Decoupling: green capitalism’s cunning plan

Baldrick: 'I've just thought of a cunning plan.'‘Decoupling’ is green capitalism’s cunning plan: break the link between ecological degradation and economic growth, and voila! The ecological crisis of capitalism is overcome.

If decoupling is achieved, growth can continue, profits can be taken, standards of living can be raised, and there will be no discernable ecological consequences.

In their recently published article “The emperor’s green clothes”, urban planning academics Petter Naess and Karl Georg Hoyer have reported on their search for signs of decoupling. Their conclusion is that the possibility of decoupling is  “not valid.”

Like many another cunning plan, decoupling is simply an empty promise.

Naess and Hoyer indicate that the possibility of decoupling boils down to the existence (or otherwise) of the ‘Environmental Kuznets Curve’ or EKC. The EKC is a hypothesis which suggests that environmental quality decreases as GDP increases but beyond a certain level of GDP, environmental quality begins to increase again. Such improvements will arise, it is suggested, because “pressures from customers, environmental groups, legislators, etc, will force organizations to take environmental responsibility and come up with technological solutions” to the ecological crisis (p.78).

A considerable amount of published work on the existence of the EKC is summarised by Naess and Hoyer. Studies have looked at: total use of energy, materials and land; biodiversity loss; deforestation; and CO2 emissions in 100 countries. Very little evidence of an EKC has been found.

Some studies of emissions of urban pollutants such as nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide have suggested some consistency with an EKC. However, careful analysis suggests the outcome may arise from studies being conducted on a “confined geographical scale” that does not account for “urban and industrial decentralization” (p.80).

Naess and Hoyer looked for signs of decoupling in their home country, Norway. As indicated in the well sharp report on Sverker Jagers’ search for ecological citizens, the people of Scandinavian countries are often seen as possessing the most environmentally friendly attitudes. Naess and Hoyer take exactly the same line, arguing that “if decoupling in anyway is achievable, Norway is a country where it should be demonstrable” (p.83).

Addressing their own field of urban planning, Naess and Hoyer indicate that “in Norway, political focus on sustainable urban development has been strong since the 1980s”. Urban population densities have increased since the 1990s, and in the city of Oslo, “high growth in population and building stock” has been combined with “low encroachments on natural and cultivated areas.” Traffic growth has been moderate. And so, in 2003, Oslo received the European Sustainable City Award ahead of 60 other competing cities; it is the “best pupil in the class” (p.86).

Nevertheless, even this case study in best practice “has not been able to obtain more than a partial decoupling between the growth in building stock and negative environmental consequences” (p.86). And much of the decoupling that has been achieved has come about because new, high-density development has taken place on brownfield sites – that is to say, on sites left vacant by industries that have relocated to Third World countries.

In other words, reduced environmental impacts observed in affluent nations come at the cost of greater social injustice and ecological degradation elsewhere. The decoupling that may be observed is purely a local phenomenon. Furthermore, as Naess and Hoyer point out, taking the low-hanging fruit of sustainable urban development (the redevelopment of brownfield sites) is only a short-term option. Soon enough there will be no more industries left to be relocated.

But questioning economic growth is “a scandalous thing to do” and so the belief in limitless growth persists tenaciously. This belief is, say Naess and Hoyer, based on “an extremely high (and highly unrealistic) faith in the ability of future technological development to solve environmental problems and provide a cornucopia of cheap, environmentally energy and material resources” (p.93). This is the mantra of ecological modernisation.

The persistence of the growth obsession is also “a consequence of the separation of mainstream economics from any material context.” This profound disconnect leads environmental economists to undertake reductionist studies of single variables in multi causal problems and complex open systems. So far, such approaches have failed, as we have seen, and at best can generate only “fragmented analyses” that “result in a relocation of environmental problems … instead of a resolution” (pp.92-94). The relocation of environmental problems may be a politically satisfying short-term solution for some, but ecologically speaking it is meaningless gesture politics at their most cynical.

Overall, then, Naess and Hoyer’s conclusion is firm:

The dogma of the possibility of decoupling growth in production and consumption from exploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation is therefore not valid, at least not long-term. (p.92)

Petter Naess and Karl Georg Hoyer (2009) The emperor’s green clothes: Growth, decoupling, and capitalism. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 20(3), 74-95.


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