Biodiversity loss is driven by economic growth: Prof. Julia Steinberger

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Julia Steinberger: biodiversity loss and economic growth

Dave Darby talks with Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds and a member of the IPCC, about her work and the links between biodiversity loss and economic growth.

Today I’m talking with Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds and (tell me if this is right) a member of the intergovernmental panel on climate change – the IPCC.

Yes, I’m one of the lead authors – one of many. And I don’t speak on behalf of the IPCC because nobody does – the reports do.

And both your parents were Nobel laureates, is that right?

That’s news to me. One is – Jack Steinberger. My mom maybe should have been.

And you’ve got a PhD from MIT, and you work on things like the cosmic microwave background of the universe, and quantum electrodynamics.

Some of these things sound a lot more glamorous than they are.

That’s not what I want to talk about though – you’d lose me very quickly. What I want to talk about is your work on ecological economics – what’s happening to the global environment, the consequences of that for humans, and about GDP growth. I read some of your articles – especially liked the timeline one, which took us back to the climate in the Miocene. Also watched you on YouTube. Love what you’re saying. I especially liked a couple of things:

First, your recognition that all the lovely things that greenies would like to happen are going to face opposition, from very wealthy, powerful people who will lose some of their wealth and power if these things happen. I don’t know if you find this, but I find that a lot of people say ‘we should do this, or we should do that’, as though we only have to provide information, and when enough people get it, things will change – as if there aren’t very powerful people out there who are not going to let that happen. Why do you think that’s so difficult for a lot of greenies to see?

I think it’s a combination of two things. At the beginning of the environmental movement – say at the founding of the UN environmental programme, when people began to realise that climate change was happening, the environment was something that was taken seriously by politicians and to some extent business people. It wasn’t controversial. The Rio Earth Summit was a big deal. It was a huge gathering of heads of state. So at the beginning, it wouldn’t have been delusional to believe that everyone was going to take this seriously. Everyone was saying the right things, and to some extent doing the right things – passing legislation on water, on air, fixing the hole in the ozone layer. Those things happened. There was mobilisation for them, and politicians took them seriously and did them.

However, these things weren’t as hard to tackle in terms of what they do to the economy, as climate change. Climate change is a full-frontal challenge, and I don’t think it was taken seriously. So for a time it was ok to be apolitical, because things happened as regards environmental goals. But also, in terms of not being able to see the political nature of what we’re up against, sustainable development was presented as apolitical – there was a ‘have your cake and eat it’ framing of the problem. That was compelling to everybody, because in some ways, nobody wants a fight.

So the idea was that if we use the term ‘sustainable development’ and talk about ‘green growth’, ‘decoupling’ etc. then we won’t have a fight. We’re not in a strong position as environmentalists. Let’s not go out and seek that fight. We might not win. Let’s just be nice to everyone. I think that framing, in hindsight, was kinda disastrous.

That brings me to the second thing I liked about what you said – that change-oriented people (I don’t like to say left or right) are not saying enough about GDP growth. So you’ve looked into climate change a lot, obviously, and my question is – can there be a solution to climate change with a perpetually growing global economy?


So many people just can’t see that though.

At the beginning of my career, I was looking for the ‘green growth’ solution. I became convinced that it just couldn’t happen out there in reality. So I stopped looking for it. That’s been happening more and more, for lots of people, so now we’re not just seeing studies, we’re seeing comprehensive, exhaustive meta-studies that say ‘no way – we really need to be thinking about this very differently. Those were nails in the green growth coffin for me. And it’s not just climate change research. There’s also a lot of research on biodiversity loss and its links to economic growth. If we want to take biodiversity loss seriously, we have to accept that it’s driven by economic growth. So many excellent studies have come out on this that I can now feel confident to say ‘no’.

Are you optimistic that it might nudge towards the mainstream at some point? You know that ‘sustainable economic growth’ is one of the UN sustainable development goals? (No. 8)

I don’t think we’re going to be fast enough. I’m not optimistic. I don’t talk about ‘hope’ or things like that. That’s not my personality, and it’s not my job. But we’re getting closer to understanding that economic growth and environmental sustainability are completely different things, and we’re getting better at explaining why economic growth is not the same as ‘good things’, and in fact has a lot of bad things associated with it.

Thomas Picketty, the most eminent economist of our generation, has also shown that economic growth is accompanied by widening inequality. Growth goes to the wealthiest classes and comes from the impoverished classes, who don’t have assets any more. So now the poorest in society have net negative wealth, because the system runs on debt now. So we’re learning to tell the story of how growth is economically, socially and environmentally disastrous, but we’re possibly not telling it fast enough.

What term do you favour – steady-state, degrowth, post-growth – and why?

I’m quite opportunistic, so I’d probably be happy with any of those terms. I’m happy with degrowth or post-growth. Steady-state I think is not possible right now, because we’re headed for a period of instability. I think we can look to a steady-state economy in the future, but right now I think we’re looking at a very strong period of degrowth, certainly on the physical resource side, if we want to have a chance at maintaining stable climatic conditions that allow us to have things like agriculture.

Degrowth is a harder sell, isn’t it? It makes people think they have to give things up – which they probably do.

Economic growth is this hegemonic concept that sits in the middle of our society. And yes, a lot of people say ‘I don’t like degrowth, because it’s negative’ – but everything else is co-opted by growth. It’s our secular deity. It’s dominant, and it will swallow everything else. So ‘sustainable growth’, ‘green growth’, ‘equitable growth’, ‘inclusive growth’, everything becomes part of growth. So if you’re going up against the hegemon, you have to fly that flag. So that’s one of the reasons I’m happy with degrowth. It makes people think. The first couple of times they hear it, they maybe don’t like it, then they wonder why anyone would want it, then they think about it some more, and maybe read about it, and then many people come to terms with it. I’ve seen this happen very rapidly.

I guess we’re only talking about a small percentage of people? I don’t think the mainstream are going to come to terms with any of those phrases really – or even confront them.

Maybe – but I’m very hopeful. I see these popular movements that involve a lot of people – including the student strikes. Greta Thunberg gave an anti-growth speech at the UN. I’m not saying everyone is going to embrace degrowth, just that there are more and more people pushing the conversation.

Ecological economics – forgive my ignorance – is it a specific discipline? Can you get a degree in ecological economics?

If you go to the University of Leeds, which I’m sadly leaving, you can get a masters in ecological economics.

Do all ecological economists see the absurdity of perpetual growth?

There are some people who think that some parts of the economy could still grow, but most don’t associate growth with progress and would definitely agree that at least some parts of the economy need to degrow. And interestingly, that’s a mainstream position now. There was a statement by mainstream economists that we have to degrow parts of the economy.

I don’t think the New Economics Foundation have come out against it – it’s more like ‘GDP growth isn’t everything’ – the same with Kate Raworth and ‘Doughnut Economics’.

It’s about turning away from growth as a metric of social progress. And I think these intermediates are very important. I’m very much in favour of there being a spectrum of debate, because it allows that debate to happen across a wider fraction of the population. So pragmatically, I admire Kate Raworth’s work, and the work of the New Economics Foundation. And the fact that they’re taking the middle ground and saying that some parts of the economy need to degrow. Talking about a Green New Deal, they’re saying that some sectors, specifically fossil fuels and adjacent industries need to degrow to nothing.

How can we best explain it to people – because it’s still a minority position? And I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t get it. And it’s on Radio 4 all the time – how are we going to get back to growth? How do we get through?

Well I’ve never been asked onto Radio 4. I think the pro-growth position is very strong. But the fraction of people who understand differently has grown by leaps and bounds, and I would say now includes large chunks of mainstream economists. Certainly in the academic sphere, I think the sentiment that we need a fundamentally different economy is growing rapidly. Just in the last year, people have been coming out and talking about it in ways I haven’t seen before. It’s been much bolder and uncompromising.

Covid has shown this too. When we’re facing a big problem, and we need to save lives, then we do stuff differently. And climate is a lot worse than Coronavirus. Not right now, but it will be soon enough. But we can stop the worst incarnations of it.

I often hear that growth can be dematerialised. It drives me insane. Growth means more spending power. if there’s not increased spending power, there hasn’t been GDP growth. And if you have a growth in spending power, there’s no way to ring-fence it so that it’s not spent on material things. It can’t be dematerialised.

So recent studies have looked at everything from emissions and resource use – materials and energy. Dematerialisation is not happening.

Here’s another big question: can we take the growth out of capitalism, or will it require a new system?

The reason we have growth is capitalism. It’s a system based on competition. Firms don’t have a choice – they’re competing in the market, and they have a motive of profit accumulation. The only way firms survive in that context is by growth. Lack of growth in capitalism is a crisis. So it’s not possible to take the growth out of capitalism, because we have the growth problem because we have a capitalist system that can’t cope otherwise.

The craziest thing for me as a physicist is talking to mainstream economists and saying ‘OK, where are your alternative models, of what a macroeconomy would look like, that doesn’t need to grow?’ – and they’ll look at you as if you’ve just sprouted five heads. It’s incredible. Economists haven’t even bothered to model a non-growing economy. It’s a religion, not a science. There’s a fixation on what the system should be, and a refusal to consider alternatives, because when you drill down, you see that capitalism does not have other options. So degrowth – fine, but it does mean getting rid of capitalism.

Firms have to advertise to gain customers, but advertising also has the effect of increasing consumption overall.

Do you know Schnaiberg and Gould – The Treadmill of Production? They were American Economists who said that we have this idealised version that says that the consumer demands stuff, and production is to meet consumer demand, but if you look at what the economy is really doing, producers overproduce and so they need to create demand, and that’s what they’re doing with advertising. Plus in one study I was involved with, we looked at automobile dependence – the car as the central product of our era. And you see all these different ways that the product is not the car – the product is car dependence. It’s about creating that demand, and removing other options.

Yeah – nobody ever woke up and thought ‘I want a razor with 5 blades’ or ‘I want bluey whiteness in my sheets’. It was generated by the advertising industry. But countries are in global competition to attract capital, which they’re not going to do with a stable or shrinking GDP, so they have to go all out for economic growth.

The word ‘countries’ is doing a lot of work in that statement. It’s true, what you said, but we have to consider who, within countries, is doing this. So we see a lot of inequality between countries, but we also see a lot of inequality within countries. So when we say that countries need to attract capital, we’re talking about a fairly small population within each country, which actually benefits from that capital and the financial entanglements it brings, whereas the rest of the population suffers under structural adjustment programmes, increased prices for food, energy, school fees etc. So you have this impoverishment that goes with global capitalism having access to a domestic market.

A paper has just come out that shows how the World Bank and the IMF have been transformed away from their original purpose towards opening up foreign markets for capital. It was a deliberate shift, driven by big financial firms in the US.

I heard another argument recently that I’d never really thought of before: that technical innovations mean that labour productivity constantly rises, which means that the economy has to grow to maintain employment levels.

Tim Jackson makes that point really well in Prosperity Without Growth. David Harvey is another author who talks about it. So technological innovation is not neutral. The tech that’s adopted is the tech that allows more profits to be made, via labour productivity.

So we need a new system? How do we actually say that? If you say you want to replace capitalism, some people will immediately think you’re some kind of Stalinist.

They do, don’t they? Within ecological economics, I once gave a talk about inequality and capitalism, and someone said ‘the Soviet Union was a failure’. So that idea is there very strongly. I think one of the ways is to confront it directly by showing our opposition to Soviet Russia, and China right now – complete horror shows, economically, socially, environmentally, and in terms of democracy. So we have to talk about these things openly, and I think one of the most important concepts to get across is economic democracy, and that alternatives to capitalism don’t have to be about state-imposed central planning, with a few people making all the decisions. It’s about bringing the economy into the civic sphere.

This is something NEF talk about as well – universal basic services, like water, transport, food, energy, housing – these are things we can own and deliver, democratically, at the community level. There’s a whole bunch of wonderful ideas, that exist in practice, and are very successful, that have this economic democracy element to them. So we need to move towards that model. And the funny thing is that that the same people who say they don’t want to be part of something like the Soviet Union, are happy to join a credit union or a housing association or a housing co-operative, because the rent’s cheaper. Or they might have a veg box delivered.

I was involved in a public debate about capitalism, organised by our local Transition group. They asked me to give the anti-capitalist position. As the debate went on, it turned out that my pro-capitalist opponent was a member of a community energy scheme and a community-supported agriculture scheme. I asked if he thought those things were part of capitalism and he said yes. I asked if he thought capitalism was a free market and he said yes. I said that if he was in favour of community energy and community-supported agriculture, then we should stop arguing. That’s not capitalism for me, but if it is for you, let’s not worry about labels. But for me it’s not capitalism.

Absolutely not. Capitalism is about profit accumulation to a few actors, and all of these community schemes have the idea of re-investment. And that’s what we need now. In terms of telling people that we need to transform the economic system completely, that’s something the IPCC is shouting from the rooftops. But in terms of convincing people that it’s something desirable for them, I think we need to be making those links with the ‘good stuff’ like community energy schemes, housing coops. But they have to become mainstream, so we have to shut down the alternatives. I think that’s something people have a harder time wrapping their heads around. Everybody likes to see good alternatives, but the hard part is closing down the big examples of ‘badness’. This prevents the alternatives from becoming the norm.

Part 2 here.


  1. So the idea was that if we use the term ‘sustainable development’ and talk about ‘green growth’, ‘decoupling’ etc. then we won’t have a fight. We’re not in a strong position as environmentalists. Let’s not go out and seek that fight. We might not win. Let’s just be nice to everyone. I think that framing, in hindsight, was kinda disastrous.
  2. If we want to take biodiversity loss seriously, we have to accept that it’s driven by economic growth.
  3. So we’re learning to tell the story of how growth is economically, socially and environmentally disastrous, but we’re not telling it fast enough.