GROWTH – ECO-CRISIS – de-coupling

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Decoupling: A Key Fantasy of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda Robert Fletcher & Crelis Rammelt

ABSTRACT – Central to the United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda grounded in the Sustainable Development Goals is the notion of ‘decoupling’: the need to divorce economic growth from its ecological impact. For proponents, decoupling entails increasing the efficiency with which value is derived from natural resources in order to reconcile indefinite economic growth with environmental sustainability. However, even advocates admit that the idea of decoupling remains poorly conceptualized and subject to scant empirical investigation. This persistent commitment to a highly questionable idea suggests the possibility of a deeper psychological dynamic at work here. Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, in this article we therefore analyze decoupling as a ‘fantasy’ that functions to obfuscate fundamental tensions among the goals of poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability, and profitable enterprise that it is intended to reconcile. In this way, decoupling serves to sustain faith in the possibility of attaining sustainable development within the context of a neoliberal capitalist economy that necessitates continual growth to confront inherent contradictions.

Keywords: capitalism, neoliberalism, environment, decoupling, psychoanalysis


2019 Parrique T., Barth J., Briens F., C. Kerschner, Kraus-Polk A., Kuokkanen A., Spangenberg J

Is it possible to enjoy both economic growth and environmental sustainability? This question is a matter of fierce political debate between green growth and post-growth advocates. Over the past decade, green growth clearly dominated policy making with policy agendas at the United Nations, European Union, and in numerous countries building on the assumption that decoupling environmental pressures from gross domestic product (GDP) could allow future economic growth without end. Considering what is at stake, a careful assessment to determine whether the scientific foundations behind this “decoupling hypothesis” are robust or not is needed. This report reviews the empirical and theoretical literature to assess the validity of this hypothesis. The conclusion is both overwhelmingly
clear and sobering: not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future.

It is urgent to chart the consequences of these findings in terms of policy-making and prudently move away from the continuous pursuit of economic growth in high-consumption countries. More precisely, existing policy strategies aiming to increase efficiency have to be complemented by the pursuit of sufficiency, that is the direct downscaling of economic production in many sectors and parallel reduction of consumption that together will enable the good life within the planet’s ecological limits. In the view of the authors of this report and based on the best available scientific evidence, only such strategies respect the EU’s ‘precautionary principle,’ the principle that when the stakes are high and the outcomes uncertain, one should err on the side of caution.

The fact that decoupling on its own, i.e. without addressing the issue of economic growth, has not been and will not be sufficient to reduce environmental pressures to the required extent is not a reason to oppose decoupling (in the literal sense of separating the environmental pressures curve from the GDP curve) or the measures that achieve decoupling – on the contrary, without many such measures the situation would be far worse. It is a reason to have major concerns about the predominant focus of policymakers on green growth, this focus being based on the flawed assumption that sufficient decoupling can be achieved through increased efficiency without limiting economic production and
consumption.