Can degrowth save us from ecological collapse?

A radical proposal to revamp the global economy

From the climate crisis to the sixth mass extinction, there’s growing evidence that humanity is on a trajectory toward environmental oblivion.

It’s no secret that we urgently need a green transition to tackle the climate crisis, overconsumption and the destruction of biodiversity – all of which are rooted in a global economy based on endless consumption.

Some experts believe the solution is something known as ‘green growth,’ an approach that promotes economic growth and development while reducing humanity’s ecological footprint.

The main idea is that growth can be ‘decoupled’ from resource use, reducing our impact on the planet as economic output increases. This can be done by investing in green technologies and practices, such as renewable energy and sustainable agriculture and forestry.

Many international organizations such as the UN, the E.U. and the World Bank have already been promoting green growth for over a decade. But is such an optimistic idea even possible?

In 2019, the European Environment Bureau (EEB) released a report throwing cold water on the idea of decoupling as a sufficient strategy.

“Although decoupling is useful and necessary and has occurred at certain times and places,” it states, “‘green growth’ cannot reduce resource use on anywhere near the scale required to deal with global environmental breakdown and to keep global warming below the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

Economic growth has long been the principle measure of prosperity – but is this changing? Aditya Vyas, Unsplash

What is degrowth?

Enter a radical alternative gaining traction among scientists, policymakers and grassroots social movements: degrowth, an approach that questions the very notion that infinite economic growth is an appropriate way to measure economic prosperity and reduce poverty, or that it’s even possible with the finite resources we have.

Proponents of degrowth say rich countries must scale down destructive and unnecessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use, focus economic activity on securing human needs and well-being, and abandon the goal of economic growth altogether.

“We’ve overshot the capacity of the planet to support us,” says Peter Victor, professor emeritus of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto and author of Escape from Overshoot: Economics for a Planet in Peril.

As his book points out, we are demanding far more of the planet than it can provide through its ability to regenerate – also known as overshoot. Last year, humanity’s ecological footprint exceeded global biocapacity by 71 percent. In other words, we used an entire year’s worth of biological resources in just seven months.

“Green growth assumes you can keep expanding GDP [gross domestic product] at the same time you are lightening the burden on the biosphere,” Victor explains.

“Degrowth says you can’t reduce this burden unless you reduce the materials and energy used in the economy, and this cannot happen fast enough – or at all – if increasing GDP remains the goal.”

Victor believes advocates of green growth don’t recognize that the economy is embedded in the biosphere: we extract raw materials from the earth, transform them into manufactured products, and then dump waste into the air, oceans and land. As the global economy grows, so too does our resource use and pollution.

The richest 1 percent of humanity are responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 50 percent. Timothy Newman, Unsplash

A question of environmental justice

What’s more, economic output isn’t shared equally between countries or between people within individual countries. As a result, we overuse resources while still failing to meet many basic human needs.

As a prime example, the richest 1 percent of humanity cause more carbon emissions than the poorest 50 percent, according to a 2020 study by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

And if everyone on Earth lived the same lifestyle as the average person in the U.S., we would need five planets’ worth of resources.

“Escape from overshoot requires a much more comprehensive assessment of the situation than simply the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” Victor says.

That means de-commodifying essential goods and services such as housing, transportation, energy, and healthcare, which should instead be funded through public financing and based on resource-efficient technologies.

On the other hand, degrowth would mean drastically cutting the production of goods and services that are not really necessary and have huge environmental footprints – private jets, fast fashion, advertising and military hardware, just to name a few.

Some fear that this could lead to mass unemployment, but exponents of degrowth argue that what we need is a fundamental redesign of the global economy, including employment.

Government policies would need to guarantee jobs by providing opportunities in the green sector, such as installing renewables and insulating buildings, regenerating ecosystems and improving social care. Demand for these jobs will grow as the economy is decarbonized.

As polluting and less ‘important’ industries are phased out, there will inevitably be less work to go around, but degrowth advocates plan on addressing that with a shorter work week, a lower retirement age, and a universal basic income to provide a healthier work-life balance for everyone.

What about the Global South?

Degrowth is all well and good for the Global North, but what about the developing world? High-income countries are the ones that need to consume less, says Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“Our planet provides more than enough for all of us; the problem is that its resources are not equally distributed,” he writes. “We can improve people’s lives right now simply by sharing what we already have more fairly, rather than plundering the Earth for more.”

Developing countries can – and should – grow their economies to improve standards of living, but they shouldn’t seek to emulate the consumerism of their richer counterparts, degrowth activists say.

Instead, as rich countries slash consumption, the Global South can focus on achieving self-sufficiency rather than serving as exporters of cheap labor and raw materials.

“Degrowth is about changing our systems to value other things than economic growth,” says Tom Crowther, founder of the RESTOR digital mapping platform and co-chair of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

“At the core of this concept is the equitable redistribution of wealth on our planet, which is also the foundation of a sustainable environmental movement. When we redistribute wealth to the communities living in association with nature, that is when biodiversity and people can thrive.”

Developing countries can – and should – grow their economies to improve standards of living. Ivan Bandura, Unsplash

Degrowth reaches the mainstream

Although it inherently challenges mainstream thinking on economics, degrowth is slowly gaining recognition, including mentions in reports last year from both the IPCC and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

What’s more, a three-day conference at the European Parliament next month called Beyond Growth 2023 will explore “the significance of economic growth as a policy goal and deconstruct underlying assumptions of GDP being the only mean to achieve economic policy objectives.”

The degrowth movement has also received a major boost from the European Research Council, which has awarded Hickel and two other researchers with a EUR 10 million synergy grant for a six-year project to explore pathways for degrowth.

But for Andrew Ahern, a Boston-based member of the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate advocacy group in the U.S., it’s the backing of citizen assemblies in 25 countries that’s particularly encouraging.

“What I found extremely inspiring is that people who don’t have a vested interest are really willing to provide comprehensive radical solutions and policies that very much align with degrowth,” he says.

“In all of these places, they’re explicit about the need to reduce the amount of energy and materials that we use in production and consumption.”

Ahern himself frequently gives public presentations on degrowth to local civil society groups, and he has seen growing interest in these ideas. But he would also like to see the movement take root in labor unions, social justice movements, civil society and political spheres.

“Ultimately, what we need is a mass social movement,” he says. “I don’t think it will necessarily be a ‘degrowth mass social movement,’ but I think degrowth as a framework and a set of policies and principles will greatly inform the movement we need to transform our society into an ecologically just one.”

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