IS GREEN GROWTH A CONVENIENT LIE? – with Jason Hickel, Economic Anthropologist
By Elizabeth Njambi
How fighting inequality and beating climate change means we must end our addiction to economic growth and fast.
We’re asking: How are inequality, climate breakdown and growth linked? Why is green growth an impossibility? If rich nations must stop growing, what does this mean for developing countries?
Nadia and Max have an amazing conversation with Dr. Jason Hickel – economic anthropologist, activist, academic and author of ‘Less is More’ and ‘The Divide’ . Jason is a leading thinker on both inequality and climate, and a passionate advocate of degrowth; the idea that the pursuit of economic growth by rich nations is destroying the planet and needs to stop, and that pursuit of equality is vital to saving our planet.
Please do share the episode on your social media.
If you’re joining us on EQUALS for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with the award-winning journalist Gary Younge on what we can learn from Martin Luther King Jr to fight inequality, to best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, Zambian music artist PilAto on the power of music, thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, climate activist Hindou Ibrahim on nature, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic.
Foreign Aid as Reparations
[00:02:16] Nadia: So, it is great to have you on. Last week, we were talking about the need to see foreign aid as reparations to the global south. And, you know, you’ve done a lot on this issue of the creation of wealth and the colonial history behind that. We’d love for you to tell us a bit more about that.
[00:02:32] Dr. Jason: … I’ve been a critic of the aid discourse for some time now. It sort of tells a story, right? The story is that rich countries are sort of these benevolent givers in the world’s system. They have achieved their greatness, their riches sort of on the back of their own hard work, etc, and now they’re reaching out and giving generously of their surplus to help poor countries up the development ladder and so on.
My problem with this narrative is that it sort of obscures the fact that in reality, rich countries have enriched themselves through historical processes of appropriation that have actually produced and perpetuated under-development in the global south. And that even today, this process continues. So, the high level of growth and income and consumption that characterizes the rich countries today is only possible because of a significant net appropriation of labor, energy, resources, and lands from the global south. And this is documented extensively in the empirical record.
Perceived Progress vs. Reality
[00:03:23] Max: Something you’ve spoken about a lot is the kind of counter-narrative to what you’ve just laid out there. And what we’ve talked about on EQUALS quite a lot, which is this kind of, if you like, the Bill Gates picture of progress. Basically, a consistent reduction in extreme poverty, a rising life expectancy or kind of a sense in which yes, we’ve got a long way to go, but we have come a very positive way in the last few decades. Can you say a little bit about why you think that’s such a dominant narrative and why you think it’s wrong?
[00:03:56] Dr. Jason: … This narrative hinges entirely on an extremely low poverty line, $1.90 a day, which of course we’re used to hearing. But the problem is that scholars have critiqued this threshold as totally inadequate for many years. The issue with this threshold is that there’s no empirical grounding in actual human needs, right? So, we know that people who live on this amount of money or even above it, are still deeply in poverty and can’t access even basic nutrition – to say nothing about shelter, education, housing, health care, etc.
So, when we look at the question of poverty trends and using more empirically reasonable thresholds, like in the region of $7.40 a day, which is basically what’s required for access to good nutrition and a normal life expectancy, then we see that the narrative is not really quite as optimistic as it’s normally portrayed.
Now, this is not to say that incomes have not been increasing. Of course, they have. Incomes and consumption have increased, but by very small amounts. So basically, enough to push people above $1.90, but not enough to lift them out of poverty, according to any empirical definition. And so, progress against poverty is extremely slow. And at this pace,… it will take hundreds of years before we end poverty according to meaningful empirical threshold.
So, this is not good enough. We live in an abundant world economy. There’s zero reason for poverty. We can organize economic capacity around serving human needs and provisioning for welfare. But instead, our extraordinary economic capacity is organized around capital accumulation and elite consumption. And as the result, despite the abundance of our planet and our economy, we have a persistent problem of mass poverty.
And I think we have to confront that fact, right? The global economy is fundamentally not working for the majority of humanity and is not actually designed to work for them.
The Link between Capitalism, Climate Breakdown and Inequality
[00:06:14] Nadia: … So, there are different issues here. One of them is about how we define the threshold for extreme poverty or poverty. And then the other piece is that it’s not just about raising the threshold of how we define poverty, but also an issue of this persistent capital accumulation. The elite writing the rules and an issue of inequality.
And one of the things we really liked about your work is how you link these various issues together. This linking of capitalism and equality, and then also climate breakdown. How do you see these things being related?
[00:06:47] Dr. Jason: Let me emphasize one fact really briefly. We live in a world economy that’s basically organized in such a way that labour and resources in the global south are appropriated on a massive scale to service excess northern consumerism and elite accumulation, when they could be used to meet human needs. … And this is what’s responsible for driving the crisis of both inequality and ecological breakdown.
… It’s not actually humans as such that are causing this crisis, but rather, an economic system that is organized around the interests of powerful states, corporations and rich individuals. We can see this when it comes to climate change very clearly where we know that rich countries are overwhelmingly responsible for historical emissions.
A recent study that we published in the Lancet demonstrates that the countries of the global north are responsible for 92% of all emissions in excess of the Safe Planetary Boundary. So that means they’re responsible for 92% of the damages caused by climate breakdown. And of course, those damages, we know fall disproportionately on poor countries and communities in the global south that have done nothing to cause this crisis. In fact, most countries in the global south are still well within their fair share of the planetary boundary.
So, for decades scholars in the global south have been pointing out that this amounts to what they described as a process of “atmosphere colonization”. The atmosphere is a commons, which all of us depend on for our survival, but a small fraction of rich countries have effectively appropriated it for their own enrichments with severe consequences for all of life on Earth.
And so, I think we have to keep that colonial dimension in mind. And it’s true, not only for climates, but also for other crises of ecological breakdown, such as, habitat destruction and biodiversity collapse. That part of the crisis is being driven by excess resource use. Not just emissions, but all of the material stuff that we extract and… consume each year.
And remember this excess resource use is comprised of materials that are extracted and appropriated from the global south, right? So, the benefits are captured in rich countries, but the ecological impact is basically off shored to poor countries.
And this is obvious if you just look around at some of the industries in the north, right? The beef industry in the USA depends on deforestation in the Amazon. The tech industry in Germany depends on mining in the Congo. The cosmetic industry in Britain depends on Palm oil plantations in Indonesia. And so on.
So, if you read, for example, the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba which was signed in 2010 by hundreds of social movements from the global south, they are explicit that the ecological crisis is ultimately a problem of colonization and appropriation. These are the words they use. And they demand an anti-imperial struggle in response. So, while in the north, we tend to see the crisis as a problem of technology; in the south they understand that it’s ultimately a problem of appropriation.
Is Green Growth a Convenient Lie?
[00:09:44] Max: I think you’re right. I think what struck me reading your latest book (‘Less is More’) – and which was brilliant by the way – was the way you bring those things together. … What really struck me was the arguments you clearly made that the idea that we can grow our way out of this problem in a green way, was just completely fictional. That that level of extraction was just not possible. And even if we were all driving electric cars, we’d have to have mines the size of South America.
Can you say a little bit about that? Cause that was quite an eye opener for me. I’ll be honest.
[00:10:29] Dr. Jason: … So, several years ago, a colleague and I … did a review of the scientific literature on the question of green growth, and we found that there are basically two fundamental problems with the theory.
First, all existing studies, empirical studies, conclude that GDP growth cannot be absolutely decoupled from resource use, even under very high efficiency conditions.
The second problem has to do with climate change. Obviously, we know that it’s possible to decouple GDP from emissions by switching to renewable energy, right? The problem is that it’s unlikely that high-income nations will be able to reduce their emissions fast enough to stay within the carbon budget for 1.5 or 2 degrees, which is rapidly shrinking, if they continue to pursue growth at the same time.
And the reason is because the more we grow, the more energy we use and the more energy we use, the more difficult it is to cover it with renewables in the short time we have left. I think it’s clear that it’s time to take a different approach.
Now, I want to emphasize the fact that this is only a problem when it comes to rich countries. Obviously, low-income countries need to grow their economies in order to meet human needs. And that’s fine because they are still well within planetary boundaries. It’s rich countries that are the problem because rich countries are the ones driving overshoot and have GDP per capita levels that are way in excess of what is actually needed to meet human needs even at a very high standard.
The conclusion basically boils down to the fact that rich countries need to abandon growth as an objective, and urgently focus on reducing excess resource use and energy use.
And we know that high levels of wellbeing can be achieved with just a fraction of the resources and energy that rich countries use, if they organize their economies around meeting human needs, rather than around capital accumulation and elite consumption.
Is this Really Possible?
[00:12:51] Nadia: So that’s clear. And I feel like it’s really helpful that you separated out what needs to happen with rich economies versus those that are still low-income or middle-income. And I guess one of the questions I have is, isn’t there some sort of reliance here, you know, in this interdependent, globalized world that we live in? … Given that interdependency, is it possible to decouple growth in developing countries versus growth in rich countries?
[00:13:49] Dr. Jason: … Most of the yields of all of that economic activity in the south, are captured as GDP in the north. And very little trickles down to poor countries where the labour and resources are extracted. So, the question becomes, how do you break out of this destructive pattern?
And the solution actually is in the progressive history of the post-colonial struggle in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when progressive leaders and economists were trying to focus on using national domestic capacity in poor countries to meet domestic needs. That’s exactly the pattern that we should follow today.
What does that mean? That means using tools like tariffs and subsidies to build domestic industries, to substitute imports and meet domestic needs as much as possible. So, economists from the global south have been drawing on modern monetary theory (MMT) to point out that what you can do is, you can issue a national currency to fund three urgent objectives.
The first is fund a full suite of universal public services: healthcare, education, housing for all. The second thing is to achieve food sovereignty. So, reduce your imports of food from the global north, and instead use your lands with regenerative farming to provide healthy food for your entire population and to achieve energy sovereignty through renewable energy transition. This reduces reliance on imports and on finance from the global north, thereby basically liberating you from remote control power by creditors, like the world bank and the IMF and wall street investment banks, and so on. And ….in terms of the labor component, and this is the third piece of the puzzle, you can fund a public job guarantee, to end unemployment and mobilize domestic labor around these objectives.
I want to emphasize that the objectives that we need to aim for when it comes to this dual question of achieving ecological stability and ending poverty … is effectively a pattern of convergence. We need rich countries to dramatically reduce their resource use to get back within sustainable levels. To bring their economies back into balance with the living world. While in poor countries, we need to reclaim resources to meet human needs at a high standard. And to improve our economic capacity.
[00:16:23] Max: You make it sound so plausible. I’m convinced! But I mean, I think, you know, the politics around such a transition is enormous, isn’t it? You’re very clear about the fact that inequality and climate destruction are very much linked, but how is greater equality going to also help stop climate breakdown? And particularly the getting our quality of life from a much lower level of GDP.
[00:16:52] Dr. Jason: We know for a fact that we have to reduce aggregate global energy and resource use in order to bring our country back into balance with the living world. So, the question becomes then, ‘do we constrain the resource use of the rich and ensure that everyone has access to what they need for a good life – which is what de-growth and eco socialism basically call for? Or do we constrain the resources of the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich, which is basically the existing pattern of imperialist eco-fascism, right?’ So, we have that choice to make. And for me, the answer is clear. That we need to tackle the question of inequality as a fundamental issue when it comes to ecology.
And yeah, so I think the public services thing really does become important here because public services are de-commodified. And this is important to understand – the distinction between commodities and non-commodities. GDP growth only measures commodities. It only measures the value of commodities and in terms of prices. So, things that don’t have prices or are not commodified are not counted in GDP. So, for example, subsistence farming, or if you cook for your family, or if you take care of your elderly parents, or if you access a public service. The value you get from doing these things is not captured in GDP.
And public services are huge here. Because when you de-commodify key goods like housing, healthcare, education, transportation, energy, internet, you know, the basic things that people need to live good lives… when you de-commoditize them and ensure that everyone has universal access, then people can access the goods they need to live well without needing high incomes to do so. By contrast, when you have privatized public services, they’re very expensive. And so in order to access them, you have to have high incomes.
When you de-commodify privatized services – like take the US healthcare system…if you de-commodified that, this would result in a significant reduction of US GDP because, you’re basically taking a big chunk of the economy out of the market, right?
So, you would have a decline in GDP and yet, healthcare outcomes and people’s access to good lives would improve significantly. And so, this is a clear indication of how the relationship between GDP and welfare breaks down. So, this is known in economics as the Lauderdale Paradox, where GDP often grows at the expense of public wealth, basically, of commons.
And the other thing here is that we know empirically, that public services are almost always less resource intensive. The efficiency of public services, both in terms of resources, costs and delivering outcomes is really powerful.
And so, what we need to do is we just need to recognize that we have presently a system that is organized around cheapening labour and resources and people and lives. And instead, shift to a system that doesn’t do that. A system that values those things and recognizes their value and celebrates them. And that just basically means shifting to a post-capitalist economy where the principle of cheapening is abolished.
Hope – What’s COVID Got to do with It?
[00:19:45] Max: That’s really fascinating. I think that’s exactly it.
What’s your sense in particularly looking at the last year? We’ve had this insane crisis, the second crisis in a decade. A huge economic impact. And I think at the beginning, a lot of progressives were getting excited about making the most of this opportunity and it’s like a year and a bit on. Were you hopeful then? Are you still hopeful now? Do you see any parallels between the climate crisis and the COVID one? What’s your take on all that? Do you feel any better now? Post COVID (laughs) where’s your hope?
[00:20:20] Dr. Jason: … I think that COVID opens some windows of sort of intellectual opportunity, but also didn’t yield very much, right? Like the overwhelming response in the wake of the COVID crisis was basically, ‘we need to step on the accelerator on growth in order to recover and so on’, right? The recovery narrative has been focused entirely around GDP growth, not around ‘what can we do to make sure that everyone’s basic needs are met?’ Or even basic healthcare needs.
This to me has reaffirmed the extent to which our economies are so overwhelmingly dependent on and focused around growthism. And the consequences are going to be disastrous when the data comes out on the extent to which this has caused emissions to rise or not fall fast enough, etc. …
On the other hand, I think that the COVID crisis did make people aware of the facts that ‘look, there’s basically an emergency brake’, right? Like we’ve been told forever that there’s no such thing as an emergency brake. There’s no way that we could shift to a post-growth society. It turns out that when push comes to shove, you actually can pull the emergency brake.
The problem is that, of course, during the COVID crisis, the emergency brake they pulled, was basically to shut down industries or sectors that we actually really need. So, they shut down schools, cafes, gyms, recreational facilities, theaters – things that actually are really beneficial to human wellbeing. And what kept going was things like SUV production and private jets and yacht production, and so on.
But I think that we can take that insight and imagine a different kind of use for it. What if we started to use policy to purposely slow down industries that we don’t actually need? … There are huge chunks of our economy that are actually totally irrelevant to human wellbeing and are organized almost exclusively around elite consumption and capital accumulation. And so, we could slow those down and that would go a long way toward bringing resource use back to sustainable levels.
…In terms of your question about what gives me hope, … I don’t see too much hope in like conventional discourse on the response to climate breakdown. I think that where the hope lies is in two places. …
First, to unite the environmentalist movements with working class movements and formations. This is absolutely essential. And the reason is because environmentalists alone do not have the political power that is necessary to radically change our economy. Working class movements do. Right now, the unions are basically focused on growthism because they see growth as the only way to ensure good livelihoods and wages for their members.
And I understand that, but that effectively means lining up with capital to service the needs of capital and hope that some trickles down to workers. We need a much more direct and political approach to say let’s meet worker’s needs directly with a public job guarantee to ensure full employments; strong living wage laws; a shorter working week and a social guarantee that ensures that everyone has access to affordable housing and robust high quality universal public services. Once you take the question of livelihoods and employment off the table, then we can have an open discussion about shifting to a post growth economy and scaling down industries that we don’t actually need.
And the second thing …, is that it’s essential that environmentalist movements in the global north create alliances with anti-imperialist struggles in the global south that have been focused on these issues for decades. We have the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba. Almost nobody in the global north environment movement engages with that text or engages with the organizations that are behind it. …
The only successful movements for a serious, significant economic change in world history have been the anti-colonial movements and that is effectively the force that we need to rebuild and mobilize around real transformation in the world economy.
[00:24:54] Nadia: That’s fascinating and an excellent way to end … We’ve covered a lot in here. I actually feel like we need some follow-up conversations with you to dig into some of them. I have a thousand more questions, but I want to thank you so much for being with us today, Jason.
[00:25:12] Dr. Jason: Yeah, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
[00:25:15] Max: Yeah, it was great. I mean, it is such a huge set of topics, but I think the way you knit together these issues of capitalism and colonialism, and really made me think about this issue of growth and hopefully listeners too. So, thank you. Thank you very much for joining us today.
Elizabeth Njambi is the Producer of the EQUALS Podcast. She also manages the EQUALS Blog. Elizabeth is a Kenyan Advocate passionate about access to justice. She is the Founder and CEO of Wakili.sha Initiative and Co-host of the Wakili.sha Podcast.