Decoupling: A false faith?

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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?

9 thoughts on “Decoupling: A false faith?

  1. Fantastic article! Well done! Plus you managed to ask the right question in the end.
    There is an old English song “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” and I would ask “What shall we do with the Green Economy?” An enterprise doomed to fail? Or a strategic lie only ment to give the stuff addicted world another window of opportunity to consume? Even with the Jevons´or Rebound Effect efficiency would have opened a window of time if at the same time we would have implemented the right policies……some thirty or twenty years ago. But we did not. And I guess we did not as we did not dare. We only dare let time go by, make new promises, create new hopes. We never understood systems and the dynamics of grwoth in a finite world. May be we even did not want to. And all of a sudden it might turn out we made the wrong choices. Sufficieny would have been the right one, but a highly unpopular one. Changing mental models/paradigms is one of the greatest challenges, specially as there is always the question “who is this WE?” .”The world has enough for everyone´s needs but not enough for everyone´s greed” (M.Gandhi)

    • Thank you for your comment and a link! I agree, we did not dare to accept the reality of our economic model impotence and still do not dare to. Why? The word growth became a magic formula, huge bubble. Everybody is scared when we stop growing and this fear makes situation logically worse. Mainstream economical theory is based on equation: economic growth (GDP) = prosperity… One of the WRF 2011 favourite phrase was: “Go out of the box!”… So, let’s go out of the big box and start at least thinking about sustainable degrowth.

      • A really nice article Lenka, with a few eye-opening concepts for me.

        I think it’s certainly high time to challenge the growth imperative, to be more specific the necessity of GDP growth. I am personally not fully convinced that our resources are finite, meaning we might not need to downscale production. What we certainly must do, is focus on increasing our well-being and societal wealth in non-material ways (i.e. behavioral change that Marting was writing about). Especially since the material ways do not contribute much to quality of life when you pass certain treshold.

  2. I guess we need to build de-coupling from the bottom-up. This means finding practices that are welfare-enhancing AND cheaper. Cycling is a nice and emblematic example for such “double-benefit” practices (that I practice), but I fail on global flying (I love going to other, far-away places…). Once we get more and more “double-benefit-practices” in place, we need to prevent that money is saved is spent on other, non-sustainability expenses (flight tickets, anyone?) – one way being the reduction of personal income… because that is what degrowth finally requires, if we’re sincere, but making it bearable will require that the double-benefit-practices are in place…

    • Right you are, Martin.
      And Lenka, isn´t the phrasing sustainable degrowth a contradictio in eo ipso, an oxymoron? Go to systems dynamics and you will see that material growth cannot be sustained on a finite planet. Or go to thermodynamics. It is a law of physics. There are limits to meterial growth!

      • Stephanie, I agree, there are limits to material growth which we have now. Maybe, I should explain more properly, what I meant by sustainable degrowth: It is „an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level“ (Schneider et al., 2010). So, it is prosperity (material + of course non-material) which respects the ecosystem limits.
        I called it “sustainable” as I wanted to distinguish this idea from the economical recession/depression (a bit different type of degrowth with negative effects…)
        I don’t see it controversial with the first and the second law of thermodynamics. Herman Daly works with the thermodynamics and entropy and presents his steady-state economy concept. However, I think his argumentation has some weak points.
        The question I ask myself: How would such a non-growing society look like? Would it be democratic?

    • Martin, I agree we should start from the bottom up. Check the article giving some practical examples

      To your second idea: Cycling is nice, reducing/giving up meat OK, preferring train possible more or less… But to be honest, I am afraid a bit of the radical life style change that degrowth movement implies. And the concept is still very vague – challenge for discussion.

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