Degrowth: a dangerous idea or the answer to the biggest problems in the world?

CNN business

Conventional economic logic is based on a fundamental assumption: larger economies are better, and finding ways to maintain or stimulate growth is critical to improving society.

But what if growth, at best, was doing little to solve the world’s problems and at worst promoting the destruction of the planet and putting its future at risk?

This is the radical message of the “degrowth” movement, which has spent decades on the fringes of politics with its warning that unlimited growth must end. Now, after the pandemic has given people in some parts of the world a chance to rethink what makes them happy, and as the scale of the change needed to tackle the climate crisis becomes clearer, his ideas are gaining momentum. wider recognition, even as anxiety grows in what could be a painful global recession.

For economists and politicians of all kinds, growth has long been a guiding light. It is a vehicle to create jobs and generate taxes for public services, increase prosperity in rich countries and reduce poverty and hunger in poorer ones.

But decreases argue that an endless desire for more – larger national economies, higher consumption, higher corporate profits – is shortsighted, misleading, and ultimately harmful. Gross domestic product, or GDP, is a poor metric for social well-being, they point out.

Furthermore, they see the expansion of a global economy that has already doubled in size since 2005 and, with a growth of 2% annually, would be more than seven times greater in a century, putting out of reach the emissions targets needed to save the world.

“An innocent 2 or 3% per year is a huge amount of growth – cumulative growth, compound growth – over time,” said Giorgos Kallis, one of the leading degrowth scholars based at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. “I don’t see it compatible with the physical reality of the planet”.

The solution, according to the degrowth movement, is to limit the production of unnecessary goods and try to reduce the demand for unnecessary items.

This unorthodox school of thought has no shortage of critics. Bill Gates called de-escalators unrealistic, pointing out that asking people to consume less for the sake of the climate is a losing battle. And even believers recognize that their structure can be a political beginning, given how difficult it is to imagine what growth weaning would look like in practice.

“The fact that it’s an uncomfortable concept is both a strength and a weakness,” said Gabriela Cabaña, a degrowth advocate from Chile and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

Yet, in some corners, it is becoming less taboo, especially as governments and industry lag behind in their efforts to keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, after which some effects of climate change will become irreversible.

Climate activists, including degrowth advocates, gathered in Munich on 12 November 2021.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently cited degrowth in an important report. The European Research Council has just allocated around $ 10 million to Kallis and two colleagues to explore “post-growth” policy practices. And the European Parliament is planning a conference called “Beyond Growth” next spring. The participation of the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is expected.

Some on Wall Street are also starting to pay more attention. Investment bank Jefferies said investors should consider what happens if degrowth picks up strength, noting that the “climate-anxious” younger generation have different consumption values.

In the debate on how to avoid climate catastrophe, there is a key point of consensus: if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided, the world must reduce annual carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. After that, they must steeply decline. it’s fast.

Most roadmaps that define a plan to achieve this goal involve a dramatic reconfiguration of economies around clean energy and other emission reduction solutions, while promoting new technologies and market innovations that make them more affordable. . This would allow the global economy to continue growing, but in a “green” way.

Yet advocates of degrowth are skeptical that the world can reduce emissions over time – and protect sensitive, interconnected ecological systems – while pursuing endless economic expansion, which they believe will inevitably require the use of more energy.

A construction site in Belgrade, Serbia, in heavy smog on November 1, 2022.

“More growth means more energy use, and more energy use makes it harder to decarbonise the energy system in the short time we have left,” said Jason Hickel, a degrowth expert on the team that has received funding from the European Research Council. . “It’s like trying to run down an escalator that’s accelerating upward against you.”

While energy can go green, growth also requires natural resources such as water, minerals, and timber.

It’s a concern that was echoed by Greta Thunberg, arguably the most famous climate activist. You criticized the “fairy tales about non-existent technological solutions” and “eternal economic growth”. And you touched on another point raised by the decreases: does our current system, which has produced rampant inequality, also work for us?

This question resonates in the global South, where there are fears that the green energy revolution may simply replicate existing patterns of resource exploitation and overextraction, but with minerals like nickel or cobalt – key components of batteries – instead of oil.

The “love of growth,” said Felipe Milanez, professor and degrowth advocate based in the Brazilian state of Bahia, is “extremely violent and racist, and is only reproducing local forms of colonialism.”

It can be difficult to talk about degrowth, especially when fears of a global recession grow, with all the pain of job loss and shattered business that that implies.

But proponents, who often speak of recessions as symptoms of a broken system, make it clear that they are not promoting austerity or telling developing countries eager to raise living standards that they should not reap the benefits of economic development.

Instead, they talk about sharing more goods, reducing food waste, moving away from privatized transportation or healthcare, and making products last longer, so you don’t need to buy them at such regular intervals. It’s about “thinking in terms of sufficiency,” Cabaña said.

Cars make their way into New Jersey on April 22, 2022. The United States is the second largest contributor to CO2 emissions.

Adopting degrowth would require a dramatic rethinking of market capitalism that has been embraced by nearly every society on the planet in recent decades.

Yet some proposals may exist within the current system. A universal basic income is often mentioned, where everyone receives a lump sum payment regardless of employment status, allowing the economy to reduce its dependence on polluting industries. So it’s a four day work week.

“When people have more economic security and more economic freedoms, they make better decisions,” Cabaña said.

The latest report from the IPCC, the UN authority on global warming, noted that “addressing inequality and many forms of status consumption and focusing on well-being supports climate change mitigation efforts,” a nod to one of the greatest objectives of degrowth. The movement was also controlled with the name.

But degrowth is also the subject of considerable opposition, including by climate scholars and activists with similar goals.

“Degrowth people are living a fantasy where they assume that if you bake a smaller cake, for some reason, the poorest will get a bigger share,” said Per Espen Stoknes, director of the Center for Green Growth at BI Norwegian. Business School. “This has never happened in history”.

Steam and smoke rise from the Belchatow coal-fired power plant in Rogowiec, Poland.  The station emits around 30 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Green growth advocates believe their strategy can work. They cite promising examples of decoupling GDP gains from emissions, from the UK to Costa Rica, and the rapidly increasing affordability of renewables.

Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft who prioritized investments in climate innovations, admits that overhauling global energy systems is a tall order. But he thinks that increasing the accessibility of the right technologies can still achieve this goal.

The degreasers know that their criticisms are controversial, even if somehow that is the intent. They believe a more radical and revolutionary approach is needed, given the United Nations estimate that global warming is expected to increase between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees Celsius, based on the world’s current climate commitments.

“Less time [that] now it has remained, more radical change is needed, “said Kohei Saito, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

Could a growing cohort agree? In 2020, his book on degrowth from a Marxist perspective became a surprise hit in Japan, where concerns about the consequences of stagnant growth have influenced the country’s politics for decades. “Capital in the Anthropocene” has sold nearly 500,000 copies.


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