The Problem of Green Growth

The very concept of “green growth”, or of a green economy, is fraught with ambiguity. A collection of different, sometimes contradictory strategies and policies (Bullard & Müller, 2012; Ulrich, 2012), it seeks to reduce environmental degradation while failing to address the underlying causes, namely market structures and the capitalism accumulation imperative (Hoffmann, 2011). Indeed, the very concept of “saving the planet” is limited by the need to follow “the sacred rights of the free market” (Lander, 2011: 7), and ignores the fact that environmental protection goes against modern economic interests (Spash, 2012).

The economist Kenneth Boulding made the point succinctly when he said that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” (Heinberg, 2005). Yet continuous economic growth and profit for its own sake remains a basic element of today’s global society (Niccolucci et al., 2007; Dale, 2012), requiring further increases in resource extraction and commodity consumption, as mainstream economists maintain that technological innovation will surpass any and all biophysical limits (Brown et al., 2011). Faced with massive environmental degradation and upcoming resource limits the capitalist system creates a façade of “green growth” to mask the true crisis – that capitalism itself is unsustainable, and a new economic paradigm is required.

It is important to remember it is the very internal mechanisms of capitalism that produce resource depletion and environmental degradation in the quest for growth and profit (Macdonald, 2004). “Green growth” ignores the nonnegotiable “grow or die” imperative in modern capitalism that is the root cause of environmental problems (Bookchin, 1993). Additionally, advocates of a pro-market environmentalism stance will find it hard to explain how a system that has produced such environmental damage will reduce consumption and redistribute income, notions that are anathema to capitalism yet form the basis of sustainability itself (Nichols, 1999). Indeed, to reduce our impact on the planet and improve the sustainability of civilisation, the very tenets of capitalism – competition, greed and consumerism – will have to be replaced by sufficiency, mutual aid, and community connectedness (Rees, 2010; Manno, 2011). Ultimately, a new ecological-economic system is required to ensure a stable global economy and living space for humanity (Ehrlich, 1989) – what form it will take is unknown, but it will be very different from the present.

It must be admitted that a global transition to an economy shaped by “green growth” would produce tangible benefits, reducing humanity’s environmental footprint and enabling technological and social change (Hoffmann, 2011) as well as providing millions of “green jobs” worldwide (UNEP, 2008). Additionally, green growth has positive aspects that are much needed. It encourages collective action (Bowen & Fankhauser, 2011), something sorely needed in an era of international globalisation and competition, and allows for proactive measures without restraining entrepreneurship (Martinelli & Midttun, 2012). As mentioned earlier, it would also bring positive changes to society as well as providing “green employment” (Jackson & Victor, 2011). However, the detrimental effects outweigh the benefits.

The very concept of “growth” is unviable for an era of degradation and resource limits. We are already sacrificing natural capital for manufactured capital at an unsustainable rate (Daly, 2005). Importantly, economic growth eventually becomes a blight rather than a blessing for human wellbeing (Beddoe et al., 2009) and contributing to our modern economies becoming energetically unsustainable (Smil, 2008). Even if desired, it is unlikely that further economic growth is possible (Hall & Klitgaard, 2006; Murphy & Hall, 2011; Johnson et al., 2012).

What is needed is a fundamental restructuring of global economics. Modern economics is incapable of integrating environmental degradation and resource depletion (Gintis, 2000; Ayres, 2008; Farley, 2011), and carrying on as we are risks further ecological damage (Raskin et al., 2010). The “expand or perish” force in modern capitalism must be removed, along with the current consumption patterns and lifestyles of the industrial north (Haberl et al., 2011; Hoffmann, 2011). What to do? Should we aim for a “steady-state” economy (Daly, 1991)? Or is “degrowth” the answer, like in Cuba (Borowy, 2013)? Although economic fears regarding the consequences of degrowth are prudent, proof that a non-growing economy could maintain or increase levels of employment whilst reducing resource use and carbon emissions should reduce such fears (Simms et al., 2010; Jackson & Victor, 2011).

Some have emphasised poverty as a cause of environmental degradation (Duraiappah, 1996) and that growth is needed to lift these people out of poverty, but this is a harmful myth (Satterthwaite, 2002). It has to be remembered though that conventional methods of growth have thus far done nothing to aid the two billion people still surviving on less than $2 daily (Jackson, 2009). Concepts of green growth continue to fall short of what is needed to address both the environmental and poverty crisis (Bina & Camera, 2011), and despite the hopes of reduced energy use, economic growth of any kind is frequently correlated with increases in energy use (Hall & Klitgaard, 2006; Sterner & Damon, 2011). And as recounted at length previously, markets and capitalist structures are utterly unsuited for any form of transition to an environmentally sustainable form of economic governance (Martínez-Alier et al., 2010; Smith, 2011). Conventional economics brought us to the cliff’s edge; something new is required to bring us back.


The author would like to apologise for those references which are unfortunately behind paywalls at the time of writing.

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5 thoughts on “The Problem of Green Growth

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