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The degrowth movement is a reaction against degrowth

By Wim Naudé

Jun 29 2023 · 13 min read

Illuminem Voices
Degrowth · Environmental Sustainability

Degrowth in the West

Since the 1970s, economic growth, and simultaneously entrepreneurship, innovation, science, and research productivity has been on the decline. This has been termed the “Great Stagnation.” Between 2000 and 2020 the Eurozone economies, for example, managed, despite the advances in digitalization and massive amounts of quantitative easing by the ECB, to only achieve an average of 1% growth per year.

This has created a zero-sum society in the West. With the size of the economic cake essentially fixed, or shrinking, the economy becomes a theater of conflict. One group can only make itself better off at the expense of another. Redistribution, instead of production, becomes the basis of the economy. In a zero-sum economy, higher and higher inequality is most often the outcome.

For firms in a zero-sum economy, defensive innovation (aimed to exploit a fixed niche) becomes the default mode — to keep competitors out and extract more profits from existing markets. Hence, it should come as no surprise that we have seen indicators of corporate dominance and industry concentration increase, the share of labour in output decline, and the rise of industrial policy nationalismde-globalization, poor quality, low-paying jobs, and trade wars.

And in this degrowth, zero-sum economy, society is seemingly getting more risk averse. It has been observed that

"the effort to stop growth misunderstand human nature, which thrives on the motivation to create and improve. Dooming people to stagnation deprives them of curiosity and purpose.”

And in the process, new ideas are not so welcome anymore. According to Michael Bhaskar, "society has become more hostile to radical innovation, risk-averse, fractious, short-termist.”

Society has also become less tolerant towards migrants and has experienced personal rights decline and inclusiveness stagnate. Governments are less trusted: public trust in government in the USA has, for instance, fallen from 77% in 1964 in the economic growth golden age, to 17% in 2019.

A de-growing, zero-sum economy can make the ecological crisis worse. During the drop in GDP experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic in most countries in 2020–2021, many newspaper articles reported similarly as the following:

“[…]we have had a taste of their medicine. Last year saw the limitarian ideal realized: falling GDP, grounded airplanes, less trade, a downturn in birthrates […] We were imprisoned, impoverished, immiserated. The poorest people on the planet were pushed into hunger. And for what? A drop in carbon emissions whose impact on climate change was negligible, if it existed at all, and with that, the loss of biodiversity that invariably follows when incomes plummet.”

Science used to be a "candle in the dark.” In the zero-sum, degrowth economy of the West, it is not so anymore: moral relativism, religious dogma and even outright anti-science sentiment are eroding whatever is left of Europe’s Enlightenment legacy.

We have become a “stop-button” society.

The degrowth movement

Born in recession

It is in this context in which the degrowth movement has arisen. Like the rise in dogma, intolerance and anti-science sentiment are among the outcomes — or symptoms — of degrowth in the West. The "birth of degrowth as an international research agenda” was seen at the first degrowth conference in Paris in 2008. Yes, the degrowth movement was born during the global financial crisis of 2008. Jason Hickel’s widely-read degrowth manifesto “Less is More” was published in 2021, amidst the global COVID-pandemic downturn.

It is actually a smart move to publish anti-capitalism books during a recession, as it has been observed that the sales of Karl Marx’s and related books soar during economic crises. Not to mention getting public funding for research on the topic of growth — degrowth proponents such as Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis are reported to have received tens of millions in “largesse” from the EU.

Given that the degrowth movement was born in a recession, it is a superb irony that it wants more of the same: more degrowth, not less. It wants to degrow the world economy because it considers the world economy to be too big — overshooting planetary boundaries. Ecological disasters, including runaway climate change, will result in a "ghastly future" unless we can live within planetary boundaries. The movement often refers to the calculation that we will need almost three planets if everyone consumes as much as the average Western citizen.

Ecological Iatrogenics

The degrowth movement’s medicine for this very real problem is akin to prescribing alcohol for a hangover. Or perhaps, more accurately, it is akin to the old practice of bloodletting. For centuries, the world’s doctors and religious leaders believed fervently in and advocated that the ill be bled. It was a medical practice that tended to make the patient worse off, rather than being a cure. George Washington’s death in 1799 was apparently hastened by having had five pints of his blood drained. There is a term for well-intentioned medicine causing more harm than good: Iatrogenics.

A radical political project

According to the degrowth movement, policymakers are obsessed with maximizing economic growth as measured by GDP. This is, according to their narrative, due to the inherent nature of global capitalism, which generates large inequalities between the Global North and the Global South. The degrowth movement, therefore, wants to proactively reduce GDP in advanced economies (and not the Global South) and do so via a "radical political project". This entails reconfiguration of the entire global socio-economic system, starting in the rich, decadent and consumption-driven West, in accordance with degrowth’s "powerful oppositional Marxist ecology that represents a path to a truly sustainable Earth."

The degrowth movement believes that this will prevent an ecological overshoot and environmental collapse. It believes that, despite the facts to the contrary in the degrowth-West of the past 50 years, this would lead to abundance and happiness, and that limits and boundaries to GDP, consumption and resource use will stimulate innovation and creativity — leading to a better society all-round. According to Kate Raworth, “boundaries unleash creativity.”

There is no decoupling of social progress

The degrowth movement thinks that we cannot decouple material use and carbon emissions from economic growth, but that we can indeed decouple innovation, creativity, and happiness as well as social progress — such as is reflected in gains in tolerance and other 21st century values — from economic growth. We often forget how much social progress has accompanied the last two centuries of economic growth. Ian Morris reminds us that:

“Most people in the world today think democracy and gender equality are good, and that violence and wealth inequality are bad. But most people who lived during the 10,000 years before the nineteenth century thought just the opposite.”

Hence, physicist Tom Murphy has warned us that degrowth may undo the social progress that has taken place in a growing, positive-sum economy:

"In times of plenty, we can afford to be kind to those who are different. We are less threatened when we are comfortable. If our 21st century standard of living peaks […] then we may not have the luxury of viewing our social progress as an irreversible ratchet. Hard times revive old tribal instincts: different is not welcome.”

And Stephen Quilley and Kaitlin Kish have voiced concern that the degrowth movement does not seem to appreciate that “progressive forms of state, culture and society along with scientific rationality all depend very directly upon the progressive (growth) economy.”

The degrowth movement may also be mistaken in assuming that we can in centralized fashion, through the political process, dictate an orderly process of scaling down resource use and consumption (and hence GDP), when redistribution, instead of production, becomes the basis of the economy. A similar fantasy did not play out well in the Soviet Union where the ecological damage from the degrowth period under communism turned the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites into one of the most polluted regions in the world. This legacy endures to the present.

Degrowth has been labelled as "dirty", as a program of "ecological austerity for working-class people", and has been accused by Ted Nordhaus of "do[ing] more harm to the planet than good”.

When one realizes that we already live in a world resembling degrowth and that we do not like it, these descriptions make sense.

This article is an extract from a paper titled “We Already Live in a Degrowth World, and We Do Not like It.” 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.

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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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