We can’t be obsessed with the growth imperative anymore, we have to de-couple economic growth from the use of resources and its environmental impacts. Be resource-efficient, be smart, be innovative. No chance to miss these proclamations at the WRF 2011 as they resonate everywhere .
Why? Evidently the classical model of economic growth measured by GDP that should deliver prosperity fails in one important aspect: whilst creating goods and services, it destroys one of its crucial bases; natural capital. As illustrated by the Hazel Henderson‘s Cake Model, if the foundations (natural and social capital) are damaged, then the sweets and cherries on top (‘monetary economy, public and private sector’) are likely to collapse.
See a new strategy suggestion: Decoupling of economic growth from the use of natural resources and the production of waste and emissions. So, keep growing with less material consumption. Nice vision, but can this really happen?
There are two types of economic decoupling, relative and absolute. Relative decoupling refers to a decrease in material intensity per unit of GDP. The absolute decoupling means that overall material consumption decreases while GDP increases. According to data presented by scientist Monika Dittrich and Stefan Giljum from the Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI) at WRF 2011 we can manage a relative decoupling (see the decreasing blue material intentsity curve in the graph below), but not an absolute one as the overall material consumption (green curve in the graph) keeps growing. Our efficiency improvements are offset by increases in scale of our consumption.
This clear fact appeared much earlier. Remember the industrial revolution, era of coal and steam. In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements which increased the efficiency of coal-use led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. Check out the so called Jevon’s paradox here or read more about the rebound effect.
It is obvious that absolute decoupling never worked and as pointed by Tim Jackson in his book the Prosperity Without Growth, it can hardly work in a future where our consumption keeps growing. It seems that the much-promoted super efficiency can’t save us.
Any other suggestions?