For this reason, degrowth offers no guarantee that environmental impacts will decline. This is all the more so as calls for degrowth are frequently coupled with demands for a return to simpler, less technological, and non-synthetic systems for the provision of food and energy and for production of material goods and services. Less affluent economies more dependent upon production systems that use less technology would substantially increase the resource demands associated with consumption, and would erode or even entirely offset the benefits of lower levels of consumption.
Indeed, all over the world, poor populations dependent on low-productivity technologies often require surprisingly large per capita resource footprints to sustain their meager consumption. One 2012 study in PNAS, for instance, found that the average West African requires the same amount of land as the average Northern European to support a diet that is much poorer calorically and offers much less dietary protein.
By contrast, over the last two centuries, a virtuous cycle of rising energy and resource productivity has allowed for unprecedented levels of human wellbeing. With that has come a growing population — not because people are having more children but because life expectancies are much higher. Greater prosperity has brought rising material consumption — not mainly because of conspicuous consumption in the wealthiest societies, but rather the agrarian, energy, and demographic transitions that have allowed much of the global population to escape rural poverty and achieve something approaching modern living standards.
Growing demand for material goods and services by a growing and increasingly affluent global population has increased the pressure on natural resources. But it has also led to innovation that has raised resource productivity. In this way, rising resource productivity has allowed for both continuing economic growth and the increasing environmental efficiency of the global economy.
Reversing those dynamics will not necessarily result in lower resource usage, or lower environmental impacts. Lowering demand for resources could as easily result in less-productive resource use as in reduced pressure on resources. The combination of large post-growth human populations, economic stagnation, and increasingly abundant natural resources might drive human societies toward less-productive technological systems. The end of growth, in this way, may do more harm to the planet than good.