Hopes and Memories
Linda Luciani (Environment)
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
Degrowth: The most promising recipe to save the Planet is NOT mainstream (yet)
I am writing this article today because last December, I was cancelling weekend nights-out, wrapped in my duvet, eagerly turning pages of a book that inspired me enormously. The book in question was Less is More: How degrowth will save the World by the anthropologist J. Hickel. In this article, I want to introduce you to degrowth, the arguments for degrowth, and the scientific and socioeconomic foundations that support it. In addition, I wish to provide a snapshot of the future possibilities that degrowth could enable and that make me extremely thrilled about this topic.
1. Is green growth the way to save the planet? Degrowth as an alternative.
In one of its reports the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, 2012) examines the ‘green economy’ as one that simultaneously grows income and improves human well-being ‘while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’ (Anderson, 2011). Green economy strategies mainly focus on the speed of private and public investments in green energy solutions as a pillar to transition the global economy to a green-growth model.
There are two main, data substantiated, arguments that undermine green growth. Firstly, empirical evidence shows that given the current status of technology it is unlikely that an absolute decoupling of economic growth and carbon emissions can occur within the timeframe and 1.5/2°C threshold dictated by the Paris Agreement beyond which earth’s ecosystems will be damaged irreparably – unless growth rates remain close to zero while mitigation starts immediately (Kallis & Hickel, 2020; Haberl et al., 2020). Secondly and most importantly, even in the hypothetical eventuality that technological advances facilitate decoupling, in a capitalistic economy, efficiency gains will be invested in more production and overall amount of resources used – known as Jevon’s Paradox (Kallis, 2018). Therefore, capitalism and planetary boundaries seem hard to reconcile, calling the ecological credentials of green growth policies into question.
In contrast with the dominant green growth position, “degrowth” movements are advancing an alternative position which questions the economic-growth prerogative in favour of a steady-state economy. Degrowth is meant as “a planned reduction of energy and resource throughput designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being” (Hickel, 2021).
Self-described. Image courtesy of Vlad Bunea.
2. Breaking down degrowth
Our current economic systems are characterised by extreme greed and unsustainable consumption. On a finite planet, such models of growth are inherently self-destructive. What then, are the pathways for reduction in production and consumption? For example: advertising and planned obsolescence are just the most striking commercial strategies behind consumerism. They keep the hamster wheel of the economy running – the extra income which is the result of economic growth feeds into extra consumption which in turns induces more production. The toll on the environment as well as the psychological implication from the sense of insecurity and inadequacy in the aftermath of unfulfilled artificial needs induced by advertising are not reflected within the currently dominant indicator of economic performance, GDP (Gross-Domestic-Product). GDP was invented in the US during the Great Depression and has been criticised as an outdated indicator since the 60s, yet very few governments worldwide would deliberately trade off agendas that sacrifice GDP growth with a better scoring on alternative welfare-focused indicators such as the Measure of Economic Welfare (MEW).
Degrowth-based agendas that get rid of unnecessary production will probably result in a
diminishing GDP at least in the short-medium term while delivering on resilient welfare metrics.
3. Geographies of degrowth
Degrowth has its own geography and unprecedented distributional implications. The Global North must reduce its environmental pressure while the Global South still has its fair margin to bring its population to the level of satisfying basic needs and reach decent living standards (Demaria, 2019; Fanning at al., 2022). In one of the most interesting parts of his book, Hickel walks the reader through the origins and history of capitalism in Western Europe and its entanglement with 15th colonialism to neo-colonialism. He argues that the latter is perpetuated through different institutional settings, such as foreign direct investments in the Global South, along with the reinvestment of profits in the Global North and gigantic national debt obligations leading to unfavourable trade conditions at the WTO for the Global
South, due to low-bargaining power.
In fact, it has been estimated that the net outflow of resources from the Global South to the Global North may be as much as $2 trillion per year (Hickel, 2017). In a perspective of more equitable consumption of resources and limits to environmental harnessing, redistribution comes as a necessity. While capitalism and its mantra of perpetual growth promise that the diameter of the cake will keep growing and everyone will have a larger piece, now the narrative changes. The cake will not grow in its diameter, and whoever has been eating the largest slices until today, will have to give up some to those who are still hungry.
It is worth mentioning a few more outstanding statistics on global wealth distribution but at an individual level. The wealthiest 10% of the world's population owns 82% of the world's wealth (Credit Suisse Research Institute, 2021). The top 1% of adults owns 45% of the world's wealth, while the bottom 50% owns only 1% of the world's wealth (Oxfam, 2020). While ethical and moral concerns arise, when the lens of social science is applied to the planetary boundaries framework, it calls for the necessity of setting social boundaries for example collectively defined thresholds that societies establish as self-limitations and conditions for a “good life for all.” The conditions to live a good life should not come at the expense of others’ ability to do the same, nor at that of the flourishing of future generations or nonhuman others (Kallis, 2019).
4. Principles of degrowth and the implications on Work-life balance
As mentioned, degrowth is about rethinking all aspects of the current socio-economic structure and therefore it is worth mentioning an all-encompassing list of degrowth principles, which conceive the people and the planet as part of a unique ecosystem, as opposed to a hierarchy characterised by exploitation and depletion. Useful production (the economy of “wants” reduced to economy of “needs”), circularity (minimal or zero waste), sharing (from transportation to sharing gardening equipment), local production and consumption (reducing emissions from transportation and distribution), as well as relational goods (less material goods and more relationships), work-life balance (work less, play more) (Parrique, 2022).
In particular, I would like to focus on a few implications with respect to jobs and work-life balance. The reduction of throughput and therefore the need for less working hours, as well as the command to reinvest efficiency gains from innovation in leisure time, rather than in an expansion of production (Hickel, 2021), altogether call for policies such as the four-day working week, which is already a reality in an expanding trajectory. In order not to fall into the vicious circle of “unnecessary” production and consumption, it is important to ensure that extra off-work time is invested in activities that are low in carbon intensity. This rules out short haul flights for minibreaks, sorry! But fortunately, slow travel is becoming increasingly expansive, and the more we use it, demonstrate demand, and prove interest, the cheaper and more accessible it will become. Nonetheless, night train routes are unfortunately still very rare, while they would constititute a competitive solution with respect to the plane. Indeed, cross-nation night trains would be still affordable while emitting +80% less on the same route by flying.
Instead, degrowth suggests the cultivation of cultural and social activities within local communities and non-profit organisations in the form of volunteering, teaching/learning an instrument, taking on a foreign language, starting a group sport or simply investing in human relationships. When it comes to organisational forms of business, non-profit, social enterprises and cooperatives might seem more suited to deliver on degrowth principles and objectives rather than the traditional for-profit. While this looks like an appealing scenario, industries are going through a digital transition that adds complexity to pre-figurative scenarios and opens to more questions. For example, how will the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) interplay with the ecological transition in reshaping future jobs? Will efficiency gains from AI be harnessed in favour of degrowth goals? Literature on degrowth is still in its early stages, we will have to wait to see.
5. An idealist’s (?!) final remarks
I want to leave you with the 8 pathways to a post-capitalist world that Hickel details in his book and that, ideally, should be the target of each state government and non-state actors insofar as they can influence state policy.
i. Step 1: End planned obsolescence
ii. Step 2: Cut advertising
iii. Step 3: Shift from ownership to usership
iv. Step 4: End of food waste
v. Step 5: Scale down ecologically destructive industries
vi. Step 6: Decommodify public good and expand the commons
vii. Step 7: Fewer working hours, but jobs for all
Last but not least, on a personal note, there is one idea that really got me hooked, and that is the decolonization of the Global South in parallel to a pathway of degrowth in the Global North. While this pathway might just be the only credible one to save the world from climate breakdown, it promises two other outstanding outcomes: a global reduction of inequalities and a socio-economic system centred around human-wellbeing, while striving for their best ontological version. Such vision could reshape the global order for decades to come, to the same extent that global leaders did at the end of WWII. There is an entire system to be built behind, and this might seem overwhelming for the International Political Economy, but "utopian thinking also means being bold in dreaming not only of alternative societies, but also of the ways of getting there, and sometimes some of them can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies'' (Parrique, 2022).
Figure 2: Books on degrowth. Two recommendations to get started: Less is more: How degrowth will save the World by J. Hickel ; The Future is degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism by M. Schmelzer. Image courtesy of Timothée Parrique’s personal website.
Anderson, K., & Bows, A. (2011). Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1934), 20–44. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2010.0290
Credit Suisse Research Institute, (2021). Global wealth report 2021
Demaria, F., Kallis, G., & Bakker, K. (2019). Geographies of degrowth: Nowtopias, resurgences and the decolonization of imaginaries and places. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(3), 431-450. https://doi.org/10.1177/2514848619869689
Fanning, A. L., O’Neill, D. W., Hickel, J., & Roux, N. (2021). The social shortfall and ecological overshoot
of nations. Nature Sustainability, 5(1), 26–36. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00799-z
Haberl, H., Wiedenhofer, D., Virág, D., Kalt, G., Plank, B., Brockway, P., Fishman, T., Hausknost, D., Krausmann, F., Leon-Gruchalski, B., Mayer, A., Pichler, M., Schaffartzik, A., Sousa, T., Streeck, J., & Creutzig, F. (2020). A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights. Environmental Research Letters, 15(6), 65003. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab842a
UNEP. (2012). Working towards a balanced and inclusive green economy: a united nations system- wide perspective. https://wedocs.unep.org/20.500.11822/8065
Kallis, G., Kostakis, V., Lange, S., Muraca, B., Paulson, S., & Schmelzer, M. (2018). Annual Review of Environment and Resources Research On degrowth. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ
Hickel, J., & Kallis, G. (2020). Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy, 25(4), 469–486. https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964
Hickel, J. (2021). What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification. Globalizations, 18(7), 1105– 1111. https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2020.1812222
Hickel, J. (2017). The divide: a brief guide to global inequality and its solutions. London, William Heinemann.
Oxfam, (2020). Time to Care: Unpaid and Underpaid Care Work and the Global Inequality Crisis. Oxfam International.
Parrique, J. (2020). Global Wealth Inequality: Causes, Consequences and Policy Solutions. (Doctoral dissertation).