Alternatives to GDP growth

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Increasing volumes of evidence challenge the privileged status of continuous growth in GDP as a central and unquestioned goal of economic policy. In general, policy-makers rightly demand that policy be informed by appropriate evidence. Accordingly the EU invests substantial funds in supporting research to inform policy, including its own ‘Beyond GDP’ initiative, whose first report appeared in 2009.[1][2] Curiously, the alternative approaches and tools developed in such initiatives appear to exert little influence on policy, and in practice the assumption that economic growth is both necessary and desirable appears to be uniquely insulated from any requirement for scrutiny. It persists despite increasing evidence that, in established economies such as those of most European countries, further growth causes more harm than good and is almost certainly incompatible with both sustainability and social welfare.[3]

The arguments against this societal addiction to growth come from many sources, including many national committees and the Better Life initiative of the OECD.[4] In particular, the core proposition of the Degrowth movement is that the default presumption of continued GDP growth fatally limits the possibilities for effective policy, and hence action, towards sustainability. Only through alternative economic models that do not rely on endless growth can workable strategies for sustainable prosperity be devised and enacted. This democratisation of sustainability policy, all evidence suggests, is essential if the targets set out in the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved.

A recent study by the Heinrich-Böll Foundation endorses this view, and exposes the assumption of continued economic growth as a major weakness in the models and scenarios developed by the IPCC. The models used all assume decarbonisation pathways in which economic growth is a precondition for human welfare, which limits the range of possible scenarios to the technologically unfeasible and socially undesirable. All scenarios that remain with the agreed 1.5C limit rely on carbon dioxide removal technologies that are untested, in some cases non-existent, unlikely to be economically feasible and often carrying unknown and potentially serious risks. Many also tolerate some level of temporary overshoot, and assume discounting rates that pass the costs of overshoot and carbon dioxide removal on to future generations. Removing the assumption of growth opens the possibility of pathways and scenarios that achieve the extent and rate of decarbonisation necessary to remain within safe limits, along with all the other possible benefits of a planned shift to post-growth macro-economics.[5]

Research on ecovillages provides empirical evidence to support the case that decoupling quality of life from levels of material consumption is not only possible, but necessary to reconcile wellbeing with sustainability. Ecovillages emphasise the contributions of social, natural, cultural and, in some cases, spiritual capital to fulfilling their residents' needs. This allows material infrastructures to operate with much lower throughputs of energy and materials, much closer in magnitude to what local renewable sources can provide. Initiatives working within existing communities, such as Transition, community permaculture, solidarity economy and many more, bring such approaches within the reach of wider populations. Combining measures to rebuild community with practical measures to enable and support low-carbon, ecologically regenerative lifestyles, they create the prospect of enhanced quality of life for all people against a background of declining greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of environmental damage.[6]


  1. Accessed March 8th 2019
  2. Commission of the European Communities, 2009. GDP and beyond. Measuring progress in a changing world.
  3. Jackson, T., 2017. Prosperity Without Growth. Second Edition. London: Routledge Earthscan.
  4. Accessed March 8th 2019.
  5. Kuhnhenn, K., 2018. Economic Growth in mitigation scenarios: A blind spot in climate science. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin.
  6. Wahl, D., 2016. Designing Regenerative Cultures. Axminster: Triarchy Press.