As the world struggles to confront the increasingly complex social and environmental challenges, alternative socioeconomic systems and concepts such as degrowth have been regaining traction. Degrowth is an economic theory and social movement that aims to reduce environmental degradation and social inequality through reducing consumption, production and population growth. Although it can be traced back to the 1970s, the degrowth movement has since struggled to become politically acceptable despite critiques to economic growth becoming more commonplace. Still, its advocates persist in their arguments and continue to warn about the dangers of unlimited economic growth. The question is, is degrowth on the rise or will it continue to be a marginalized movement? And if so, why is it struggling to prove its validity? Finally, is there any reason to consider its proposals viable and what could be the implications of dismissing it altogether?
At this moment, the climate crisis is creating more room for critique of our current systems and degrowth is slowly making its way into the realm of policymaking. It so far has a presence in the Parliamentary commissions of France and Germany. It has also been discussed by a small number of leaders in Italy, Brazil, the Netherlands and Spain where the Catalan government saw its independence as an opportunity to reshape its economic system in a way that ensures sustainability and resilience. Although no specific degrowth proposals have been put into practice, some policy makers are now more eager to learn about the practical potential of degrowth. The European Research Council for example has allocated around $10 million to research exploring practical “post-growth” policies. The European Parliament is also set to host a “Beyond Growth” conference in May of 2023. Even Wall Street bankers are beginning to consider the implications of degrowth which appears to be a less distant possibility as the consumer habits of younger climate conscious generations are shifting.
So what exactly does degrowth entail and are we already seeing signs of its emergence in practice? At the moment, there is no one clear cut set of policies that constitute degrowth and the concept itself has varying definitions, however, it can be understood through at least three frames: degrowth as decline of environmental pressures; degrowth as emancipation from certain “undesirable” ideologies such as neoliberalism, and consumerism; and degrowth as a utopian destination, a society grounded in autonomy, sufficiency, and care. Some examples of degrowth policies include scaling down destructive sectors such as fossil fuels, fast fashion, advertising and aviation, reducing working time through shorter working weeks and improving the quality and equitable accessibility of public services. This is already happening to an extent with most European countries offering free healthcare and countries such as the United Kingdom and Iceland considering the implementation of a four-day work week. Other aspects however are proving more resistant to change.
Perhaps one of the biggest signals that a degrowth transition may be in the cards for future generations was the COVID-19 pandemic. The way the pandemic disrupted global economies and slowed down most countries economic growth revealed the “hidden vulnerabilities” in our global economic system and demonstrated the need for more resilient supply chains, policies that prioritize social well-being over economic growth and markets that can adapt to those policies. While government responses to the pandemic were not degrowth, because they were mainly designed to get economies back on track for growth, many of the actions taken by governments resembled some of the central characteristics of degrowth including the restructuring of resources to promote health and social justice, for example short-term employment benefits and vaccination procedures that gave priority to the most vulnerable populations. However, due to the magnitude of the pandemic and the limited capacity of governments to handle such unprecedented consequences, existing inequalities were certainly exacerbated and marginalized and vulnerable people were disproportionately impacted.
The gap between government responses and people’s needs also led to this shift in behaviour to occur at the level of community; people were mobilizing to create local informal systems of care and mutual aid; another fundamental characteristic of degrowth which emphasizes collaboration. Research also found changes in consumer behaviour during the pandemic including a greater mindfulness of spending habits, especially with regards to brand sustainability and quality, a new prioritization of value and shock to brand loyalty, a desire to support companies that support the caring economy, and the rise of a “homebody” or DIY economy.
Still, although the pandemic showed that degrowth may be possible; that urgency can pave the way for policies that prioritize health and well-being, the post-pandemic “new normal” saw very little change in that regard and degrowth advocates continued to be a minority. Many critics have dismissed the overall logic behind degrowth. For example, despite there being more conclusive scientific evidence to show that economic growth does in fact contribute to environmental degradation and that “sustainable development”, “green growth” and other “alternatives” are doing little to reverse or slow climate change and even less to address social inequality, degrowth is still considered to be an unrealistic solution. Even those who believe in its potential understand its lack of political appeal considering how difficult it is to imagine what it would actually look like in practice.
It appears that it is in sufficient for degrowth to show the connection between economic growth and climate change, a position that some critiques challenge by explaining that other environmental issues in the past have been addressed and overcome through developing technologies and environmental planning. Degrowth needs to provide a clearer strategy on what slowing down growth would mean for workers and for technology, which has become a crucial element of modern solutions to many issues including climate change. Some have also argued that critiques of growth could have a greater political impact by more effectively combining issues of inequality and redistribution into their discourse as opposed to only focusing on environment and/or better quality of life.
There are numerous barriers to degrowth reaching policy level however among these barriers is one of the movement’s principles, the idea that degrowth must start from the bottom-up and that it cannot be a strictly enforced top down process. This means that lack of democracy or access to political decision making, which is the reality in many parts of the world, is another barrier to the movement’s progress.
While there are certainly many valid critiques of degrowth, others are heavily rooted in the idea that economic growth is the only model for job creation and therefore the only way people can live. As it is easy for political discourse to get lost between facts and rhetoric, these critiques often keep what could be useful concepts or ideologies in the corner; labeling them as “radical” and “unrealistic”. For decades this was the case of climate change which took immense effort from scientists and environmentalists to convince decision makers to take seriously and which until today politicians still tend to engage with at surface level therefore leading to policies that only address symptoms rather than root causes.
We should continue to invest in research on degrowth because the risk of dismissing it could be huge. The impacts of climate change will be far more detrimental than the pandemic, not to mention they are very likely lead to more outbreaks, and while many businesses, governments and communities were able to adapt, imagine how different the process would be if our system was not dependent on pursuing endless economic growth? What if we could thrive under degrowth?
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