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Tom Walker
The Odd Coupling: Asking the Wrong Questions about “Decoupling” Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth
Stream 1: Land and Nature, Stream 2: Labor and care

The great green panacea for salvaging the market/state economic growth model from its own environmental consequences is that it may somehow be possible to “decouple” GDP growth from resource consumption. The rationale for decoupling GDP is summarized in the 2011 United Nations Environmental Programme report, Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth:

Decoupling at its simplest is reducing the amount of resources such as water or fossil fuels used to produce economic growth and delinking economic development from environmental deterioration. For it is clear in a world of nearly seven billion people, climbing to around nine billion in 40 years’ time that growth is needed to lift people out of poverty and to generate employment for the soon to be two billion people either unemployed or underemployed.

Critics of economic growth have pointed out that even though relative decoupling of resource use from GDP has always been characteristic of industrial society, absolute decoupling – in which the amount of resource consumed actually decreases, even as the market economy continues to grow – has never happened. The Sustainable Development Commission’s report, Prosperity Without Growth, for example, explained that greater efficiency in resource use also saves money and that money gets spent on even more goods and services resulting in a rebound effect, also known as the Jevons Paradox. “In short, relative decoupling sometimes has the perverse potential to decrease the chances of absolute decoupling.”

But asking whether relative decoupling of GDP from resource consumption can eventually result in absolute decoupling is asking the wrong question. As the clearly indicated, GDP growth is not advocated as an end per se but as a means of generating employment.

Although GDP growth and employment are indeed highly correlated, the growth rate of GDP among the industrially developed countries (OECD) between 1991 and 2009 was about three times as fast as the growth rate of employment. To put this in perspective, energy consumption in the OECD countries increased over the last two decades at roughly the same pace as employment. In other words there has been virtually no relative decoupling of energy consumption and employment in the wealthier countries.

Globally the situation is even worse. From 1991 to 2009 world GDP increased by 93 percent. Employment increased by 33 percent and energy consumption increased by 36 percent. So even though energy consumption per dollar of GDP fell by nearly 30 percent over that period, energy consumption per employed person increased by two and a half percent. If the purpose of GDP growth is job creation, it makes absolutely no sense to talk about the energy intensity of GDP while ignoring the energy intensity of jobs.

As Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” What happens when we start asking the right questions? “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Industrial jobs are hitched to energy consumption which is hitched to GHG emissions. The right question, then, is how can we unhitch human flourishing from natural resource consumption and environmental impacts?

Giacomo D’Alisa and Claudio Cattaneo ask the right questions in their research on “Household work and energy consumption: a degrowth perspective.” Their research reveals the dangers, in terms of energy consumption, of promoting so-called “economic growth” through the substitution of commodity-based economic activity for household-based production.

The Buen Vivir movement that originated with the indigenous people of the Andes asks the right questions. Barbara Unmüßig, Wolfgang Sachs and Thomas Fatheuer summarize that movement’s core principles in their Critique of the Green Economy:

Firstly, the good life is contrasted with development, which is seen as unilinear and imposed from above. According to this view, development is a mental process as well as a socioeconomic one. The aim is nothing less than a decolonization of the imagination.

Secondly, there are different narratives of Buen Vivir in different cultural traditions. Indeed, there are different nations – the Bolivian constitution describes the country as plurinational – each with their own language, history, social forms and ways of adapting to natural conditions. Biological diversity begets cultural diversity and vice versa.

Thirdly, it is a community-based narrative that emphasizes relationships with one’s fellow humans, the plant and animal world and the cosmos instead of starting with the individual as the Western tradition does. Buen Vivir means living well with the surrounding world, which includes both the natural environment and other people.

Fourthly, the forests, land and seed are to be tended jointly; collective work and machines are also common property. Social rules and methods can change, but in ways that the community decides.

Fifthly and finally, nature is the basis of humans’ existence and they are part of the community of all living beings. Mountains and rivers, plants and animals are included in the common narrative as living subjects with whom one can converse.

The Texas Environmental Law Center and Our Children’s Trust asked the right question when they brought suit to have the atmosphere declared a public trust. As David Morris reported in On the Commons, Peter Barnes proposed treating the sky as a public trust in his 2001 book, Who Owns the Sky. Barnes’s idea was the basis for a “cap-and-dividend” bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009. In July 2012, Judge Gisela Triana, of the Travis County, Texas, District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

In The Moon Belongs to Everyone, I traced the way that “everything is hitched to everything else” back from greenhouse gas emission to hours of industrial employment and proposed that the most direct way to cap emissions would be to cap hours of paid work. My policy proposal may not be the final answer but I think I’m asking the right questions.

[Train coupling photo by Daniel Schwen under Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 2.5 Generic License]

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