No respectable person in American politics dares to question the virtue of economic growth even though it is increasingly clear that life on Earth will collapse if current patterns of extraction and consumption continue. So what is the responsible path forward?
It was exciting that the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. decided to host a two-hour webinar to explore this topic two weeks ago. The dialogue – “A Deeper Look at the Limits to Growth: Looking Beyond GDP Towards a Post-Growth Society” – amounted to dipping a toe into the water rather than a confident plunge. But for Americans, who woefully lag behind European activists on this topic, it was a welcome attempt to get beyond conventional political stances.
Economic growth is always touted as the absolute precondition for greater social justice or environmental progress. Yet somehow growth never really translates into sustainable gains for the environment or fairer allocations of rewards. Nonmarket goals are always a receding chimera, an afterthought, a political football. On the other hand, it is equally true that criticizing economic growth is a sure-fire way to be politically marginalized in American public life. That's a real problem, too.
The IPS webinar sought to probe the “fundamental rift between traditional progressives over the future of economic growth. One segment argues that ecological limits dictate that the economic growth paradigm that we know is over…..Other progressives argue we should pursue growth policies -- or even ‘green growth’ -- and not concede that we are ‘anti-growth.’”
Here is how IPS introduced the webinar:
How do we move beyond the notion that green economists are tone-deaf to equity issues? How do we move beyond the misguided aspirations of many groups excluded from economic prosperity to grow the pie so they can have a larger piece of the pie? What is the green economist message to traditionally economically excluded constituencies?
Is there a way to “redefine growth” that doesn’t politically concede limits to growth? (After all, conventional wisdom say no politician will win on a degrowth program). Is there a common framework that can unify both of these movements that address both of these group’s deep systemic concerns?
In the past, organized labor and environmentalists have gamely attempted to find a common ground – a “blue/green alliance” – that would push for higher wages and stronger environmental protection at the same time. Such projects have been a valiant effort to force capital to internalize its negative externalities (pollution, habitat destruction, etc.) and allocate the benefits of growth more equitably.