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Can we address the climate crisis by “degrowing”?

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By Paige Curtis

· 8 min read

Last spring, I spent the afternoon helping a complete stranger clean out her garage. We met through the Boston Ujima Timebank, an online mutual aid platform. She needed someone to help her with spring cleaning—a week later, I showed up ready to organize piles of clothes and household items in preparation for donation.

The Ujima Timebank offers everything from childcare and career counseling to household cleaning. No money is exchanged. Instead, for every hour members spend helping another, they earn one time credit for the exchange. The spirit of the exchange program is that, as Edgar Cahn, an early timebank proponent put it, “we have what we need, if we use what we have.” I didn’t know it at the time, but this was degrowth in action.

André Gorz, a French social scientist, coined the term “degrowth” in 1972. At an academic forum, he posed a revolutionary question: “Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth—or even degrowth—of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?” Back then, the idea of prioritizing human and environmental welfare over economic growth was so radical that Gorz was laughed out of the political sphere. 

But 50 years later, degrowth has regained its relevance as climate change is projected to worsen faster than humans can respond. Supporters of the movement believe that a radical shift in standard economic thinking is needed, one that challenges the assumption that economic growth is good for everyone. Jason Hickel, an anthropologist and prominent voice on the topic, notes that “degrowth is about reducing energy and resource throughput,” bringing the economy back into balance with the living world. 

The push to center ecological and social well-being instead of overproduction and excess consumption overlaps with some of the principles behind the slow movement. The underlying idea remains the same: Rather than constant economic growth, we must focus on how to thrive—economically and socially—within planetary boundaries.

Half a century after Gorz conceived of degrowth, is it time to deprioritize economic growth to address the climate crisis? Is it possible to “degrow” with compassion and long-term sustainability for all people?

The economic shift that degrowthers want starts with rethinking metrics that reinforce “business as usual”—namely, GDP. Looking for a way to gauge recovery after the Great Depression and World War II, economist Simon Kuznets first developed a formula for gross domestic product in 1937. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund were eager to easily understand economic activity by individuals, companies, and governments with a single measure, so GDP fit the bill. Soon the metric became the standard tool for appraising a country’s economy and comparing development between nations.

But the metric had one fatal flaw: It measured only market transactions, completely ignoring social costs, environmental impacts, and income inequality. Therefore, Kuznets and his contemporary warned against equating GDP growth with societal welfare. “We must be highly skeptical of the view that long-term changes in the rate of growth of welfare can be gauged even roughly from changes in the rate of growth in output,” Abramovitz urged in 1959.

But when Arthur Okun, a GDP evangelist and former White House economic adviser, asserted that rises in GDP came with decreases in unemployment, the metric became firmly cemented in monetary policy. Every US president since John F. Kennedy campaigned on economic growth, which often boiled down to boosting GDP. 

Growing the economy isn’t objectively a bad thing. But when nations indulge in environmentally destructive activity in the name of economic expansion, then growth at all costs must be questioned. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres writes, “Absurdly, GDP rises when there is overfishing, cutting of forests or burning of fossil fuels. We are destroying nature, but we count it as an increase in wealth.”

In recent years, the idea of degrowth has expanded beyond academic circles to inspire a new generation of organizers, thinkers, and policymakers. In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists signed an open letter arguing for a shift in goals “from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being.” Nobel laureate and former US energy secretary Steven Chu came out in support of degrowth in 2021. The late Herman Daly, best known for his time as a senior economist at the World Bank, remained a quiet crusader for degrowth for several decades.  

Earlier this year, in the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, two working groups specifically highlighted degrowth policies as a pathway to reducing the impacts of climate change. Lisa Schipper, a lead author for the IPCC, coordinated a team of researchers that assessed 34,000 papers on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. “Degrowth has reemerged over the last few years out of a frustration with other kinds of economic models,” Schipper told Sierra. “Global forces like consumerism are a big part of why we’re facing climate change, but making a systemic transition away from that is so necessary.”

Some may think of “degrowth” as the latest buzzword—like others might have thought of “climate justice” years ago, or “sustainability” decades before that. But any lofty idea has the potential to ignite real change when defined and implemented locally. Local degrowth movements are cropping up around the world, and many of them are flat, decentralized, and just beginning to mobilize in earnest.

“In general, most degrowth groups are academically centered and have emerged in or around international degrowth conferences,” said Joe Herbert, a member of Degrowth UK. “We believe that degrowth should move towards more of a social movement, rather than one of academic structure and focus.”  

The movement is certainly progressing in that direction, with degrowth organizers like Erica Jung, founder of DegrowNYC, heavily focused on popular education and dispelling misconceptions. “A lot of people mischaracterize degrowth as a movement advocating for population reduction, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Jung explained. “We don’t see population growth as a major driver of the climate crisis. Rather, it’s the economic systems that emphasize constant growth and expansion at the expense of the environment.”

Critics of the degrowth movement aptly point out that the strongest voices are in the global north, which doesn’t leave much room for perspectives from the global south. Jung and her cofounder, Jamie Tyberg, felt it important to create DegrowNYC as a space for organizers of color in response to this lack of diverse viewpoints. “I founded the organization out of the recognition that the degrowth movement needs to contend more directly with imperialism, racism, and issues of colonialism that still persist to this day,” Jung said, referring to the role colonialism has played in exacerbating the climate crisis, such that the poorest nations experience disproportionately severe climate impacts despite having lower carbon emissions.

While we may be far from the degrowth-oriented future that activists like Jung and others envision, there is reason to be hopeful. Underlying any degrowth intervention is the desire to abolish GDP as the leading indicator of progress. While it may take decades to do so, efforts are already underway. The United Nations Development Programme created the Human Development Index, which factors in educational outcomes, income, and life expectancy, and later launched the Sustainable Development Goals in an attempt to introduce more holistic measures for human development. Bhutan famously became the first country to use the Gross National Happiness Index, based on physiological health, community vitality, and environmental resilience, to inform policies, and in 2019 New Zealand followed suit. 

Any degrowth policy package would require significant reinvestment in a social safety net—like affordable health care, housing assistance, and stronger public transit—that nations like the United States have struggled to consistently prioritize. Universal basic income, which cities like Chicago are experimenting with, could provide people with a living wage, reducing the need to rely on exploitative wage labor—another step to degrowing.

Beyond policies and commitments, Mike Strode, a degrowth activist, believes we must also address the emotional question at the center of degrowth: What does it truly mean to live with less?

“More people need to reflect on what a ‘good’ life means to them,” said Strode. “Based on how people define a ‘good’ life, the degrowth movement might be able to offer a lifestyle that doesn’t require the consumption of far more resources than there are available.”

Strode is the founder of the Kola Nut Collaborative timebank in Chicago, which has facilitated over 1,000 exchanges of offerings and community needs so far. There are roughly 500 US-based timebanks engaging almost 40,000 community members in local exchanges; supply chain disruptions and mass layoffs during COVID-19 brought renewed interest in cooperative efforts like this. “Participating in a timebank or another form of mutual aid is one way we can start to live out degrowth values. It allows us to meet our needs without the exchange of money, reducing the need to always look first to external markets,” Strode explained.

Leading economist Giorgos Kallis—who just won a 10 million euro grant to further investigate degrowth—believes that without underlying values like democracy, solidarity, care, and equity, the degrowth movement is doomed to replicate the status quo. In the meantime, degrowth is an invitation to rethink our beliefs, in big and small ways, and to imagine something better.

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About the author

Paige Curtis is an environmental journalist based in Massachusetts. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Vox, Grist, and other publications. She's also the author of "Bad Environmentalist," a humor newsletter about climate change and the environment. Formally trained in Environmental Management from the Yale School of Environment, she’s most excited by community-based solutions to the climate crisis.

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