Economic growth and environmental degradation: is it possible to have one without the other?
Numerous writers, such as Naomi Klein, have explored the relationship between environmental degradation and capitalism. They often conclude that any economic system requiring continual growth is simply incompatible with living within our environmental limits.
The price our environment is paying in our quest for perpetual economic growth is clear.
Indiscriminate forest clearing for agriculture production. The pollution of our shared climate for private gain. Bulldozing of wetlands for urban expansion. These all show how demands of continual economic growth steadily deplete and degrade the ecosystem services on which we depend.
So should we expect the environmental movement to advocate for a new system of ‘sustainable’ economics?
To answer this question, I studied 510 Australian environmental organisations in early 2017. I looked at a number of features of these groups, including whether they run campaigns on economic issues, or whether they incorporate economic issues in their advocacy. Groups ranged from large transnational foundations to small volunteer action groups, all working on a diverse range of environmental issues.
Results show that few environmental organisations advocate for any significant change in our current economic values.
For example, many organisations undertake grassroots campaigning to influence local policy decisions, such as by campaigning against specific local urban, coastal or resource extraction development. Yet very few organisations advocate for a steady state economy, or implement sustainable economic models such as establishing a not-for-profit social enterprise to support their advocacy activities.
Why might this be so? My work research is uncovering a range of possible reasons:
Despite these barriers, a new way forward has been developing over the last few years.
The dramatic growth of renewable energy cooperatives, community owned enterprises and campaigns such as the international divestment movement offer a beacon of hope.
Such examples of success all share two key features:
(1) They incorporate equitable and environmentally sustainable economic solutions into their campaigns, and
(2) They network and share skills and resources across organisations.
Another cause for hope is in the development of networks such as the New Economy Network Australia. Bringing together research findings from Institutes and Centres with on-the-ground case studies run by small volunteer local groups, these networks will allow the smashing of barriers to create effective economic and environmental change across local, regional, and national boundaries.
The evolution of our first use of currency over 40,000 years ago into the complex and fascinating intricacies of our modern economic system is one of humanity’s crowning achievements. However, this evolution has come at a steep price to our environment.
If you are someone who wants to change our economic values, use this information to join a group or build your own effective campaigns for change. Better yet, join a network and share your findings: be part of the community of change working for a socially, environmentally, and economically just future.
- Robyn Gulliver
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.