Greening growth or ending it?

In the early 20th century. Max Weber predicted that a rationalized drive, or geist, for profitability would not stop until “the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (Weber, 2005: p. 123). For the German social theorist, the relationship between endless growth and fossil fuel energy marked the beginning of capitalist modernity. The rate of carbon emission since the Industrial Revolution has been extraordinary. In 2015, humans have put 9,500 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year - a rate that is more than 3,000 times that of 1750 (McNeill & Engelke, 2016). Figure 3.1 charts both global greenhouse gas emissions and total per capita GDP since 1945 - a period environmental historians refer to as the “great acceleration.” With few exceptions, growth and emissions have proceeded closely.

Scientists, activists, and government officials began to seriously consider economic growth and environmental problems during the 1970s. This notably included burgeoning environmental movement as well as the Club of

World GDP per capita growth and greenhouse gas emissions, 1945-2016. Source

Figure 3.1 World GDP per capita growth and greenhouse gas emissions, 1945-2016. Source: The Madison Project Database and PRIMAP Historical Emissions.

Rome’s report in 1972, The Limits to Growth. I consider two sets of ideas that emerged in this period to help us understand climate change today. These are green growth and de-growth. “Green growth” is an admittedly broad concept that could include, for example, progressive ideas such as the Green New Deal. Here, however, I refer to the dominant neoliberal variant premised on the idea that we can “economize” natural resources by more efficiently using them through proper market incentives and regulation when necessary. I focus on this version of green growth because of its hegemonic status in climate discussions in the past several decades, but briefly discuss the Green New Deal at the end.

The mainstream green growth concept emerged in the 1970s amid three important changes and events. The first of these was the neo-Malthusian fear about overpopulation that Paul Ehrlich (and his uncredited wife, Anne) popularized in The Population Bomb in 1968. Second, the development of a neoliberal ideology premised on individualism, a protection of property and markets, and disdain for any form of planning. Third, the proliferation of a highly mathematized practice of orthodox economic science. These intellectual and social changes have shaped how we think about climate change solutions. Economists, for example, triangulate growth, population levels, and natural resource inputs and outputs to calculate optimal levels of resource use. Policy makers and some environmentalists have also accepted that “human nature” drives us to ceaselessly consume, breed, and waste and that we lack the cognitive capacity to deal with the “largest collective action problem” we have ever faced. Meaningful solutions therefore lie in redirecting individual behavior and changing market incentive structures to push us in the right direction.

These ideas laid the groundwork for many of the environmental solutions we see today including emissions trading schemes, pollution permits, tax incentives or penalties for fuel prices, recycling, and market incentivizes for renewable energy. International institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the OECD back these proposals in the hope they boost growth while reducing environmental harm (e.g., OECD, 2011). Businesses also promote environmentally friendly consumer products thereby shifting the burden of change to personal choices including especially consumer choices like “green” products and buy local movements (see for example Huber, 2019). This same emphasis on individual responsibility was reflected in the Kyoto Protocol (after heavy American pressure) in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015 because both agreements hold individual states responsible for their own actions.

Since economic growth and emissions have grown together steadily, it is easy to dismiss the effectiveness of green growth. However, this is not entirely fair to their argument. It may be true that the global level is the only level that matters in the end, but green growth advocates very legitimately consider development status. It is, after all, the wealthy countries plus China (a country that is by most conventional measures highly developed) that consume the most energy. Western Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia account for a little under half of cumulative emissions since the Industrial Revolution. On a per capita basis, North America alone accounts for the overwhelming share of historical emissions (Chancel & Piketty, 2015).

The green growth hope is that more developed states will invest in cleaner energy and technology because they have the wealth to do so. This follows from mid-century theories of modernization. In the 1950s, the American economists Simon Kuznets proposed that economic inequality rose as countries transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy but then later fell as workers organized to protect their interests and states had fiscal capacity to redistribute wealth. This so-called Kuznets curve has been refashioned with a green twist. According to the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” hypothesis, emissions and ecological damage increase with development. Eventually, however, they will be “decoupled” from growth as greater environmental awareness and pressure from civil society pushes states and businesses to invest in more efficient technology, infrastructure, and products.

The environmental Kuznets curve has a historical basis. Environmental movements rapidly came on the political scene in the late 1960s and 1970s and achieved real successes. Within OECD states, McNeil and Engelke report that “the number of major environmental laws doubled in 1971-1975, compared to the five previous years” (2016: p. 198). These states made concerted efforts to reduce energy dependence at this time, resulting in marked increases in energy efficiency until around 1986 (Pirani, 2018). Despite even

Table 3.1 Economic growth, investment, unequal trade, and energy use




% change 1995-2015

Real GDP11




+132 %

Gross fixed capital formation3





Final nonrenewable energy consumption15





Imports from “low & middle-income economies’*





Source: aOECD. Values are expressed in trillions of US dollars. bInternational Energy Agency. Values are expressed in millions of tons of oil equivalent. cWorld Bank. Values are expressed as a percentage of GDP.

Note. All values refer to OECD countries.

the orthodoxy of marketization in the last four decades, there are even impressive top-down political initiatives. The Danish government, for example, now boasts that renewables generate over half of their electricity.

The trouble is that the forward march of these moves represents only half of the historical dialectic. The forces of global capital and growth pressures have outmatched the greener side of recent history (Hickel & Kallis, 2019). As Table 3.1 shows, in terms of growth, investment, and nonrenewable energy consumption, the OECD states have not slowed down. That is, we do not see “decoupling” between emissions and growth. More rigorous empirical evidence shows there is not decoupling between per capita emissions (emissions intensity) and growth in developed states (Jorgenson & Clark, 2012). This owes to numerous factors like energy path dependencies as well as global trade. When firms offshore production, they also offshore their emissions. This is important considering how much developed states depend on trade from less developed ones. The last row in Table 3.1 shows, for example, that imports into the OECD from “lower and middle-income” states rose 80% between 1995 and 2015.

In contrast to neoliberal green growth, degrowth advocates see systemic problems in growth as a whole. Their aim is to take The Limits to Growth to its logical conclusion. The earliest progenitors of ecological economics emerged around the time that report was released, but some were expressly opposed to the discipline’s neoclassical framework. This included those like Romanian born Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who combined concepts from thermodynamics and systems theory into the study of economics. Georgescu-Roegen’s work demonstrated that growth degraded and depleted natural resources. His American protege, Herman Daly, developed his own vision for a non-growth economy through “steady state economics.” Their work helped inspire the degrowth movement, particularly in Europe where it is most popular.

De-growth proponents seek a progressive vision for the future that prioritizes human development. Their orientation is motivated just as much by excessive energy throughput as the social problems associated with a growth economy including a highly materialist culture and the psychological strains from overwork (e.g., Schneider et al., 2010). Accordingly, one possibility for a nongrowth economy is simply scaling back how much we work and of course how much we consume; putting it in common cause with those pushing for universal basic income schemes. There is also an antiwar element to this movement - especially after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - due to increasing anxiety over “resource wars” fought to satiate the growth paradigm (Schneider-Mayerson, 2015). De-growth rightfully emphasizes what feminists have long argued: unpaid gendered work is not counted in national statistics. These aspects of degrowth depart from the softer criticisms of growth embedded in mainstream green growth ideas. Indeed, leftists like Andre Gorz are often credited with inspiring the more radical inspirations of the decroissance movement. For Gorz, de-growth was not just a necessary step for sustainability but an emancipatory critique of capitalist modernity and liberation from wage labor.

The ambition of de-growth is on par with the kind of systemic transformations we need to make to address climate change. There is now well- documented evidence showing significant declines in carbon emissions after the 2008 financial crisis and in early 2020 during the Covid-19 epidemic (e.g., Huang, 2018). These experiences speak to the inherent ecological problems of growth. They also remind us that declines in growth can cause dramatic political and social consequences - often for the worse. That is not to say, of course, that those in the de-growth camp intend for these negative consequences. But these cases of actual de-growth raise questions about how this project would be carried out in a socially just way in the short to medium term. For this reason, de-growth has been criticized for not offering a meaningful socioecological strategy (Haapanen & Tapio, 2016). Even those nominally associated with de-growth like Herman Daly have criticized the movement as a “a slogan in search of a programme” (2018).

Thus, while green growth offers a tepid but clear-cut strategy, de-growth offers an ambitious but vague strategy. Both, moreover, share in an important analytical shortcoming: they overlook the underlying social relations and processes that generate growth. Output components, whether individual consumers, small renewable businesses, large-scale manufacturers, state owned oil companies, or publicly funded grid networks are all collapsed together. These differences are important, however, for thinking about immediate mitigation strategies. So too is unequal distribution. Research by Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty shows that the top 10% of households are responsible for almost half of all carbon emissions (2015). What needs to be specified is how the balance of social forces and social institutions shape the trajectory of growth. Capital accumulation is a more helpful point of departure for understanding these dynamics.

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