Chart from Our World In Data purporting to show the decoupling of per capita GDP and CO2 in Sweden 1971-2021

It started simply enough. I retweeted the chart you see above over on the bird site, with a comment about #decoupling . Then I reposted it here, on LinkedIn, with the expanded observation that:

It’s called #decoupling. Some still doubt it, but there’s no physics-based reason that economic performance should by tied to energy used, much less to emissions. None. At. All.

(People who think that way about innovation could have never built the tech industry, or the satellite industry, or…)

I woke the next morning to find that I had provoked more impressions and more comments than any post I’ve made in recent memory.

The comments ranged from cogent to snarky, and clustered around four themes:

  • The chart is flawed, because it masks the fact is that Sweden didn’t only reduce emissions, it also outsourced them by shifting production to other countries.
  • Decoupling isn’t real, because growth depends on energy use (and, for some strange reason, emissions),
  • Growth is the problem, because “you can’t have infinite growth on finite planet.”
  • I’m either a fool or a dangerous fool for daring to promote “infinite growth on a finite planet.”

Which I wasn’t doing, of course…

But I sure did step in it, in missing that first point. Here’s how I responded (to all since there were too many to respond to each, given other pesky details like client commitments):

Well, I seem to have stepped in it. That’s what I get for bringing a Twitter “think first, think later” sensibility to a LinkedIn post. Me culpa, Linkees.

On the other hand, I’m kind of glad I did, for the rich conversation this post has generated, and in particular to Paolo for introducing me (us?) to the Consumption Footprint Platform, and Kaspar for his post about the Beyond Growth conference, which I hadn’t been aware of until now.

  Let me try to clarify a few things (rather than try to respond to each comment individually, since clients want my time this morning):

  – The physics _is_ clear. There is no necessary correlation between resource use and human well-being—other than for resources that is biologically coupled, like nutrients. I found the chart interesting (though flawed) not as an argument for continued economic growth but as an argument against continued extraction/consumption.

  – GDP has little to nothing to do with human well-being. It masks the destructiveness of an extractive economy. It’s a bad goal, a false god, and a terrible proxy for human well-being.

  – Human well-being is not the only concern. The well-being of all life—the living world to which we belong—is.

– Boundaries matter. “Outsourcing” of impact matters. It would be much more useful to include Sweden’s ecological footprint as a third dimension in that chart. (Can anyone point to charts or analyses that do that? It looks like the Consumption Footprint Platform might do that for the EU, but it’s not behaving for me this morning. And the Ecological Footprint folks have been o that trail for a long time.)

– Of course we can’t sustain endless growth on a finite planet; I’ve been on that train for 50 years. But that invites the all-important discussion of “growth of what” and “for whom.” Endless GDP growth, no. GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator) growth, maybe. Growth of well-being, why not? (Though “endless” is a peculiar notion on planet and universe constituted of flux and transformation, ebbs and flows, birth and death.)

What do you think? How do you address the challenges of decoupling and growth in your work?

Spread the love