IT’S hard to find anything significant that Rishi Sunak has said in the past week of Cop27, his only quotable line on the issue being that the fight against climate change can become “a global mission for new jobs and clean growth”.

Growth is a repeated mantra in the UK today. We’ve swapped one prime minister, Liz Truss, whose vocabulary seemed to be entirely centred on the word, for another who speaks of growth (whilst being attacked for spending cuts and high taxes that are deemed anti-growth). Those policies aside, Sunak is clearly on team growth, and part of a world where the market decides and GDP is thee measure of all things.

And why, many would think, would he not be? To question growth, surely, is, particularly in a week when it has been reported that Scotland’s economic downturn is deepening, to expose yourself as out of touch. After all, the argument goes, the world is so vastly unequal that the poor parts of it at least are going to have to continue to grow their GDP . And given that, halting growth could only mean people like us having a lot less. But we who have grown up in global capitalism are surely never going to get on board for that.

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But in this past week of Cop27, I’ve become snagged on the issue of limits to growth. Our hopes ride on renewable technology being able to sort the climate crisis out. But is that going to be enough? When scaled up, will renewables and electric vehicles bring their own pollution and resource problems? The renewables fanfare is often co-opted into a story about how we’ll all be able to carry on as usual, growing GDP alongside enthusiastic green consumerism. Continuous growth can still be ours.

But can it? And isn’t the real lack of realism attached to not taking the limits to growth seriously? One enlightening examination of what continuous growth would mean is by the post carbon expert Richard Heinberg, On the Common Dreams website he describes what the 2-3 percent growth viewed as “healthy and normal” means in terms of resource use and waste production, observing that what it results in is a “doubling time of roughly 25 years”. In other words, in the last 25 years we have doubled our resource use and waste production. If 2-3 percent growth were to persist, he says, till 2222 we would be using 250 times the amount of physical resources we do now, and generating about 250 times as much waste. In the coming years, less of that waste might be greenhouse gas emissions, but we would still be producing some kind of troublesome waste – and, as many have pointed out, using up rare earth elements in batteries.

Nor, says Heinberg, is the economist argument that growth can eventually be decoupled from greater usage of resources by the switching of consumerism to intangible goods convincing. “So far,” he writes, “the evidence shows that decoupling hasn’t occurred in the past and is unlikely to happen in the future. Even cryptocurrencies, seemingly the most ephemeral of goods, turn out to have a huge material footprint.”

The idea that there are any limits to growth at all has since the publication of the seminal 1972 paper, The Limits to Growth, frequently been dismissed.

However, a report published last year by Gaya Herrington, a director at KPMG, looked at research into how we were progressing relative to the original 1972 work and found that, in a business as usual scenario, we were following a track that would lead to stalling of growth and population collapse.

But Herrington also looked at other scenarios and found that the only model resulting in the kind of future for humans of the planet any of us might hope for was one which involved not just technology, but also societal change – what Herrington describes as “deliberate trajectory change brought about by society turning toward another goal than growth”.

Herrington, interestingly, likes the term agrowth – the idea that we should be neutral about growth. But there are other ways of reframing growth. Campaigner, Dr R. Eric Swanepoel, talks of “real growth”, not degrowth, in which we create ““a world in which people have more of what matters: more time with their friends and family, healthier and more sustainable food, better green spaces, cleaner air and water, more security in general (which means tackling the climate meltdown and the loss of biodiversity)”.

The idea that GDP is inadequate is also out there in mainstream politics. In Scotland we now monitor indicators of wellbeing and Nicola Sturgeon dedicated a TED talk to the wellbeing economy. But wellbeing remains overshadowed by GDP. That needs to change.

As Iain Black, Professor of Sustainable Consumption, University of Strathclyde, told me, “Systems theorists show that to change a system you need to change its goal. If Nicola Sturgeon promoted wellbeing to replace GDP growth as our new goal – not as well as – she would be acting as a powerful leverage point that is capable of systemically driving change.”

It’s easy to mock those who question GDP and growth. But, looked at through the prism of resource and pollution, it’s the growth fanatic who starts to look out of touch. The warning signs are there.We need to search harder for new answers about how we can thrive in a finite world.