There was an article in Nature from late 2022 on degrowth that got some sudden attention over the holidays because economists and tech bros noticed it and turned out on social media to do some hating. In fact the lead author, Jason Hickel, claimed on Ex-Twitter that as a result the paper was the most-read on Nature during the break. Regular readers here will know that my main issue with the idea of “degrowth” is the name—that if you’re trying to change behaviour around an idea that is deeply culturally embedded in 250 years of modernity, it’s best (a) not to do it head-on, and (b) not to frame it as a negative. But I’ll park that for now.
The consensus among scientists is resounding: climate change poses a grave threat to both human wellbeing and the overall health of our planet. We need to dramatically cut down on emissions across all sectors and industries, with bold actions in this decade. This process must be fair and prioritize equity, inclusion, climate and environmental justice, and social justice. At its heart, this process calls for a reevaluation of our approach to “development”. It is evident that ceaseless economic growth driven by capitalism is neither sustainable nor desirable in the long run. Instead, we should strive to downsize our patterns of production and consumption in a way that prioritizes human wellbeing, ensuring that everyone can thrive.
According to new research, a scientific consensus is forming for a new economic paradigm that looks beyond growth. This post presents proof and answers why green growth no longer seems viable. At present, there are two main strategy options for countries to achieve sustainability: green growth and post-growth. The green growth approach seeks more economic growth while decreasing environmental impacts at the same time. There is a good chance this is what your country currently tries to do. In contrast, the post-growth approach seeks to secure the well-being of people and nature regardless of economic growth. It seeks to create a prosperous future beyond growth.
In truth, our times don’t just require a new movement. They require a new type of movement, because the old movements and ideologies and organizations are not achieving what are needed. Too many of them are artifacts of an archaic, fading order of economics and political action. Think about it: It’s been more than three decades since we first learned that science had confirmed the reality of climate change. The 2008 financial meltdown – 15 years ago! -- revealed the arrogant power of global finance and capitalism – and yet the liberal state still has not significantly reformed those financial structures.
Since I became familiar with degrowth I have been looking at things more critically. Especially after joining the online master on Degrowth: Ecology, Economics and Policy, I find myself defending the need for transforming a green growth obsessed economy into a degrowth one. Recently, I started working on a project about sustainable fashion focusing on clothing, good practices and youth entrepreneurship. I was sure that presumably sustainable fast fashion practices from big companies such as Zara and H&M would not be on my list of good practices. Although they might use more eco-friendly materials and advocate for these in marketing campaigns, there is still much more to do to address the issue of sustainability and social justice, including fair wages and working conditions throughout their supply chains.
Join activist Keith Akers in a fascinating deep-dive interview on climate change and ecological sustainability. In his upcoming book, Embracing Limits, Akers asks tough questions about the impact of anthropogenic climate change and proposes a truly sustainable future with economic degrowth at its core. In this conversation, Akers discusses his personal journey in learning about climate change, including the concept of peak oil and the flawed logic of infinite economic growth. He explains how fossil fuel extraction technologies have pushed back the point of peak oil, but emphasizes that we need to revolutionize our relationship with natural resources to protect ecosystems, reduce waste, and improve the living conditions of the poor.
I’m often told that degrowth, the planned downscaling of production and consumption to reduce the pressure on Earth’s ecosystems, is a tough sell. But a 36-year-old associate professor at Tokyo University has made a name for himself arguing that “degrowth communism” could halt the escalating climate emergency. Kohei Saito, the bestselling author of Capital in the Anthropocene, is back with a new book: Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. The book is dense, especially for those not fluent in Marxist jargon who, I suspect, care little about whether or not Karl Marx started worrying about nature in his later years.
Last year, my partner and I bought a 200 year old, recently renovated farmhouse in central Maine on less than an acre of land. Our town looks similar to other small towns like it throughout New England. The population is about 3,600 people and the landscape is rural-suburban: single family homes, some small businesses, municipal buildings and farms scattered over a forested area with long, winding paved roads that cut through town because everyone gets around by car. The roads aren’t very bike-friendly, though a few fearless cyclists still use them. Some people work on farms, in the local shops and municipal offices, or remotely from home like my partner and I, but most residents commute into and often get dinner in the larger cities and towns in the area. Imagining a transformative housing path towards degrowth from the perspective of my house and my neighborhood in central Maine means making some assumptions about the general trajectory of humanity, and New England in particular, over the next few years and decades.
In his recent book, Climate Change as Class War, Matthew Huber argues that the ecological crisis is primarily caused by the capitalist mode of production, especially the preponderant deployment of fossil capital, ‘the forms of capital that generate profit through emissions’. For many on the anti-capitalist left, this is a conclusion that hardly bears repeating. Nevertheless, Huber is right to centre the claim. Ecological collapse is accelerating and requires immediate action. While the global average of emissions must reach zero by 2050 to stay within 1.5–2 °C heating, in order to do this at pace, the parts of the world most responsible for emissions must reach net zero by 2030. But not only are we failing to make progress toward these goals, emissions continue to rise with no end in sight. Huber puts it bluntly: ‘We’re still losing.’
Most of us are familiar with the social and environmental impacts of life under the Capitalocene (‘the age of capital’ — the historical era shaped by the endless accumulation of capital): inequality, commodification, imperialism, racism, and much more are already causing intragenerational suffering and ecological collapse. We are bombarded weekly with publications that assess the dire state of the world — and while I don’t want to focus on this, a brief reminder is in order. There is extensive literature portraying the social and ecological degradation of our times (e.g. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, Stockholm Institute planet boundaries studies). Each Earth Overshoot Day is another reminder of the unsustainability of our current socio-economic model.
The row about ecological limits to growth is back with a vengeance. On one side are those who are deeply sceptical about the idea of ‘infinite growth on a finite planet’. They argue that to be sure of offering a good life for all within planetary boundaries, we need to kick our addiction to consumption growth (in wealthy countries at least). These ‘green growth sceptics’ include those advocating for ‘degrowth’, ‘prosperity without growth’, ‘steady state economics’, ‘doughnut economics’ and ‘wellbeing economics’. In the opposite corner are ‘green growth’ advocates who believe that the historical relationship between GDP and environmental impact can be not just weakened but effectively severed. For green growthers, the key to maintaining a habitable planet is decoupling — reducing the environmental impact associated with each pound or dollar of GDP.
To be more resilient to crises – pandemic, climatic, financial, or political – we need to build systems capable of scaling back production in ways that do not cause loss of livelihood or life. We need degrowth. But what is happening during the pandemic is not degrowth. Degrowth is a project of living meaningfully, enjoying simple pleasures, commoning, sharing and relating more with others, and working less, in more equal societies. The goal of degrowth is to purposefully slow things down in order to minimize harm to humans and earth systems and to reduce exploitation. The time is ripe for us to refocus on what really matters: not GDP, but the health and wellbeing of our people and our planet.