A room full of elephants? Population, consumption and sustainability

Shopping street.

The SDGs are are a good example of our inability or unwillingness to deal with consumption, writes the author. Photo: Arthur Kraft/Unsplash

Consumption, not population, is the elephant in the room of the sustainable development agenda.

The population question seems to be experiencing yet another resurgence in discussions on climate change and sustainable development. This is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is the extent to which population is presented as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘taboo’ topic, or as an ‘elephant in the room’ (just google population in combination with any of the terms).

Population has always been part of sustainability agendas and still is. As David Johnson from the Margaret Pyke Trust puts it in a recent blogpost, ‘the elephant left the room quite some time ago’. Furthermore, I would add, while addressing population growth is obviously important, and while we should continue placing reproductive rights at the core of development efforts, population growth is not our main sustainability challenge.

If we are to make development sustainable, we should rather be dealing with questions of distribution of resources and with the consumption patterns of the rich.

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Secular Stagnation: Short-term Fixes for Long-term Problems

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The concept of secular stagnation, first propounded by Alvin Hansen in the 1930s, has enjoyed an academic – and mainstream – resurrection thanks to Lawrence Summers (2014, 2016), who first advanced the theory as an explanation for the subdued recovery and anaemic growth prospects of advanced economies. A surprising criticism recently came from Joseph Stiglitz (August, 2018), who believes that the theory offers a convenient escape away from assuming responsibility for failed policy during the crisis.  An acrimonious debate between Summers and Stiglitz followed.  

On the face of it, Summers – and Gauti Eggertson – are right: the modern theory of secular stagnation does see a central and substantial role for fiscal policy. The problem, however, lies in the fact that a short-term fix for aggregate demand shortfalls – fiscal policy – is being advanced as a long-term solution of the problem of reduced growth prospects. The central question of what drives investment in a capitalist economy is not addressed.Read More »

Consuming development: Capitalism, economic growth and everyday life

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With the consumption patterns in rich countries being more unsustainable than ever and the consumption of the ‘emerging middle classes’ increasing rapidly, it is about time ‘consumption and development’ becomes a field of study. Such a field would necessarily be interdisciplinary and combine analyses of everyday life and the structures of capitalist development. A useful starting point could be found at the intersection of theories of practice and systems of provision.Read More »