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The Racism of “De-Growth” or “Anti-Growth” Environmentalism

Two weeks ago, the Bloomberg View economist Noah Smith examined and criticized the arguments made by “de-growth” activists calling for an economic contraction to save the world from environmental collapse due to resource overconsumption.

While I may not have Noah Smith’s Ph.D, my undergraduate degree is environmental economics, and I would like to expand upon Noah Smith’s arguments with a critique of my own, because of my specialty.

The most simple and common argument for “de-growth” made by activists is that Earth, a planet with finite resources, is not capable of withstanding infinite economic growth, and that we are already consuming more resources than the planet is capable of providing on a sustainable basis, arguing that human consumption of resources is similar to how animals are constrained by the carrying capacity of the local environment, and that human civilization will collapse due to resource shortages if we aren’t careful.

Although there is disagreement among proponents over the specifics, it is generally agreed that economic activity will be rolled back to a level where our consumption reaches a level Earth can sustain, and to alleviate global poverty while doing so, there would be a massive global redistribution of wealth from more to less developed nations. Once consumption is at ecologically sustainable levels, the total amount of economic activity is kept the same for perpetuity, in a “steady state,” to allow humans to sustainably live within the means of the environment.

Opposing growth in principle is not new to left-wing environmentalism. Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia explicitly mentioned the decline of GDP by a third when an eco-socialist paradise is formed out of Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.

However, that mindset is not only reckless, but also an extremely privileged worldview that, if implemented, would actively harm billions of underprivileged people around the globe and highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of what economic growth is among the activists.

Population Growth

While Europe’s population is expected to fall by nearly 90 million by 2100, Africa’s population is expected to skyrocket by over 3 billion, and Asia’s expected to grow by 300 million. The global south/less developed countries (LDC’s) will make up a disproportionate amount of human population growth in the future.

For people to maintain the same standard of living, economic growth must match population growth. Otherwise, the same amount of economic activity is being produced by an increasing number of people, reducing the well-being of the populace. Unless de-growthers are calling for mass sterilization or the deaths of tens to hundreds of millions in LDC’s, stopping economic growth in Africa alone is impossible without massive increases in poverty on the continent. Population momentum has already locked in much of Africa’s growth. Even if a comprehensive safe sex and contraception campaign was implemented in Africa tomorrow, reducing the fertility rate to rates seen in America and Western Europe, the population would continue to grow rapidly for decades.

Standards of Living

Most of the economic growth of the upcoming century will take place in LDCs, and not just because of population growth. Industrializing nations have higher rates of economic growth than nations that have completed their economic transition. The burden of de-growthing would be felt in developing, not developed nations, and would neuter their ability to reach living standards comparable with what the West experiences today.

How is it ethical to demand that those in LDCs not achieve a better standard of living? The solution offered by de-growthers—mass expropriation of assets of wealthy countries redistributed to poorer nations to eliminate differences between nations—is not only infeasible, as mines, oil wells, and factories cannot simply be moved between nations, but is politically impossible without a global government with the ability to expropriate trillions.

Furthering the ethical dilemma, economic growth is necessary to improve the standards of living of the global poor.

An unsung success of the past half century has been the dramatic reduction in global poverty. In 1981, 42% of the world lived on less than an inflation adjusted $1.90 a day, and 26% lived on less than $1.25 a day, the standard for what is considered extreme poverty. Today, under 11% live under $1.90 a day and under 4% live under $1.25 a day. Social welfare programs and international trade and investment have been critical drivers of the decline in poverty. Any effort to cut economic growth would gut both drivers of poverty reduction.

Suppose a redistribution of global wealth is accomplished, eliminating the difference in living standards between more and less developed countries, virtually eliminating global poverty. Ignoring the reduction in overall GDP included as part of the de-growth plan, the average GDP per capita globally in purchasing power parity (PPP) is 17,000, on par with middle-income nations like Mexico and Turkmenistan. Ignoring the insanity and political impossibility of what such a global expropriation and redistribution would look like, that level of income is not desirable for environmental and health reasons, even if it may be seen as optimal for resource consumption.

The paradox is that increased incomes and wealth have environmental benefits. It’s called the environmental Kuznets curve. Richer nations, such as Japan, the United States, and France have comprehensive environmental legislation to control smog, water pollution, and protect natural areas. As mentioned earlier, middle-income nations have considerably worse environmental records, as do lesser developed nations. Mongolia, a middle-income country, has higher carbon emissions per capita than Canada. Beyond greenhouse gas emissions (which typically do not follow a Kuznets curve), poorer nations produce greater levels of carbon monoxide emissions per capita, PM 2.5 per capita, and ground level ozone. The most polluted cities in the world are in middle-income countries such as Iran, Russia, India, and Pakistan. Placing the entire world at a middle-income level of development would likely maximize, not minimize pollution.

Misunderstanding Economic Growth

Much of the opposition to further economic growth is predicated on the idea that all economic growth is fueled by increased extraction of resources, be it land or labor. While a portion of economic growth is fueled by consumption, growth is also fueled by technological improvement, which is defined in economics as improvements in the ability to obtain value from inputs in the economy. For example, with an improvement in tillage that results in higher yields in a crop, means more economic value (crops) is produced from the same amount of land and labor (inputs).

That economic growth from the tillage improvement can be beneficial for the environment. Higher yields cut food prices, reducing the incentive for farmers to convert more land to production, protecting forests and grasslands.

In short, economic growth is not a zero-sum game. Improved efficiency can result in improved environmental protection. From an ecological standpoint, it’s a way for humans to increase the carrying capacity of the planet.

While it is naive to believe that all environmental issues can be solved through improved technology, opposition to growth completely ignores the technological solutions to some environmental issues, and treats all economic growth as a zero-sum game between progress and the environment, which is simply not the reality.

The Political Harm of “Anti-Growth” Rhetoric

While not all of economic leftism opposes economic growth, openness to forms of economic organization other than the dominant capitalist market economy oriented around growth that currently defines the global economy — defines economic leftism.

The affiliation of environmentalism with economic leftism is dangerous for environmental protection policy, and has resulted in political losses in the United States, where the effect is particularly strong. In 2016, the state of Washington voted on ballot initiative I-732, which would have instituted a carbon tax in the state of Washington that would be offset by cuts in the state sales tax while increasing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. Had it passed, Washington would be the first state in the US to implement a carbon tax. It was a wonkish center-right proposal pushed by environmental economists that was intended to appeal to “pro-business” moderate Republicans in the state.

However, the moderate GOP support failed to materialize, and major environmental organizations in the state such as 350.org Seattle actively refused to support the measure, arguing that it did not go far enough, and that the money raised through a carbon tax should not have been revenue neutral, and should have funded clean energy jobs.

The measure failed 40.7% to 59.3%. In short, market-oriented environmentalists are not a significant voter base in the United States, and many significant environmental groups will oppose groundbreaking climate policy for being too conservative. Beyond that case study, it has been well documented that the merging of leftist social and economic policy with environmentalism has damaged support for environmental protection among the right-wing in the United States. Instead of left- and right-wing governments agreeing over whether pollution is an issue, and arguing over whether pigouvian taxes or the assignment of property rights are the solution to pollution issues, right wing governments in the US often ignore environmental issues entirely, reversing progress made to clean up America’s industry.

Conclusion

I sympathize with the concerns of de-growthers. We are consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate, and many elements of traditional economics, where externalities are not factored into business decisions, contribute to market failures such as climate change. Furthermore, I understand that there are alternatives to GDP per capita as an indicator of human progress, as GDP does not account for income inequality, life expectancy, or cost of basic necessities. I actively support changes to traditional economics to ensure that as many as possible benefit and the environment is preserved. That’s why I majored in environmental economics and policy.

However, there are market solutions to resource concerns and climate change that prevent ecological collapse but do not sacrifice the well-being of billions of humans while doing so.

Right now, under the current market economy, greenhouse emissions per capita are falling in developed countries. Renewable energy is rapidly transforming energy sectors, and developing nations are increasingly leapfrogging industrialization altogether. Agricultural yields and productivity are rising, reducing the need to cultivate new land. Endangered species such as the Siberian Tiger are making a comeback. Air and water quality in developed nations is far better than it was 50 years ago. While these changes may not be rapid enough to many activists, it’s clear that environmental degradation is not accelerating due to affluence.

While activists are well intended, their lack of understanding of what growth is dooms them to supporting policy that hurts billions of predominantly brown and black people in less developed nations. While de-growth activists themselves may be far from racist, the outcomes of the policies they support are. Economics is a constant game of trade-offs, and unintended consequences. To put it quite simply, policy outcomes don’t care about your intentions.

Andrew Damitio

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Andrew is an Environmental Econ student at Oregon State University, pro-trade neoliberal technocrat, and unapologetic globalist.

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17 thoughts on “The Racism of “De-Growth” or “Anti-Growth” Environmentalism

  1. If global warming predictions turn out to be as accurate as the bad case scenarios, minorities will bear the burnt of that. Somehow I don’t think the developed North will deal will with hundreds of millions of climate change refugees.

    The best way to deal with the environment, and I realize this is impossible and not going to happen, is for the wealthy nations to subsidize the cleanest energy and green technology, in the least wealthy nations. That way the economy gets developed but the environment is saved.

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    • If global warming predictions turn out to be as accurate as the bad case scenarios…

      Last week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its draft environmental impact statement for reversing the Obama-era increase in CAFE standards. One of the basic assumptions in the analysis was a 3.8 °C increase in global temperature by 2100. The argument then followed that the reduction in CO2 emissions from requiring higher mileage was not enough to change that increase.

      3.8 °C is at the upper edge of the predictions for current policy (ie, promised reductions actually take place). It’s also enough that parts of at least Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh become uninhabitable for part of the year — the combination of heat and humidity is enough to keep the human body from maintaining a safe temperature.

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      • Michael,

        Are you saying that climate change science is now shifting to warmer day temperatures in the summer in hot climates? I was under the impression that virtually all the effects were to milder night temperatures in the winter in northern climates.

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        • Humidity is the main culprit. Wet bulb temperatures of 31 °C can be a serious problem for the elderly. Six hours of WBT at 35 °C is fatal for almost everyone. The 1995 heat wave around Chicago got near 30. The 2015 Pakistan/India heat wave touched 30 in a few locations (two or three thousand people died from heat stress). The highest ever officially recorded was 33.3 along the coast in Saudi Arabia. Someplace in Iraq had an unofficial reading that would have been 35 briefly, but there are reasons to not believe that one.

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    • I agree with the emphasis on clean energy technology. It probably is the best way forward, perhaps along with carbon mitigation/removal technology.

      That said, not sure how the majority of the global population is a “minority”?, nor do I agree that technological growth disproportionately harms those in developing nations. The benefits of growth and technological advance offset the effects of climate change by at least an order of magnitude. The developing world is the recipient of technology, science, and institutional learning created by developed nations and this is primarily a huge net positive.

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  2. Even as a self-described rabid leftist, I find much to agree with in this post.

    Which is sort of a point in itself.

    For the youngsters here, “environment” used to be as much a flash point between parties as #metoo or BLM is today.
    This was back in the days when smog was so bad that children had to stay indoors, and rivers so polluted that the river itself actually caught fire, and housing tracts were built atop toxic waste dumps.

    We don’t see much of that anymore. And this is because the environmentalists won for the most part. We live in a culture where it is unimaginable to just dump toxic waste in any field or stream, when everyone just accepts that cars come with all sorts of gadgets to reduce tailpipe emissions. These things aren’t controversial.

    So the only quibble I would have with the essay is the suggestion that this was a market phenomenon. It actually was the result of the market being hit with a 2×4 of regulation, after a long period of furious public debate and argument.

    And that quibble aside, the concept of some drastic reduction in global consumption is one of those abstract ideas that wouldn’t make it past the dorm room bull session stage intact.

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  3. Good piece, I agree in the main.

    I am though, skeptical of population growth predictions – they’ve been continuously revised downward my entire life. And I’m pretty sure the ‘trick’ for stabilizing population growth is pretty simple and non-intrusive – give women education and basic human rights. Birthrates take care of themselves after that in every country that has occured.

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    • That’s one correlation, there are others — I assume you’re not seeing that as a simple cause & effect relationship. Improvements in life expectancy, health care, & economic prospects also correlated, plus moving away from agrarian economy, etc.

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      • Yes, correlation is not causation – but it is a pretty darn strong correlation. And if I’m not mistaken, even intra-country (i.e. in the US) there’s a very strong correlation for women between number of years of education and age of having your first baby (as well as total number of kids).

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    • I totally agree. I have many fertility clients in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and they don’t WANT big families. Many of them are facing very strong social pressure to stop at 2 (not as strong as my European clients face, but definitely more social pressure than Americans, that’s for sure.

      Obviously this is a group self-selected for affluence since they’re able to be online but I believe the trend towards smaller families even in “less developed” countries (is there a better way to phrase that?) is on the rise.

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  4. I largely agree with you but Lee also makes a good point. Even if the worst case scenarios for climate change don’t happen, climate change will have serious consequences for human life.

    Kevin Drum had the best description for climate change as a problem though when he called it the “ultimate grad student problem for hell.” The problem with climate change is a lot of the real damage will probably happen after everyone on this planet is dead.* So it is a slow moving and abstract problem. It is hard enough to get people to care enough about the world their children or grandchildren will inhabit. How do you do it with great or great-great grandchildren?

    That being said I think a lot of anti-growth activists are more of a bogeyman than they exist in reality and power. Maybe it is more skewed in Oregon.

    *The drought in Cape Town is really bad.

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    • I arrived in Cape Town in mid July….to pouring rain….it’d been raining for days…and it rained while I was there for another 48 hours….

      So much rain fell that local expected the water restrictions to be lifted anytime.

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    • Not only will the effects of climate change take a long time to develop, but there is almost no relationship between who bears to cost of preventing climate change and who benefits from it, as the effects of climate change are so diffuse.

      I cannot imagine another problem that would be so hard for our political institutions to solve.

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  5. I dunno. Where I live, the “de-growth activists” barely exist and the “populist conservatives” run for office and win by promising to tear down wind farms (quixotic, no?) and get rid of emissions inspections and generally opposing any green technologies as being supposedly “anti-growth”. You might have a few politicians of that ilk in the states- not just in West Virginia and the White House! But I think liberals and economics majors are pretty united in thinking there are “market solutions” to most problems.

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