Editor’s note: this article is longer than usual, expect a 7-8m read
Our focus on prioritising economic growth over environmental and social aspects is leading us to ecological breakdown, climate catastrophe, exacerbated inequality issues and greater injustice – and to add to the list it’s possibly not even making us happier. Degrowth calls for a shift from the capitalistic consumerism that lays at the roots of our societal and environmental problems, and proposes a new way of conceiving not only the economy but also our way of life, where people’s wellbeing and environmental protection always come first.
I don’t need to discuss the long list of our impacts on the planet – doing so would make this article rather disheartening when in fact I want it to be thought-provoking and leave you with a fine aftertaste of how we can shape our future in a way that it will benefit both the environment and us, as collectives and individuals. In short, our ecological footprint is not trivial. By “our” I mean that of people living in the world’s richest nations1. By “footprint” I mean the impact of our activities on the environment and biodiversity. Climate change, overexploitation and land-use change are the primary drivers of the ongoing sixth mass extinction of around one million species many of which will be gone within our lifetime2, and of the destruction of invaluable places including world wonders such as the Amazon rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.
Why do we find it so hard to counter these deleterious activities if we got them pinned down so clearly as the problem? Because we have embraced and live by the idea that economic growth is essential for the progress and improvement of society. So when we go on about addressing these issues, we do so with blinkered eyes and only look at options which embrace the notion of constant economic growth, such as “sustainable development” or a “green growth”. Nevertheless, scientific evidence shows that despite our many attempts at decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation we’ve never succeeded, and experts are increasingly saying that it may not be possible at all3. On top of that, as countries get wealthier their footprint increases4.
Having to rely on constant economic growth is why we produce cheap products that need regular replacing, and why every day we are shoved zillions of adverts in the face, wherever we go, online and offline, so that we buy more and more and feed our money back into the system in a vicious circle. At least, does this way of doing things make us happier? Doesn’t look like it. Research suggests that happiness levels don’t go up with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country. Once basic needs are provided, extra money does not appear to increase people’s happiness5. Additionally, the feminist movement made it clear decades ago that GDP does not value what is not in the market, like the unpaid domestic work which is in most cases performed by women6.
Why, then, are we still sticking to and prioritising economic growth? The general idea is that as the richest get richer, money will trickle down and there will be more crumbs for the poor. Meanwhile, technological improvements will reduce our impact on the environment through more efficient resource use. However, in practice, increased efficiency in resource use leads to their accelerated use, which brings us back to the initial problem instead of solving it – this is known as the Jevons paradox7. Similarly, instead of bringing people out of poverty, what we’re seeing is that the richest are getting richer and the poorest are getting poorer6. “Economic inequality is out of control”, reads Oxfam’s 2020 report, highlighting that the “world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people”, and that “the 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa”6. And it’s not just about differences in numbers, the richest 1% actually control and monopolise half of the world’s wealth6,8. The system is crooked.
Some of us point their fingers to overpopulation. Nonetheless, while population growth is certainly a concern, it is not as pressing as the issue of western consumerism. Most of the population growth is occurring in the Global South, where the ecological footprint of a person is insignificant compared to that of a person in the Global North. For example, in just 2.3 days the average American or Australian emits as much CO2 as the average Malian or Nigerian in a year9. Blaming overpopulation means blaming the poor so that we (the wealthier) can remorselessly continue to get on with our business as usual. The sad irony is that people in the Global South whilst given the blame are also the ones most affected by the environmental issues caused disproportionately by people in western countries10. For instance, climate change most drastically affects regions of the tropics where people are also in worse social and economic positions and less able to cope with crises. The hegemony of the North on the South means that the latter’s voices often remain unheard. The injustice is overwhelming, to say the least.
What we need to do to stir the course of events for better is point the finger at the right people and the right causes. This means challenging capitalist consumerism and demanding system change. For that, we need an alternative ready, and that’s where degrowth comes into play.
In a sentence, degrowth has been described as “the transition – via the gradual and equitable downscaling of production and consumption – to a quantitatively smaller and qualitatively different economy that respects the environment, increases human well-being and aims at social equity”5. Degrowth envisions a shift away from capitalism. It is shaped by social movements on the ground and scientists and practitioners from many different fields, and as such it is not presented as a programme, ideology or economic theory but rather as a “symbolic challenge to policies that herald growth as an end in itself”11, a “movement of movements”5.
Degrowth is a social, democratic choice and is not imposed as an external imperative for environmental or other reasons. In fact, degrowth strongly condemns any form of authoritarian or oppressive regimes that may be pursued in the name of environmental protection12. A democratic shift away from capitalism would allow us to abandon the route of consumerism which has led us astray, and venture on a new road where the environment, equality and people’s wellbeing are prioritised over economic growth.
Aside ecological benefits, there are also compelling social benefits that come with degrowth. From reduced working hours, to an unconditional basic income and the recognition of unpaid work. Degrowth means we will have more free time to dedicate to our hobbies, family, friends and to find once again our long-lost connection with nature. Ecosystems will be relieved from destructive anthropogenic pressures as a more local and ecological economy takes shape, built around smaller-scale farming and decentralised renewable energy sources.
Invasive, brainwashing advertising would cease. Green taxes, wealth redistribution, income caps, and the democratisation of the workplace will help run societies in a more equal and ecological way. Leaving a capitalist economy behind will also mean no longer having to endure periods of austerity every few decades caused by economic recessions, such as the 2008 economic crisis or the most recent COVID19-related recession. The difference between recessions and degrowth is that the former is a period of unplanned degrowth within a system that relies on continuous economic growth, while the latter is a voluntary, smooth and equitable transition to a regime of lower production and consumption.
Achieving this change won’t be a seamless task. First, the wealthiest will predictably oppose such radical change and put up a good fight. Second, implementing this process would require support from the majority of the people, but as long as we have high reference levels of consumption, lower consumption will induce strong feelings of loss and will unlikely be supported. The consumerist behaviour is so entrenched and embedded in western culture that letting go of it won’t be that easy. Nonetheless, abandoning the ideal of capitalist consumerism does not mean embracing a more miserable life – rather quite the opposite. From degrowth’s perspective, life’s richness encapsulates greater sensorial experiences, better relationships, conviviality, rediscovered connections with nature – not relentless consumption. We do not choose to embrace degrowth because we are in a time of crisis; we choose degrowth because it is a better, greener, and more equal and just way of life.
Breaking free from a capitalist dystopia requires us to bring degrowth into public knowledge and debates. The concept of degrowth is yet to be seriously considered by politicians and mainstream environmental NGOs. Envisioning a future where economic growth is not the uttermost priority is almost taboo. It is time to speak up and put degrowth on the table.
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- Otero, I, Farrell, KN, Pueyo, S, et al., 2020. Biodiversity policy beyond economic growth. Conservation Letters. e12713. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12713 – for the blog version see https://conservationinaclick.com/2020/04/17/rethinking-the-world-conservation-and-sustainability-without-economic-growth/
- Wiedmann, T.O., Schandl, H., Lenzen, M., Moran, D., Suh, S., West, J. and Kanemoto, K., 2015. The material footprint of nations. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 112(20), pp.6271-6276. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1220362110
- Petridis, P., Muraca, B. and Kallis, G., 2015. Degrowth: between a scientific concept and a slogan for a social movement. In Handbook of ecological economics. Edward Elgar Publishing.
- Lawson, M., Parvez Butt, A., Harvey, R., Sarosi, D., Coffey, C., Piaget, K. and Thekkudah, J., 2020. Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis.
- Alcott, B., Giampietro, M., Mayumi, K. and Polimeni, J., 2012. The Jevons paradox and the myth of resource efficiency improvements. Routledge.
- Suisse, C., 2018. Global wealth report 2018. October 2018. Research Department, Credit Suiss Investment Banking, Zürich, Switzerland.
- Fournier, V., 2008. Escaping from the economy: the politics of degrowth. International journal of sociology and social policy. https://doi.org/10.1108/01443330810915233
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.01.014
Cover image credits: https://bit.ly/2TXC430