Movement defends economic retraction to save the planet

Movement defends economic retraction to save the planet

‘Degrowth’ questions GDP as a metric and wants to transition to a post-capitalism

“Anyone who believes that exponential growth can last forever in a finite world is either crazy or an economist.” American Kenneth Boulding’s self-irony is at the heart of a movement that wants to rival the current global economic paradigm: degrowth.

The term —which in Portuguese means degrowth— is almost self-explanatory. For supporters, it is necessary to abandon economic expansion as a political objective and accept that retraction is the only way to save the planet from a climate catastrophe.

The model has a certain proximity to ecosocialism and, although it is a relatively marginal trend, it has been gaining ground in the environmental debate.

In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists signed a public letter warning of climate challenges and advocating a paradigm shift. “Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of wealth to sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being, prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality.”

Political figures have also declared support for degrowth ideas, such as Spain’s Minister of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, and some European green parties.

Currently, one of the main thinkers of this movement is the anthropologist Jason Hickel, author of the book “Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World”.

According to him, it is not possible to reconcile economic expansion and the end of climate change. Not even a quick green turn — with companies and governments adhering to strict environmental and social principles — could prevent a tragic fate for humanity.

“The empirical evidence is clear that it is not feasible to decarbonize fast enough to stay below 1.5º C if rich countries continue to pursue growth,” he says, in an interview with Sheet.

What is degrowth?

Hickel defines degrowth as a planned reduction in energy and resource use in high-income countries, as a strategy to rebalance the economy and reduce inequalities.

“It’s about reducing less necessary forms of production and focusing the economy on meeting human needs and well-being rather than capital accumulation,” he says.

According to him, this contraction does not necessarily have to happen globally. The focus is on rich nations, mainly the United States and European countries.

In practice, the anthropologist defends reducing the industries that he considers ecologically destructive and socially less necessary, such as fossil fuels, fast fashion and even SUVs. Planned obsolescence should be banned and advertising limited.

In contrast, degrowth favors the expansion of sectors such as renewable energy, public health, regenerative agriculture and essential services.

“We have to actively transform the economic system to make it greener and fairer. This requires strong policies,” she says. “It takes a social and political movement to bring about this kind of change,” she adds.

What would poor countries look like?

One of the criticisms of the movement is that, although well-intentioned, it would end up harming poor countries even more. However, in the view of economists advocating degrowth, this would not necessarily happen.

Hickel, for example, questions the current world economic arrangement, where emerging and less developed nations are dedicated to producing what rich countries consume. According to him, this “exploratory profile” would also be changed.

“In the existing global economy, poor countries are drained of their wealth and resources to support the growth of rich countries. We need to get out of this system and instead seek economic sovereignty and regional integration in the [hemisfério] South,” he says.

In addition, the reduction in the production of the great powers would create space in the “global carbon budget”, allowing the poorest countries to continue growing.

According to the anthropologist, economic degrowth would not be an obstacle to ensuring the food and survival of a growing population either. In his view, it is possible to provide good living standards for 10 billion people with less energy than the world currently uses. The point is to organize the production of goods around human needs, not corporate profit.

What is the problem with economic growth?

During the last 200 years, the world has gotten considerably richer. After the end of World War II, growth was even more intense — especially in Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

However, despite measurable advances in infant mortality, sanitation and food, most of the planet remains poor, with millions of people starving and lacking access to basic resources.

According to the “degrowthers”, economic growth was captured by a small elite, becoming inefficient, unfair and anti-ecological.

Furthermore, a large part of the resources that humanity uses and depends on is based on limited ecosystem services. Therefore, infinite economic growth in a finite world would be materially impossible.

Degrowth has gained traction with the climate crisis

The concept of degrowth began to emerge in the early 1970s, after the publication of the book “The Entropy Law”, by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. However, the movement really took shape with the worsening of climate change.

In 2011, research from the University of York in Canada compared Canadian carbon emissions on three hypothetical trajectories up to the year 2035.

Keeping economic activity as it is (“business as usual”), emissions would grow indefinitely. Limiting growth to zero, they declined, but modestly. Only in the degrowth scenario, carbon was reduced on a large scale.

The main argument among supporters of degrowth is that the current economic model, based on exponential growth, is the root of environmental problems.

To sustain the growth of GDP — and not necessarily the well-being of people — nations continue to exploit natural resources, destroying ecosystems and consuming fossil fuels.

The GDP itself as a growth measurement tool is questioned. In this case, not just by degrowth economists.

In a 2019 book, Nobel Prize winners in economics Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo pointed out that a higher GDP does not necessarily mean an increase in human well-being.

In fact, the pursuit of this goal can be counterproductive. “Nothing in our theory or data proves that higher GDP per capita is generally desirable,” they wrote.

Green growth is not a solution

For degrowth, betting on a green turn of the economy to contain a climate catastrophe is also not rational. According to Hickel, there is not even empirical evidence to support this argument.

In an age of ecological emergency, he says we cannot afford to build policies around fantasies.

For the anthropologist, the recent ESG (environmental, social and governance) fever has not had an impact either.

“[O ESG] I’ve brought a few small changes here and there, but that kind of edge tweaking isn’t really going to fix it. In the worst cases, it’s just greenwashing. We need to take the most radical and systemic changes seriously if we are to solve the problems. The ecological crisis and the inequality crisis cannot be corrected within the existing economic system. They are the symptoms of that system,” he says.

Source: Leaf

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