Degrowth: letting go of our desire for development

By Eszter Vlasits, GLOBUS Correspondent

The ideas of mainstream sustainable development question several fundamental things about our world: the uneven distribution of wealth and opportunities, the way we exploit our environment, and the unsustainable structures of industry and society. But they leave one thing unquestioned: the absolute necessity and prioritization of development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are built around the notion of continuous economic growth. They aim for the transformation of economic, societal and environmental systems in a manner that makes them more sustainable in the decades (or centuries) to come, while simultaneously emphasizing the expansion of the human economy. However, some people claim that the current path of sustainable development requires pushing Earth’s ecological boundaries to the brink. Because of this, the degrowth movement argues we need to make some fundamental changes. 

Planetary boundaries vs. economic development

The concept of the 9 planetary boundaries was proposed in 2009 by Johan Rockström and his colleagues. They examined the effect of human activity on the environment and determined the following boundaries: climate crisis, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, freshwater use, deforestation and land use changes, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosols, and chemical pollution. According to their research, we are already dangerously close to the boundaries set for biodiversity loss, climate change, and the nitrogen cycle. Surpassing the 9 planetary boundaries will mean that Earth can no longer support the needs of our current civilization. It will be the end of humanity.

The main problem with continuous economic growth is rooted in the principles of mainstream human economy, which involves transforming natural capital into man-made capital on a huge scale. But this transformation cannot be reverted. When the last fish has been caught, and the last oil reserve depleted, no technological advancement will be able substitute it – we cannot create new natural capital. Still, this process of conversion continues at an increasing rate, all in the name of GDP growth. The sustainability versus development contradiction is also apparent in the SDGs, which emphasize development while also setting the goal of environmental conservation – they aim to reduce emissions, protect biodiversity and expand the economy all at the same time. (This contradiction is explained in detail in this paper by Jason Hickel.) 

Degrowth economy

Optimistic theorists of sustainable development believe that humanity will be able to stay within planetary boundaries, because of the persistent and accelerating rate of technological development. It is true that new ideas and technologies are born every day, a lot of which are clever solutions to certain sustainability problems. There are experts who claim that we have already succeeded in reaching ‘green growth’ (meaning that the economy is developing in an increasingly sustainable manner). They argue that we should trust the Environmental Kuznets Curve, and that the absolute decoupling of development and resource use is an insane idea. We undoubtedly have the knowledge to make industrial processes less wasteful, however, according to supporters of degrowth, this techno-optimistic approach is not nearly enough to solve the barrier of planetary boundaries. Regardless of new technology, if the pursuit of productivism continues, the carrying capacity of the environment is bound to be reached.   

The degrowth movement first emerged in the 1970s, developed by social philosopher André Gorz, but it became more widespread about a decade ago. A few international conferences were held on the issue (most notably in Paris and Barcelona) discussing research proposals, but the movement stays neglected due to its opposition to traditional sustainability. 

So, what would a degrowth economy look like? The rich countries of the world would dramatically decrease their demand for resources and energy. This requires a planned process, during which the economy goes through a contraction, eventually reaching a steady-state condition. This new economy would operate within Earth’s biophysical limits, requiring only a sustainable amount of resources. Of course, the absence of economic growth is not synonymous with the absence of development. In a degrowth economy, production and consumption would be downscaled, and the focus would shift to human development. While GDP would decrease, resources would be used to improve wellbeing, ecological sustainability and social equity. Development in scientific and technological fields also plays an important part in degrowth, for example in finding efficient, low resource-use ways of production.  We can see how all this would result in the nature of jobs completely changing, since most current occupations play a part in production and services. As of now, there seems to be limited literature on how degrowth would influence the job market and livelihoods, and this contributes to the scepticism towards it. 

The difficulties of degrowth

Of course, a lot of criticism arises when talking about degrowth, both regarding the difficulties of its implementation, and the debate on whether it should be viewed as a better solution than the plan outlined by the SDGs. 

Firstly, achieving degrowth would be immensely difficult from an economic and political point of view. In most parts of the world, capitalism has been the dominant system for hundreds of years – a system built on exploiting natural resources and acquiring their benefits fast and easily. As only a few companies are responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions and many governments in developed countries are built on this capitalist system, it is not surprising that dismantling the entire economy is not in their best interest. Furthermore, because of globalization, achieving degrowth cannot be a local movement, it needs to be an international effort of all wealthy countries, as it will have huge effects on every branch of the global economy. 

Cheap labour and cheap production are fundamental parts of the economy, and our institutions are growth oriented, which means that better health, education, infrastructure, and income are all dependent on development. Thus, GDP growth usually means a better standard of life. Letting go of economic development is controversial because of these enormous benefits. In the past decades, humanity has made great improvements concerning poverty, world hunger, and healthcare. According to Our world in Data, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 1.9 billion to 650 million in the last 30 years. And this was made possible by the increasing productivity and GDP growth of developing countries. If these are such great tools for making life better for millions of people, and work towards the SDGs, why claim they are harmful?

Secondly, the proposal of creating a degrowth economy poses interesting sociological and psychological questions. Let’s assume that the concept of degrowth is accepted worldwide and a comprehensive, interdisciplinary plan has been mapped out which is able to transform all political and economic institutions as previously discussed. How would the government suddenly influence every citizen to fundamentally reassess their values – values that have been shaped by consumerism since their birth? In a degrowth economy, the nature of acquiring wealth would be different: people would have less wealth according to traditional terms and the job market would completely transform as a consequence of the strict industry regulations. As things are now, our society is materialistic. Having more money enables people to go on luxurious vacations, eat expensive food, buy everything they want and not worry about the price, giving them and their families security in more ways than one. It is completely reasonable that those who have less desire this status, because the system indeed indicates that their life would be better with more money, even if this does not necessarily have to be true. Changing a worldview that is embedded in every person in most of the world’s developed countries would require socio-psychological reconditioning on an unimaginable scale. This argument also supports the claim that a potential degrowth movement would need to be international: it would be extremely difficult to convince the citizens of one country about the long-term environmental importance of degrowth, while they see other countries continuing to reap the benefits of capitalist consumerism. 

So, is degrowth an impossible ideal? ‘In choosing between tackling a political impossibility and a biophysical impossibility, I would judge the latter to be the more impossible and take my chances with the former.’ These words were written by Herman Daly, who deduced the contradiction between planetary boundaries and economic growth in his well-known essay ‘Economics in a Full World’, but instead of degrowth as a solution, he suggested a developing sustainable economy including further GDP growth. Interestingly, despite this, his words can be applied when thinking about the degrowth movement: should we accept our planet’s ecological boundaries as the foundation of our future and let go of the idea of growth?

Header image by Guillaume de Germain, via Unsplash

2 comments

  1. A little thought experiment: imagine an arguably “ideal” scenario for our planet’s sustainability. Global population growth has reduced and aggregate population is stable; we have addressed the Climate Emergency and avoided the potential “social collapse” associated with its continuation. Great news! Capitalism and growth is saved to be sustainable!

    But then ask yourself: would you still want a pay rise? If prices were subject to inflation, you would need a rise to maintain the same purchasing power. However, if you ever wanted an improvement in your purchasing power, let us say because you had been promoted or given a bonus, this growth would need to be more than inflation. However, where would the money for these pay rises come from?

    A “nominal” increase could be entirely artificial: wages could grow along with prices, but while the numbers would be larger, your purchasing power would remain the same. (Although, just so you know, most workers in the UK and Europe have not even see this, because their wages have risen less than inflation for a considerable amount of time; this is why inequality within countries like the UK and the USA is growing not reducing; which means the system we are all persuaded to find unavoidably necessary, is already unfit for purpose, unless you are one of the lucky ones, driving greater inequality as you accumulate more and more).

    The reality is that to have an increase in purchasing power, we need the actual value of the economy to grow, unless you accept; a personal gain at the cost of others, but as others also want the same as you, we need another response.

    “Real” economic growth, that adjusted for the superficial effects of inflation, can only come from two mechanisms: efficiency gains, overall more outcome with less inputs (intensive growth) and the expansion of more inputs (extensive growth). To simplify let’s assume a basic growth model taking inputs as “labour” and “land” (land standing for all environmental provisions and material stuff, which are the fundamental foundation of all other economic activities; remember you can’t have financial fund managers without food production).

    We have already said that population is now fixed, so population increase can’t drive economic growth, as it has done in many countries throughout their histories by “extending” the economy, as well as increasing efficiency of resource use as we have added more labour per unit of “land”; a process that has also increased the number of people in the waged economy, and therefore creating more markets for more stuff. For a further example, consider that GDP grows as more things are traded and therefore counted as part economy: such as the slow shift from family and socially organised child care (not included in GDP unless purchases are made), towards the provision of this as a paid service.

    Resources – let’s call them atoms and assume maximum interchangeability of material stuff – are nonnegotiably finite; or near to it, disregarding the arrival of new stuff from out of space (which is why we are currently exploring Mars; what you thought NASA is looking for life? Can you imagine what a massive risk that would be if they have bigger “guns”? No, NASA are looking for resources, because they understand more about the economy than economists). Therefore, at some point, we can’t increase the inputs, as all atoms are inside the “human economy”. Yes, they can be recycled, but that’s not going to create growth to give you an increase in your purchasing power.

    This therefore, only leaves intensive growth via efficiency gains: doing more, with less. However, efficiency gains don’t appear out of nowhere, they need physical stuff to be created and realised, not least the food required to feed inventors and producers of technology, and technology needs to be made with material resource. As we would already be using all the stuff available, new technology needs to be built from existing stuff, so we already need to have kept some stuff in reserve to make new things; old things need to be constantly stripped to keep this store of atoms available (and not all conversions of atoms to new molecules are reversible, without the right technology, which we may or may not have by then).

    In this case, there is very little opportunity for efficiency gains, and every single person in the world is reliant on increasingly limited opportunities for efficiency gains for any increase in material standards; assuming they don’t start to use up what others have, which let’s face it, would have happened long before this imagined future.

    Now let’s assume that human population actually starts to decline as result of better materials standards and female empowerment etc: therefore we again have a growing amount o atoms per head of global population, so once again, we can both innovate to create more efficiency and each person gets access to more matter per head. If this continues, we get one person, well, let’s say four people, with all the stuff on the planet (2 adults and 2 children to provide a perfect replacement).

    Would you and they still want a pay rise?… Yes. Of course you would, because we are obsessed with “growth”.

    We need to realise that the capitalist stage and growth has done a job, but now we need to relinquish the dominate mode of human social organisation, before it is too late. If you take the current trajectory, even to idealised imagined futures, the realise the project is ultimate inescapably impossible.

    In addition to the logical impossibility of infinite growth, there is already very concrete reason to believe we have zero chance to avoid global climate change in excess of 1.5 degrees and other Planetary Boundaries are close to being compromised. We are increasingly the potential of significant and unknown, likely ultimately detrimental tipping copoints every day. We need a radically different “ontology” for socioeconomic organisation, and we need it in the next ten years.

    Keep up the pressure with more articles like the one above! GSD students: If we can’t reimagine the world, who else will?

    If you are interested in how physics has been outlining the inherent and inescapable limitations of growth since the 1980s, see here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00213624.1985.11504439?needAccess=true

    Like

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