Opinion: “Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.”

The economist and writer David Fleming was speaking about our civilisation’s myth of perpetual economic growth. And the mathematics, along with the graphs, models and analyses supporting this myth have become increasingly elaborate – inscrutable to the average person, who dares not question their truth. But now, it is not just mathematics used to assert the validity of a growth-based economy, we have added words to our arsenal of myth-making.

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We are becoming more and more aware of the costs of growth – a warming and destabilising climate, melting glaciers, acidifying oceans, accelerating biodiversity loss, pollution of our oceans and freshwaters, loss of topsoils. And we’re becoming more aware too that we need to make our economic activity less harmful to the environment. By adding reassuring words such as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘circular’, we instantly make growth sound more wholesome, and, well, greener.

And to be fair, these approaches are more than just words – they are based on sound principles and goals, and often genuine intent to reduce harm to the environment while delivering on social and economic needs. They all to a certain extent aim to decouple economic growth from environmental harm, whether it be waste, pollution, carbon emissions or environmental degradation and destruction through the extraction of resources. The issue is not the goal of reducing environmental harm – it is that it is firmly set within the growth paradigm.

Green growth is the approach most explicit about its goal of decoupling growth from greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental harm. It promises to do this by increasing productivity and efficiency, moving to a more circular economy, and through technological innovation. All without sacrificing growth.

And indeed, some limited decoupling has been achieved in some countries for a period of timeone study often cited to support the case for green growth found that between 2005 and 2015, 18 countries had decreased their carbon dioxide emissions by 2.4 percent a year collectively – though that decrease can in part be explained by a slowdown in GDP growth rates (known as relative decoupling) as well as the ‘offshoring’ of carbon-intensive industries. There are vanishingly few cases of absolute decoupling of resource use (ie a decrease in resource use while GDP continues to go up).

In short, though decoupling has happened in some countries to some limited degree, it is not happening at anything close to the scale and pace required to keep warming within the 1.5C limit, and there is no evidence that it will in the timeframe that we need. Testament to this failure is that global emissions continue to go up year on year. Growth that fails to rein in climate emissions or other ecological overshoot to safe levels cannot, by anyone’s definition, be called ‘sustainable’.

Equally wholesome-sounding is the circular economy, a model often promoted in the waste management and business sectors. And it makes good sense: keeping materials and goods in circulation as long as possible through product redesign, material reuse and alternative forms of consumption such as leasing. It therefore aims for a degree of decoupling of production and consumption from environmental harm – specifically of the damage caused by the extraction of new materials and of the disposal of ‘waste’ materials.

However, as a key pillar of green growth, a circular economy still assumes perpetual growth. Which means we are attempting to reduce the waste created from the production and consumption of goods and services that we may not need in the first place. It also appears to disregard the fact that reuse and recycling of materials still uses energy and resources and is rarely emissions-free.

To illustrate, a leaf blower or Jibbitz charms made from recycled materials or designed to last for 10 years are still products that no one actually needs, produced using scarce energy and resources, with the sole purpose of making a profit for companies that exist to create wealth for shareholders. They are not – along with countless other products and services that keep our growth-based, consumption-oriented economy humming – designed to improve anyone’s wellbeing.

In New Zealand, we have experimented with our own variety of ‘sustainable’ growth – the principle of sustainable development (or management) is embedded in key legislation, including the Resource Management Act and the Local Government Act. These laws encourage government bodies to consider all the ‘wellbeings’ when making decisions, which sometimes happens, but with the inevitable result that the economy trumps the others – often because it is hard to quantify non-economic benefits. Evidence of the cumulative effect of this decision-making is stark across all our state of the environment indicators: continued biodiversity and habitat loss, degradation of freshwater and marine ecosystems, and depletion of our most fertile soils.

And while we experiment with different kind of ‘growths’, with negligible impact on climate emissions, climate scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have delivered their final warning. We need to take bold action urgently to avert the untold environmental and human tragedy of irreversible climate breakdown.

Disturbingly, climate change is only one of six so-called planetary boundaries that have now been breached – these are the nine processes that scientists have identified as key to regulating the stability and resilience of the Earth system. Each of these can trigger a series of cascading effects, destabilising the whole system. The breached boundaries include biodiversity loss, flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, and pollutants, including plastics. We see clear signs of these breaches here in our own land and waters. Illustrating the last, researchers have found that 75 percent of fish caught in the southern oceans of New Zealand contained microplastics

While we continue to sustain the myth of perpetual growth with ever elaborate mathematical equations and wholesome-sounding words, one very simple fact is ignored. We exist on one finite planet. It follows that resources on a finite planet must be finite. Growth that relies on these resources cannot therefore be infinite. It doesn’t matter what we call this growth – green, circular or sustainable – any growth that is not fully decoupled from all environmental harm will continue to add to the cumulative damage wreaked on the biosphere.

It is time – beyond time – we jettisoned this myth-making and embraced reality. Just as the architects of our current economic system designed the system around perpetual growth, we can redesign the economy around delivering wellbeing to all, within planetary limits.

Dr Catherine Knight is an award-winning writer and policy practitioner who has published several books on the environment, including Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand"...

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