Growth or collapse?

Degrowth graffiti
We need a new narrative for our shared socioeconomic future.


We need to talk about growth. Let’s assume we’re in agreement that the Earth is round and finite. We cannot deny that humanity’s current project of endless growth is unsustainable.

But there’s no sense in us moving out of denial into despair – both are great motivators for inaction. Nor is there any sense in replacing denial with delusion.

The challenge lies in picturing a sustainable future that is both hopeful and realistic, not just a green fantasy to wash over our past mistakes.

Common narrative

In Denver this March, there was a scholarly gathering of folks concerned with developing the “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways”, or SSPs.

The SSPs are a set of five plausible futures that the whole world can use to underpin scenarios and visions of how things might evolve, particularly trends of major environmental change throughout the twenty-first century.

An agreed set of scenarios ensures our visions of future change (such as climate impacts) are underpinned by a common narrative, rather than being the result of disconnected, random imaginings of individual futurists.

The SSPs span a range of futures, including high-growth versus low-growth pathways, intense fossil fuel use versus renewable energy, as well as different assumptions about inequality and degrees of international economic cooperation. It’s a large and noble undertaking indeed.

But we see a problem. Can you see it too? “High-growth” versus “low-growth”. That’s right, all five SSPs depict futures of continuing per-capita GDP growth, in most cases fuelled by growth in per-capita energy use. Across the scenarios, projected global economic activity by the end of this century ranges from approximately double, to as many as ten times, the current level. 

Economic growth 

We know the current state of humanity’s impact on the planet is not sustainable, with various planetary boundaries being breached - including biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, collapsing fisheries, land degradation & desertification, water/soil/air pollution, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, and global atmospheric change).

Yet the five scenarios currently on the table would see the global economy increase from two- to ten-fold. With utmost respect to the amazing scholars whose hard work underpins these complex SSPs, it beggars belief that such vast growth could take place while reining in our environmental impacts to within the planet’s carrying capacity.

The SSPs depict different levels of growth between High and Low Income countries, where the latter are generally assumed to grow more rapidly, pointing to a sort of ‘convergence’ over the coming century.

But even in SSP3 – the lowest of the global growth scenarios – High Income countries can still look forward to per capita GDP more than doubling by 2100. That’s like putting a morbidly obese person on a weight-gain diet.

We need to face the gravity of the situation, and be prepared to shed some pounds if we seriously want to survive and thrive.

Deliberate degrowth 

The term being used to combat the mainstream growth paradigm is “degrowth”, and that’s what we argue should be considered alongside – or ideally as part of – the SSPs.

There are two quite different futures that could be envisaged if we open our minds to the possibility of degrowth. These depend on whether the descent is deliberate and planned (like landing a plane), or accidental and chaotic (like crashing a plane).

The accidental degrowth, or collapse, scenario has been famously articulated elsewhere (kudos to Jared Diamond and Joseph Tainter, among numerous others) and we are not here to suggest that collapse is imminent; we can leave that to others.

That being said, our failure to even consider collapse as a plausible future – even with all the history we know about the fall of civilisations past – is akin to stepping out onto a highway while carefully looking just one way. It pays to look both ways; risks that are not considered remain, by default, unmitigated.

Now just imagine the sort of conversation that could open up, if our future scenarios did cover the full spectrum of possibility, from growth right through to collapse.

Living simply

We might then realise that the two extremes (growth to exhaustion/catastrophe, versus unplanned collapse) are equally undesirable – and that a more applicable set of scenarios can be found somewhere in-between, where we might envisage a state of thriving stability and convergence towards greater equality across the globe.

These sorts of stabilisation scenarios imply a transition to a “steady state”, or perhaps even “degrowth” to lower levels of consumption. As such they always look inferior next to the mainstream growth pathways such as the SSPs.

But set against collapse, they seem a lot more like the sensible middle-ground and are surely worth considering.

Opening up the dialogue – especially in High Income countries – to consider scenarios where we descend to lower levels of consumption has important implications for addressing inequality across the globe.

If we accept that the current scale of human impacts on the planet is at the limit, and that a more desirable future is one where consumption is more uniformly distributed across the planet, then the only way forward is for the overconsuming countries to relinquish some of their resources to allow the less fortunate to develop. Or as Gandhi famously said, we need to “live simply, so that others may simply live”.

Renewable energy 

Energy is a reasonable proxy for consumption, as it fuels our industrial and agricultural processes, makes our homes and cities liveable, and drives the transport systems that move people and goods around the place.

And herein lies another problem with the SSPs – they project energy futures that are at odds with other peer-reviewed literature, especially with respect to fossil fuels.

In 2015, a comprehensive study modelling supply-side constraints concluded that fossil fuels may run short as soon as 2020, and at best would peak by 2050.

However the SSPs – focusing on demand-driven growth – predict the fossil fuel supply potentially growing as much as three-fold by the end of this century. 

This has profound implications for the perceived urgency with which we need to address future energy supplies. On the one hand, the SSPs point to a future in which energy is abundant, but climate change (from rapidly increasing carbon emissions) is a huge threat to be managed; on the other hand, an unmitigated supply-side energy shortage could impact renewable energy deployment, while simultaneously undermining opportunities for lower income countries to develop economically.

One upside to possible constraints in the fossil fuel supply is that apocalyptic climate change may become less likely. Unfortunately, these discrepancies in modelled future energy supplies remain unresolved in the scientific community.

Thought experiment 

Now let’s run a little thought experiment, thinking about the world in 2100. We’ll start with two fundamental – and perhaps overly optimistic – assumptions. Firstly, through some combination of clean energy sources, say we are able to double the global primary energy supply by the year 2100.

Secondly, say this expanded primary energy supply is somehow distributed uniformly among the planet’s 11 billion people (taken as a mid-range projection). What might this future represent for different countries?

In this hypothetical optimistic scenario, today’s High Income countries would be the only set of countries needing to tighten their belts in terms of per-capita energy consumption, to the tune of about a 50 percent reduction, while Upper Middle Income countries might enjoy a modest 20 percent increase.

But the real winners here would be today’s Low and Lower Middle Income countries, with a three- to five-fold increase in per-capita energy supply. And the lower the ultimate population, the greater the per-capita resources; if we can fast-track family planning and keep our numbers down to – say – 9 billion, then the rich world need only shed one-third of our energy consumption per-capita, while the world’s poorest people could be almost seven times better off.

These are the sorts of uplifting future scenarios that we should be discussing, which are only possible to contemplate once we ‘look both ways’ and envisage hopeful futures without growth.

These Authors 

James Ward is Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering, researching transitions to sustainability spanning from the global (limits to growth, world energy supplies, ecological footprint, climate change) to the local (urban agriculture, green buildings, water reuse and waste recycling).

Paul C. Sutton is a Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Denver engaging in research the areas of sustainability science, ecological economics, and population geography.

Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is also co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

Image: Paul Sableman, Flickr


More from this author