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Can degrowth help save our natural resources?

Climate justice. A global basic income. Equitable distribution of wealth.

Do these seem like wild utopian ideas? A growing body of research suggests that not only are such ideas possible, they may actually be necessary to prevent us falling off any environmental, social or economic cliffs.

For many decades we have been caught in the cyclic loop of boom and bust, or in other words unmitigated growth followed by a catastrophic crash. And then we get back on the economic treadmill, like mice running blindly on a wheel. There are, however, alternatives to perpetual economic growth, such as a steady-state economy or one that actually declines in size (i.e. degrowth).

Research and Degrowth, an academic group active primarily in Spain and France, define degrowth as a “voluntary path towards reduction of production and consumption aiming at ecological sustainability, good life, liberty, and social justice.” Key assumptions are that downscaling needs to be equitable and that human progress is still possible without economic growth.

Degrowth “calls for an economy of care, gift and conviviality, rather than an economics of scarcity and trade,” write Research and Degrowth, who recently developed a 10-point degrowth plan. “In that sense degrowth challenges not only the outcomes but the very spirit of capitalism.”

There are many angles that academics and activists approach degrowth from. Degrowth can simultaneously be seen as:

  • A move away from the dominance of the global north over the global south in terms of models of economic development
  • A quest for democracy, in which people reassert their right to self-determination
  • An environmental renaissance, as we boldly defend ecosystems and adopt one-planet living
  • A pathway through which to explore meaning of life questions, using the tools of non-violence, spirituality and voluntary simplicity
  • A new kind of ecological economics, where resource depletion and waste disposal are adequately accounted for

The problem with growth

Although the concept of economic growth dates back more than 300 years, it was not adopted as government policy until the 1940-50s. As a relatively recent phenomenon, perpetual growth is not an inherently necessary part of life, but we do need to overcome our extensive ‘growth is good’ conditioning.

“In the last 100 years, we got very confused about happiness,” Sarah van Gelder said in a recent Yes! Magazine article. “Advertisers spend billions spreading the illusion that more stuff will bring us happiness. And policy wonks of all political stripes - but especially those connected to business interests - spread the message that economic growth leads to well-being. Both are false promises that have instead been undermining the very conditions that could lead to sustainable happiness.”

The author goes on to say that sustainable happiness “begins by assuring that everyone can obtain a basic level of material security. But beyond that, more stuff isn’t the key to happiness.” Rather, it seems happiness is more reliant on the presence of thriving communities, loving relationships and access to meaningful work.

“The term economic ‘growth’ is so familiar we can easily forget that it’s a metaphor,” British author and journalist Steven Poole recently wrote in The Guardian. “Nothing is actually growing. What is happening is that some number representing GDP is higher than a previous such number.”

GDP (Gross Domestic Product), commonly used as an economic thermometer, is not without major drawbacks. This fairly arbitrary measure of economic activity, in the form of financial transactions, does not pass judgement on whether the underlying activities are desirable for society. That means increased spending associated with major oil spills, high rates of cancer and drawn-out wars are all great for GDP.

“Dig a strip mine and sell the metals, minerals, or coal, and the GDP will thank you - even if you pollute the drinking water for thousands,” writes van Gelder. “Raise fresh food in your garden, share it with friends and with the local homeless shelter, and stay healthy and happy, and the GDP doesn’t budge.”

Surely we must be measuring something wrong.

Many alternatives to GDP have been proposed, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator or the Environmentally Sustainable National Income (eSNI). The latter imposes a maximum production level, so that environmental resources will still be viable for future generations. Such measures recognise life can improve even when GDP goes down.

Democratic use of resources

Degrowth need not be a scary prospect. It does not imply regressing to the dark ages. On the contrary, it invites us to dust off long forgotten corners of our growth-addled minds and look towards an alternative, sustainable future.

In a new post-growth world, we will continue to need access to life-saving and life-enhancing devices, built from raw materials in the ground. However, when you consider that millions of cell phones and laptops end up in landfill every year, it seems entirely possible we could get by with less.

“Can we have smart phones without causing conflict in Africa?” Christian Kerschner, a postdoctoral researcher at Masaryk University, Czech Republic and a member of Research and Degrowth, asked in a February interview. “We have to work together on solutions and maybe we will find out it is not possible,” Kerschner adds, saying we may instead decide to develop simpler communication technologies. He says we cannot ignore the vast problems currently associated with the technologies we use, such as social conflict, pollution and environmental degradation.

Kerschner, who specialises in the area of resource peaks, suggests some of the current economic turmoil around the globe may be due to the declining availability of resources like oil. “We are not running out of resources, we never will do,” he is careful to clarify. Rather, the enormous dilemma before us is how much we can continue to extract to meet our needs. Kerschner says the economic strategies we have used so far won’t work any more: “There will be less and less resources available, so we need to democratise their use.”

When asked whether degrowth is the best way to achieve these changes, he was emphatic: “I think it’s pretty much the only way. We don’t really have a choice, the resource peaks are happening.” He says we could continue to push the boundaries and maintain the status quo, “or do we want to radically rethink the way we go about securing our welfare?”

Consumption has moved far beyond meeting basic material needs and in the overdeveloped world serves as the very basis for our identities. However, ‘green growth’ and ‘green consumerism’ are unlikely to be enough to save us. As Russell Brand indignantly points out in Revolution, we live in a world where British apples are sent to South Africa to be polished, before returning to the UK to be sold to unwitting consumers. Even if these trucks and ships ran on green energy, they would still be wasting valuable resources. It seems, then, that a new model entirely is required.

Reducing global inequalities

“Degrowth doesn’t just mean a contraction of the economy, it also implies a rethinking of how we deal with issues of poverty,” says Samuel Alexander, director of the Simplicity Institute in Melbourne, Australia. “If the global economy can no longer grow, and must in fact shrink for biophysical reasons, [solving poverty] implies a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.”

“Degrowth is first and foremost a macroeconomic framework and social philosophy aimed at the over-developed world,” Alexander continues, adding that degrowth does not mean people living in less developed countries, or even poor neighbourhoods within developed countries, should consume less. “One way to think of it is in terms of contraction and convergence.”

“From an ecological perspective, from a social justice perspective and from a personal perspective the growth model and the consumer lifestyles that it implies has failed,” Alexander says. “It would be catastrophic, sad and tragic, to say nothing of grossly unsustainable and unjust, for us to try to fix global poverty by turning the global south into the global north.”

“Degrowth doesn’t mean only one thing and the questions that it raises would need to be interpreted and implemented and explored in context specific ways,” says Alexander. “So a movement for degrowth in Melbourne, Australia might be very different from a degrowth movement in rural India or in South America.”

“This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be some resource transference,” he clarifies, adding that the global north may be able to assist in the transition away from extreme poverty. Kerschner explains that there are many options we are yet to fully consider, such as distributing resources globally on a per capita basis.

A collective choice

When people hear the word degrowth they may well conjure up images of recession, scarcity and conflict. But degrowth advocates are quick to point out that recession is unsustainable degrowth. They much prefer the sustainable variety.

“The question we ask is how positive would degrowth be if instead of being imposed by an economic crisis, it would actually be a democratic collective decision, a project with the ambition of getting closer to ecological sustainability and socio-environmental justice worldwide,” wrote Schneider et al in a 2010 article in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Alexander says degrowth “is about exploring post-consumerist lifestyles at the personal level, but also recognising that we need to organise at the community level and start building the degrowth economy B underneath, or within the shell of, the deteriorating growth economy A.”

“At this stage the most important work is in engaging communities at a local level, trying to create new conversations and telling new stories of prosperity,” Alexander adds. We need new cultural norms, which, rather than relying on myths about ever increasing growth and consumption, centre on the importance of sufficiency.

“The question that the degrowth movement puts to us is ‘how much is enough?’” says Alexander. “Because until we answer that question, we can never realise that we have enough.”

Photo by Joshua Mayer, used under cc license

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist and researcher who writes about sustainability, human rights and environmental issues. Jen tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution Is Eternal.

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