October 26, 2021

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Why Degrowth Is the Worst Idea on the Planet

For half a century, we’ve been told that we had to embrace degrowth in order to save our planet. We haven’t listened. Around the world, human populations and economies have continued to grow at rates that are virtually unprecedented in the history of our species.

Over that same span, an unexpected and encouraging pattern has emerged: The world’s richest countries have learned how to reduce their footprint on Earth. They’re polluting less, using less land and water, consuming smaller amounts of important natural resources, and doing better in many other ways. Some of these trends are also now visible in less affluent countries.

However, many in the degrowth movement seem to have trouble taking yes for an answer. The claims I just made are widely resisted or ignored. Some say they’ve been debunked. Of course, debate over empirical claims like these is normal and healthy. Our impact on our planet is hugely important. But something less healthy is at work here. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Some voices in the conversation about the environment seem wedded to the idea that degrowth is necessary, and they are unwilling or unable to walk away from it, no matter the evidence.

But evidence remains a powerful way to persuade the persuadable. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the last 50 years have been a period of growth, not degrowth. In fact, growth has never been faster, except for the 25-year rebuilding period after World War II. The population and economic growth rates of the past half-century are remarkably fast by historical standards. Between 1800 and 1945, for example, the world’s economy grew less than 1.5 percent per year, on average. Between 1970 and 2019, that average increased to almost 3.5 percent.

It’s natural to assume that, as this growth continued, every nation’s planetary footprint would only increase. After all, as people become more numerous and prosperous they consume more, and producing all the goods and services they consume uses up resources, takes over ecosystems, and generates pollution. The logic seems ironclad that our gains have to be the environment’s losses.

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Easing Pollution, Not Exporting It

In some important areas, however, a very different pattern emerged after 1970: Growth continued, but environmental harm decreased. This decoupling occurred first with pollution, and first in the rich world. In the US, for example, aggregate levels of six common air pollutants have declined by 77 percent, even as gross domestic product increased by 285 percent and population by 60 percent. In the UK, annual tonnage of particulate emissions dropped by more than 75 percent between 1970 and 2016, and of the main polluting chemicals by about 85 percent. Similar gains are common across the highest-income countries.

How were these reductions achieved? The two possibilities are cleanup and offshoring. Either rich countries figured out how to reduce their “air pollution per dollar” so much that overall pollution went down even as their economies grew, or they sent so much of their dirty production overseas that the air at home got cleaner. The first of these paths reduces the total burden of human-caused pollution; the second just rearranges it.

The evidence is overwhelming that rich countries cleaned up their air pollution much more than they outsourced it. For one, a great deal of air pollution comes from highway vehicles and power plants, and rich countries haven’t outsourced driving and generating electricity to low-income ones. In fact, high-income countries haven’t even offshored most of their industry. The US and UK both manufacture more than they did 50 years ago (at least until the Covid-19 pandemic sharply reduced output), and Germany has been a net exporter since 2000 while continuing to drive down air pollution. The rest of the world has been exporting its manufacturing pollution to Germany (to use degrowthers’ phrasing), yet Germans are breathing cleaner air than they were 20 years ago.

Rich countries have reduced their air pollution not by embracing degrowth or offshoring, but instead by enacting and enforcing smart regulation. As economists Joseph Shapiro and Reed Walker concluded in a 2018 study about the US, “changes in environmental regulation, rather than changes in productivity and trade, account for most of the emissions reductions.” Research about the cleanup of US waters also concludes that well-designed and enforced regulations have successfully reduced pollution.