Conventional economic logic revolves around a basic assumption: large economies are better, and finding ways to sustain or stimulate growth is paramount to improving society.
But what if growth does little at best to solve the world’s problems, and at worst promotes the destruction of the planet and jeopardizes its future?
This is the radical message of the “degrowth” movement, which has spent decades on the fringes of politics with its warning that unlimited growth must end. Now, after the pandemic has given people in some parts of the world a chance to rethink what makes them happy, and as the scale of change needed to tackle the climate crisis becomes clearer, his insights are gaining popularity, even as anxiety grows. what could be a painful global recession.
For economists and politicians of all persuasions, growth has long served as a North Star. It is a way to create jobs and raise taxes for public services, to increase prosperity in rich countries and to reduce poverty and hunger in poorer ones.
But decrementers argue that an endless desire for more – bigger national economies, greater consumption, higher corporate profits – is short-sighted, misguided and ultimately harmful. Gross domestic product, or GDP, is a poor measure of social well-being, they point out.
Moreover, they see an expanding global economy that has already doubled in size since 2005 – and, growing at 2% per year, 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 is a huge amount of growth – cumulative growth, compound growth – over time,” said Giorgos Kallis, a degrowth specialist 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 is not without criticism. Bill Gates has called decrements unrealistic, pointing out that asking people to consume less for the good of the climate is a losing battle. And even believers recognize that their framework may be a political failure, given how difficult it is to imagine what growth weaning 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 in Chile and a doctoral student at the London School of Economics.
Yet in some corners it is becoming less of a taboo, especially as governments and industry fall behind in their efforts to keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, after which some effects of the climate change will become irreversible.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently cited degrowth in a major report. The European Research Council just awarded about $10 million to Kallis and two peers 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 to it. Investment bank Jefferies said investors should think about what would happen if degrowth accelerated, noting that “climate-conscious” younger generations had different consumption values.
In the debate over 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. After that, they should drop steep and fast.
Most roadmaps laying out a plan to get there involve a radical reconfiguration of economies around clean energy and other emission reduction solutions, while promoting new technologies and market innovations that make them more affordable. . This would allow the global economy to continue to grow, but in a “green” way.
Yet proponents of degrowth doubt the world can cut emissions in time — and protect delicate, interconnected ecological systems — while pursuing endless economic expansion, which they say 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 makes part of the team that received funding from the European Research Council. “It’s like trying to get off an escalator that’s speeding up against you.”
While energy can turn green, growth also requires natural resources like water, minerals and wood.
It’s a concern that has been echoed by Greta Thunberg, arguably the most famous climate activist. She criticized “fairy tales about non-existent technological solutions” and “eternal economic growth”. And she touched on another point raised by decrementers: is our current system, which has produced endemic inequality, even working for us?
This question resonates in the Global South, where there are fears that the green energy revolution will simply replicate existing patterns of exploitation and over-extraction of resources, but with minerals like nickel or cobalt – key components of batteries – instead of petroleum.
“Love for growth,” said Felipe Milanez, a professor and degrowth advocate based in the Brazilian state of Bahia, is “extremely violent and racist, and it only reproduces local forms of colonialism.”
It can be hard to talk about degrowth, especially as fears grow of a global recession, with all the pain of lost jobs and shattered businesses that entails.
But proponents, who often speak of recessions as symptoms of a failing system, say they are not promoting austerity or telling developing countries keen to raise living standards that they should not reap the benefits of economic development.
Instead, they talk about sharing more goods, reducing food waste, moving away from privatized transport or health care, and making products last longer, so they don’t need to. be purchased at such regular intervals. It’s about “thinking in terms of sufficiency,” Cabaña said.
Embracing degrowth would require radically rethinking the market capitalism that has been embraced by just about every society on the planet over the past few decades.
Still, some proposals might exist under the current system. A universal basic income – in which everyone receives a lump sum payment regardless of employment status, allowing the economy to reduce its dependence on polluting industries – is often mentioned. The same goes for a four-day work week.
“When people have more economic security and have more economic freedoms, they make better decisions,” Cabaña said.
The latest report from 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 climate change mitigation efforts. climate change”, a nod to one of the biggest goals of degrowth. Movement was also controlled.
But degrowth also faces significant opposition, even from climate scientists and like-minded activists.
“Degrowth people are living a fantasy where they assume that if you bake a smaller cake, then for some reason the poorest people will get a bigger slice of it,” said Per Espen Stoknes, director of the Center for Degrowth. green growth at BI. Norwegian Business School. “That has never happened in history.”
Proponents of green growth are convinced that their strategy can work. They cite promising examples of decoupling GDP gains from emissions, from the UK to Costa Rica, and rapidly increasing the affordability of renewables.
Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft who has prioritized investing in climate innovations, admits that overhauling global energy systems is a Herculean task. But he thinks that improving the accessibility of the right technologies can still achieve this.
Descenders know their reviews are controversial, even though in some ways that’s the intention. They believe a more drastic and revolutionary approach is needed given the UN’s estimate that global warming is expected to reach between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees Celsius, based on the world’s current climate pledges.
“Less time [that] is gone now, the more radical change is needed,” 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 shaped the country’s politics for decades. “Capital in the Anthropocene” has sold nearly 500,000 copies.