One of many GDP debates

Inclusive Economy27 Mar 2010Tom Green

I´m new at blogging and perhaps its best to learn the ropes at a conference where the discussions don´t quite go so late. On our first day, the last panel wrapped up around 10:00 pm and dinner finished just shy of midnight. Our plenary sessions are taking place in the University of Barcelona´s grand Paranimf auditorium, where we are surrounded by immense tableaus of scenes that appear to depict key moments in the human voyage towards greater knowledge. In several of these paintings, there is a globe that appears key to what is being discovered or debated. Were a painting of this current gathering to be commissioned, a globe would very likely feature in the composition, symbolizing our trying to figure out how to belatedly acknowledge and live with the Earth´s limits. But in the older paintings above us, as in many of these disscussions over the years, what equally stands out is who is not included in the scene and who dominates the decision-making. Women, the poor, those who work on the land or live within forests are mostly invisible, a theme that is raised by a number of the speakers.

The speakers who provide the official welcome from the University of Barcelona, himself a scholar in the field of finance, assures us that another world is possible–I wonder if the official welcome at my own university back in Canada would be so bold. I am struck by how it seems that European speakers see a much greater degree of change being possible than North Americans, who in general seem to see our political system as being largely captured by a small business elite. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, we struggle with which other world it is that we are aiming for and how likely is it that there is a viable path from here to there, without getting stuck in some catastrophic dystopia as a result of trying to flip from growth depenedence to limits respecting. There´s so much I could possibly comment on, so I´ll jump into one of the controversies.

Jeroen van den Bergh, an ecological economist whose papers I´ve often found insightful, claims that in the degrowth discourse, he´s seen at least 5 different interpretations of degrowth. The first he identifies is GDP degrowth, which is the most logical interpretation for those new to the concept (especially, I would think, economists hearing of the term for the first time). Deliberate GDP degrowth might well reduce some environmental impacts (as in how CO2 emissions fell with the global recession), but it is a very blunt instrument and we could end up with dirty degrowth (a big fear of mine, how does a government with reduced tax income invest in transit infrastructure and environmental remediation that is so urgently needed, how do we avoid the types of situations which occured in Eastern Canada, where high energy prices lead some people to try heating by burning old tires). For Jeroen, composition of GDP is more important than size.

The second form of degrowth according to Jeroen is consumption degrowth, a reduction in quantity, not value terms. This he argued is ineffective and inefficient. There are two approaches to this type of degrowth, the first being voluntary frugality which is difficult because it is hard to get people on board when they see super consumers around them defeating efforts to go easy on the planet. The second involves setting consumption quotas, which immediately makes one think communism and as a result this type of degrowth is not likely to be politically feasible.

The third from of degrowth–here I may have missed part of the arguement– involves implementing radical change in the economy, the grand ideas form of degrowth, a sharing, caring, limits respecting future. But Jeroen sees here too much idealism for this transformation to occur and not enough time to do it in, given the climate and other crises that are already upon us.

The fourth kind is physical degrowth, a reduction in the throughput of energy and natural resources. It assumes that reducing throughput will result in GDP degrowth. This for Jeroen is merely putting a new label on an idea that Herman Daly and others have long advanced. Finally, degrowth can also be seen as a deliberate opposition to the growth fetishism that so influences political decisions. In this version of the degrowth discourse, GDP is the fundamental problem that must be attacked.

Now I like Jeroen´s attempt to breakdown the different versions of degrowth and to seek to clarify what we are talking about. But then he concluded that it is not useful to spend more time criticizing growth or GDP and explained that he himself is very growth agnostic. Indeed, he suggested that we might want to follow Serge Latouche´s suggestion that we should talk of “a-growth” in the same way “a-theism” emerged, and abandon our faith in GDP as being something worthy of guiding human affairs. The problem with degrowth is that it gives growth too much credibility. Jeroen´s parting recommendation, which basically distills down to relax about growth and degrowth and focus instead on implementing the measures that will induce systemic change in the economy and get us on a more sustainable path, did not find a very warm reception. Indeed, the panel moderator, Giorgos Kallis of L’Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals, temporarily stepped out of his role as moderator and defended the need for degrowth. Perhaps in part in reaction to Jeroen´s talk, the speakers that followed tended to spell out their understanding of degrowth. Many reasons were put forward as for why continued attacks on GDP as a guiding societal indicator were needed.

And so I run off to the Saturday morning sessions, leaving many illuminating moments unmentioned