latin American countries including Nicaragua), the evangelicals, and idiot billionaires like Ma and Musk who consider a fall in human birthrates to be a ‘problem ‘.

        2. Dan

          Here ‘ya go Anon:

          “The San Jose City Council on Tuesday will consider whether to extend a subsidy for nine high-rise residential projects in the city’s downtown, which would cut construction taxes in half and waive fees that go toward affordable housing.”

          “The city has reduced fees for developers of market-rate, residential high-rise projects downtown since 2007, but the incentives are set to expire in June 2021, and unless renewed developers have indicated seven of the projects may not get built.”


          No mention of how many of those units will be market rate, nor where the “affordable housing fee” go or are spent.

          Developers bought the land cheap after the area was plagued by homeless. Post sale, the police moved them to other areas. This is how humanitarian corruption works in California to enrich the In-Crowd.

      2. ChrisPacific

        It comes up briefly near the beginning, where they both agree that population growth will need to stop at some point and move on. I think because they were discussing hard constraints rather than soft ones, they didn’t give it much attention. But it does mean they gloss over the rather large problem of how that is to be accomplished (without widespread death and suffering, at least).

      3. d

        As it turns out we may started population regrowth. The US barely replaces that die (you know if that is part of the reason we don’t really grow much). And then there is Japan. They don’t have, they actually shrinking, with the possibility of actually disappearing relatively soon

    4. Math is Your Friend

      “The key point is that it doesn’t really matter how you define growth, because it’s inevitably bounded by energy consumption, and there are long term limits to how much we can grow energy consumption.”

      Not really.

      Historically, the progress of human societies and when they came about, nations, is largely delinieated by developing increasinly effective and flexible sources of power.

      Each time this has allowed a better life, a more robust society, and a basis for further advancement.

      Initially there were very large gaps between such progress. I don’t know how long it took to go from human power to animal power, and then to harnessing flowing water and wind. Note that wind power has had three distinct phases, separated by hundreds or thousands of years… propulsion (sails), industrial purposes (classic windmills, which became important somewhere around the 12th century, and generation of electricity, in the last 100 years or so.

      There are probably a number of reasons that our progress has improved substantially in the last few hundred years… better communication, which means ideas from anywhere in the world are now available pretty much everywhere, better storage of information (writing, then books, then mass produced books, then easily copied and distributed electronic forms, better education.

      One factor that not everyone thinks of is the increasing population. L. Sprague de Camp, IIRC, writing in “The Ancient Engineers” cites a rate of significant invention of (2 inventions / 100 people) / century, or an annual rate of .0002 inventions per person. Whether the absolute magnitude is correct, this observation leads to the conclusion that a world population of 7.5 billion will develop new tools and techniques immensely faster than a population one tenth that size. And yes, various effects can raise or lower that rate, but under similar conditions, it seems a plausible result.

      I suspect that if we were to revamp our education system to encourage more people to go into the sciences and engineering, for example, the rate of progress could increase significantly.

      So, back to energy. We are working through a chain of advances that are perhaps half a century old. This starts with simple uranium reactors, and moves on to various designs using other materials for cooling, moderation, and fuel delivery, including, possibly, heavy water, liquid metal, molten salt, and non-uranium fuels. Such reactors have the potential to recover 98% of the energy of the fuel, rather than the 2% used by common light water pressurized reactors.

      At the same time, these reactors can also burn spent fuel from the earlier light water reactors, using up the radioactive materials to provide power, vastly reducing waste, and cutting the effective cost of fuel by somewhere between 10 and 100 times (some of these designs do not require enriched uranium, cutting the fuel cost immensely by taking that entire stage out of the fuel making method, reducing complexity, dropping energy requirements, and streamlining the process.

      At the same time, newer reactors have been developed with much improved load following characteristics, allowing the reduction or elimination of load balancing plants running on natural gas or oil. Development of type approved modular reactors that can be mass produced in manufacturing facilities, then transported to the intended operational location should cut costs and reduce project time to a few years for a power plant.

      Such reactors are the next phase, and will probably be needed for somewhere between 50 and 200 years, depending on how many unexpected problems show up in sorting out fusion power.

      After that there will probably be a shift to power sources outside the planet. There is no easy way to estimate timelines for such changes, given the unpredictability of technical advances in several required fields.

      A very high level of the scale or advancement of a civilization is given by the Kardashev scale, which defines three levels of civilization:

      type 1 – controls and uses all the power available from its planet – 10^16 watts.
      type 2 – controls and uses all of the power available in its star system – 10^26 watts.
      type 3 – controls and uses all the power of its galaxy – 10^36 watts.

      Type 2 may well use fusion power generated by its star, by englobing it and collecting all the energy. For discussions of this, case down the description of a Dyson sphere, and a Dyson swarm.

      Clearly we have not yet achieved the status of a type 1 civilization, On an expanded version of this scale, suggested by Sagan, we rate about .72 according to some comments. Personally, I suspect that is an over-estimate. Note that this is an exponential order scale, so a jump of 50% in our output won’t get us to 1.

      I have seen nothing to convince me that this is a bad way of estimating the progress of a civilization. Clearly some of the things we will eventually want to do will require large amounts of energy, some of which will almost certainly come from solar power installations, though I suspect most of this will be used as either heat or motion, not electricity, and almost all of it will be extra-planetary.

      A nickel-iron asteroid only 10 km in diameter would mass on the order of 2×10^12 tonnes (2 million million tonnes, where a tonne is 1000 kg). That’s an enormous amount of raw material, and will require similarly gargantuan amounts of energy to move and process it.

      That’s where we have to go, if our species is going to survive in the long run. Later on we will move up to large projects…

      We haven’t seen any possible type 3 civilizations, but the star KIC 8462852 has a light curve that might indicate the presence of a Dyson swarm in the process of construction, though I would not assume so, which might indicate a civilization transitioning from type 1 to type 2. Of course there is no reason to assume that Dyson constructs are an essential feature of type 2 civilizations.

  3. john bougearel

    Do we have the collective will and maturity to manage that process?

    Doesn’t seem possible on our own. But there seems to be a correlation of global debt to global gdp growth rates. More debt = less growth. And what about this emerging trend towards global negative interest rates? This topsy-turvy course of events in world economic history has to be well on its way towards reshaping behaviors where less growth and degrowth becomes the end game as societies mature.

    One might even liken this course of events to growth hormone production in an organisms that begin to slow as the organism matures and ages. As the vital force recognizes growth is complete, hormonal signaling and production begin to shift. The growth and productivity of capitalism has begun to be hoisted on its own petard.

  4. Ignacio

    Oh, wait, but our Supreme Leader Of The Fight Against Climate Change, namely Jeff Bezos, has just announced that he is going to buy some day about 100.000 electric vans. We are on our way, aren’t we?

    Sorry for this somehow off-topic comment. It is that I have just read an hagiographic article at El Pais on this move. The article does not fall short on praises for Mr. Bezos, who is qualified as the Leader Of The Figth…(etc) , and the “public Nemesis” of Trump. Uh!! Oh!!

    1. Susan the other`

      Yes. Bezos v. Trump will be interesting. Bezos is promising that Amazon will be carbon neutral in 10 years. Surely he knows that electric vehicles are not carbon neutral. Hello, Jeffie – electricity is not carbon neutral. I’d like to suggest to Mr. Bezos that he invest in a new venture dedicated entirely to mechanical energy augmented by humans. I’d love to see some perpetual motion, wind-up robots powering every appliance. And of course it would be idiocy for anyone to ignore bicycles. Maybe bicycle condominiums, aka buses, that roam the streets looking for people who’d rather pedal than walk. And walking is the ultimate slow-down option. To that end Bezos could invent, design and sell direct a line of walking shoes with support and spring assist for everyone to enjoy while they “run” their errands and get their exercise.

      1. d

        well consider a start, would have really been happier if thought a IC trucks instead. While BEV use electricity, that can come from many sources, unlike gas or diesel . And its not like IC vehicles don’t need electricity , after gas stations need it power their pumps. Would we really want a wind up clothes washer, or dish washer, or dryer. Or stove? Or fridge?

        1. JTMcPhee

          Most of the activities you mention (washing clothes and dishes, hanging clothes outside to dry, even pumping gasoline) were once done “by hand.” And are done “by hand’ in large parts of the world. A few people have adopted reflecting ovens (solar cookers) to deal with the deforestation their traditional cooking methods have caused, or lack of access to other combustibles, but not a universal — because not “modern” or “convenient.” Maybe “we” would not want to use a rock on a river bank or a bucket to wash our clothes, or a rattan basket woven so tight it can hold water to wash our dishes in. But that is US, isn’t it?

          Not going to happen, is my guess. Collapse, like the bee colonies we are poisoning with our lifestyle choices. One more massive vulnerability, if pollinators stop doing their thing to propagate the green and growing things…

          1. d

            Yes some things were done by hand, but there is a reason they aren’t any more, just cause it was done in the past doesn’t make it better, ex many years ago we used radium to illuminate watch faces. Another is long ago when rode horses, when they died, they were left where they died, no matter where the horse died, including if it was near a meat packer plant. Both of those were done the past

  5. The Rev Kev

    I am afraid that all this seems like very weak tea. Look, for centuries now our civilization has been based on continuous growth to the point that it became an end in itself. The word that we most identify with this growth is what we call ‘progress’. In the 19th century towns had progress societies to make their town grow in terms of infrastructure. We must always have progress and if you are against progress it must be because you are a Luddite or a radical or believe in some goddamn tree-hugging hippy crap. You will note however that that we must have progress but we are discouraged from asking if that progress actually translate as ‘better’. As an example, is the internet that we use really ‘better’ than the one we used once that did not have Facebook or Google dominating it?
    Well the laws of physics are going to come into play as seen by resource depletion and climate change. By the end of this century I fully expect that or civilization will be one based on contraction whether we like it or not. How will this play out in daily life? You won’t be eating foods trucked 3,000 miles in refrigerated trucks but be buying it locally in local food markets. In some ways our lives will resemble more how we lived a century ago but with some technology added. We will fight this trend and resist it but circumstances will drag us screaming into a society experiencing continuous contraction. Our lives will have to evolve where our satisfaction no longer relies on the possession of material items. Best outlook may be that we change into a society where we all have far fewer material possessions but have rich relationships with people around us. I could live with that sort of ‘progress’.

    1. Hoppy

      Resource depletion could end well. Climate change will get ugly.

      Either way, degrowth or redefined growth needs to be discussed more widely. Turns out the hippies were right.

      1. Susan the other`

        That’s the first I’ve heard the term “ecomodernism” and its definition of maintaining sustainable growth. I think it is over-rationalized. The simple things will work best. And to that end, I like Foramitti’s main point that progress by efficiency pushes up consumption so we have to replace growth at a much more basic level. We need to rethink freedom and progress altogether. Which will be difficult since we have come to rely on innovation/growth to keep the economy going. I see a solution through the haze. It is to take away the profit motive for everything that causes environmental degradation and exploitation. And fiat a new profit motive for all things that are simple, efficient and do not cause environmental degradation. Because the profit motive has been, more often than not, mindless greed – there’s nothing fundamentally “economic” about it. Everything about an economy is an invention, so why not invent a new profit motive?

    2. d

      You mean buying food from local markets who get it from local farmers, if any. And if none of those have any thing for you to eat, or want to,in part because you can’t grow plants every where. Its like trying to grow oranges in Alaska or north Dakota . Not going to happen

        1. d

          While you can grow lots of crops in places that aren’t today, climate will limit that.plus what do you do with the people that live their now?

        2. Math is Your Friend

          “You might be surprised by what good food can be grown locally”

          Some food may be grown locally, but I suspect that will be *really* local.

          If you want to be efficient about it, you put a food production facility or three in each major city.

          In order to maximize production you will want to make the base of a lot of this small organisms – yeast, algae, duckweed, and similar species. That way you can optimize for the stuff you want, without the overhead of stems, branches, etc. I have seen figures reporting that 1 m^2 of hydroponic tank can produce a kilogram of plant matter every 24 hours, which I suspect vastly improves on the effiiciency of conventional agriculture.

          You can then feed the output of the hydroponic tanks to fowl and livestock.

          Handily, with the right purification systems, you can feed the output of the city’s wastewater plants back into the hydroponics, achieving something close to a closed cycle.

          To be useful, these local facilities should be big. I think in terms of food going one way, and waste products and supplementary nutrients going the other, in/out of a building a kilometer on a side, with 50 stories of hydroponics, livestock, food processing, and packaging. You wouldn’t build it all at once, of course, but you want to plan for the expansion.

          Electric power and process heat can come from a set of modular reactors buried 50 metres under the back parking lot, thus providing reliable power 24/7 year round, minimizing siting requirements.

          With this design, you reduce food transportation to local delivery to distribution centres while minimizing environmental impact of not only this facility but the entire city.

  6. southern appalachian

    thriving equals increased consumption – this idea is being explored by some pretty conservative U.S. academics, Most seem to be academics, anyway. Mostly religious. My shorthand understanding is it’s an argument about the meaning of liberty. Generally it’s now understood as a “at liberty to do”, but it used to be understood as a “liberty from”. To be free is to be as content with a pot of lentils as one would be with a fancy meal. Simple, goes back to the Stoics, or Desert Fathers, various sources, dependent upon the specific writer. As I wrote, mostly a religious bunch. The source of discontent is unbalanced or unrestrained desire, and the solution isn’t more stuff but a restrained mind. An old understanding, they are trying to recover it.

    In any event, I am not always able to follow the more technical or theoretical discussions on this site, PlutoniumKun, but I try to, and seems necessary and useful – thinking of Lambert’s piece on Kleins new book, and his noting the absence of a theory of change. Useful to develop a model, to look for specific outcomes. And yes, we need concrete acts at the same time.

    1. kgw

      Nail, meet hammer!

      “The source of discontent is unbalanced or unrestrained desire, and the solution isn’t more stuff but a restrained mind.”

  7. Merf56

    This piece hits the nail right smack on the head. I am completely on board with the ideas mentioned here and already behave in this way in many many instances.
    Of course the issue is convincing anyone else of all of it. Never going to happen at the scale required- maybe with isolated fringes of people in various locales.
    Share a tool, a fridge, a wheelbarrow? Lol. Not around here in suburban Philly. My neighbor has a hissy when the township plows the road and snow is pushed onto the end of his driveway. I asked him if he really thought the plow should pull up at each driveway or should the (taxpayer funded) driver get out at each stop and re-shovel the front of everyone’s drive or maybe just his?… he just looked at me and said I was hippy throwback…
    too many people in wealthy countries are entitled a**es. And they are going to go into starvation kicking and screaming about their ‘rights’ being taken away…. when asked to give up or cut back on anything.

    1. a different chris

      I’m guessing it’s an “aesthetic” hissy fit (quotes because I’m sure me and your neighbor have a very different view of what’s beautiful and what’s not) because he has a big SUV that could just bash thru the plowed snow so it doesn’t really even rise to the level of inconvenience.

      1. Merf56

        I should have chosen a better example I suppose! My point was more towards people in the US seem to resent any extra work or steps and are not, for example, likely to wait 15 minutes for a bus and schlep groceries back and forth on it even in the areas where that is a perfectly viable option… I guess I have a dim view of the average American… from my decades of anecdotal experiences in urban, suburban and rural living……. so I am of the firm belief people can put out all the great and sensible ideas they want from here to the apocalypse and people will not be proactive if it means any substantive change or inconvenience to their lives…

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Off topic, but perhaps your neighbor should try the damsel in distress route. We have the same problem with the town filling in the mouth of our driveway after a snowstorm. When I go out to shovel it myself, I wind up shoveling it myself. But chivalry is not dead! – when my wife goes out, sometimes one of the driveway plow guys will stop by and clear out the mound that the town left in the mouth of the driveway. If your neighbor isn’t married maybe he can buy a wig.

      And shhhh on the sharing tools. I do it with some of my neighbors but if word gets out, we’ll soon be reading about some silicon valley jackass ‘innovator’s new tool sharing start up.

  8. GM

    I have become numb to it at this point, because I now understand how hopeless it is to expect not just the average person but even a lot of nominally highly credentialed people to possess a basic level of fundamental scientific literacy. But I used to really get baffled by the fact that we are even having these discussions.

    In nature there are conservation laws, which appear to derive at a very fundamental level of physical reality (wherever you have differentiable symmetries).

    Conservation of mass-energy being the most important to the question of growth, from which it directly follows that because you cannot create those things ex nihilo, infinite growth is an impossibility.

    Then there are also laws of thermodynamics, which very clearly state that perpetual motion machines are impossible and that the entropy of a closed system cannot decrease.

    From which, again, it directly follows that infinite growth is an impossibility.

    And then the question is once again how and why we have arrived at this baffling state of affairs where people with advanced degrees are arguing how infinite growth is both desirable and possible, when they really should not have ever been allowed past eighth grade or so in high school if that is the level of their understanding of the world around them.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I blame Star Trek and the Space Race for the popular optimism of the 1960s and early 1970s. Some time in the 1970s that optimism turned to visions of a dystopian future. I blame ignorance about science on scientists and their ‘precision’, reluctance to commit to clear statements, mixed with obscure jargons, a certain scientific arrogance, and a large helping of public unwillingness to look matters in face. I believe many people understand the science of Climate Chaos but refuse to ‘understand’ for emotional reasons. Some knowledge is too horrible to accept.

  9. KLG

    Nothing much new here. John Stuart Mill proposed a steady-state economy as the key to broad based prosperity. 23 years ago Herman Daly published Beyond Growth as the culmination of the first part of he career as an economist inspired by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (The Entropy Law and the Economic Process). Daly was famously “schooled” by that noted genius Lawrence Summers: “That’s not the way to look at it,” meaning the “economy” doesn’t have to be considered as part of a largely closed system, i.e., the earth. The artist Harland Hubbard lived the independent but not solitary good life with Anna Hubbard at Payne Hollow, Kentucky, and wrote, “What we need is at hand.” Yes, except for intelligence and will.

  10. Mr Broken Record

    I wonder if we have the collective will and maturity to fix any of this when the word population isn’t even mentioned in the article.

    1. Mr Broken Record

      I wasn’t able to edit in time

      1960 3 billion people
      1980 4.5 billion
      2000 6 billion
      2017 7.5 billion

      It seems pointless to me to begin the conversation anywhere else

        1. Hoppy

          Make population “the” problem and someone is certain to find a solution. It won’t have anything to do with collective will and maturity, it will be tribal and brutal or biological and efficient.

          Population is due to peak around 2100. Deal with it. Hasten it if you can by improving women’s rights.

          But don’t pretend there is some solution that no one is willing to discuss.

            1. Hoppy

              One thing I very much dislike when I see posts that say “here it is, overpopulation” is that they fall short on starting the conversation. Just stop in the numbers. One doesn’t know if behind these assertions reside genocidal thinkings or any other and more sensible approach.

              So what is the solution you propose that requires ‘collective will’ and ‘maturity’?

              1. Mr Broken Record

                One thing I very much dislike…

                Fair enough, but a couple of things I have trouble with are all these ‘serious’ people (academics, authors, politicians, etc) writing about this issue and never mentioning the elephant in the room – population. I also don’t understand why I cannot point that out unless I have already thought of some full-fledged solution that no one else has come up with. Trolls often demand this just to jump on someone.

                There is no shred of me that wants to do harm to anyone.

                But we’ll have to find a way to convince people to stop having more than 2 children. The population needs to shrink considerably and I imagine the only humane way to do so is via a well thought out program that addresses birth rates world wide. That would take enormous collective will and maturity.

                1. Hoppy

                  Thanks for clarifying your position. Happy we are not talking about genocide and forced sterilization (although the analogy in the comment below to spaying and neutering pets probably doesn’t help the conversation, even though the other points are good)

                  My thought is that CO2 is the immediate existential problem and you can’t solve that problem without acknowledging that degrowth is necessary. Transition to a degrowth economy in the US is going to require a massive transfer of wealth to voters. Not just to appease them with basic needs (health, education, green jobs) but to also turn down the noise that has to this day prevented it.

                  I don’t know if that is possible, it feels like a long shot, but also the only shot.

                  Yes, it seems silly that we are on track to meet the max carrying capacity of the planet at about the same time the population is expected to peak. Yes, population growth is the ultimate flaw in GDP and maybe capitalism itself. Yes, declining birth rates in certain nations should be part of the discussion about the biosphere.

                  But if we can’t acknowledge and deal with degrowth in the US it isn’t going to matter. We’ll have no credibility on economics and CO2 policy elsewhere much less population policy.

                  Seems we have reached the CO2 carrying capacity of the planet before reaching the population carrying capacity. Whose fault is that? Focusing on population just seems like an easy out for those inclined to take instead of give and isn’t that the system that got us here. I don’t know, it does seem hopeless.

              2. anon y'mouse

                propagating the idea that one does not have to breed to have a fulfilling life. encouraging people to seriously rethink the need to do so. fomenting the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child” is literal and not metaphorical.

                making sure that people who don’t breed have a means to retire when their body and mind crap out on them at whatever time that may happen. children were the original retirement program, and still are in some fashion.

                making sure that women have total autonomy over their bodies, access to education and healthcare, and financial independence.

                maybe even giving money directly to people to encourage them not to have kids. removing tax breaks for those who do have them. sadly, this may torture those already in poverty the most.

                every child that does arrive should be taken care of and allowed all opportunities to thrive in a meaningful life. but that doesn’t mean we should all have one or that those who do should have 2-3-4-5 of them. due to reduced means to provide that meaningful life (resources and equity), it means accepting that perhaps only having one or none will allow that child to have a meaningful life.

                for the same reasons that people spay and neuter their pets, while they adopt those in shelters who are already here and try to give those existing pets a rewarding life, we can adapt this idea to human breeding as well and make it work. but it has to be completely transparent that eugenicist desires are not the goal. how do we do this? why are people still convinced that they must breed themselves to fulfill their lives? perhaps they can fulfill their life by simply being a mentor, teacher, guide to someone else’s child.

                most of the solutions to our problems are simple, but not easy.

            2. d

              then explain how will control population , since for ex the US isn’t growing as birth rate is lower than death rate, will lead to smaller populations without needing to take any actions of any sort, and can even lead to the death of the US. Now part of that maybe because of the great recession , or maybe lower income in newer family, some minor by better health care, some might even be a reaction to fewer jobs,paying, and the lack of confidence in the future

      1. Ignacio

        Let’s talk about predictions. According to the UN, and I take seriously their work on this, barring catastrophes, from 2015 to 2050 population would grow from 7,35 billions to 9,73 billion by 2050. I would not consider predictions up to 2100 given uncertainties. Most population growth would occur in India, adding 394 million in this period and becoming the most populated country, Nigeria, adding 216 million (would outpace the EEUU in population by 2049). Pakistan, the Dem. Rep of the Congo plus Ethiopia would add together about 300 million.

        The US comes 6th with 67 million growth. Given current energy per capita consumption (about 11 times higher in the US than in India) those 67 millions of new americans would “add” almost twice as much CO2 to the atmosphere than the nearly 400 millions of new indians. There are classes I guess.

        One thing I very much dislike when I see posts that say “here it is, overpopulation” is that they fall short on starting the conversation. Just stop in the numbers. One doesn’t know if behind these assertions reside genocidal thinkings or any other and more sensible approach.

        1. jrs

          When I did a search of twitter of people talking about population growth it was all Indians. It’s not by and large Americans. There may be very good reasons to fight against population growth where they are.

    2. Lee

      Truly. I had the same objection. One of the most transformative and promising technical advances of our era has been the development and social acceptance of birth control. This surely must be part of the mix in achieving sustainability. ‘Tis a complex and touchy subject.

      1. a different chris

        What’s sad is the kids, not being stupid like my generation, have embraced it.

        Why I say that is sad is that they aren’t having any kids at all… if we had had a lot less then they would feel a bit better having one per couple. Population drops naturally but people still get to be parents, which is quite a joy.

        Speaking of joy, the youngish (sub 40) Chinese I’ve met seem to have had a really good experience with being the “one child” of the one child policy. They were doted on as central to an extended family. This is anecdote and I am not pretending it is even generally correct, let alone “data”, but that’s what I’ve seen.

    3. Jeremy Grimm

      Funny how often the problem — isn’t here but over there. The U.S. population and the populations of Japan, Korea, and many of the nations of Europe have either stabilized or begun to decline. When there are proposals to ‘manage’ a CO2 ‘budget’ the per capita numbers are ignored in favor of the total numbers. Again the problem isn’t here but over there. We don’t need to do anything if those people over there would just get their act together. How convenient.

      Is overpopulation a problem, a growing problem? Of course it is. How did that happen? Did the “Green Revolution” for growing wheat or the spread of medicines and medical care, over there, without any efforts at population control have nothing to do with the problem? We usurp the national sovereignty of nations over there with little restraint but demur at measures to promote family planning, — and many of the places over there remain locked in ancient cultural patterns centuries and millennia old that promote and foster large families. There is plenty of blame to pass around over there — and plenty of blame here.

      Overpopulation could be gracefully managed over a century or so, but we don’t have that much time left. As the oceans rise, and temperatures spike, and water and food grow scarce, the metaphor of the Titanic will acquire a new resonance. The Titanic had far too few life boats.

      1. d

        If better health care leads to less need to have more kids, but society is still in the mode of more Kids is better, then they will grow very fast

  11. Steve Ruis

    I suggest that the “we should do this rather than that” approach is probably too late. We should do all of those things and look for which gives the most bang for the buck. And, as to “there will be fewer jobs” I admit to being perplexed. It is going to take a monumental effort to clean up the messes we have made. Instead of wringing our hands and asking questions like “What will all the laid off auto workers do?” we should look at all of the reconstruction projects and clean-up projects and map the skills of current workers onto those jobs (retraining is something no one seems to do well).

    1. jrs

      Doesn’t revamping transportation have to come first? Because jobs at this point means commuting in individual vehicles spewing carbon.

    2. coboarts

      This is the kind of thinking I like. No grand theories, no pseudo-intellectual bs, do real things. This is what will come after us hand-wringing denizens of the abstraction we’ve allowed ourselves to be enchanted by realize the guy in the heavy trousers that maintains our buildings and urban systems is our life support system. What a deplorable condition for us oh so worthies to fall into.

    3. Ignacio

      I wholeheartedly agree with you that we are past the time when we should be arguing about doing this rather than that. Too late for that. Particularly waiting until some consensus is achieved to do something is such a waste of energy…

    4. d

      You do realize that construction is one of the most environmental destructive industries any where? It has the most air pollution, and impacts the ground as much as other industry

  12. templar555510

    The creation of money as debt will have to go because it is that which fuels the ‘ growth at any cost ‘ model which can be dated from the pre Capitalist era of the explorers form Europe in the 16th Century. They were bent on discovery for gain . Gain was the driving force and gain equals growth. They are synonymous . Those of us who have grown up in the West since 1945 know this to be true of our individual lives because we inculcated it at our mother’s knee .Wisdom comes from understanding what an absurd state of affairs this is and that requires a deep sense of humour. And this , if it happens at all comes with age. Unfortunately these are qualities sorely lacking, it would seem, in some of the septuagenarians currently holding, or aspiring to hold office in the United States in particular.

    1. Walt

      “The creation of money as debt will have to go . . .”

      Can anyone please elaborate on the consequences for banking & finance, using perhaps Steve Keen’s analysis of private debt?


      1. Carla

        We probably need some sort of banking but at least 90% of finance is entirely bogus (clearly with criminal consequences) and can just be eliminated entirely, IMHO.

        1. baldski

          I think the fractional reserve banking system will have to go. I was taught that growth was needed to pay back the interest in the fractional reserve system. Now, can you see Wall street, Finance, and Oligarchs giving that up without a nasty fight?

          1. Yves Smith Post author


            No, we do not have a “fractional reserve banking system”. The reason that point of view is incorrect it is assumes that loans come out of existing savings.

            In fact, banks create loans and money out of thin air. The act of lending creates a corresponding new deposit. Even the Bank of England has explained that in primers for the general public, and Bernanke also admitted that in Congressional testimony.

              1. notabanktoadie

                It is not a loan but it (bank “lending”) does create new liabilities for fiat (bank deposits are liabilities for fiat) which another bank* may redeem and thus reduce a banks assets and thus equity UNLESS those new liabilities are repaid either with physical fiat or with liabilities (for fiat) issued by another member of the usury cartel.

                *But generally not the non-bank private sector which may only use physical fiat, mere paper bills and coins.

              2. Susan the other`

                That’s a very good question. We are rounding the corner into a mindset that will treat that very question with consideration. It will probably depend on just what the loan is for. Because there will be very few circumstances where profits will exist or exist in excess amounts enough to “service” a loan. That means, imo, that loans (say for necessities like housing) will take on a new logic – they will facilitate good internal growth in an economy, good local prosperity, but they will not generate the income sufficient to pay back the money (the money that was fiatted by the banksters in the first place!). Yes? That’s the only remaining logic isn’t it?

                1. notabanktoadie

                  Yes? That’s the only remaining logic isn’t it? Susan the other`

                  No, it isn’t. Inexpensive fiat allows an honest finance system whereby the banks serve largely as loan intermediaries between inherently risk-free accounts at the Central Bank itself.

                  And if interest rates become too high then an ethical way to lower them is:
                  1) A Citizen’s Dividend equally to all citizens financed in part, if desired, by:
                  2) Negative interest on excessively large and non-citizen accounts at the Central Bank.

                  Our problem is that we continue to privilege depository institutions, aka “the banks”, as if fiat were still too expensive, i.e. the Gold Standard, for the entire population to use to any large extent. Those privileges should be abolished in favor of a fiance system that is largely based on the use of fiat, not bank deposits.

      2. rob

        the elimination of the creation of money as debt….

        That is the crux of the monetary reform bill proposed by dennis kucinich 112th congress HR 2990 the NEED act.

        ending the free lunch banks get by creating money when they make loans…

  13. jefemt

    This article is a more direct approach to what yesterday’s review of the Naomi Klein book decries as a circling.

    So much of this is about social justice and sharing.

    Look at a photo of the blue marble floating in space- it helps get one’s head a bit straighter.

    Here are some nice quotes form Eugene Debs. History rhymes, repeats, nothing new under the sun.

    Might we, in crisis, get to Marx’s 6th phase of political economy— sharing, driven by the collective- greatest good for the greatest number? The collective seems to not exist and is being driven apart by many self-serving narratives spooned to us at the speed of light from our gizmos by Davosman and her operatives.


    If we wait for leaders, we are sunk. It starts with individual action, change, perhaps influencing others to possibilities. I’m not too hopeful, Homo sapiens seems to have too much head and not enough heart.

  14. Bobby Gladd

    The commentariat here is a blessing.

    I can’t help but see a Frase Quadrant IV drawing nigh.

    As I observed elsewhere:

    “I was born in 1946. The U.S. population has doubled since then. World population has more than tripled across that span. We comprise only about 4% of that world population, yet consume 32 times per capita the resources of the poorest nations on the planet. It cannot continue.”

  15. ira

    Growth (or at the very least the promise thereof) is the bribe the capitalist and managerial classes pay to the rest of society to maintain the socioeconomic status quo. The alternative is revolution.

    Since the birth of capitalism — despite the prediction of the late great Immanuel Wallerstein that the five century reign of capital is coming to an end — the capitalist system has remained remarkably resistant, far more than even its most trenchant crititics have been able to imagine.

    But even Wallerstein repeatedly stated that what comes after capitalism is not guaranteed to be any more progressive or humane.

    The alternatives to growth will be faught to the death.

    1. Ashburn

      If “the alternative is revolution,” and I agree that is likely the only successful way forward, we must be prepared for the radical suppression of the oligarchy. No revolution will be successful without this. It won’t be a dinner party.

  16. Summer

    RE: “A decline in economic activity would further give us back what might be one of the most important ingredients of a good life: time. By having to work less, we could focus our energy on conviviality and care, ending the age of loneliness. We could have more freedom to pursue our personal ambitions. And the time that we spend at work, as well, could be more fulfilling if we know that it actually serves a meaningful purpose.”

    Personal ambitions require energy. Lights, computers, etc would have to be turned on. Then with all that extra time, people engage in a favorite pasttime – sex. All that time to create more people that would need to turn on lights, computers, etc to pursue their personal ambitions.

    Just another possibility…

  17. Sensei Mitch

    You expose yourself in the first paragraph as a Communist/Socialist (evidence):
    Imagine what could be if we organized democratically to produce what we actually need, distributed those resources fairly, and shared them in common.

    You hold up the failed Jamestown experiment as a model for the world. Will you be the one to decide how to fairly distribute resources? The Human Race is ver good at being fair, so I see nothing but success in your plan. What if I am more hungry than my neighbor? Do I get a larger portion? Or do we all wear monitors to track our activity/productivity to determine how many calories/resources we are entitled to on a given day?

    1. jrs

      Well this is barely coherent but, what do you hold up as your model of the world? The existing system has failed as much as anything could conceivably fail, ecological collapse is the proof. So don’t say that, anything but that and I’m opening to hearing it out.

      The focus on food is odd, who says production producing what we need wouldn’t be producing more than adequate food, that seems the first of needs anyone would prioritize pretty much. If there really is a widespread shortage of food it’s going to likely be caused by ecological collapse and overpopulation and the current economic system definitely won’t save you from it (it doesn’t even care about people now and whether they go without basic needs now, and we’re not even there at this point)

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, I don’t consider “socialist” to be a bad word, and neither do most people under 30. Or even small c communism (not the capital C authoritarian version). Most early societies had substantial if not dominant socialist/communist elements. If you don’t think we are going to be forced to revert to more traditional forms of governance as the current order decays into localization, you are smoking something strong.

      Plus your argument is ad hominem, a violation of our written site Policies.

      Better trolls, please.

  18. notabanktoadie

    Usury based finance requires growth – to pay the interest.

    Why then government privileges for a usury cartel, aka “the banks”, since this can only reduce the need for those with equity to either share it or borrow honestly?

    Because honest finance would mean higher interest rates?

    Not necessarily since fiat is cheap to create and distribute to all citizens equally.

    The Gold Standard is not completely abolished until the Gold Standard banking model is abolished too in favor of economies that run largely on inexpensive fiat accounts, not on private bank deposits

  19. chuck roast

    No mention in the piece or the comments on the old Club of Rome report Limits to Growth, currently gathering dust on my bookshelf for almost 50 years. The much maligned geniuses who put this book together were certainly correct about the premise that endless economic growth will eventually diminish world-wide resources and provoke declining living standards. They were the pre-mature anti-fascists of their day. Of course what they missed was that there would be no shortage of CO2 going forward…the ugly and murderous step-child of unlimited growth.

    Let’s try to remember that Malthus’ population calculations were made to support the landed gentry who had a particular interest in maintaining The Corn Laws and who saw cheap foreign corn and grain as a threat to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

  20. Christopher Herbert

    What if the primary industry was improving the environment? A monetary sovereign government could fund that without issuing any debt, and the pay could be whatever was effective/sufficient. Better food. Cleanup two centuries of sludge that’s been pumped into our water, rivers, lakes and oceans. This would be a huge industry. What do you want to bet that cancer rates would decline. Substantially.

  21. Peter Dorman

    The degrowth movement is so wackily misconceived, it’s difficult to know how to respond. Basically, it makes a giant error of logic and compounds it with almost as large an error of observation. And there’s no program.

    1. The logic error is to confuse cause and effect. Yes, beyond a doubt, really dealing with climate change (and possibly other ecological emergencies) will interfere with economic growth, probably resulting in a period of economic shrinkage. We’ve got the wrong capital stock for a decarbonized world. But it doesn’t work the other way around: shrinking the economy will do almost nothing for decarbonization. Look at the effect of the 2008 global recession on carbon emissions, then do the math. It’s not hard, folks.

    2. The observational error is to think that the policy elite is addicted to economic growth. Well, this might be true in China, but it sure isn’t the case in Europe and North America. Case in point: the IMF. People who think policy is too oriented to economic growth need to read Naked Capitalism more often.

    3. And what’s the program? Exactly how are we to degrow the economy? Neoliberalism has done this pretty handily in some parts of the world, but presumably the degrowthers mean something else. If the idea is to enact the policies we need to protect the environment despite their negative effect on the growth of the monetary economy, then yes, do it. But that doesn’t mean economic growth is bad, just that we face tradeoffs and we’re at a point at which other concerns are more pressing. It’s still the case that if we can achieve our environmental goals with less of a hit to growth, that’s something we should aim for.

    A philosophical moment: any value (freedom, security, equality) pursued alone, without regard to competing values, leads to absurdity. Life is about balance. Economic growth is beneficial insofar as a large portion of the things we value in life are fungible in the modern economy, but you would be crazy to have that as a sole value. Same with personal freedom. Same with equality. Same with our relationship to the rest of the natural world. This is not complicated.

    1. John Wright

      Re: ” Look at the effect of the 2008 global recession on carbon emissions, then do the math. It’s not hard, folks.”

      From https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/11/22/3071534.htm

      “The crisis that hit world financial markets in 2008 caused greenhouse gas emissions to dip slightly the following year, experts have calculated.”

      “But the decrease was less than half that previously predicted, and highlights the growth in carbon dioxide emissions from developing nations.”

      “Over the past 100 years, the increase in carbon dioxide levels has been attributed to emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuels.”

      “Scientists believe that those emissions are closely tied to economic growth, so they had expected the global financial crisis to have some impact. Exactly how big the impact would be wasn’t clear.”

      “Now, an international group of researchers from the Global Carbon Project report a decrease of 1.3%, much smaller than they expected, according to their report in the journal Nature Geoscience.”

      “Just a year ago, the researchers had estimated that the financial crisis would cause emissions to drop by 2.8%, roughly equivalent to the amount that emissions had been increasing each year.”

      So the decrease in economic activity DID push the CO2 emissions growth rate to negative as more CO2 was added but at a slower rate.

      In other words, if the GFC had not occurred, the expected amount of CO2 added would have been about 2.8% higher than the prior year, instead it was 1.3% lower (a 4.1% decrease over expected trend).

      This could imply it will take a very large drop in economic activity to delay the effects of climate change by much.

      But a decrease in economic growth via the GFC DID result in a lower than expected CO2 added to the atmosphere.

      The article closes with “Looking ahead, the researchers note that the International Monetary Fund is projecting an increase of global GDP by 4.8% in 2010, which will lead to an increase in global emissions of at least 3% this year.”

      1. Peter Dorman

        Good! Now consider that we need to reduce carbon emissions by something like 8% per year globally for at least the next 30 years, more for richer countries like the US. How big a recession would we need to do that every year?

        1. John Wright

          Exactly, any economic plan to seriously lessen Climate Change via shrinking the economy will be very drastic.

          That is why I don’t see anything being done by US political leaders to combat climate change.

          Democratic or Republican control, the results will be the same.

          It will be business as usual because politicians will be guided by “kicking the can down the road.”

          This is evidenced by many US military actions as wars are continued for many years, through multiple administrations, as changing course (aka admitting “defeat”) is not politically acceptable.

          Shrinking the economy is also politically unacceptable.

          Hoping for a technological miracle IS politically acceptable.

  22. Jan

    The point about Greek austerity doesnt come across well. Just because greek austerity was posed as pro-growth doesn’t mean its wrong on those grounds. Its wrong because it was fundamentally dishonest, that it would never work and it would increase poverty and govt indebtedness. And that’s what it did! LP was against austerity on THOSE grounds! Not because of some ideological hatred of ‘growth’ . Disappointed to see NC still promoting ecological austerian nonsense.

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