Jason Hickel and I have exchanged a few rounds of public debate, prompted by his critique of ”green growth” published at Fast Company. The question being debated is whether decoupling offers a pathway towards a sustainable future. His core conclusion is that the answer is no, and that ecomodernists such as myself are indulging in magical thinking. “Even under best-case scenario conditions,” Hickel argued, “absolute decoupling of GDP growth from material use is not possible on a global scale,” and certainly is not enough to reduce material use sufficiently to stay within planetary boundaries. Consequently, he argued that slowing GDP growth is necessary to avoid environmental collapse.
But to secure a sustainable future for humanity, we need to ask the right questions and pursue plausible solutions. I maintain that Hickel is doing neither, and I’ll cover each point in turn.
First, asking the right questions.
Hickel forumates the question about decoupling in terms of resource consumption. He asks, is it possible to decouple GDP from the aggregate amount of stuff that we use — a metric which in Hickel’s words includes "everything from wood to plastic, fish to livestock, minerals to metals”?
Why Hickel’s choice of question — why resource consumption? The answer simply isn’t clear in his original article. In my response, I argued that Hickel is asking the wrong question. I pointed out that we should be most concerned with environmental impacts like habitat loss or greenhouse gas emissions, and that resource consumption is at best a proxy for those.
My objection prompted Hickel to clarify the logic of his argument. In his rejoinder, Hickel seems to accept my premise that we should be centrally concerned with impacts. But to defend his focus on consumption, he claims that aggregate resource consumption is in fact a valid proxy, on the grounds that all consumption has some degree of impact. He writes, “aggregate material flows are in fact an important indicator of what’s happening to our planet. “Sure,” he continued, “some material use has more dramatic impact than others. But no material use is impact-free.” To illustrate, he writes, “Industrial and construction materials may contribute relatively little to greenhouse gas emissions and land use, but anyone who has ever seen (or lived next to) an open pit mine will know that they are ecological disaster zones in all sorts of other ways.”
In Hickel’s view, the difference in impact between various types of resource use isn’t a big enough difference… to make a difference. But is this true? Hickel makes no attempt to provide broad, systematic empirical support for this claim, which he mostly treats as a self-evident truism. As he puts it, “This is the thing about ecology, you see: everything is connected.” He offers a vivid image of an open pit mine to convince the reader that all resource consumption is bad enough to justify using Hickel’s chosen metric as a proxy for impacts.
I remain unconvinced. Research indicates that different materials vary many orders of magnitude in their impacts per unit mass — many orders of magnitude. Glossing over the considerable differences in impact between material resources is a poor empirical foundation for making the kind of categorical assertion that Hickel wishes to make about the viability of decoupling as a long-term solution to environmental problems.
When one considers individual impacts like land use, absolute decoupling is far from impossible. In fact, decoupling has already occured for some significant environmental impacts. I pointed to land use by agriculture as a key example, which according to FAO data has been in slight decline since the mid 1990s, even as consumption of crops and meat has increased by 60%. Since agricultural expansion is one of the leading causes of habitat loss, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions, this is quite encouraging. Shouldn’t we be asking how this was achieved, and if/how we can replicate this success for other impacts? Yes, theoretically speaking, the environmental benefits of increasing agricultural efficiency may even be fully offset by environmental impacts of agricultural modernization (which I don’t believe is the case, based on the data), but this should be an empirical question. Hickel’s imprecise analysis and vague appeals to ecological connectedness just aren’t enough.
Now, the issue of Hickel’s proposed solution: slowing GDP growth.
The strongest argument against decoupling as a pathway towards a sustainable human future isn’t that it’s impossible, as Hickel claims, but that it isn’t occurring quickly enough to prevent unacceptable environmental impacts. On the one hand, we seem to be moving in the right direction: GDP growth slows down as countries get richer, as does population growth, and technology keeps on its steady march towards higher efficiency. Rebounds in consumption do occur as a result of rising affluence, but research indicates that they do not typically negate the environmental benefits of modernization. At the same time, one may believe that decoupling trends may be insufficient at their current trajectory.
If one believes that decoupling is occurring too slowly, one may be inclined to also advocate for slowing economic growth in wealthy nations, as Hickel suggests. “Perhaps Blomqvist – or anyone at the Breakthrough Institute – could explain why they think that rich, high-consuming nations (like the US, for instance) need to keep growing their GDP (forever?), when we know that additional growth is not generating any better social outcomes.”
There is substantial reason to doubt that reducing GDP growth in the developed world will have the environmental benefit that Hickel seemingly believes it must, given that it is in developed countries that the promising decoupling trends have emerged. Further, in rich countries, GDP and population growth have already slowed, and demand for many goods has saturated.
What about developing countries? Given Hickel’s fixation on consumption, he should be most concerned about the developing world, where the great majority of growth in resource use is going to come from. But it’s not clear what his proposal is here. This isn’t surprising. Intentionally slowing GDP growth in developing countries is a problematic political and ethical proposition, given how much these countries would benefit from higher incomes, better infrastructure, and more employment. I would also argue that limiting GDP growth in poor countries is likely to delay the very transitions we need to achieve peak impact: slower population growth and higher efficiency.
For these reasons, I remain convinced that modernization and technological change still seem like the best shot we have at reaching peak impact.