Iwrite this from Bengaluru, during the lockdown imposed by the Modi government to tackle the covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown has triggered two contrasting streams on social media. On the one hand, images of a cleaner Yamuna River, of the Himalayas newly visible from the hitherto polluted industrial towns in Punjab, and even of Mount Everest, which can now be seen from villages on the Gangetic plain, elicit comments like ‘Mother Earth is healing’ and ‘How can we retain the green dividend of covid-19?’ On the other, the footage of hundreds of thousands of now-jobless migrant workers, confined in transit camps or desperately setting out to walk hundreds of miles to their villages, reveals the seamy underbelly of capitalist economic growth and the discrimination that runs deep in our society. In this context, with economies shattered and a global depression looming, the ongoing ‘green strategy’ debate in nlr may seem irrelevant. But I will argue that it is only if we engage in this debate, while using a broader, integrated socio-environmental perspective, that we can understand why ‘Mother Earth’ cannot heal herself as things stand, and why retaining the ‘green dividend’ of covid-19 is intertwined with the fate of workers.

So far, the discussion in nlr has largely been restricted to the question of whether the ‘egalitarian green growth’ or ‘green new deal’ proposed by Robert Pollin should provide the road map for environmental strategy, or whether the steady-state economy propounded by Herman Daly or in fact degrowth are essential.footnote1 In the process, some confusion has arisen about what we mean by ‘growth’. More importantly, the debate has skirted the vital questions of what we really want—human well-being and social justice, as well as saving the planet—and how these three societal goals are interconnected. Though written from the perspective of the Global South, I believe the arguments that follow have a general application.

What exactly do we mean by terms like ‘growth’ and ‘steady state’? For Daly, the economy is an expanding subsystem, functioning within a finite eco-sphere; the economy’s growth is measured in terms of its increasing ‘biophysical throughputs’, which threaten to encroach upon the operation of the overall earth system. Daly calls for limits both to population growth and to the depletion of natural resources (fossil fuels, minerals; potentially water, air and soil pollution) to maintain the economic subsystem in a ‘steady state’. Since biophysical throughput is ‘coupled’ with gdp, these limits to quantitative expansion would involve a moratorium on gdp growth, although he argues that this need not jeopardize our quest for well-being, which could come from qualitative development.footnote2

For Pollin, on the other hand, growth means rising gdp—that is, an increase in economic activity. This is inherently desirable because it is causally linked to job creation and higher incomes—and thus, implicitly, to overall well-being. His concern is that climate change threatens ecological disaster: ‘there is a non-trivial possibility that the continuation of life on earth as we know it may be at stake.’footnote3 So he proposes an environmental strategy—a trillion-dollar global investment in clean-energy sectors, a dramatic contraction in fossil-fuel use—focused on reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent over the next thirty years, as mandated by the ipcc, to ‘stabilize’ the climate in a way that won’t reduce aggregate income and may indeed increase it: his studies suggest clean-energy investment at this scale (1.5 per cent of gdp) will lead to significant job creation. Conversely Pollin opposes degrowth, which he understands as a contraction of gdp, and which he believes will lead to a deep recession, precipitating mass unemployment, falling living standards and a consequent decrease in well-being. As a double whammy, he estimates that even a gdp contraction of 10 per cent, far deeper than the 2008–09 recession, will only reduce carbon emissions by a tenth, not the 80 per cent required. Pollin’s single-minded focus is thus on reducing the throughput of one kind of material—fossil fuel—but in a way that keeps gdp high and growing through green investment.footnote4

As with Daly, the main concern of degrowthers Mark Burton and Peter Somerville is material throughput. Growth for them means a relentless quest for resource extraction, consuming not only fossil fuels but water, air, forests, croplands and fishing grounds. They argue that the material footprint of aggregate human activity is currently 1.7 times the earth’s biocapacity. Hence, rather than more growth, or even Daly’s steady state, they want to see economic activity shrink by some 40 per cent through drastic cuts to industrial production, construction, agriculture (fossil-fuel-dependent monocultures) and distribution (sea, air and road transportation systems). Their explicit target is the Global North, where consumption levels would be severely circumscribed. The contraction of gdp is a necessary consequence of degrowth, but they hope it can be managed equitably: ‘in theory’, contraction might be limited to the rich, since ‘high emissions are strongly correlated with concentrations of wealth and income.’ Moreover, if consumption is to be reduced, who needs the higher income? Like Daly, they assume that well-being can be decoupled from income and material consumption, especially in the high-income countries of the Global North.footnote5

Examined from a Southern perspective, the relative limitations of each approach become clear. First, as Pollin himself acknowledges, ‘development’ cannot be reduced to gdp growth, even in developing countries. Furthermore, as many of us have long argued, gdp growth in itself is neither sufficient nor necessary to ensure true development.footnote6 Since gdp is an average measure that ignores inequality, it can increase while the poor remain poor—as in Brazil, for example—or be stagnant while the well-being of the poorest rises dramatically, as the Kerala model in India has shown. The goal therefore must always be the enhancement of individual and community well-being, measured by actual physical and social outcomes across the socio-economic spectrum, and not by using average income as a proxy. Pollin’s focus on gdp—and, worse, on continued gdp growth in the Global North—is thus untenable. The moment when well-being decoupled from income has long since passed, and the North is clearly mal-developed and overgrown. gdp growth, whether as an objective in itself or a proxy for development, must be rejected once and for all.

The real question from a developing-country perspective is whether Daly’s goal of a steady-state economy with no growth in material throughput would constrain development too much. The answer is probably: yes, it would. However ‘soft’ or non-material one’s developmental strategy, it is difficult to visualize how the vast population of poor people in the Global South can achieve a modicum of development without some increase in the use of material resources for cooking, housing (including some protection from the heat) and clothing, not to mention education and travel. No doubt, the environmental impact of the 2 or 3 billion global poor moving out of poverty and achieving a ‘decent living standard’ will be small compared to the damage wreaked by present levels of (over)consumption in the Global North.footnote7 Nevertheless, a strategy based on a steady state in material throughput is not appropriate at this stage for developing nations as such.