How Economic Growth Can Save The Planet

Arguments over the feasibility and morality of economic growth as a continuing societal goal typically pit left wing critics of capitalism, traditionalist conservatives, and strands of the environmental movement against mainstream liberals and those on the libertarian right.

There are two primary criticisms of growth from the left-traditionalist camp. One, is an ecological argument about “the limits to growth,” dating back to 1972 and start of the modern environmental movement, which argues that we cannot sustain the type of consumer capitalism we’ve embarked on over the past 40 years without global “overshoot” that will eventually lead to environmental catastrophe, resource depletion, pollution, and scarcity. A second line of attack is a moral argument that contemporary growth-oriented capitalism inevitably exacerbates poverty and inequality, undermines democracy, and sacrifices traditional values, families, and communities to the amoral logic of markets.

The “limits to growth” folks usually get the short end of the stick in these discussions and are too often painted as reactionaries, radicals, or Luddites. But they raise a series of important points about the nature of modern capitalism and liberal democracy that progressives should consider. As Gus Speth outlines in his beyond growth manifesto, inequality is at record levels within our own country and in relation to others. Global climate change continues unabated despite a zillion conferences and plans to combat it. Corporations and the wealthy exert too much control over our democratic governments. People buy too much stuff and we produce too much waste. We spend too much on the military and too little on the social needs of our own people. These are uncomfortable trends for the proponents of unfettered growth to acknowledge.

Pro-growth liberals push back that despite its drawbacks, a steadily expanding economy is critical to achieving the type of society progressives hold dear. Robert Reich and Benjamin Friedman argue that growth leads to a whole host of desired outcomes from improved education and health care to rising tolerance and respect for individual rights. As Friedman writes, “Economic growth — meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens — more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.” These are clearly important political and social outcomes of economic growth that post-growth proponents tend to downplay.


Can these two perspectives be reconciled? Yes, if we structure the right kind of growth, which is essentially a political decision. Here’s Reich:

Growth is different from consumerism. Growth is really about the capacity of a nation to produce everything that’s wanted and needed by its inhabitants. That includes better stewardship of the environment as well as improved public health and better schools. (The Gross Domestic Product is a crude way of gauging this but it’s a guide. Nations with high and growing GDPs have more overall capacity; those with low or slowing GDPs have less.)

Poorer countries tend to be more polluted than richer ones because they don’t have the capacity both to keep their people fed and clothed and also to keep their land, air and water clean. Infant mortality is higher and life spans shorter because they don’t have enough to immunize against diseases, prevent them from spreading, and cure the sick.

In their quest for resources rich nations (and corporations) have too often devastated poor ones — destroying their forests, eroding their land, and fouling their water. This is intolerable, but it isn’t an indictment of growth itself. Growth doesn’t depend on plunder. Rich nations have the capacity to extract resources responsibly. That they don’t is a measure of their irresponsibility and the weakness of international law.

How a nation chooses to use its productive capacity — how it defines its needs and wants — is a different matter. As China becomes a richer nation it can devote more of its capacity to its environment and to its own consumers, for example.

The United States has the largest capacity in the world. But relative to other rich nations it chooses to devote a larger proportion of that capacity to consumer goods, health care, and the military. And it uses comparatively less to support people who are unemployed or destitute, pay for non-carbon fuels, keep people healthy, and provide aid to the rest of the world. Slower growth will mean even more competition among these goals.

If ultimately we need growth in the wider sense that Reich defines — one that is socially and ecologically conscious — what might this look like going forward? Enter the pro-growth green movement.


Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and a member of the German Green Party, has a new book out (unpublished in the U.S. at this point) entitled, Smart Growth: The Green Revolution, which attempts to combine the wisdom of the ecological and pro-growth movements into a new framework for understanding capitalism and democracy.

In the English version of the book’s introductory chapter, Fücks challenges both the beyond-growth and pro-growth camps to recognize the limits of each approach. People “would soon discover that the ‘post-growth society’ was no carefree idyll but rather a showplace of social drama and competition for the allocation of resources. Greece is experiencing such a nightmare at this very moment. However, the notion that we could once again indulge in the resource-devouring, energy-intensive sort of growth of the twentieth century is equally unrealistic.” What is the alternative?

We are talking about entering a new age of ecology that adheres to the idea of progress, yet narrates it in a new key: as the history of the co-evolution of humankind and nature, with a potential for development that we have barely begun to tap. The present crisis does not represent the apocalypse of technological-scientific civilization, but rather the transition from an age where industry was powered by fossil fuels to one whose ecological method of production is already appearing in its outlines upon the horizon. Its power plant is the sun. A Europe-wide network of renewable energies is delivering climate-friendly electricity and thermal energy. Buildings are becoming miniature power stations that produce more energy than they consume. We circulate through cities using a smooth combination of public transportation, bicycles, and electric autos that can be rented out and returned again…

The miniaturization of technology reduces the consumption of materials. Computers, machines and motors are becoming smaller, lighter and more productive…Ultra-filtration stations transform waste water into drinking water. Near cities agro industrial centers arise, combining agriculture, gardening, animal husbandry and processing, and energy production in closed circuits. A segment of food production is returning to cities. Vegetables, fruits and mushrooms are being cultivated in all seasons of the year in old factories, vertical greenhouses and roof gardens. Industrial produced carbon dioxide is being used in the operation of greenhouses and the cultivation of algae…Artificial photosynthesis makes possible the transformation of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into synthetic fuels…Economy enters into a metabolic relationship with nature. The earth is no static element but rather a dynamic system full of yet undiscovered possibilities. Intelligent growth means growth with nature.

Beyond mere wishful thinking and abstraction, Reich and the pro-growth greens are pointing the way towards a potential fusion of economic needs and progressive values. The details still need to be fleshed out. But the framework is worth considering. With the right political decisions and the proper alignment of technology with nature, economic growth can once again enable progress and the advance of liberal values.