Degrowth – an emerging concept questioning the basis of our current economic model


In today’s blog, Leonard Creutzburg gives a brief summary of the concept of Degrowth, which is the basis of his current article in Environmental Values, ‘Growing Trees for a Degrowth Society: An Approach to Switzerland’s Forest Sector’

“We are in the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

Greta Thunberg

Business as usual will kill us. This blunt statement is in fact the summary of all the devastating environmental news that media is calling our attention to every day. Unfortunately, most of the leading politicians and the vast majority of economic actors are nonetheless doing exactly this – going on. While environmental problems are indeed also acknowledged by mainstream actors, they do not view them as severe enough to question the current economic model. In contrast, fighting environmental issues is often seen as an unprecedented growth opportunity. However, the problem lies at the heart of ‘growth’: as Greta Thunberg’s quote indicates, infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources is simply not possible.

Greta Thunberg, Berlin September 2021: C.Suthorn / cc-by-sa-4.0 / commons.wikimedia.org 

Various scholars have dealt with this issue in the past years, and what has become clear is that absolutely decoupling[1]  economic growth from environmental consumption is not possible (amongst others, see Haberl et al. 2020).[2]

Figure 1: Absolute and relative decoupling. Source: Chovancová and Vavrek 2019 (Open Access CC-BY 4.0)

This fact first became famous long ago in the 1970s, when the Club of Rome highlighted the ‘limits to growth’ in its eponymous report (Meadows et al. 1972). While scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds took up the report’s findings, the neoliberal development agenda sidelined the growth critique. It was only at the beginning of the 2000s that the ideas revived on a large scale. It was also then that degrowth emerged as a tangible political concept.

Ultimately, degrowth highlights that to achieve sustainability and ensure a good life for all humans within planetary boundaries, the material throughput of industrialised economies must shrink. Consequently, many – but not all – sectors of the economies would diminish, while degrowth emphasises that this process must be performed intentionally and planned, in contrast to a recession.

Degrowth’s focus on early industrialised countries results from the fact that ‘[t]he vast majority of ecological breakdown being driven by excess consumption in the global North, and yet has consequences that disproportionately damage the South’ (Hickel 2020, 5). This also implies that degrowth does not aim at lowering the material throughput universally in all countries – it is first and foremost a concept for the Global North.

The aforementioned facts, mostly based on the non-existence of decoupling, are degrowth’s natural scientific basis. However, degrowth is more than an empirical paradigm highlighting the unsustainability of ongoing economic growth: it is an encompassing philosophical concept touching upon various aspects of society, human life, and economic structures.

In that context, degrowth is usually referred to as a multidimensional concept supported by a diverse alliance of actors with different values. Nevertheless, there are certain principles on which degrowth is based, which also feed back into its goals, thus making them both principles as well as aims of degrowth. Demaria et al. (2013) identified six principles, which will be depicted in more detail below.

The first of the six principles is ecology, which is grounded in degrowth’s conception that Nature and non-human beings have value in themselves. These convictions result in calls to give (non-human) Nature rights of its own, for example rivers. To preserve Nature, degrowth implies lowering the material throughput, which would then possibly result in reduction of gross domestic product (GDP). The necessity of lowering the material throughput also relates to the fact that absolute decoupling of GDP growth and resource use can most likely never be achieved. In that context, degrowth highlights that, without intact and stable ecosystems, neither the social sphere nor the economy can exist, showing the dependence of humans on Nature.

The second principle degrowth builds upon is the critique of the Western development model, as well as opposing utilitarianism. Degrowth criticises ongoing global uniformisation, based on the Western idea of development and growth that does not allow for different cultures to pursue distinct paths. It rejects the homo oeconomicus model, i.e. the neoclassical idea of the utility-maximising individual. Moreover, degrowth criticises the increasing transformation of social products and socio-ecological services into commodities with a financial value, which are generally not intended for sale, in contrast to traditional commodities. Instead, degrowth calls for large-scale decommodification and pushing back of market solutions for many goods and services, arguing for more sharing and reciprocity. Social relations and conviviality should be key elements, and not only economic efficiency. Consequently, work must be detached from the concept of productivity, as increased work efficiency often leads to higher resource consumption.

The third principle relates to the meaning of life and wellbeing, where degrowth questions the current dominant Western lifestyle based on working, earning, selling and buying more. As an alternative to the acceleration on which the growth-based system is inherently built , a slow, decelerated life is proposed, which not only benefits Nature but also individual satisfaction. Placing its notion on empirical findings that wellbeing only increases until a certain income level (known as the Easterlin paradox), degrowth argues for voluntary simplicity, which mainly rests upon reducing consumption. Thus, resource use and material throughput would decrease, and people would live more sustainably.

The fourth principle is bioeconomics, which is based on the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. He argues that Earth’s stock of resources will eventually be depleted if economic growth continues, basing his reasoning on the second law of thermodynamics. As technological efficiency gains are no answer to this fact and are furthermore prone to rebound effects, degrowth generally favours nature-based solutions as well as low-tech and convivial technologies (i.e. easy to handle and control). Degrowth does acknowledge the necessity of technology and digitalisation to fight environmental problems. However, technological efficiency gains will – on their own – simply not be enough to counter environmental problems, especially if driven by ever more economic growth. So, while technology is not the solution, high-tech as well as technological efficiency gains are necessary for a degrowth transformation.

Democracy is the fifth principle, as degrowth scholars generally call for stronger democratic elements of direct democracy and public participation, which are viewed as key in a socio-ecological transformation. Degrowth highlights the importance of democracy as process of joint learning, self-education, reconstruction of social ties and collective transformation. While there are ongoing discussions on whether a representative democracy can fit this concept, degrowth generally acknowledges the benefits of increased public participation, for instance via public forums.

As the sixth principle, justice refers to degrowth’s opposition to domestic and global inequality. Domestically, degrowth rejects the idea that only economic growth can achieve more equality. Instead, degrowth argues for large scale redistribution and calls for reducing excessive incomes and wealth. On a global scale, degrowth highlights that the Global North is dependent on materials from the Global South to keep the current growth-based system going. Early-industrialised countries are often responsible for ecological degradation and human exploitation in the Global South. Often, sustainability strategies, e.g. the EU’s Green New Deal, keep on reinforcing this. To achieve global justice and sustainability, it is vital to change these unjust structures

How to achieve degrowth with its six principles is surely the crucial question. It is clear that such reform will not be attained overnight, but that wouldn’t be beneficial anyway. Reforming sound structures that are at present inherently based on economic growth, like-old age pension schemes, has to be planned on a sound basis. Moreover, degrowth has no blueprint anyway: what is needed are policies that diminish the dependence on ever more economic growth. If they are then called degrowth policies or simply framed as environmentally friendly reforms is secondary. In any case, to achieve a fundamental growth independent transformation, one needs a broad societal coalition. For a start, however, a critical mass of only 5% of people in a society is necessary to initiate progressive change, as the German social psychologist Harald Welzer keeps on emphasising. And the earlier we start, the earlier we can expect progress!

References

Chovancová, J and R. Vavrek. 2019. ‘Decoupling Analysis of Energy Consumption and Economic Growth of V4 Countries’. Problemy Ekorozwoju 14 (1): 159–165. 

Demaria, F., F. Schneider, F. Sekulova, et al. 2013. ‘What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement’. Environmental Values 22 (2): 191–215 https://doi.org/10.3197/096327113X13581561725194.

Haberl, H., D. Wiedenhofer, D. Virág, et al. 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):065003 https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab842a

Hickel, J. 2020. ‘What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification’. Globalizations: 1-7 https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2020.1812222.

Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, et al. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.


[1] Absolute decoupling refers to decreasing the use of resources per unit GDP growth, while relative decoupling implies simply using less resources per unit GDP than before.

[2] Even if one only focuses on decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions, where absolute decoupling is theoretically possible (and seen in some rare cases), this will not happen fast enough to keep global warming below 1.5˚C.


5 thoughts on “Degrowth – an emerging concept questioning the basis of our current economic model

  1. Hi, thanks for the succinct summary on degrowth, it’ll be a very helpful resource to point to for introducing the concept. Just wanted to point out that while you mention there being six principles of degrowth, unless I’m missing out a whole paragraph, you’ve only discussed five…? Could you kindly add in the sixth please?

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