De-coupling Growth from Environmental Impact

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

After sustainability, the second and more recent prop for eternal growth, has been the notion of ‘de-coupling’; that growth does not, or need not, lead to environmental impact. Below are three responses to this assertion, starting with Ross Gittins’ article:

(Gittins, R. 2015. The Age. Nov. 11th)


The CSIRO National Outlook report1, referred to above, can be read in full here: file:///C:/Users/micha/Downloads/CSIRO%20MAIN_REPORT%20National_Outlook_2015.pdf .


Partially in response to the CSIRO report, Ward, et. al., in the journal PLOS One, 20162, concluded:

“The argument that human society can decouple economic growth – defined as growth in GDP – from growth in environmental impacts is appealing. If such decoupling is possible, it means GDP growth is a sustainable societal goal…The simple model is compared to historical data and modelled projections to demonstrate that growth in GDP ultimately cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible.”

Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? (


More bluntly still, the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy – CASSE – (Herman Daly is a board member), in a press release in 2020, states:

Global GDP Hits $88 Trillion: Environment Reeling, Economy Threatened Earth Showing Impact of $88 Trillion in Economic Activity

“Arlington, VA, February 20, 2020—Global GDP reached $88 trillion today, resulting in unprecedented environmental impacts. GDP has become the single best indicator of environmental impact including biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change.

“A growing GDP entails increasing population × per capita consumption, and therefore a growing ecological footprint. As it grows, the human economy displaces non-human species and habitats. Due to the laws of thermodynamics, a growing economy must generate more waste heat and materials in the aggregate (not necessarily per capita). Meanwhile, GDP is the key variable in the climate change projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“$88 trillion of economic activity has caused (among other threats):

“The timing of the $88-trillion impact is indicated by the CASSE GDP Meter, a real-time, rolling, 12-month GDP calculation. Given the severity of the impact, CASSE calls for “degrowth toward a steady state economy.” Otherwise—and ironically—the push for higher GDP will cause not only further environmental deterioration but economic crisis and conceivably collapse.”

Clearly there is a sharp disjunction here: Gittins (a respected economist and journalist and by no means an empty cheerleader for capitalism and growth) and a CSIRO team say ‘yes’, whereas Ward and other scientists, and Herman Daly and associates at CASSE, unequivocally say ‘no’. How can this be so?

  • First, it has to be stated that there has been little or no evidence of ‘de-coupling’ so far. The briefest inspection of the section ‘State of the Environment’ makes this very clear indeed, as does any remotely honest reading of data re growth vs environmental decline. The simple graphs of world GDP vs Extraction of Living Biomass (the dotted lines on the graphs below) produced by IPBES3 demonstrate this starkly. Therefore, if it hasn’t been happening, is it

because it can’t be done, or won’t be done? The answer is a combination of both, and these roadblocks can’t be swept aside merely by wishful thinking.

  • Second, language and maths can be used – whether deliberately or not – to create the impression of de-coupling when it is not occurring. The first of these techniques is constantly to divide impacts by population, thus rendering them per-capita, denying the multiplicatary impacts of the I = PAT relationship, and falsely demonstrating that impact has declined. This technique is beloved of those who want to champion global equity and isolate the problem of environmental degradation to the overconsumption of the First World, but as Tim Jackson points out4, it is the overall impact that matters, that must be stabilised or reduced, and the environment doesn’t ‘care’ if this comes primarily from population, or consumption, or damaging technology, or a combination of all three.

The second technique is misuse of the word ‘de-coupling’. It is an absolute word, like ‘unique’ or ‘virginity’, but it is used, often as not, relatively. Despite the overwhelming incidences of growth being firmly coupled to environmental decline, there have been cases where this relationship has been weakened and brought below a simple 1:1 ratio. As Jackson notes(ibid; as quoted in Higgs5): “the amount of primary energy used to produce every unit of economic output has indeed declined quite steeply – by around a third-in the past thirty years or so…material intensities have also been reduced in the advanced economies, and emissions intensities have followed suit in most cases. Global carbon intensity, for example, fell almost a quarter, from about one kg per dollar to just under 770 grams. This ‘relative decoupling’ has been a long-term feature of advancing industrial economies and perhaps underlies the technological optimism so prevalent in mainstream economics”. But, “gross material throughputs continued to increase, even in advanced economies” and “global downward trends in energy intensity have reversed since 2009 and begun to rise again”.

What this shows is that we can be more efficient, as Gittins points out, we can and should reduce our impact, but ultimately we can’t de-couple growth from impact because of the laws of physics, and because capitalism insists that efficiency gains be ‘coupled’ directly to more growth, thus wiping them out. These can be elaborated in points three and four.

  • Third, the Second Law of Thermodynamics establishes that as energy is transferred or transformed (‘used’) more and more of it is wasted. Entropy increases and less is available to us for ‘work’, products, food, etc…In other words, we can reduce the ‘waste’, but cannot eliminate it, and if we are determined continually to grow, then after an initial period of efficiency gains, we will hit physical limits and the relationship between growth and consumption/environmental degradation will return closer to a 1:1 ratio. Ward, et. al.2, showed this in their PLOS One paper (Fig.5 reproduced here), where (a) is GDP, (b) is final energy demand, and (c) is material extractions. As GDP grows, energy and material use either flattens out, or even, in the case of materials, reduces slightly through efficiency gains until around 2040-2050 when physical limits are approached, then rises to more closely mirror the GDP curve to 2100. As Ward et. al. say: “We conclude that decoupling GDP growth from resource use, whether relative or absolute, is at best only temporary. Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is impossible (my underline) for essential, non-substitutable resources because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits.”
  • Fourth, Ward point out that “there are three distinct mechanisms by which the illusion (my underline) of decoupling may be presented as a reality when in fact it is not actually taking place at all: 1) substitution of one resource for another; 2) the financialisation of one or more components of GDP that involves increasing monetary flows without comcomitant rise in material/or energy throughput, and 3) the exporting of environmental impact to another nation or region (i.e. the separation of production and consumption)”.

The first mechanism – substitution – occurs throughout the CSIRO ‘National Outlook’ report1 mentioned at the start of the webpage. For example, habitat loss and degradation and climate change are modelled to be addressed by various forms of revegetation and carbon sequestration and farming. Whether this is even possible, let alone desirable, is highly debatable, e.g. plantings contain only a tiny fraction of the values and benefits of native habitat which is, in any meaningful sense, non-substitutable, and most, if not all, mechanisms of carbon sequestration require more energy and carbon released in their operation than the carbon captured. The whole CSIRO report is highly ‘techno-optimistic’ in this fashion, as well as very simplistic in its treatment of the natural environment and the availability of water.

The second mechanism – financialisation of components of GDP and increasing money flows without a significant rise in material or energy use – can be seen in activities like the commodification and economic colonisation of education. We have been hard at this project since the 1980s in Australia, so much so that states such as my own, Victoria, now proudly display on their car number plates that they are the ‘Education State’. (In case you are feeling good about this, I’m afraid it is a pride born of monetarisation and income flows, rather than a higher-order belief in the joys and benefits of education per se). Of course, schools and universities are less energy and material intensive than, say, the logging or car industries, and this can be seen as ‘partial decoupling’, but they are not magical entities without a footprint. In Victoria, overseas students must have housing, transport, travel to and from their home countries, etc and so forth, and so it goes on.

The third mechanism – displacement – is also a technique of my country which is highly resource extractive, e.g. coal or iron ore, but low in resource processing, so most resources are exported in raw form to countries overseas, like China, where processing and manufacturing require the most energy and release the majority of pollutants.

  • Fifth, and most important of all, the capitalist religion and Growth God demand growth. It is not an optional extra or a side-product, it is absolutely central to the process and belief system. The whole edifice is constructed by and for ‘growth’, so that even if all the caveats and problems and limitations mentioned above could be overcome, we couldn’t and wouldn’t implement them because the belief system demands otherwise.

This religiously essential practice is called the Jevons Paradox. (Ironically, it was discovered by neoclassical economist William Jevons in the mid-1800s; see 9.5). It brings to light the ambiguous benefits of technical (or any) efficiencies brought to the system. As Higgs5 explains: “Significant gains in efficiency do not moderate consumption but rather facilitate expansion”, and, “For example, the carbon intensity of production has declined for almost a century, while the rate of carbon emissions has continued to grow exponentially. Indeed, it is arguable that there is no real paradox here. As engineer Michael Huesemann notes6, ‘technological innovation has never been used to stabilize the size of the economy; [its] main role has always been exactly the opposite, namely the enhancement of productivity, consumption, and economic growth’ ”.

So, sadly, it seems that no matter what ‘gains’ we may make, what lessened impact and degradation we may – temporarily achieve – this will be swamped by the relentless drive for growth, because the ‘system’ demands that these gains must be fed back into the system to make it bigger. No amount of technological innovation or substitution or cleverness can trump this.

In summary, Jackson4 concludes that there can be “no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people”. (Note: the UN’s latest projected population peak7 has risen by nearly two billion, since this quote, to 10.9 billion, see Section 5).

In similar vein, Huesemann6 says that it is the root causes that must be addressed and that these are: “society’s obsession with economic growth…driven by an excessive desire for affluence and a lack of limits on population”. These are not technological issues, but social and ethical, and are not affected by efficiency gains which, if achieved, serve only to postpone a “socially and economically disruptive day of reckoning”. We are a society, and increasingly, a world, of ‘running away’, and the harder we run and the more we postpone it, the closer we come to that which we are fleeing from: reality.

(Note: This debate as to whether we can work within current economic and social structures to solve our ecological problems, or rather, must create whole new economic systems and beliefs, is continued in Section 9, ‘Economy’).


1 CSIRO. 2015. Australian National Outlook 2015: Living Standards, Resource use, Environmental Performance and Economic Activity. CSIRO, Canberra, Australia.

2 Ward, J. 2016. Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? Oct. 14th, Plos One.

3 IPBES. 2019. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – summary for policymakers. IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

4 Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan, Abingdon, UK.

5 Higgs, K. 2014. Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. The MIT Press, Cambridge, U.S.

6 Huesemann, M. 2003. The Limits of Technological Solutions to Sustainable Development. Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy, 5 (1).

7 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2013. Highlights: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision. UN, New York, U.S.A.

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