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Degrowth: no, let’s not call it something else

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By Erin Remblance, Jennifer Harvey Sallin

· 8 min read

In search of alternatives

I agree with the concept of degrowth, but isn’t there a better term for it?

We get this question a lot from people who fear that the term “degrowth” sounds too negative in a world where economic growth is almost universally considered positive. They worry the perception that degrowth must be negative will stop many people from embracing the term, the concept, and, subsequently, degrowth-aligned behaviors and policies.

In considering the question, it’s important to not resort to reductionism (all good versus all bad). Degrowth is defined by downscaling and increasing, just in different ways than the currently dominant economic growth framework. While our current system requires perpetual upscaling of production and consumption, it comes at immense cost both to the environment and to billions of people around the world – their labour exploited and, in the case of the global south, their natural resources appropriated in a continuous flow of wealth transfer to the global north. In contrast, degrowth aims to downscale production and consumption in wealthy nations and increase human and ecological well-being and global equity. The focus on what grows and on who that growth benefits is the essential difference between the two frameworks.

Well then, why not rebrand degrowth according to its positives?

Many people have already done work in that direction, with alternative conceptual terms such as ‘well-being economy’ or ‘regenerative economy’. While it’s true these terms draw attention to the positive aspects of leaving a growth-dependent economic model, they also shy away from naming the hard choices that need to be made in order to get those positives (i.e. degrowth). Though the choices we need to make will not always be easy, and won’t be welcomed by everyone, we cannot take our focus off the task at hand: those of us in wealthy nations are living as if we have 2, 3, 4 or 5 planet Earths, and we need to rein it in. We must degrow our material footprint, energy included, until we are back within the planetary boundaries -- of which we are already transgressing 6 of 9, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Just as a doctor shouldn't attempt to dilute or obscure the diagnosis they deliver to a patient -- they should be clear and forthcoming with the facts of the matter -- we too must be explicit with our message: wealthy nations need to use less of the Earth’s resources in order to survive, and we can only do that by abandoning economic growth.

But growth is a good thing, right? After all, everything in nature grows.

Yes, everything in nature grows, however nothing in nature grows forever (except for cancer, and even that stops growing when it kills its host). Yet, this is where we find ourselves with our current growth-based economy. There is no end in sight: just exponential growth forever. At no point in a growth-dependent economic model are we planning, or even allowed, to say, “okay, we’ve reached the optimal size now, let’s embrace a steady-state economy”. If that were the case, we would have left growth-based economics behind nearly five decades ago, when we were still within the planetary boundaries.

Our natural resources are a key input into economic growth, as demonstrated by the chart below, which shows that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and material footprint are tightly coupled. The more our economy grows, the more of our natural environment it devours. This compounding GDP growth ultimately means exponential growth and therefore the rate at which we are harming the planet is accelerating. Furthermore, the natural world is a crucial source of carbon drawdown and of course, biodiversity: to solve our ecological crises we need to be expanding the footprint of our natural environment, not reducing it. Continuing to grow the economies of wealthy nations is in direct contrast to this aim.

Figure 1: As GDP grows so does material footprint. Chart shows change in global material footprint compared to change in global GDP (constant 2010 USD), 1990-2013

Image: As GDP grows so does material footprint. Chart shows change in global material footprint compared to change in global GDP (constant 2010 USD), 1990-2013.

What about green growth? Surely that enables us to grow our economy forever?

No, unfortunately not. All the evidence indicates that green growth is not possible, and certainly not within the small window we have left to reduce emissions if we are to avoid catastrophic warming.

Both-and versus either-or

The fact that the term ‘degrowth’ isn’t immediately embraced by some people doesn’t mean it’s not effective. We are asking people to abandon a long-held belief, and it will take some getting used to. The word ‘degrowth’ is disruptive to the point of being confrontational and isn’t easily absorbed into the status quo, reflecting the urgent and unequivocal transformational change and paradigm shift that we need. Degrowth is anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, challenging the global north’s implicit assumption that it can continue its materialist and consumerist ways infinitely, to the detriment of a huge swath of humanity in the global south. There is an integrity in being upfront about what is required if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change -- to all of humanity -- acknowledging that many people are suffering now, and ‘net-zero 2050’ is too far away for them. The term ‘degrowth’ is honest, not trying to sugar coat the severity of the situation with fairy tales of technology and green growth, or solutions that aren’t workable, or not likely to be viable. Because of that honesty, ‘degrowth’ gets noticed.

Psychologically, it points to our need to be open to the challenges that lie ahead, and to be ready to take serious and resilient action in the face of huge personal and societal revolution. Drastic change is coming in our lives, and many of us are grieving as we come to acknowledge our own ‘sunk’ investment in our careers, lifestyles or dreams for the future that simply won’t materialise -- not because of degrowth, but because we have failed to act on the science of climate change for decades. Degrowth helps us contextualize why this came about and helps us to face the facts with the urgency and commitment required: active degrowth in the present or passive collapse in the near future.

Some people even welcome the word with relief. In Japan, philosopher and economic historian Professor Kohei Saito wrote a book about democratic "degrowth communism” and despite expectations that the work would be ignored or shunned (due to having degrowth in the title), it has been a runaway bestseller, with already half a million copies sold and bookshops unable to keep up with demand. An English version of the book, titled Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, is available in November 2022. Those purchasing books like Saito’s, especially young people, are hungry for post-capitalist ideas.

Linked to this, and very practically speaking, the degrowth movement has a long history of academic and social research and contribution to draw from. It was first called degrowth in 1972 (“décroissance”), the same year Limits to Growth was published, and the modern iteration of the degrowth movement has been around for the last 20 years. Conferences on the topic have been taking place around the world for 14 years, and many books and academic papers have been published with degrowth in the title. You can get a master’s degree in degrowth, degrowth is named in the latest IPCC AR6 WGII report 15 times, and it is listed as a pathway to a sustainable future in the latest IPBES Values Assessment report. If we want political leaders to embrace this framework and to use it in policymaking, we need to use the term adopted in the existing research, literature and policy proposals.

Thus, it’s a ‘both-and’ situation rather than an ‘either-or’ scenario: degrowth as a term both challenges our preconditioned assumptions and offers practical and inspirational reframing for the future.

Solving the right variable

Seeking to change the name of the degrowth movement would be trying to solve the wrong variable, at a moment when we have no time to waste in superficial rebranding efforts. As we said above, the problem that needs solving is that most people currently believe economic growth to be both good and necessary (and just needs to be ‘greener’, despite all the evidence that “green growth” is an impossibility). We doubt there's any one term which would both appeal to this bias and drastically challenge and transform it in the timeframe needed.

Solving the right variable would see our collective efforts invested in ensuring that the notion that “eternal growth is good” is dispelled as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. We need people in wealthy nations to understand how harmful further economic growth is: that by continuing to grow GDP, limiting global warming below 2ºC will be an impossibility. Such a temperature rise could activate tipping points in the Earth’s system that would generate additional warming regardless of what action we take at that point. This would lead to a new, and perilous, climate state that climate scientist Professor Will Steffen describes as ‘Hothouse Earth’: an Earth that is virtually uninhabitable for humans.

Therefore, we don’t need to change the name ‘degrowth’. What we need is for more of us in wealthy nations to intuitively associate the term ‘economic growth’ with ‘collapse’.

Let’s focus on the real issues

It can’t be emphasised enough that infinite growth on a finite planet is causing ecological overshoot. Just one consequence of that overshoot -- climate change -- could make much of the planet uninhabitable, likely in the next generation’s, if not our own, lifetimes. Those of us in wealthy nations can live happy, healthy lives without economic growth, and indeed with far less material throughput, but continuing with business as usual will lead to collapse.

If we can’t convince people in wealthy nations to heed these well-established realities, then we have much bigger problems than simply the name of the movement that is our best chance of avoiding catastrophe.

illuminem 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 authors

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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Jennifer Harvey Sallin is the founding director of InterGifted, and leads a climate engagement project called I Heart Earth. She is a psychologist and leader in the field of high intelligence and high performance. She applies her expertise in the area of climate psychology and climate activism.

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