Degrowth 101: everything you need to know
Quick key facts
- Degrowth is the idea that we should prioritize sustainability and human well-being over economic growth.
- It comes from the French “décroissance,” which was coined in 1972 by social philosopher André Gorz.
- It first emerged as a distinct movement and theory in the early 21st century and entered the English language in 2008.
- Between 2000 and 2019, increased renewable energy capacity covered only 16 percent of new energy demand.
- Human activity has surpassed five out of nine planetary boundaries: global heating, plastic and chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, habitat loss and nitrogen and phosphorous pollution.
- Global North countries are responsible for 92 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in excess of planetary boundaries, and wealthy economies are responsible for 74 percent of unsustainable resource use.
- The U.S. has the highest GDP in the world but scores behind several countries on well-being indicators, including Panama and Costa Rica.
- Green growth and ecomodernism are two main schools of thought that propose an alternative vision to degrowth and favor technological change over economic alteration.
- The degrowth program includes a jobs guarantee, reduced work time, the end of planned obsolescence and debt forgiveness for the Global South.
- Doughnut Economics is an idea developed by Kate Raworth that the goal of economies should be to ensure flourishing within the “doughnut” between meeting everyone’s “social foundation” and the “ecological ceiling” of the nine planetary boundaries.
What is degrowth?
Degrowth is the idea that the purpose of the economy should not be growth as such but rather ensuring the well-being of everyone in a society without exceeding planetary boundaries. On the most basic level, it can be summarized by the maxim that people in wealthier nations “should live simply so others, human and non-human may simply live.” Proponents of degrowth argue that capitalism as practiced today — with an emphasis on increasing Gross Domestic Product and short-term corporate profits — is incompatible with avoiding the worst impacts of the climate and biodiversity crises.
Degrowth would mean reducing the energy use of the global economy by curbing the activity of ecologically harmful or wasteful industries in wealthy nations such as advertising or plastics. It is different from a recession because it would not be an unplanned shrinking of the existing economy, which typically leads to job losses and other hardships, but rather a planned reimagining of economic priorities that would focus on a more equitable distribution of existing resources.
What is economic growth?
To understand what is meant by degrowth, it’s important to first understand what kind of growth the movement is advocating against. Economic growth is an increase in the production of goods and the provision of services between two consecutive periods of time. It is typically measured using something called Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the value — adjusted for inflation — of all the goods and services generated by an economy.
Economic growth is broadly associated with capitalism, an economic system based on private property in which individuals or corporations control the means of producing goods or value and are incentivized to produce or trade by the chance to earn financial profits. The search for greater profits stimulates growth because it encourages businesses to produce more goods or services and finds more efficient ways of doing so. Capitalism emerged during the end of the 17th century around the time of the industrial revolution. It was then that economic growth really took off on a global level, with global GDP only really beginning to rise after 1700.
Growth has often been posited as a way to compensate for one of capitalism’s main weaknesses: inequality. Because certain individuals or corporations tend to own the means of production, everyone else can only make ends meet by working for them, earning income but not sharing in the profits. The argument goes that growth compensates for this because a rising tide lifts all boats. Even if a worker does not make as much as a CEO, they still have a better standard of living than their ancestors who did not have access to ready energy or consumer goods. However, since the industrial revolution and the beginning of global economic growth, the toll of human activity on the environment has accelerated. It’s not an accident that the climate crisis is monitored according to degrees of warming beyond pre-industrial levels.
What is the history of degrowth?
The word “degrowth” comes from the French word “décroissance,” which was coined in 1972 by social philosopher André Gorz. “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?” he asked. The same year, a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published The Limits to Growth. This was a warning based on modeling of population growth, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource use, industrial output and pollution generation to determine that current levels of population and economic growth would surpass the planet’s carrying capacity by around 2100, even when taking technological advances into account.
This warning caused a stir when it debuted, but was soon drowned out by the pro-growth mood of the 1980s and 1990s. This was when President Ronald Reagan embraced the trickle-down theory of economics that cutting taxes for the wealthy would stimulate the economy and therefore these tax breaks would eventually “trickle down” to everyone else. It wasn’t until the early 21st century that degrowth emerged as both an economic theory and movement. As a movement, it started in Lyon, France, where the “Institute for Economic and Social Studies on Sustainable Degrowth” was founded. It then spread to Italy in 2004 and Spain in 2006. The term entered the English lexicon in 2008 with the First Degrowth Conference in Paris. Since then, more than 100 academic papers have been published on the idea. Important degrowth proponents and theorists include Serge Latouche, Mauro Bonaiuti, Paul Ariès, Jacques Grinevald, François Schneider, Pierre Rabhi, Gabriela Cabaña and Jason Hickel.
What are the arguments in favor of degrowth?
The main arguments for degrowth are both social and ecological. It posits that the best way to respond to the climate and biodiversity crises is to reimagine economic life to make it at once more just and more fulfilling while reducing unnecessary consumption.
Degrowth as a climate solution
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — and avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis — would require a level of social and technological change for which “there is no documented historic precedent.” The question is whether that change can be managed through a transition to renewable sources of energy alone without reducing the total energy demand of the economy.
Degrowth theorist Jason Hickel argues that this is not possible because economic growth is currently outpacing renewable energy adoption — between 2000 and 2019, only 16 percent of new energy demand from a growing economy was met by increased renewable energy. If GDP continues to rise at around three percent per year, that would require the economy to decarbonize at 10.5 percent per year to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, when the most ambitious decarbonization policies would only facilitate a decarbonization rate of four percent per year. In the past, the IPCC has made up for this by assuming scientists would develop the technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, in the 2018 report, the IPCC included a “low energy demand” scenario that would cut global energy consumption by 40 percent and the material production of the economy by nearly 20 percent, which Hickel said was essentially a “degrowth” scenario:
“Its inclusion in the IPCC report as the only scenario that does not rely on questionable negative emissions technologies suggests that degrowth may be the only feasible way to achieve the emissions reductions required by the Paris Agreement.”
Degrowth as a solution to broader environmental crisis
The climate crisis isn’t the only symptom of an unsustainable economic system. Scientists have defined nine planetary boundaries that have kept Earth stable for the last 10,000 years. Human activity has so far breached five of them. In addition to global heating, those are biodiversity loss, habitat loss, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and the pollution of novel entities such as chemicals and plastic. Resolving the climate crisis through a technological switch to renewable energy coupled with somehow removing sufficient amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would not remedy an economic model that sees the Earth as a collection of natural resources to be extracted and exploited for economic gain. The destruction of ecosystems and the sacrifice of frontline communities for intensive agriculture or the rare earth and other minerals needed for the energy transition would continue.
Biodiversity loss, for example, is a major environmental crisis with a million plant and animal species now at risk of extinction, primarily because of land use change, hunting and harvesting, the climate crisis, other pollution and the introduction of invasive species. It is well documented that, as GDP rises, so do many of the drivers of biodiversity loss. Land used for agriculture and the use of fertilizer and pesticides have all risen alongside GDP since the 1960s. Meat consumption also rises with per capita GDP. GDP growth is also associated with an increase in urban area and greenhouse gas emissions, while the expansion of international trade facilitates the spread of invasive species. Although correlation is not causation, it is clear to see how economic growth would naturally lead to more resource use and trade, which would each increase the boot print of human activity on the natural world. A 2022 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Assessment Report on the Diverse Conceptualization of the Multiple Values of Nature and Its Benefits concluded that the current mainstream values of economic growth and prioritizing short term profits were a major contribution to the ecological crisis. It suggested “degrowth” as one possible alternative model that could lead to a more sustainable and equal future.
Degrowth as environmental justice
One of the chief injustices of the climate crisis is that some of the countries most vulnerable to its impacts and least able to fund a response did the least to contribute to its effects. A pair of studies published in the Lancet Planetary Health considered each nation’s “fair share” of both greenhouse gas emissions and resource use consistent with planetary boundaries. The first found that the Global North was responsible for 92 percent of excess emissions, while wealthier countries were responsible for 74 percent of excess resource use. At the same time, around half of the resources consumed by Global North economies were extracted from Global South nations in the first place. Therefore, Hickel calls degrowth “a demand targeted at the Global North.” Degrowth advocates tend to focus on reducing the material and energy consumption of wealthy economies in the Global North while allowing the Global South to maintain control of its own resources and pursue its own path without necessarily having to copy the Global North roadmap to industrialization and development. The IPCC’s low energy demand emissions scenario saw the production and consumption in the Global North decline by 42 percent by 2050 while that of the Global South only declined by 12 percent.
At the same time, there is a great amount of inequality within wealthy nations, both in terms of income levels and contribution to the climate crisis. A recent study found that there is now a bigger emissions gap between the wealthiest and the poorest within nations than between them. If growth has been boosted as a way to compensate for inequality within capitalism, degrowth seeks to actually reduce that inequality. Degrowth proponents advocate policies that would share resources more evenly within larger economies and therefore increase the well-being of most of the population. A degrowth program would shrink the parts of the economy that are harmful, excessive or predominantly favor the wealthy — such as SUV production, private jets, fast fashion and weapons manufacturing — while funneling resources towards social goods like health care, education or designing more walkable cities.
Degrowth as an emphasis on well-being v. GDP
The argument for degrowth dovetails with the argument against using GDP as an effective indicator of general well-being within society. While certain markers of social welfare like life expectancy do increase with GDP up to a point, this does not continue beyond that threshold. In most wealthy countries, well-being stopped rising with GDP between the 1950s and 1970s and, in fact, actually reversed in some cases. The U.S., which has the highest GDP in the world, scores lower on the Global Gallup Well-Being survey than several European countries with lower GDPs and more robust social safety nets as well as other nations including Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada and Panama.
Degrowth proponents argue in favor of moving away from GDP as the end-all-be-all marker of a society’s progress. Some countries have experimented with alternative metrics. Bhutan introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) in the 1970s, which it measures via a survey administered every five years. Its GNH Index considers psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience and living standards. In 2013, Ecuador added a state secretary of buen vivir — or the good life, and in 2016, the UAE added a minister of state for happiness and well-being to its cabinet. In 2019, New Zealand became the first country to announce a “well-being budget” that tied government spending to five well-being goals: reducing the economy’s emissions, supporting Indigenous communities, bolstering mental health, curbing child poverty and fostering well-being in the digital sphere.
What would a degrowth economy look like?
Degrowth may seem like a daunting abstraction, but the policies suggested by degrowth advocates include many concrete ideas that governments and businesses are already experimenting with. In a 2022 Nature article, leading degrowth scholars proposed a series of policies that would foster degrowth. These included
- Curbing unnecessary production by shrinking harmful or luxury industries and combating the planned obsolescence of consumer goods.
- Ensuring universal access to necessities and benefits like health care, healthy food, housing, transportation, Internet and renewable energy.
- Passing a green jobs guarantee to make sure everyone has meaningful work as polluting industries are scaled back.
- Reduce overall work time through initiatives like a four-day work week or a lower retirement age.
- Support sustainable development in the Global South by forgiving burdensome debts and ending trade inequalities.
- Changing corporate governance so that the “fiduciary duty” of a company’s leaders shifts from maximizing short term shareholder profits to considering social and ecological impacts.
What are the arguments against degrowth?
Given how important growth has been to the past two centuries of economic thinking, it is to be expected that there are many criticisms of the degrowth movement. Many argue that turning away from growth means turning away from historical progress towards greater prosperity and standards of living. MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee imagined that people living in wealthy nations would experience degrowth like the first years of the coronavirus pandemic without the social distancing requirement. He and others have further argued that such a proposition is unlikely to be popular with a majority of voters in these countries. Bill Gates has called it unrealistic.
Degrowth opponents and proponents often seem to be talking at cross-purposes when they imagine what degrowth would look like (McAfee compares degrowth to a planned recession while Hickel is adamant that it would not be like a recession. The 2008 recession, for example, did not include a jobs guarantee). But the other main argument of degrowth proponents is that it is not actually necessary. McAfee points to something called the environmental Kuznets curve. This is the observation that, when a country first industrializes or develops, environmental harm also increases. However, once GDP passes a certain level, environmental harm begins to decrease again. In the U.S., for example, GDP increased by 285 percent since 1970 while the levels of six common air pollutants fell by 77 percent, mostly due to successful regulations. When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, some argue that it is also possible to “decouple” these emissions from economic growth, largely by embracing alternative forms of energy. Emissions per GDP unit have declined over the last 60 years. In the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan, emissions have fallen overall as GDP has increased between 2005 and 2019.
Another argument against degrowth focuses less on the ideas behind it than the name itself. Some argue that it is unappealing because it emphasizes what it opposes instead of a more positive vision of a sustainable future. The term may be alienating especially for impoverished communities in the Global North or the Global South who do not have access to enough resources to meet their basic needs. Relatedly, the degrowth movement emerged in Europe and centers wealthier cultures and economies in its program and analysis. While degrowth proponents see themselves as in solidarity with Global South movements like Environmentalism of the Poor, Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir, Ecological Swaraj and Via Campesina and Hickel cites the 2010 People’s Agreement of Cochabamba as inspiration, some environmental justice movements in the Global South feel the term ignores other positive conceptions of growth such as the growth of children, plants, animals or movements.
What could be done instead of degrowth?
The primary alternatives proposed for degrowth are green growth or ecomodernism. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines green growth as “fostering economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies” and argues it can be accomplished through “investment and innovation.” Green growth means using the capitalist system to invest in nature so that there are economic incentives for protecting the environment.
According to the Ecomodernist Manifesto, ecomodernism focuses on using “knowledge and technology” to resolve environmental problems. Specifically, the manifesto argues that human societies should use technology to decrease their dependence on the natural world by designing more efficient and intensive ways of farming, living and creating energy and leaving more of the Earth available for nature to reclaim. Both of these strains of thought emphasize the development of new technologies as the solution to the environmental crisis rather than a major change in the current economic system.
Proponents of degrowth argue that there is no time for a purely technological solution to the climate crisis if human societies are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. They also think it is unrealistic that the economy could continue to grow without having a large impact on natural resources, even if the climate problem were resolved.
What is doughnut economics and how is it related to degrowth?
One idea that shares many concepts with degrowth is Doughnut Economics by Oxford economist Kate Raworth. Raworth argues that the goal of society should not be the growth of GDP but rather helping people to thrive within the “doughnut,” defined on its inside by ensuring everyone has the “social foundation” of water, food, energy, health, education, income and work, peace and justice, political voice, social equity, gender equality, housing and access to networks and on its outside by an “ecological ceiling” that consists of the nine planetary boundaries.
While Raworth’s goal aligns with degrowth advocates in many ways, she has argued that the movement has ironically “out-grown” the term, arguing that it is unnecessarily negative and alienating when many of its ideas would be more attractive if framed differently. The Latin American buen vivir, or good living, for example, conjures a much more positive image.
What are examples of degrowth in action?
While degrowth sounds ambitious, many of the policies advocated by its proponents have been tried in the real world.
- In April 2020, the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands became the first city to officially embrace Doughnut Economics, deciding to use the idea as its model for recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. Copenhagen, the Brussels region, Dunedin, New Zealand, and Nanaimo, British Columbia, followed suit. In the US, Portland, Oregon and Philadelphia have joined Amsterdam in the Thriving Cities Initiative which is experimenting with ways to meet residents’ needs sustainably.
- Several countries and companies have experimented with a four-day work week. Australia, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Spain and the UK are all running pilot programs. Nearly 2,000 employees and 35 companies in the U.S. and Canada are also experimenting with a four-day work week pilot program. Studies have shown that four-day work weeks can improve both productivity and employee well-being. At the halfway point in the UK trial, 88 percent of participating companies said it was working well and 86 percent said they would be likely or extremely likely to continue it past the trial period.
- There is an active Right to Repair movement working to make it easier for people to fix their own digital devices — from cell phones to tractors — or to take them to independent repair shops. So far, Colorado and New York have passed Right to Repair laws, and John Deere recently struck an agreement with farmers to give them access to the tools, software and information needed to repair their own tractors or have them repaired by independent mechanics.
- Some communities have experimented with a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is favored by degrowth proponents because it would free people from working harmful or wasteful jobs in order to survive. Several U.S. cities have launched pilots since Stockton, California, led the way in 2019.
The climate and biodiversity crises force us to confront the fact that the way we have designed our economies and societies for the past few centuries needs to change. The rapid pace of environmental degradation means that we do not have time to wait for conditions to gradually improve. Even if wealthy economies do not embrace the entire degrowth program or philosophy, several of the policies it espouses could help people to lead more sustainable and meaningful lives.
On an individual or community basis, it is possible to embrace degrowth principles by buying fewer new consumer goods, growing one’s own food or purchasing local or organic produce, or advocating for a right to repair, a less car-dependent city or a program offering empty homes to people without them. While the name may be challenging or unappealing to some, learning about the movement behind the term can help one to imagine an economy built around different priorities than GDP growth and profits for the already wealthy.
This article is also published by EcoWatch. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Olivia Rosane is an Opinion Editor and Staff Writer at Common Dreams. She has more than five years of experience covering climate, politics, and the environment. She also holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge for a dissertation focused on the poetry of forced displacement.