Does economic growth boost inequality and pollution?

A new cross-party group chaired by Caroline Lucas considers the limits of growth


Yesterday I attended the launch of a new All Party Parliamentary Group I helped set up, which is the first ever to focus on the limits to growth.

The APPG is chaired by Caroline Lucas of the Green Party and co-chaired by George Kerevan of the SNP and Daniel Zeichner of Labour.

Here are five thoughts from yesterday’s meeting on why the idea of ecological limits to growth is one whose time has surely come, making the launch of this group so timely:

1. The critics of the 1972 book The Limits To Growth accused the authors of excessive pessimism regarding the availability of raw materials. Even if one were to accept this claim, the critics would have to accept that, as ecological economist Tim Jackson, who chaired yesterday’s meeting, made clear during his presentation, the book was if anything too optimistic about pollution crises.

When one looks back at the graphs in the book, one is struck by how pollution doesn’t feature as a fatal limit to growth. But, since 1972, we have seen that it can be, and in a way already is, as the hole in our ozone layer and anthropogenic climate change have shown.

One could add the plastic in the oceans, the health risks caused by growing air pollution, and the growth of heavy metals in our food supplies. Hopefully this APPG can monitor such cases, and help make this point as widely known as it deserves to be.

2. Thinking about raw material shortages is a good way to bring out and show the utter short-termism of today’s dominant narrative. It is appalling how people say things like, ‘We have enough gas now to last a hundred years’, as if that were the kind of time-scale humans ought to be happy planning for. (This would mean there would be virtually no natural gas left in just six generation’s time.)

This APPG will seek to broaden the horizons of policy-makers beyond that of ordinary politics, where ‘long term’ means anything more than 20 years away. Caroline Lucas argued that we desperately need a new way of politically including the future. (I’ve made some suggestions on how to do this).

3. Most of what typically gets celebrated, for example, the decoupling‘ of carbon emissions from other impacts from economic growth, is actually only relative decoupling. If growth were to continue indefinitely, we would need robust, permanent and absolute decoupling, which is vanishingly rare.

There is also a rebound effect which makes decoupling a mixed blessing, since the benefits of greater efficiency get fed back in to the economy as increased consumptive behaviour.

If someone saves money by putting in good green roof insulation, they can use the money to buy a new sports car or a holiday in the Caribbean, so the net effect is to worsen man-made climate change. For more on this, see here and here.

4. These first three issues suggest another perspective that is critically important: the need for government to take a view that is not confined to cost-benefit analyses, or even what the ‘evidence-base’ tells us.

Instead it should act according to the Precautionary Principle, which is supposedly part of UK and EU law, but has been under sustained attack from some Parliamentary Committees.

When we consider the risk of potential future pollution crises and the possibility of rebound effects, then there could be an Precautionary argument against further economic growth. How this might be applied will be something the APPG could lead on.

5. Finally, we need to question not only whether economic growth is possible or necessary or dangerous, but whether it is desirable in the first place. Does growth make us happy?

In recent years, virtually all the proceeds of growth have gone to the rich. So, as the authors of The Spirit Level suggest, insofar as growth fosters inequality, it could potentially make us unhappy.

At the meeting, George Kerevan agreed with Caroline Lucas that the Treasury is a massive block to progress in this area and in many others. He even went so far as to say we could consider abolishing it altogether – a bold idea, since Mr Kerevan sits on the Treasury Select Committee, and the first of many from the new APPG.

Dr Rupert Read is a Reader in Philosophy at University of East Anglia and chair of the think tank Green House

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One Response to “Does economic growth boost inequality and pollution?”

  1. James Kemp

    Oh yes such green idea’s like in Brighton where one lane on a due lane road is now a bus lane and after 8 pm is only used 4 times a hour. FFS this is the sort of Rubbish idea’s of greens create a hour long snarl up every day morning and evening rush hour now! So pump out tons more co2 because half the road cannot be used and say it’s a great system!

    This years great idea’s include £20 parking for 4 hours on Brighton seafront guess what it’s done for visitor numbers! I will listen to greens when they suggest sensible long term idea’s NOT short term non fixes that have not worked, never will work and create more issues..

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