Economic Growth: The Missing Link in Environmental Journalism

by Brian Czech

Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.

Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection.

The analogy isn’t perfect. Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to protect the environment like doctors are obligated to patient health. But journalists are obligated to tell the truth: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here we’re concerned with the “whole” truth, and it’s worth extending the analogy in this direction.

Let’s say the doctor has an overweight patient. The patient was small as a child and developed an obsession with gaining weight. It’s hard to shift mental gears. Fully mature now, this patient’s top goal is growing even more! This has led to all kinds of problems: bad knees, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea to mention a few.

Now imagine the doctor prescribing more pills for each new ailment, never saying a thing about the patient’s obsession with growth. When will the doctor talk about the big picture? The patient is just not getting it on his own. To him, getting even bigger seems like the solution to all problems, not the cause.

Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.

A code of ethics prevents journalists from advocating policies. It’s “just the facts ma’am.” But environmental journalists would probably be working for the environment if they weren’t writing about it. That’s my guess after attending three of the last five Society of Environmental Journalists conferences, most recently two weeks ago in Lubbock, Texas.

Yet the journalists have been missing the environmental forest for the trees. Try to remember the last article you read about an environmental problem in which economic growth was even mentioned, much less explored with nuance. Can you?

Journalists covering climate negotiations sometimes identify economic growth as the goal in the way of progress. China and India aren’t about to give up on growth now, and for that matter neither is the United States. Our “way of life is not up for negotiation.” But that’s about it for coverage. There’s little exploration of the nuances: of how in a 90% fossil-fueled economy, economic growth means climate change; of how “green” energy can’t substitute for fossil fueling of the economy; of how a stabilized climate amounts to a steady state economy.

And that’s just the context of one environmental problem: climate change. When, in reading about biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, depletion of aquifers, fisheries decline, etc., do we read about the linkage to economic growth? All environmental problems track with GDP growth, and it’s no coincidence. The relationship between economic growth and environmental impact is causal, just as gaining weight is causal of bad knees. Economic growth is an 800-pound gorilla with two arms: population and per capita consumption. It doesn’t happen without environmental impact.

It’s ironic that environmental journalists don’t tap into the big picture of economic growth. After all, generating a buzz is all about connecting with society’s concerns. It’s about relevance. What is more relevant today than economic growth? What is more covered in the broader media? What gets more attention from politicians?

The environmental journalist’s take on economic growth will sound odd at first. Readers are used to thinking of economic growth as the solution to problems, not the cause. But that’s OK. Readers are like the obese patient intent on gaining weight. When it dawns on them that economic growth is the cause of so many problems, not the solution, their interest will be piqued, and many will develop an appetite for journalism on economic growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy. The whole truth will set them free from the fallacious rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to environmental protection. But they do have a unique opportunity. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the whole truth, however inconvenient, that environmental protection doesn’t square with economic growth.

8 replies
  1. Phil Lawn
    Phil Lawn says:

    The forces driving GDP growth are multi-dimensional, as therefore are the solutions. But one thing that would help deal with humankind’s GDP growth addiction is to stop referring to GDP growth as ‘economic growth’. I stopped doing this around the year 2000. Real GDP growth essentially involves the increase in the physical quantity of goods produced within a nation. GDP growth is ‘economic’ if it increases benefits faster than costs; it is ‘uneconomic’ once costs rise faster than benefits. Virtually all high-GDP countries have experienced ‘uneconomic growth’ since the 1970s/80s, which is around the time they should have begun the transition to qualitatively-improving steady-state economy (SSE).

    I constantly surprise people by saying that I am all for ‘economic growth’. I’m just against ‘uneconomic growth’. I will admit that economic growth can result in some environmental losses, but economic logic suggests that the point at which GDP growth switches from being ‘economic’ to ‘uneconomic’ occurs prior to real GDP becoming ecologically unsustainable. Thus, historically, if all nations had kept track of the benefits and costs of GDP growth and had ceased to grow real GDP once the extra costs started to exceed the extra benefits (i.e., when economic welfare begins to decline through excessive growth ), no national economy would have exceeded ecological carrying capacity.

    I get criticised for referring to economic growth and GDP in the manner above. People keep telling me that it only creates confusion. That’s not my experience. People want to know what I mean when I differentiate between ‘economic’ and ‘uneconomic’ growth and find it very easy to understand the logic behind it.

    But more importantly, I believe the differentiation puts the ball in the court of the growth advocates because the logic of economic versus uneconomic growth compels them to demonstrate whether, at a point in time, GDP growth is truly economic (i.e., truly increasing economic welfare), as they always claim. That’s when they are found wanting. Indeed, when put to the test in front of an audience, growth advocates have to embarrassingly admit that the mainstream economics profession hasn’t even bothered to measure and compare the benefits and costs of GDP growth. And this despite the fact that microeconomics is about little else. That’s right – macroeconomics isn’t even based on sound economic logic, let alone on biophysical realities.

    So let’s start a conversation about ‘economic’ and ‘uneconomic’ growth. Advocates of the SSE would have nothing to fear because some the macroeconomic indicators they have devised to accord with economic logic (e.g., the Genuine Progress Indicator) have long revealed that GDP growth should have ceased in high-GDP countries decades ago. On the other hand, mainstream economists would having everything to fear and nothing to show to support their claims.

  2. Gidon Gerber
    Gidon Gerber says:

    There was a time in the 1970s when the “limits to growth” were all over the news. (Even my parents owned a copy of the book.) Unfortunately, the computer models were mistaken for predictions, and when these dis not come true the whole approach was discredited. I think this is still behind the reluctance of many ecological (and economic) journalists to address the topic.

  3. DMHardy
    DMHardy says:

    Thank you for the insightful post. Your analogies are both appropriate and easy to understand. I am someone who has experience in the medical profession and you are spot on! What’s interesting is that I am now going back to school for an MBA. I chose to attend Bainbridge Graduate Institute based on the rationale that the mental models of our current economic system must change. And similar to the argument regarding the lack of attention the economy plays in environmental journalism, our environment is absent from the typical MBA curriculum. Thank you again and I look forward to future posts.
    David Hardy

  4. Claudia Munera
    Claudia Munera says:

    Great and truly important post! I just want to add that it is also our responsability as readers to be truly informed and to research in order to understand the great complexity of the problem. Unfortunately there is a lot of people that prefer to rely in what a journal or newspaper says without bothering to investigate the whole situation.
    Responsible journalism and responsible readers.

  5. Will Peters
    Will Peters says:

    The purpose of the GDP growth AAA lien is to preserve the leach of the interest baring capital [Automaticaly Induced Debt Sindrome which would otherwise have to be written off] even if the long term effects of hasty growth on the environment prove it to be both uneconomic and destructive

    Even Democratic representation was just a stepping stone to MPs later sitting on various boards of directors deriving their income from conections

    Democracy as derived from Hellenism has shifted from emphasizing physical perfection to representing an aging population and promoting pre senile dementiaaa as the ideal by allowing owebesity to masquerade as maturity

  6. Tom Byrne
    Tom Byrne says:

    Very good post, Brian. This is also an issue with every environmental organisation out there (and there are thousands when you count the small local issues ones). Understanding that economic growth is the driver behind pretty much all issues an environmental organisation, large or small, intenational or local, face or take on as a cause is something to be seriously explored. If organisations like these could take the lead in stating the cause (economic growth) first, and then the particular symptom that ‘floats their boat’ (whatever that may be) second, we would have a truly unified global approach to raising awareness of alternatives like a steady state economy. Keep up the good work!

  7. Hugh Laue
    Hugh Laue says:

    Excellent post.

    @Gideon Gerber
    I have a copy of Limits to Growth. It made a number of PROJECTIONS (not predictions) based based on 9 different scenarios. The “business as usual” projection (which is what happened) actually turned out to be suprisingly accurate as shown by subsequent updates (2006). It was never scientifically discredited – it was the neo-classical economists that attempted to discredit it by applying reasoning of an economic model that Daly and others have long ago shown to be disconnected from biophysical reality (i.e. a fantasy).
    See Heinberg’s End of Growth for an excellent analysis of how we have arrived at the mess we find ourselves in.

  8. Will Peters
    Will Peters says:

    “But that’s OK. Readers are like the obese patient intent on gaining weight. When it dawns on them that economic growth is the cause of so many problems, not the solution, their interest will be piqued,”

    The average reader has a mortgage repayment that he hopes will deflate relative to his income ,he relies on GDP growth to cover the too much he paid for his home and “the greater fool theory” which he discovered after the event

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