The World Can Live WITHOUT Perpetual Growth—and It Must

By Shlomo Maital  

                                                            Zero Growth

Today’s Global New York Times (June 5/2014) has a fine column by Eduardo Porter.  He refers to Prof. Tim Jackson’s 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, and Jackson’s back of the envelope calculation.   It shows a bitter truth:  The macroeconomic assumption, that continual perpetual growth in GDP per capita is both good and feasible, cannot be sustained.  We have to have policies that seek a stable level of per capita GDP, while redistributing wealth and income from rich countries to poor —  a very tall order.

   Here is the simple arithmetic.   Assume that developing nations citizens are entitled to roughly the same level of per capita income as Europe, by 2050 (that’s 36 years away, about a generation and a half!).  By then there will be 9 billion people in the world. 

  • If European incomes grow by 2 per cent annually through 2050, and
  • If we want to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C. (3.6 degrees F.) above what it was before the industrial era [in order to prevent violent, unpredictable environmental upheavals],   then: the world can emit at most 6 grams of carbon dioxide for each dollar of GDP it produces.   


     Hmmm…   Advanced nations emit 60 times that much, at present!   Developing nations emit 90 times that much!    

     If we want to eradicate poverty (we do) and save our planet (we do), we are going to have to reduce carbon emissions by an order of magnitude. A very tall order, one that will take massive investment of resources, huge creativity, a pro-environment mindset, global cooperation, and a wide variety of new technologies.

      President Obama’s new proposal, for limiting carbon emissions, falls far short of what is needed, and even THAT could be sabotaged by Congress (though Obama claims he will implement it as an executive order).    

     Is no-growth economics possible for rich countries? It is. Look at Japan. Despite Japan’s huge efforts, its per capita GDP has grown very little for two decades. Yet Japan remains a prosperous country, with a high living standard. Is Japan a natural experiment, showing that zero growth is not only possible, but desirable – provided we change our mindset?


        I’m afraid that my generation is delivering a ruined planet to the younger generation. They have the right to put us all in jail for this.