Degrowth is the concept of leaving our current, unfair and environmentally degrading economy behind by going through a just, democratic process of downscaling less necessary production and consumption to arrive at a different economy that enables all people to live well within planetary boundaries. It’s an antidote to the many ills of growth: not just climate change, but also biodiversity loss and inequality, locally and globally.
Some people say they like the concept but not the word – they’d prefer it to be called regrowth or something like that – so they refuse to fully engage with it. That’s a bit like saying you don’t like the word soccer, so you’ll kick a ball around but you won’t play the game unless everybody agrees to call it football. The word degrowth has been carefully chosen and has several important meanings. Most obviously, it means metabolic degrowth in that downscaling production and consumption would reduce material and energy use and, thus, environmental impacts. It also means to move away from the growth paradigm; to de-Growth the mind. Understanding degrowth begins with the realisation that growth is a paradigm, and outside that paradigm there is an infinitely large thinking space where you can meet with others, many of whom have always been there, to examine growth objectively, imagine a post-growth world and collaborate on designing and delivering a transition toward it.
Larry Elliott, Economics Editor at The Guardian, has written recently about degrowth, promising to show us how to kick our growth addiction as a way out of the climate crisis. Unfortunately, he misunderstands and misrepresents degrowth and paints a dim picture of its potential, centering the problem on poorer nations for their unwillingness to degrow. He has surely undone some of the painstaking work that is underway to properly explain the new concept of degrowth. His lazy article demands a thoughtful response.
Elliott misrepresents degrowth most egregiously when he writes: “It would be the hardest of sells for any politician to try to convince UK voters they should welcome the recession that is now only in its early stages. That’s because over many decades, people – especially the most vulnerable – have found that degrowth has not been good for them. Recessions are a form of degrowth, and they result in unemployment, bankruptcy, homelessness and hardship.”
He's badly mistaken. Recessions are not a form of degrowth. A recession is a contraction of the growth economy. Unemployment, bankruptcy, homelessness and hardship are the result of negative growth in an economy that values only expansion and has no structural resilience to contraction.
Elliott seems trapped in the growth paradigm. He is not imagining the alternative political economy of degrowth with its cornucopia of household, community, market and governance ideas for living well without the spectre of growthism hanging over every exchange. There would be expansive local, common modes of production and consumption provisioning low impact, low energy use lifestyles, including communal and community-supported food production, community-owned housing, energy and utilities, low energy buildings, shared childcare, digital commons, credit unions, cooperative ownership of businesses, regenerative approaches to operating within biosphere boundaries, durable, repairable, shareable products, decent wages, reduced working hours and universal basic income, care income and services, as well as taxes on excessive wealth and destructive activities. This lively scene is a hive of economic activity, distributed value, shared surpluses, autonomy, solidarity, care and conviviality. It is sensitive to racial, gender and environmental injustices, is inspired by non-growth cultures around the world, such as buen vivir, and is founded upon political and economic democracy.
This modern, emerging idea of degrowth being developed in Europe by such 21st century luminaries as Giorgos Kallis, Jason Hickel and Tim Parrique is about internalising (as values) and externalising (as policies) the notion of living well within limits to bring about radical environmental, social, political and economic change. Ultimately, degrowth aims to build a post-growth world in which future humans are culturally and structurally enabled to operate within a bandwidth of necessary economic outcomes, measured across crucial social and environmental wellbeing metrics, per the familiar Doughnut Economics model. GDP would be a relic of the past, a mistake.
Elliott isn’t done. He misrepresents degrowth again when he writes that “achieving a steady-state economy or degrowth is not going to be easy”. Steady-state economics isn’t the same as degrowth, although they do overlap. Steady-state economics has been around for some time but is by no means a widely known or accepted idea. Its foundations are English, based on the ideas of political economists Thomas Malthus in the 18th century and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, but the idea was extensively developed in the late 20th century by American ecological economist Herman Daly. Elliott refers to all three sources.
To reach and maintain a sustainable economy, steady-state economics proposes forcing negative growth of GDP to reach an economy of a smaller size that operates within ecological limits, then holding that economy in suspension, neither in growth nor recession. A number of policies are suggested, many of them agreeable to the degrowth community, such as cap-auction-trade systems for resources, a flexible working week, limits to inequality of income, limits on advertising, moving from globalisation to localisation and an overhaul of banking. Several other policies are disagreeable to the degrowth community, including population interventions (based on Malthusian arguments, which also appeal to rightwing extremists), conservation areas (which also appeal to environmentalists) and monitoring of GDP and internalisation of costs (which also appeal to neoclassical economists). Steady-state economics has authoritarian undertones, it prioritises GDP and it lacks the warm values that could charge a democratic, social revolution – all key differences with the idea of degrowth.
Elliott then argues: “The only way to make a steady-state economy achievable is to harness an anti-poverty strategy to a pro-planet strategy….What’s needed is a global strategy that encourages poorer countries to meet their legitimate anti-poverty goals in a way that is least harmful to the environment.”
To suggest to poorer countries that they must meet their anti-poverty goals in a way that is least harmful to the environment must be truly insulting to them since they bear virtually no responsibility for the global crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality.
Nevertheless, he goes on: “Britain accounts for 1% of annual CO2 emissions, whereas China and India account between them for 36%. African countries have much smaller carbon footprints, but they are likely to grow as populations rise and demand for energy increases…Western countries can – and should – set an example with speedier transition to cleaner energy, but it is naive to imagine poorer countries are going to go for degrowth any time soon.” Given his previous confusion over terms, we must assume that by degrowth he really means the steady-state economics idea of controlled negative growth of GDP.
It sounds like Elliott is suggesting that the idea of steady-state economics is a non-starter because poorer countries won’t be convinced to voluntarily reduce their economies or populations. (No wonder steady-state economics fails to find support beyond tiny niches in Anglo nations.) Elliot’s answer to this fly in the ointment is for the IMF and the World Bank to catalyse private investment by providing cheaper finance to fund climate mitigation and adaptation projects. Wouldn’t this extend imperial arrangements, leaving the global South even more indebted to the global North and further feeding global North growth? Elliott arrives back in the growth paradigm from whence he never really left, despite promising to show us how to kick our growth addiction.
Standing back, outside the growth paradigm, it becomes clear that poorer nations, the global majority, need financial wealth and sovereignty to provision their citizens’ basic needs, while richer nations, the global elite, must radically reduce their environmental impacts. The onus is on rich nations to act. They can do three things. They can substantially decrease their environmental impacts through reducing their material and energy use by 50-70%. In theory, they can achieve this without reducing wellbeing, taking lessons from several global South nations that have generated high levels of wellbeing with relatively little impact, such as Costa Rica. They can replace capitalism with a new system founded on fair exchange in global trade. And they can forgive global South debt. Rather than foisting blame onto poorer nations, the biggest risk to degrowth is the failure of rich nations to think outside the growth paradigm to imagine themselves co-developing and participating with global South partners in a better – and different – kind of global economy.
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Photo credit: Jon Tyson, Unsplash (edited)