Decoding Decoupling: Why the planet depends on it.
In response to my last blog on the understandable madness of economic growth I received the following comment, which I think gets to the heart of the sustainability challenge:
“The issue of a no-growth economy has been rolling around for a while with little progress for the reason that it can’t be achieved at least under present economic arrangements. Capitalism is inherently about investment which requires a return and return comes from growth. Until we invent a system based on an entirely different principle, I’m afraid we have to work towards the decoupling that Tim Jackson derides. If that really is impossible then we have to live with runaway climate change.” – Adam Lent
In his defence, Tim Jackson doesn’t deride decoupling, which he sees as essential. He just doesn’t think it’s enough(although he is open to the possibility that if we made an absolutely unoprecedented and incomprehensibly MASSIVE systemic push, it might be.) and makes a strong case for why he believes that. And if Jackson is right it’s a radically different economy or runaway climate change, a stark choice between the virtually impossible and the completely disastrous.
Before we acquiese to the latter or scramble to make sense of the former, let’s just be clear about decoupling, because Jackons’s point is quite subtle.
if Jackson is right it’s a radically different economy or runaway climate change, a stark choice between the virtually impossible and the completely disastrous.
Most people agree that we need to lower the ecological impact of economic output. Jackson’s point seems to be that it is a mistake to view this relationship as being independent of economic growth and population growth. When these factors are taken into account, most decoupling is merely relative decoupling- ie each unit of economic output is less harmful than previously, but as long as there is economic growth and population growth, those ecological gains are relative to previous impact per output, not absolute in terms of overall impact, and you are not solving the problem. As George Monbiot put it in his book HEAT: “The only cuts that count are absolute cuts.”
This point is crucial because so much of sustainability does not adequately recognise the distinction between absolute and relative decoupling. Companies say they want to grow and want to become more sustainable, but if you accept that we need absolute decoupling(as I think any sane person must), then your bar for sustainability has to be high enough that it can compete and win against the growth imperative.
If we don’t change the fundamental principle of growth on which modern capitalism depends, what is the alternative? Reducing carbon emissions at the necessary rate means massive technological advances, huge efficiency gains and a fundamental change in the nature of growth(e.g. investment in green technologies, service rather than goods based economies). If we achieve all of that, so the argument goes, it may be possible for capitalism to carry on functioning…for a while at least.
But what if that’s just not true? In other words, what if that kind of ‘sustainable growth’ doesn’t add up in the way it it has to, and we find we are fast running out of resources in a volatile climate with a rapidly rising population? There is a question about whether that is indeed the case, but I think we must face up to the brutality of the question, rather than assume that it has to be possible to carry on with Capitalism more or less as it is, as if that were the sine qua non of life as we know it.
Capitalism may be a political axiom of the modern world, but a livable climate is an existential axiom and surely has to take precedence. As I have mentioned before, climate change is a pre-competitive issue. No livable planet, no competition. Likewise with capitalism in general. As Adam suggested above, “until we invent a system based on an entirely different principle” we are stuck with attempts to decouple…Given that most decoupling is relative rather than absolute, this suggests, to me at least, that we need to invent and develop that entirely different system sooner rather than later.
I fear for myself in this regard because it sounds like an anti-capitalist argument, and I am not a rebel by nature. Moreover, I imagine most hard-headed people would say: “that fundamental change to the structure and function of the economy is just not going to happen, and certainly not in time to prevent a global temperature rise of well above 2 degrees.”
Such people might well be right, but given what is at stake, if there is any meaningful life that doesn’t involve trying to prove them wrong?