Should we pursue boundless economic growth?

Is growth the source of our climate crisis or the means to fixing it? Two contributors go head-to-head
June 12, 2019

Yes—John Browne

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.

No—Jason Hickel

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 rates? The scientific evidence is clear that we cannot. Growth drives energy demand up, making the task that much harder.

But climate change isn’t the only problem. Switching to renewables doesn’t help with deforestation, soil depletion, biodiversity collapse, all of which are spiralling out of control. These crises are being driven by intensive resource use: all the material stuff we extract, produce, consume and waste. And as GDP grows, so too does material throughput. Right now humanity is chewing through 85bn tons of resources per year, 70 per cent over the sustainable level. This is why environmental scientists insist that rich countries (not poor ones!) shift to post-growth economics, abandon GDP as a measure of progress and scale down resource use.

The good news is that rich countries don’t need more growth in order to improve people’s lives. We already have enough income; the problem is that it’s captured at the top. If we share what we already have more fairly, we can improve people’s lives right now without having to plunder the Earth for more. Fairness is an antidote to the growth imperative.

You say we need imagination. I agree. But there is nothing imaginative about clinging to the old “growthist” paradigm. We must create something better: an economy fit for the 21st century, that thrives without growth.


“Thrives without growth?” What a dangerous path you are treading. We can do so much better. Ecological damage does indeed pose a grave threat, but rather than being an inherent feature of growth, it is an unintended consequence—and the path of human progress is littered with unintended consequences. The job of engineers, businesspeople and policymakers is to develop the tools to fix them. Abandoning growth would be a catastrophic admission that we have run out of ideas.

In spite of popular doom-mongering, we are already doing well at turning the tide. In the last four decades, the cost of solar electricity has fallen by 99 per cent. Wind power and lithium ion batteries are on similar trajectories. A new generation of small modular nuclear reactors is nearly ready for deployment. This has all been driven by private enterprise seeking to grow. In the UK, per capita CO2 emissions have nearly halved since the 1960s, but economic output has nearly tripled in real terms. Looking ahead, carbon capture technologies can only be made viable by serious investment. All of this must be coupled with a carbon tax, which will change behaviour and generate revenue for further investment in low carbon technologies. This is the new paradigm that the planet requires.

I, too, am dismayed by habitat destruction and depletion of our natural capital. But even there, the narrative of rampant greed and over-exploitation is too simplistic. It neglects the shift towards dematerialisation (a smartphone fulfils the role of umpteen now-superseded devices) and as societies get more prosperous, they tend to design more rigorous environmental controls. Despite the gloomy headlines, air quality is improving in many cities and natural parks spreading. Growth allows us to elevate our concerns from the daily grind and gives us the tools—from satellite imagery to big data analytics—to measure and understand our impact.

I object to arbitrary distinctions between “rich” and “poor” countries; it is immoral to put a ceiling on people’s ambitions. Anyone who really wants innovative ideas for the future must acknowledge the need for new technologies. And for those we need growth.


Your opening line says it all. For you, it is “dangerous” to question the imperative of endless growth, capitalism’s sacred dogma. Climate scientists? Dangerous. Ecologists? Dangerous. It’s like a medieval inquisition, but this time the priests are the barons of fossil capital, desperate to shore up a crumbling status quo.

Unfortunately, your grasp of the relevant data leaves much to be desired. You say the economy is dematerialising, but offer no compelling evidence. In fact, global material throughput is not only increasing, it is growing faster than GDP. The economy is becoming more materially intensive, not less—despite all our iPhones.

But here’s where your argument gets especially bizarre: you say we need growth to generate the technology to reduce our ecological impact. For you, the solution to the problems caused by too much growth is… more growth. The best way to reduce excess production and consumption is… more production and consumption. This is the kind of reasoning that dogma gets you.

If the goal is to achieve specific innovations, it makes no sense to grow the whole economy and blindly hope for the results we want. Is it really reasonable to grow the plastics industry in order to get better solar panels? We have to be smarter than that. We can invest in the innovation we need right now by redirecting existing financial resources.

There are huge chunks of our economy that we can scale down significantly: air travel, “fast fashion,” disposable tech, arms, and of course the advertising industry, which creates enormous pressures for needless consumption. To offset any job losses, we can shorten the working week and roll out a universal basic income. It’s not rocket science.

Measures like these will not only allow our planet’s living systems to recover, they will also reduce energy demand and allow us to accomplish a faster transition to renewables. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is clear that this approach is our only reasonable shot at averting climate breakdown. What’s dangerous is to carry on with the status quo.


I share your evident frustration at the pace of change. I was the first CEO of a major energy company to acknowledge that climate change was a grave threat and my industry was partly to blame. I set out a plan for reducing the company’s emissions, putting a price on carbon, and investing billions in renewables. We consulted with climate scientists and ecologists, who all saw the merit of a practical plan. And when I left BP, I set up the world’s largest renewable energy investment fund. At this time, energy companies told me I had “left the church.” So you talk about a medieval inquisition, but who are the priests and who are the heretics?

Critically, it was the pursuit of growth—not the reduction of existing activity—which enabled us to generate the engineering needed to reduce our ecological impact. Pragmatic realism must triumph over blind idealism. How much easier it is to declare that “something must be done,” and propose plans which are neither deliverable nor acceptable to the general population.

It is true that when engineering makes a leap forward, there are often unintended consequences. Connectivity, for example, has spread knowledge, but it has at the same time imperilled privacy. Antibiotics have saved countless lives, but their misuse has created antimicrobial resistance. And of course, fossil fuels have done more than anything else to liberate people from poverty. But the CO2 released threatens to tip us into a state of catastrophic climatic change.

Your anti-growth solution is to fall back on command-and-control techniques which presume that we already know the answers to society’s problems. This is a certain route to a closed-minded world and stagnant society. Ever since the Enlightenment, humanity has progressed by learning from its mistakes and engineering new ideas into existence. This only works when people have the freedom and incentive to aspire. We must not take that away. If growth and progress are dogma, then count me as a disciple.


You try to wash yourself in green, but let’s be clear about your record at BP. You actively lobbied to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. You presided over thousands of air pollution violations in California, hazardous waste dumps in Alaska’s North Slope and a devastating oil spill in Prudhoe Bay. You led an explosive increase in fossil fuel extraction, with aggressive plays for untapped reserves. I guess this is what you mean by “pragmatic realism.”

But back to growth. Your final argument is that a post-growth economy is “not acceptable to the general population.” Once again, you cite no evidence. The opposite is true: a recent survey by Yale found that 70 per cent of Americans believe environmental protection is more important than growth; a poll this year by the European Council on Foreign Relations found similar majorities across Europe; and YouGov has found that 80 per cent of Britons believe the UK should prioritise wellbeing over growth.

People realise that growth isn’t improving lives. Consider this. In the US, the poverty rate is worse and real wages lower than in the 1970s, despite a doubling of GDP per capita. Meanwhile Europe outperforms the US on every social indicator, despite its GDP per capita being 40 per cent lower.

We don’t need more growth. We need an economy that focuses on what matters: good health and education, meaningful work, living wages. We need to scale down ecologically destructive industries, shorten the working week and liberate people from “bullshit jobs.” And we need to expand public goods so that people can access the resources they need to live well without requiring ever-more income to do so.

There is nothing “command and control” about this. People want a new economy. Guardians of the old order should stand aside and let these aspirations flourish.


John Browne is former CEO of BP. His new book is “Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation”

Jason Hickel is an anthropologist and author of “The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions”