Can a system — where social security has traditionally been a failure — at all opt for the normative ethical principles of degrowth for the cause of nature?
The Indian economy has shrunk by 23.9% in the first quarter of 2020-21. This was largely expected given the lockdown of the Indian economy as a response to the ongoing pandemic of Covid-19. The confirmation of the negative relation of growth with environmental indicators got enforced yet again during the lockdown with all the environmental indicators showing signs of substantial improvement. This can be witnessed with the increase in green cover, substantial improvements in air quality in urban centres, changes in both terrestrial and aquatic species’ breeding behaviours and movements, and attainment of better flow regimes in river systems (possibly even attaining environmental flow regimes at times with quality, quantity and temporal parameters of flows being met). This negative relation again goes on to reveal that India is still on the rising side of an Environmental Kuznets Curve (if that at all exists).
Another question emerges here from the perspectives of “green growth” and “degrowth”. It has already been accepted in many parts of the developed world that the attempts to nurture current levels of growth are proving to be costly due to degradation and depletion of the natural ecosystem. This has not only created a dent on the ecosystem services, but has actually been a deterrent for the traditional cultural ethos, that respects all forms of life on Earth. It is here that modernity is equated with consumerism that is tantamount to unbridled development and unsustainable consumption levels. The contention that the consumption levels of the over-consuming classes in the affluent parts of the world are degrading the natural ecosystem hardly needs a reiteration. However, there is no denying of the developing world’s contribution to the process of depletion and degradation of the ambient environment because of its inherent “growth fetishism” — a term that I have used in many of my previous essays. Developing and the underdeveloped world perceive development as a mono-directional movement of a single variable, GDP, without the considerations of broader issues of equity and sustainability. Yet, there is no doubt that income growth is an undeniable reality of human economic existence. Therefore, the notion of “green growth” started being accepted as the solution to prevent degradation of the natural environment as a position that can reconcile between the needs of development and conservation goals.
The very “green growth” hypothesis is contingent upon the decoupling of the use of natural resources and economic growth. This implies that there has to be a factor that can substitute the incremental change in natural resource use for meeting growth targets. While often technological and institutional innovations are being talked of as factors for enhancing production efficiency, I would like to pose this factor in the words of Thomas Homer-Dixon, “ingenuity”. Yet, however powerful ingenuity is, an undeniable fact of the present civilisation is that human progress is inextricably linked with the use of one of the most fundamental forms of capital: natural capital. In classical economics, this fundamental capital form was subsumed under the factor of land. In this context, the very decoupling of growth from natural capital or resources provided by nature is practically and axiomatically impossible. This is exhibited in a 2016 paper by Ward et al where the authors, on the basis of an analytical macro-model, infer the following, “growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use,” demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. However, we also note that GDP has been shown to be a poor proxy for societal wellbeing, something it was never designed to measure, and GDP growth is therefore a questionable long-term societal goal in any case. The mounting costs of “uneconomic growth” suggest that the pursuit of decoupling — if it were possible — in order to sustain GDP growth would be a misguided effort.
It is here that I would like to state that “green growth” is an oxymoron. Growth is necessarily “brown” in colour, with its concomitant pollution. In the same vein, it can be stated that brown growth is in an organic autodestruct trajectory through rise in scarcity value of natural capital resulting in commodity price rise and increasing cost of pollution. Hence, the question infront of humanity is: is “degrowth” the solution for the world? As such, the proponents of both degrowth and green growth concur on one issue: the need and policy prescriptions for meeting conservation goals, environmental protection, maintenance of ecosystem structures and the development of renewables for reducing pollution. However, there are two issues in which they oppose each other: a> the issue of coexistence of the pursuance of growth with promoting conservation goals; b> the impact the ecological transition on economic growth. Degrowth thesis talks of deceleration rather than growth in order to sustain the very fundamental basis of life that rests in nature — in that sense, it comes close to the Convivialist Manifesto — a school of thought led mainly by a group of French academics and intellectuals that advocates a receding wave of progression in human endeavours and a vision of human coexistence with nature. In that sense, degrowth entails a retraction from the present ways of living through contraction of economic activities in the global North and an emancipation from the dominant reductionist occidental paradigm of development (seen through the economic growth lens). It is believed that this will create the space for a more self-delineated trajectory of social organisation in the global South.
Now comes the big question: whether a developing nation like India can afford to have a different set of objectives than growth. Many argue that “degrowth” is a western construct, and can be adopted in those spaces that have already grown, and should not be applied to economies who have not yet reached that stage. In India, the economic lockdown clearly revealed the anguishes of the migrant labor, the micro and small enterprises, and the poor. This implies that the social cushioning in the nation was provided so far by the market forces, and not by governments — a situation that is tantamout to policy failures. The failure of distribution and equity became too apparent. Can a system where social security has traditionally been a failure at all opt for the normative ethical principles of degrowth for the cause of nature? Therefore, role of markets is undeniable in the Indian economy. Growth has been an organic integral rider of market forces that do not recognise the cause of the ecosystems and sustainability.
In an essay published in the Financial Times on 15 April 2020, Amartya Sen contended that “a better society can emerge from the lockdowns”. He reiterated the need for equity and the distribution aspects of development by quoting the example of how life expectancy at birth in England and Wales increased during the war decades. “The positive lessons from pursuing equity and paying greater attention to the disadvantaged helped in the emergence of what came to be known as the welfare state.” While the lockdown has brought out the skeletons from the closet, it creates opportunities for democratically elected governments to create the best distribution practices and institutions, and continue with them in the post-pandemic world. Sen, however, lamented “social distancing restricts the virus’ spread. But, it has to be combined with compensatory arrangements — for income, food, access and medical attention — for people devastated by the lockdown. Sadly, it is quite possible that when we meet again we will be no better placed to face the unequal world in which we live.”
Interestingly, much in contrary to popular thinking that degrowth is a fashionable statement for those parts of the world that have already grown, it needs to be kept in mind that it is actually a statement emanating from a world that is more equitable, where social security is strong enough to act as a cushion during a crisis, where policies have been effected on distributive justice, and where reliance on market forces for meeting social needs is less. India’s development vision has been much in the opposite direction. Distribution and equity problems loom large even after seven decades of Independence. Its environmental crisis cannot be combatted through a degrowth thinking at this point. Rather, what India needs at this point in time is a holistic development paradigm that plugs in the ecosystem and distribution concerns in development. Interestingly, the small South Asian country, Bhutan, plugs in these concerns in their Gross National Happiness (GNH) framework. While a large democracy like India may not be in a position to replicate that framework, it needs a different configuration in development thinking than the business-as-usual, i.e. a reconciliation of contending goals: economic efficiency, equity through ditributive justice, and environmental sustainability through legal statutes.
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Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, the ...Read More +