Expert’s Pick: A rebuttal to the promise of ‘green growth’

Our Project Manager & Analyst Hannah E. Murdock chose an article featured in Newsweek for this week’s expert’s pick. The article, How We Can Have ‘Green Growth,’ Increasing Human Population, Prosperity, While Taking Better Care Of Our Planet, written by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee, argues that “degrowth is unreasonable and unnecessary. We can increase human population and prosperity while also taking better care of our planet.”

McAfee traces the idea of ‘degrowth’ back to the 1970s, when the first Earth Day took place and the 1972 Limits to Growth was published. In his article, he analyses each of “three nasty side effects of growth”: “resource depletion, pollution and species loss” over the past 50 years. From his analysis, he draws a rosy conclusion: “The past half-century has shown us that we can increase human population and prosperity while also taking better care of the planet we all live on.”

McAfee rightfully acknowledges that we as a society “still face real challenges now and in the years ahead, of which global warming is the most pressing.” However, his attitude toward the future seems to be one of reckless optimism backed by faulty logic and oversimplification.

“I’m surprised an article so lacking in balance made it into Newsweek,” says Hannah E. Murdock. “Many facts are left out or are misconstrued. The past half-century also saw the largest increase in greenhouse gas emissions and serious degradation of the planet.”

Illustration by Newsweek.

Below we have isolated a few of the energy-related points worth discussing with regard to McAfee’s article — Hannah E. Murdock offers her rebuttal for each.

Andrew McAfee                                                                        Hannah Murdock

McAfee writes, “the surest sign that something is becoming more scarce is that it’s becoming less affordable. But without exception, important resources […] have been getting more affordable, not less.”


The affordability of resources has nothing to do with ‘greenness’.  These industries are heavily subsidized by governments, from producers all the way to consumers. McAfee mentions carbon pricing but nothing on the need to remove fossil fuel subsidies, or that carbon pricing only covers about 20% of the global population and in most cases does not cover all sectors of the economy. Importantly, McAfee’s article also does not address the fact that fossil fuels are not and cannot be ‘green.’ 


“The [Environmental Kutznetz Curve] tells us something fundamental: that economic growth is at first the cause of pollution, then the cure for it. So to reduce pollution, we don’t have to pursue degrowth; instead, we should encourage growth around the world.” The idea that ‘we can increase pollution until a certain point when we decide that we are ready to decrease pollution’ is not at all sustainable. While there are equity issues at play, developing countries can avoid mistakes made in the past by developed countries and leapfrog in technology and best practices to develop in a more sustainable way, with abundant renewable resources as a main pillar, and with support from the international community.

“With a few smart moves, including limiting pollution and protecting vulnerable species, we can have both greater human prosperity and a healthy, endlessly abundant planet.”


While this truth may be hard to swallow, the bottom line is that we now have less than a decade to keep global warming below the 1.5°C threshold, meaning that all countries need to cut emissions drastically. ‘A few smart moves’ will not suffice: a systemic transition will need to occur to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We cannot continue our current consumption patterns if we want to get there, and a fundamental move has to happen from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Hannah E. Murdock is a Project Manager & Analyst at REN21. She has been at REN21 since 2013.

While McAfee’s message that ‘green growth’ is possible and that we are ‘on the right track’ might sound reassuring, it is also misleading. As Hannah E. Murdock summarises, “Imbalanced articles like this are dangerous. If ‘green growth’ is meant to imply that we can continue or extend our current consumption patterns and somehow magically avoid climate change, then that is a myth.”

Interested in delving deeper into the degrowth debate? Here are some more resources worth checking out: