Population Matters

New parliamentary group on ‘Limits to Growth’

New parliamentary group on ‘Limits to Growth’

On 19 April, an audience gathered in the House of Commons for the launch event of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Limits to Growth.

Speaking first, Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion and chair of the new APPG, discussed the group’s aim of bringing discussion of limits on economic growth into the political mainstream by hosting debates, generating new policy ideas for a post-growth economy, and commissioning new secondary research.

UK Houses of ParliamentIn essence, this is meant to be an insurgent think tank within Westminster.

Ms. Lucas emphasized the political challenge of convincing other politicians, and the public, who are so accustomed to promises of growth, that we as a society have enough already.  Beyond a certain level of prosperity, economic growth does not lead to greater societal or personal wellbeing. Moreover, economic growth is becoming uneconomic on its own terms, she argued, in that the cost of repairing its social and environmental side-effects, such as climate change, is greater than the primary value growth delivers.

Ms. Lucas argued that efficiency improvements alone will not be sufficient to cope with increasing consumption alongside a growing population; the economy needs to stabilize and maybe even contract.

It was refreshing to hear population recognized as a part of the problem — but, unfortunately, at no point in the evening was it entertained as part of a policy solution.

Following Ms. Lucas, University of Surrey professor Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, described the changes in the political and economic landscape since the 1972 publication of Limits to Growth, a report by the think tank Club of Rome.

Limits to Growth predicted patterns of growth, overshoot, and collapse for the economies based on a number of finite natural resources. One of the innovations of the report was to point out that we need not run out of resources for economic growth to stop. As we consume more, the quality of those resources declines, and we have to invest more energy in extracting them, shrinking the margin of profit and economic growth.

According to Professor Jackson, the report’s growth-predictions fairly accurately describe what has happened in the 40 years since its publication, but have not yet reached the predicted points of collapse, or of peak productivity. That is fortunate, because due to the immense industrial and social apparatus that is resource-extraction, we cannot wait until we reach peak production to take action to avoid collapse. The report estimated that this action needs to be taken 30 – 40 years in advance of the peak production point — and studies suggest that production peaks will occur within a few decades, implying that now is the time to be taking control.

Source: Jackson and Webster 2016, Figure 1: Overshoot and collapse in the Limits to Growth ‘standard run’
Source: Jackson and Webster 2016, Figure 1: Overshoot and collapse in the Limits to Growth ‘standard run’

The keynote speaker for the evening was Anders Wijkman, an economist who is currently co-chair for the Club of Rome and chair of the Swedish government’s task force on climate change and carbon budgets. Mr. Wijkman’s most distinctive contribution to the event was his discussion of the need to develop alternative metrics by which to judge policy success.

In his experience chairing the Swedish government’s climate change task force, the finance department would analyze their proposals using economic models, find that they yielded a slightly lower Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate than business as usual, and reject them. He said they look at the costs, not the benefits, delivered by environmental policies, because those benefits — clean air; a stable climate; more recreational green space — are not valued or accounted for in the models. Yet, as Ms. Lucas pointed out earlier, at the level of prosperity already found in developed countries like the UK, these things contribute more to our well-being than additional prosperity.

Mr. Wijkman does not think all economic growth must stop; only that which is driven by increased production and consumption — the sort measured by GDP. By focusing on productivity growth alone, we miss many innovations that passively save money, like solar panels that nullify electricity costs after an initial investment, or the rendering of free internet services. Many developed countries are already transitioning from production to service-based economies, and this is a way to generate prosperity without growth in consumption of natural resources.

However, additional prosperity may lead to greater income inequality. Job creation has almost always followed economic growth, but recently, this is no longer the case. Economic growth may now be a threat to employment: the faster the growth, the more companies tend to invest in automation.

Speaking as a former politician, Mr. Wijkman said that environmental policies have usually been thought of as a threat to growth, and therefore to jobs, so we must integrate this aspect of the debate into our campaigning, not limit our focus to the natural environment alone.

In discussing job growth and consumption, Mr. Wijkman brought up population growth as an exacerbating influence, but again neglected it as part of a solution. Considering that population growth is the reason job growth is necessary at all, it should have received far more attention in this part of the talk.

Limits to growthOne possible way Mr. Wijkman does see for transitioning to a steady-state economy while caring for all citizens is to shift the tax burden from personal incomes to environmental taxes — a price on carbon emissions, for example. He thinks we can and should fund basic income programs, where citizens are given a low but sufficient monthly salary from the government, making up for possible joblessness in a no-growth economy. Such programs are already being piloted in Finland and the Netherlands, and have attracted great interest from economists.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wijkman did not mention the threat population growth poses to a country’s ability to afford such benefits for all.

The evening’s discussion brought up some very important points, especially the need to adopt alternative metrics of policy success as our economy adapts to the realities of a finite planet. It was encouraging that population growth was mentioned multiple times as a problem — but it is remarkable that in an evening of pragmatic discussion about limits to growth, it was never considered as part of a policy solution. Given that population growth is the reason job growth is necessary at all, it should have received far more attention during Mr. Wijkman’s talk.

Nevertheless, the formation of this new APPG on Limits to Growth is very encouraging, and Population Matters will be monitoring its progress and looking for opportunities to collaborate.

(An audio-recording of the event can be found here.)

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