Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy?

An article from Vox on the “degrowth” movement.

“Degrowth” encapsulates a mounting economic, social, and political movement that seeks to address climate change by reducing energy and resource use, while promoting a more ‘balanced’ way of living – essentially ‘living better with less’.

The concept is not new – the first international degrowth conference took place in Paris in 2008, and a Global Degrowth Day is now held every June. However, the increased attention from academics, campaigners and the media has given the degrowth movement fresh impetus and seen it being considered in new ways – for example in the context of several recent trials to establish a living wage, and questions around growing state intervention following the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a week gripped by the launch of a stark new report from the IPCC underscoring the dramatic impacts of global warming breaching 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, one can look back at another special IPCC report from 2018 that raised the potential role of deliberate degrowth. In the absence of negative-emissions technologies, the report suggests that the only feasible way to remain within safe carbon budgets would be for high-income nations to actively slow down the pace of material production and consumption.

Yet, while degrowth offers a “romantic, utopian vision for the future” – a recent Vox article argues that it does not (for now at least) represent a coherent or feasible policy agenda. The current reality is that for all the climate challenges posed by a growing middle class continuing to fuel growth in GDP terms, life expectancies and quality of life has generally improved as well. As such, the author states that deliberately seeking degrowth on a global scale would be nearly impossible to implement, especially in a world where billions continue to live in poverty.

A significant problem with degrowth is that in the coming decades, most carbon emissions won’t be coming from already rich countries — they’ll be happening in newly middle-income countries like India or Indonesia.

As well as raising questions around who should dictate to what extent these burgeoning economies can grow, there would also be practical and ethical challenges deciding

which goods and services people really need, and “what things they value that are frivolous luxuries”.

The author makes clear that we need massive investments in green technologies, and we don’t have very long to act. The challenge is ensuring these technologies can be made available on an unprecedented scale, which brings its own challenges, including the sourcing of the required metals and resources, as well as distributional issues.

They conclude that the scale of the problem is such that we need to act now — and we need to be clear-eyed about which ideas truly move the needle.

Read the full article by Kelsey Piper here.