Green Growth vs. No Growth: Eventually, The Green New Deal Must Answer This Question

Written by Paul Hockenos via Energy Transition on 2/25/2019

The buzz around U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (GND) for the U.S. skirts a keen discourse that’s been happening for a decade in Europe, namely that pitting green growth ideas against degrowth economics. This confrontation has to happen in the U.S., too – though for now AOC and her allies are taking a middle path with their program for ecological modernization. This is tactically smart. But in order to decarbonize global economies the GND has to jettison contemporary capitalism’s will to expansion.

The GDN that AOC has presented so far – and it is, admittedly, a work in progress – bridges the camps of the no-growth and green-growth advocates. Perhaps, this is exactly what she intends to do; its vagueness on this issue may well be a clever tactical ploy to circumvent, or push down the road, a highly contentious critique of capitalism that would surely scare off some of her Democratic colleagues in Congress, more than 70 of whom have signed onto the GND.

The cornerstone of green growth philosophy is that a greening of the economy – replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, creating jobs in the cleantech sector, making agriculture and transportation sustainable – can happen within structures much the same, or even identical, to those of our current capitalist economy. In other words, there’s no contradiction between, or need to decouple, economic development and environment protection. Technology and investment can make the transition painless or even lucrative – for those with vested interests in the status quo.

This is argued by some within Europe’s Green parties (though others buck it) as well as by the OECD and the UN development programs. In fact, in Germany, much of the country’s industry and private sector is now on board with the the idea of a green economy – after badmouthing it for nearly two decades as a business killer.

Green investment, it is now argued, whether private sector or government, will create economic activity and wealth that grows the economy to everybody’s benefit (i.e. commercially created largesse will “trickle down” to lower-income strata.) There’s mountains of money to be made in green tech and the transition to a low-carbon economy, businesses and their lobby arms now claim. And they want in on it. Switching from one energy source to another can happen without sending a destabilizing jolt to the system, they argue. Business as usual can continue and even thrive when greening the economy.

And then there’s the no-growth advocates who contend that green capitalism can’t stem climate change or the general, ongoing degradation of the planet. The neo-liberal system itself, predicated on unlimited growth, the exploitation of natural resources, economic inequality, and capital accumulation, has to change fundamentally, they contend. Economic growth, measured by GDP, means more production and ever higher rates consumption, which logically require ever more resources and energy to process them. This harms the environment in more ways than one, not least by exacerbating climate change. This is the argument of growth critics like German economist Niko Paech, author of the Liberation from Excess: The Road to a Post-Growth Economy.

“What goods or services are such that their production, use, and disposal do not consume land, energy, or other resources?” asks Paech. “Passive houses, electric vehicles, eco-textiles, photovoltaic systems, organic food, power lines, combined heat and power plants, solar thermal heaters, cradle-to-cradle beverage packaging, car sharing or Internet services: none of them fulfill this condition.” Even digital services, he argues, require fossil resources, minerals, rare soils and metals – and they leave behind vistas of non-biodegradable tech-junk. A green makeover of the economy would probably increase production and energy use and thus our carbon footprint.

Paech wrote those words in the weekly Die Zeit in 2012. Since then, investment in greentech and renewable energy has soared while — after dropping during the financial crisis — production, productivity, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions have crept slowly upward in economies that have rebounded. Germany is the most glaring example: its record-shattering growth since the crash has offset any significant beneficial impact of the sprawling Energiewende that has, among other achievements, turned 40% of Germany’s electricity use green.

The degrowth camp’s arguments are all the more relevant in light of the earth’s rapid population growth and the development of undeveloped countries, which will only spur more consumption and thus greenhouse gases. The UN Environmental Program predicts that with nine billion people on the planet by 2050 we are likely to see resource consumption triple.

Paech calls for a radical scaling back of our economies and lifestyles – an axiomatic condition of the degrowth movement. This means “de-globalizing” and “de-industrializing” our lives. In a post-growth economy, our work week would be slashed by half, giving people more time for one another and to fix things (rather than throw them out and buy anew.) Also, half of highways and 75% of airports should be closed down. Regional economies must be delinked from global value chains. Other de-growth thinkers call for innovative transition towns that offer social banking, taxation according to environmental consumption, and basic income models.

AOC’s green deal doesn’t reflect the green growth planners’ naïve optimism in an easy fix, nor does it call for turning back globalization. There’s lots of capitalism critique in it, although the word “growth” doesn’t come up. She talks about using the restructuring to reduce wealth inequality, create decent jobs, and spur “economic transformation.”

One of the leading voices of the no-growth movement, the British scholar Tim Jackson, says the GND’s emphasis on proactive green investment as a stimulus goes in the right direction. It can boost renewable energies, energy efficiency, and investment in communities, he says. “This can be the beginning of a systemic, structural transformation,” he says, “if it doesn’t cling to the old, broken ideology that’s hooked on growth at all costs. If there’s a recognition that the growth-based model’s day is over, then we can begin to wean ourselves off of it. It will open up a new tool box that can be used to begin a transition.”

Hopefully, this is exactly what will happen. A “growth” versus “no growth” debate within the context of the GND is exactly what can push it in this direction. It can help make explicit the shortcomings of our neo-liberal model and the possibilities of revamping our economy and our lifestyles for the better.