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Economy

COVID-19 Broke the Economy. What If We Don’t Fix It?

Instead of reopening society for the sake of the economy, what if we continued to work less, buy less, make less—for the sake of the planet?
17 June 2020, 9:35am

At the end of March, Donald Trump tweeted, in all capital letters, "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF."

He was referring to the economic ramifications of shutting down the country in order to protect the public from the novel coronavirus, which has now killed over 100,000 Americans.

Many Republican lawmakers have echoed the need to reopen businesses and get people back to work. In March, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on Fox News that the economy must be salvaged, even if it meant that older people would "take a chance" with their lives to do so.

The economy is in trouble. In the first quarter of the year, gross domestic product, or GDP, contracted 5 percent, the "largest quarterly rate of decline since last recession," reported the Wall Street Journal. One week in May, over 2.1 million unemployment claims were filed, bringing the total to over 40 million—or about one of every four workers in the United States.

Proposed recovery and stimulus packages aim to get the economy and employment back to where they were before the pandemic. But with everything closed or ramped down, what if instead of putting it all back, we kept certain industries closed? What if, instead of going back to work full-time, we decided to work less, buy less, make less, and not fight to raise GDP at any cost?

Certain researchers have argued that our hyperfocus on economic growth was problematic long before we knew the words SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19. The "degrowth" movement has advocated for reducing production of goods, working hours, and, inevitably, GDP—all with the end goal of reducing carbon emissions. With the economy at a standstill, we're being challenged by some experts to envision a different kind of economy—one that could help solve the climate crisis, rather than make it worse.

While the pandemic has had a tangible effect on people's ability to work and spend money, it has also led global carbon emissions to fall by more than 8 percent so far, as Nature reported—three times the yearly emissions of Italy. Emissions dropped more than one billion tonnes in the first four months of 2020 compared to 2019. This is close to the emission reductions that are needed to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and stop the planet from warming more than 1.5 to 2°C.

The reduction of consumption, emissions, and lowering of GDP that is happening now is a side effect of the pandemic, not a sustainable or desirable way to slash carbon output because of the loss of human life, strict lockdowns, and shuttering of schools and small businesses we value.

But in Future Earth, Maurie Cohen, a professor of sustainability studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, wrote that the pandemic, from a sustainability standpoint, offers a rare window of opportunity both for quality of life and the habitability of the planet. Rather than aiming to have the economy—and emissions—jump back up after the pandemic is over, it could be a moment to think about how to keep emissions down as we reopen and rebuild. That might involve leaving growth behind.

What if, instead of going back to work full-time, we decided to work less, buy less, make less, and not fight to raise GDP at any cost?

Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at the London School of Economics, said that we need to switch to renewable energy as quickly as possible, but that it's impossible to do that while growing the economy at the same time.

A group of 1,100 experts from more than 60 countries recently signed a letter proposing guidelines to how the economy should be revived, with a focus on climate, health, and well-being instead of growth. The economic hardships we are currently facing could be viewed as an opening to experiment with more progressive policies to ensure people can have access to what they need like universal income or healthcare in a post-growth economy.

"You don't get the chance to reset the economy every day—or even every five years," a group of researchers recently wrote in Jacobin. "This is our shot. We need to get it right."


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The underlying reason that economic growth is desirable for a country is that it implies that people who live there have access to money, and all that's purchasable with that money: Homes, healthcare, education, food, and more. It implies that the government of that country can invest in big projects to protect its people from the threats they face—climate change or a pandemic, for example.

Since World War II, GDP has been used as "the ultimate measure of a country's overall welfare." It represents the total value of everything produced in a country, both goods and services. But as David Pilling, the author of The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations, said in an interview with the Washington Post, "More stuff doesn't automatically equate to more well-being or, to put it even more colloquially, more happiness."

Even if stuff was an indicator of well-being, GDP is a cumulative number; it being high doesn't mean that stuff is being distributed in a way that increases welfare. Currently, the richest 1 percent own more than 40 percent of the world's wealth; in the United States, higher incomes are increasing at faster rates than middle-class ones.

Having a high GDP doesn't even guarantee longer lives: The United States' GDP per capita is $60,000, one of the highest in the world. Life expectancy is 78.5 years. Many countries with lower GDPs have far higher life expectancies. South Korea has 50 percent less GDP per capita, but a life expectancy of 82.6 years.

The initial response to the pandemic reminded us of this, too. The United States was unable to rally resources for its healthcare workers or get testing off the ground despite its high GDP, and has one of the highest death counts from COVID-19 in the world.

Already, the pandemic is forcing countries to reevaluate GDP and what it means. In an unprecedented move, China decided not to set an annual GDP target this year—the first time they've done so since they began having GDP goals in 1990. Instead they will "give priority to stabilizing employment and ensuring living standards," Premier Li Keqiang said at the National People's Congress. In the US, the Trump administration announced that it wouldn't be issuing its midyear update to its economic forecasts.

People aligned with the degrowth movement have said that heading into the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression reveals how fragile our economy was in the first place. "What kind of a daft system means that if we put the brakes on and calm down for a few weeks the whole thing implodes?" wrote Laura Basu, a research fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry at Utrecht University.

Because our economy as it functions now is dependent on growth, when it stops growing, we're not equipped to handle it. Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the political economy research institute there, previously told VICE News that while shrinking the economy would reduce emissions, he was concerned about it as a solution because it would also almost certainly cause a recession.

The pandemic is forcing countries to reevaluate GDP and what it means

He was right, as we're seeing with pandemic economics right now. Our economy shrank, and we're in a recession as a result. But this only highlights how we need to decouple the ups and downs of the economy from quality of life, Hickel said.

"There is no relationship between GDP and human well-being," Hickel said. The degrowth movement wants to build an economy that focuses on human life, rather than pushing an abstract number higher and higher. Doing so could ensure that the planet we live on remains habitable.

If things remain unchanged, our global temperatures will rise 3 to 5°C by the end of the century. At the end of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said that in order to avoid a climate breakdown, global emissions would have to be cut by half in 2030, and go down to zero by 2050.

We've currently reduced overall GDP and emissions because of COVID-19, but it doesn't mean we're properly doing "degrowth" yet, said Julia Steinberger, a professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds.

We don't have the social services and programs that ensure everyone their basic needs, despite what's going on with the economy. Degrowth has always insisted on accompanying social policies to counteract the reduction in income people would experience.

This is what makes degrowth different from a recession, Hickel said. Degrowth advocates for policies like universal basic income, a shortened work week, and other universal basic services, like healthcare and education, to compensate for less work and production. Others support a federal job guarantee, where people working minimum wage jobs to fuel production of things that are harming the climate are instead guaranteed jobs in green energy or infrastructure. Debt cancellation could alleviate people from needing to work more in order to pay off rising debts.

Along with robust other policies around healthcare, housing, and education, degrowth would mean that people can work and earn less without a massive blow to quality of life. It also calls for more progressive rates of taxation, so that wealth is more evenly redistributed.

"Degrowth is not about degrowing the entire economy indiscriminately, but rather growing some sectors that are important and degrowing others that are destructive," Hickel said. "We need sectors to grow that are important for human welfare, while scaling down unnecessary sectors like the arms industry, the SUV industry, the McMansion industry, the single use plastic industry, things like that."

Steinberger stressed that, just as is the case in other forms of climate change activism, individual actions are important, but it's overwhelmingly governments, policies, and industries that need to step up to change. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that by reducing working hours in the US to those normal in western Europe, energy use would decline by 20 percent. But an individual can't decide on their own to live in a post-growth economy and cut their working hours. They don't have the systemic support they would need to do so.

Degrowth would mean that people can work and earn less without a massive blow to quality of life.

This was starkly shown by the single, insufficient $1,200 check most US residents got earlier this year, or by how people were left to try to reach out to unresponsive unemployment offices, or try to access small business programs that didn't work very well.

"It's not surprising you have a constituency that wants to get back to work," said Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College.

Does it feel wrong to not try and grow the economy back to where it was, and keep it growing? Only if you don't recognize the ways it had failed us, Steinberger said, and how that growth wasn't benefitting most people. In 1965, CEOs made 20 times what typical workers made, but as of 2013, they made 296 times that amount. From 1973 to 2013, hourly wages rose only 9 percent, but productivity increased 74 percent. Despite the economic crisis, the stock markets have been rallying and the world is about to gain its first trillionaire.

So what good is economic growth? Who is it good is it for? Why should we fight to get it back, when the alternative could be a real solution to the climate crisis?

"It's quite clear that our economy is effectively organized around the welfare of capital rather than on the welfare of people," Hickel said. "There's really no reason that we should be accepting that."

As Kate Aronoff wrote in The New Republic, "A recovery package could simply—and probably unsuccessfully—try to get the economy back up to where it was before the Covid-19 shutdowns took hold, complete with its decades of wage stagnation, exploding carbon emissions, and staggering inequality."

Degrowth also pushes for thinking about what our lives would look like without work being a central tenet. "Whenever there's a crisis, everybody says we have to work more. Actually no, at the moment you want to save the world, work less," said David Graeber, an American anthropologist and the author of Bullshit Jobs, a book that argues that many jobs that we currently work are meaningless.

As a society, we place moral value on working. "We really do believe that if you're not out working hard you don't deserve anything. You're a bad person," Graeber said. "But that morality is perversely destroying the planet."

"If people take something seriously enough, they can act in a way overnight to reduce emissions."

Yet in many ways, the pandemic has made us define why a job or buying things is valuable outside of just economic growth. The pandemic gave us the term "essential worker," and "has also shown that much of the work we do is not particularly necessary or enjoyable—we do it purely to get money to survive," Basu wrote.

Graeber said that while he was writing Bullshit Jobs he found that many people working aren't doing anything that anybody needs, either for basic survival or personal or creative fulfillment. "Things from telemarketers to financial consultants exist for the sake of themselves," Graeber said. "Wall Street exists for the sake of itself. Their job is to convince you there's some reason they should have that job."

Steinberger said when we ask ourselves what we need for everyone to live well, the list may be shorter than we think. And trimming the fat is the key to stopping the planet from warming too much and causing further destruction.

In 2018, Steinberger and her colleagues Dan O'Neill, Andrew Fanning, William Lamb used an international dataset to show that life satisfaction was correlated with having access to basics like sufficient nutrition, sanitation, energy access, education, social support, equality, democracy, employment and income—not single-use plastic, fast fashion, large SUVs, or extremely large houses.

Degrowth wants to shrink those parts of the economy, but not at the expense of the fundamentals. "If we manage to get these policies in place, we will be able to provide really good living conditions," Steinberger said.

"We don't want to create actual material deprivation for people on the road to a better economy or a better planet," Schor said. "That's why I don't like the term degrowth in the United States. It has a negativity to it. It focuses on what's being taken away rather than a term which is really much more about meeting the needs of people and planet simultaneously."

The pandemic is teaching us that carbon emission reduction is possible. A pandemic is not the best way to approach the climate crisis, of course, but it shows the power of collective action. After all, the point of the lockdown was to stop the spread of a virus, not to reduce emissions.

"That's not what people were trying to do, but they were able to do it," Steinberger said. "If people take something seriously enough, they can act in a way overnight to reduce emissions."

The pandemic revealed that the government is able to pull together trillions of dollars for public relief when it needs to—narrowly opening the door to the idea that it could do something similar for other serious health and safety issues, like climate change, in the future. "We saw how quickly the government sprung into action to do things that seemed impossible," Schor said.

And Hickel said that previous critics of degrowth have said that there is no emergency brake on the economy, we now know that's not true.

"Suddenly this virus comes along and it's clear there is an emergency brake and it can be pulled relatively easily," Hickel said. "The government can, in fact, slow down parts of the economy for the sake of protecting public health and human wellbeing. In a way, the curtain has been pulled back and the Wizard of Oz exposed. We can imagine ways of pulling it that are ecologically meaningful and socially safe. Cognitive seals have really been broken."

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.