by James Magnus-Johnston
A new voice has emerged recently in Canada called the “Ecofiscal Commission,” which could have the funding, clout, and determination to steer the country in a more promising direction. The group includes high-profile economists, former political leaders, and high-powered financiers. They define “ecofiscal policy” as something that “corrects market price signals to encourage the economic activities we do want (job creation, investment, and innovation) while reducing those we don’t want (greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our land, air, and water).” There seems to be a semblance of steady state thinking among this otherwise rather conventional lot.
Not so fast. The Ecofiscal Commission recently clarified that it “believes that our economies can continue to grow, even as we improve the environment by polluting less and using our natural resources more efficiently.” I found it noteworthy that this group of high-profile individuals decided that it was necessary to address the question of growth. Perhaps that’s because folks like myself don’t believe their policies are sufficient to address 21st century challenges, such as anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction.
One of their commission members, Dr. Dick Lipsey, is a “renowned expert in the field of economics and innovation,” and Professor Emeritus of Simon Fraser’s Department of Economics. In a recent Ecofiscal blog post, he rehearsed a standard narrative of innovation and technological progress that many ecological economists are familiar with. His narrative makes mention of neither the rebound effect nor of exactly what technologies will systematically reduce our material footprint. He even seems to suggest that if we don’t grow the economy, our health outcomes will decline due to a lack of medical innovation.
He goes on to write about how “those who, like this commentator, think only of today’s commodities and today’s technologies, do not see the possibilities of raising living standards, while also dealing with pollution, through technological advance.” This seems straightforward enough—we don’t know what we don’t know. New technologies will emerge over time. He then proceeded to make a sweeping claim by listing a number of technologies that have made life more convenient, including “dental and medical equipment, antibiotics, bypass operations, safe births, control of genetically transmitted diseases, personal computers, compact discs, television sets, automobiles, opportunities for fast and cheap world-wide travel, air conditioning…” And so on. For the record, I’m quite happy for all of these advances, yet I still don’t see how anything on this list is addressing our self-inflicted mass extinction, though I suppose it’s making us comfortable in the meantime.
I could spend time addressing the factual basis of his claim that innovation requires growth, but we’ve been doing that since the 1970s, when Henry Wallich discounted the findings of Limits to Growth (DH Meadows et al.), arguing that technology would save us from the ecological crisis. We’re still waiting for this claim to ring true, and there’s a raging contemporary debate, which speaks to some lingering uncertainty about the claim. For my part, I see the invention of new technology as a response to a specific technical problem (or set of problems) rather than merely the offspring of pro-growth economic conditions.
What I find far more curious is (a) why Dr. Lipsey’s sweeping claim avoids mention of mass extinction or climate change; and (b) how this opinion can reflect the voice of so many high-profile public figures. It is true that, as Lipsey writes, “…our Victorian ancestors could not have imagined what to do with ten times as much of all of the goods that they knew about.” Yet it is also true that we have far more than ten times the goods that they knew about, and that our aggregate material footprint is still going up. Efficiency gains are a “feel good” story, but the gains have yet to reduce our aggregate material footprint at the global level.
I’m not an ideological enemy of innovation or entrepreneurship. In fact, I’m a bit of a techno-geek—I (rather shamefully) like new technologies and toys. I get irrationally excited when I see developments in green technology and transportation, and I’ve started a business. I can’t wait to use a hyperloop. But, as Lewis and Conaty write in The Resilience Imperative, I embrace the principle that efficiency without sufficiency is lost. Or to put it another way, it feels intellectually dishonest to suggest that efficiency has the potential to deliver us from a cultural propensity for overconsumption. I’m not certain why we should focus our energy on miniaturizing goods or “cleaning” our production process to the exclusion of simply consuming less. We need both.
Underpinning some of Dr. Lipsey’s claims is the epistemological assumption that innovation is merely a technological, material, or financial phenomenon. What precludes us from innovating ethically and socially, towards more desirable ends? John Maynard Keynes considered the day when society could focus on happiness and well-being rather than economic growth. He wrote, “The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems—the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.” If innovation is so predetermined, why might one suggest it is possible to innovate technologically, but not towards a more sustainable economic size? That is, after all, what this growth debate is really all about.
I can’t also help but wonder whether or not Dr. Lipsey recognizes that his narrative emerged during a time when one could not see or feel the effects of a deteriorating planetary life support system. I don’t blame him for his choice to rehearse this narrative—like many 20th century thinkers, his whole identity has been constructed to promote the idea of growth. But at some point, we will all need to accept our planetary prognosis and act accordingly. It’s become exceedingly clear that price signals alone won’t preserve forests, oceans, or climate stability. Peter Victor has argued that while D.H. Meadows et al. possibly underestimated the price-mechanism’s role in adjusting economic outcomes, their critics have overestimated it.1 By the time we’ve settled on a carbon price, the planet will already have become several degrees warmer and we’ll no longer have the luxury of technocratic tinkering. Behavioral economists have also debunked the myth that humans are motivated only by price signals. Human beings are complex, irrational actors who are influenced by far more than just the almighty dollar. Many of us have given up on the neoclassical paradigm precisely because of this new knowledge. Call it innovation.
It’s not necessarily true anymore that economic growth increases our incomes and always transforms our lives for the better. Today, some features of economic growth are increasing the incomes of the richest, stagnating the incomes of the poorest, and depleting the innovative spirit of the economy. Who has the time to worry about climate change and mass extinction when they’re just getting by or more concerned about how to cash their next pension check? Ask any Greek citizen.
Perhaps we can be thankful that growth didn’t stop in 1900 or 1950, as Dr. Lipsey argues. But this isn’t 1950. We have to solve a new set of problems. There’s never been a better time to innovate the discipline of economics, and with it, our definition of progress.