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Seven reasons why degrowth is no solution to the ecological crisis

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By Wim Naudé

· 5 min read

Earth Overshoot Day, "when humanity has used all the biological resources that the Earth regenerates during the entire year", fell on 28 July 2022. In 1971, it fell on 25 December. This acceleration in using biological resources means that humanity is overshooting planetary boundaries. Our ecological crisis is an overshoot crisis, of which anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity losses are symptoms. The full scale "of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms - including humanity - is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts." We face a “ghastly future.”

To avoid this, the degrowth movement is calling for an end to economic growth (as measured by GDP) and shrinkage of the economies of developed countries. Developing countries should use this space in world GDP created by the contraction of developed economies to develop - freed from the unequal and exploitative restrictions imposed by global capitalism. Degrowth advocates do not believe in green growth, the compatibility of continued GDP growth within planetary boundaries, or that technological solutions exist - they reject techno-optimism or any possibility of decoupling between growth and the material footprint of nations.

Limitations of degrowth

Degrowthers diagnose a real problem. Unfortunately, the downsizing of western economies is not a solution. At least seven reasons can be highlighted why degrowth is insufficient.

Degrowth will not decrease decarbonization

Most (63%) of current carbon emissions come from developing countries - where it will only continue to increase in the foreseeable future. The 2022 Emissions Gap Report notes (p. 67) that “virtually the entire future increase in global primary energy demand is expected to occur in these [developing] economies.”  Even if western economies are shrunk, they would still be extensive and emit significant carbon.

Degrowth will make matters worse

Degrowth may be dirty. Global redistribution, as degrowthers envisage, will increase aggregate consumption through a well-known "growth through redistribution" effect. Inequality reduces economic growth, hence the opposite will raise growth.

Businesses may substitute more expensive cleaner production techniques for cheaper but more polluting technologies. Governments would also not be able to borrow further to spend on social and basic needs or environmental protection.

Degrowth is politically infeasible

Because of the endowment effect, people would be unlikely to vote for politicians who propose lowering their levels of GDP per capita, especially in certain countries, at least if it is to fight climate change. A 2022 poll found that only 1% of USA voters listed climate change as the most crucial challenge. And politicians, being generally subject to a status quo bias, would be reluctant to propose such a radical policy. As proponents acknowledge “political parties that have put forward degrowth ideas have received limited support in elections.”

Degrowth is expensive

Degrowth is not only politically infeasible because voters would not give up their incomes but also because it is a costly way to tackle the ecological crisis. It has been calculated that if the world shrinks GDP per capita by 10% (around US$7,000 billion), it will reduce carbon emissions by about 3.3 gigatons, meaning a cost of US$2,100 per ton of emissions. A recent study published in Nature put the social cost of carbon dioxide (SC-CO2) at US$185 per ton of emissions. Degrowthers want us to pay more than ten times the price.

Degrowth policies are disappointing

A recent inventory of degrowth policies identified 530 proposals associated with the movement. This proliferation is because the degrowth movement is  “multi-faceted". It has become a rally-cry for anyone with a societal and environmental grievance, whether against capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, or utilitarianism.

Because of the confusion this proliferation creates, a recent paper prioritized these into an “Iceberg model of degrowth policy proposals." At the top of the iceberg, prominent policies are universal basic income, work-time reductions, job guarantees, maximum income caps, non-for-profit cooperation, eco-villages, and housing cooperatives.

None of these are novel and most are, or have already been, implemented - most extensively in market economies. Furthermore, there is no attempt to link these policy proposals to decoupling - how many carbon emissions would they eliminate? How fast? No evidence is provided.

Degrowth is irresponsible

The lack of evidence on the carbon reduction that the iceberg model of policies will achieve - and achieve soon, as the matter is pressing - is a concern. We would not imagine subjecting human populations to potentially dangerous experimental drugs without rigorously testing their efficacy. Why embrace the "medicine" prescribed by the degrowth movement? Olivier Simar-Casanova described this ethical and moral problem with degrowth clearly:

“Global warming is a serious issue, and claiming to respond to it with solutions of uncertain carbon efficiency, which we do not know how to implement in practice, is irresponsible.”

The dangers of shackling economies without any evidence as to the likely outcome are that it would leave the world much more exposed and vulnerable to shocks, make the adjustment to a zero-carbon-emitting economy more costly, and raise the risk of conflict by turning the economy into a zero-sum game.

Degrowth is hypocritical

Degrowth is no solution to the ecological crisis because it is, at its roots, hypocritical. As one commentator put it:

“It is one thing to advocate the end of economic growth if you have no actual fear of poverty. If you are struggling to keep yourself warm and fed, on the other hand, the idea of self-denial – still less of shrinking the economy – will have rather less appeal. Degrowth is a middle–class luxury, an indulgence to be conducted from the comfort of your sofa with its electronic foot-raiser […] People who express disgust with consumerism have a tendency to disapprove of other people’s while overlooking their own.”


Neither degrowth nor the more mainstream green growth approach offer viable solutions for the ecological crisis. Worse, a recent editorial in Nature magazine pointed out that the disagreement between degrowth and green growth “is impeding action. It’s time for researchers to end their debate. The world needs them to focus on the greater goals of stopping catastrophic environmental destruction and improving well-being.”

This is a distraction that cannot be afforded because GDP growth and population growth are, in any case, in decline. We do not need a degrowth experiment to slow it down. We live in the Great Stagnation. Society is gradually ossifying, and with it, its supply of innovative science and ideas, which remain, however remotely, our only chance of avoiding the premature curtailment of humanity’s potential.

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.

Photo by Afbeelding van anhot via Pixabay
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About the author

Wim Naudé is Visiting Professor in Technology and Development at RWTH Aachen University, Germany; Research Fellow at the IZA Institute for Labor Economics, Germany; and Distinguished Visiting Professor in Economics at the University of Johannesburg. According to Stanford University’s rankings, he is amongst the top 2% of scientists in the world.

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