When I first started arguing against the degrowthers, I thought they were a small, uninfluential fringe, important only because they had a sway over a portion of the left—what we might call the Naomi Klein left. That was then. Today degrowth is entering the mainstream, as can be seen by the latest David Roberts piece in Vox. Roberts reviews a discussion between several economists on the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) website. (INET is a Soros-affiliated outfit whose mission is to push economics in a more progressive direction.) The key article is by Enno Schröder and Servaas Storm; using historical data, they test for the potential of decoupling economic growth and carbon emissions, finding the scale of decarbonization we need is incompatible with economic growth—hence the need to reject economic growth as a social objective. A similar perspective is provided by Gregor Semieniuk, Lance Taylor, and Armon Rezai, while a rebuttal comes from Michael Grubb. All three papers are authored or coauthored by important figures in the academic left or center-left, and their point of dispute reflects the expanding influence of the degrowth perspective.
If I had more time I’d write up a response in the form of a paper. (Actually I am writing a response, but it will be a book.) For now a blog post will have to do. Here’s what I think these estimable economists are missing:
1. Economic growth is not, not, not a policy variable. There is no magic button available to society that delivers a given rate of economic growth, or degrowth for that matter. It’s an outcome of a host of factors, some of which are controllable, others not. Indeed, as we wait for quarterly GDP numbers to be revised several quarters later, we still don’t know what economic growth or contraction we’ve experienced. It is true that politicians often speak of the need to adopt some policy or other for sake of economic growth, but at best they are proposing to push on one of the many factors that influences it. There is no growth dial, and even if there were, twisting it a few notches would have almost no impact on carbon emissions, which need to fall by nearly 100% within two generations.