growth transition towns

Why environmentalists should embrace postgrowth economics

climate-after-growthClimate after Growth: why environmentalists must embrace postgrowth economics and community resilience is a new paper from Rob Hopkins of the Transition Network and Asher Miller of the Postcarbon Institute. It’s the kind of challenge to the environmental movement that I’ve been expecting for a while. It was just a matter of who would do it first.

“The nearly ubiquitous belief of our elected officials is that addressing the climate crisis must come second to ensuring economic growth” the authors note. “But the growth imperative is the underlying cause of the climate crisis. As long as the climate movement leaves it unchallenged, meaningful climate policy won’t come until it’s too late, if at all.”

Like others before them, Hopkins and Miller have seen the maths and know that no efficiency or renewable energy drive can reduce emissions far enough and fast enough to reduce the risk of dangerous climate change. There have to be actual reductions in energy use and consumption, and that inevitably means reductions in GDP.

At this point, politicians hold their hands up and say ‘impossible’. The thing is, we’re into a new phase of the economy anyway, brought on by the end of cheap oil. The long boom of the last century would have been impossible without cheap and abundant fossil fuels. There’s plenty of oil still out there, but it is increasingly expensive and prices will never return to the lows of the 90s and early 00s. They can’t, because at that price things like shale oil and tar sands wouldn’t break even.

As the report points out, if the age of cheap fossil energy is on the way out, then the choice between climate action and economic growth is a false one. Growth is already going to be constrained by the price of energy, so we have much less to lose.

Energy isn’t the only reason why we may be onto a postgrowth course anyway. The other is debt. The Age of Oversupply, which I reviewed recently, made this case rather well, albeit with a Keynesian pro-growth message at the end. Hopkins and Miller point out that debt in the US has soared ahead of GDP. “It’s taking more and more debt to create each dollar of growth in the US—from $1.74 in the 1970s to $5.67 in the 2000s.” That’s clearly not a sustainable way to run an economy.

In other words, we have nothing to fear from the idea of a postgrowth economy. Chances are that many of the world’s richest countries already have one, if we were to look past the quantitative easing and boosting of the housing markets (ie more debt). That doesn’t mean that nothing will ever grow again – some sectors will. It doesn’t mean that poor countries can’t grow – they must. But economic growth as we have come to expect it is a thing of the past.

Instead of pursuing the futile hope of further growth, the authors suggest we should be building community resilience. This is the essence of the Transition Movement, mobilising communities to reduce their vulnerability through re-localisation and shared ownership. Building on hints in Hopkins’ latest book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, the report suggests that resilience is a legitimate model for economic development. “Building community resilience is a sound strategy to prepare for energy, climate, and economic shocks” they write, “but it also holds the promise of meaningful employment and strong local economies.”

The biggest challenge in the paper, I think, is to environmental organisations and campaigners to ‘name the elephant in the room’ and start talking about growth. Not just by decrying it in unhelpful tones, but by telling a different story about resilience and taking control of our needs locally.

This is a necessary message. What’s interesting is that I know of several organisations, including a couple of large ones, having this exact conversation already. Some of them might keep those as internal conversations, and some might have the confidence to go public and make it part of their campaigns. It’s only a matter of time before someone does.


  1. Politics is the art of the possible. Campaigning is the art of changing what’s possible. So Tearfund’s chewing over your last challenge there, Jeremy. We’ll read this paper with interest.

    1. I didn’t want to name names in case anyone decided not to go public, but Tearfund was one of the organisations I had in mind. It’s risky for groups or politicians to go down this road and adopt a more heterodox stance on the economy, so I admire those that do. It’s a prophetic calling, as far as I’m concerned.

      What I’ve suspected for some time is that far more people recognise the futility of the growth economy than are prepared to say so. Once it starts getting airtime, people will get the confidence to start talking about it themselves and it will snowball. But it will take a few people brave enough to stick their heads above the parapet and go first.

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