During the Lux Debate in early May, two teams debated the statement “Sustainability is the enemy of growth.” While the terms “sustainability” and “growth” each leave room for interpretation, both teams assumed the UN’s definition of sustainability as “preserving options and meeting the needs of the present without sacrificing the needs of the future.” The definition of growth, however, was not commonly agreed upon.
This point is worth reflecting on further, as the question, “What is growth?” and “What is good growth” remain hotly debated and frame the context around which policy and business decisions are made.
The red team, the team in agreement with “Sustainability is the enemy of growth,” argued growth strictly means “the pursuit of financial gains.” For businesses, this is reflected by growth in annual profits. For nations, this is reflected by growth in gross domestic product (GDP). The red team pointed to financial excess, which symbolizes status, achievements, or the “trophies” that humankind have always flaunted. The red team further stated that we as a global society must move away from the system of financial growth that does not pay any consideration to future generations.
The green team, which rejects the statement, “Sustainability is the enemy of growth” does not refute the other team’s definition of financial gains as a basis of growth but rejects the idea of short-term growth. Rather, the green teams highlighted the need for long-term or sustained growth by restricting resource consumption as a means for survival and wellbeing. In other words, these growth metrics can be boiled down to resource availability, resource consumption, and quality of life. Throughout the debate, the green team used the words “well-being” and “humankind,” which countered the red team’s laser focus on financial gains and trophies as a result of human nature. The green team compared today’s global climate crisis to the collapse of Easter Island societies in the 17th century, which was brought on by excessive extractive “growth” practices without understanding implications. The green team further stated that, “humankind is confronted with its own diverse set of self-induced extreme scenarios that are challenging our ability to grow and thrive.”
Throughout the Lux Debate, there was no true agreement on the definition of growth. Both sides agreed that if there are no changes to the global system, there is no growth to be had, regardless of the debated definition of growth. Instead, in any future “business-as-usual” scenario, it was agreed that there would be enormous risks to any of these metrics of “growth” if nothing were done.
In the end, the green team walked away as the victor of the debate with their stance, “Sustainability is NOT the enemy of growth” and rightfully so. Systematic change through climate mitigation and adaptation is critical for the survival of communities and even the growth of GDP; some, like the International Panel on Climate Change, have predicted severe consequences to the global economy in the long term if inaction persists. This ties into the green team’s argument during the debate of the “hidden costs of inaction” and unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, which currently are not baked into short-sighted GDP calculations. Continuing unrestricted growth will undeniably result in consequences from climate change for which society is ill prepared, like huge financial costs to businesses or the cost of human lives, quality of life, or life expectancy. Similar to the green team’s analogy to Easter Island, the globe is at a point of unchecked resource consumption and unrestricted “growth,” where the rate of growth may be a more interesting metric to examine.
One point that is worth unpacking is the idea of degrowth or the rate of growth. The idea of degrowth requires shifting to long-term, slow growth rather than short-term, rapid growth to which our system and economy have become accustomed as the red team has mentioned. This idea of degrowth, whether it manifests as financial gains or population size, is not intended to cut growth but to slow growth and limit consumption of resources and population gains to a more sustainable level. In simpler terms, changing the slope of growth is the key to sustainability. Slowing growth will require shifting societal values, from short-term profit gains to prioritization of the environment, resources, and humanity’s long-term survival.
So, what lessons should innovators take from this debate? They should recognize the need to both pursue and assess innovations not just based on financial metrics but also on how they contribute to overall well being in the long term. This will require developing new metrics, new processes, new types of collaboration, and new capabilities for their teams — but these changes will be the surest way to ensure innovators are contributing to growth that’s truly sustainable for current and future generations.