Can we actually grow our way out of climate catastrophe? Must we?

This post is heavily based on my final paper for HUM393: Environmental Ethics: Green Growth vs Degrowth at the Cooper Union in Spring 2021. This course was extremely helpful in furthering my own thinking about climate change, economics, and ethics of our response to the crisis. In this essay, I investigate the political feasibility of ideologies of degrowth and green growth and the hold that growth has on our culture. It received the 2021 Charles M Goodman Prize from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

These days, imagining the future is imagining climate chaos – uncontrollable wildfires, stronger hurricanes, intense droughts resulting in mass destruction of the places we call home. In the face of such chaos, an increasingly strong global climate movement has sought to force political action. The challenge of climate change requires swift action to prevent worse destruction, they say, but it can also be an opportunity to provide a clean and safe environment for every global citizen. One such proposal, the Green New Deal, has resonated most in the United States because of its proximity to the economic growth policies of FDR’s New Deal and its “jobs” branding. Although implementing a Green New Deal does not necessarily require prioritizing growth policies, such a framing has helped it reach political prominence in the United States. The approach of degrowth, however, has not caught on in the US – the term conjures images of unmet needs, even though degrowth thinkers advocate for universal basic services. When faced with such a short and urgent timeline to act, if we are to be pragmatic, can we reconcile ourselves to pursuing a potentially problematic course of climate action, if it is indeed the only “politically feasible” one?

Proponents of green growth argue that through investing in green technologies like renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, carbon capture, and energy efficiency retrofits, carbon emissions will be reduced while simultaneously stimulating the economy. Green growth advocates imagine a world with “improv[ed] job quality, expanded union coverage and more jobs for under-represented groups”[1], as well as access to “clean air and water, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment”[2] and prosperity due to increased economic growth. After all, a lot of economic activity – building new solar panels, training workers, shipping raw materials across the globe – will be required to undertake such a massive energy transformation, and as a result global GDP will likely grow. Economic growth and environmental preservation coexist when absolute decoupling occurs: GDP increases and emissions decrease. According to economist Robert Pollin, the most desirable way to achieve decoupling is by incentivizing renewable energy through taxes and regulations[3]. He notes this is achievable since some countries like the United Kingdom[4] have achieved relative decoupling, where emissions decrease per unit of production, and others, he claims, even have achieved absolute decoupling, where GDP increases as emissions decrease in absolute terms.

Green growth is so attractive because it fits into American cultural values about economic growth and creating jobs. The idea that “growth is good”[5] permeates American culture and in fact has many proponents. In his book Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen lays out his vision for a “society of free, prosperous, and responsible individuals”[6] predicated on the idea of maximizing Wealth Plus, his measure of wealth that includes GDP, “leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities”[7], at nearly all costs. This is because, according to Cowen, “growth alleviates misery, improves happiness and opportunity, and lengthens lives.”[8] Although Cowen writes about growth from a philosophical standpoint, a similar argument also exists in politics. The goal of full employment has been the policy of the United States government since 1978 with the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which calls for United States “to use all practicable programs and policies to promote full employment, production, and real income, balanced growth, adequate productivity growth, proper attention to national priorities, and reasonable price stability”[9]. Although growth relies highly on private industry, the federal government can create conditions that incentivize growth, and has for many years as a matter of policy. As a result, the promise of green growth to simply swap out fossil fuels for renewable energy and create a boom of economic growth in order to rapidly decarbonize the economy is historically consistent with US fiscal policy and the goals of Keynesian macroeconomics. To be sure, elements like public financing, a jobs guarantee, and carbon taxes stray from our current neoliberal era, but they still follow in the footsteps of massive historical economic investments, like the New Deal. Because of its precedent, green growth’s proposition of not having to change the goals of monetary policy is tantalizing.

The American Green New Deal is one such policy proposal that responds to simultaneous crises of climate change, racial injustice, crumbling infrastructure, and high unemployment. Its goals are:

(A) to achieve the greenhouse gas and toxic emissions reductions needed to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers;

(B) to create millions of good, high-wage unions[sic] jobs and encourage collective bargaining agreements to ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States;

(C) to invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century;

(D) to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come—

(i) clean air and water;

(ii) climate and community resiliency;

(iii) healthy food;

(iv) access to nature; and

(v) a sustainable environment; and

(E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolution as “frontline and vulnerable communities”)[10]

The Green New Deal provides a vision for a just world, with good union jobs for all, safe housing, and a clean environment, in which everyone wins. Although the Green New Deal is not yet a reality, it is building momentum. Groups like the Sunrise Movement have organized to make it a serious proposal – in the 117th Congress, the bill has 101 original cosponsors, up from 67 in the previous Congress[11],[12], and the framing of climate change creating jobs has been adopted by President Joe Biden[13].

It is worth noting that the Green New Deal, which seeks to undertake a massive clean-energy transformation while creating jobs, is not inherently a growth program, and remains popular amongst both green growth and degrowth thinkers. On one hand, green growth advocates believe it will spur necessary investment into clean energy technologies. On the other hand, some of their degrowth counterparts advocate for a Green New Deal without long-term unlimited growth, recognizing the movement as “shar[ing] commitments to the rapid and massive deployment of renewable energy,”[14] as Kallis et al. do in The Case for Degrowth. Of course, some sectors of the economy, such as renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and clean transportation, will need to be grown while the fossil fuel industry and industrial production will need to shrink or be eliminated entirely, so that society can be decarbonized. On the whole, though, growth would need not be a driving principle of such a Green New Deal: a degrowther’s GND would prioritize social and economic equity. Kallis et al. argue that ensuring social justice would require less growth by design – after all, the best way to ensure people don’t live near a toxic power plant would be to not build that power plant at all.

Existing Green New Deals, however, mostly seek to stimulate growth. In the United States, the GND resolution calls for “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”[15] in addition to “spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States”[16]. While a jobs guarantee may be a part of the basic income vision of degrowth, it is clear that as written, the American Green New Deal prioritizes economic growth policies. Although the European Union’s GND plan advocates for a circular economy, it too prioritizes growth, writing that “Europe needs a new growth strategy that will transform the Union into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, where…economic growth is decoupled from resource use.”[17] The EU’s focus on absolute decoupling differentiates it from the American approach, which does not engage with the fact that growth and emissions are positively correlated.

Although the American Green New Deal sets forth a growth agenda, it still represents a departure from neoliberal economics that bow to corporate power.  The Green New Deal is a progressive vision for a government that can do big things, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration did in the New Deal. Like the New Deal, the GND uses Keynesian economic theories to stimulate the economy by investing in infrastructure; unlike the New Deal and traditional growth policies, it “promote[s] justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth”[18]. The Green New Deal promises an equitable future where all people are able to share in the gains of green growth. Its priorities make it popular across the political spectrum: righting historical wrongs may appeal more to progressives, while the focus on jobs may appeal more to those in the center or right.

Green growth may not be the panacea politicians wish it was, however. Can growth realistically fix a problem it supposedly created? Absolute or even relative decoupling seem difficult, if not impossible to achieve, and wealthy nations’ claims of achieving decoupling are suspect. Their carbon emissions are likely undercounted because the evaluation methods neglect the influence of globally mobile capital. For example, producing a t-shirt in Bangladesh would add to Bangladesh’s emissions, even if that shirt was sold in the UK. In such cases, wealthy nations may artificially deflate their emissions, while poorer nations have their emissions artificially inflated without the material improvements that usually follow carbon intensity. This is one way the Global North pushes both the responsibility and consequences of its consumption onto the Global South.

Furthermore, the Earth is a planet with finite resources, and building new infrastructure, even if it is sustainable, draws upon those resources. For instance, building solar panels requires depleting rare minerals like selenium, and even if efficiency is increased, selenium resources are not infinite, and the mineral requires processing to be used for solar energy purposes. When those solar panels reach the end of their useful lives, more energy will need to be spent to recycle or dispose of them safely. Therefore, unfettered “green” growth cannot continue without hitting ecological limits, and reducing carbon emissions requires curtailing growth.

Green growth may also obscure harmful consequences of climate change rather than fully eliminate them. As Jasper Bernes argues in Commune Magazine, the Green New Deal, which he uses as a proxy for green growth, “thinks you can keep capitalism, keep growth, but remove the deleterious consequences. The death villages are here to tell you that you can’t.”[19] He predicts that the sheer quantity of raw materials required to meet the scale of the Green New Deal as it is proposed, and the speed at which they must be deployed, will lead to a commodity boom that encourages producers to cut safety and labor standards. As a result, the clean air and labor protections of the Global North will come at the expense of pollution, death, and exploitation in the Global South, again further exacerbating global inequalities. Can such a course of green growth be justified, given that it will cause the suffering of those who are least responsible for climate change and have the most to lose from it?

Degrowth, an alternative philosophy to green growth, seeks to resolve the apparent conflict between prosperity and increased emissions. It aims to “halt the growth of material use and market transactions and build institutions, relationships, and persons to live well without growth”[20]. Since economic growth is correlated with higher emissions, degrowthers argue, true climate action requires shrinking the economy. Here, we might distinguish between material growth and economic growth, the former relying on the production of physical things, while the latter can include wealth produced in the service economy or virtually through market transactions. Would it be possible to pursue growth if it was fully virtual, not backed up by commodities? Although virtual growth may seem to be a solution to the climate impacts of growth, even the virtual economy negatively impacts emissions, since virtual transactions are backed up by physical datacenter infrastructure, which need to be cooled intensively. As a result, growth in all its forms, be they material or intangible, must be scaled back.

Degrowth thinkers seek to build much of the same social and environmental well-being that green growth thinkers do. Through “commoning,” basic needs will be met and people will spend more time with loved ones. This includes providing universal basic services like healthcare, childcare, and education to everyone, reducing work hours, and increasing collective ownership. Decentralized community organizations would be empowered to take care of the needs of their members through mutual aid.

This positive political vision for degrowth decouples quality of life from carbon emissions, but at what cost? As Robert Pollin notes, “During the Great Recession, global unemployment rose by over 30 mil­lion. I have not seen a convincing argument from a degrowth advocate as to how we could avoid a severe rise in mass unemployment if GDP were to fall by twice as much.”[21] Indeed, the rapid contraction of the United States economy due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic caused record high levels of unemployment[22]. The authors of Degrowth, however, invite the reader to not see the pandemic as a crisis of degrowth but one of growth, resulting from decades of cuts to stabilizing institutions in the name of economic growth. While degrowth aims to “purposefully slow things down in order to minimize harm to humans and earth systems,”[23] the pandemic has in fact created disproportionate harm to the most vulnerable because “there are no processes in place to protect livelihoods when growth falters”[24]. Transitioning to a degrowth economy would entail a just transition, the idea that disadvantaged communities, including fossil fuel workers, will maintain full pay and benefits. In addition, although degrowth calls for a contraction of the economy, advocates suggest maintaining high employment by reducing working hours. As such, degrowth would likely not result in high unemployment rates, and even if it did, a well-developed welfare state including universal basic income and universal healthcare, childcare, and eldercare would ensure that those without jobs could also live comfortably.

A high standard of living may conflict with aspirations of low carbon emissions, however. In a 2018 Nature Sustainability paper, authors O’Neill, Fanning, Lamb, and Steinberger investigate the relationship between planetary boundaries and social standards using a quantitative approach. Using a set of 11 social indicators including democratic quality, education, and life satisfaction and seven biophysical boundaries including carbon dioxide emissions, ecological footprint, and blue water, they determine the number of countries who have surpassed each boundary. They write, of their results:

Physical needs such as nutrition, sanitation, access to electricity and the elimination of extreme poverty could likely be met for all people without transgressing planetary boundaries. However, the universal achievement of more qualitative goals (for example, high life satisfaction) would require a level of resource use that is 2–6 times the sustainable level, based on current relationships. Strategies to improve physical and social provisioning systems, with a focus on sufficiency and equity, have the potential to move nations towards sustainability, but the challenge remains substantial.[25]

Outliers who perform particularly well include Vietnam and Sri Lanka, while Western nations transgress nearly all biophysical boundaries while achieving most social thresholds. These results call into question the degrowth strategy of a good life for all within planetary boundaries – is it impossible to achieve high quality of life without unsustainably depleting natural resources, or, since the paper’s results are based on existing data from growth economies, would it only seem so because of growth?

The clear distinctions between the global North and the global South in this paper also bring about ethical issues surrounding degrowth. Indeed, the wealth, and therefore high social achievement, of most of the global North today is founded on centuries of imperialism and exploitation of the global South. Because the North was able to exploit fossil fuels and develop before the South, it seems unfair to not allow the South the same chance to develop, particularly as it is pummeled by the worst effects of climate change. Poorer countries might not need to degrow, having remained within their planetary boundaries, but they will need more resources to raise their standard of living and handle the increasingly severe effects of climate change. These authors conclude that it is indeed possible to have a quality of life without exceeding planetary boundaries, but that this becomes more difficult as degradation, warming, and population growth continue. Countries in the global South, which are already at a disadvantage, may suffer more as resources become increasingly scarce, while Northern countries use their wealth gained from past fossil fuel extraction. As a result, the degrowth goal of ensuring a good life for all within planetary boundaries may not be evenly distributed or feasible for every country.

Criticisms of degrowth also rest on its apparent politically infeasibility. Degrowth has a branding problem – the term “degrowth” brings up ideas of poverty and lack of opportunity – which makes it difficult to convince voters that degrowth is the way. Particularly in the United States, where jobs make up a significant part of any politician’s platform, advocating for degrowth would be harming voters and their livelihoods. Although “degrowth is not forced deprivation, but an aspiration to secure enough for everyone to live with dignity and without fear,”[26] opposing growth does not fare well politically – as Slavoj Žižek said, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. To what extent, then, is growth entrenched in culture? It is certainly powerful – after all, nothing needs to change if existing processes can just be more efficient. For example, “governments can save money today by relying on methods for generating power that involve combustion rather than developing and improving sources of green energy, even those that are more cost-effective in the long run”[27]. Green growth schemes capitalize on inertia by basing solutions on the current way of life rather than the reality of climate change. In this situation, our values influence our climate analysis: we refuse to move past growth culture.

If degrowth is truly politically infeasible and will never be achieved, would it be ethical instead to pursue a course of green growth to mitigate climate change’s worst effects? On one hand, degrowth provides an alternative to green growth, even if it challenges traditional values of constant growth. On the other hand, growth, regardless if it is “green” or not, has the potential to exacerbate inequalities between the haves and have-nots, who will struggle for power and survival. The wealthy can buy resiliency as a service, whether it’s private firefighters or a spot in an apartment complex like Hudson Yards that contains a microgrid in the event of power failures[28]. Although “lifeboat ethics” proponents would argue that the rich surviving still ensures survival of humanity as a species, is it truly fair if their survival comes at the expense of poorer people? Is it too late for green growth alone to avert a Mad Max-esque climate future of drought? Is there truly no alternative?

In conclusion, green growth, including proposals like the Green New Deal, have captured the political imagination, even though degrowth provides a more direct path of action by proposing to reverse carbon-intensive growth. If we are to be pragmatic and take into account the environmental, social, and political situation, would it be ethical to avert a worst-case disaster through green growth, or would green growth only produce more emissions, and therefore a worse disaster, in the absence of decoupling? Will combatting the climate crisis require growth, or is growth only prevalent because we cannot imagine an alternative, even when it exists? We might, instead, seek to expand the political imagination to include degrowth policies. The Green New Deal, after all, was only catapulted into front-page news when then-incoming House freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez staged a sit-in with members of the Sunrise Movement at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2018. Reorienting our politics towards prioritizing the well-being of people could bring together people on either side of the green growth/degrowth binary, while bringing more people into the political fold. With time, organizing around common goals like universal social support systems, better jobs and labor protections, and more leisure time would grow the political imagination such that growth would no longer hold such power. In such conditions, an American degrowth movement could take hold.


[1] Robert Pollin, “De-growth vs a Green New Deal,” New Left Review 112, (July-August 2012): 18.

[2] H. Res. 332, 117th Congress (Washington DC, 2021).

[3] Pollin, “Degrowth,” 19.

[4] “The decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions: UK evidence,” Amina Syed, October 21, 2019.

[5] Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (San Francisco: Stripe Press, 2018), Summary.

[6] Ibid, Summary.

[7] Ibid, 30.

[8] Ibid, 33.

[9] H.R.50, 95th Congress (Washington DC, 1977).

[10] H.Res.332, 117th Congress (Washington DC, 2021).

[11] Ibid.

[12] H.Res.109, 116th Congress (Washington DC, 2019).

[13] “Fact Sheet: President Biden Sets 2030 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Target Aimed at Creating Good-Paying Union Jobs and Securing U.S. Leadership on Clean Energy Technologies,” The White House. Accessed May 4, 2021.

[14] Giorgios Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, and Federico Demaria, The Case for Degrowth (Medford: Polity Press, 2020), 68.

[15] H.Res.332, 117th Congress (Washington DC, 2021).

[16] Ibid.

[17] European Commission. “A European Green New Deal: Striving to be the first climate-neutral continent.” Accessed May 5, 2021.

[18] H.Res.332, 117th Congress (Washington DC, 2021).

[19] Jasper Bernes, “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal,” Commune Magazine, April 2, 2019,

[20] Kallis, Paulson, D’Alisa, and Demaria, Degrowth, 5.

[21] Pollin, “Degrowth,” 22.

[22] Congressional Research Service, “Unemployment Rates During the COVID-19 Pandemic: In Brief,” January 12, 2021.

[23] Kallis, Paulson, D’Alisa, and Demaria, Degrowth, viii.

[24] Ibid, viii.

[25] Daniel W. O’Neill, Andrew L. Fanning, William F. Lamb, and Julia K. Steinberger. “A good life for all within planetary boundaries.” Nature Sustainability 1, (2018): 88–95.

[26] Kallis, Paulson, D’Alisa, and Demaria, Degrowth, 5.

[27] Art Markman, “Why People Aren’t Motivated to Address Climate Change,” Harvard Business Review, October 11, 2018,

[28] Jay Cross, “Using power and technology to deliver resilience in Hudson Yards,” McKinsey Voices on Infrastructure, March 29, 2019,