EGEE 401
Energy in a Changing World

Green Economy and Growth?


The Life Cycle Thinking readings referred to a green economy based on the principle that "products and services should ultimately be to the benefit of the environment and society over their life cycle." In a green economy, the full costs of protecting the environment and appropriate conditions and treatment of workers must be considered.

There are many views of what a green economy may look like and the steps necessary to get us there. In the next lesson, we'll talk about policy and regulatory options for addressing the environmental challenges presented by our "need" for energy and the ability to "sustain a viable planetary life support system." Others have ideas that can be implemented – or at least practiced – just by exercising our personal freedoms in how we spend and invest. Here's one example illustrative of this emerging thinking.

Steady State Economy

According to earlier readings (Executive Summary) from the UNEP and SETAC, the roots of the problem are "the prevailing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. Feeding, clothing, sheltering, and providing the other wants and needs of the global population exceeds the Earth’s available resources and carrying capacity."

In 2015, I attended an annual conference of the National Council for Science and the Environment Conference on Energy and Climate Change. With two days of esteemed international panelists, the single biggest applause came when a speaker said: "The answer is simply to consume less." (The second biggest applause was for an equally fundamental remark. Asked by an audience member, "What is the most important thing we can be doing?," the speaker replied, "Walk the talk.")

Clearly, there is a connection between consumption and environmental peril. And, the thing is, excessive consumption isn't making us healthier or happier either. Time magazine (March 13, 2015) featured a story, "Here’s Proof Buying More Stuff Actually Makes You Miserable." (Not required reading, but I hope you will!)

More and more of us are believing that a solution for many societal, environmental, and even personal, ills is to consume less. But wait, everything we read and much of what we study presupposes that economic growth is good. It is always good. In fact, economic growth is necessary if things are to stay okay. But is it?

The metric we use to measure the size of an economy is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). When it goes up, the economy has grown and markets generally respond positively to the news. We know that GDP is the "monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country's borders in a specific time period." (Investopedia)

We are not the first, however, to question the unquestionable goodness of economic growth for growth's sake. In a famous speech in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy asked us to reconsider our "surrender" to economic growth. Here's an excerpt,

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.

Our Gross National Product [ ] counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Robert F. Kennedy Speeches, Remarks at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

In 2015, Pope Francis published a 184-page encyclical, where he "called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, blending a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action." (NY Times) On consumerism, writing,

  • "Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction." (Chapter Six Ecological Education and Spirituality, I. Towards a New Lifestyle, para 204)
  • "Less is more. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment." (Chapter Six Ecological Education and Spirituality, IV. Joy and Peace, para 222)

Reading Assignment

Visit the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE)

A steady state economy is an economy with stable (or mildly fluctuating) size. It isn't growing. To be sustainable, a steady state economy is sized within ecological limits. An economy can reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth.

Under "Discover"

  • Read Envisioning the Good Life. Click through on Consumption and Energy.

And, of course, more if you like!