Sustainable growth is an oxymoron!

The world’s response to climate change is based on the concept of “sustainable growth”: we postulate that economic growth is necessary and try to ensure that it is sustainable. It is kind of like putting lipstick on a pig, but the banks love it.

There are a couple of problems with this approach:

  1. It has not worked so far. Not only are the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere still increasing, they are increasing faster than ever. After 30 years of failure, it might be time to stop beating the dead horse.
  2. There is no evidence that sustainable growth is even possible. Common sense and experience tells us that it is not.
  3. We need to be absolutely sure that sustainable growth is possible before trying. Otherwise, continuing to grow the economy is a recipe for disaster.

I have updated my plot comparing global GDP and CO2 emissions below. The data and analysis is provided in the following Excel Sheet. Please feel free to use and distribute as you like.



10 thoughts on “Sustainable growth is an oxymoron!

    1. Agree. Malthus got many things right. As Kenneth Boulding put it: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”

  1. “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”. Edward Abbey

    But lesser developed countries feel the need (and perhaps have the right) to the same living standards as the west. So how do we get X billion poor folks up to our standard of living ?(difficult, although we are doing an excellent job preventing just that for the last hundred years or so) and get westerners to agree to go into a holding pattern wrt living standards (even more difficult).
    Developing and utilizing the best possible tech (sustainable) is perhaps the last best chance. Or it might be making everyone on the titanic feel a little better…
    Some interesting economic research over the last years has shown the environmental costs of unsustainable energy production and if these externalities were used in accounting for costs, at least folks would think about more sustainable methods (or avoid the most damaging).

    1. The important point is that growth does not solve any problems, apart from generating capital income for investors. We need to redistribute wealth from industrialized countries to poorer ones. Check the books by Jason Hickel.

  2. Quantitative growth – 100% agreed

    Qualitative growth – the key to sustainability

    The challenge is that our societies and the mental models of its citizens are locked-in on numbers that can be quantified easily.


    PS.: Each one of us can start to make a choice and go for quality.

    1. I agree. Two things seem important. First, we need to stop measuring success using the GDP. Second, we need to remember that flying and excessive consumption are bad for the environment, regardless of the political system. Any discussion on climate policy seems to start by excluding 99.9% of the solutions which would harm the economy. It would be great for the environment if people suddenly stopped flying on vacation. However, this is a horror scenario for most politicians. Just think of all the jobs that would be lost.

  3. I took the GDP and CO2 data and run a simple Causal analysis, to see if we are in the presence of a “simple correlation” (correlation doesn’t imply causation!).
    You can find the results and the code to generate them here

    In short, this analysis indicates that GDP causes CO2 with a considerable margin in the likelihood score:

    Log Marginal Likelihood

    GDP –> CO2: -794.35

    CO2 –> GDP: -1618.73

    I invite people to modify the code and try other models (I tried almost the whole gpml repertoire), the result is robust.

  4. Check out the work by Tim Garrett, showing the link between growth and emissions (or at least the consumption of resources which leads to increased emissions). I’m not sure what RalfLippold means by “qualitative growth” but governments and businesses want growth in the real value of goods and services, which takes a growing amount of resources and, on a finite planet, that just has to end. It will end long before the necessary resources are exhausted, because eventually it takes too much energy to extract lower and lower purity resources.

    Sustainable economic growth is impossible and I don’t think “qualitative” gets around the problem, especially as quality is somewhat subjective.

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