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Degrowth is not recession. Nor is it austerity.

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By Erin Remblance

· 6 min read

I often hear degrowth conflated with recession, austerity or some version thereof. The result is a mistaken belief that degrowing a wealthy economy means that people will suffer. There is, implicit in this stance, a notion that our growth-based economy is necessary to ensure we are meeting everyone’s needs. That changing this system is not desirable, or even possible: infinite growth on our finite planet is our only option. It shows just how significantly our collective minds have been ‘capitalised', and how our current economic framework restricts our thinking. Furthermore, the immense blind spot this perspective has to the harm capitalism has caused, and continues to cause, to indigenous peoples, people in the global south and even to a large number of people from wealthy nations is excruciating to witness.

Degrowth is not recession. It is not “a period of reduced output and a significant increase in the unemployment rate”. On the contrary, degrowth is planned and aims to ensure the wellbeing of citizens via the provision of services such as healthcare, education, public transport, housing, quotas of necessary services such as electricity, water and internet as well as a federal job guarantee and a basic income guarantee for those who are unable or unwilling to work.

Degrowth is not austerity. It is not “a set of economic policies that a government implements in order to control public sector debt”. On the contrary, many degrowth proponents understand that the deficit is a myth and that the biggest constraints currency-issuing governments face aren’t financial but physical. For example, our ability to roll out renewable energy quickly enough, producing enough food to feed the population as the planet warms, electrifying and insulating homes and buildings as we wind down fossil fuels. Degrowth aims to ensure the needs of all are met as we work within these physical and non-negotiable constraints.

Degrowth is a deliberate set of strategies to reduce the material footprint, including energy use, of wealthy nations. The concept of Degrowth applies only to those nations with lifestyles that require more than one planet and it recognises that millions of people will need to increase their material footprint if they are to live a life of dignity, providing space for them to do so while, globally, we remain within the planetary boundaries. Degrowth is a rebuke of ‘growth for growth’s sake’ – an extremely inefficient way to alleviate poverty which is causing tremendous environmental harm - and instead it puts people and the planet firmly at the heart of the economy. Degrowth is recognition that, despite decades of scientists around the world sounding the alarm and dozens of global leadership meetings, continued economic growth is the reason why greenhouse gas emissions are now 60% higher than they were in 1990.  We now run the very real risk of activating global tipping points that will take warming out of our hands, rendering much of the planet uninhabitable by the end of this century.

The term “Degrowth” does have a negative connotation for some, presumably those that are unaware of the ecological crisis, or those who are concerned about such people embracing the concept. But, for those who are aware of the urgency with which we must act if we are to avoid activating catastrophic tipping points, the concept of Degrowth can hit like a breath of fresh air: pure relief that there may be a way to avoid some of the worst outcomes of a warming planet. This is because the future doesn’t look like today. There is no path to continuing to grow the economy and the material footprint that cannot be decoupled from that economy and everything will be ok. Whichever direction we choose, “the future will be a radical departure from the present”. The best science is telling us that we either implement planned degrowth or we face a very real risk of ecological and societal collapse.

If we are honest, it’s not the term “degrowth” that people don’t like, it’s what it means: we must reduce our material footprint so that we are no longer living as though we have two, three, four or five planet earths. The lifestyles of wealthy nations are not sustainable - we are transgressing seven of the nine planetary boundaries already, of which climate change and biodiversity loss are only two. We’ve been consuming ecological resources and services that, if distributed fairly, should belong to people in other nations and to future generations, including our own children. It’s a huge failure of leadership that we’ve been able to live outside of the planetary boundaries for so long – not to mention the fact that further economic growth continues to be the mission of every major government around the world. We must face into this issue and not simply pretend it isn’t happening. Changing the term won’t change what we need to do, and we cannot take our focus off what needs to be done: we are living beyond the means of the planet and it’s time to reign it in.

The good news is that by actively degrowing wealthy economies we can focus on the things in life that matter, for example: family, friendships, learning, creativity, nature, physical activity and rest. The things that actually do make us happier, because more and more “stuff” does not. We will wind down polluting industries, optimise our finite resources so that they are being used to meet needs and not wants (or merely thrown away), reduce waste via the elimination of planned obsolescence, focus on “usage” rather than “ownership” and increase the resources devoted to recycling. We will begin to live in harmony with the planet, and not actively against it.

Ultimately, if we are genuinely concerned about people suffering we cannot justify continuing to grow the economies of wealthy nations any longer. Billions of people are already suffering under this economic system, and climate change will only exacerbate this further. That is because there is no path to reducing fossil fuel use each year in wealthy nations to achieve the science-based climate change targets while continuing to increase our energy use. We must deploy ‘demand-side’ solutions as well as supply-side solutions if we are to achieve the seemingly impossible task ahead of us. It can be a bitter pill to swallow for those who have embraced - and likely benefited from - growth-based economics, but we must acknowledge that it’s time to change our economic system and degrow the economies of wealthy nations. The very future of human civilisation depends on it.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Erin Remblance is a co-founder of (re)Biz which is launching Project Tipping Point in January 2024, for those people who want to learn more about tipping points, their role in reaching them and to connect with like-hearted people wanting to do the same. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.

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