Lessons from Japan for Imagining Sustainable De-growth

Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel and colleagues estimated that the earth might be able to sustain only 2 billion people by the end of the fossil fuel era.  There are about 7.5 billion humans on the planet right now.  It seems counterintuitive that there is nearly 4 times the sustainable population now living on the planet.  Does that not mean that Pimentel and others who reach similar conclusions about the human prospect must be wrong?  Critics of Pimentel and others like him refer to them as a neo-Malthusians, those who cry wolf about the population problem ignoring the resilience of human society.  How could we have more than the “sustainable” human population living on earth?

The analogy I use to think about this is something that happens on highways every day.  Imagine your car’s fuel efficiency is 30 miles to the gallon, you have exactly one gallon of gas in the tank, and 50 miles to the next gas station.  Despite your predicament, you can still increase your speed; that will simply mean that you run out of gasoline even sooner.  Likewise, we can have a larger population than the planet can support by using resources faster in the short run than they can be replenished in the long run.  That does not change the reality that those resources will one day be depleted and fewer people will inhabit the earth. There is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that is exactly what 21st Century humans are doing, living beyond the means of the planet.

Johan Rockstrom and a list of prominent scientists estimated the various biophysical “boundaries” beyond which humans could not push the planet.  They concluded that several of these boundaries (think of them as planetary limits) are close or have already been surpassed.  The most obvious potential constraint on human survival is global climate change, but Rockstrom’s study shows that there are even more pressing concerns for us, including biodiversity loss and disruption of the global nitrogen cycle.

I don’t know whether all this means that the sustainable size of the human population is 2 billion or a little more or a little less.  I am convinced by the scientific evidence that continuing growth beyond 7.5 billion, coupled with the legitimate aspirations of many of these people for a more prosperous life, is not sustainable.  We are going to need to end the era of growth in human numbers and growth in high-consumption life styles that began with the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th Century.  De-growth will happen.  The only question is whether that will happen catastrophically (by disease, famine, war, extreme climate events, etc.) or by reasoned human effort, sustainable de-growth.

The difficulty is that it is hard to imagine de-growth since over the past 70 years the dominant paradigm for global society has been growth – growth in population, growth in economic activity, growth in consumption, growth in natural resource extraction.  De-growth must be bad then.  Think of the language we use: recession, downturn, slump, depression.  Depressing, isn’t it?  What can we do to begin to imagine de-growth as something that would be challenging, but still good?  How can we decouple that idea of growth from human wellbeing?  Is there a future we can imagine where de-growth is good, uplifting, something we could strive for?

Economic theory provides little help in imagining a sustainable de-growth.  Post-World War II economics is based on the premise that human wellbeing is a function of consumption.  More consumption results in more wellbeing.  Since economists are loath to urge redistribution of wealth and income, the only way to get more consumption is economic growth.  The saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  And that worked for some humans as long as we were not pushing up against the biophysical boundaries of the planet.

Imagining the future as something different from what we have experienced is not easy.  Fred Polak, in his classic book The Image of the Future, suggested that imagination is a first step to making difficult social change.  A good way to imagine a de-growth future is to look for places on the planet where the prospect of de-growth is nearer.  Japan is one such place that can provide both exemplars and cautionary tales about a future where both the number of humans and per capita consumption decline.  The Japanese case shows both opportunities and risks.

The Japanese case does not give us a full-fledged theory of de-growth and it is not really an example of intentional de-growth at all.  But circumstances in Japan give us some hints about how we might go about de-growth without catastophe.  Since Japanese culture does not welcome significant immigration, the declining birth rates of modern industrial societies mean that Japan is now facing population decline.  Japan’s total fertility rate is 1.46, already well below what is considered “replacement” fertility of 2.1.  Japan’s population is shrinking and growing older.  Two examples of what this might mean for de-growth illustrate how we can use cases like Japan to imagine our own future.

First, Japan is experiencing a depopulation of rural communities as it undergoes demographic change.  Not only are there fewer young people, but more of those young people are moving to cities.  The result is that rural homes are being abandoned and rural communities are shrinking.  A common strategy for dealing with rural decline in industrialized societies is government programming for rural economic development.  An alternative suggested by the Japanese case is to use these abandoned properties as a starting point for rewilding, the process of removing human domination of the landscape and allowing it to return to natural processes.  (See my blog post: Wild Lands: The Missing Piece in Maine’s Land Conservation Mosaic)  De-growth is an opportunity to reduce the human foot print on the planet — such a reduction is inherent to the de-growth idea.

Japan also provides a good example of what not to do as part of sustainable de-growth.  Japan’s government debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is now well over 200% and growing.  The premise of such a debt is that the future will experience economic growth and future generations will be able to pay that debt from increasing future economic activity.  De-growth assumes that economies will shrink from both lower populations and reduced consumption of goods and services (wellbeing will come more from intangibles than from ever more consumption).  So sustainable de-growth will be preceded by the present paying for its own consumption instead of assuming that we can borrow today and the future will pay the costs.  (See my blog post: Disdain for the Future)

So the United States needs to heed the warning of the Japanese case.  We now have a Federal government debt of over 100% of Gross Domestic Product and it is growing because of last year’s income tax cuts.  This invites de-growth of the catastrophic sort, and that will be truly depressing.  Sustainable de-growth will require as a first step that the present generation live within its financial means and reduce the burden of debt we leave to the future.

The Japanese case only hints at how sustainable de-growth might happen.  We are far from a full-fledged theory of de-growth economics.  The prospect to strive for is a world of fewer humans, consuming less, and leading fuller, richer lives.  Just imagine.


Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.