Degrowth: Is It Time to Live Better with Less?
Most economists argue the pursuit of economic growth is both good and necessary. But is it?
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 1,100 economists, scholars and climate activists from over 60 countries signed an open letter calling for an end to a capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs. Instead, they advocated for ‘degrowth’, a concept that directly challenges the long-held view that more is always better.
Put simply, the objective of degrowth is to ensure that life is at the center of our economic systems. That means challenging the idea that economic growth is good for everyone, and instead, focusing directly on making people happier and healthier.
Ever since the metric of gross domestic product, or GDP, was first proposed in 1937, policymakers have been striving to increase this measure of a country’s economic welfare. However, advocates of degrowth say GDP shouldn’t be considered a proxy for progress, arguing there is an urgent need for us to learn how to live better while producing less. So, what would that look like?
Rich countries would be urged to reduce inequality through measures such as job guarantees, a shorter working week and potentially a universal basic income. It would require high-income countries to dramatically scale down energy and resource use. Low-income countries, meanwhile, should continue to grow their economies in a sustainable way, at least until they reach a level of parity with middle-income nations.
One of the core aims of degrowth is to tackle the idea that every sector of the economy must grow, all the time, regardless of whether or not we actually need it. Advocates argue that, instead of growing sectors such as the arms and automotive industries, more focus should be placed on areas such as public transportation and renewable energy.
But what about the risks associated with a slowing economy? Critics of degrowth worry about just that, with some pointing to 2020’s sharp economic contraction as one example.
The spread of COVID last year coincided with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Strict public health measures and reduced mobility saw the global economy contract by 4.3%. Some described this sharp slowdown as “degrowthism in action,” but degrowthers themselves said this was misleading and rejected such criticism. They say degrowth is different because it is a planned contraction that aims to be equitable. By contrast, a recession is an unplanned event that can exacerbate inequality and reduce wellbeing. They even argued the economic crisis was in fact related to our dependence on growth. Leading proponents of the movement have also stressed that degrowth does not call for a reduction in personal income, noting that rich countries already have more than enough resources to secure good lives for everyone.
While degrowth has received renewed attention in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the idea itself first gained prominence in the early 1970s.
The history of the degrowth movement can be traced back to 1972, when French philosopher Andre Gorz first coined the term: ‘décroissance’. Translated into English as ‘degrowth’, Gorz questioned whether the Earth’s natural balance was compatible with the survival of a capitalist system that pursues relentless economic growth. In the same year, a think tank called the Club of Rome published a book entitled “Limits to Growth.” In it, researchers from MIT predicted that our seemingly never-ending appetite for industrial growth would see civilization collapse sometime in the 21st century. This idea was widely criticized at the time, and in 2002, one Danish academic even suggested the book should be relegated to the “dustbin of history.”
Researchers at the University of Melbourne, however, argued that more than 40 years on, the book’s forecasts appear accurate. And, if we continue to track in line with its projections, we should expect to see the early stages of global collapse appearing soon.
In the decades since these discussions were first published, increasing alarm over the scale and speed of the climate crisis has sharpened the focus on ideas that tackle rampant consumerism in high-income countries.
So much so, that in September 2019, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered an emotional anti-growth speech at the UN Climate Summit in New York.
Greta Thunberg: We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, a recent global survey found that most people perceive climate change to be the biggest threat to their country. The United Nations has recognized the environmental emergency as the “defining issue of our time,” warning that in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, global emissions must be cut to zero by 2050. That’s a huge undertaking and one that will require far-reaching and unprecedented changes across all aspects of society.
With worldwide mobility brought to a standstill in 2020, the coronavirus crisis led to the largest-ever decline of global emissions on record. To some, it elevated hopes that carbon emissions had peaked and illustrated the potential for a long-term low-carbon recovery. Nonetheless, pollution at the end of 2020 rebounded to pre-lockdown levels as economies gradually opened up, prompting the International Energy Agency to stress that this should serve as a “stark warning” to world leaders.
The U.S. and European Union have crafted policies in recent years to cut carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy, focusing on “green growth” instead of degrowth, much to the dismay of some in the degrowth movement.
While degrowth has yet to go mainstream, there have been a few green shoots of progress in recent years. Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand have all pledged to prioritize wellbeing rather than solely focusing on economic growth. Perhaps it won’t be too long before others are tempted to follow suit.
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