Can we grow without stuffing the Planet? Whiteboard Friday

Gareth MorganEconomics, Environment8 Comments

New research shows that the world economy is growing far faster than the resources we use to produce that growth – known as the ‘ecological footprint’. This ‘decoupling’ of growth and environmental damage is a promising step, but we still have a lot of work to do to protect the environment, as we have pushed the planet past several ecological limits. The ideal is that we can get growth without increasing the ecological footprint at all – and ideally reducing it back within ecological limits.

This poses a challenge to New Zealand and its politicians – showing our Government that we can continue to grow while protecting the environment, particularly by promoting more sustainable, dense urbanisation, and through good Government policy. It also shows the Greens that economic growth isn’t necessarily the enemy.

Can we grow without stuffing the Planet? Whiteboard Friday was last modified: September 9th, 2016 by Gareth Morgan
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Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.

  • Gail Reichert

    Thanks for the info in the presentation. I’m also interested in what’s happened since 2009. Any data on that?

  • Bob

    Love it Geoff “Idea’s to action” And almost keeping a straight face 😉

    Funny in an over populated world we import folk like it’s going out of fashion and there’s a sale on.

    We will run out of fertilizers at some stage though. So a small population will survive better than a large.

    We will also have to knock capitalism on it’s head at some stage. As it’s the main driver after people for more and more.

    I’ll be long dead of course. Shame though I’d have like to see how it all ends. :-).
    Like reading a book and losing it before you finish. Without the ability to get another.

    Have a good weekend :-).

  • Matt

    I’m entirely skeptical about future growth, taking climate change considerations into account. Particularly the potential for abrupt climate change and moving past tipping points in the climate system that amount effectively to one way change away from the stable climate that human development has enjoyed. The Paris Agreement limits (of 1.5 to 2 degrees above pre-industrial global average temperature) imply deep reductions in global carbon emissions from (before) now but also imply future large scale removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Worse, assuming that political social and economic systems are going fail to deliver the necessary emissions reductions, Paris in fact implies geoengineering implementation from very soon indeed.

    Hanging on to the growth objective is going to be very difficult indeed.

  • Duncan Cairncross

    Hi
    Great presentation – and it agrees with my experience as an engineer –
    I spent my career working on doing more with less – successfully
    We CAN do a lot better

    This planet CAN comfortably (and well) support over the predicted peak population with relatively small and painless changes

    BUT – we have got to stop “pissing in the soup” which means correctly and continually assessing the effects of everything we do
    No more buggering up the seabed with trawls!
    No more dumping far too much nitrogen into the water and groundwater
    Work really hard to REDUCE the CO2 in the atmosphere

  • Tim Enright

    Renewable energy is the path and engine room for growth – with modern batteries and solar we can already generate enough power to run our homes, run electric vehicles, generate 1,000’s of jobs, not import $billions of oil and lead low carbon lives. NZ electricity is already over 85% renewable and could be 100% if the government showed some leadership and vision, e.g. encouraging solar uptake, carbon tax to fund alternative energy or forestry. Forestry can produce negative emissions to offset other carbon emissions and help NZ meet the 2050 target of zero carbon globally or sooner if required. And if we don’t? The science is clear that we are well down the path of dangerous global warming, enormous costs to society from drought, famine, potential sea level rise of 3 meters by 2100 and the consequent displacement of 100’s of millions of people…..so let’s get on with decarbonisation!

  • Mark

    The biggest problem we face as a society, is this belief that economic growth is possible, desirable or even necessary. GDP and energy use are pretty well tied at the hip. Every economic process requires an energy input.
    So if 80% of primary energy comes from fossil fuels how does anyone consider that we can grow the economy and reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere? Efficiency can only reduce the amount of energy required for an incremental unit of GDP, not the requirement for energy. Absolute decoupling is thermodynamically impossible. !00% renewable energy will not support an industrial civilisation as is too diffuse. It is a laudable aim but only possible in conjunction with a planned degrowth, dematerialisation and deglobalisation. A positive vision for the future as it is possible!
    Many people point to the service economy, or the knowledge economy and the likes in order to frame resource free growth. However this is only possible off the back of the surplus from the primary economy. It can only grow proportionately to agricultural, extractive, processing and manufacturing industries somewhere “off site”. All facilitated of course by a global transport and logistics system fueled virtually 100%by oil, a resource undergoing a rapid and terminal decline in EROIA(energy returned on energy invested)
    Sorry to sound so negative, but once we realise material consumption is a pointless and dangerous pursuit past a certain point, we can move away from capitalism to a system of ecological rationing and equity. Nothing lasts forever and the alternative is a likely ecological and civilisation collapse

  • Narena

    EO Wilson’s idea of giving back half the planet to wildlife. Let’s get serious. Become vegan, stop eating meat. Grow most of food in cities, vertical agriculture. Decide to ,limit breeding.

  • Philip Dashfield

    “The ideal is that we can get growth without increasing the ecological
    footprint at all – and ideally reducing it back within ecological
    limits.”
    I am not economist, but I think this premise is laughable, flying in the face of some hard realities. The 1st of these is that the planet’s resources are finite, but we continue to exploit them as if they are infinite, indeed the rate of resource exploitation is increasing every year. Who will want to live in a world where the economy is growing at x% pa, but there’s no food because all the soil has been lost from industrial agricultural practices (which have also killed all the bees from endless pesticide use); where what few fish are left in the oceans by the current unstoppable over-fishing are killed by the pollution we pour into them, including hundreds of millions of tons of plastic (plus acidification and warmer temperatures from global warming); a world in which ecological collapse has devastated the biosphere, with massive species loss through pollution and habitat destruction from eg huge deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations; where all the non-renewable resources like oil and minerals that provide the consumer products we have come to regard as indispensable have been used up (not to mention things like the pharmaceutical products that our health is so dependent on).

    You seem to think that, as long as there’s economic growth, everything is will be hunky dory. Whether economic growth can be decoupled from ecological degradation is beside the point – the real issue is that humanity has an insatiable appetite for material goods far greater than the Earth is capable delivering at present levels, and as world population inexorably increases that demand is going to increase too. How does rising GDP put food on the table, or a roof over your head, when the natural resources that these things depend on are all gone? I personally think it is absurd to think that ‘economic growth’ is possible when the biosphere has been destroyed, and the planet’s resources are exhausted – you don’t need a degree in Economics to see that. Unfortunately Humanity is showing no signs of kicking its addiction to unsustainable consumption (most particularly those who live in the wealthiest countries who use the most resources per capita), trashing the Earth in the process, and we are on course for this exact dystopian nightmare – a dead, spent planet, ravaged by the climate change we have also brought about but lack the will to take action now to prevent.

    It is curious to me that while you see that economic growth comes at an ecological cost which is ultimately unsustainable, your solution is to try to decouple these 2 things, without ever considering for a moment whether abandoning the idea that economic growth is necessary is actually the solution to the problem. The prospects for the sustainability of the Earth would improve dramatically and instantly if governments got over their obsession with economic growth. In this respect I am with Mark who has also commented. I have yet to see a compelling argument for endless economic growth (especially when it mostly accrues to the people who are already the wealthiest, as seems to be the way under neoliberalism – ‘trickle up’ syndrome). Perhaps you can provide me with one.

    Acclaimed british writer George Monbiot has also looked at the question of ‘decoupling’ economic growth from resource exploitation; his conclusion is very different to yours.
    http://www.monbiot.com/2015/11/24/false-promise/
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/27/if-we-cant-change-economic-system-our-number-is-up