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Dissecting Degrowth and its Environmental Applications

By: Maria R.


Photo from: Paul Sableman on Flickr


Most prevailing capitalist economies tend to cause severe damages to the environment, by leading to air and water pollution and exhausting natural resources to produce final goods. For that reason, anti-capitalist movements have increased in popularity since the early 2000s. Among them is the degrowth movement, which was widely spread in Europe, specially in France, when activists started protesting against consumerism by disseminating the expression “décroissance”.


What is degrowth?


Degrowth is essentially an anti-capitalist alternate economic system that aims to slow down a society’s economic metabolism. At first, the term can sound misleading because it is not about decreasing income or jobs, but rather about democratically reducing production and consumption. However, that does not mean that the purpose of degrowth is to shrink Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - decelerating the economy is not its goal, but a very probable result of creating a sustainable society.


Increasing GDP is seen as the main objective of the world’s economies, but degrowth assumes that this monetary measure is not the optimal way of measuring how economically rich a society is and that well-being should be the main indicator of a country’s success instead of GDP. An increase in societal production and consumption does not guarantee increased well-being in a population and economic growth is not eminently effective in the fight against poverty, as according to data from Pew Research Center, at the same pace that GDP increased in the US, so did inequality. America’s GDP has tripled in the last 40 years, yet it seems only upper class people are earning more as national income increases, while middle and lower class individuals continue to experience stagnant financial conditions.


Photo from: Demos


Furthermore, GDP does not take into consideration unpaid jobs including care work that is predominantly done by women at home, informal markets such as arms or drugs, or jobs that are done “under the table.” It also does not account for negative things that impact people’s well-being or even the environment. For example, a common misconception is that natural or anthropogenic disasters can actually be beneficial for GDP, even though this is far from the truth. For instance, oil spills in the ocean are harmful to reefs, ecosystems, and fishermen. Yet, fishermen’s financial loss from oil spills is far less than the clean up efforts, as various companies and workers would have to be hired.


How does degrowth relate to the environment?


Energy, resources, and matter are converted into goods, services, and waste. Therefore, the more we produce, the more we pollute and exhaust natural resources. Degrowth states that Earth will not be able to keep up with the increasingly rapid rate of growth and consumption that many countries are having. After all, the foundation of any economy is the environment, seeing that nature provides all of the resources we need to produce goods and services, including timber, water, crops, fish, energy, minerals, etc.


Infinite economic growth is praised globally as if there were endless natural resources available. According to American economist Kenneth Boulding, “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” Given this perspective, a slower economy would use fewer resources and emit less carbon, helping reduce climate change and various related environmental issues.


How would degrowth work practically?


Instead of using profit to invest in making more profit, all financial gains would be used to improve people’s quality of life. That would be achieved by investing in healthcare, housing, education, clean energy, etc.


Moreover, for degrowth to succeed, myriad political and economic aspects need to be restructured and adapted to reduce resource and energy consumption. That means society, both systemically and individually, would have to radically transform their consumer habits. For instance, instead of throwing out clothes and buying new ones, people would be encouraged to ideally donate, trade, or purchase second-hand clothes. People would also need to be less individualist and more solidary. For example, to prevent the mitigated production levels from causing increased unemployment, workers would have to agree to reduce their working time so more job positions could be available. It would also mean the end of exploitation, the decommodification of land labor and value, and especially keeping the production localized.


Therefore, if implemented along with redistribution, sharing, and value shifts, a degrowth economy would greatly help improve well-being. And as a result, people would become more independent of money, markets, technologies, governments and companies, and they would be likely to have a more socially just and ecologically sustainable society.


According to a report published by the Journal of Cleaner Production, there are currently only four countries undergoing degrowth in resource use and production rates: Germany, Guyana, Moldova, and Zimbabwe. There are still many social and political obstacles to escalating the degrowth movement, causing it to be considered an Utopia since it urges to go beyond the progression of neoliberal and capitalist events of contemporary societies. A degrowth economy can be socially sustainable, but countries still need to improve their efficiency in converting natural resources into human well-being so everyone can lead a good life with minimum ecological footprint.


Discussion Questions:

  • Would degrowth help with implementing ecosocialism?

  • What global efforts would need to be made so degrowth could effectively happen?

  • Would keeping production local increase the likelihood of war?



Sources:


Ahlerup, P. (2013) Are Natural Disasters Good for Economic Growth? Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/16335993.pdf


Cordaro, Í., Piccin, G., Petito, R. & Vinícius, A. (Hosts). (2019) Decrescimento - Adiante Podcast [Audio podcast episode]. Adiante Podcast. https://open.spotify.com/episode/246bRz3HLGVodb0QlKolmP?si=5BfKV7KEQK6jC23gUEwn4g


Dessine-moi l'éco. (2014) Dessine-moi l'éco: la décroissance, une solution à la crise? [Video]. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJymoeijdDs


Gamester, N. (2013) Four Major Changes in Global Prosperity. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2013/10/four-major-changes-in-global-prosperity


Jackson, T. & Victor, P. (2019) Unraveling the claims for (and against) green growth. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6468/950/tab-pdf


Mijin Cha, J. (2013) What's Missing From GDP? Retrieved April 4, 2021, from https://www.demos.org/research/whats-missing-gdp




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