Conventional economic logic hinges on a core assumption: Bigger economies are better, and finding ways to maintain or boost growth is paramount to improving society.
But what if growth is at best doing little to fix the world’s problems, and at worst fostering the destruction of the planet and jeopardizing its future?
That’s the radical message from the “degrowth” movement, which has spent decades on the political fringes with its warning that limitless growth needs to end. Now, after the pandemic gave people in some parts of the world a chance to rethink what makes them happy, and as the scale of change necessary to address the climate crisis becomes clearer, its ideas are gaining more mainstream recognition — even as anxiety builds over what could be a painful global recession.
For economists and politicians of all stripes, growth has long served as a North Star. It’s a vehicle for creating jobs and generating taxes for public services, increasing prosperity in rich countries and reducing poverty and hunger in poorer ones.
But degrowthers argue that an endless desire for more — bigger national economies, greater consumption, heftier corporate profits — is myopic, misguided and ultimately harmful. Gross domestic product, or GDP, is a poor metric for social wellbeing, they stress.
Plus, they see expanding a global economy that’s already doubled in size since 2005 — and, at 2% growth annually, would be more than seven times bigger in a century — putting the emissions goals necessary to save the world out of reach.
“An innocent 2 or 3% per year, it’s an enormous amount of growth — cumulative growth, compound growth — over time,” said Giorgos Kallis, a top degrowth scholar based at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. “I don’t see it being compatible with the physical reality of the planet.”
The solution, according to the degrowth movement, is to limit the production of unnecessary goods, and to try to reduce demand for items that aren’t needed.
This unorthodox school of thought has no shortage of critics. Bill Gates has called degrowthers unrealistic, emphasizing that asking people to consume less for the sake of the climate is a losing battle. And even believers acknowledge their framework can be a political nonstarter, given how difficult it is to imagine what weaning off growth would look like in practice.
“The fact that it’s an uncomfortable concept, it’s both a strength and a weakness,” said Gabriela Cabaña, a degrowth advocate from Chile and doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics.
Yet in some corners, it’s becoming less taboo, especially as governments and industry fall behind in their efforts to stop the planet from warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, after which some effects of climate change will become irreversible.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently cited degrowth in a major report. The European Research Council just allocated roughly $10 million to Kallis and two peers to explore practical “post-growth” policies. And the European Parliament is planning a conference called “Beyond Growth” next spring. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to attend.
Even some on Wall Street are beginning to pay closer attention. Investment bank Jefferies said investors should consider what happens if degrowth gathers steam, noting “climate-anxious” younger generations have different consumer values.
Diagnosing a problem
In the debate over how to avoid climate catastrophe, there’s a key point of consensus: If the worst effects of global warming are to be averted, the world needs to slash annual carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. After that, they need to decline steeply, and fast.
Most roadmaps laying out a plan to achieve this involve a dramatic reconfiguration of economies around clean energy and other emissions-reducing solutions, while promoting new technologies and market innovations that make them more affordable. This would allow the global economy to keep growing, but in a way that’s “green.”
Yet proponents of degrowth are skeptical that the world can reduce emissions in time — and protect delicate, interconnected ecological systems — while pursuing infinite economic expansion, which they argue will inevitably require the use of more energy.
“More growth means more energy use, and more energy use makes it more difficult to decarbonize the energy system in the short time we have left,” said Jason Hickel, a degrowth expert who is part of the team that received funding from the European Research Council. “It’s like trying to run down an escalator that is accelerating upward against you.”
Even if energy can become green, growth also requires natural resources like water, minerals and timber.
It’s a concern that’s been echoed by Greta Thunberg, arguably the most famous climate activist. She’s criticized “fairy tales about non-existent technological solutions” and “eternal economic growth.” And she’s touched on another point degrowthers raise: Is our current system, which has produced rampant inequality, even working for us?
This question resonates in the Global South, where there are fears the green energy revolution could simply replicate existing patterns of exploitation and excessive resource extraction, but with minerals like nickel or cobalt — key components of batteries — instead of oil.
The “love for growth,” said Felipe Milanez, a professor and degrowth advocate based in the Brazilian state of Bahia, is “extremely violent and racist, and it’s just been reproducing local forms of colonialism.”
The end of growth?
Degrowth can be hard to talk about, especially as fears grow about a global recession, with all the pain of lost jobs and shattered businesses that implies.
But advocates, which often speak about recessions as symptoms of a broken system, make clear they aren’t promoting austerity, or telling developing countries that are eager to raise living standards they shouldn’t reap the benefits of economic development.
Instead, they talk about sharing more goods, reducing food waste, moving away from privatized transportation or health care and making products last longer, so they don’t need to be purchased at such regular intervals. It’s about “thinking in terms of sufficiency,” Cabaña put it.
Adopting degrowth would require a dramatic rethink of the market capitalism that has been embraced by just about every society on the planet in recent decades.
Yet some proposals could exist within the current system. A universal basic income — in which everyone receives a lump sum payment regardless of employment status, allowing the economy to reduce its reliance on polluting industries — is often mentioned. So is a four-day work week.
“When people have more economic security and have more economic freedoms, they make better decisions,” Cabaña said.
The latest report from the IPCC — the UN authority on global warming — noted that “addressing inequality and many forms of status consumption and focusing on wellbeing supports climate change mitigation efforts,” a nod to one of degrowth’s biggest objectives. The movement was name-checked, too.
But degrowth is also the subject of significant opposition, even from climate scholars and activists with similar goals.
“The degrowth people are living a fantasy where they assume that if you bake a smaller cake, then for some reason, the poorest will get a bigger share of it,” said Per Espen Stoknes, director of the Center for Green Growth at the BI Norwegian Business School. “That has never happened in history.”
Backers of green growth are convinced their strategy can work. They cite promising examples of decoupling GDP gains from emissions, from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica, and to the rapid rise in the affordability of renewable energy.
Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who’s prioritized investing in climate innovations, admits that overhauling global energy systems is a Herculean task. But he thinks boosting the accessibility of the right technologies can still get there.
Degrowthers know their critiques are controversial, though in some ways, that’s the intent. They think a starker, more revolutionary approach is necessary given the UN estimate that global warming is due to rise to between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees Celsius, based on the world’s current climate pledges.
“The less time [that] is left now, the more radical change is needed,” said Kohei Saito, a professor at the University of Tokyo.
Could a growing cohort agree? In 2020, his book on degrowth from a Marxist perspective became a surprise hit in Japan, where concerns about the consequences of stagnant growth has inflected the country’s politics for decades. “Capital in the Anthropocene” has sold nearly 500,000 copies.