If you point out that Earth isn’t getting bigger, most people will agree. If you then point out that it won’t be possible for the economy to keep taking more and more from the Earth you may still find that most people agree (unless they are hoping to go space mining or colonise Mars). But if you try to link GDP to the physical size of the economy – the land area taken up by the economy, the amount of resources it consumes or the amount of waste it produces – someone will inevitably point out that we can grow GDP without using more resources as long as we ‘decouple’.

A recent example is the CSIRO article in Nature ‘Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures’ (also summarised here: https://theconversation.com/study-australians-can-be-sustainable-without-sacrificing-lifestyle-or-economy-50179 and you can view the CSIRO report here).

Such a statement predictably prompted discussion in steady state circles. Here are two official responses:

A few weeks later, in an article called ‘Consume more, conserve more: sorry, but we just can’t do both‘ George Monbiot reported on material footprint research that found “Achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even nonexistent.” and this week  wrote about the link between economic growth and GHG emissions.

For those who have stopped equating economic growth with progress, whether we can decouple or not feels like a distraction from the more important issue of being able to sustain our civilization. To be sustainable, an economy may not exceed ecological limits. What about putting the effort into exploring the options for maintaining a stable economy within those limits (whether GDP is growing or not), and for achieving fair distribution? Once we have achieved those things, go and decouple as much as you like.


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