BY TOM CHIVERS
Two things. First, economic growth saves children’s lives. That is one of the most basic, starkest facts about the modern world.
Second, there is a thing called the “degrowth movement”, which wants to stop economic growth. And, yes, this would lead almost inevitably to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of children a day.
Let’s deal with that first point first. For most of history, somewhere around a third of children died before their fifth birthday. That awful number has dropped enormously, but even now, it’s nearly one child in 25.
And on that second point: some people really think that that economic growth should stop, right now. Jason Hickel is an anthropologist and one of the key voices in what is known as the “degrowth” movement. He argues that — in rich countries, at least1 — we ought to stop aiming for economic growth immediately. He thinks that “green” growth, the idea that we can grow our economies while reducing carbon emissions, is a chimera, or at least that it cannot happen fast enough to avoid disastrous outcomes from climate change.
Hickel, of course, denies that economic growth saves lives. In fact, he doubly denies it. First, he denies that global poverty has gone down as a result of economic growth. In 2019, he argued that all those famous charts showing a huge decline in global poverty are false, because they focus on very extreme poverty — people living on the equivalent of $1.90 a day or less. If you look at some more reasonable threshold of “poverty”, he says, such as $15 a day, the decline disappears.
This is straightforwardly untrue, for the record. Whatever threshold you use, people are getting richer. People have generally shifted from lower incomes to higher incomes, and as a result fewer children are dying.
And secondly, Hickel denies that economic growth does save children’s lives: or, rather, that it does beyond a certain, quite low level. “Past a certain point, the relationship between GDP and social outcomes breaks down or becomes irrelevant,” he says. “After that, what matters is distribution and access to public services.”
But this doesn’t seem to be true either. If it were, you’d see that very poor countries have consistently high child mortality, but that as you reach the middle-income and rich countries, it would be much more mixed. But in fact there’s still a strong relationship, and middle-income countries like China and Brazil have much higher infant mortality than rich countries like the UK and Japan. If you live in Brazil, there’s about a one in 60 chance that your child will die before its fifth birthday. In China, one in 100. In the UK, it’s way down at one in 250-ish.
You could look at the reduction in child mortality over time, as the world has become richer, as one of the great success stories of our time. In a way you’d be right to do so, but it is a hugely unfinished story. Children are still dying at an awful, unacceptable rate of about 14,000 a day — Max Roser of Our World In Data describes it as “equivalent to a crash of a jumbo jet with only children on board, every hour of every day of the year”.
Nonetheless, it is true that economic growth appears to have saved millions of children’s lives. That 14,000 a day would be something more like 100,000 a day, if children were dying at the rate they used to.
Also note that “economic growth” doesn’t necessarily mean “free-market capitalism”. As Noah Smith points out, a lot of the reduction in global poverty has been about smart government action (especially in Latin America), or China’s complicated industrial and economic reform, not simply free-market policies – although at the very least it’s fair to say that global capitalism hasn’t got in the way.
But this broadly positive story is a closed book to Hickel and the degrowth movement. It’s instinctively difficult to understand why anyone would want to deny it, but I have two theories.
One is that it’s very hard to acknowledge that things can get better without being good. It’s a common problem. It is, for instance, almost certainly true that the UK is much less racist and sexist than it used to be. But it’s also clearly true that there are real problems that continue to exist. It is extremely hard to say “the UK has become better with regards to racism and sexism” without people hearing “the UK is not racist or sexist”.
If you’re Jason Hickel, you might see people arguing that poverty has decreased, and assume that they mean “and therefore global poverty is no longer a problem”. That is, of course, absolutely not the case.
The second hypothesis is a more complicated one — and has to do with something called “prevalence-induced concept change”. Imagine that you have dedicated your life to some problem: say, reducing littering in a local park. You work really hard. You set up a charity and solicit donations; you put together a workforce. And, bit by bit, you successfully reduce the problem. The park becomes a bit less litter-filled. What do you do? Do you say to your charity’s staff, “The park is doing a bit better now, we probably don’t need so many of you. And we should probably reduce our demands for donations, as well”?
Human nature being what it is, probably not. More likely (and as happens in laboratory settings), you will simply start focusing on smaller and smaller things. Before, you had shopping trolleys in the pond and a dead sheep in the playground, and you focused on them. But now that they’ve gone, your attention will focus on the crisp packets and fag butts. Partly that’s because you now have the attention to spare, because the bigger problems have been solved; but it’s also partly because, if you start saying “actually the situation is a bit better now”, it will be harder to rally support for your cause.
I think this is a really important driver of human behaviour. It is very hard to ever admit things are getting better along any axis, because if you do, it feels like you’re saying: “So you can stop working hard to fix this problem.”
Similarly, if you’re Jason Hickel and you’ve dedicated your life to fighting global poverty (and to saying that global poverty is all because of capitalism and colonialism and that economic growth is bad), then it will be really inconvenient if someone says: “Actually, global poverty has decreased significantly, that reduction seems to be correlated with economic growth, and it has had amazing positive outcomes such as a huge reduction in child mortality.” It will be very tempting to find ways of ignoring that reality.
I worry, though, that it is counterproductive to tell people that all their hard work improving some situation has had no effect. If all those decades of buying low-energy lightbulbs and reducing flights and eating less meat have not improved the climate, then why shouldn’t I just stop bothering? If all those anti-racism campaigns and hate-speech laws and so on made no difference, what’s the point? And in the case of poverty, if economic growth doesn’t reduce global poverty, then it does indeed make sense to give up on growth altogether. But in reality, economic growth does reduce global poverty, and reduced poverty saves children’s lives.
But the degrowth movement is right, in one sense. Growth almost certainly can’t carry on forever. If the economy grows at 2% a year every year, which it roughly has for the last century or so, then it doubles in size every 35 years.
That’s not sustainable in the long term. In 8,250 years — as Holden Karnofsky of the Open Philanthropy Project points out — the economy would have grown to 3*1070 (that is, a 3 followed by 70 zeroes) times its current size. There are, for context, about one-third that many atoms in our galaxy. And 8,250 years isn’t very long: there are cities which have been around for longer.
Perhaps growth will continue into the far future. I could imagine some weird universe of simulated worlds and uploaded humans — and indeed others have. But probably, the more likely outcome is that growth slows or stops or reverses in the next few centuries.
The question, of course, is when it should stop. I, for one, would rather wait until the children stop dying so much. Hickel and the degrowth movement think it should be sooner. But if they want to make that case honestly, they should admit the reality of all the dead children.
- It’s worth noting that Hickel doesn’t think we should stop aiming for growth everywhere: just in rich countries. But rich countries that buy much of the goods produced in poor countries, driving their growth, so that would be a very difficult needle to thread.