Growth has us on the edge of collapse. Degrowth is our best option to avoid it.
The maths is simple: we need to reduce our use of the Earth's resources
If the whole world lived like Australians, we would need 4.5 planet Earths. As a nation we are exceeding several planetary boundaries not just climate change, but also land-use change (deforestation), phosphorus and nitrogen run-off, and material and ecological footprints. Over the last 200 years Australia has suffered the largest decline in biodiversity of any continent.
Globally, we are living as if we have 1.75 planet Earths, which means that over-consuming nations, like Australia, are stealing from under-consuming nations and future generations to fuel our lifestyles today. Our ‘ecological debt’ has come due. Scientists say that we are already in the sixth mass extinction.
Three percent economic growth (expressed as GDP) each year might sound small, but it is exponential. This means that in 24 years GDP will be twice as large as today and in 100 years it will be 19 times as as large as today. The idea that we can significantly reduce our use of the Earth’s resources while substantially increasing GDP is not supported by the research. This is not sustainable.
We have known about the inadequacies of GDP as a metric for a long time. In 1968 Robert F Kennedy said that “… it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” The man who invented gross national product (now GDP), Simon Kuznets, warned that the “welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”
If GDP is such a poor metric of wellbeing, why is it still the single most important metric for most governments around the world? To answer this, we need to see who benefits the most from economic growth. Between 1995 and 2021, global economic growth was staggeringly unequally distributed, with the wealthiest 1% capturing 38% of total wealth growth while the bottom 50% captured only 2.3% of overall wealth growth. Consider the massive corporate political donations, huge influence of industry lobbying, constantly revolving door from politics to industry and the highly concentrated corporate media ownership and the Silent Coup of corporations over our democracy becomes clear. Through the continued focus on GDP, governments are serving the interests of corporations and their beneficiaries, not citizens.
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While GDP doesn’t tell us much about human wellbeing, it tells us a lot about environmental degradation. Energy use and material footprint are closely coupled with GDP and can’t be decoupled. Arguably they can’t be decoupled at all, but certainly not at the pace and scale necessary to achieve the science-basedgreenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets without relying on speculative or problematic technology. We need to acknowledge the science: ‘green growth’ isn’t possible in the time we have available. Every time GDP goes up, we cause more environmental harm.
Are there options beyond an obsession with GDP growth? Yes, one such option is degrowth. Degrowth is a democratic and planned reduction in material and energy throughput in over-consuming nations to get back within planetary boundaries while improving wellbeing and global justice. It explicitly rejects GDP as a useful metric, and instead focuses on the planetary boundaries and social wellbeing metrics, while addressing global justice. Regarding people in ‘developing’ countries, the ‘global justice’ element of degrowth both recognises that they will need to increase their energy and material footprint (by directly meeting their needs, not through economic growth), and that over-consuming nations will need to reduce their energy and material throughput to create space for that increase.
Degrowth is a deliberately provocative term. Professor Giorgos Kallis, ecological economist and author of In Defence of Degrowth, states: degrowth “is atheist – it understands that the religion of capitalist growth won’t go away [without] a fight and by ‘ignoring’ it”. Where so many well-meaning and more intuitively positive sounding terms, such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘regeneration’, have been co-opted and absorbed by the status quo to drive further growth (i.e., environmental harm), it is much harder to do that with the term degrowth.
The dogma that economic growth is unquestionably good and even necessary situates the word degrowth as its antithesis. In fact, further economic growth is harmful and is not a panacea for prosperity. We need to redefine prosperity, and degrowth is the solution that is needed. If the term degrowth is challenging perhaps it is not the word but the connotation around it. We must be honest: a reduction in energy and material throughput is needed if we are to avoid ecological collapse.
What could degrowth policies look like? The first step is to decouple societal wellbeing from GDP growth by providing high quality universal public services including healthcare, education, transport, water, electricity, and internet access. Next is to implement a federally-funded job guarantee so that anyone who wants to work can. Additionally, the working week could be shortened so that the remaining jobs can be shared. And no, we don’t need growth to pay for these measures: as we’ve witnessed in times of crises, “anything we can actually do, we can afford.”
Next is to democratically determine which industries to reduce or shut-down entirely, such as fossil fuels; industrial animal agriculture; aviation; fast fashion; products derived from logging native forests; over-sized new house builds; SUVs; armaments and single-use plastics. Simultaneously the industries to invest in and scale up would need to be democratically determined, for example: renewable energy; public transport; electric appliances; insulation and ecosystem restoration. Additionally, regulations to reduce planned obsolescence, increase sharing rather than individual ownership, reduce advertising, restrict money creation by private institutions, and promote debt cancellation, particularly to ‘developing’ nations could be implemented. This list is not exhaustive, but it provides a sense for the kinds of changes that could be made when the planet and people are at the heart of an economy, not profit and growth.
Be wary of people claiming that more economic growth is a panacea for our problems. The same thinking that got us here isn’t going to get us out. Naysayers may declare that degrowth would be “devastating” because they conveniently but inaccurately conflate degrowth with recession, but we have different terms for different concepts precisely because they mean different things. Look at such people’s motives: how are they funded? What science do they deny? What ideology do they support?
The mathematics is simple: either we implement planned degrowth by actively reducing the energy and material throughput in over-consuming nations, or we will suffer ecological and subsequent civilisational collapse. In the end, the growth economy is a relatively recent human construct. It can be changed. The laws of nature, however, cannot. It would be tragic to continue to perpetuate a mass extinction event because we aren’t brave enough to challenge the insane notion of endless growth on a finite planet with the urgency it deserves.
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An edited version of this piece was first published in The Canberra Times