The argument that human society can decouple economic growth—defined as growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—from growth in environmental impacts is appealing. If such decoupling is possible, it means that GDP growth is a sustainable societal goal. Here we show that the decoupling concept can be interpreted using an easily understood model of economic growth and environmental impact. 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. We also note that GDP is increasingly seen as a poor proxy for societal wellbeing. GDP growth is therefore a questionable societal goal. Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding GDP growth as the goal in favor of more comprehensive measures of societal wellbeing...
The perpetually growing economy is generally regarded as a viable and desirable societal objective [1–4]. Whilst ‘infinite growth’ may not be the words used to characterize and exhort a perpetually growing economy, they are nonetheless an accurate characterization of the objective. The words in current fashion for defending the viability of a perpetually growing economy are phrases such as ‘green growth’, ‘dematerialization’, and ‘decoupling’ [5–9]. The decades old question ‘Is economic growth environmentally sustainable?’ remains contested despite its apparent simplicity. The Limits to Growth  was a seminal work that warned of the consequences of exponential growth with finite resources. The World3 models underpinning the Limits to Growth analysis were validated using actual data after twenty and thirty years [11,12]. A further independent evaluation of the projections of the World3 models showed that our actual trajectory since 1972 has closely matched the ‘Business as Usual’ scenario . Increasing recognition of the causes and consequences of climate change have generated a great deal of doubt regarding the feasibility of simultaneously pursing economic growth and preventing and/or mitigating climate change [14–18]. Contemporary work in this broad area of assessing anthropogenic impact on the planet suggests that several ‘Planetary Boundaries’ have been crossed .
- Published: October 14, 2016
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