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Do we need to ration growth, and if so, who gets what's left?

September 30, 2009
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Spoke at a Quaker conference on the ‘zero growth economy’ at the weekend. Quaker meetings are different: when I finished speaking to an audience of 350 people, there was total hear-a-pin-drop silence. Instead of clapping, people reflect, eyes closed, on what they have just heard. And no, even though it was after lunch, they weren’t asleep (well, most of them) and it wasn’t just me – the next speaker got the same treatment, despite beginning his talk by acting out the train-wreck metaphor, ending with him running into a closed door at full speed and slumping to the ground. The two pigeons flying round the hall just added to the sense that this was not an average meeting. Actually, I really enjoyed it – free from all the rigmarole of applause, the quiet, dignified exchange and moments of shared silence felt respectful, even intimate. Plus Quakers are great readers – the stock of From Poverty to Power sold out in seconds and I spent the rest of the afternoon kicking myself for not bring more.

As for the discussion, the audience was deeply anti-materialist and apocalyptic (trainwreck man – ‘we are moving into the dying time – the 21st Century will be like working in a planetary hospice’), so I was forced first to defend the importance of growth to poor countries, then talk about whether it needs to be rationed to stay within the limits of climate change. The argument is best illustrated with three country scatter plots:

1. Rate of poverty reduction v growth: 3 points to note: firstly that on poverty reduction v growthaverage, countries that grow faster see greater poverty reduction. Secondly there is a lot of variation above and below the line of best fit, showing that you can get a lot more/fewer poverty bangs for your growth buck depending on the quality of growth (levels of equality, labour intensity, effectiveness of government redistribution and so on). Thirdly, you need 2% growth before you even get into poverty reduction (zero growth corresponds to a 1% increase in poverty rates).

carbon intensity v emissions2. Carbon intensity and overall carbon emissions: global carbon intensity (grammes of carbon per $ of economic output – the blue line) has been improving steadily for decades, but the rate of improvemement is much lower than that of the long term growth trend of GDP. Also, it got stuck around 2000, presumably due to the relative rise of carbon-heavy Chinese production. As a result overall global emissions (the red line) continue to rise, and are even accelerating. That leaves 3 options if we want to stay within two degrees of warming:
a) a drastic improvement in the next few years of the rate of fall of the blue line
b) reduced global GDP
c) a geoengineering magic bullet (a variety of Dr Strangelove solutions like putting tinfoil in orbit to reflect away sunlight, likely to have all sorts of unintended side effects)

Politicians are desperately clinging to (a), but I don’t see convincing evidence that carbon intensity is likely to fall at the speed required, which leaves a real need to at least consider (b), still an almost complete taboo in government circles. But if we are going to reduce the rate of global growth, how do we decide who gets what? Time to click on chart 3.

3. Life satisfaction v GDP: what this shows is that in poor countries, growth life satisfaction v gdpleads to a sharp improvement in people’s reported quality of life. Not surprisingly, being able to feed your family, increase your resilience to sudden shocks like sickness or unemployment, and watch your children grow up healthy and educated makes people happier. But above $20,000 or so (Czech Republic or South Korea), growth no longer adds to happiness.  In fact if you believe life satisfaction surveys in the UK, gross national happiness in my country peaked in the long hot summer of 1976, (ah yes, I remember it well) and has been falling ever since, despite considerable subsequent growth in the British economy.

So there you have it: if you want to maximise happiness (a utilitarian argument which offends the rights-based people, I know, but not a bad start) AND prevent catastrophic global warming, you need to make sure that incomes rise in the poor countries, but are steady or falling in the rich ones. i.e. we need to ration growth – it’s just too precious (and dirty) to waste on the rich countries. Convinced?

However, I suspect that such arguments were excessively rationalist for some in the audience (although there is a Quakernomics blog if you’re interested). Much of the discussion revolved around the role of believers who are neither lobbyists nor scientists. It came down to changing attitudes and beliefs to prepare the ground for more fundamental shifts : ‘We Quakers are being called to be the midwives of a new style of living and being’ one said. Recalling the history of the Quaker-led abolition of slavery, I wouldn’t bet against them achieving something significant. Trainwreck man Alistair McIntosh ended with the words of poet Adrienne Rich:

‘My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.’

Update: train wreck man has now written his own account of the event in the Guardian 


  1. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for another really interesting entry. The conference sounds really special!

    Was there any discussion on the big question of how to apply the rationing of growth in richer countries – especially democratic ones as it doesn’t sound like a popular vote winner?

    While actual wealth in rich countries may not increase happiness, my personal impression from the last couple of years (in the UK) is that even here a growing economy makes a happier place to be than a shrinking one.

    Good luck putting all this into practise!

  2. No, Pete, we didn’t discuss implementing any of these ideas – and of course it’s that that makes the idea so politically difficult, unless we manage to break the replace the link between consumption and self-worth in the way Tim Jackson talks about in ‘Prosperity without Growth’.

    Interesting idea that the relationship between GDP and wellbeing is asymmetric – rising GDP doesn’t make people happier, but falling GDP sure as hell makes people more miserable! If true (and I think you may be onto something), then that again constitutes a serious obstacle to rationing growth.

  3. Duncan,

    This is a very interesting topic of discussion. I would have never thought that limiting the economic earning potential of rich countries and increasing the earning of developing/poor nations would be most beneficial.

    It’s definitely going to take some time to convince individuals that this in fact is a beneficial move and as stated by Pete I would love to see the practical application of these ideas and how they would be implemented.

    Good luck with everything.


  4. Very interesting conference. I wonder what the Quarker thought about the five stages of the economic growth? It is so difficult for poor states to move on to the second stage of the economic growth. I don’t know what kind of miracle they have on their calendar to improve the life of the poor people. Furthermore, the capitalist system passing by the development project and now the globalization project will them improve the life of the poor countries.

  5. This is a very interesting discussion that raises a number of questions for me about how we define growth and who decides what growth looks like and whom the beneficiaries of growth should be. While I would like to believe we could encourage a process of rationed growth for the sake of maximizing happiness and reducing the rapid destruction of the environment, we can’t forget that this is a global capitalist system, which still very much operates as though development/growth is a zero-sum game where there are winners and losers. As you and others have pointed out, it is doubtful that the developed countries will want to give up any expansion of their growth for the sake of (perhaps more efficient) development of the South. And recognizing the unevenness in the globalization process, can we really expect more developing countries to experience a viable rate of growth (over 2%).

    Another thought is that while your chart regarding the rising rate of carbon emissions strongly demonstrates the need to slow global growth (and thus emissions), we can’t forget that it tends to be the poorer countries/areas that most impacted by natural disasters and other effects of climate change. Seeing this now in Indonesia and Samoa, but also true when in drought affected areas in Africa, or even the poor in Louisiana and Mississippi who had little opportunity to escape Katrina.

  6. I expect it depends on how you ration growth. The present contraction is painful precisely because it is not ‘rationed’ but felt as arbitary. A business fails here, a mortgage is foreclosed there – and all because impersonal forces (mainly driven by greed) dictate it.

    The ‘trick’ that we have not managed yet is enabling people to see the necessity of it (climate change etc) and how, in practice, it will not effect people’s actual well-being if that necessity becomes the mother of reinventing our social arrangements.

    War time is an imperfect analogy but it is striking (on the domestic front) how both limits and ‘enforced’ equity was adapted to positively.

  7. Hi
    I don’t want to knock the the Quakers who have influenced a great deal of social reform with a small membership. But Wilberforce, Clarkson and Sharp were all evangelical Anglicans , I think , let’s hear it for the Church of England too.

  8. Mr Green this global socialism argument has serious flaws. Besides the basic human nature issue, your entire premise is based on global warming as if it were indisputable fact.
    May I recommend that you cease prattling on as if this were an actual discussion worth having and spend your time objectively investigating the facts for yourself. For enlightening facts on “climate reality” you could start here: http://www.surfacestations.org/
    and http://www.greatswindle.com/

    Please, Wise up and do some research. Stop drinking the cool aid and think for yourself. That goes for the rest of you too.

  9. A bit late but anyway:)

    To me it really raises questions of the ethics of finite resources and what justifies the access and consumption of these resources. The West has got away with force and out competing for resources but I wonder how they will react when they are on the receiving end.

    It also raises the questions of how one gets the developed nations to use less or ration what they do use so that developing nations can have their ‘fair’ share on both a policy and practical level.

    I don’t see it happening voluntarily.

  10. We will need to ‘ration’ growth at some point anyway – due to peak-oil. But that is easier said than done. How much cutting back will Western society tolerate? Let alone our corporations? Will it be again a case of us carrying on as usual and everybody returning back to the stone-age?

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