Why is degrowth absolutely existential but actually an abhorrent term?
The degrowth debate: unraveling it
Growth and prosperity: an economic principle that is firmly rooted
Impact of assuming that economic growth is linked to prosperity
For centuries, economic growth and prosperity are intertwined in our collective consciousness. This view is supported by studies that show a positive correlation between GDP growth and employment rates, access to healthcare, and life expectancy (Stiglitz et al., 2009). This definition of prosperity is derived from traditional growth models that posit that higher production and consumption lead to increased incomes, jobs, and overall social well-being.
Herman Daly (an eco-economist) is one of the critics who believe that this model can lead to environmental degradation and, ultimately, a reduction in prosperity (Daly, 1996). We must first acknowledge that we are accustomed to a growth-prosperity relationship, which affects the environment and society.
Simon Kuznets was the inventor of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and one of his strongest critics. Kuznets won the Nobel Prize in Accounting for his pioneering work on national income. In his 1934 report to Congress, Kuznets stated that "the welfare of a country cannot be easily inferred from measures on national income.”
Kuznets was concerned that the GDP did not account for social costs or environmental impacts. He created new measures such as the Genuine Progress Indicator. GPI aims to capture the benefits of societies (Talberth et al., 2007).
This paper explores the notion that economic development leads to prosperity and the profound interaction of socio-economic dynamics. This commonly held equation of growth and prosperity is the cornerstone of economic systems, dictating societal expectations and behavior. However, when placed in a degrowth framework, this equation becomes a cause for concern. Fear of stagnation and recession due to degrowth scenarios shows inherent risks associated with challenging status quo beliefs.
Economic risks of degrowth: concerns about stagnation or recession
Degrowth can lead to economic stagnation and recession. Many economists think a sudden decline in economic growth can lead to financial instability, higher unemployment, and lower living standards. (Jackson 2016). According to the traditional economic theory, economies without growth can descend into a downward cycle of reduced consumer and business expenditures, leading to increased unemployment and further decreased demand (Keynes, 1936). There are concerns about the sustainability of public and private debt in conditions of negative or no growth (Victor, 2012). Degrowth advocates counter these concerns by arguing that it is necessary to create sustainable economies while acknowledging the need for economic system restructuring to mitigate potential risks.
Social and psychological barriers to degrowth
Consumer culture and the desire for progress can cause complications
Degrowth is hampered by consumer culture and its insatiable appetite for material progress. Baudrillard (1998), a sociologist, describes our society's insatiable desire for goods that are not only useful but also serve as symbols. This reinforces an endless cycle of consumption. Jason Hickel echoes these sentiments and emphasizes that this consumption-oriented culture is unsustainable and worsens global inequality and environmental degradation (Hickel, 2017).
Dauvergne (2012, 2008) notes that consumer culture has environmental costs, including its impact on resource depletion. Degrowth requires a cultural shift from materialism and a confrontation and deconstruction of these deeply embedded norms. This change is often met with resistance because of fears about a decreased standard of living or social status (Kallis, 2011; Hickel, 2020).
We must be aware of any shifts towards degrowth as we examine the implications and relationship between consumer culture, material progress, and possible degrowth. Cultural norms encouraging continued consumption are crucial in shaping how we perceive our progress and well-being. These norms increase the fear of degrowth, especially regarding job security and lower living standards. The discussion shifts from a social to a personal level as individual concerns about livelihood and quality of life in degrowth scenarios are addressed.
Anxiety over reduced living standards, job security
When considering a degrowth path, the primary concerns are a diminished standard of living and job loss. The fear of a degrowth trajectory is deeply rooted in society, given the strong correlation between GDP and employment (Nickell, 1999) and perceived threats to job security (Victor, 2012.)
Critics of the degrowth movement express concern that it could worsen inequalities (Hickel,2020). While acknowledging the risks of degrowth and arguing for its necessity, proponents argue that it is necessary and propose comprehensive economic and social reforms to protect employment and living standards, such as a universal basic income or reduced work week (Kallis et al., 2018).
Degrowth: a double-edged sword
The negative impact of degrowth
While admirably working towards sustainable economic alternatives, degrowth opponents have criticized its inadvertently negative connotations that could harm its cause. Critics claim that degrowth implies decay or regression, which could generate negative emotions and even resistance in its audience (Schneider et al., 2010). Many misinterpret the term as a decrease in social progress or quality of life. Critics claim it does not capture its holistic vision for a shift toward achieving an equitable and sustainable community (van den Bergh, 2011).
Degrowth is criticized for lacking a clear roadmap to achieve its goals. Critics see its theoretical framework as too idealistic and disconnected from modern economies (Martinez-Alier et al., 2010). Additionally, Raworth (2017) underscored its potential counterproductiveness, suggesting another name may better gain mainstream acceptance and help it achieve widespread support.
When considering the meanings and connotations associated with degrowth and the terms' unintended but harmful implications, we must evaluate the risks of misinterpretation and misuse. The language we use extensively impacts public perception of the concept. Misinterpretation can raise additional doubts about its viability and complexity.
The term "degrowth" can be misunderstood and misused
The degrowth concept is fraught with dangers in terms of misuse and interpretation. Degrowth starkly contrasts existing social systems and can therefore be oversimplified and misinterpreted, leading to some questioning its legitimacy. This complicates the transition to a low-growth economy. The connotation of degrowth as a decline or regression may mislead others into misinterpreting the utopia of equality and sustainability (Schneider et al., 2010). Critics warn against degrowth movements discrediting them with words such as occupy (Jackson, 2016). Buchs and Koch (2019) expressed concern about lacking a theoretical basis for degrowth's tenets. They note that degrowth's ambiguous definition emphasizes the need for clear communication and rigorous theory development. This leaves it open to misuse and misinterpretation.
When discussing and advocating its transition to sustainable economic models, it is essential to take a deliberate and thoughtful approach. A paradigm shift of this magnitude is fraught with risks and complexity. Finding alternative terminology that captures degrowth while avoiding adverse reactions is essential. After discussing its challenges, it is important to find less controversial terms that are more acceptable and could be used as practical communication tools in this area.
Alternative terminology that is less controversial and more acceptable
Some scholars and activists believe that 'degrowth,' which can be misunderstood and misused, should be replaced with a more accessible term. Van den Bergh (2011) suggested adopting the term "a-growth," which advocates indifference to GDP growth. Raworth's concept of Doughnut Economics (2017) redefines it around meeting human needs without exceeding the planet’s limit.
Both terms offer alternative frames of reference that highlight equity, sustainability, and prosperity, which may appeal to and be better understood by a broad audience. Jackson (2016) suggested "Prosperity without Growth,” focusing on sustainable development and the well-being of humans over economic expansion. Buchs and Koch, 2019 introduced the term "Postgrowth,” focusing on welfare and societal well-being beyond economic expansion constraints.
The author's new proposal: "Flourish & Prosper"
Jef Teugels suggests "Flourish and Prosper" as an excellent alternative for degrowth because it represents a more positive and productive perspective on sustainability. Degrowth implies decline or regress; Teugels’s proposed term instead emphasizes prosperity and well-being for humans. "Flourish & Prosper" aligns with the philosophy of Eudaimonia, or flourishing. It refers to realizing your full potential and authentic self (Ryff, 1989). This is central to humanistic psychology. "Flourish & Prosper" is also closely aligned with Prosperity without Growth (Jackson, 2016) and Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2017), which emphasize an economy that meets human needs while not exceeding ecological limits. "Flourish and Prosper,” a new addition to the discourse on sustainability and equity, captures well what it takes to create a sustainable and equitable future. It is palatable and appealing as an alternative to degrowth.
Degrowth is a term that remains controversial and open to misinterpretation, despite its importance in addressing urgent ecological and societal crises. Misunderstanding could undermine its intended effect, complicating the transition to a sustainable economy. It is, therefore, vital to find alternative terms that are more appealing and beneficial. Jef Teugels proposed a term, "Flourish & Prosper,” emphasizing human and planetary well-being, sustainable development, and prosperity. This is a powerful vision for a broader audience. The language we use will be crucial in shaping stories and securing the support of transformative ideas as we work together to create sustainable futures.
Baudrillard, J. (1998). ‘The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures’, Sage Publications [Preprint]. doi:10.4135/9781526401502.
Buchs, M. and Koch, M. (2017) Postgrowth and wellbeing: Challenges to sustainable welfare. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan.
Cobb, C., Halstead, T. and Rowe, J. (1995) The genuine progress indicator: Summary of data and methodology. San Francisco, CA: Redefining Progress.
Daly, H.E. (1996) Beyond growth: The Economics of Sustainable Environment. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Dauvergne, P. (2008) The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the Global Environment. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.
Easterlin, R.A. (2003) ‘Explaining happiness’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(19), pp. 11176–11183. doi:10.1073/pnas.1633144100.
Hickel, J. (2018) The divide: Global inequality from Conquest to free markets. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Hickel, J. (2022) Less is more: How degrowth Will Save the world. Dublin: Penguin Random House Ireland.
Jackson, T. (2017) Prosperity without growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Kallis, G. (2011) ‘In defence of degrowth’, Ecological Economics, 70(5), pp. 873–880. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.12.007.
Kallis, G. et al. (2018) ‘Research on degrowth’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 43(1), pp. 291–316. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-102017-025941.
Keynes, J.M. (1936) The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Macmillan and Co.
Kuznets, S. (1934) ‘National Income, 1929-1932’, National Bureau of Economic Research, 49.
Kuznets, S. (1962) ‘How To Judge Quality’, The New Republic, 157(11), pp. 29–32.
Martínez-Alier, J. et al. (2010) ‘Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future prospects of an emergent paradigm’, Ecological Economics, 69(9), pp. 1741–1747. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.04.017.
Nickell, S. (1998) ‘Unemployment: Questions and some answers’, The Economic Journal, 108(448), pp. 802–816. doi:10.1111/1468-0297.00316.
Raworth, K. (2018) Dougnout Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Rogers, P. and Daly, H.E. (1996) ‘Beyond growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development.’, Population and Development Review, 22(4), p. 783. doi:10.2307/2137812.
Ryff, C.D. (1989) ‘Happiness is everything, or is it? explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), pp. 1069–1081. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2069.
Schneider, F., Kallis, G. and Martinez-Alier, J. (2010) ‘Crisis or opportunity? economic degrowth for Social Equity and ecological sustainability. introduction to this special issue’, Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), pp. 511–518. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.01.014.
Solow, R.M. (1956) ‘A contribution to the theory of economic growth’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 70(1), p. 65. doi:10.2307/1884513.
Stiglitz, J.E., Sen, A.K. and Fitoussi, J.-P. (2009) Report by the commission on the measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Paris: Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.
Talberth, J., Cobb, C. and Slattery, N. (2007) ‘The Genuine Progress Indicator 2006: A Tool for Sustainable Development’, Redefining Progress [Preprint].
van den Bergh, J.C.J.M. (2011) ‘Environment versus growth — a criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth”’, Ecological Economics, 70(5), pp. 881–890. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.09.035.
Victor, P.A. (2012) ‘Growth, degrowth and climate change: A scenario analysis’, Ecological Economics, 84, pp. 206–212. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2011.04.013.
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.
About the author
Jef Teugels designs planet- and people-first solutions and is a post-graduate researcher. He explores the energy created by the friction between customer behavior, organizational readiness, and exponential technologies. Born at 319.62 ppm, he’s a father and a grandfather trying to develop some intergenerational value.