Transcript: Debunking Green Growth
Interview with Tim Parrique, available to everyone
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[00:02:07] Tim Parrique: So, Decoupling Debunked was a chapter of my thesis adapted into a report. But there are 11 more chapters in the thesis which I published in March, 2020 which is called the political economy of degrowth. So there's a nice 900 page PDF that you can download online in case you just want something sexy to read this summer on the beach. It's like a novel, honestly, you will not be able to put it down.
[00:02:37] Rachel Donald: That's a, that's a very long thesis. I feel like it's a very French way to write a thesis, to write 900 pages.
[00:02:44] Tim Parrique: Well, I was given a 300 page maximum, which I just overshot a bit. But, I've defended my case you know, PhD thesis to some extent are written not to be read, they're primarily written to be written, like it's research work. So you have to just work with the idea and, you know, if it takes like two years to, to make it a Japanese sword, well, maybe it takes 900 pages to just develop your argument fully then that when it does. Then of course, that means pressure on you to shrink it, to explain it, to dissect it. So that's what I've been doing actually in the last two years, is just take bits of the thesis, talk about it, translate it into smaller articles and now culminating with this French book.
[00:03:30] Rachel Donald: All right. Let's talk about the line of argument then, because I've had Jason Hickle on the show, to discuss degrowth and it was a really popular episode. People really took to it. I also had some former guests email in with their critiques of some of the argumentation. So I'd like to get into all of that with
[00:03:48] Tim Parrique: Yeah.
[00:03:48] Rachel Donald: For anyone who might be joining us here for a first episode, could you give a very brief introduction to degrowth?
[00:03:55] Tim Parrique: So, degrowth, the way I like to define it, if we just describe it as a phenomenon, is a reduction of production and consumption. So that's pretty straightforward. It's kind of the opposite of economic growth. Economic growth, get your economy getting bigger. Degrowth you get your economy getting smaller. So it's, it's a macroeconomic concept.
But it gives a couple of special features. So the way I like to define it first, it's a planned reduction in consumption, not just like a crisis or recession like we've seen during the COVID. But just it's a democratically organized shrinking of some sectors of the economy.
Why is that? To just reduce environmental pressures. So that's feature number two, not only democratic, but also there's an objective here. It's a strategy for the ecological transition. And the two extra features are about inequality and wellbeing. Degrowth has to be selective because of course there's no point shrinking the economies that are still developing in the same way that there's no point shrinking sectors that we need right now.
So it's a point of just having this big process of selection and deciding, you know, where we can cut resource use in a way that is just having the least detrimental effect on wellbeing or actually where it can improve wellbeing. And I'm sure Jason has been talking plenty about this so this is why if I give you the full definition like I like to I have it in writing: it's the planned, and democratic reduction of production and consumption in rich countries to decrease environmental pressures and inequality while improving wellbeing.
[00:05:35] Rachel Donald: Okay. So my first question on that I think what's really important to highlight is the, the focus on rich countries. And I know that Jason's report came out this week or last showing that, you know, it really is sort of the, the Western world that was responsible for like 60% of environmental sort of devastation and the climate crisis in general.
But to me as somebody who's investigative journalism sort of does span the world and the corruption, the global corruption that facilitates this this issue, the problem, isn't just a Western one anymore uh, because we have exported capitalism, because we have exported the growth model all over the world. So if you reduce in Western countries, even though, you know, the consumption is absolutely huge, the powers that be that are in place all over the world will find new consumers, will find new audiences in order to continue facilitating that production and the profit maximization.
So, you know, is a plan that continues that split between west and east. Does that, do you think actually deals with the reality of the situation, which is that, I mean, there's corrupt people all over the world?
[00:06:44] Tim Parrique: Hm. So that's where I'm going to introduce a bit more subtlety about the concept of degrowth. So in my previous definition, I define degrowth as kind of a phenomenon, but the concept, the way it was born in France at the beginning of the 2000s, it's got a bit of a twofold life.
So on the one hand is this real process of shrinking the size of your economy. On the other hand, it's a broader critique, a symbolic critique of an economic system that is obsessed about GDP and economic growth. So in that sense, degrowth, as a critique, you could say, of capitalism of a profit-obsessed business model, and of just this craving for economic growth in general can be applied to everywhere where this ideology, this acquisitive and accumulative ideology exists. So that's where degrowth as an idea joins other anticapitalist frameworks like Buen Vivir in South America, Ubuntu in Africa, eco Swaraj in India, and you know, the l'economie sociale et solidaire in France, La simplicitaire et volontaire. in Quebec, Lagom in Sweden. So here degrowth is just another of these post anti-capitalist concept.
So in that sense, it can be applied everywhere. I think it's just part of this constellation of concept that is trying to rethink economies. There have always been concepts like this. This is actually how economies evolve. So here we've just got the new batch of available options to think the future of capitalism. And when I say the future of capitalism, I'm not implying that the future economy will necessarily be describable as being a capitalist economy, but we can come back to this.
But then you enter the question of effectiveness. Definitely for global crises, like climate change, there is no point, like I do in my research, you know, focusing on France, which is a big country with many implications abroad, but still quite a small fish in the pond. But there is an important point that Jason makes through his research, so you're right, he's been showing that high-income country are responsible historically for 74% of resource use and 92% of carbon emissions. So historically the growth, the development of the global north has left a huge ecological debt. That's the first point and that today there's ramifications of the mode of living or modes of production and consumption in the north. The sustaining of such a standard of living, it's still requiring quite a huge amount of resources, not only just direct natural resources, but also of just human labor and energy and is having a lot of impact.
So somehow I still see, it would be quite fantastic here to be able to rethink down the living standards in these countries that have somehow got like the joker natural card that developing economies won't get, because these budgets are just very near to be exhausted. So in that sense, we are the first one kind of confronted, not only to our historical responsibility, but also to the fact of having this challenge of managing to prosper without growth, you know, like Tim Jackson would say.
So what I'm hoping is that if we manage to show that in a country like France, you could split GDP by two, by half, so an economy, that would be half as big as it is today, and so consumption of natural resources that would be proportionally lower because these remain coupled as of today. And if we managed to do this while still improving quality of life, I think this gives a very, this sends a strong message to countries in the global south to tell them something actually that they already know, which is that GDP does not buy you happiness or quality of life, or actually it does until a level where it just does not anymore that the Easterlin paradox and the saturation labor thesis. So countries today, like Costa Rica, you know reach a level of quality of life, comparable to what you have in South Korea and Sweden and France or in Canada.
And so here, I think it's easy to fall into this pitfall of what has been called discourse of climate delay of just thinking like, yeah, but if you do it in one country, you know, someone else will just somehow use the resource. There needs to be many levels of coordination. We need to somehow at the international level, make sure that the resource that is not being consumed, stay in the ground. You know, that's the slogan of the activist, you know, keep oil in the ground. So it's not only a matter of just France deciding on, well, just we shrink our consumption of energy because then you're right, perhaps they'll consume less, oil prices will actually go down and that will enable someone else to just buy that barrel actually cheaper that we would have bought it for a consumption in France.
And initially we need to develop new protocol for something we've never been doing before, which is non-consumption protocol, resource sanctuaries, for example. Organized. Like just putting an idea out there, but like, if we admit based on the work of Jason Hickle, that there is a quantifiable ecological debt which is basically the invoice coming a bit late for the development of industrialized countries. And if one way of repaying that debt would be to keep buying the resources, not to have them and to burn them, but actually to keep them in the ground, you pay for the barrel of oil, but not to have it, you pay so that no one can have it. This was actually a proposal uh, back then when was it, somewhere in south America? I think I perhaps Bolivia. When they discovered this, this massive oil field behind a rainforest and the president said, okay, it's fine. It's fine not to extract the oil. So we're just calling everyone in the international community to buy the oil, and if you guys buy all the oil, we will not extract it. We'll leave it in the ground. Well, they did not manage to get all the money and so they extracted the oil and actually sold it, but the system would work.
[00:13:43] Rachel Donald: Let's get into this because I find this, I find this honestly, like a bit of a discrepancy in the thinking. To critique the capitalist model, to critique commodification, to critique growth, and then to use the framework of debt and credit as the solution. Like, to me, that seems like a logical fallacy.
Certainly what we're seeing right now with the carbon credit market as well is really proving that this model is extremely dangerous because if you introduce uh, the concept of debt and credits into the green market, and you essentially position it on the financial markets, then exploitation will move in and corruption will move in as it does in every single other market.
It's very much a strategy of playing with fire. Like, yes, it might speak to what people understand. It might speak to a kind of sense of a, well, maybe this is the first step that we can take to use capitalism for good while we're trying to sort of, you know, envision a new future But really, I mean, what we're seeing is for the carbon credit market, we're seeing indigenous people being displaced so that their forests can be put on the market. We are seeing, because it's unregulated, we are seeing absolute sharks, we call them carbon cowboys in my trade moving in and pretending to have all sorts of certifications or whatever, and creating values for carbon off the top of their heads, and signing nations up to, you know, 100 year deals that are extremely exploitative, that have not had prior informed consent from the indigenous populations, and the UN is just sort of ticking it off and saying, yeah, great, okay, cool, fine. Because it looks green. Because we're still using that framework. So, I mean, surely, surely the whole point of envisioning a future is something that actually decouples growth from, from, from the green growth from green, rather than using the exact same framework that's gotten us into this mess in the first place.
[00:15:45] Tim Parrique: I completely agree. And one author that I quite like, who inspired me a lot is Serge Latouche, French economist. And, at the beginning of the 2000, he was the first to theorize degrowth and he said degrowth means to exit from the economy. And back then, you know, people did not quite understand what this mean, but what he meant basically is we need to shrink the domain of the commodity. So we need to take certain social relation and natural resources and de commodify them so that they become inaccessible by the logic of capital.
A resource, for example, if you declare a resource sanctuary like a UNESCO national park, this becomes unbuyable for all the money in the world, you will not be able to cut a tree, or if you do, you will be prosecuted legally. Same thing for certain like coral reef and things like this. So for me, I'm rather saying, I completely agree that the market will not solve this issues, and as soon as you commodify something it attracts for-profit actors that are just doing what capitalism is great at doing, which is squeezing every single resource to try to turn it into money.
But there's something else. So on the one hand, we need to select all these core sectors of the economy that are too important to be handled by the market logic. So when we see, for example, in certain cities in France cities are saying we don't want private water management anymore. Because like in many countries after the neo-liberal turn, well, it was promised that if you privatized certain utilities, quality will go up, efficiency will kick in, prices will go down. A few decades after we see that this isn't true, prices have gone up, quality has gone down. Why? Because they're managed by for-profit corporation are just cutting costs and inflating prices up. So now countries are saying, okay, well, you know what, we're getting back our water and we are organizing that resource as a common.
So the the commons is actually a framework very interesting because it's not the market, it's not as state governance, it's the community governance of a specific resource organized around the satisfaction of concrete needs. And I think we should do this for water, but also for local transport, for a huge part of the energy sector, of the food sector and for, you know, most natural resources, because natural resources follow specific biophysical cycles that have nothing to do with money. Their management should follow, you know, the, the, the speed limits of nature and cannot abide to the speed limit of capitalism, which are way too fast for them.
But I still want to play with it with an idea there. In my thesis, I've been conceptualizing economic growth as this expansion of the commodity domain. So, you know, when we created the Airbnb, if you take all the apartments that were on couch surfing and turn it into Airbnb, your GDP will go up. You're doing the very same service. If you take to Wikipedia today and decide to privatize it, you would also boost your GDP, but somehow there'll be a degradation, not only of the governance, not only of the access, but also in the long-term of the quality of the system like we've seen for municipal water.
And so economic growth is this process of somehow turning more and more things into commodities. And so degrowth, which would be the opposite, would be actually to decommodify these things. They will leave GDP, just like, you encylopedias, left GDP when they died and were replaced by Wikipedia. And just like, you know, one day I hope Airbnb will die to be replaced by couch surfing or something else, which is a reciprocity network. It's a not-for-profit reciprocity, which I think is way more adapted to providing the service of housing than a for-profit.
We need to take into account that we are facing decades of commoditization and of monetary accumulation out of this commoditization. So there's a lot to revert back. All that wealth that has been turned into money, right now we can just say, okay, no, it's okay, and we just keep it like this. We need to reinvest that money into the social and ecological wealth that was sacrificed back then to create GDP points. How does that look? It looks like an investment with no return.
So you take some money, invest it in creating that sanctuary, and there will be no return, there will be no profit. Actually, if you have a degrowth economy, so remember I was talking about dividing GDP by two by 2030, for example, in France, it also means you need to shrink the monetary, the money supply at the same time. So it means there's going to be some investment that are going to be invested in somewhere and then disappear. The money will disappear and will take the form of just non-monetary wealth that would be social or ecological.
[00:21:03] Rachel Donald: I've got two questions and they both go in very different directions so I think the first one then would be: you can understand why people are frightened of this, then: investment without returns, cutting the monetary supply. Like you can understand why the, the labor unions are really, and, you know, just generally people, think that degrowth is going to hurt them first. Because I mean, you know, degrowth like decommodification, the the commons, that sounds like quite an exciting vision. But just, I mean, even that the prefix of de, of de, you know. How do you think that we can sell more of a vision to a public, sell more of a vision of responsibility and autonomy and community rather than have them worry that, you know middle-class scholars are out to get their future in order to save the planet?
[00:21:56] Tim Parrique: Well, we need to ask people if capitalism is making them happy? Like in a very concrete, everyday life is, you know, the commoditization of certain things around you, improving your life? If you're asking these questions, I think most people will have a negative experience of this economization of the social life. It'll be no, I don't like how it makes me think and treat people the quality of the social relation has been degrading the ecological situation is obviously degrading. Somehow we've managed to create more money, which you don't have as a worker because that money is primarily appropriated by those who receive money, not through the salary, but through a rent of all kinds, so dividends, interest in rent.
So if you're asking those very concrete questions, I think people would be like, yeah, no, the, the dismantling of that process would benefit me directly. I think you're, it's important because then when we talk about degrowth in general, people will think, oh, degrowth means my purchasing power will go down. I'm already struggling as of today, and so that's going to be a problem. So here we need to look at, and that's where I think political economy becomes very handy, to what the economy is about, which is contentment, the satisfaction of needs. And we need to compare: how are you satisfying your needs for housing today? Well, you're living in Paris or you're living in London? Well, then you're going to sacrifice more than half of your salary if not more, just to pay for an inflated apartment that is owned by someone rich that is having actually a few apartments, and that is deriving a huge income out of that. Prices every year will go up and so will inequality. Are you happy with this? Would you not be happier if we decided right now that housing become a not-for-profit commons, like it isn't the city of Vienna? That housing prices are divided by two, quality of houses increases again, because landlords are not incentivized to cut cost just to maximize the money they get out of it. People think yeah, that makes sense.
Then your purchasing power, imagine it goes down a bit, but you still are better off because you know, the price of the house you rent has gone by half, or even at this price, you get the opportunity to buy that property. And even let's say if your purchasing power get like super down, if you make the inventory of all the services you're going to have access to, you're like, okay, well maybe I'll have, I've got less money, but now I live in a town where water is free, where local mobility is also free, where I've got access to good quality free Wikipedia like encyclopaedia, where I can use some, you know open access application, I don't have to pay for scientific journals, you know, to, to, to get access to knowledge. All these things that we realize would get cheaper if we organize them in a non-capitalist manner. The focus on abundance in terms of needs satisfaction can sell, I think more than the word degrowth.
Maybe it's good, the word degrowth, to raise awareness about the ecological transition and the fact somehow that economic growth is incompatible with ecological stability, but that that's a good argument to have, you know, with economists that work with these things. People, I think in general, that's what I've been realizing, we have no relation to economic growth because economic growth is a weird abstract concept. You know, it's like a strange indicator built by a bunch of dudes in the 1930s in the U.S as now. Like I know personally in France, there are around 40 people that calculate GDP. there not that many that know how to calculate. It's extremely complicated and now I'm writing a paper with one of them. And I think if you were to explain to every single citizen, you know, take the time to explain how GDP is calculated, people would be that's a rotten indicator, let's get rid of it. And let's have something like New Zealand, you know, well-being budgets or like, gross national happiness, or, you know, like some, some people propose in France an indicator of social health. Anything that is actually more meaningful than this kind of giant calculator, like weird the economic thermometer, that GDP is.
[00:26:43] Rachel Donald: Yeah. I remember having it explained to me by Blair Fix.. The example that he used was so brilliant, which was like after hurricane Katrina, you know, GDP jumped because of the amount of money that was spent on rebuilding. So it was like the economic health of the country was amazing, but like people had lost their lives, had lost their homes, they've lost their memories. They've lost, like that whole place was destroyed, but GDP doesn't care, cause dollar spent, essentially. To me, when, when you describe, you know, this vision of the commons, it's like the democratization of human dignity. To me, that's a vision. And to me that is something that people would get on board with really, and very quickly, but degrowth just seems like the wrong word, because even, this is a very personal thing, but I kind of, I take gumption with things that are anti as well. Like I don't describe myself as an anti-capitalist, don't describe myself as anti anything because I don't want to exist in opposition. I don't want to exist only in a form of binary. Any thought that I have or any vision I ascribe to I want it to be original because I so fundamentally believe it's going to take such a great paradigm shift.
And so I think it's just, it's just the use of that prefix. Like to me, it really undersells what degrowth is about. I mean, even when you were saying about, you know, if you asked people does capitalism make you happy? Does capitalism do X, Y and Z? I mean, in these increasingly precarious nations that were previously leading development, like the UK and the USA, people don't have time to think about happiness. are, life is that precarious? They just want to know, can I heat my home this winter? Can I feed my kids? Can I clothe them? Contentment, satisfaction, wellbeing. We've gone beyond that, almost. So I think if you were to say to people, well, we can cut your living costs we can, we can make sure that your kids are fed and clothed, and also it's not gonna be come from, because this is the other immediate sort of rebuttal, is not going to come from like a big governmental nanny state. It's going to come from you actually being allowed to take responsibility for, for your community and for your, for your own wellbeing. I think people would actually jump on that. I think people are finally starting to believe that they could make better decisions than those in power purely because those in power aren't making decisions for the people.
[00:29:06] Tim Parrique: Hmm, it does. I mean, I I've got this list I quite like which have been keeping for a few years where every time someone comes up with a new name for a more desirable economy, I just put it on the list.
[00:29:19] Rachel Donald: Nice.
[00:29:21] Tim Parrique: You can come back to the 1940s and, you know, people have been creating amazing visions of participatory economies of you know, positive economies, economies for the common good, now wellbeing economies is becoming increasingly popular. And none of these terms, have really managed to gather, to create that effervescence that we see to today around degrowth. So that's the first like strange paradox is that very often, you know, people admit that the word degrowth is a bit off-putting, but on the other hand, like the term is becoming hugely popular these days, and the discussions that are hiding beyond the term degrowth are becoming absolutely essential. So there's a bit of this love and hate about the term, which in the way I reconcile it, personally, that degrowth is a good discussion starter, especially when we talk about climate. It's a thought-stopper. You're like, oh, what, what? De-what? What did you say? So the goal of the economy should not be to grow? And then you're like, oh, you're asking yourself questions. As soon as we've got this discussion going, we quickly need to mobilize other terms.
The social ancillary economy, talking about reciprocity, the logic of the gift talk, talking about, like you said, the democratization of human dignity and all the many other things that are just very concrete. And then we don't need to worry about degrowth. Some people at this point, they like to even reframe the discussion and call it post growth, because we're just, or post capitalism, which is rather nice.
But here, I want to make a little point about the, the anti. I think this refusing the binary is a luxury we cannot afford in the sense of today, where there's such a, an, a tyranny of growth and capitalism that somehow there needs to be some form of ontological resistance to this. I've recently published an article and I've called it 'climate change is not a crisis, it's a beating'. And that's exactly what I mean, like bouncing on, on, on research by Jason and many others, we realize that the responsibility for climate breakdown is so concentrated. So we need to somehow put a finger on this and, and, you know, be like, the problem is here. The problem is not a widely diffused spirit of capitalism that is animating all of us. It's not about human nature, it's not about demography and population. The problem is about a few metrics, a few corporate models, a few institutions and practices that came from you know, very specific time and a very specific place.
So the degrowth the anti- capitalism, the anti- productivism, the post extractivism, the anti- utilitarianism, the anti- commercialism, all of these kind of like resistant words, I like to call them demolition words, they're demolition concepts, because they come here to somehow say, shut up capitalism for a second. Okay, fine. Now we can talk. And when we can talk, we can use a diversity of concept and make sure that these concepts, like Buen Vivir, like eco Swaraj, like the circular economy, that all of these, you know, can contribute in rethinking the future. But so far they can't, because every time you talk about this, there's going to be a, an economist that's going to shout green growth at you so loud that that no one was going to hear anything else than that.
[00:33:15] Rachel Donald: Uh. Listen, I have to say I do disagree, because I think that, fundamentally, a thing that is anti is not ontological in its nature because if ontology is the study of being, and a thing can only exist in relation to its opposition to the original thing, then, I mean, inherently it's mimetic. It doesn't actually exist in and of itself.
The thing that concerns me about the, the anti rhetoric is that if a thing can only exist in opposition, then we will forever, and this is like super metaphysics, right, but we will forever need that original quote unquote bad thing in order to envision the things which are not that.
And therefore, I feel that we're inherently, sort of, precluding ourselves from creating any new form of vision or paradigm that could actually break human social evolution through to an interesting and fundamentally different situation or, or yeah, vision again. That's my main concern for the anti ideologies.
[00:34:21] Tim Parrique: And I would hear, I think I would agree with you. I I'm just, my addition would be, in order to create the space so we can actually use this concept that exists, I mean, I give you one solar punk, which is a concept getting increasingly popular. Solar punk is nice because it's quite disconnected from the reality of capitalism. It's a really utopian concept in the good sense of the term. It's a projection to desirable future without any limits in reference to the pragmatism of today. And that's, these we should cherish because we don't have many visions, post-capitalist visions, you know, that's the saying, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. So we should cherish.
But the problem is that nobody knows about solar punk. Why? Because they live in a time of capitalist realism that even thinking about the future that is not, you know, neoliberal capitalism gets you branded as some kind of, of lunatic.
So the way I articulate it in, in my book: First I use the big gun, like the degrowth when I make the criticism of growth. And I like to call it the crowbar of change because you know we're, stuck in the prison capitalism. We use this concept as a crowbar to open the door open, but then we leave the crowbar in that in jail. We don't need degrowth anymore because we care about growth. We care about GDP. I mean, this stuff will be forgotten. Then when we're out, we have a whole new economy to invent. And then we mobilize, you know, concrete, that's my main criticism, I think, of modern economics. We mobilize concrete issues and concrete terms. So basically we rebuild an economy starting from contentment and the satisfaction of needs, and also with a sense of aesthetics that was not present in the way we've been conceptualizing economics before, which was very like, very disconnected. In French, we'd say, "hors sol", you know, out in the air, the economy is not connected to reality.
But as of now, I can, I can see that the people that I talk to and that I'm trying to convince are still hanging quite dearly to their story of how the economy worked, a story that is false. And, you know, how the economy should work. You know, so, which is in that case, not false, but I think misguided. So people think that some, for example, like, oh yeah, but look, certain countries have managed to green their growth. That's false, factually false. And then they're like, okay, maybe it's not true, but we should work to de-couple GDP from environmental pressures. So I'm like, so your dream, your dream, your dream society is one that has decoupled GDP from emissions. Sorry, but that's a crap dream, you know, that's the best vision you can feature? You take like the driest indicator we have, and then you decouple it from something else and you call this, you know, your utopian vision of tomorrow?
[00:37:20] Rachel Donald: Let's add, you know what, let's talk about decoupling actually, because I think that it's something that- it's a word that's thrown around a lot in academia, and it's actually very, very useful to understanding sort of the predicament that we're in, but it's not so much in the public domain. So could you just explain what that would mean then?
What is decoupling? What is relative decoupling and how is it being used to sort of obfuscate the data at this stage?
[00:37:43] Tim Parrique: Yeah. Okay. So a bit of history. Imagine in the 90s, there were a bunch of economists that studied the link between GDP and environmental pressures. And they've seen these curves that when the economy grows, it used more and more resources, but then after some point, an economy can keep growing while reducing its use of resources. Back then, that was called the environmental Kuznets curve, so imagine like a a bell shaped curve. And this evolved into the concept of decoupling, decoupling being this second part of the curve. So if you think of coupling being, you know, more GDP with more environmental impact, decoupling would be more GDP with less environmental impact. So you're dissociating the growth of GDP to, let's say, it's ecological cost. And that gives you the concept of green growth.
It's green, because you know, you can increase GDP without having any resource use or, you know, any impact on biodiversity, any pollution or greenhouse gases. Actually you can even grow GDP and decrease emissions. So that's the concept of absolute decoupling, where not only relatively decoupling your GDP, which is just being more efficient, but still increasing overall impact because the economy is getting so much bigger than your efficiency rate. Absolute decoupling is actually there's just more GDP and less emissions. And that's the case where it gets really science fictional.
When you look at the scientific evidence which was reviewed by the IPCC in its mitigation reports, so now the truth is out for everyone to see, I've written an article about it, to dissect every single study using the IPCC. That's a small pool because there are 900 empirical studies on decoupling. The bottom message is most countries have never experienced any kind of decoupling. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, which is, you know, only one environmental pressures among many, we've seen cases of relative decoupling, that's quite common. Absolute cases of decoupling are very rare, we count them in like two or three hands, you know, not that much 20 countries. And in these countries the reduction have been very small or actually most of the time it's stablization. Because if you keep increasing your GDP and your emission stay flat, then you still call it absolute decoupling. Of course, if you're an IPCC scientist and you're asking countries, you know, to cut their emissions by four and an economist, be like, look, we've absolutely decoupled, which means, you know, GDP keeps increasing, but you get stable emissions. You can see how that's not an effective mitigation strategy.
Now let's get of how this concept has been just smoking the debate. And most probably has has been responsible for losing perhaps a decade of valuable discussions on mitigation effort. At first, there was this belief that somehow the natural state of things, countries, as they develop, you know, people would grow an environmental consciousness and people would start to get richer, and so they would invest in eco innovation. So somehow, you know, the economy will green itself. That was the first wave of belief from the nineties. Well, we quickly realized this was just absolutely false and there were, you know, a few hopes, for example, like, and you can see this now, like a decade after, countries like France, where look we've been greening our growth, it's fantastic, our emissions are reducing year after year. And then you look how they calculate their emissions, and they're only including what we call domestic emissions. So whatever you produce in France is get included into your domestic emissions. But during the same decade, France has been, you know, delocalizing its most polluted industries elsewhere. So when you reintegrate these important emissions into what we call a emission footprint, you realize that actually that decoupling was only geographical illusion because the carbon footprint has been increasing. So that's the first thing that we had we had a lot of like false hope about green growth.
At this point, people started to realize that, okay, an economy is not going to naturally green itself. We really need to do certain things, actively intervene in the economy to shift to renewables and that's the stage we're in now. And I think most countries in the world, you know, they're like, okay, we need to enter the into green growth. And then, you know, the economy then can keep going forever without much of a problem. In doing this, we've still not acknowledged the fact that, you know, there's been no historical experience of decoupling fast enough and including all the resource that we care to include, that would prove that it's actually possible.
So for me, that's where it becomes a bit uncertain, a bit you know, jumping from a cliff and hoping you're going to build yourself a parachute before you hit the ground. This is the green growth strategy today. Whereas the precautionary approach would have been like, okay, look, as of now, we don't seem to decouple GDP and resource use. So since we need to reduce resource use, we will have to produce and consume less. If in the future you get a kick-ass eco innovation you get outstanding rates of recycling and anything else, then perhaps we can produce and consume more. But as of now, confronted with the urgency of the climate crisis and all the mini ecological crises, we cannot afford to produce and consume more. This is from a purely thinking from the global north perspective, focusing on the wellbeing of the global north only. When you realize that actually these resources are shared in an unequal world where, you know, if we have a very tiny carbon budget left, I think it would be very difficult morally to defend that it should be used to update, you know, all our cars in France to SUV's instead of allowing other people in the world to have hospitals or just a car in the first place.
So when you put this into perspective, you realize that the kind of degrowth is not really necessary, but it's also urgent. And it's a direct implication of the limits to green growth. And, you know, I've been very arrogant with my colleagues in 2019 when we published a copy of Debunked. We were like, look, this is the evidence we found, here's the reasons we have against that make us think that actually decoupling in the future is not going to be as great as you think. Here's everything on the table, if you think we're wrong, show us, you know, and give us numbers on why all of these numbers are wrong. And then, you know, we'll change our mind. Since June, 2019, I've not received a single answer to that challenge, which really shows, and now the latest IPCC report is just acknowledging this, that the green growth advocates cannot make their case.
[00:45:23] Rachel Donald: Hmm, but the IPCC report was formerly a green growth advocate.
[00:45:29] Tim Parrique: That's the funny thing. And that's what I've been showing in the article. When you read the summary for policy maker, it sounds like it, but when you read the full report, you get a very different view.
[00:45:41] Rachel Donald: Oh, that's interesting.
[00:45:42] Tim Parrique: Yeah. There's a double message. The SPM, you read it, you feel like it's an advocacy for green growth, which it is, based on one single study. One study of 900 has been picked, which not, by coincidence is also one of the most optimist study. And even in that study, and I know the lead author because she's French and I've been in contact with her, even that study is very, very cautious in saying that we've observed absolute decoupling in 18 countries, but even in these countries, the reduction we've seen is nowhere near what we would need for effectively mitigating climate change.
And so when you get into the full report and you look into the work of one of the lead author, decoupling expert, which has written chapter two, that's where you get the section on decoupling, then you see that all the cited studies are actually, you know, saying it in peer reviewed scientific articles that no evidence for decoupling and the very small evidence we have is insufficient. That's where carbon emission, which, you know, are again the lucky that's the hopeful cases, when you look at this part on decoupling resource use, it's the opposite. They say there's been no decoupling, not even absolute, actually there's been a recoupling of global GDP, even in high-income nations. High-income nations now just, you know, recoupling with material use, which is strange because also when you go back to the summary of this argument, it's diluted into a very hopeful, like some countries have managed to do it some years and so therefore, you know, let's not worry too much, you know.
I like to say like this it's, it's basically like assuming that just because Usain Bolt is running that fast, we could all run like Usain Bolt all the time. Not just in a peak, we could, every country in the world could have the rate of decoupling that, you know, the fastest decoupling country had for one year in the history of humanity. And we could have, that's the thing, we could have, not only that rate, but you know, at least two, three or four times that rate in every country, every year from now to 2030 and 2050.
I mean, as a scientist, if you tell me this I'm unconvinced.
[00:48:07] Rachel Donald: Why the discrepancy then? Why does the part, why does the policymakers section advocate green growth?, and then the section on resource use show that it's impossible?
[00:48:19] Tim Parrique: So the way the IPCC report is written, it's written in three documents. You get the full report, you get a technical report and you get a summary for policy maker. The summary for policy maker needs to be agreed on by every single country. So it's a political document. It's written by scientists, but it's negotiated by political actors.
[00:48:42] Rachel Donald: Ah,
[00:48:43] Tim Parrique: So of course I suspect if you are a scientist, authors, and you know, you're trying to write the summary of your full report and you're writing while, you know, insufficient proof of decoupling, we'll have to degrow, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then every single country is going to come like, look, we've been pushing for green growth. So that would make us look terrible if actually it's proven not to work. Could you not smooth out a bit then, you know, the insufficient could be perhaps not sufficient enough as of now, but there's that. So you can look online. There's been a lot of comparison between, you know, things that have been said in the full report compared to how things are being said in the summary for policy maker. And so the argument is just hugely diluted so that it can become consensual. But, you know, if you want to change the system, anything consensual is actually just ineffective because by definition, if it's consensual, it is the system.
So in that sense, what I've been doing is fishing for radical ideas in the report, in the IPCC report. And you find them, I mean, it mentions degrowth seven times, it discusses degrowth you know, as radical as the concept is. So imagine, the IPCC for the first time, both in its adaptation report and its mitigation report has been actively discussing degrowth. In its adaptation report, it's even branding post growth as the latest narrative of development in its history of development since the 1950s. So it's kind of acknowledging that this is here. But all of the radical bits of the report are being left in the attic when they wrote the summary or actually perhaps, you know, they were just removed when it was negotiated. There's also, you know, countries that can submit comments to the text, so it can be gradually diluted or just, I don't really know how these negotiations went because they were not public, unfortunately. I think for the next report, we should demand that these are publics. And then we'll realize what you know has been leaked by journalists, that countries like Brazil and Argentina, you know, going to the table and be like, in the summary for policy makers, we don't want you to refer to plant based diets and vegetarianism because that will be bad for our beef exporting business. In the same way that Australia didn't want it to name coal as bad. You know, very difficult to write a mitigation report without saying that we should, you know, end coal usage. And so Australia was like, oh, maybe we say fossil fuel in general. You know, it's really about carbon. It's not really about coal, you know, it's really about the carbon. We should have filmed these discussions and then we can see, you know, what is part of science and what is part of politics?
[00:51:47] Rachel Donald: I had no– What is the point in having a mitigation report written by scientists, and then the policies from that report are going to be diluted by policymakers themselves who are incapable of making the correct decisions when they're in power? What is the point? How has that been allowed to happen?
[00:52:07] Tim Parrique: I mean, I understand the logic of, you know, inviting decision and just, you know, in a, in a sense of, of making sure that this scientific document becomes actionable so we can explain it to them, that they're here, that they participate in the process, and so therefore they can own the thing. But of course it's a scientific document, so there should be boundaries to the kind of comments you can give. And also it's a scientific document that is about mitigating, you know climate change. So anything you say should not be framed in a way that is anti- mitigation, otherwise it defeats the purpose. But what I propose is for the next report, we actually turn it into a TV show. It would be very fun. You know, the scientists write the thing, we invite all the politicians and we film them 24/7 for a week discussing this and we just broadcast it on Netflix.
[00:53:01] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:53:02] Tim Parrique: Like big brother for IPCC politics.
[00:53:07] Rachel Donald: I genuinely had no idea that that was how that section of the IPCC report was made or written or created. That's shocking. I'm going to actually keep picking your brains about it When we stop recording.
I just have one final line of questioning for you which was flagged by quite a few of my listeners.
Degrowth seems to predicate a lot of its success around renewable energy and yet renewable energy demands a huge amount of fossil fuel use, and studies have shown that no matter how many, how much the surface we cover in, you know, wind turbines and solar panels and whatever, ultimately, we're never going to be able to create the same energy usage that we do now so reduction is going to have to be a part of it and of course degrowth is about reduction, but still there just seems to be this kind of attachment to renewables that makes a lot of systems scientists quite nervous. Could you just, I mean, has th is that discussed in degrowth circles amongst yourselves?
[00:54:11] Tim Parrique: So I'm going to give you the classic degrowth line would be to say that, you know, the most renewable energy is the one we don't have to consume and therefore we don't have to produce. So often in France that are being asked on that question of, you know, are you for nuclear energy? What do you think about the environmental impact of renewable? For me, I'm like I work on degrowth and therefore my goal is to reduce energy demand as much as possible. That's first step. Everything we can do through energy sobriety, anything we can do reorganizing ourselves and cutting, you know, growth imperative to make sure that actually the energy we need for a decent level of living, we need to do first.
And once we get that demand of energy, we can ask ourselves the question, what is the most sustainable way and what is the most socially sustainable way also of organizing this energy provision. My main rant about it is that we're kind of mingling this too. And so we end up like, you know, ecomodernist narrative that tell you we can keep increasing energy demand and that just renewable energy will supply. But then, you know, I completely agree with you. I mean, renewable energies, any form of energy infrastructure, is made of material and will require energy to be built. In that process of being built and installed it will disrupt biodiversity, will have an impact. And so therefore every single solar panel, coal factory, nuclear plant, every dam we can spare, that's a victory. In the point of sobriety, I don't even make a difference between, you know, fossil and renewable. I'm like my goal is to shrink all forms of, of course I say, this quickly, there's an urgency for climate change, so I would rather shut down a coal factory that is having an impact on climate change and keep a nuclear plant that is having other impact, but perhaps not urgent one. But in the very long term, we need to see that energy demand down.
[00:56:10] Rachel Donald: Hmm. Excellent. And it must be quite interesting being based in France through all this as well, because of the, the nuclear question it seems to me given how little time we have, and how effectively it's working. I mean the different, what is that stat about. So like energy use per capita in the U.S is like 15 times above what it needs to be per person. In the UK, I think it's 12, Europe 12, and then in France, it's it's like 3? France is sort of the one sort of quote unquote developed nation that isn't dramatically overshooting like everybody else because of nuclear energy.
I mean, what are your thoughts on it? Do you think that we should sort of go short-term, go nuclear and figure out the rest later?
[00:56:57] Tim Parrique: Well, the interesting thing to notice is that even France, whose got I mean, if I, if I remember, well, like 73% of, you know, nuclear electricity, so this massive joker card of low carbon energy, even France has not managed to decouple its GDP from, from, you know.. So that if that tells you anything that really, that even this, this dream situation of having any kind of energy infrastructure is not going to cut you from the use of, of materials and energy and nature. So that's the first point. The second is there's a time aspect. It takes a huge amount of time to invest, develop, and build a nuclear plant. And this does not square at all with what the IPCC tell us about, you know, the three coming years where we need to do the bulk of the effort. The 2030 deadline and the 2050 deadline. So if you're a country and you're telling me, well, I'm going to just nuclearize my energy demand. I'm like, well, even if you were to do so, you will arrive like very late and if you were to do so, also, that's just not quite the best energy to invest in the very long term. Then that's another discussion.
But coming back to the, this kind of like solar punk world, I think that the economy of the future is, is, is powered by community owned, locally governed solar energies in general, renewable energies. And let's not forget that nuclear energy is, is a finite energy with a lot of downsides, even though it's got as an advantage to be quite low carbon.
So for countries like France, that just happen to have a lot of nuclear reactors that function now, I would not recommend turning them down and start to build windmills instead of that. Okay. We going to use our joker card as a transition energy, but some people say we should keep building reactors because some of our reactors, you know, a nuclear reactor can function and, you know, it's got a 40 years old time, last time span. And so what do we do with the old one? Do we shut them down? Or we build some new? And I think from an ecomodernist perspective, we build some new, they're better, we can keep, you know, increasing the energy supply from a degrowth perspective. Like first, you know, if the goal is to reduce electricity demand, we won't need these reactors. And then for actually the quality and sustainability of that reduced supply, we would better do with a resilient network of community owned renewable energies.
[00:59:36] Rachel Donald: All right. Okay, great take. My final question. Who would you like to platform?
[00:59:42] Tim Parrique: Did you have Julia Steinberger?
[00:59:45] Rachel Donald: I almost had Julia Steinberger. We had a date, it was rearranged I've been unable to get ahold of her since, but to be fair, the IPCC report was just published, so I imagine she's a very, very busy woman.
But if you could recommend somebody else just in case, because I do, I do harangue the poor woman on Twitter about once a month.
[01:00:04] Tim Parrique: I guess I would love to recommend a good friend of mine and colleague Tony Nowshin.
[01:00:11] Rachel Donald: All right. Excellent. Thank you so much for your time. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.