The Case for Degrowth

by Oliver Danger Lewis on 20 July 2021
The Case for Degrowth
We already have enough stuff, we just need to stop destroying it.

The Case for Degrowth has a very simple basis: compound economic growth is both unsustainable and undesirable. When I explained this idea to a Labour councillor, I received the shocked reply, “how the hell do you explain that to the electorate?” This response was practically revolutionary, compared to that of one particular PPE student who patiently explained to me that economic growth was good because it leads to compound interest rates, which are in fact highly useful because they allow companies to pay workers less every year without telling them.

A global economy that grows at 3% per year will double in size every 24 years, and quadruple in 50. That is the nature of compound growth. As a maths teacher in training, I am pleased to see the authors’ reference to the legend (of dubious origin) of the inventor of chess, who one day is invited to a royal palace to be rewarded for his genius. The king, delighted, grants his modest request: to place one grain of rice on the first square of the inventor’s chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, and so on. The king is presumably less pleased to discover that the final square contains 264, or 18 billion billion grains of rice. When the rate of growth of a quantity increases alongside the quantity itself, we very quickly end up with huge amount

Source: Materialflows.net/World Bank

Although this pattern worked to the Chess Inventor’s advantage, in the context of modern society it illustrates a serious problem. Material use is proportional to GDP, and these days we extract 92 billion tons of material every year. The repercussions of this ever-increasing metabolization of the planet put pressure on complex and delicate ecosystems. In the last 40 years, Earth has lost half its wildlife and the rate of species extinction is accelerating. A World Economic Forum report predicts that the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. Deforestation of the Amazon, which has shrunk the rainforest by 20% and transformed it into a net carbon emitter, is an inseparable part of a globalised economy in which material wealth is extracted from the Global South to pay off economic debts to the North.

Aside from the staggering environmental cost of growth, social costs arise from the breakdown of communities and the privatisation of common goods and services. In the UK, the world’s fifth-largest economy, austerity measures have dropped 14 million people into poverty while GDP has grown. In the US, real wages have remained stagnant despite a threefold increase in GDP since 1980. The authors of The Case for Degrowth connect these figures to global trends which show that economic growth, once thought to be a sure-fire indicator of increased welfare, is uncoupled from more accurate metrics of life quality, such as the Genuine Progress Index and Gross National Happiness.

Degrowth is a political theory that allows societies to “slow down by design, not disaster”. Because wealth is currently distributed so unevenly, Kallis, Paulson, D’Alisa and Demaria argue that living standards can be improved at the same time as a deliberate reduction in GDP. How so? They argue that by shifting our focus from privately accumulated wealth to shared goods and culture, we can live lives in which we all have access to good quality food, homes, neighbourhoods, and thoughtful conversation. Through better appreciation of care and social reproduction, we can benefit from more fulfilling and fairly paid labour, and access to healthcare. By supporting each other, it will be easier for us to bear the immense sacrifices needed to ensure the future of the planet.

The politics proposed here are compelling, equitable and common sense. One important insight, though, is that the success of degrowth rests on a strong base of people “for whom degrowth is not an abstract idea but what they do every day”. This includes indigenous communities in Brazil, Bolivia and Mexico who risk their lives to fight against destructive mining, logging, drilling and road-building. It also includes billions of people living within safe levels of consumption in low-income nations, for instance Costa Rica and Kerala, whose levels of happiness far exceed those of US and UK citizens. Many people living in the North want to live more meaningful lives. Many of us articulate desires for a less-damaging, simpler life through (sometimes contradictory) choices such as cycling to work, eating less meat and activism. The Case for Degrowth proposes learning how to live well from diverse people and communities who already do so in modest conditions, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all solution on the planet.

This book presents five key economic policies that governments can implement to support degrowth lifestyles. They are:

● A Green New Deal Without Growth

● Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Universal Basic Services (UBS)

● Reclamation of the Commons

● Reduction of Working Hours

● Public Finance for Degrowth

These policies are discussed and defended in great depth in the book. I will highlight a couple here. A Green New Deal (GND) without growth follows strategies proposed by Biden and the EU to introduce massive investment in green energy and infrastructure to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, by issuing 0%-interest government bonds that can only be spent in green sectors, we would thereby avoid stimulating other industries. Why on earth would we want to do that? Well, the problem with economy-wide stimulation is that it inevitably leads to greater energy usage, as production and consumption increase. This would cancel out the gains made by expanding green energy. We already have enough stuff, we just need to stop destroying it.

Another policy, a reduction in working hours, is already popular in many countries. People who work fewer hours are happier and consume less. They also have time to do other important activities: caring for vulnerable relatives and friends; artistic creation; resting; playing. Since the industrial revolution, the productivity of societies has shot up because of the immense output of machines. By reducing working hours, we could split up jobs between multiple people and lift millions out of poverty. This will become more and more necessary as productivity declines during the transition to green energy.

This is The Case for Degrowth, presented powerfully and convincingly in a book by Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Demaria. For me, some questions remain: how would I convince the labour councillor, or more importantly her electorate, of the validity of the claims above? Though a degrowth life has obvious benefits, I worry that giving up wealth would mean giving up political power. We seem to be in a prisoner’s dilemma situation, in which it is possible to benefit collectively from individual sacrifice… but we choose not to act based on the fear that if we choose to leave enough for everyone else, someone else may take our share and invest it into expansive industries?

I hope my doubts can be assuaged on Wednesday 28th July, when Morocco Bound Review will be holding a live talk and Q&A session with Giorgos Kallis, co-author of The Case for Degrowth. Sign up for the free event by clicking here.