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Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

  • October 4, 2018

Capitalism & Crisis

Contradicting the dominant paradigm that economic growth equals development, degrowth theorists argue that serious cutbacks are crucial to protect life on our planet.

Today, some 4.3 billion people — more than 60 percent of the world’s population — live in debilitating poverty, struggling to survive on less than the equivalent of $5 per day (which is the mean average of all the national poverty lines in the Global South). Half do not have access to enough food. And these numbers have been growing steadily over the past few decades.

With these data, Jason Hickel, an anthropology professor and global development expert, starts his controversial book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions, in which he meticulously and convincingly debunks the narrative told by the UN and the likes of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker. In fact, while the good-news story leads us to believe that poverty has been decreasing around the world, in reality the only places this holds true are in China and East Asia. And these are some of the only places in the world where free-market capitalism was not forcibly imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, allowing these governments to pursue state-led development policies and gradually liberalize their economies on their own terms.

Development agencies, NGOs and the world’s most powerful governments explain that the plight of poor countries is a technical problem — one that can be solved by adopting the right institutions and the right economic policies, by working hard and accepting a bit of help. As Hickel writes: “It is a familiar story, and a comforting one. It is one that we have all, at one time or another, believed and supported. It maintains an industry worth billions of dollars and an army of NGOs, charities and foundations seeking to end poverty through aid and charity.” But it’s against this narrative that Hickel takes aim.

Economic unequal exchange over the centuries

The main argument presented in the book is that the discourse of aid distracts us from seeing the broader picture. It hides the patterns of extraction that are actively causing the impoverishment of the Global South today and actively impeding meaningful development. “The charity paradigm obscures the real issues at stake: it makes it seem as though the West is ‘developing’ the Global South, when in reality the opposite is true. Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are effectively developing rich countries — and they have been since the late 15th century,” argues Hickel.

In the book it is laid bare for all to see that underdevelopment in the Global South is not a natural condition, but a consequence of the way Western powers have organized the world economic system.

It’s not that the $128 billion in aid disbursements that the West gives to the Global South every year doesn’t exist — it does. But if we broaden our view and look at it in context, we see that it is vastly outstripped by the financial resources that flow in the opposite direction.

If all of the financial resources that get transferred between rich and poor countries each year are tallied up, we find that in 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a little over $2 trillion, including all aid, investment and income from abroad. But more than twice that amount, some $5 trillion, flowed out of them in the same year. In other words, developing countries “sent” $3 trillion more to the rest of the world than they received.

What do these large outflows from the Global South consist of? “Well, some of it is payments on debt. Today, poor countries pay over $200 billion each year in interest alone to foreign creditors, much of it on old loans that have already been paid off many times over, and some of it on loans accumulated by greedy dictators,” states Hickel. Another major contributor is the income that foreigners make on their investments in developing countries and then repatriate. Think of all the profits that Shell extracts from Nigeria’s oil reserves, for example, or that Anglo American pulls out of South Africa’s gold mines.

But by far the biggest chunk of outflows has to do with capital flight. A big proportion of this takes place through “leakages” in the balance of payments between countries. Another takes place through an illegal practice known as “trade misinvoicing.” Basically, corporations report false prices on their trade invoices in order to spirit money out of developing countries directly into tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. A similarly large amount flows out annually through “abusive transfer pricing”, a mechanism that multinational companies use to steal money from developing countries by shifting profits illegally between their own subsidiaries in different countries. But perhaps the most significant loss has to do with exploitation through trade.

Hickel explains that “from the onset of colonialism through to globalization, the main objective of the North has been to force down the cost of labor and goods bought from the South. In the past, colonial powers were able to dictate terms directly to their colonies. Today, while trade is technically “free,” rich countries are able to get their way because they have much greater bargaining power.” On top of this, trade agreements often prevent poor countries from protecting their workers in ways that rich countries do. And because multinational corporations now have the ability to scour the planet in search of the cheapest labor and goods, poor countries are forced to compete to drive costs down. As a result of all this, there is a yawning gap between the “real value” of the labor and goods that poor countries sell and the prices they are actually paid for them. This is what economists call “unequal exchange.”

Since the 1980s, countries of the West have been using their power as creditors to dictate economic and trade policies to indebted countries in the South, effectively governing them by remote control, without the need for bloody interventions. “Leveraging debt,” argues Hickel, “they imposed “structural adjustment programs” that reversed all the economic reforms that Global South countries had painstakingly enacted in the previous two decades. In the process, the West went so far as to ban the very protectionist and Keynesian policies that it had used for its own development, effectively kicking away the ladder to success.”

Degrowth for sustainable and fair livelihoods

Hickel then ponders over how — if these unfair trade and business practices were amended — poor countries could actually go about developing their economies following the same path as the one embraced by the Global North over the past two centuries. He references a study by the economist David Woodward in which the latter shows that given our existing economic model, poverty eradication can’t happen. Not that it probably won’t happen, but that it physically can’t. It is a structural impossibility.

He explains that:

Right now, the main strategy for eliminating poverty is to increase global GDP growth. The idea is that the yields of growth will gradually trickle down to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. But all the data we have shows quite clearly that GDP growth doesn’t really benefit the poor. While global GDP per capita has grown by 65 percent since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5 a day has increased by more than 370 million. Why does growth not help reduce poverty? Because the yields of growth are very unevenly distributed. The poorest 60 percent of humanity receive only 5 percent of all new income generated by global growth. The other 95 percent of the new income goes to the richest 40 percent of people. And that’s under best-case-scenario conditions.

Given this distribution ratio, Woodward calculates that it will take more than 100 years to eradicate absolute poverty at $1.25 a day. At the more accurate level of $5 a day, eradicating poverty will take 207 years. To eradicate poverty at $5 a day, global GDP would have to increase to 175 times its present size. In other words, we need to extract, produce and consume 175 times more commodities than we presently do. It is worth pausing for a second to think about what this means. Even if such outlandish growth were possible, the consequences would be disastrous. We would quickly chew through our planet’s ecosystems, destroying the forests, the soils and, most importantly, the climate.

According to data compiled by researchers at the Global Footprint Network in Oakland, our planet only has enough ecological capacity for each of us to consume 1.8 “global hectares” annually — a standardized unit that accounts for resource use, waste, pollution and emissions. Anything over this means a degree of resource consumption that the Earth cannot replenish, or waste that it cannot absorb; in other words, it locks us into a pathway of progressive degradation. The figure of 1.8 global hectares is roughly what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes.

By contrast, Europeans consume 4.7 global hectares per person, while in the US and Canada the average person consumes 8 — many times their fair share. To get a sense of how extreme this overconsumption is: if we were all to live like the average citizen of the average high-income country, we would require the ecological capacity equivalent to 3.4 Earths. Hickel elaborates:

Scientists tell us that even at existing levels of aggregate global consumption we are already overshooting our planet’s ecological capacity by about 60 percent each year. And all of this is just at our existing levels of aggregate economic activity — with the existing levels of consumption in rich and poor countries. If poor countries increase their consumption, which they will have to do to some extent in order to eradicate poverty, they will only tip us further towards disaster. Unless, that is, rich countries begin to consume less.

If we want to have a chance of keeping within the 2°C threshold — which the Paris Agreement on climate change sets as an absolute cap — we can emit no more than another 805 gigatons of CO2 at the global level. Now, let’s accept that poor countries will need to use a portion of this carbon budget in order to grow their incomes enough to eradicate poverty; after all, we know that for poor countries human development requires an increase in emissions, at least up to a relatively lowish point. This principle is already widely accepted in international agreements, which recognize that all countries have a “common but differentiated responsibility” to reduce emissions. Because poor countries did not contribute much to historical emissions, they have a right to use more of the carbon budget than rich countries do — at least enough to fulfill basic development goals (as I also argue in this article). This means that rich countries have to figure out how to make do with the remaining portion of the budget.

Professor Kevin Anderson, one of Britain’s leading climate scientists, has been devising potential scenarios for how to make this work. If we want to have a 50 percent chance of staying under 2°C, there’s basically only one feasible way to do it — assuming, of course, that negative emissions technologies is not a real option. In this scenario, poor countries can continue to grow their economies at the present rate until 2025, using up a disproportionate share of the global carbon budget. That’s not a very long time, so this strategy will only work to eradicate poverty if the gains from growth are distributed with a heavy bias towards the poor.

As Hickel writes: “The only way for rich countries to keep within what’s left of the carbon budget is to cut emissions aggressively, by about 10 percent per year. Efficiency improvements and clean energy technologies will contribute to reducing emissions by at most 4 percent per year, which gets them part of the way there. But to bridge the rest of the gap, rich countries are going to have to downscale production and consumption by around 6 percent each year. And poor countries are going to have to follow suit after 2025, downscaling economic activity by about 3 percent per year.” This strategy of downscaling the production and consumption of a country is called “degrowth.”

Hickel describes this visionary idea as follows: “All it means is easing the intensity of our economy, cutting the excesses of the very richest, sharing what we have instead of plundering the Earth for more, and liberating ourselves from the frenetic consumerism that we all know does nothing to improve our wellbeing or happiness.” And since the book first came out in 2017, Hickel has been developing an increasingly clearer position on how we can go about making such changes happen.

His thinking on degrowth was recently encapsulated in a captivating blog exchange he had with Branko Milanović, another global development expert. But Milanović still maintains that economic growth should be at the core of poverty relief. Paraphrasing a passage from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, we could summarize Milanović’s position as “economic growth is still necessary, and so it must be possible,” while Hickel argues that “economic growth is no longer possible, and so it cannot be necessary.” I side with the latter, simply because the laws of physics trump the laws of economics.

In light of this, perhaps we should regard countries like Costa Rica not as underdeveloped, but rather as appropriately developed. We should look at societies where people live long and happy lives at low levels of income and consumption not as backwaters that need to be developed according to Western models, but as exemplars of efficient living — and begin to call on rich countries to cut their excess consumption.

Riccardo Mastini

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD student in ecological economics and political ecology in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His academic research and writing focus on the concepts of degrowth and steady-state economy.

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