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Degrowth: the transformation needed to combat climate breakdown

By: Joe Herbert


Previous global ‘efforts’ to tackle climate breakdown have failed dramatically, because they have been based on a fundamentally flawed economic paradigm: growth.

The concept of growth is an altar at which economists, politicians and businesspeople across the political spectrum have worshipped for decades. Unfortunately, where the planet’s long-term habitability is concerned, it is this obsession with growth which may ultimately be our undoing.

The growth imperative

Growth is a distinctly modern idea. In 1934, Simon Kuznets developed the metric of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a means to measure national incomes, though he warned that GDP could not be considered a substitute indicator for welfare. By the 1950s, GDP growth became established as a key metric of societal progress. However, further warnings against treating growth as a silver bullet to society’s problems would emerge. In 1968, US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy proclaimed that GDP growth measured everything “except that which makes life worthwhile”. Kennedy’s warning was also ignored, and the primacy of the growth imperative only strengthened. Some 50 years on, growth remains as revered in mainstream economic policy-making as it was then. With hindsight, we now see a more destructive reality of the growth imperative than even Kennedy acknowledged. Not only does growth fail to measure that which makes life worthwhile, it in fact directly jeopardizes the long term sustainability of life on Earth. The very notion of infinite growth detaches the economy from any ecological reality. The economy is simply a product of social relations and ultimately embedded within the planet’s ecological limits. Considered in these terms, a logical inference follows; infinite growth in the size of the economy is unsustainable within a finite planetary system. Since its inception, growth in a nation’s GDP has been coupled to growth in the material ‘footprint’ of that economy. Put simply, any generation of economic value requires resources. These resources are extracted from somewhere in the world, used in some fashion to create energy or further materials, and waste products are created and disposed of as a result, such as greenhouse gas emissions. When infinite economic growth is pursued, this cycle of material extraction, usage, and waste by extension grows larger and larger. This means further resource depletion, more fossil fuels burnt causing deadly emissions, and more waste pollutants filtering into Earth’s ecosystems, such as the oceans and soil. The overwhelming majority of contemporary efforts to tackle climate breakdown are predicated on the possibility of ‘decoupling’ economic growth from material impact. Even proposals on the more radical edges of mainstream discourse, such as the Green New Deal, fall within this vein. The idea is that large scale investment to switch the energy supply from fossil fuels to renewables can pave the way for ‘green’ growth, which is decoupled from damaging ecological impacts such as carbon emissions.
Put simply, any generation of economic value requires resources. These resources are extracted from somewhere in the world, used in some fashion to create energy or further materials
Unfortunately, there are fundamental flaws in this plan. The Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of renewable energies is generally much lower than that of fossil fuels. In other words, for a given amount of resources invested in renewables, you receive much less usable energy back than the same investment in fossil fuels would yield. This is because power such as that from the sun and wind is more diffuse and harder to capture. Renewables, therefore, require more land, and their construction is energy-intensive and necessitates many rare earth materials. So although renewables create fewer carbon emissions than fossil fuels, their ecological impact shifts into other forms. Accordingly, recent research has shown that absolute decoupling of economic growth from material impact is incredibly unlikely, especially at the scale and pace needed to limit global warming to below the much-discussed two-degree rise above pre-industrial levels. Even if a global rollout of renewable technologies occurred tomorrow, it is unlikely that their energy returns would be sufficient to meet the current energy demand of the global economy. For these reasons, the growth paradigm cannot deliver the economic and social transformation required to meaningfully combat climate and ecological breakdown. If we are to create a just and sustainable future for life on Earth, we must instead look to alternative economic paradigms which explicitly contest the growth imperative. One such paradigm is degrowth.

What is degrowth?

Degrowth argues for a managed equitable downscaling of the material size of the global economy before reaching a ‘steady-state’ at safe ecological levels. Degrowth does not represent the opposite of growth, recession, but a complete restructuring of society around values of conviviality, solidarity, and sufficiency. One major reason why degrowth is nowhere near the language of economists and politicians in positions of power is that it necessitates a significant redistributive agenda both within and between nations. Historically and presently, the wealthy nations of the global North – dating back to their colonial pasts – have played by far the greatest role in plundering Earth’s natural resources and polluting the climate. It would be ecologically catastrophic to universalize the levels of affluence present in these nations throughout the rest of the world. Alternatively, degrowth provides a means for wealthy nations and former colonizers to begin repaying their ‘climate and ecological debt to the global South’. Degrowth would, therefore, result in a global economy with a smaller net material footprint, but one that is much more equitably distributed between peoples and nations. Degrowth is therefore also a call for climate justice.
Degrowth does not represent the opposite of growth, recession, but a complete restructuring of society around values of conviviality, solidarity, and sufficiency.
To achieve this aim, degrowth argues for establishing more localized economies, which reduce the reliance on high-emission international trade flows. By strengthening the role of co-operatives, solidarity and sharing economies, production processes could be democratically organized around social and ecological well-being, rather than the resource-insatiable profit motive. As a result, the power of the wage-labour market over peoples’ lives would also be diminished. Consequently, degrowth not only provides a practical route out of climate breakdown but also offers the prospect of simpler, more fulfilling ways of living, where more time can be dedicated to community, relationships and creative pursuits. To reframe Kennedy’s words, degrowth truly has the power to prioritize the things which make life worthwhile.

About the author

Joe Herbert

Joe is a member of the degrowth.info editorial collective, working on the blog and communications. He recently completed a PhD in Human Geography at Newcastle University (UK), studying young environmental activists' imaginaries of socio-ecological crisis and transformation. He tweets at @joefherb.

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