Can we square the circle of “green growth”?

If you like trying to fit square pegs in round holes, you’ll love this little challenge.

Can we (that’s humanity I’m talking about) figure out how to use Earth’s resources sustainably while ending poverty and extreme inequality at the same time – and achieve both of these in a world with a growing global population and an ever-growing global economy?

Here’s that four-fold challenge, set out in a snappy 5 minute video (many thanks to Ian McClelland).



What’s it look like in words and stats?

  1. Achieving environmental sustainability. Today we are using Earth’s resources as if we had one and a half planets to depend upon. So to be sustainable, we need to cut our total natural resource use back by 30% by 2050.
  1. Ending poverty and extreme inequality. Today the poorest 20% of people have less than 2% of the world’s income. And the richest 10%? They’ve got 57% of the world’s income in their pockets. No wonder so many millions of people still can’t afford the food, water, land and energy they need to get out of poverty. By 2050 we need to achieve a far more equal distribution of global income, and of the world’s natural resource use.
  1. Global population growth. Today’s population of 7 billion is expected to rise to around 9 billion by 2050 – that’s a 30% increase – then plateau at 10 billion by 2100. So the world’s resources not only need to be shared far more equally, but also with many more people too.

Think that’s a big enough triple challenge? Then add this for topping.

  1. Global economic growth. The global economy has quadrupled in size since 1970. And, on mainstream forecasts, it’s set to quadruple again by 2050, reaching $300 trillion. In contrast to the coming peak and plateau of population growth, every country aims to keep on growing its GDP, no matter how well off it already is today.

So can we achieve environmental sustainability and an end to poverty and extreme inequality, with a growing global population and ambitions for unlimited economic growth?

If you think we can do it all, how?

If you think not, what’s gotta give?

Answers on a square peg, please…

2 thoughts on “Can we square the circle of “green growth”?

  1. CJ
    11 October 2012 at 17:40

    Nice stats – I feel a bit overwhelmed…but I guess that’s because of the scale of it all.

    Obviously it’s the growth that has to give – (because I don’t believe that green growth is really possible) – but I don’t think it’s the thing that will give. Capitalism is so powerful that the engine of growth always comes first. It’s the environment and people’s lives that are forced to give way in the name of profit and growth. For me the question is, what will it take to turn that round and get politicians, people, and business to question their commitment to growth in the first place.

  2. Alex Kelly
    12 October 2012 at 11:49

    Really great video. It’s nice to have the problem set out so clearly with the four-fold challenge. I wish you’d been my college economics lecturer! Like CJ, it all does seem overwhelming when put in such stark terms. But of course its the reality we have to face.

    I’m just wondering how your ideas in this video fit in with your larger model of the Doughnut, as discussed here: http://oxfamblogs.org/doughnut/general/get-into-the-doughnut

    Your original doughnut model doesn’t seem to factor in population in any explicit way, but in this latest blog you seem to be bringing it more in the centre of your thinking. How do they relate? Is squaring the circle the same as getting into the ‘safe and just space’ inside the doughnut?

    And, more generally, why do you think we are so psychologically addicted to economic growth?

    Alex Kelly