I have followed this debate for many years and here's my summary. 

Growth is great as long as it's sustainable. So is it sustainable now? Well, we have already exceeded 6 out of 9 planetary boundaries. In 2015, it was 4 out of 9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_boundaries 

Updated study to be published later this year. The source for 6 out of 9 is not yet available in English, but all other links below are in English. https://landetsfria.nu/2021/nummer-282/fler-hallbara-granser-kan-ha-passerats 

From the European Environmental Bureau 2019:
   The executive summary states: Is it possible to enjoy both economic growth and environmental sustainability? ...
   The conclusion is both overwhelmingly clear and sobering: not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future. ... 
   policy strategies ... [must include] the direct downscaling of economic production in many sectors and parallel reduction of consumption that together will enable the good life within the planet’s ecological limits ...
   It is a reason to have major concerns about the predominant focus of policymakers on green growth, this focus being based on the flawed assumption that sufficient decoupling can be achieved through increased efficiency without limiting economic production and consumption.
https://eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked

As I see it degrowth is not a goal, but might be a consequence of reaching our environmental goals in time. There is a lot of important new research about degrowth, so I will try to summarize: Most humans try to solve problems by adding, but we should more often reduce. More complexity increases risks: https://podbay.fm/p/sean-carrolls-mindscape-science-society-philosophy-culture-arts-and-ideas/e/1630327697  

Degrowth researchers I talked to say that we have convincing findings that green growth is not likely. We might see decoupling, but not rapid enough and not for all major environmental problems. So we have to choose between economic growth or reaching our environmental goals in time. Meta-study based on more than 10,000 scientific papers: 
https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab8429 https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab842a  

More research: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301857037_A_Simple_extension_of_Dematerialization_Theory_Incorporation_of_Technical_Progress_and_the_Rebound_Effect 
https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-02499463/document  
https://degrowth.org  

The world might fail in reaching further growth even if we continue trying. So what happens if we globally soon encounter a long period of degrowth? Probably not as much as many fear. Research has found that the need for growth is much about expectations. Like investments and loan decisions are made in the belief that growth will continue. But more is not the same thing as better. A large Swedish report in English about four different scenarios of a future beyond growth: https://bortombnptillvaxt.se/english/startpage.4.21d4e98614280ba6d9e68d.html#.YSfAq8gvND8  

All together, this new research indicates that GDP increases if we work more hours or use more resources (capital, energy, raw materials) per hours. Economic growth is not equivalent to efficiency, creativity or development, but is primarily driven by capital investments: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/8/5/490?fbclid=IwAR35JaACj8pRq54I-K4bFTB2gk1rqjq_1_Brz6ThdFRlVcz0p8HKu0iZPzc  

In reports by the UN panel on climate change (IPCC) and the corresponding body for biodiversity – IPBES – the researchers are increasingly more outspoken about overconsumption. The IPBES report from 2019 is based on more than 15 000 scientific publications and was compiled by more than 400 experts from 50 countries. One of the key messages is that a sustainable global economy needs to focus on decreasing levels of consumption and new visions for a good life – quality of life instead of a focus on economic growth. https://zenodo.org/record/3553579#.YSzCGMgvND9  

We can still have a lot of growth in important areas, but not overall. So perhaps the best way if you want long-term growth beyond the Earth is degrowth right now, but not for space exploration?

Income level is the single largest contributor explaining the variation in greenhouse gas emissions between households in Sweden, so maybe we should embrace the popular opinion to choose more free time on the society level, instead of raising high salaries even higher? 
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jiec.12168?fbclid=IwAR028wFiJx7k6LNK__BmuNqyzJb2XTmKyXgJP-9jxiFi08OKdWsFuQGWKQM  

Even during the pandemic, Americans want to prioritize environment more than growth: https://news.gallup.com/poll/344252/americans-emphasis-environmental-protection-shrinks.aspx  

We also see global public support for more focus on environment and well-being at the expense of economic growth: https://globalcommonsalliance.org/news/global-commons-alliance/global-commons-g20-survey  

Finally, a report about where we have scientific consensus about growth, and where we have the real difference in opinions: https://cogito.nu/publikationer/ten-thoughts-on-growth  

Your thoughts about this?
 

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10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:14 PM

A few points:

  1. There needs to be more quantification—even if only loose quantification—of the impact of environmental harms in this post. I was unclear what the problem we’re trying to avoid is: it felt a bit like hand waving, saying “we might miss these goals/targets” but without making the impact of that clear.
  2. Could you try to summarize the post more clearly up front and/or use headers for different sections? (Or use bolding for key statements). The analysis felt a bit windy, which slowed down and undermined my reading/understanding.
  3. My view is that “degrowth” is just a (politically) terrible catchphrase/policy label. Who even invented the term? An oil lobbyist? At least at the label level, the focus should not be on “let’s kill growth,” it should be on “[what do we want to achieve?]”—especially given the next point.
  4. Many of the simplistic assumptions I’ve seen regarding the relationship between “growth” and environmental damage are wrong: arguments related to the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) illustrate that regardless of whether the EKC is true on balance, there are definitely ways in which economic growth can also involve reducing pollution (e.g., developments in renewable energy) and economic growth makes environmental standards/health effects more important for some people.

Thanks for your points. 

1. How much suffering different environmental problems will cause is, as you know, difficult to put numbers on, especially in combination. But I fully agree with Toby Ord's conclusion that it is very unlikely that humanity would become extinct this century as a result of climate change. However, I think most people will have worse lives due to environmental degradation, compared to if we stopped prioritizing growth now, which is not so dramatic as it may seem.

The pretty unknown direct climate effect that worries me the most is deadly wet bulb temperature - when it is high humidity and at the same time warmer outside than the skin's temperature which is up to 35 degrees C, the body can not cool down by sweating. Then everyone dies within a few hours outdoors, as in a wet sauna if it’s impossible to get out. This is about to hit part of southern Asia within 50 years and thus 1-3.5 billion - up to 1 in 3 human beings. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/04/28/1910114117 

To stop this, we should reach the global goal at most +1.5 degrees. Then the climate impact of rich countries needs to be reduced by 10-20 percent each year. It is very unlikely that it would happen suddenly. If we also have growth, both experience and scientifically developed models suggest that a decoupling between GDP and greenhouse gas emissions greater than 3–4 per cent per year is very difficult to achieve. Some sources for that: Schandl et al. (2016), Hickel & Kallis (2020), the simulation tool C-ROADS (developed by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan).

2.   Ok, it’s only a 3 minutes text with different aspects, but perhaps like this? Key point: If we continue to have overall GDP growth in rich countries this decade, we will most likely exceed the planetary boundaries even more. Is it worth that?

3. I agree that degrowth is a word that sounds bad. A common response, for example from one of Sweden's most influential economists, Klas Eklund, is that we should prioritize the environment and other central societal goals and then GDP will be what it becomes. But we don't have a common word for that?

4. Absolutely in some areas for a limited time, but on a global level we only see some relative decoupling between GDP and climate emissions, no absolute decoupling. Both climate emissions and GDP are globally higher than ever. When it comes to GDP and material footprint we see no global decoupling at all. See figure 1 about this paragraph: 
https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/growth-without-economic-growth 

When something becomes more efficient, we buy more instead of choosing more free time (rebound effect). Of course, it’s not impossible that it will be different in the future, but we need to drastically reduce our environmental impact now, otherwise we’re exceeding more tipping points that can’t be reversed, like losing most of the Amazon rainforest.
 

This is about to hit part of southern Asia within 50 years and thus 1-3.5 billion - up to 1 in 3 human beings. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/04/28/1910114117 

To be clear, that article only forecasts that outcome in the "business-as-usual" approach  which seems to mean to them an increase of 5–8 degrees Celsius (figure 2B), which seems like a really high estimate; is that within the standard forecasted range, or is that more like the "assume all progress in renewable energy magically halts and we continue on as if nothing bad is happening" forecast?

1. How much suffering different environmental problems will cause is, as you know, difficult to put numbers on, especially in combination.

I think there is probably a range of decent estimates out there about mortality/DALYs as well as some economic costs under different scenarios (which should not include what I described above, if I understood what was meant by "business-as-usual"). It doesn't need to be precise to be helpful here; even an order of magnitude range could be very helpful, possibly even two orders of magnitude.

 

2.   Ok, it’s only a 3 minutes text with different aspects, but perhaps like this? Key point: If we continue to have overall GDP growth in rich countries this decade, we will most likely exceed the planetary boundaries even more. Is it worth that? 

The estimated reading time on each post is only a loose estimate, and in this case it definitely was not a 3-minute read for me since I had to re-read multiple things to get a clear picture of what you were vs. weren't claiming + I had to read about some of the mentioned concepts, such as "planetary boundaries." Ultimately, it's just a good practice to have a tl;dr up front that summarizes your main points in 2–4 sentences.

As to the summary in this case, I would again re-emphasize my points above: I'd like to see actual rough estimates as to the potential costs of not pursuing degrowth, because "exceed the planetary boundaries" means basically nothing to me (and even what I briefly read was not very persuasive, especially if we're already exceeding the boundaries and not facing mass starvation/heat exhaustion/etc.)

 

we should prioritize the environment and other central societal goals and then GDP will be what it becomes. But we don't have a common word for that?

We don't have a term for "Environmental protection"?? That sounds like a failure of imagination. Even an acronym or "no catchphrase at all" seems better to me than "degrowth," which really seems like a counterproductive label.

 

4. Absolutely in some areas for a limited time, but on a global level we only see some relative decoupling between GDP and climate emissions, no absolute decoupling. Both climate emissions and GDP are globally higher than ever. When it comes to GDP and material footprint we see no global decoupling at all. See figure 1 about this paragraph: 
https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/growth-without-economic-growth 

To be blunt, that's a rather shallow, self-confirming collection/interpretation of data, especially since it doesn't even grapple with the ideas of the EKC: you shouldn't expect an aggregate/global decoupling when you have numerous developing countries with massive population sizes (China and India) as well as many other developing countries going through the low-income industrial/manufacturing stages currently. A more dispassionate review of the data would look at things with a more granular lens, which is what I did with some WorldBank data for a class paper a few years ago, producing the following graphs:

"With each point representing a country, the result in both years is a strong correlation between countries’ GDPpc and CO2pc levels, displayed in the given trendlines." Note, however, that the relationship between GDP per capita and CO2 emissions substantially changes between the two time periods to become "more efficient" (GDPpc/CO2) in 2013 vs. 1990.

 

"In the diagram, each country’s changes are represented by a series of data points. The sources for the data are the same as the previous section’s. The countries listed include the BRICS countries, various Western-aligned countries, and a few others such as the United Arab Emirates (ARE), Mexico, and Hungary." Note how some countries' relationship actually "bends backwards"—i.e., the CO2 emissions per GDPpc begins decoupling or outright decreasing in some industrialized countries as the countries become richer.

 

When something becomes more efficient, we buy more instead of choosing more free time (rebound effect). Of course, it’s not impossible that it will be different in the future, but we need to drastically reduce our environmental impact now, otherwise we’re exceeding more tipping points that can’t be reversed, like losing most of the Amazon rainforest.

Counterpoint: If you replace coal plants with solar or other renewables (e.g., hydroelectric), you don't just adjust your consumption patterns so drastically as to make solar/etc. pollute as much as coal.

More broadly, it just seems like you aren't familiar with the research/argumentation on the EKC. If that's true, I would strongly encourage you to learn more about it if you are planning to focus on environmental concerns. The EKC is certainly debatable in terms of how powerful it is and whether it will act fast enough, but the theoretical evidence is very strong for some activities (i.e., replacing coal with renewables or at least natural gas), and some shallow review of the data (e.g., above) partially supports the idea (with some potential exceptions, such as with oil-producing economies).

Thanks for re-reading and considering arguments. 

1-2: In the study I mentioned it’s within 50 years. Will it stay there? Earlier studies estimated this would take around 200 years, according to 
https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/science/intolerable-heat-may-hit-the-middle-east-by-the-end-of-the-century.html  (I can’t access these studies)

Of course I do hope and believe that we can avoid the business as usual scenario, but at the same time we have all these feedback loops and combination of effects that IPCC doesn’t count. On the other hand we also have more technichal progress than expected. On the third hand, it might be a harder time for all these refugees in the future. 

As the study also mentions: “warming to 2 °C, compared with 1.5 °C, is estimated to increase the number of people exposed to climate-related risks and poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050”. Here’s another study about future wet bulb temperatures in South Asia: 
https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1603322 
The heat deaths in India and Pakistan now, is expected annually with 2 C warming.
https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/india-heat-wave-climate-change-1.6442517 
That contributes to less cheap food. Already, 2 in 5 britons buy less to eat in a new study: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/may/13/cost-of-living-golden-era-of-cheap-food-over
But I think we will also use new ways to produce food (Allfed, etc).  

I haven’t seen any numbers like: So many people will die and so much suffering/happiness do we get during next 50 years if global GDP during next 10 years is -3% annually instead of +3% due to degrowth only in rich countries. And degrowth or not, we can still choose to stop extreme poverty. 

According to a study 2020 where artificial intelligence processed as many as 500,000 scientific articles and reports from the past 20 years to find the most cost-effective balance of measures, the cost to largely eradicate global hunger by 2030, is only $ 33 billion per year in addition to what is currently being invested. That's less than 5 percent of the US military budget. If we only take the most cost-effective measures, it's enough with Sweden's defense budget to almost halve world hunger. Now it’s 2022 and with covid-19 more is required. But still, it’s not a question of increasing GDP, it’s a question of (political) will. 
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/13/ending-world-hunger-by-2030-would-cost-330bn-study-finds 

I have also summarized what IPCC says about mental health 2022, and these problems start to increase already when temperature exceeds +20 C: https://www.facebook.com/groups/EAmentalhealthandhappiness/posts/4914186425331333

With all this together, perhaps we can guess some overall numbers you’re asking for?

3. One term suggested is growth agnostic, another growth realist, a third is to say the whole sentence each time: “we should prioritize the environment and other central societal goals and then GDP will be what it becomes”.

4. Yes, EKC is a common argument. I think we have a pretty good summary of pros and cons about EKC here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuznets_curve
I can also add that we now are in the situation that less environmental impact is not enough, we need drastically less environmental impact starting now. That means we can’t have the same strategies now as 20 years ago. 

I agree that it’s a big change when we spend money on renewables instead of fossil fuels, but we’re mainly not there yet and we still have other planetary boundaries. 



 

Thank you for writing this posit. I think the degrowth perspective is quite needed in the EA community, which I often feel tends to be too optimistic about the prospects of technological progress improving wellbeing in the medium-run and the negative impacts of climate change on wellbeing and overall societal stability in the medium-run. Facing these challenges, targeted degrowth of certain sectors in developed economies seems like the best response. Especially since a Haber Bosch-style breakthrough doesn't seem likely, or hoping that one does happen seems unreasonable given the stakes. 

However, I agree that degrowth doesn't is probably not very tractable. A massive shift in developed countries' political power structures would be required to implement the reductions in profit and redistribution of economic resources that degrowth implies. 

Thank you Goran for this post and for bringing the topic to the forum. I hope to see more open-minded discussions around 'degrowth' within the EA community in the future.

From the longtermist perspective, degrowth is not that bad as long as we are eventually able to grow again. For example, we could hypothetically halt or reverse some growth and work on creating safe AGI or nanotechnology or human enhancement or space exploration until we are able to bypass Earth's ecological limits.

A small scale version of this happened during the pandemic, when economic activity was greatly reduced until the situation stabilized and we had better tools to fight the virus.

But let's not be mistaken, growth (perhaps measured by something other than GDP) is pretty much the goal here. If we have to forego growth temporarily, it's because we have failed to find clever ways of bypassing the current limits. It's not a strategy, it's what losing looks like.

It's also probably politically infeasible: just raising inflation and energy prices is enough to have most people completely forget about the environment. It could not be a planned thing, rather a consequence of economic forces.

It's like if Haber and Bosch hadn't invented their nitrogen process in 1910. We would have run out of fertilizer and then population growth would've had to slow down or even reverse.

Yes, degrowth now might mean more growth in the future than otherwise. It's better to let some air out of the growth balloon than to inflate it so hard that it bursts.

If we done the "right" things historically, we could have done so much more space exploration and other valuable choices before we caused the environmental crisis of today. But now we have wasted Earth's resources in so many useless and destructive ways in a global consumption society that now even challenges our mental health.

What we need now globally is not more overconsumption, but enough basic needs for everyone within the planetary boundaries, and free extensive sharing of the best tools for well-being, like 29k.org 

Most people agree to reduce their consumption if everyone have to do it, so we should try rationing like in past huge crisis. You can offer more free time instead of higher salaries on a society level, and compensate poor people. 

Are you referring to catch-up growth in developing countries (eg. adopting existing technologies) or frontier growth in developed countries?

When I wrote "We can still have a lot of growth in important areas, but not overall.", then "areas" refers to both geographical areas like countries, and also areas like  solar thermal energy, or something else you need more of. 

We will most likely continue to see growth in poor countries, but even in poor countries, it matters what kind of growth we see.