In a Renewable Energy World, Is There an Alternative to Growth?

One of many conservative talking points against climate change of late has been that that environmental campaigners are tree-hugging, humanity-hating Luddites. So they really couldn't have asked for a better present than the latest liberal think-tank report on climate change: "Growth isn't possible," cries the New Economics Foundation, in a 145-page jeremiad that compares humanity to an overweight hamster.

The report itself lacks a good executive summary. If I were to write it, I'd put it this way:

Carbon intensity has not fallen even in countries that are attempting to reduce emissions. This proves that technology like solar or nuclear energy plants can't save us. The problem is that we want the wrong things. We should give up economic growth and instead pursue happiness.
Chances are, I won't be receiving any writing job offers from the NEF, but I think my summary gets the gist. Unfortunately, with its somewhat hyped headline, the report looks like a repeat of the old anti-growth screed that's the standby of groups like Greenpeace, with roots going back to Thomas Malthus.

That makes it an easy target for opponents on the other side of the ideological fence. In this case, another think tank called the Adam Smith Institute quickly struck out at the NEF; the BBC has ASI's director, Tom Clougherty, accusing the NEF report authors of admitting "that they want us to be poorer and to lead more restricted lives for the sake of their faddish beliefs."

I think the NEF deserves criticism for the way it's presenting its report. But the NEF's ideas still deserve more examination than its opponents are willing to give. In large part, the argument is based on the Jevons paradox, which states that use of energy (or any resource) will rise as its application becomes more efficient -- think better air conditioners, Energy Star-rated televisions and hybrid cars. (In the report, this is discussed as the "rebound effect".)

Jevons did his research in the 19th century, shortly after Malthus's time. It's safe to say that humanity has survived the dire predictions of both to enjoy over a hundred years of fantastic growth and affluence, so far defeating arguments that it would run out of resources.

However, human-caused climate change (if you accept it as a real phenomenon) presents a new problem: even if enough resources exist to continuing rapid growth, it's the growth itself that is introducing weaknesses. Without the ability to find and utilize new resources, the same ability that disproved the theories of Malthus, climate change wouldn't be a problem. Witness the current recession, which stopped growth -- in both the economy and emissions.

So ad hominem attacks on groups like the NEF based on the failure of arguments from Malthus et al. are somewhat misdirected; we have (again, assuming climate change is real) a new problem to address.

To the NEF's eye, it's impossible for us to simultaneously cut off our emissions and continue to grow. You'll have to look at the report for the specifics, but they aren't the first to point out that ongoing growth puts serious emission reduction out of reach. Therefore, they argue, our concept of "growth" needs some recalibration.

Here are some of the NEF's arguments against growth the way we see it today, again paraphrased:

  • Modern economics, which predicts endless growth, is a fundamentally flawed science
  • Economic growth has become relatively ineffective at reducing the world population's poverty
  • Enough growth for the whole world to live at Western standards appears unlikely
  • More growth is empty of human value; studies show that people are angry and anxious, not happy
  • Solutions aimed only at climate change will always fail as long as we continue to pursue growth
And here are some of their suggested solutions:
  • Developed countries should accept that for them, there is no link between life expectancy or happiness and growth
  • Well-being should be measured by new standards which take factors other than the economy into account
  • A new sort of growth can be achieved by shifting money, for example from the military to better schooling
  • Lapsed connections within communities can be tapped to create a parallel, low-emissions economy
  • An alternate field of economics that focuses on better, not bigger already exists, and only needs to be used
Read seriously, it's fairly compelling stuff, deserving of an answer better than the flippant response I mentioned above. There are two questions that I find interesting. The first is whether it can be proven -- and quickly, since we're potentially racing against the clock of climate change -- whether it's indeed possible ot not to reduce our carbon intensity by an average of 2.7 percent (the NEF's figure) per year for the next several decades.

The NEF is obviously arguing that we can't, but so far both the think tank and its opponents have little evidence either way. Needless to say, proving that technology will indeed be sufficient would be the equivalent of the defeat of Malthus's theories by modern agriculture and economies.

My second question, and the truly important one if the NEF is correct, is how the report's authors expect to gain any support. One problem is that it's impossible to separate their arguments from the less reasoned, but more well known cries of the very few environmentalists who do genuinely want humanity to fail -- through disease, war, resource exhaustion or another avenue.

Even supposing the NEF got a fair hearing, it's highly unlikely that our culture could choose to turn around and adopt new goals in any time frame sufficient to deal with climate change. The first step, of course, would be for both sides to start talking and reconcile their views.

But at this point, there's an undeniable ideological split. I definitely don't believe everything the NEF has to say -- but I do think that both the think tank and its opponents, not to mention our politicians, should engage in a real debate. Readers are welcome to point out any they're aware of, but to my eye, the past few years have instead encouraged a polarization that forbids any sort of reasoned discussion.