Shifting from growth to degrowth

3rd August 2023

The world’s obsession with pursuing economic growth at all costs is at a tipping point. Huw Morris reports on how the alternative – degrowth – is gathering momentum

For some, tackling overconsumption means growing their own food. To others, it means no longer driving cars. Making use of empty houses rather than building new ones is a cause célèbre in certain quarters. Lobbying governments to prohibit planned obsolescence by companies of their products is crucial to another set of advocates. Others want to ban advertising in public spaces for letting consumerism and unconscious bias run riot.

Then there is the debate about where it all began. Some think the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus started it with his hierarchy of desires. Under this idea, simplicity and sufficiency hold the key to happiness and wellbeing by satisfying basic needs and bolstering social relationships. Others cite a more labyrinthine heritage (see right).

What strings all this together is the concept of degrowth, coined as a term by the social philosopher André Gorz in 1972. Once on the margins, even that bastion of capitalism, the World Economic Forum (WEF), is taking degrowth seriously, briefing billionaires and global leaders about its implications. So, what is it?

Not so much an umbrella term but a festival tent, degrowth means shrinking rather than growing economies to use less of the world’s energy and dwindling resources. Wellbeing is put ahead of profit. Dumping gross domestic product (GDP) – and its emphasis on output of goods and services – as a measure of economic performance is the first step.

Changing lifestyles

Degrowth advocate Sam Alexander, research fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, says the concept “does not mean we are going to be living in caves with candles”, but rather focuses on people in rich countries changing their diets, living in smaller homes and driving or travelling less.

“[Degrowth means] people in rich countries changing their diets, living in smaller homes and travelling less”

Katharina Richter, lecturer in climate, politics and society at the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, says degrowth proposes an equitable, voluntary reduction of overconsumption in affluent economies and a paradigm shift away “from the ecologically and socially harmful idea that producing more stuff is always good”. Instead, economic activity should focus on promoting care, cooperation and autonomy, which would also increase wellbeing and give people a bigger say in their lives.

“Current and past growth trajectories are and were dependent on colonial resource accumulation and extraction – the resources and materials that fuel growth in the Global North and other affluent economies are extracted in biodiverse or water scarce territories located in the Global South,” she adds.

“That means if we want to decarbonise our affluent economies in the race to net zero, we cannot do so without some form of energy and material demand-reduction in the Global North – at least not if we want to avoid perpetuating resource theft and if we want to create ecological and conceptual space for the Global South to address basic needs while adapting to the climate crisis.”

Fighting for the status quo

However, the backlash is already under way. Opponents of the concept – usually right-wing media commentators – cite an endless list of gains from economic growth: freedom from poverty, indoor plumbing, electricity, longer life expectancies, cancer treatments and vaccines among them.

A WEF briefing paper, which looks at the pros and cons of degrowth, points to rival arguments about the impracticality of poor countries developing “up to a certain level of prosperity” and then stopping, while rich countries scale down to the same level.

There is also “the inconvenient truth” ventured by other opponents, it adds, that most carbon emissions in the coming decades will be from newly middle-income countries, like India, China and Indonesia, rather than rich countries such as the US.

Degrowth is up against powerful, entrenched interests – billionaires, the defence industry, Big Pharma, fossil fuels, industrial agriculture as well as politicians, lobbyists and some parts of the media – all fighting tooth and nail for the status quo.

“Degrowth is up against powerful interests – all fighting tooth and nail for the status quo”

Robert Constanza, an ecological economist and professor at University College London’s Institute for Global Prosperity, says overcoming them and society’s addiction to the current system will require a broad consensus and “a movement of movements around the shared goal of sustainable wellbeing for humans and the rest of nature”. Richter argues that the major challenge is breaking the cultural power of the ‘growth, growth, growth’ paradigm.

Good and bad growth

“Growth is usually associated with good things, personal development or achievement,” she adds. “But growth can also be a cancer.

“Instead, we need to put our efforts into redistributing resources, and reorienting our economy on care, wellbeing, liveable jobs and sustainability. These are working-class concerns, not elitist lofty ideals, but the challenge is how to communicate, engage with and generate support by a broad coalition of interests for a post-growth agenda.”

Degrowth's Heritage

Degrowth has a bewildering lineage. Bristol University’s Katharina Richter credits many postcolonial and Global South thinkers, leaders and activists who have advanced alternatives to growth-based development and “the entwined logics of capitalism and colonialism long before a movement called ‘degrowth’ existed”.

Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, political philosopher Frantz Fanon, economist Samir Amin, anti-colonial activist Julius Nyerere and former Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara are among them, but more recent inspiration has come from Kurdish political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan, environmental activist Vandana Shiva and ecofeminist thinkers such as Maria Mies. John Stuart Mill, for social critiques of growth, and the anti-utilitarian movement around Marcel Mauss are also influences, Richter argues.

The concept gained considerable momentum in Europe in the 2000s when anti-advertising activists spread degrowth ideas from France to Catalonia and Spain. This led to protests for car-free cities, communal street meals and anti-advertising campaigns, conferences and publications.

Degrowth – what to watch

The European Parliament is looking at tackling ‘multiple system failures’ and bringing about ‘system transformation’, with a major conference held in May on setting a ‘beyond growth’ agenda. A single-minded pursuit of GDP growth at all costs was condemned, with MEPs looking at alternative indicators to measure wellbeing.

According to UCL’s Robert Constanza, the number of experiments with societal wellbeing indicators “is in the hundreds”. However, “such experiments can help us move towards a broad consensus on what needs to be included to form a more complete and useful picture of societal wellbeing that can replace GDP”.

These include:

  • Genuine Progress Indicator: Created in the 1990s and taking account of such social and environmental factors as air pollution, crime and resource depletion.
  • Gross National Happiness: Created by the King of Bhutan in the 1970s and enshrined in the country’s constitution in 2008. This measures happiness through the four pillars of good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.
  • Better Life Index: Created by the OECD with a broad mix of issues such as housing, work–life balance and civic engagement.
  • Human Development Index: Developed by the UN to measure income, health and education.
  • Social Progress Index: This focuses on social and environmental outcomes, rather than income.

New economic models that would allow projections into the future to assess the sustainability of policies aimed at providing societal wellbeing are under the microscope too. These could build on initiatives such as Canada’s Low Grow model and the global Earth4All model developed by the Club of Rome, the European Parliament says.

Several governments, including the EU and the Wellbeing Economy Governments group – Canada, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales – are also pioneering measures of sustainable wellbeing and the policies needed to achieve them.

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist


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