The core of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) programme relies on the old model of indefinite economic growth that caused our ecological crisis in the first place: ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. SDG 8 calls for “at least 7% GDP growth per annum in the least developed countries” and “higher levels of economic productivity” across the board. In other words, there is a profound contradiction at the heart of these supposedly sustainable goals. They call for both less and more at the same time.
This call for more growth comes at an odd moment, just as we are learning that it is not physically possible. Currently, global production and consumption levels are overshooting our planet’s biocapacity by nearly 60% each year. In other words, growth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists tell us that we are blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed and witnessing the greatest mass extinction of species in more than 66m years. The hard truth is that our ecological overshoot is due almost entirely to over-consumption in rich countries, particularly the West.
De-growth does not mean poverty. On the contrary, de-growth is perfectly compatible with high levels of human development. It is entirely possible for us to shrink our resource consumption while increasing things that really matter such as human happiness, well-being, education, health and longevity. Consider the fact that Europe has higher human development indicators than the US in most categories, despite 40% less GDP per capita and 60% less emissions per capita.
This is the end toward which we must focus our full attention. Indeed, the surer route to poverty is to continue on our present trajectory, for, as top economist Joseph Stigltiz points out, in a world of ecological overshoot, GDP growth is diminishing living standards rather than improving them.