Humanity has gone beyond the ‘safe operating space’ of the planet, and the problems we face – climate change, biodiversity loss, water shortages – are all related to the use of materials, fossil fuels and biomass by the world’s economies. Armed with the knowledge that current economic growth, which is so reliant on natural resources, can’t be sustained, the economist Peter Victor explained the three alternatives.
Firstly, developing countries can build their economies in a way that doesn’t deplete natural resources on the scale we do now. Very appealing, and an approach favoured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But a potential stumbling block is that increased efficiency can mean we consume more. This was first noticed when improvements in steam engines led to an increase in coal consumption. If we make more efficient planes they will be cheaper to fly so we can afford more of them.
Secondly, economies can grow based on the service sector, and other areas that consume fewer resources. In many ways that’s what we see in the west, but our society has simply shifted some of the resource-heavy industries to other countries.
Alternatively, we can stop our striving for economic growth, and there’s increasing evidence that growth has little effect on happiness. In fact more egalitarian societies tend to be happier ones, yet economic growth generally widens the gap between rich and poor. If economies in the west continue to grow and increase their ecological burden, developing countries have little chance of real improvement.
Victor goes on to suggest how we can improve our society without growth. A shorter working year, for example, would spread the employment load. So more people would have jobs, and everyone in work would have more leisure time. A steady population, stricter policies on the environment and resource use are other key ingredients.
But is zero growth enough? Some researchers are looking at ‘degrowth’ – shrinking developed economies to bring them into balance with resource and environmental limits, while improving quality of life.
Victor concludes that “With the prospect of environmental calamity facing humanity, developed economies must chart a course towards living within a fair share, and no more, of the planet’s safe operating space.” This needn’t be done at the expense of happiness, as long as policy makers end their obsession with economic growth and instead look for economic progress.
Victor P. (2010) Questioning Economic Growth. Nature 468, 370-371.