current affairs events growth sustainability

Rio +20: blinded by the god of economic growth

Here, in a single clause, is the reason why the Rio +20 statement is a useless document:

We recognize that urgent action on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption where they occur remains fundamental in addressing environmental sustainability and promoting conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems, regeneration of natural resources and the promotion of sustained, inclusive and equitable global growth.

This sentence (one of the shorter ones, I should add) contains two points that are stating the obvious, and one that’s a logical impossibility:

  1. Stopping unsustainable consumption is vital to sustainability
  2. Stopping unsustainable consumption is vital to the sustainable use of resources
  3. Stopping unsustainable consumption is vital to the promotion of sustained economic growth.

Point three is nonsense because global growth is itself an unsustainable pattern of production and consumption. It would make sense if it said “a sustainable economy”, or even “sustained economic prosperity”, but it’s meaningless with the word growth in there. We live on a finite planet. Nothing can grow forever in a closed system, and therefore permanent economic growth is impossible.

Unfortunately, the Rio +20 agreement is passionately dedicated to this impossibility. There are 283 numbered points in the statement. A commitment to economic growth turns up in point five, and then is repeated throughout. “We commit to work together to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth”. Bizarrely, it the summit appears to have agreed that growth is actually a route to sustainability rather than an obstacle to it: “We reaffirm the need to achieve sustainable development by promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth.”

As it moves on to other topics such as conservation or managing forests and seas, it still returns to growth constantly. A long list starts to emerge of things that can supposedly promote economic growth. It includes democracy, good governance and the rule of law, soil, the UN, farmers, biodiversity, jobs, macroeconomic policy, mountains, the sea and coastal areas.

  • “Sustainable transportation can enhance economic growth”
  • “We reaffirm that international trade is an engine for development and sustained economic growth,”
  • “We recognize the economic and social significance of good land management, including soil, particularly its contribution to economic growth”
  • We acknowledge that good governance and the rule of law at the national and international levels are essential for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth
  • We stress the need to provide social protection to all members of society, fostering growth, resilience, social justice and cohesion,

These things don’t appear to be valued for their own right, but for their potential to “invigorate”, “foster” or “drive” sustained economic growth.

Economic growth is, in short, a mantra. It is a guiding force, the lens through which everything else is assessed. Yes, by all means address sustainability, the agreement says, but only if your sustainability measures are a route to growth.

We encourage each country to consider the implementation of green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, in a manner that endeavours to drive sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth and job creation, particularly for women, youth and the poor.

Of course, economic growth is vital for poor countries, and they are absolutely right to orient growth towards the poor. Where the document fails is that there is no distinction between those who have too little and those who already have too much. ‘More’ is the common prescription to underdeveloped and overdeveloped economies alike.

I live in a country where a quarter of us are obese, and where we throw away a third of the food that we buy. Over the course of their lifetime, the average British person will spend over £10,000 on clothes that they will never wear. Why is it so wrong to suggest that we might have enough?

Naturally, the diplomats and world leaders are concerned about the economy. We still have an economic system that demands growth, and you can’t just switch it off. But we should at least be asking the questions. We could acknowledge the finite nature of the planet. This is, after all, supposed to be a summit about sustainability.

As I mentioned last week, nobody expected any planet-saving solutions from Rio. I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad, but I’m not surprised either. Reading the statement only confirms what I said before – that we can’t wait for our national and international leaders. This will have to be a grassroots movement. It also confirms my belief that economic growth is the most important blind spot of our time.


  1. “It also confirms my belief that economic growth is the most important blind spot of our time.”

    Mine, too. It is. When you start digging, you find out that the main global problems all are in one way or another connected to it. As Tony Burke (environment minister of Australia) said: “The composition of the seawater is not the same as 100 years ago.” And there is a direct connection to economic growth. But I am afraid the other growth – that of the population – also plays a role in the picture, although to date still a lesser one.

    What is disturbing: there are serious research results acknowledging the limits to growth – basically confirming common sense with hard numbers. There are heads of state – like the good Dr. Merkel here in Germany – who do have the technical expertise to understand that very well. As I mentioned elsewhere we even have a federal study commission on the topic. One of their research results on the question of decoupling GDP growth and energy consumption: Increased efficiency does not necessarily result in decreased energy and resource consumption (rebound and backfire effects). Surprise. It’s on the table. And yet all we here, again and again and again is “growth, growth, growth.”

    1. I suspect that, at heart, most of our politicians know the impossibility of everlasting growth. They just don’t want to be the first to say it. I was at a Transition conference a couple of years ago and Ed Miliband was asked very directly about it. “Look”, he said, “I can’t go back to my constituents and tell them there’s not going to be any more growth.” I think that sums it up. The illusion of growth is too politically useful to drop, however false it may be.

      1. I sometimes wonder if we need some political martyrs, who are willing to come out and say these things directly, even if it costs them re-election. But once the ice is broken, then it may allow others more space to acknowledge reality.

        Bob Brown, recently retired leader of the Australian Greens was an Australian politician with over 20 years service at state and federal level, and he wasn’t afraid to articulate some very unpopular truths about ecological limits. He even introduced legislation that would have required Australia to cease coal mining – political suicide in the world’s largest coal exporter, yet he remained incredibly respected by a large percentage of the population despite (or perhaps precisely because) of his honesty.

        Of course, one of the reasons he was able to remain in his seat is Australia’s PR electoral system for upper house seats, meaning that he never needed to win over 50% of the voters to gain and retain a Senate seat, just more like 16.67%.

        1. Yes, if one or two heads of state or bank CEO had the nerve to come out and say it, I suspect others would follow. Everyone knows eternal growth is a contradiction.

          On the plus side, a meta-lie like that could unravel over a weekend, like the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    2. I find it strange that people still struggle with the Infinite growth versus a finite resource. It’s a mathematical impossibility.

      You would think Joe Public could get his/her head around it.

      We only have one world and it’s running outta time.

      Welcome to the age of sustainability….. ;-))

  2. Same old story from bruntland to today: ‘Sustainable growth’. But, again, I think we steady staters have to start facing up to the fact that this is not MERELY a ‘blind spot’ or ‘ideology’ or policy choice. It is all those things, but its more than that, it is a structural dynamic of the global market economy. Marxists call it ‘capital accumulation’…but call it what you like, the beast has to grow to be ‘healthy’. Agree with you that it can economic renewal can onl come through grassroots movements slowly building the alternatives…its a long shot, but its our only hope. See here for an excellent article on the implications of opposing growth:

    1. Absolutely, growth is a structural necessity. You can’t just oppose growth or see recession as a good thing. A post-growth economy needs to be created, and the conditions for it can be brought in incrementally. It includes reforms to corporations, debt forgiveness and interest-free money, a shorter work week, among many other things.

      Thanks for the link, I will read that later.

    2. I maintain Professor Hans Christoph Binswanger’s observation (senior Swiss economist) that when he encountered the growth “belief” (he calls it a religion) it was an entire novelty for him and his colleagues who were economics graduates from the fifties. Monetary perpetual exponential growth only became an – at least theoretical – possibility when money was de-coupled from any kind of material coverage (i.e. gold). But it might well be a chicken and egg question: the old system may have had reached its growth limits by then (or at least it was foreseeable) and that might have led to the decision to abolish the gold standard and similar systems. Obviously return-on-capital were to quickly outgrow any gold reserves. I am not familiar enough with the details of post Bretton Woods history (especially the actual decision processes – pretty in-transparent I should say). Binswanger wrote a book titled “Geld und Magie” (Money and Magics), basically describing interest based fiat money as a magic trick. When Nixon abolished the gold standard – just like that, with a snap of his fingers, the system went beyond magic. And Binswanger wrote another book: “Die Glaubensgemeinschaft der Ökonomen” – roughly “The Faith Community of Economists”. There the step was done from a simple trick to a full fledged religion. Interesting to note: In German the even the modern words for “debt” and “guilt” are identical. Therefore the religion called economics (or, alternatively, “the economy”) as it is, is the only faitth that constantly increases debt, aka guilt/sin. Sometimes it is worthwhile to just look at the words we use. Often they seem to express some kind of cultural intuition.

      1. The link between debt and sin is retained (or hinted at) in English in the Lord’s prayer, where one old form said “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” while more contemporary forms prefer “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”.

        1. Still so in German in the still contemporary Lord’s player (vergib uns unsere SCHULD (guilt/debt) wie auch wir vergeben unseren SCHULDIGERN (clearly debtors and debtors only in contemporary German). I think all of us who are interested in the field are aware that debt cancellation was common in antiquity – it only changed with the Roman empire. I’ll take “DEBT – the first 5000 years” with me on our Provence vacation.

  3. Oh, and a more general comment, if you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in this piece by Monbiot tracing the language shifts of the last few decades, from “sustainability” to “sustainable development” to “sustainable growth” and finally to the abomination of “sustained growth”, the precise opposite of the first term.

    1. Byron – I also observed this quasi orwellian shift from “sustainability” (an obvious common sense goal) to “sustainable growth” (already an equally obvious oxymoron). Sustained growth is probably what is meant. Hitch hiked words and meanings.

  4. Yes, that’s an interesting bit of semantics. If you can’t commit to sustainable development, but can’t be seen to reject it – change the definition!

    I noticed the same thing at work in Britain’s new draft planning laws, which declare that sustainable development will be the new priority, and then defines that as economic growth.

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