As humanity continues to grapple with the growing impact of climate change, many are questioning the traditional economic model of perpetual growth. Increasingly, experts and thought leaders are discussing an alternative approach — a radical and groundbreaking concept that challenges us to reevaluate our priorities. This idea envisions a world where the quest for profit takes a backseat to the development of resilient, equitable, and environmentally responsible societies. 

The Case for Degrowth

At its core, the concept of degrowth is a vision of a future that is less centred on endless consumption. It is an economic theory that advocates for a radical reduction in contemporary consumerism, with the aim of achieving a sustainable economy. Not only that, but it is also a call for us to rethink our relationship with the natural world and to prioritise the well-being of all people, not just a privileged few. The concept emerged in the 1970s as a response to the lack of compatibility between capitalism and the survival of the planet. It has since grown into a global movement, with proponents calling for systemic changes that address the root causes of ecological destruction.

Advocates of degrowth argue that continuous economic growth will deplete our finite planetary resources, causing irreversible damage to the environment. For example, according to the United Nations, global resource extraction has tripled since 1970. The rate is expected to reach 190 billion tons of resource extraction by 2060.  In contrast, degrowth advocates for a steady-state economy where resources are used at a sustainable rate, and the focus is on achieving well-being rather than maximising profit. To achieve this, proponents of degrowth argue for a radical restructuring of society, including a shift away from fossil fuels, a reduction in consumption, and a focus on community-oriented activities.

One of the key benefits of degrowth is its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reducing consumption and shifting to sustainable lifestyles are crucial for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. By reducing the production and consumption of goods and services, degrowth could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to the fight against climate change.

Additionally, degrowth could lead to increased social equality by reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. According to the World Inequality Database, the top 1 per cent of the world’s population owns more wealth (38 per cent total wealth) than the bottom 50 per cent (2 per cent total wealth). Proponents of degrowth argue that a reduction in consumption and a focus on community-oriented activities could help redistribute wealth and reduce income inequality. For example, a community centred on degrowth principles could decide to prioritise local businesses and services over large corporations. This would involve supporting small businesses in the community, encouraging local entrepreneurship and reducing the amount of money that flows out of the community to large corporations. This could help to redistribute wealth and reduce income inequality by creating more opportunities for people in the community to start their own businesses and share resources.

Obstacles to Degrowth

However, the concept of degrowth is not universally accessible and has faced criticism from those who argue that economic growth is necessary for developing nations to improve healthcare, education, and other essential services. According to a report by the World Bank, economic growth is essential for reducing poverty and increasing access to basic services such as clean water, healthcare, and education. Developing nations, in particular, may not have the luxury of choosing a degrowth model and may need to focus on achieving economic growth to improve the standard of living for their citizens.

Despite these criticisms, proponents of degrowth argue that the current economic model is unsustainable and that the costs of inaction are too high. In a report published by the Sustainable Europe Research Institute, the authors argue that: ‘societies that live within ecological limits and social boundaries are more resilient and better prepared for future shocks and crises.’ For example, The Bishnoi community from the Thar Desert in India has been practising environmental conservation and sustainable living for over 500 years. Recently, the community has faced a severe water scarcity crisis due to droughts and overexploitation of groundwater. However, their traditional water harvesting methods and efficient use of water resources have enabled them to cope with the crisis better than other communities in the region. By shifting towards a degrowth model, societies can create a more sustainable future and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

So what does a society centred on degrowth economic principles actually look like? In this society, infrastructure investments would focus on renewable energy sources, public transportation, bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, green spaces, sustainable building materials, and waste reduction systems. While prioritising sustainability, these investments could potentially create new job opportunities in the renewable energy sector and contribute to the health of the environment. 

One potential downside could be the cost of these infrastructure investments. Transitioning to renewable energy and sustainable building materials may be more expensive in the short term. There is also the issue of mining and extracting minerals required for renewable energy infrastructure, such as rare earth metals for electric cars. This often leads to land dispossession where Indigenous communities are forcibly removed from their ancestral territory to make way for extraction activities. This can lead to the loss of livelihoods and identity. For example, in Scandinavia, increasing mining pressure is being placed on the Indigenous Sami livelihood of reindeer herding. Increasing extraction activities disrupt the reindeer’s traditional grazing grounds and threaten the Sami’s cultural heritage.

Changing How We Do Things

Despite these obvious challenges, introducing degrowth as a viable economic principle could shift education towards developing skills and knowledge that contribute to a functional and sustainable society. This could mean investing in environmental education and sustainable agriculture, as well as in skills such as conflict resolution, communication, and community organising. Following this pattern, the job market would also shift towards more socially and ecologically valuable work. This could mean investing in care work, such as healthcare, as well as in ecological restoration and conservation efforts. While it’s true that transitioning away from industries such as fossil fuel extraction and certain forms of manufacturing could lead to job loss and economic instability, it’s crucial to consider the long-term consequences of continued environmental attrition.

In today’s rapidly changing world, the idea of degrowth has emerged as an economic theory that provides a new path towards a sustainable future.  While there are real benefits to this model, it is not without its challenges, particularly for developing nations. However, the urgency of the climate crisis demands bold action, and degrowth is one potential solution to create a more sustainable future. As Jason Hickel, an economist and leading proponent of degrowth, notes: ‘degrowth is not a choice, but an inevitability if we want to avoid ecological collapse.’

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