What a de-growth paradigm could mean for EIA

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is often associated with sustainable development, a phrase that gained mainstream popularity after the World Commission on Environment and Development’s Brundtland report in 1987 [1]. Hearing the words ‘sustainable development’ often conjure up images of a greener, healthier planet: unfortunately this has not been the case. These two words are fundamentally opposing, and have thus far perpetuated over two decades of unsustainable neoliberal industries of energy (ie: oil and natural gas), agriculture, and manufacturing. There is a growing movement of ecologists who agree that the current paradigm is inherently flawed, and that so-called sustainable development will inevitably lead to economic and societal collapse [2,3,4]. These scholars have been promoting a de-growth economy as an alternative to the market economy. The following video serves as a short introduction to what is meant by the concept of de-growth.

CRC De-growth Video Series: ‘De-Growth: A Critical Juncture?’

As the video suggests, de-growth is not merely a shift in economy, but a paradigm shift in societal values. If this paradigm shift is indeed the direction society is headed in, what will this mean for our current EIA system? As it now stands, EIA often pushes the neoliberal agenda of development, therefore will a shift away from this mean the end of EIA? I believe the contrary to be true: an important opportunity will exist for EIA to adopt the principles of de-growth and become a real tool for sustainability. As words like sustainable development and de-growth are in danger of becoming just that, EIA has the unique quality of being a process and a tool that can give a tangible result if used correctly.

In order for EIA to become a driver of de-growth, it will certainly need to change. As there is no existing literature linking EIA with de-growth, painting a picture of what this might look like is difficult. The most likely outcome would be shifting away from project based assessment towards regional or strategic impact assessments (SIA). In this way, impact assessment can be used to create regional estimates of various “ecosystem services” such as water filtration or carbon uptake [5]. Impact assessment would then be a driver of a new kind of economy, one focused on the potential capital of ecosystem services as resources often taken for granted (such as water) become more valued. In this way it would shift toward a cost-benefit analysis as well as impact identification [6].

If the idea of de-growth seems completely inconceivable, one can look to the 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index, which measures prosperity not only by GDP but also by other variables such as education and personal freedom [7].

2012 Legatum Prosperity Index: An Introduction

If we change the way in which we denote value via environmental assessment, we will be contributing to this growing movement which seeks to create a healthier global society that measures wealth by more than consumption of resources and accumulation of material goods.  As the literature about the failing international policies on environment and economics exemplify the need for this paradigm shift, EIA practitioners have the opportunity to be pioneers in bringing the de-growth movement beyond paper and into reality [8].


[1] Brundtland, G. H. 1987. World commission on environment and development. Our common  future, 8-9.

[2] Martínez-Alier, J., Pascual, U., Vivien, F. D., & Zaccai, E. 2010. Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future prospects of an emergent paradigm.   Ecological Economics, 69(9), 1741-1747.

[3] Turner, G.M. 2012. On the cusp of global collapse? Updated comparison of ? the Limits to Growth with historical data. GAIA 21(2), 116-124.

[4] Daly, H. E. 1994. For the common good: redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future (No. 73). Beacon Press.

[5] Van Wilgen, B. W., Cowling, R. M., & Burgers, C. J. (1996). Valuation of ecosystem services. BioScience, 46(3), 184-189.

[6] Sperling et al, 2012. Facilitating Green Growth in Africa: Perspectives from the African Development Bank.

[7] The Legatum Institute. 2012. The 2012 legatum prosperity index: A unique global inquiry into health and wellbeing. http://www.prosperity.com/. Accessed 20 January 2013

[8] Schneider, F., Kallis, G., & Martinez-Alier, J. 2010. Crisis or opportunity? Economic de-growth  for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue. Journal  of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 511-518.


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