Conventional economic logic is based on a basic assumption: bigger economies are better, and finding ways to sustain or boost growth is paramount to improving society.
But what if growth does little to solve the world’s problems and, at worst, encourages the destruction of the planet and endangers its future?
This is the radical message of the “degrowth” movement, which has spent decades on the sidelines of politics with its admonition to end unlimited growth. Now, after the pandemic gave people in some parts of the world a chance to rethink what makes them happy, and as the scale of change needed to address the climate crisis becomes clearer, their ideas are gaining more mainstream recognition, even as anxiety rises. what could be a painful global recession.
For economists and politicians of all stripes, growth has long served as a pole star. It is a vehicle for creating jobs and generating taxes for public services, increasing prosperity in rich countries and reducing poverty and hunger in the poorest.
But decrementists argue that an endless desire for more—larger national economies, greater consumption, heavier corporate profits—is short-sighted, misguided, and ultimately harmful. Gross domestic product, or GDP, is a poor metric for social well-being, they stress.
In addition, they see the expansion of a global economy that has already doubled since 2005 and, at 2% annual growth, would be more than seven times larger in a century, setting the emissions targets needed to save the world out of reach.
“An innocent 2 or 3% a year, that’s a huge amount of growth — cumulative growth, compound growth — over time,” said Giorgos Kallis, one of the top degrowth researchers based at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. . “I don’t see it compatible with the physical reality of the planet.”
The solution, according to the degrowth movement, is to limit the production of unnecessary goods and try to reduce the demand for items that are not needed.
This unorthodox school of thought has no shortage of critics. Bill Gates has called detractors unrealistic, stressing that asking people to consume less for the sake of the climate is a losing battle. And even believers acknowledge that their framework may be a political non-starter, given how difficult it is to imagine what weaning off growth would look like in practice.
“The fact that it’s an uncomfortable concept is both a strength and a weakness,” said Gabriela Cabaña, a degrowth advocate for Chile and a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.
However, in some corners, it is becoming less taboo, especially as governments and industry lag in their efforts to keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, after which some effects of climate change will become irreversible.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently cited the decline in a major report. The European Research Council has just awarded roughly $10 million to Kallis and two colleagues to explore practical “post-growth” policies. And the European Parliament is planning a conference called “Beyond Growth” next spring. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to attend.
Even some on Wall Street are starting to pay more attention. Investment bank Jefferies said investors should consider what happens if the slowdown takes hold, noting that “climate-anxious” younger generations have different consumer values.
In the debate about how to avoid climate catastrophe, there is a key point of consensus: if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided, the world must reduce annual carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. Then of this, they must decrease. abruptly, and quickly.
Most roadmaps that lay out a plan to achieve this involve a dramatic reconfiguration of economies around clean energy and other emissions-reduction solutions, while promoting new technologies and market innovations that make them more affordable This would allow the global economy to continue growing, but in a “green” way.
However, degrowth advocates are skeptical that the world can reduce emissions in time, and protect delicate and interconnected ecological systems, while pursuing endless economic expansion, which they argue will inevitably require the use of more energy.
“More growth means more energy use, and more energy use makes it harder to decarbonize the energy system in the short time we have left,” said Jason Hickel, a degrowth expert who is part of the team which received funding from European Research. advice “It’s like trying to run up an escalator that’s accelerating up against you.”
Although energy can go green, growth also requires natural resources such as water, minerals and wood.
It’s a concern echoed by Greta Thunberg, possibly the most famous climate activist. He criticized “fairy tales about non-existent technological solutions” and “eternal economic growth”. And he touched on another point raised by the decliners: Is our current system, which has produced rampant inequality, even working for us?
This question resonates in the Global South, where there are fears that the green energy revolution could simply replicate existing patterns of exploitation and over-extraction of resources, but with minerals such as nickel or cobalt, key components of batteries, instead of oil.
The “love of growth,” said Felipe Milanez, a professor and degrowth advocate based in the Brazilian state of Bahia, is “extremely violent and racist, and has only been reproducing local forms of colonialism.”
Declining can be difficult to talk about, especially as fears grow about a global recession, with all the pain of job losses and broken businesses that entails.
But advocates, who often talk about recessions as symptoms of a broken system, make it clear that they are not promoting austerity or telling developing countries eager to raise living standards that they should not collect the benefits of economic development.
Instead, they talk about sharing more goods, reducing food waste, moving away from privatized transportation or health care, and making products last longer so they don’t need to be bought at such regular intervals. It’s about “thinking in terms of sufficiency”, said Cabaña.
Embracing degrowth would require a dramatic rethinking of the market capitalism that has been embraced by nearly every society on the planet in recent decades.
However, some proposals could exist within the current system. A universal basic income, in which everyone receives a lump sum payment regardless of employment status, is often mentioned as allowing the economy to reduce its reliance on polluting industries. So it’s a four-day work week.
“When people have more economic security and more economic freedom, they make better decisions,” said Cabaña.
The latest report by the IPCC, the UN’s authority on global warming, noted that “addressing inequality and many forms of status consumption and focusing on well-being supports mitigation efforts of climate change,” a nod to one of the most important goals of degrowth. The move was also name-checked.
But degrowth is also the subject of significant opposition, including from climate scientists and activists with similar goals.
“Degrowth people live a fantasy in which they assume that if you bake a smaller pie, for some reason, the poorest people will get a bigger piece of it,” said Per Espen Stoknes, director of the BI’s Center for Green Growth . Norwegian Business School. “This has never happened in history.”
Supporters of green growth are convinced that their strategy can work. They cite promising examples of decoupling GDP gains from emissions, from the UK to Romania, and the rapidly increasing affordability of renewable energy.
Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who prioritized investment in climate innovations, admits that overhauling global energy systems is a herculean task. But he believes that increasing the accessibility of the right technologies can still get us there.
The detractors know that their criticisms are controversial, even if, in some ways, that is the intention. They believe a stronger and more revolutionary approach is needed given that the UN estimates that global warming will increase by 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius, based on the world’s current climate commitments.
“The less time [that] remains now, the most radical change is necessary,” said Kohei Saito, a professor at the University of Tokyo.
Could a growing cohort agree? In 2020, his book on degrowth from a Marxist perspective became a surprise hit in Japan, where concerns about the consequences of stagnant growth have influenced the country’s politics for decades. “Capital in the Anthropocene” has sold nearly 500,000 copies.