Degrowth: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Amidst the devastation of the world’s ecosystems and the unprecedented rise in economic inequalities, should we reconsider our concepts of growth and development? Absolutely! It’s time to prioritize both people and the planet. It’s time for degrowth.

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It has been more than half a century since the first Earth Day was celebrated.  In this time, there has been a proliferation of environmental legislation, a globalization of the environmental movement and a critique and broadening of the manner in which “environmentalism” has been defined, among other positive indicators of change. How are we doing then?

By virtually every possible metric of environmental and social wellbeing, there is evidence that we are failing.  At the dawn of the 20th century, the mass of all human-produced materials on earth amounted to around 3% of the world’s total biomass. Today, the mass of human-made materials — plastics, concrete, steel, nylon and more — exceeds that of the world’s biomass: all the world’s trees, mammals, fish, insects, microbes and planktons combined. This nearly incomprehensible reversal is the result of a dramatic increase in material production and economic expansion that has devastated the world’s ecosystems, warmed its oceans and set its forests and prairielands ablaze.

While living standards have risen for some, economic inequalities have never been higher, and hundreds of millions live in desperate poverty, climatic vulnerability and food insecurity. In a world predicated on infinite economic expansion and material throughput, the promise that such growth can deliver material comfort for all looks to have been broken.

Moving Away from Growth

Those who engage with the tenets of what is known as “degrowth” or “postgrowth” would argue that there is a very basic reason for our inability to tackle environmental degradation and environmental injustices.  That reason is the following:  the dominant ways of “solving” environmental (and, indeed, social) problems all contain the Achilles heel of growth.

How is it that so many can have so little in a world of material abundance? Why is it that economic growth has so far failed to deliver on its promise of material comfort and the good life for all? Why is it that growth has become the fundamental organizing principle for both economies and societies? And what can be done about it?

“Degrowth is both a critique of existing growth-based paradigms of economic development and a vision of a brighter future in which human and non-human life alike can flourish.”

Degrowth is both a critique of existing growth-based paradigms of economic development and a vision of a brighter future in which human and non-human life alike can flourish. It proposes that growth-seeking economic development and high-consumption lifestyles should give way to an economy organized around meeting the immediate material needs of people and the planet.

This entails a move away from growth in at least four senses.

First, a planned reduction in material throughputs through the more efficient use of the earth’s resources and reductions in personal consumption of wasteful products. Planned obsolescence and fast fashion, for example, are hugely wasteful of the earth’s resource sources and sinks.

Second, reductions in energy throughputs. During the transition to a decarbonized energy system, this will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing energy consumption for high consumers and granting sufficient access to energy for those without will ensure that everyone can enjoy a good quality of life without stressing ecological systems or surpassing ecological thresholds.

Third, a move away from measuring social development by gross domestic product (GDP). When a person falls ill, for example, the goods and services purchased to treat them contribute to GDP. However, we would surely prefer if society were organized so people didn’t get ill from needless diseases to begin with. And yet, unfortunately, the pursuit of GDP means that many lifesaving and illness-preventing medications aren’t researched or brought to market because the margins are too low.

Fourth, we must sever the ideological link between the word “growth” and the idea of progress. More does not always mean better, and yet we are repeatedly told today that to solve the world’s problems we must have “growth”. If a country’s education, health and social care systems are in decline, we are told it is because of reduced economic growth. If wages are declining in real terms, as they are across the so-called “developed” world, then economists and politicians tell us this too is because of a lack of growth. And last but not least, we are told that the important task of decarbonizing the global economy depends on renewable energy and industrial throughputs becoming cheap enough to galvanize a new era of capitalist expansion or “green growth”. For every problem, the same solution. It is enough to make one suspicious.

Time to Place the Planet First

“This Earth Day, perhaps it’s time we broke up with growth and embraced a future, where everyone and everything the world over can flourish.”

For some, the name “degrowth” will sound unappealing. It suggests a politics of less, of making do without, of sacrifice. This, degrowthers argue, is because we have wrongly come to associate individual material consumption and wasteful use of socio-ecological capacities with progress. Degrowth proposes that rather than measuring social and ecological betterment through quantitative metrics like GDP, it should instead be measured through qualitative improvements to human and non-human life, which can only be secured by rejecting the growth-based paradigm: reduced working weeks, technology transfers to assist a global green transition, climate reparations, planned economic development and public ownership of the means of production, transportation and utilities.

These are ideas whose time has come. Degrowth has captured the imaginations of social movements, academics and journalists. Degrowth was considered in the IPCC’s AR6 WGIII report, where it was used to question the association of social and ecological well-being with endless material and energetic throughputs and GDP. This Earth Day, perhaps it’s time we broke up with growth and embraced a future, where everyone and everything the world over can flourish. Whether this is called degrowth or something else, the world can sorely afford another half-century of the social and ecological devastation wrought by placing capital accumulation before people and planet.

[Title image by Velishchuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Kai Heron

Kai Heron is a lecturer in political ecology at Lancaster University. He has research interests in the politics of land, agriculture, green transitions, and contemporary political theory. He is a founding member of Abundance, a participatory action cooperative that seeks to democratize the economy by expanding the commons.

Lauren Eastwood

Lauren Eastwood is a senior researcher at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, where she leads the policy field of Global Governance of Climate Change and Sustainability. She is also Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. She has gathered ethnographic data over 25 years at more than 50 UN meetings in order to analyze the making of policy pertaining to climate, biological diversity, forests, and Indigenous peoples. She also engages in research on the increasing criminalization of anti-fossil-fuel infrastructure activism.

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