Worker installs solar panels

An Economic Miracle? Not

This Facebook post caught my eye recently:

“A new report shows that economic growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of the planet.”

This earth-shaking statement was apparently on the Facebook page of the Environmental Defense Fund earlier this month, though I cannot find it there today. It linked to this piece at Forbes.com:

As Trump Signals Rollback On Environmental Regulations, New Jobs Report Indicates That’s A Bad Idea

Here EDF’s Liz Delaney rightly points out that the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations can be considered anti-jobs.

“…businesses are accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy while hiring the next generation of talented, motivated leaders – which is a good thing, because they’re needed.”

She is also correct when she writes:

“Our new report, Now Hiring: The Growth of America’s Clean Energy & Sustainability Jobs, underscores this trend. As the economy becomes more sustainable and energy efficient, a new market for clean energy and sustainability jobs is created. This market is large, growing and intrinsically local.”

But I was curious. Is the EDF seriously touting economic growth as sustainable and not in conflict with long-term stewardship of the planet? If so, this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how pursuit of economic growth is currently liquidating the planet’s natural capital, impairing life-supporting ecosystems and reducing Earth’s carrying capacity. You can learn more about this here. I searched for this report, to see what it has to say about economic growth. The report’s page at http://edfclimatecorps.org/nowhiringreport offered these gems:

“This report highlights the role of this transition in boosting the American economy….”

“Boosting” could be subject to interpretation.

“In many cases, these sectors are vastly outpacing the rest of the U.S. economy in growth and job creation….”

Also inconclusive. They could just be taking advantage of our obsession with economic growth and job creation to push the transition to clean energy. Perhaps no harm there.

I didn’t find any indication the report concludes or claims “economic growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of the planet.” “Economic growth,” used this way, typically means aggregate growth of the overall economy. It’s safe to say we have not discovered a way to grow the global or any national economy without also increasing our liquidation of resources and disruption of the climate.

That doesn’t mean, however, that growth of certain sectors of the economy is bad. We can have a steady state or contracting economy even while increasing some good things – like renewable energy and energy conservation work, for example. But that can only happen if other sectors concurrently shrink (I can suggest things like mining and burning coal, and drilling, refining and burning oil). That can make for a dynamic, improving economy, but a sustainable one. Replacing dirty jobs with clean ones is good. Replacing mechanized work (fueled by oil, natural gas or coal) with manual labor, creating more jobs, can also be good.

But just adding jobs without simultaneously eliminating the load elsewhere in the economy is not sustainable. I’m sure EDF can see which way the wind is blowing and is taking advantage of interest in job creation to promote the switch to cleaner jobs. I hope they realize this only works if we’re REPLACING dirty jobs with clean ones, not just adding cleaner jobs on top of an already unsustainable economy.

It’s likely Liz Delaney didn’t write that Facebook post claiming we’ve found the miraculous secret to growing the economy without killing the planet. Whoever did write that ought to be a little more careful. As it stands, aggregate economic growth moves us closer to the cliff, and the more people are educated about this, the better.

 
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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

Comments (2)

  • Avatar

    Brian Sanderson

    |

    Exactly what you expect if the economists are in charge of the Environmental Defense Fund.
    Of course the economy can be decoupled from physical reality — here’s the proof:

    We know that economists brains have physicality
    Because they are so fat and burn many a calorie
    But for all that brain there is no mind
    So the economist is forever blind
    To any theory with a semblance of reality.

    Reply

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