A Rising Tide: The Climate Justice Case for a Zero-Growth Economy

Economic growth is exalted in the United States; high growth in the economy is incessantly pursued, considered by politicians, experts, and average citizens to be panacea solution to remedy the nation’s woes. The frequent trope “a rising tide lifts all boats” is employed by thought leaders to convince Americans that economic growth benefits everyone, and is a requisite to improving the lives of the least fortunate. But, what if the rising tide of economic growth was literallya rising tide: exacerbating climate change and leading to sea level rise? The economic growth obsession in the United States’ political economy prioritizes profit over the planet, pushing Earth’s ecosystems to collapse.

Energy use per capita and economic growth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) is clearly linked (fig.1). Historically, most of this economic growth has been powered by the combustion of fossil fuels (Ritchie and Roser, 2018). In the mid-1800s, coal and oil largely displaced the previous forms of energy, wood and muscle (Ritchie and Roser, 2018). Coal and oil was dense, portable, and ubiquitous — spurring mechanization and inventions that increased mobility, communication, and output (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016).

Fig. 1

Although, such astronomical growth has incurred great environmental costs. The burning of fossil fuels has emitted copious levels of greenhouse gases, increasing carbon in the atmosphere to an alarming 400 parts per million and raising the average world temperature by .9 degrees Celsius (The Hamilton Project and EPIC, 2017). Such changes in the climate will generate a litany of disconcerting consequences in the United States like mass migration, drought, and more frequent, stronger extreme weather events (The Hamilton Project and EPIC, 2017). Further, the pollution from extracting and burning fossil fuels has devastating effects on ecosystem and human health. For example, mining coal can poison local water supplies with heavy metals, leave removal sites with poor soil incapable of supporting indigenous vegetation, and greatly alters the surrounding ecosystem (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2016). Moreover, pollution from burning coal damages “the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems and contribute to four of the top five leading causes of death in the U.S.” (Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2009).

Due to the aforementioned ramifications of using fossil fuels, there is a heightened urgency to transition to non-fossil energies. Renewable energy has experienced exponential growth in the few decades (Ritchie and Roser, 2018). This has prompted the question: can society simply replace fossil fuels with renewable energies and continue business as usual, increasing economic growth and energy consumption? To avoid a climate catastrophe, is it a straightforward solution of replacing coal and gas power plants with wind and solar farms?

Fig. 2

This is a lofty ask. There are several promising developments in renewable energies that support this idea. For instance, the cost of renewable energies has dropped precipitously, and continues to do so (fig. 2). As renewable energies become cheaper, fossil fuels become more expensive. The highest grade and easiest to extract fossil fuels are being depleted, forcing the industry into unorthodox pursuits. Nearly all new oil production is unconventional and more costly — such as arctic drilling, deep water drilling, and tar sand extraction (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016).

Furthermore, technological improvements in renewable energy renders the industry more capable of fulfilling current energy demands. Intermittency is one of the most formidable challenges facing wind and solar. Fortunately, there have been significant gains in storage technology to address this. Batteries are less expensive and more efficient than they used to be (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). Other options like geologic and hydrogen storage have also grown. And even if one does not believe in anthropogenic climate change, fossil energy cannot be sustained indefinitely. If fossil fuels could somehow be burned without ecological impacts, eventually the planet’s reserves would be exhausted and force an energy transition.

Fig. 3

Yet, despite these technology advancements, most evidence indicates that renewable energy cannot support the American level of consumption (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). The ecological footprint that is considered sustainable is 1.67 global hectares per person — the average American’s ecological footprint is about five times amount, meaning it would require 5 earths if all people lived like the United States population (fig. 3). This is a baffling level of consumption, continuing this path is impossible and unsustainable. Further, as nations of the Global South develop their economies, their ecological footprints will grow, putting greater pressure on the planet. It would be unfair and immoral to force the Global South to cease development in order to preserve the United States’ extraordinary consumption and growth.

Renewable technology and efficiency cannot continue at such a dramatic and continuous rate eternally (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). There are practical limits in technologic advancement, as illustrated in the transportation sector. The United States’ is extremely dependent on oil, as 41 percent of end energy use is transportation, while only 5 percent of transportation is powered by non-oil sources (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). Electrifying the vehicle fleet is a proposed solution to decarbonize transportation; electric vehicles can be powered by renewable energy. This solution is appropriate when applied to light individual cars, but is unsuited for heavy road vehicles, ships and aircraft (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). Liquid fuels cannot simply be substituted by electrification, as larger forms of transport would require batteries too large to be practical.

There are some alternatives to electrification, but none are sufficient to satisfy current and expanding transportation needs. For instance, sails and kites can greatly reduce fuel use on ships, but with notable limits. Sail and kite power would significantly reduce ship speed, while requiring boats to have to wait for the right currents, tides and winds (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016).

Biofuels could be swapped for gasoline in heavy vehicles and airplanes, but again, there are restraints. Considerable amounts of energy must be used to produce biofuels; in the United States growing, harvesting, transporting and distilling ethanol is extremely energy intensive. It requires about 70 percent more energy to produce ethanol than the energy ethanol contains (Pimentel, 2001). Further, an immense amount of land is needed to grow enough biofuels for air travel. To meet present-day aviation needs, 1.11 million square kilometers of land must be dedicated to raising biofuel crops, or about 2.5% of current agricultural land (McDermott, 2009). This is unattainable, and would only become more difficult as the aviation industry grows. The environmental impacts, costs and scalability of biofuels imposes serious limitations on future mobility.

Thus, if transportation cannot be maintained or expanded in a renewable future, what happens? Stated plainly, society will be less mobile. Industries reliant on transportation and machinery will be circumscribed; global trade will decrease, tourism will slow, and industrial agriculture output will lessen (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). GDPs of nations across the globe will stall, as these sectors drive economic growth.

Further, even with fuel substitutions like electrification, kites, sails, and biofuels — the embodied energy of transportation is high and even more difficult to swap. This puts a damper on electrifying the vehicle fleet, because the embodied energy of an electric car would make it difficult to sustainably produce enough to match American vehicle demand. Also, building and maintaining transportation infrastructure like roads and airports is energy intensive (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). This leads to another obstacle in the renewable energy world, the difficulty of substituting fossil fuel in non-energy sectors.

Many materials that Americans use daily originate from non-renewable sources. Further exploring transportation challenges, asphalt is a semisolid form of petroleum (U.S. Energy Information Administration [USEIA], 2017). One kilometer of roadway necessitates about 320 gallons of oil to build, and toxic gases are released during the construction and use of asphalt roadways (USEIA, 2017). In addition, agriculture requires fossil fuels beyond powering plowing and harvesting machinery. More than one hundred tons of chemical fertilizer is used in the global agricultural system. Natural gas and coal are used to bind nitrogren and other chemicals into fertilizer (USEIA, 2017). The last, and most prevalent example of fossil fuels in products is plastics. Global plastic consumption is more than 299 million metric tons per year and is used in all aspects of human life. Plastic compounds are in packaging, straws, clothing, ink, phones, tires, paint and toiletries — just to name a few (USEIA, 2017).

Substitutes for these products are being developed and in use on smaller scales. Asphalt could be replaced with concrete or sandstone. Fertilizers could be abandoned in pursuit of organic farming. Bioplastics made from vegetables fats and oils, starch, microorganisms and cellulose could displace petroleum plastics (Heinberg and Fridley, 2016). Yet, all of these solutions are more expensive and not capable of meeting current consumption trends. These alternatives can be utilized to fulfill a portion of U.S. needs, but not everything.

The case of fertilizer provides an apt example. Massive amounts of energy is used to provide food for the nearly 8 billion humans on Earth. The current level of agricultural production is unsustainable, and will soon be too expensive to provide the copious yields of cheap food it does today as fossil fuels are phased out of a renewable world (not to mention, chemical fertilizers put great stress on local ecosystems). I argue that the only comprehensive solution is to embrace organic farming once again and accept that technological advancements cannot exceed the physical capabilities of the planet. Americans will have to alter their consumption, either by choice or force, as past habits become too expensive for the average person to maintain. The United States’ animal product-heavy diet will be swapped with less ecologically demanding plant-based diets. The vegan diet when compared to the standard American diet uses 18 times less land (fig.4). To raise one pound of meat, it takes about 16 pounds of grain; making meat consumption extremely energy inefficient (Rabyniuk, 2015). The animal product-laden American diet will become too costly for most people as the new, primarily organic farming system cannot produce high levels of cheap food anymore.

Fig. 4

These cases are not intended to eschew the renewable transition. As previously mentioned, energy transformation is inevitable because of climate change and fossil fuel scarcity. In highlighting the limitations of the renewable world, I illustrate the inability to completely decouple energy use and economic growth. Clearly, present consumption in the United States cannot be preserved in a renewable economy. If American consumption is already extraordinary, then expansion is obviously impractical.

A zero growth, or steady-state economy should not be feared. Although the examples mentioned may seem daunting at first, changing the American lifestyle will incur great benefits to planetary and human health. I argue that a zero growth renewable economy will improve quality of life far above the existing system. There are a multitude of misconceptions surrounding growth that make Americans reluctant to entertain this idea. For instance, many associate growth with job creation and poverty reduction. Yet, there is little evidence to support these claims.

The link between economic growth and job creation is fairly weak. In the United States, a 3 percent increase in GDP would only decrease unemployment by 1 percent. In France, a 3 percent GDP growth would see a fall in unemployment by only half a percent. Then, in Japan, there is no relationship between GDP and jobs at all (O’Neill, 2013). Overall, in the past 35 years, there has been the fastest global economic growth in human history, yet unemployment has increased (Maxton, 2015). Economic growth does not necessarily create jobs, and in many cases, it destroys them. To grow, firms must reduce input costs, including labor. Increased automation and mechanization that has enabled rapid economic growth that displaces human workers (Maxton, 2015).

This leads to another point: economic growth does not reduce poverty and inequality, and some data suggests it exacerbates it (Rubin and Segal, 2015). The “rising tide” of growth may actually drown those at the bottom, while lifting the fortunate yacht owners further from reach. U.S. economic advisor and member of the Federal Reserve Henry Wallich once remarked, “Growth is a substitute for equality of income” (O’Neill, 2013). In other words, growth offers hope for a better future. As long as the economy is growing, Americans in a bad economic situation can be assuaged that tomorrow may bring opportunities, even if it is a false assumption.

So, instead of investing in the fictitious promises of growth, the U.S. can distribute wealth more efficiently now with policies like progressive taxes and minimum and maximum incomes. These initiatives would actuallylift the poorest out of poverty without needing continued growth. Another method to strategy to make the economy more equitable is for Americans to work fewer hours. In the past several decades, rising productivity has not benefitted workers, as wages have stagnated (fig. 5). When workers are more productive, corporate executives pocket the profits. In the American economy, increased output motivates corporations to try and sell more of their products via marketing and lowered prices. This bolsters GDP and growth, but produces needless, excessive consumption. In a steady-state economy, increased productivity would mean fewer hours and increased wages for workers rather than encourage meaningless materialism.

Fig. 5

These measures may seem radical and politically unfeasible. But, post-growth political discourse used to be the norm in America. During the Great Depression, mainstream economists declared the U.S. economy “mature,” impelling President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare, “Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand… of adapting economic organizations to the service of the people” (McKibben, 7). In the 1970s, polls showed that only 30 percent of Americans were “pro-growth”, while 31 percent were “anti-growth”, and 39 percent were “highly uncertain” (McKibben, 9). The pro-growth American mindset is not irreparable.

Additionally, I argue that no-growth politics are no more radical than the fact that the average salaries of Fortune 500 CEOs are 335 times more than the rank-and-file worker; and that amidst this growing chasm of inequality, the U.S. will stand by the failing economic paradigm of growth (Thompson, 2016). Economic growth is fueling climate chaos and ecological devastation at the benefit of a select few. Moreover, the American-style of exorbitant consumption and materialism does not leader to greater happiness. At a yearly salary of $75,000, happiness is capped — meaning earning more than this does not correlate to greater contentment (Martin, 2017). Consider this: the top 20 percent of American earn more than $75,000, and possess 87 percent of the nation’s wealth (fig. 6). Essentially, much of the economic growth and wealth production in the United States does not enrich people’s lives whatsoever.

Fig. 6

This reveals the problematic aspects of associating success and well-being with GDP. A nation’s GDP is a broad measurement of averages and aggregates in an economy, incapable of discerning nuances like equity, happiness, and heath. Climate change, in many instances, would contribute to GDP growth. If the United States goes to war over water in a drier world, the spike in weapon manufacturing would raise the GDP. Perhaps more Americans get sick because of air and water pollution and have to pay for expensive medical treatments. Or, a corporation causes an oil spill, and there is an expensive cleanup process. Although these cases add to GDP, no one would argue that any of these events lead to greater well-being.

Further economic growth is unsustainable. In a renewable future with less energy, the United States cannot continue its “more” manta. As outlined, there are countless practical restraints to incessant growth; this transition is more complicated than unplugging a coal-fired power plant and plugging in a wind farm. Yet, even if the U.S. could continue growing its economy, this isn’t a productive goal. The energy transition presents the perfect opportunity to rebuild the economy in a way that serves all participants, not a privileged elite. At the same time, this new economic order can safeguard the health of Earth and its inhabitants.

Initially, it may seem frightening to envision a lifestyle with fewer things and less energy. For example, I mentioned earlier that renewable transportation will be more difficult, and the future will be less mobile. Upon further examination, this will actually make life better. The United States’ car culture has made Americans more sedentary and atomized. The average time Americans spend commuting is on the rise (fig. 7) clocking in at 50 minutes long, and 90 percent of the time completed by car (Dirksen, 2017). Such a staggering amount of time spent sitting in a car each day puts one at risk for stoke, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer (National Health Service, 2012).

Fig. 7

Long car commutes are also detrimental to one’s mental health. Those who opt for public transit are often happier than car commuters (Dirksen, 2017). This is true for a number of reasons: an important one being less time spent alone. Even if no words are exchanged during a ride on public transit, there is an unspoken connection and shared experience amongst riders. It exposes riders to the diversity of their communities — as public transit is used by all ages, genders, races and income levels. Rather than the isolating, detaching experience of a car commute, public transportation allows for greater interaction and contact with fellow humans.

Furthermore, the public transit-oriented future necessitates denser, urban living as opposed to atomized suburban sprawl. This will also strengthen community bonds. Expensive products like single-family homes and cars will bear a steep drop in sales and likely lower the GDP tremendously. But, it would be to the benefit of the environment and the humans living in it. Moving away from unsustainable car culture to public transportation is an exciting prospect that will improve the lives of Americans.

Another renewable world lifestyle transformation that should be welcomed is a new agricultural system. As stated, the standard American diet is laden with energy-intensive animal products. This necessary change is actually good news, as eating fewer animal products benefits one’s health. Processed meat is deemed a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, as it dramatically increases the likelihood that a consumer will develop cancer (Krantz, 2016). Non-processed meats are unhealthy too, as it increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity (Krantz, 2016). In addition, most livestock are given copious levels of antibiotics, accelerating the rise of antimicrobial resistance (Krantz, 2016).

Embracing the plant-based diet has mental and spiritual benefits too. When humans cease the exploitation and slaughter of animals, it transforms the relationship between mankind and animals and nature. Rather than viewing elements of the natural world as expendable, humans may foster a deeper sense of belonging and allegiance to the Earth. I argue that once humans stop viewing animals as dispensable, it will cultivate compassion, empathy, and morality that will better intra- and extra-human interactions. Again, this development is incompatible with growth, as omnivorous diets require costly amounts of energy, fertilizers, antibiotics, water and land that helps inflate the GDP. But, as long as the steady-state economy is properly managed by implementing policies, like a minimum basic income as previously mentioned, such shifts will be overwhelmingly positive.

As demonstrated, there are boundless, exciting opportunities in a steady-state economy to improve quality of life. The United States’ current consumption and energy trends cannot be sustained in the renewable future — thus the obsession of economic growth must be forsaken. Even if economic growth could be indefinitely perpetuated ecologically; humans should strive for greater well-being rather than higher numbers on a spreadsheet. Vast improvements will be made when politicians, businesses, and people are no longer beholden to growth. American society could prioritize equity, pleasure, education, leisure, health, compassion and environmental sustainability over profit. Instead of constantly trying to rise the tide, mankind could stop, sit-back, and gently and joyfully float along.

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