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  • The Wilberforce Society Cambridge

Degrowth: A Path to Prosperity in the Climate Crisis?

Molly Young

Edited by Ansh Barot

 

It has long been assumed that high economic growth is the best means of enhancing socioeconomic development, the wellbeing of persons and transitions to cleaner energy sources.[1]  Yet there is increasing evidence to suggest that it is incompatible with sustainability objectives. Perpetual growth and limitless extraction beyond planetary boundaries sustain what Naomi Klein calls a logic of ‘extractivism’, or a ‘nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth’.[2] Both the rewards and consequences of this relationship have been shared unequally, with the richest nations collectively responsible for 92% of excess emissions while those in the poorest remain most vulnerable to climate breakdown and its effects.[3] This article will evaluate the assumption that continued economic growth is a viable strategy for addressing the climate crisis and global inequality, moving toward ‘degrowth’ as an economic framework in which sustainable development and planetary health are intertwined with increased human wellbeing. It is first necessary, however, to engage with the ways economists have sought to reconcile sustainability goals with economic growth. This article would otherwise risk uncritically peddling what Sam Fankhauser and Nicholas Stern label a ‘false dichotomy’ between growth and environmental responsibility.[4]


LSE's Grantham Research Institute reports ‘strong evidence to suggest that achieving a net-zero-carbon economy can be entirely consistent with continued growth in GDP in the form of “sustainable growth”’.[5] They skirt around recognising a need to scale back production or consumer habits; instead, emphasis is placed on ‘cleaner production methods’ and ‘more responsible consumption’ that support current trajectories of growth.[6] However, in order for this growth to be sustainable, it needs to be decoupled from historic entanglements with fossil fuels.[7] Decoupling would not only be dependent on ‘major investment into low-carbon energy’ and the availability of ‘negative emissions techniques’ (in sectors where emissions are harder to mitigate, such as agriculture and aviation), but could only be feasible with the dramatic cost reductions ‘already seen in renewable energy technologies’.[8]


Fankhauser and Stern reiterate possibilities for sustainable growth, valorising an ‘innovation-driven growth model’ where new technologies and economies of scale facilitate a low-carbon transition, while creating new employment and investment opportunities (pp. 312, 308). They highlight the associated environmental benefits, such as reduced fossil-fuel pollution (air and water) and forest preservation (p. 309). Meanwhile, they are careful not to underestimate the difficulty of ‘deep structural change’ they claim to be proposing; transitioning away from high-carbon capital and infrastructure would have to overcome innovation-associated inertia as well as rigidities in the labour market and capital stock (p. 308).


There is a sense that growth, facilitated by low carbon transitions, is the only way forward. If large-scale poverty reduction is said to depend on economic growth, finding ways to expand output sustainably seems integral to global climate justice and development.[9] However, there is evidence to suggest that sustainable ‘green’ growth strategies may reduce the effectiveness of growth in reducing poverty.[10] Pressuring developing countries to grow sustainably is also unjust when developed countries have already benefited immensely from fossil capital.[11] It fails to recognise the responsibility of Imperial Core countries to limit expansion, while those in the Periphery catch up within the remaining global carbon budget.[12]


Meanwhile, Jason Hickel explains that ‘there is no causal relationship between GDP growth and social outcomes’ in high-income nations.[13] In fact, he demonstrates that beyond a certain point, ‘even the correlation breaks down’ and attributes most human progress to progressive social movements instead.[14] His argument can be mapped onto the UK context, where wealth and income inequality remains profound despite GDP growth.[15] In 2022, for example, as annual GDP grew by approximately £94.6 billion, incomes for the poorest 14 million people fell by 7.5%, whilst incomes for the richest fifth saw a 7.8% increase.[16] Beyond this, sustainable growth is largely achieved in developed countries only by shifting from fossil fuels to other forms of extraction and exploitation.[17] Degrowth economist, Timothée Parrique explains that ‘if you decarbonise the economy but then you just re-materialise by [] using a lot of minerals [to] build a constantly increasing renewable infrastructure, you’ve just shifted the problem elsewhere’.[18] This dynamic is seen most acutely perhaps in the push for electric vehicles, as batteries entail water-intensive production methods and hazardous metal extraction processes.[19]


As Klein elaborates, ‘the approach of polite incremental change, attempting to bend the physical needs of the planet to our economic model’s need for constant growth’ has proved ‘disastrous’ (p. 34). Crucially, decoupling efforts have failed to achieve necessary climate goals.[20] According to a systematic review, ‘large rapid absolute reductions of resource use and GHG emissions cannot be achieved through observed decoupling rates, hence decoupling needs to be complemented by sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction strategies’.[21] As this article will elaborate, such findings suggest that growth - even ‘sustainable’ growth - is incompatible with climate goals given the urgency of the crisis and the need for rapid emissions reductions. In light of this, it is worth questioning why we continue to view growth as a viable, or indeed desirable, economic strategy when it not only fails to meet sustainability objectives, but has resulted in policies that harm the wellbeing of large numbers of people when pursued for its own sake.[22] In line with a study by Nina Eisenmenger et al., the following section will assume that ‘development has to merge an equal distribution of prosperity for all with ecological integrity, without depending predominantly on growth-oriented measurements of progress’.[23]

 

Degrowth: Less Emissions and More Prosperity

Global emissions have repeatedly fallen in periods of recession. Most recently, emissions shrank by more than 5% in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic as economic activity was stunted, only to rebound past pre-pandemic levels in 2021 in line with economic stimulus and surges in coal demand.[24] Such a correlation makes it tempting to see slowed or halted growth as a means of meaningfully reducing emissions and could point to a viable solution. There are however conceptual and logistic barriers to turning away from a growth-based economic framework, forcing us to reassess why we value it as a measure of progress and whether other indicators of development such as health or happiness could better serve our social and environmental goals. This is explored in a partner article, which establishes the need for a more holistic, entangled vision of human and extra-human wellbeing. Following this ethos, this article will now propose ‘degrowth’ as a favourable alternative to growth and a viable socioeconomic pathway to progress and prosperity.


The Grantham Institute warns that stopping economic growth ‘may run counterproductive’ to climate goals, citing how past recessions have slowed or even derailed efforts to adopt cleaner production methods.[25] This could be seen as a setback to climate goals which are dependent on a strategy of ‘sustainable growth’ under green alternatives. However, LSE’s analysis does little to acknowledge movements seeking planned, democratic ‘degrowth’ in which production is reduced intentionally alongside pushes for cleaner methods and renewable energy sources. LSE references periods of turmoil, notably the recession of 2008-2012.[26] In which case, it would be reductive to attribute the failed adoption of cleaner production methods to a fall in GDP alone; the recession was a period of social as well as economic crisis in which heightened levels of unemployment, loss of income and vulnerability set back progress made towards development goals, in turn stifling low-carbon innovation.[27] In contrast, according to Hickel and others, ‘[d]egrowth is a purposeful strategy to stabilize economies and achieve social and ecological goals, unlike recession, which is chaotic and socially destabilizing and occurs when growth-dependent economies fail to grow’.[28] It can be therefore assumed to an extent that LSE’s critique is not applicable to intentional contractions in GDP.


Degrowth suffers from an optics issue. Its prefix ‘de’ indicates negation, which is linguistically the negative antithesis of growth and its ideological connotations of expansion, prosperity and development. It is therefore easy to imagine degrowth as a contraction, a politics of scarcity and decline. However, playing on Hickel’s seminal work, Less is More, Hubert Buch-Hansen posits degrowth as a series of ‘less and more’ transitions: ‘less (or nothing) of all that which is currently destroying planetary life and the planet more generally as well as all that which undermines social equity’ and more of the practices that add to human and extra-human wellbeing, such as ‘cleaner energy forms’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘compassion’, ‘flat hierarchies’ and ‘joy’.[29] In effect, he attempts to move away from notions of degrowth as sacrifice and frames it instead as a politics of plenty, measured in community, inner wellbeing and environmental integrity. The diversity of transitions within his framework accounts for multiple plains of being, from environmental policy and social structures to interpersonal connections and sense of self.[30] He opens up degrowth to be more than an economic proposition, allowing for spiritualism and social connection, as well as pragmatic solutions that can be modified according to the specific level or locale at which they are to be adopted. Potential top-down measures include less extractivism, waste, artificial obsolescence, bureaucracy and more clean energy forms, equal distribution of resources and democracy.[31] Meanwhile, bottom-up solutions range from less egoism, competitiveness and intolerance to more place-sensitivity, empathy and curiosity.[32]


It is worth noting that some degrowth discourses can slip into a strain of ‘lifestylism’, where individual consumer and lifestyle habits are peddled as integral to achieving widespread change.[33] These individual choices are certainly one necessary part of a broader shift, and degrowth economists Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vettermake make room for necessary lifestyle changes under what they call the ‘sufficiency current’ of degrowth.[34] Placing exclusive emphasis on individual lifestyle choices however neglects to recognise consumer habits as both a symptom of systemic forces of production and, sometimes, an immutable aspect of people’s lives.[35] As Schmelzer et al. note, ‘focus on individual consumer renunciation – on consuming eco-consciously and less – ignores the perspectives of people who can’t afford to do so’, like those with disabilities, or from lower income brackets and/or minority ethnic groups (p. 105). It is fortunate, then, that prevailing degrowth discourses tend to acknowledge the need for a just, sustainable transition on multiple fronts, both bottom-up and top-down. As mentioned, Schmelzer et al. envisage these fronts as different ‘currents’, of which individualised ‘sufficiency’ is just one (pp. 71-72). The remaining currents are the institution-oriented current (regulation and fiscal policy), the commoning, or alternative economy current (sovereignty, solidarity and resource sharing), the feminist current (care and reproductive activities) and the post-capitalist and globalization-critical current (emancipatory revolutions) (pp. 71-73). The different capabilities and limitations of individuals, groups and governing bodies at various levels should be recognised within a broader sustainability framework in which social justice is as integral to development as environmental protection.  


There is an inclination to focus on top-down reforms – like carbon taxes, heat-pump subsidies or even free public transit - that could be realised without a direct assault on capitalist structures. However, as this article sought to elucidate, degrowth and sustainable development more broadly need to be pursued on multiple fronts, with attention to specific community and ecosystem needs, desires and capabilities. Clearing the way for various potentialities can cultivate more attractive and sustainable notions of development adapted and performed according to the specific people, places and ecologies they serve, where economic growth is no longer the primary measure of progress. As Hickel argues, 

 

‘We need to be clear about things we actually want to achieve: better health outcomes, better education, fairer wages, affordable housing, clean energy. We should pursue these things directly, rather than blindly growing the GDP and hoping that this will somehow magically help us achieve our social goals’.[36]

 

Degrowth may seem radical; however, the urgency and severity of the climate crisis necessitates rapid sociocultural, economic and political transformation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that ‘[a]ll global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5C involve rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors this decade’.[37] Klein perhaps put it best when she wrote,

 

‘It seems to me that if humans are capable of sacrificing this much collective benefit in the name of stabilizing an economic system that makes daily life so much more expensive and precarious, then surely humans should be capable of making some important lifestyle changes in the interest of stabilizing the physical systems upon which all of life depends. Especially because so many of the changes that need to be made to dramatically cut emissions would also materially improve the quality of life for the majority of people of the planet’ (p. 26).



 

References

[1] Paul Dalziel, Caroline Saunders and Joe Saunders, Wellbeing Economics: The Capabilities Approach to Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 1, eBook, <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-93194-4> [accessed 10 December 2023]. 

[2] This Changes Everything (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), pp. 33, 176.

[3] Jason Hickel, ‘Degrowth is about Global Justice’, Green European Journal, 5 January 2022, <https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/degrowth-is-about-global-justice/> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[4] ‘Climate Change, Development, Poverty, and Economics’, in The State of Economics, the State of the World, ed. by Kaushik Basu, David Rosenblatt, Claudia Sepúlveda (2020), pp. 295-320 (p. 312).

[5] Esin Serin, ‘Can we have economic growth and tackle climate change at the same time?’, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment/The London School of Economics and Political Science, 7 June 2022, <https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/explainers/can-we-have-economic-growth-and-tackle-climate-change-at-the-same-time/> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stefan Dercon, ‘Is Green Growth Good for the Poor?’, Policy Research Working Paper, 6231 (2012), < http://hdl.handle.net/10986/12082> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tristan Bove, ‘Climate Debt and Justice: How Much Do We Really Owe?’, Earth, 9 November 2021, <https://earth.org/climate-debt-and-justice-how-much-do-we-really-owe/> [accessed 15 December 2023].

[12] Fiona Harvey and Giles Tremlett, ‘Greenhouse Gas Emissions Must Peak Within 4 Years, Says Leaked UN Report’, Guardian, 12 August 2021, <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/12/greenhouse-gas-emissions-must-peak-within-4-years-says-leaked-un-report> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[13] Stella Levantesi, ‘Jason Hickel on the Cult of Degrowth’, Il Manifesto, 20 April 2021, <https://global.ilmanifesto.it/jason-hickel-on-the-cult-of-growth/> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Equality Trust, ‘The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK’, <https://equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[16] D. Clark, ‘Gross Domestic Product of the United Kingdom from 1948 to 2022’, Statista, 28 November 2023, <https://www.statista.com/statistics/281744/gdp-of-the-united-kingdom/#:~:text=The%20gross%20domestic%20product%20of,economy%20was%202.18%20trillion%20pounds> [accessed 15 December 2023];

The Equality Trust.

[17] Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, ‘How a Green New Deal Could Exploit Developing Countries, The Conversation, 25 February 2019, <https://theconversation.com/how-a-green-new-deal-could-exploit-developing-countries-111726> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[18] Circular Metabolism Podcast, ‘Vers une Société Post-Croissance (Podcast avec Timothée Parrique), online audio recording, Spotify, 5 April 2023.

[19] Lakshmi R B, ‘The Environmental Impact of Battery Production for Electric Vehicles’, Earth, 11 January 2023, <https://earth.org/environmental-impact-of-battery-production/> [accessed 15 December 2023].

[20] Helmut Haberl et al, ‘A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights’, Environmental Research Letters, vol. 15, no. 6 (2020), <doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab842a> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[21] Ibid.  

[22] Dalziel et al., p. 1.

[23]Nina Eisenmenger, Melanie Pichler, Simone Gingrich et al., ‘The Sustainable Development Goals prioritize economic growth over sustainable resource use: a critical reflection on the SDGs from a socio-ecological perspective’, Sustainability Science, 15 (2020), 1101-1110, <https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00813-x> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[24] United Nations Economic and Social Council, ‘Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet’, Report of the Secretary-General (Special Edn), July 2023, <https://hlpf.un.org/sites/default/files/2023-04/SDG%20Progress%20Report%20Special%20Edition.pdf> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[25] Serin.

[26] Ibid;

Cameron Hepburn and Alex Bowen, ‘Prosperity with Growth: Economic Growth,

Climate Change and Environmental Limits’, Handbook of Energy and Climate Change, ed. by R. Fouquet, 26 October 2012, <https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WP93-prosperity-with-growth-climate-change.pdf> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[27] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, ‘The Social Impact of the Economic Crisis’, 2011 Report on the World Social Situation (2011).

[28] Jason Hickel et al., ‘Degrowth Can Work — Here’s How Science Can Help’, Nature, 12 December 2022, <https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-04412-x> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[29] Hubert Buch-Hansen and Iana Nesterova, ‘Less and more: Conceptualising degrowth transformations’, Ecological Economics, 205, 107731 (2023), <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2022.107731> [accessed 15 December 2023].

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 

[33] Our Changing Climate, Why We Need Degrowth, online video recording, YouTube, 15 December 2023, 15:35, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48G3ox90wss> [accessed 16 December 2023].

[34] The Future is Degrowth (London: Verso, 2022), pp. 71-72.

[35] Our Changing Climate, 15:35.

[36] Stella Levantesi, ‘Jason Hickel on the Cult of Degrowth’, Il Manifesto, 20 April 2021, <https://global.ilmanifesto.it/jason-hickel-on-the-cult-of-growth/> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[37] Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers (March 2023), p. 20.

 

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