What’s wrong with Zero Growth?

In 1972, three crucial documents informing the modern environmental movement were published. They were “Limits to Growth”, the report of the Club of Rome; “Blueprint for Survival”, an entire issue of the Ecologist Magazine describing a decentralised way of living in small rural communities; and “Only One Earth”, a popular book by Barbara Ward.

I was a politically-motivated rather nerdy schoolboy at the time, and I was taken in by all of this.  I have considered myself an environmentalist ever since; I think that environmentalism  is the single most important political idea of the last half-century because it is based on real science.  The green movement is the only political movement driven first and foremost by evidence rather than ideology. But those seminal documents, read today, are just wrong; and it’s time for the green movement to face up to that, and the green mantra that must be the first to go on the bonfire is zero-growth economics.

Growth isn’t just good; it’s what makes us human. Economic growth is about people getting richer; and that’s not a bad thing. If there’s zero-growth, we stop getting richer. If we stop getting richer, things stop getting better; and the desire to make things better, for ourselves and for our heirs, is what propelled us from being just another species of wild animal on the savannah.  Growth means more people living longer, more comfortable happier lives.  It’s also unashamedly Green.

There has always been a conservative, Puritan, killjoy strand to human thought  which disdains progress, and suggests that anything good must be more uncomfortable. It has infected most religions at various stages of their development, and the Green movement has not been immune.  Modernity is damaging so we must eschew modernity; it is the doctrine of Boko Haram. The same strand of puritanical, illiberal thought informs  the Limits to Growth, and it has no place in progressive politics.

The Zero-Growth thesis misunderstands humanity. Our human desire to make things better is a tremendous force for all sorts of things, and technology – from fire, flints and farming to satellites, smartphones and solar panels  is its result.  Mostly, technology has made things better; some technologies have been damaging (cars and coal spring to mind), but have none the less contributed to our present state. It took coal-fired steam and steel to get us to the position where we can make smartphones and solar panels.  Our role as informed citizens, as protagonists in the Green movement (whichever way we vote) is to influence the direction of technology as innovators and consumers, towards the sustainable and away from the crass over-consumption which is sometimes identified with economic growth.

The Limits to Growth argued that perpetual exponential growth was inevitably unsustainable, and that only zero growth is sustainable. The mathematical logic is irrefutable, but the argument is irrelevant.  In the long run, we are all dead. In the long run, however green our lifestyles, the Earth will be consumed by an expanding red giant Sun. For now, we live in a world full of poverty and disease from which only economic growth can provide an escape.  The Green debate should not be about whether there should be growth, but rather what sort of growth there should be:

– Technology-led growth that gets more for less by the application of knowledge rather than the consumption of fuel.

– growth that’s about better rather than more or bigger.

– growth for the coming nine billion, not just a privileged few.

As any gardener knows,  “green growth” has never been an oxymoron.


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