Rethinking Infinite Growth: The Role of Capitalism in Climate Change
Written by Anjana Aravind
Expert Columnist on Climate Change, Law & Order
Climate Researcher, Wind Pioneers, Bangalore
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
Multiple climate tipping elements are expected to reach their critical point within this century, which would mean an irreversible change in some of the earth’s most crucial systemic drivers (Lenton, 2017). As citizens of urban landscapes, we have mentally dissociated ourselves from these elements of the cryosphere. What do West Antarctic ice-shelf melt rates have to do with the lifestyles of the Indian middle class or the jet-setting Chinese businessman? How does our fixation with infinite-growth capitalism exacerbate climate change? What are the alternatives to capitalism that have not already proven themselves to be failed econo-political experiments? This article answers these questions by taking a look at our socio-economic systems and the trajectories they’ve created.
Limits to Growth
The predictions of an MIT study conducted over forty years ago stands eerily true to this day. Limits to Growth is the reported result of a theoretical extrapolation of exponential economic and population growth given a limited supply of natural resources (Meadows, 1972). The central idea of the study is that the static index of resource consumption, which is defined as the current reserves of resources divided by the annual usage, does not logically hold true for a world where the rate of consumption grows exponentially. To take continuously compounding growth into account, the number of years left for each resource considered was formulated to be directly dependent on the growth rate of consumption of the resource and currently known quantities of the static reserve. The team categorized the limits of the planet into two broad groups, mainly ‘sources’ and ‘sinks.’ Sources referred to natural resources necessary for modern civilization, such as water, fresh air, minerals, and fossil fuels. Sinks referred to the quantitative ability of the earth to absorb our pollution and emissions, i.e. the capacity of the ocean as a heat sink, atmosphere as a greenhouse gas sink, etc. The simplified system dynamic of the study was described as “Population cannot grow without food, food production is increased by the growth of capital, more capital requires more resources, discarded resources become pollution, pollution interferes with the growth of population and food.” (Ketcham, 2017). Having met with heavy criticism by proponents of growth capitalism in the years following its publication, the study was dismissed for a good chunk of time, which could have been spent altering the course of the projections it had produced. In 2014, a comparison of the book’s projections with historical data since its publication year was conducted by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and the two were found to agree quite closely (Turner, 2014). This was followed by a 2016 report in the UK which confirmed that the results were accurate (Jackson, 2016). Essentially, overconsumption of key resources, in both the macro and microscales, is what will drive, and is driving, systemic collapse.
With the recent trend of co-opting sustainability into a consumer aesthetic, the burgeoning middle classes have been led to believe that it’s not their levels of consumption that are to blame, but the products themselves.
The ecological footprint of products indeed plays a huge role in contributing to ecosystem damage but the rate of consumption is a far bigger driver. A study that compared the climate impact of environmentally conscious consumers versus those who were unaware found that there was no significant difference between the two groups (Tabi, 2013). Both consume almost the same amounts of energy and natural resources and emit equivalent tons of carbon. This is mainly due to the fact that environmentally conscious consumers tend to be from the wealthier and more educated strata of society, who, for various reasons, offset the benefits of their daily ‘green’ habits with comparably larger lifestyle habits such as taking long-haul flights for work and/or leisure. The more impactful habits, because of their much lower frequency of occurrence, are unconsciously deemed as necessary or acceptable.
The Carbon Footprint of Affluence
In a recent article published in Nature, scientists provide clear evidence of the fact that per-capita consumption along with technological change is the strongest determinant of climate impact, far outweighing other socioeconomic and demographic factors (Wiedmann, Lenzen, Keyßer, Steinberger, 2020). The study also points out that the benefits of technological change aimed at reducing environmental impact are dwarfed by increasing consumption rates, especially with the rise in the upward mobility of low-income groups. What this indicates is that greening consumption is not the solution, the aim should be to reduce it. Income disparity and social inequalities play a major role in this, once again showing that climate change is not exclusive of socioeconomic challenges, rather it is a direct consequence of the latter.
The top 16% of the world’s population emits 38% of global CO2 while the bottom 9% are responsible for a mere 0.5% (Ritchie, 2018).
A paper by Sanne (Sanne, 2002) talks about the obstacles faced in achieving sufficiency-oriented lifestyles, where apart from the psychological factors of societal and familial pressures to consume, the mechanisms of the state and the private sector work together to foster the necessary conditions for consumerism to thrive.
Figure1. Mainstream model of the economy. Source: Daly, Herman E., and Joshua C. Farley (2010): Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nded, Washington Press.
Consumption is seen as necessary for economic growth, and in increasing a nation’s GDP. There is no ceiling to how much a single individual is able to consume in today’s society. This applies to corporates as well, which is why with the rise of multinationals like Unilever and P&G, problems which used to be endemic to only one part of the planet have now turned into global challenges, such as the Panama disease which once wiped out banana plantations in Latin America and is now taking over Southeast Asian agriculture (Ploetz, 2008). With no cap on consumption, we are told repeatedly, through multifaceted advertising, to throw out the old for the new, to keep aiming for bigger and better, from houses to cars to food supplements. The narrative conveniently feeds the theory of mainstream economics and its circular flow diagram. This is a diagram (Fig. 1) which includes everything but the fundamentals, such as energy, material resources, the environment, and societal equality. It paints a picture of interactions between financial institutions, private and public sector institutions, and trade happening in a socio-ecological vacuum.
This is a system which we are part of, and which we are trying to change inside-out with our ‘eco-friendly’ shopping habits instead of imagining a newer, better system.
From Linear to Circular
Kate Raworth of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute developed the framework of a revolutionary new way to imagine the economy, rooted in social and ecological common sense. She redraws the traditional circular flow diagram, but with two rings, accounting for all the qualitative aspects which Keynesian economics has disregarded. It consists of an ecological ceiling, which defines the limits of possible consumption and pollution; this is the outer ring. The inner ring represents a social foundation that humanity has yet to achieve. The area between the rings is where we must strive to live, balancing our ecological and social footprints. The doughnut shape of the diagram lends the system its name of Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2017). There are various alternatives to the current system , which address the issue of decoupling GDP from environmental impacts and brings up the question of whether GDP is the right measure of development, to begin with (Partington, 2019). The setting up of localized economies, bottom-up grassroots initiatives, and the establishment of participatory democracy is fundamental to challenging today’s no-holds-barred consumption-driven economy. This will have to involve what may be considered ‘drastic’ measures such as dismantling the affluence of the Global North, mandating participation of women, indigenous communities and local government bodies in economic discussions, and rethinking current financial, educational and political structures in order to build a regenerative socio-economic system.
Figure 2. The Doughnut Economy Model. Source: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health
 Ideas rooted in the concepts of thinkers such as Naomi Klein, Raj Patel, Amitav Ghosh, Jeremy Lent.
1. Jackson, T. & Webster, R. (2016) Limits Revisited - A review of the limits to growth debate.A report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth. Doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.21095.91045.
2. Ketcham, C. (2017, May 16). The Fallacy of Endless Economic Growth. Pacific Standard.
3. Lenton TM, et al. (2007) Tipping elements in the Earth's climate system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(6):1786–1793.
4. Meadows, D. H., & Club Of Rome. (1972). The Limits to growth : a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. Universe Books.
5. Partington, R. (2019, Jun 17). Is it time to end our fixation with GDP and growth? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jun/17/is-time-to-end-our-fixation-with-gdp-and-growth
6. Ploetz, R. C. (2008). Panama disease: Return of the first banana menace. International Journal of Pest Management, 40(4), 326–336. https://doi.org/10.1080/09670879409371908
7. Raworth, K. (2017). DOUGHNUT ECONOMICS : seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.
8. Ritchie, H. (2018, October 16). Global inequalities in CO₂ emissions. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-by-income-region#emissions-by-country-s-income
9. Sanne, C. (2002). Willing consumers—or locked-in? Policies for sustainable consumption. Ecological Economics, 42(1–2), 273–287. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0921-8009(02)00086-1
10. Tabi, A. (2013). Does pro-environmental behavior affect carbon emissions? Energy Policy, 63, 972–981. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2013.08.049
11. Turner, G. (2014) ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
12. Wiedmann, T., Lenzen, M., Keyßer, L. T., & Steinberger, J. K. (2020). Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nature Communications, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y
Law & Order's Expert Columnist on Climate Change
Climate Researcher at Wind Pioneers, Bangalore As a researcher for a UK-based consultancy firm for the wind energy industry, Anjana works on on-site risks, natural hazards, and climatic phenomena that drive wind patterns. She has previously worked at the Climate Change Research Center, Sydney, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany where her focus was on Antarctic ice-melt dynamics. When not worrying about climate change, she can be found painting, watching documentaries, or playing the piano.