What Growth? Eco-Capitalism, Green GdP Growth, Decoupling

GROWTH – green GdP growth, green eco-capitalism, de-coupling

We are back in the Cathedral Restaurant of Eternal Growth with its three dishes:

A : The Old Regular is the “business as usual” of continuous GdP growth, as greenish as can be but de facto de-prioritising and externalising any eco- or socio costs. “The Old Regular” dish has intermittently come with increasingly severe health warnings. Globally that has not much dented it’s position as the top seller.

B : The New Green Regular is a semi-re-engineered old regular wrapped in greenery to help turn fossil dependent GdP growth into carbon-neutral GdP growth. It wants to de-couple GdP-growth from growth in pollution.

C : The Post Regular is a pick-your-own dish of the day from a globally sustainable buffet.

Today we are going for The New Regular with two recent books on decoupling green eco-capitalism: Alessio Terzi’s Growth for Good and Adrienne Buller’s The Value of a Whale

Just follow the money….

hup.harvard.edu 5-2022 Growth for Good – Reshaping Capitalism to Save Humanity from Climate Catastrophe – by Alessio Terzi

Growth for Good - Reshaping Capitalism to Save Humanity from Climate Catastrophe - by Alessio Terzi - green growth, eco capitalism-

From the front lines of economics and policy making, a compelling case that economic growth is a force for good and a blueprint for enrolling it in the fight against climate change.

Economic growth is wrecking the planet. It’s the engine driving climate change, pollution, and the shrinking of natural spaces. To save the environment, will we have to shrink the economy? Might this even lead to a better society, especially in rich nations, helping us break free from a pointless obsession with material wealth that only benefits the few? Alessio Terzi takes these legitimate questions as a starting point for a riveting journey into the socioeconomic, evolutionary, and cultural origins of our need for growth. It’s an imperative, he argues, that we abandon at our own risk.

Terzi ranges across centuries and diverse civilizations to show that focus on economic expansion is deeply interwoven with the human quest for happiness, well-being, and self-determination. Growth, he argues, is underpinned by core principles and dynamics behind the West’s rise to affluence. These include the positivism of the Enlightenment, the acceleration of science and technology and, ultimately, progress itself. Today growth contributes to the stability of liberal democracy, the peaceful conduct of international relations, and the very way our society is organized through capitalism. Abandoning growth would not only prove impractical, but would also sow chaos, exacerbating conflict within and among societies.

This does not mean we have to choose between chaos and environmental destruction. Growth for Good presents a credible agenda to enroll capitalism in the fight against climate catastrophe. With the right policies and the help of engaged citizens, pioneering nations can set in motion a global decarbonization wave and in parallel create good jobs and a better, greener, healthier world.

reviews, interviews

amazon.com – bruegel.org – foreignaffairs – goodreads –

spe.org 7-2022 Growth for Good review by Ian Bright

…”…Conversation had turned to the economic situation in Italy. Terzi had suggested structural reforms to increase growth. Giorgio, his host, suggested otherwise. “We need to stop growing! As my friend Serge always says, we need to degrowth.”  (p. ix) The host was referring to the work of French intellectual Serge Latouche, one of the masterminds of the decroissance, or degrowth, movement.

This remark obviously struck the undergraduate economist as, 15 years later, Alessio Terzi has written a book debunking the degrowth movement. Mr Terzi is now an economist at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs and has held posts at the think tank Bruegel and was an Affiliate Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy Business School. The book is detailed, with extensive footnotes and copious references, yet reads easily.

The book takes aim at idealistic approaches to the way societies organise themselves, particularly in relation to the immediate need to address climate change. Late in the book, Mr Terzi summarises his criticism of degrowth approaches as follows:

“Indeed, books on climate change and the future economy have a very strong tendency to take a normative stance. Authors in this genre get easily carried away by idealistic future predictions, based on their own aspirations, rather than sticking to impersonal analyses of social facts – and typically adopt a moral angle, enrolling the climate crisis to advocate a broader, pre-existing, worldview or ideology. Many view the need to reshape capitalism to address climate change as an occasion to fix all past wrongdoings, such as global and local inequality, colonialism, patriarchy, racism and even conspicuous consumption. This tendency is not confined to eco-socialist, post-growth visionaries. It is shared across the spectrum, all the way to green growth advocates.” (p. 155)

Mr Terzi prefers a more practical approach. The book “focuses more on what is likely to happen and to be feasible than on what would be ideal or desirable based on a particular moral compass. Climate change alone will be a colossal challenge, and adding extra layers of complexity will hardly make it easier to address – so conversations about the future of capitalism in light of climate change could benefit from some realpolitik.” (p. 155)

Mr Terzi notes that the current degrowth movement is nothing new. He cites its roots going back to the primitivism school of thought in the eighteenth century about the time of the industrial revolution (see pp. 45-46). Degrowth movements would hinder progress and innovation despite people and societies wanting progress and innovation. These approaches would also be “…incompatible with personal freedom as liberal democratic societies have always defined it.” (p. 58).

The arguments presented against slow/ zero/ de-growth are similar to those made By Branko Milanovic in his review of Kate Raworth’s 2017 book “Doughnut Economics”.

Mr Terzi argues that allowing the innovative tendencies of capitalist systems to flourish is the best way to address many of the problems societies face, especially when it comes to climate change. It is here that Mr Terzi may be on less firm ground. Chapter eight purports to present a blueprint for green capitalism, yet it is difficult to discern a plan, rather than six principles for guiding the actions of governments, international coordination and business.

This fits with the observation of the book that global, regional and national economic systems are complex. Given this complexity, guidance can work better than intervention. Here, I feel that Mr Terzi underplays the need for urgent and possibly radical guidance and incentives by governments. Despite the criticism of Mariana Mazzucato’s work (see pp. 66 and 67 and also this from John Kay), the risks associated with climate change are such that more active intervention and regulatory incentives may be necessary. As I understand it, this is also the position of Lonergan and Sawyers in their book Supercharge Me.

Mr Terzi is also too forgiving of economics and the economics profession for its slowness to act on climate change and also of the role of businesses in attempting to undermine the science of climate change (see p.138). Lord Stern (see, for example, this 2021 lecture) is rightly critical of not only the slowness of economists to respond to climate change but also of the models and thought processes they use to assess the problem. He calls for a change in economics to recognise this. Lord Stern argues for more activism than Mr Terzi appears to suggest. I’m on the side of his Lordship.”  

mup.co.uk 7-2022 The Value of a Whale – On the Illusions of Green Capitalism — By Adrienne Buller

Public understanding of, and outcry over, the dire state of the climate and environment is greater than ever before. Parties across the political spectrum claim to be climate leaders, and overt denial is on the way out. Yet when it comes to slowing the course of the climate and nature crises, despite a growing number of pledges, policies and summits, little ever seems to change. Nature is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. We remain on course for a catastrophic 3 DegreesC of warming. What’s holding us back?

In this searing and insightful critique, Adrienne Buller examines the fatal biases that have shaped the response of our governing institutions to climate and environmental breakdown, and asks: are the ‘solutions’ being proposed really solutions? Tracing the intricate connections between financial power, economic injustice and ecological crisis, she exposes the myopic economism and market-centric thinking presently undermining a future where all life can flourish. The book examines what is wrong with mainstream climate and environmental governance, from carbon pricing and offset markets to ‘green growth’, the commodification of nature and the growing influence of the finance industry on environmental policy. In doing so, it exposes the self-defeating logic of a response to these challenges based on creating new opportunities for profit, and a refusal to grapple with the inequalities and injustices that have created them. Both honest and optimistic, The Value of a Whale asks us – in the face of crisis – what we really value.

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theguardian.com 7-2022 What’s really behind the failure of green capitalism? – by Adrienne Buller

tribunemag.co.uk 8-2022 Green Capitalism Is a Myth – By Adrienne Buller

reviews, interviews


newstatesman 7-2022 Adrienne Buller: “Green capitalism is its own form of denial” – The Canadian author discusses her new book The Value of a Whale and why markets won’t save the world. By George Eaton

The acceptable face of capitalism is today a green one. Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg and Mark Carney all insist that markets are the key to saving the planet. But as the climate crisis becomes ever more inescapable, should anyone believe the hype?

In her new book The Value of a Whale, Adrienne Buller exposes what she calls “the illusions of green capitalism”. The title is a reference to the price that the International Monetary Fund recently assigned to great whales: $2m per specimen on account of their contribution to eco-tourism revenue and their capacity for carbon sequestration.

“It captures the most absurd elements of this project,” Buller, 28, the incoming director of research at the Common Wealth think tank, told me when we met at London’s Natural History Museum, where a blue whale skeleton (named Hope) hangs from the ceiling. “The idea that you would try to conserve nature by finding a way to put a price tag on great whales – porpoises and dolphins are excluded, by the way, because they aren’t important enough to carbon sequestration. That captures how meaningless a lot of these approaches can become if we don’t stop to think about exactly what we’re doing, which is separating out individual species from the environment they’re in.”

Though Buller writes movingly of her first encounter with a whale as a seven-year-old in British Columbia – “the distinct feeling that I had just had the curtain lifted on another world” – her book is not that of a romantic liberal. Rather, it is a deeply researched account of why green capitalism is self-defeating.

Buller concedes the intuitive appeal of ideas such as carbon offsetting before exposing the tragic and sometimes farcical reality. “A lot of carbon offsets based around reforestation have actually gone up in flames in climate-related wildfires in North America,” she said, including land claimed for green purposes by Microsoft and BP. Others were never offsets to begin with.

In September 2020, the energy firm Total Energies claimed that a $17m shipment of liquefied natural gas was “carbon neutral” on the grounds that it paid local volunteers and workers to clear the underbrush of a Zimbabwean forest as a wildfire preventative measure. “What this does is justify further emissions under the guise that, somewhere down the line, they will be removed. A lot of the time that isn’t what happens,” said Buller. She gave the example of Shell’s net-zero plan, which would require an area of land for reforestation three times the size of the Netherlands by 2030. “If you apply that kind of logic to all the world’s major polluters, or consumer decisions, you pretty quickly run out of land,” Buller wryly observed. “This is the inevitable outcome of an offset regime that’s based on enabling consumption to go on unchanged among the affluent.”

What of ESG (environmental, social and governance factors): the buzz phrase beloved of green capitalists and the City? “It’s become a scapegoat on the right and the irony is that I agree with that assessment – a lot of it does represent green- and woke-washing,” she said. In other words, an ethical facade that masks a less appealing reality.

“Many of the ESG products that are being offered are devoid of any kind of investment in a green future,” Buller said. “They take a mainstream fund such as the S&P 500 and slightly change the weighting so that you have less exposure to airlines and fossil fuels and, most likely, much higher exposure to Big Tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook.

“It’s hard to argue that Amazon, for example, has a particularly great standard on labour rights or that there haven’t been issues around exploitative supply chains for a number of those companies.”

But is the fundamental problem the entire notion of green capitalism, or simply that it isn’t being tried properly? “The argument I make is that green capitalism is a contradiction in terms,” Buller told me. “Because it’s predicated on systems and dynamics that are not reconcilable with a sustainable planet, whether that is the idea of constant and unending growth entirely decoupled from material resource use or the fact we’ve sustained Western lifestyles off the exploitation of invisible people and places around the world.

“Eventually you run out of cheap labour to exploit, you run out of land to use for offsets and you run out of resources to exploit for all of us to have our own shiny new electric vehicle.” Green capitalism, in short, is “its own form of denial”, she said.

Buller was born in Vancouver and politicised by her surroundings. “I spent my childhood running around temperate rainforests and swimming in the Pacific. But Canada is also an intensely resource-extractive economy and some of my most powerful early memories are of massive clear-cut forestry projects.”

For her, the country’s progressive image is at odds with its regressive economic model. “We just have very good PR. Justin Trudeau is a case in point. The man will walk at the head of student climate marches but then the country has to collectively own a pipeline”. (The Trans Mountain pipeline was bought by the Canadian government for C$4.5bn in 2018.)

Buller comes from a medical family – her mother is a healthcare CEO, named as one of Canada’s most powerful women, her father is an interventional cardiologist – and her first degree was in life sciences at McGill University. She moved to the UK in 2017, at the height of Corbynism, and studied global governance and ethics for her master’s at University College London, subsequently becoming co-director of the campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal.

When asked what she makes of Labour’s post-Corbyn trajectory under Keir Starmer, Buller is withering. “It’s completely misjudged that Labour has moved entirely away from the pledges that he campaigned on [during the 2020 leadership election] and that includes a robust commitment to tackling the climate crisis,” she said. “I do think that has been a big betrayal and I will stand by the word betrayal. There has been a betrayal of the activist base that I don’t think even Keir Starmer would deny and that has been an explicit strategy to differentiate himself from his predecessor.”

[See also: “I often spend my time sounding like a Lib Dem”: Rory Stewart on the fractured Tory party]

Part of a new generation of transatlantic left thinkers, Buller was drawn to socialism by “a much more honest conception of freedom around our collective emancipation, rather than my freedom necessarily being reliant on exploitation of others”. Her forthcoming second book, Owning the Future (published on 23 August), is co-authored with Mathew Lawrence, the director of Common Wealth, and will argue for “a new era of democratic ownership: a reinvention of the firm as a vehicle for collective endeavour and meeting social needs”.

In Four Futures (2016), the US writer Peter Frase explored four possible scenarios for life after capitalism: luxury communism (equality and abundance), rentism (hierarchy and abundance), socialism (equality and scarcity) and exterminism (hierarchy and scarcity). Of these, it is the final one that Buller regards as most likely, at least for now. “There will be pressures around the world for necessary climate migration and my greatest fear is that we have a society that becomes comfortable with creating an even harsher ‘Fortress Europe’ and that designates huge parts of the world as sacrifice zones.

“It may not be viable in the long term because eventually you undermine the conditions for that zone of safety. But things will have to get worse before they get better,” she said.

see also

blog.sussex.ac.uk 2018 Green growth or post-growth? by Jennifer Bird

Thoughts and reflections on the launch of Tim Foxon’s new book ‘Energy and Economic Growth: Why we need a new pathway to prosperity’. By Nora Blascsok

Students and faculty gathered together on 14 December to hear from Tim Foxon, Professor of Sustainability Transitions at SPRU and CIED, whose new book ‘Energy and Economic Growth: Why we need a new pathway to prosperity’ explores an important question:  Do we need to move beyond an economic system predicated on growth to achieve a sustainable future?

The book presents a historical perspective of the role of energy in driving economic growth. It grapples with the question of whether we need radical change to our economic system to create a sustainable future or whether investment in renewables will drive a new phase of “green growth”. The discussions at the event clearly demonstrated how divided the sustainability community is over answering this question. While everyone agreed that we need a positive approach, some were arguing for more radical changes to deal with the magnitude of the problem. …

more green capitalism

see also 

caw/gm 2021 …”…As to the money system requiring monetary growth derivatively divorced from “real value”, here is Mark Carney’s statement (later echoed by Rishi Sunak)

“We need to rewire our economies … not to be judged on style or black box ESG ratings …but hard numbers for true sustainability. … To make all this add up we must build a financial system entirely focused on net zero.”…ft.com 30/10/2021 Mark Carney

I hope Mike Carney is not literally equating sustainability with net zero? I also hope that by hard numbers he means real socio ecological quantities, not their monetary valuations.

It is production that has got to go green, let alone fair. Not just the narratives of valuation but production itself. Production pre-cedes and feeds consumption. Ultimately to consume sustainably I need to consume sustainable products. Sustainable eco valued products replacing unsustainable ones is presumably part of any transition.

Measuring pollution via the personal footprint of consumption is to fall for a calculus that distracts from the real source of pollution, ie the product and its reproduction. When used as a metric for status rankings, personal eco-footprints turn into weapons of the divide-and-rule variety, unleashed perhaps by fears of overpopulation or product transparency?

It is products that need to be valued independently of price. I don’t want transparent people but transparent products. I don’t need to know about corporate commitments. I need to know the product’s composition. I don’t care about the brand’s philosophy but I want to know how much irresponsibly mined copper, non recyclable plastic and dehumanising labour are contained in my next electric toothbrush? I want hard ESG type numbers processed from real hard data to signal the product’s relative virtue for real. Or rather the anti-virtue or disutility in terms of global unsustainability. Read this as a story about paying back a loan from the planet, or more to the point: spelling out the costs to the products eco-social contextuals, ie ultimately the human planet. Think of it as the globe taxing the unsustainable processes of production. Many ways to do it. Plenty of precedents for turning debt into money. Including the monetary status quo with it’s 97% credit money.

Lately economists have rallied around a carbon tax. Having preached “Tax is Evil” for 50 years, perhaps not surprising no one has been listening to the new sermon. As Black Rock ESG dissident Tariq Fancy reminded us, this is capitalism, if you want to stop production of something, you got to make it unprofitable. So you tax it. …

… Carbon tax is better than zero tax, let alone the existing subsidies. Nonetheless the Davosian net zero ambitions smell of a fishy portfolio cop-out, externalising pollution to infidel investors or shell covered funds: “Ooops, I honestly never knew I still had money in slavery?” Unless net zero refers to the absolute global eco-physical balance it’s just privatised financial absolution: “I still use slaves but I don’t actually own them any longer?” That’s just part of why net zero is potentially counterproductive.  Also there is a lot more to the climate crisis than carbon…”…

…”…Refreshing as Branco Milanovic’s contributions are relative to the irrelevance of can’t-do-macro 101 ortho-economics, he nonetheless fails to appreciate the gravity of economics having lost all measure of value. Positioned on the plinth of mainstream respectability he is generously eccentric to even engage with the naively unrealistic hetero doughnut economist Kate Raworth. Having praised her for being marginally more reasonable than most other curveball cranks, he nonetheless feels compelled to cite her “agnosticism on GdP” as undermining her “Doughnut Equilibrium Model”.

Such is the realistic gravity of Capitalism Alone. Infused with an apparently Leninist conviction in the necessary unfolding of history, one does not even bother to deny one is under the spell of TINA, in this case objectifying a 3rd-rate operational definition into the naturalised real: because GdP is the only metric we have, it must measure something relevant and real. Or at least correlate with it, as Tim Harford recently tried to reassure us...”…

caw/gm 2021 …”…There is something airily apolitical about DeGrowth at times. But this naivete needs to be put in perspective. As Benedikt Schmitt  reminds us “Scholarship on transformation … is challenged to formulate how change beyond growth-dependent and “capitalist” modes of social organization might unfold. Trapped between the double utopia of the current situation:  While it is clearly an illusion that society can continue , fundamental change beyond capitalism seems equally implausible.”

Perhaps even more poignantly, the naiveties of alternative imagined futures should be compared to those of the present “realistic” status-quo-forever unfolding. Like imagine the existing global GDP economy progressing nicely and greenish along the present trajectory to eradicate poverty at $1.25 a day. Apparently it would take more than 100 years. And at a slightly more real $5 a day level, it would take 207 years.  “Global GDP would have to increase to 175 times its present size, ” writes  Jason Nickel, “…driving global per capita income up to $1.3 million. In other words, the average income would have to be $1.3 million per year simply so that the poorest two-thirds of humanity could earn $5 per day.” This “extremely optimistic scenario” is the best we can expect from the business-as-usual trajectory of the development industry…”…

caw/gm 2021 …”… With her short sharp questions, Losmann drills her way through the particular perspectives of the participants to shed light on the trinity of money, debt and growth. Thanks to Losmann’s heterodox approach this trio is changing before our eyes. Since she does not burden herself with the orthodox bullionist or commodity theories of money, she travels unveiled on a chartalist credit card of debt-money: Debt is money and money is debt, as the case may be.

growth-debt-wealth – interest loaded Matthew Effect

So the triptychon is dynamized into a ménage à trois, where perpetual growth drives the other two to grow in tandem, recurrently re-declaring themselves as either credit or debit. How exactly remains rather mysterious. It becomes clear, however, that wealth is made from owning debts and that as the amount of debt increases, the Matthew effect becomes a hockey stick. As an upper wealth advisor explains: with larger sums, even small percentages make a lot of extra wealth. … Mysterious as the motor of growth remains, making profits cannot be it. Depending on the level of education and positioning, the finance professionals have different views on how profits are made. But everyone agrees on one thing: you absolutely need growth…”…