Once confined to the small scientific community of climate researchers and ecological economists, the idea of degrowth is now blazing into the mainstream. Not surprisingly, people are trying to figure out what to make of it. Is it an inspiring idea that points the way to a better economy? Or is it a mad notion that’s sure to plunge us all into poverty?
Degrowth is a planned reduction of total energy and material use to bring the economy in line with planetary boundaries, while improving people’s lives by distributing income and resources more fairly.
The scientific case for degrowth is robust, and gets stronger every day. We know that high-income nations – including Britain and Ireland – must make dramatic and very rapid reductions to their emissions in order to avert dangerous climate breakdown, cutting carbon at a rate of about 15 per cent per year. This will require a massive mobilisation to roll out all the solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear power stations we need to get to net zero.
But there’s a problem. Because high-income nations consume so much energy, it may not be feasible to generate renewables quickly enough to stay within a fast-shrinking carbon budget. According to climate researchers, the only way to make it work is to reduce total energy use.
This isn’t just a matter of individual behaviour change, like installing energy-efficient light bulbs – although of course we need that. It’s a matter of fundamentally changing how our economies operate.
Most people don’t realise it, but the majority of our energy use doesn’t happen in households. It’s used to power the extraction, production and transportation of material stuff: everything from smartphones to refrigerators, cars to container ships. By reducing the material “throughput” of our economy – the amount of stuff we produce and consume – we can reduce our energy demand. Not only does this make it easier to accomplish a rapid transition to renewables, it also takes significant pressure off of living ecosystems.
If we reduce working hours we can redistribute necessary labour without any loss of total jobs
One way to do this is to stop allowing companies to bloat their profits with planned obsolescence, selling products that are designed to break down simply to increase turnover. In fact, we could even roll out legislation to require longer product lifespans. If fridges and washing machines last twice as long, we will use half as many. Better yet, we can also introduce rights to repair, so we can get our phones and microwaves fixed for cheap instead of having to replace them when they break. We can shift from private cars to public transportation. And we can limit advertising in public spaces to liberate people from the psychological pressure for needless consumption.
Perhaps even more importantly, we can choose to actively scale down energy-intensive industries and wasteful luxury consumption: like the arms trade, SUVs and McMansions.
The good news is that we can do all of this without any negative impact on people’s health, happiness or well-being. The evidence is clear: we can thrive in an economy that uses less.
But here’s the catch. Policies such as these, as sensible as they may be, meet with enormous resistance. Why? Because ultimately it means scaling down aggregate economic activity, and that may well lead to less gross domestic product (GDP). For any mainstream economist or politician, this sets off alarm bells. It’s the exact opposite of how we’re told the economy should operate. What about employment? What about incomes?
The new generation of ecological economists have thought through this in detail – and the solutions are surprisingly simple. If we reduce working hours we can redistribute necessary labour without any loss of total jobs. Toss in a job guarantee and we can have three-day weekends for all and full employment at the same time. To make up for lost hours, we can introduce a living-wage law, or roll out a universal basic income. And we can provide retraining programmes to make sure workers can move painlessly from dirty industries to cleaner ones (after all, some industries will still need to grow in a degrowth scenario).
Ireland and Britain are among the richest nations on Earth; the problem is that all of their income and wealth is captured at the top
To understand how this is possible, we need to grasp a simple fact. The vast majority of new income from GDP growth doesn’t benefit ordinary people – it goes straight to the very richest. Despite massive growth in high-income nations over the past few decades, in many cases wages and median incomes have stagnated and poverty rates are up. Most people have gained little in terms of health and happiness.
In other words, we’re all working needlessly long hours to generate continued economic growth, with deadly consequences for our living planet, all so that a rich elite can get even richer.
Once we wake up to this madness, the solution becomes clear. We already live in an abundant economy. Ireland and Britain are among the richest nations on Earth; the problem is that all of their income and wealth is captured at the top. We don’t need yet more growth, driving yet more toxic inequality. On the contrary, we can improve people’s lives right now, without any growth at all, simply by sharing what we already have more fairly. Equity is the antidote to the growth imperative.
What does this look like in real life? It means higher wages for workers. It means a more progressive tax system to fund generous public goods like healthcare, education, community centres and parks, so that people can access the things they need to live long, flourishing lives. It means an economy by and for the 99 per cent.
The principles of post-growth economics can deliver both climate stability and a thriving society as part of the same package. It’s time to break free from the shackles of mindless growthism and evolve toward a better, more just, more ecological economy for the 21st century.
Dr Jason Hickel is an anthropologist, author and fellow of the Royal Society of Arts