Is growth the source of our climate crisis or the means to fixing it? Two contributors go head-to-headby John Browne, Jason Hickel / June 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Of course we should pursue boundless growth. This is how the world will get better. Things can never be perfect, but even in my lifetime I have seen many objective improvements. Child mortality levels are falling and life expectancy growing. Every day more children are getting the calories they need, receiving primary education and becoming literate. What this means is that more people are empowered to make choices about the way they want to live.
All this dramatic progress is underpinned by economic growth, and growth rests squarely on our ability to turn new ideas into concrete improvements to the world. Economists will argue about definitions, but what it boils down to is simple. Growth is the process of learning how to do more with less. This is exactly what engineering has been doing for all time—from hewing the first stone hand axes to designing the latest AI computer chips. It means we gain more control over our worlds, while expending less time, effort, financial capital or natural resources. That is why putting limits on economic growth means putting limits on progress.
Sceptics say growth is unsustainable: it will exhaust the planet’s resources or pollute it so badly as to make life unbearable. History tells a different story. When whale populations started to dwindle, we found a better source of lamp oil. Until recently, solar panels were impossibly expensive. Now they are cheap enough to make a central contribution to countering climate change. When engineers run up against perceived limits, they use ingenuity to find a better way forward.
So why should we believe those who say this process cannot continue into perpetuity? Growth will only stop when we exhaust our imagination. And what I see is an ever-growing pool of people equipped to hatch the solutions we need to build a brighter future.
Stories about whale oil are nice, but unfortunately that’s not what’s at stake here. The question demands more of us, intellectually, than anecdotes. We need to face the fact that growth is the major cause of ecological breakdown, and is rapidly destabilising our planet’s living systems.
The most immediate crisis is climate change. We must end fossil fuel use and switch to renewable energy. But can we do this quickly enough while at the same time growing the global economy at existing…