Growth Through the Degrowth Movement

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Graffiti on a concrete wall (Image Credit: Ecoalpispa)

As we witness polar bears drowning in water melted from icebergs, hot flames shimmering through fierce yellow as fires burn in forests, and the erosion of fertile farmlands into arid deserts, it is hard for us to turn a blind eye to the terrifying and all-encompassing effects of climate change. The United Nations says that the world will be uninhabitable if we don’t do enough to fix our environment by 2030. And there is no Planet B.

There has been much heated debate over how best to save our planet. Some point to large corporations and their immense political and socio-economic clout that will enable us to create a more sustainable future. Others, still, insist on raising environmental awareness among individuals and instigating positive changes on a personal level. There is yet a mainstream consensus here, that we cannot sacrifice the material conditions we have achieved in order to combat the climate crisis.

But what if we do? What if we must? The “degrowth movement,” as it is called, advocates for a complete rethinking of the societal narrative that forces humanity to relentlessly pursue economic growth at the cost of social and ecological well-being. Unlike recession, “degrowth” refers to a “planned and equitable economic contraction” in the developed nations until their economies can operate at a sustainable level. The core of the degrowth philosophy is simple: economic growth is mutually exclusive with environmental conservation. As total output continues to rise, production activities inevitably use up vast amounts of energy and natural resources, while dumping waste products into oceans and atmospheres. In his book, Less Is More, anthropologist Jason Hickel claims that “we need to slow down and restore the balance.” To him, any nation that is capable of doing so should strive to reduce its carbon emissions to zero as soon as possible, as it is the only way to prevent our finite world from slipping into an irreversible climate catastrophe.

Critics find this interpretation overly pessimistic. Professor John Van Reenan, Hickel’s colleague at the London School of Economics, affirms the positive effects economic development can have on the environment in his lecture “Going for Growth.” For instance, a robust economy gives governments greater fiscal capabilities to invest in alternative energy sources, making them more accessible to corporations due to economies of scale. It is commonly agreed that, once they are set up, many renewable energies are actually cheaper to produce than non-renewables. Therefore, to reduce their impact on the environment companies must first expand their scales of production, instead of contracting it, to be able to make the transition. As green innovations become continuously more affordable, consumers will also be capable of making more responsible choices in their lives, such as buying electric cars over diesel ones. The result of this is what environmentalists call an “absolute decoupling” between economic growth and CO2 emissions: in the United States and 31 other developed countries, GDP figures grew while emissions shrank over the past decade.

Graph on decoupling (Image Credit: Breakthrough Institute)

However enticing the prospects of a growing green economy might seem, degrowthers want to paint a larger picture. To “degrow” isn’t just tearing down factories or blowing up oil mines, they say, but it’s also about dismantling our capitalist mindset that regards wealth as the exclusive source of happiness. The unfortunate truth is that, no matter how advanced green technology becomes, under the growth-oriented model any efficiency gains are immediately reinvested into the economy, creating endless circuits of extraction and production. The issue at stake is our society’s fixation on large amounts of material wealth, which has been forced upon us by corporations and extended to society by the mainstream media. This looks like politicians running on platforms boasting buzzwords such as “economic boom” and “long-term development,” without telling us what they actually mean to people on the ground.

Or do they mean anything at all? Perhaps economic development doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all for society. To degrowthers, consumerism makes it so that much of what we are producing isn’t what we truly need, and we may as well be able to lead a happier but simpler life—“a life of frugal abundance”. That means living our lives on modest material needs but with far greater emotional fulfillment. Why hoard a hundred different dresses in our closets, when we can reuse or make clothes on our own? In a degrowth world, we eschew fast fashion and pride ourselves on our creative abilities to refashion the vast amount of materials we already have. The unique benefit of the degrowth movement extends beyond the boundaries of macroeconomics and, in such a way, allows those who ascribe to its values to make positive changes in their own lives, eventually leading to a shift in the societal narrative.

Accompanied by the transformations in social mindset is the remoulding of the very basis of our economic systems. Instead of working nine-to-five for multinational tycoons, we would perhaps earn less but be better off in democratic worker cooperatives where employees take control of their own destiny. For degrowth to succeed, society needs to radically redistribute wealth and democratize capital so that it is the toilers who will benefit from their fruits of labor. Working hours would be greatly reduced. We would no longer work to line the pockets of CEOs but rather to ensure a healthy and active life for all. While output levels shrink, individuals would have never been freer and more affluent.

At first sight, “degrowth” sounds like a wild, distant dream. A closer examination of the degrowth movement, however, compels us to better acknowledge and appreciate many of its merits. It would be regrettable to kill the green energy industry, but we can legitimately contract some sectors of the economy (fast fashion and fossil fuels) to preserve room for others to flourish. It might be futile to quit our jobs altogether, but we can still push for better working conditions to stop our employers from making excess profits. It could be difficult to impose degrowth onto society as a whole, but we may as well choose to be happy by consuming less and enjoying life more.

And changes are taking place. In recent years, more and more countries are pivoting towards putting their citizens’ well-being at the center of their policies. In New Zealand, Arden Jacinda’s Labour government became the first to implement a “wellbeing budget,” which used factors including “human health, safety, and flourishing” as metrics of human development. Other countries like ​​Iceland and Scotland followed suit. “Twenty years ago if someone had done something like this, people would have laughed in their face,” said Hickel. “But things have changed.” The degrowth movement possesses all the necessary characteristics of a popular movement that average citizens can find “trendy” in a way similar to the trends influencing them towards capitalistic consumerism in the first place.

Fifty years ago, minimalist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously proclaimed, “Less is more.” Today, “degrowth” can, in the same way, be construed as an alternative approach to “growth”—the growth of our conscience, our compassion, and the capacity for the future of humanity.

Written by Jiansheng Zhang

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