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Contesting the growthocene — from capitalist realism to ecological reduction

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By Matthias Schmelzer

· 9 min read

Earth system governance has failed. After decades of ineffective climate politics, it’s time to acknowledge this failure. We are presently at 1.2 degrees of global warming – the effects are already immense: floods, droughts, displacement, extinction, etc. Yet according to the IPCC, existing government policies have us on track for 2.4 to 3.2 degrees of global heating this century – so in the lifetime of some of us. We are firmly on track to catastrophic climate endgame scenarios – and I must say, I am deeply scared.

The core reason for this failure lies not mainly in insufficient governance structures, as important as they may be, but largely in the hegemony of growth in our societies, which in the form of “green growth” dominates sustainability discourses, and in the economic structures of our capitalist, growth-dependent economic system. If we do not overcome the age of growth – and remember, that all IPCC scenarios model a continuation of economic growth that leads to the world economy being 4 to 7 times larger by 2100 than today – without leaving the growthocene, earth system governance will continue to fail. 

Green growth as macroeconomic greenwashing

The mainstream response to the ecological predicaments is green growth and ecological modernization: The idea that efficiency improvements, new green technological innovations, and fully cyclical recycling will allow capital to continue increasing production and profits, while at the same time reducing ecological impacts back to sustainable levels. Historical research shows: We’ve been promised this same idea – of sustainable, inclusive, green growth – for five decades already. It is a great promise – but it has not materialized.

There is now growing scientific, empirical evidence that increasingly conclusively challenges this narrative. On a global scale, emissions are still tightly coupled with economic growth—in fact, as you can see in this graph of energy-related CO2 emissions between 1900 and 2020, the only times in history when greenhouse gas emissions absolutely declined were during periods of economic crisis such the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War 2, the oil crisis of the 1970s, the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European economies after 1990, the financial crisis of 2008, and the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, it’s not only emissions that are rising, when GDP expands – but also many other environmental impact curves such as the material footprint, one of the best indicators for biodiversity loss. So, research reviewing hundreds of existing empirical studies concludes that “there is no empirical evidence that absolute decoupling from resource use can be achieved on a global scale against a background of continued economic growth, and (2) absolute decoupling from carbon emissions is highly unlikely to be achieved at a rate rapid enough to prevent global warming over 1.5°C or 2°C." 

Now you might have heard the argument that decoupling is working in some of the richer countries or the so-called climate champions in Europe, such as my home country, Germany. However, the evidence is clear – the reductions are much too slow. A recent empirical analysis in Lancet has concluded that at existing rates of decoupling, industrialized countries would need more than 200 years to reach net zero and will emit their fair share of the global carbon budget for staying below 1.5C 27 times over. If all nations were to overshoot their carbon budgets like EU countries are on track to do – the world would be heading for a devastating “hothouse earth” scenario. There is nothing sustainable about green growth. In fact – as put by Tim Parrique – the green growth narrative effectively functions today as macroeconomic greenwashing. Or, in the words of bestselling author Kohei Saito, green growth narratives are today “opium for the masses.”

So, are there alternatives – and how could they work?

Degrowth’ is a term that is increasingly mobilized by scholars and activists to criticize the hegemony of growth – also green growth and the decoupling myth – and a proposal for a radical reorganization of rich societies that leads to a drastic reduction in the use of energy and resources to alleviate ecological pressures and enable global justice, at the same time aiming at improving well-being for all. Importantly, it’s a global justice proposal that addresses the imperial mode of living in the global North, whose wealth depends on the appropriation of global South resources and the externalization of the costs of its lifestyles onto others and the future – which aims at a convergence of resource use globally. 

In discussing degrowth, it is important to understand that the term is meant as a provocation – it’s a missile word aimed at irritating the growth ideology so rampantly dominant, also in progressive and environmental circles. It should not be understood too literally, or to mean aiming at reducing all economic activities equally, as austerity for the poor, as going back to the stone ages, being against technology, innovation and progress, as mainly a call for individual renunciation and voluntary simplicity, or similar oft-repeated misrepresentations (for a rebuttal of these and other misunderstandings, see the introduction to our book The Future is Degrowth).

Degrowth can be understood as a transformation project that is equally informed by an ensemble of various critiques of growth. In our book, we distinguish seven critiques of growth – and they go much beyond the most well-known ecological critique. Economic growth, according to these critiques, 

  • destroys the ecological foundations of human life and cannot be transformed to become sustainable; 
  • mismeasures our lives and thus stands in the way of well-being and equality of all;
  • imposes alienated ways of working, living, and relating to each other and nature; 
  • depends on and is driven by capitalist exploitation, competition, and accumulation;
  • is based on gendered over-exploitation and devalues reproduction; 
  • gives rise to oppressive and undemocratic productive forces and techniques; and
  • necessarily relies on and reproduces unjust relations of domination, extraction, and exploitation between the capitalist centre and the periphery.

But degrowth is not just a critique – fundamentally, it is also a proposal – a radical utopian project that aims to overcome capitalist realism. A degrowth society – and remember, we are talking here about global North societies – can be defined as a society which, in a democratic process of transformation: Firstly, enables global ecological justice – in other words, it transforms and reduces its material metabolism, and thus also production and consumption, in such a way that its way of life is ecologically sustainable in the long term and globally just. Of course, degrowth embraces efficiency improvements, technological innovation, and massive investment in the green transition. But it also recognises that this alone is enough – and therefore calls for rich nations to abandon GDP growth as an objective and to scale down destructive and less necessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use directly.

However – and this leads to the other two parts of the definition – this is not per se a bad thing, since GDP is a flawed indicator for social progress anyway. Thus, degrowth societies secondly strengthen social justice and self-determination and strive for a good life for all under the conditions of this changed metabolism. Third, degrowth societies aim at redesigning their institutions and infrastructures so that they are no longer dependent on growth and continuous expansion for their functioning.

Within capitalist, growth-dependent economies, the absence of growth means social misery – into a downward cycle of recession: businesses going bankrupt, rising unemployment, the declining purchasing power of average people, collapsing state budgets, pension systems, social welfare cuts, etc. Yet degrowth is the opposite – it’s not a policy of austerity, but one of curbing the purchasing power and the emissions of the rich while at the same time creating public abundance through the expansion of collective social rights and infrastructures.

The degrowth hypothesis is thus – and that is what our research tries to prove – that this is possible – that we can create growth-independent economic structures and societal institutions – from welfare states labor markets – and achieve justice, democracy and good living conditions “beyond growth”.

Policies beyond growth

There is a vibrant debate around policies proposed to achieve this, that are only now starting to become consolidated. I just want to give three prominent examples of very characteristic degrowth policies, all of which are discussed as what Andre Gorz called “non-reformist reforms” or what Rosa Luxemburg terms “revolutionary Realpolitik”: 

  • To improve living conditions without growth it is necessary to ensure universal access to high-quality “Universal Basic Services” – where research shows that these can deliver strong social outcomes without high levels of resource use: health care, education, housing, transportation, Internet, renewable energy and nutritious food. 
  • To lower emissions and liberate people to engage in care and other welfare-improving activities and relationships, degrowth proposes to reduce the working time – but also, to give everyone the right to work – as a “green job guarantee”.  Reducing less necessary production and consumption of the rich frees productive capacities. This would enable to train and mobilize labour around urgent social and ecological objectives, such as improving social care, rapidly ramping up renewables, retrofitting buildings, creating infrastructures for collective forms of public mobility, regenerating ecosystems, and in general sustainably producing goods and services necessary for the public provision of universal basic services and ecological reparations.
  • Finally, degrowth aims at enabling sustainable human flourishing globally by canceling Global South debt, curbing unequal exchange in international trade and instituting policies for ecological reparations. I have recently argued with Tonny Nowshin for closely integrating degrowth and ecological reparations discourses, policies and related movements by working towards a convergence of “worldmaking beyond growth.”

While not everybody who is concerned about ecological sustainability and global justice might – yet – be convinced of degrowth, it is high time for all to engage with the empirical evidence pointing to the need to bend the curves and how this relates to economic growth. The rich research on and societal debate around degrowth has much to offer, even to those who for understandable reasons refuse to use this provocative term. 


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About the author

Matthias Schmelzer is an economic historian and transformation researcher. He is currently substitute Professor for Social-Ecological Transformation at the University of Flensburg.

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