Crew Commentary

Growth Economies and Our Climate Crisis

Bob Leonard - Climate Risk Manager


As I write this, Greta Thunberg is addressing the United Nations. Her comment is the perfect intro to this post. “Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”


‘Fairy tales of eternal economic growth’ are the root cause of our climate crisis and many other of our societal woes – including extreme income inequality, homelessness and dysfunctional governments.


We can’t support infinite growth on a finite planet. By definition growth economies must grow. It’s either growth (and the more, the better) or collapse. We better find a replacement ASAP.



Almost no one appreciated where our growth economies were taking us until the latter half of the 20th century. Until then, economies expanded and accelerated, without any major planetary consequences. The LA Basin was smogged in. And sometimes rivers in the Rust Belt caught fire, but these were not global issues and they were addressed with EPA regulations.


Back then global population was half of what it is today – almost eight billion now. Productivity and innovation exploded, creating wealth and an ever-higher standard of living. Failed attempts at communism by China and the Soviet Union confirmed that capitalism was the preferred avenue to continued increases in human material well-being.


The Industrial Age delivered labor-saving technologies and spread new wealth around the globe. This incredible growth was powered by fossil fuels – cheap energy that multiplied many times what each human could achieve without machinery. Electric lights lengthened our work days.


The 20th century also birthed the advertising industry and electronic media that together catalyzed unprecedented consumption. Post-WWII, the United States (especially Hollywood and Madison Ave.) did a great job of selling “the American Dream and the American Way of Life” around the world. The rest of the world saw the quality of life Americans enjoyed in our consumer culture, and they wanted to enjoy the same lifestyle. If everyone on Earth lived at the American standard of living, we would need five Earth’s worth of resources to maintain equilibrium.


50 years ago, American households had one car, one television, and one of each major appliance. Since then, families have evolved to a ‘one car per person’ paradigm. And every member of the family has a television or a computer, tablet or smart phone (or all four). All of which require power, which is supplied largely by fossil fuels.


While we were adding numbers to the total population of Earth, people all over the world were moving up the socio-economic ladder. Hundreds of millions of people entered the middle class for the first time. These people had the wherewithal (and the access to credit) to consume at much higher levels than they had before.


“Climate change represents the largest market failure in the history of capitalism. The problem of climate change involves a fundamental failure of markets: those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay.” – Sir Nicholas Stern, economist.


The concept expressed above by Sir Nicholas was driven home to me while working on “Moving to a Finite Earth Economy”. My co-author, David Houle, asked me to research how much CO2 was emitted to serve one Filet-o-Fish sandwich at a McDonald’s storefront. I thought it was an interesting exercise and I dove in. I found that it wasn’t possible. That information doesn’t exist. I could find plenty of data around the dollar cost of putting the fishing boats out to sea, paying the fishermen for their labor, processing and freezing the fish, transporting the frozen fish to the storefront, and finally, the cost of frying and serving the sandwich. But nothing on the carbon emitted. And nowhere in the equation is there an accounting for the value of the fish itself. In our economic system, Nature provides the fish for free.


Growth economies have overexploited, overworked and overconsumed everything. The bees, the trees, the oceans, the rivers, the fish. We are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction of life on earth. The most vulnerable components are being killed off first. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, scientists estimate we’re now losing species at up to 1,000 times the natural rate, with literally dozens of species going extinct every day. As a result, ecosystems are collapsing, from the bottom up.


There are more than four climate-related lobbyists for every member of Congress, convincing them to take no meaningful action on the climate crisis. Why? To protect corporate profits. In our current economic system, the only thing that matters is money.


“We should no longer measure our wealth and success in the graph that shows economic growth, but in the curve that shows the emissions of greenhouse gases. We should no longer only ask: ‘Have we got enough money to go through with this? but also: ‘Have we got enough of the carbon budget to spare to go through with this?’ That should and must become the center of our new currency.” – Greta Thunberg, climate activist


Even setting climate aside, how many more phones or computers do we need? Consumer goods no longer make us happy the way Madison Avenue said they were supposed to. There is a pervasive dissatisfaction evidenced by our epidemics of obesity and opioid addictions, and jaw-droppingly high suicide rates. The majority of people understand, on some level, that we are going down the wrong path. We need to make fundamental, systemic changes NOW.


“There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.” – Howard Zinn, historian and political science professor


In “Moving to a Finite Earth Economy”, David Houle and I outline a potential replacement for growth economies. It’s a good place to start in thinking through what must be done and how to implement.