Annie Xing Zhao

The Radical Plan to Save the Planet by Working Less

The degrowth movement wants to intentionally shrink the economy to address climate change, and create lives with less stuff, less work, and better well-being. But is it a utopian fantasy?

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May 29 2019, 5:28pm

Annie Xing Zhao

In 1972, a team at MIT published The Limits to Growth, a report that predicted what would happen to human civilization as the economy and population continued to grow. What their computer simulation found was pretty straightforward: On a planet of finite resources, infinite exponential growth isn’t possible. Eventually, non-renewable resources, like oil, would run out.

Historically, we have considered growth a positive thing, synonymous with job security and prosperity. Since World War II, the gross domestic product (GDP) measure has been used as “the ultimate measure of a country’s overall welfare.” One of John F. Kennedy’s staff economists, Arthur Okun, theorized that for every 3-point rise in GDP, unemployment would fall a percentage point—one reason why presidential campaigns fixate on the measure.

But growth has led to other problems, such as the warming of the planet due to carbon emissions, and the extreme weather and loss of biodiversity and agriculture that comes along with that. Consequently some activists, researchers, and policy makers are questioning the dogma of growth as good. This skepticism has led to the degrowth movement, which says the growth of the economy is inextricably tied to an increase in carbon emissions. It calls for a dramatic reduction in energy and material use, which would inevitably shrink GDP.

The Green New Deal, popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seeks to decrease carbon by growing the renewable energy industry. But the degrowth movement believes we need to take this further, by designing a social upheaval that disentangles the idea of progress and economic growth once and for all. This new accounting of economic success would instead focus on access to public services, a shorter work week, and an increase in leisure time. Their approach, they say, will not only combat climate change, but free us from a workaholic culture in which so many struggle to make ends meet.

Activists, researchers, and policy makers are questioning the dogma of growth as good.

Today's degrowth movement has its roots in France: In the early 2000s, University of Paris-Sud professor of economic anthropology Serge Latouche began to write passionately about décroissance in Le Monde Diplomatique. While it paid homage to the Limits to Growth report, décroissance expanded on the concept. The question was no longer if there was a limit to growth. The new question was much bigger: How can we self-impose a limit to growth when our entire economic and political structure is based on it? How do we organize a society that delivers high levels of human well-being in the context of a shrinking economy?

Degrowth is now a buzz word in left-leaning and academic circles around the world; its proponents are economists, environmentalists, democratic socialists, and activists, young and old. They see a post-growth world as a way to fundamentally change how we measure success and well-being, thereby addressing our growing financial and social inequalities while also saving the planet.

This appealing vision of the future is gaining ground. The first international conference about degrowth was in Paris in 2008 and attracted around 140 people, and there have been five more conferences since then. The 2018 post-growth conference grew to more than 700 people. The number of academic articles and books on degrowth has risen as well, and in 2018, 238 academics signed a letter published in the Guardian calling for a post-growth future to be taken seriously.

But since our economy has been based on growth for so long, it’s not enough to merely pull the emergency brakes, said Giorgos Kallis, an environmental scientist and political ecologist at The Autonomous University of Barcelona, and author of the book Degrowth. In order to slow the economy down and not wreak havoc, he said, we have to reconfigure our ideas about the entire economic system.

This is how degrowthers envision the process: After a reduction in material and energy consumption, which will constrict the economy, there should also be a redistribution of existing wealth, and a transition from a materialistic society to one in which the values are based on simpler lifestyles and unpaid work and activities.

Degrowth would ultimately mean we'd have less stuff: not as many people working and producing materials, so not as many brands at the grocery store, less fast fashion, and fewer cheap and disposable goods. Families would perhaps have one car instead of three, you'd take a train instead of a plane on your vacation, and free time wouldn't be filled with shopping trips but with non-money-spending activities with loved ones.

Practically, this would also require an increase in free public services; people won’t have to make as much money if they don’t have to spend on healthcare, housing, education, and transportation. Some degrowthers also call for a universal income to compensate for a shorter work week.

People can try to live a degrowth-esque lifestyle today by buying fewer things, but ultimately it's challenging to commit to degrowth without those public services that are built into the model. Right now, our work, play, and general quality of life is dictated through the terms of consumption. Working less, making less money, and reducing material use likely will negatively impact most people's quality of life unless society comes in to meet those needs.

Since there are so few real-world examples of degrowth, Kallis has used a fictional utopia to explain the concept in a 2015 paper. He referenced the planet Anarres, from the book The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin—a society that has modest resources, but through its egalitarian structure is a fair and meaningful place to make a life, compared to the more capitalist near-by planet, Urras.

“It’s how we imagine the good life,” Kallis said. “A life that is simpler, not a life where we keep producing more and more running faster and faster, and having more and more products to choose from.”

Degrowth critics say that this is more of an ideology than a practical way forward—that shrinking the entire economy wouldn't successfully get carbon levels down to zero, and that given the unequal income distribution that exists already, constricting the economy could rob those who need it the most of essentials like energy and food.

"It's how we imagine the good life."

Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the political economy research institute there, said that while he shares many of the degrowth movement’s sentiments, he fundamentally disagrees that such a system could work, at least in the time we need it to.

Pollin said it's true that reducing GDP would lower emissions, but not by much. Contracting the economy by 10 percent would reduce emissions by about 10 percent. Economically, that’s over two times worse than what happened during the Great Recession—in other words, high potential social risks for only a 10 percent CO2 reduction.

To get emissions to zero, it will involve a kind of “degrowth,” but one targeted specifically at fossil-fuel consumption. “That doesn’t mean we have to degrow everything,” Pollin said. “We really need to degrow the fossil fuel industry to zero, but massively expand the clean energy systems, the investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.” This is essentially the Green New Deal: a push to increase renewable energy while eliminating fossil fuels, and including an effort to create a just transition for the people who have jobs in that sector.

To Pollin, even this would be a radical improvement. A plan to get to zero carbon emissions in 30 years would mean shutting down one of the world’s most powerful industries. He thinks that that is ambitious enough without trying to implement other broad societal changes.

“If we take the climate science seriously, we only have a few decades to make huge progress," Pollin said. "And whether I like it or not, we’re not going to overthrow capitalism in that time.”

Degrowth may reflect more than just an urge for minimalism.

Could America come around to degrowth? The most recent Yale Climate Survey found that more than half of Americans, including those in red states, agreed with the statement that environmental protection was more important than economic growth.

Sam Bliss, a Ph.D. student in natural resources at the University of Vermont and member of the collective DegrowUS, said that culturally speaking, the popularity of figures like Marie Kondo—the Netflix star who encourages people to rid themselves of objects that don't spark joy—reveal a growing sentiment that we’ve become too materialistic.

And a pull toward degrowth may reflect more than just an urge for minimalism, but also fatigue in a system where growth hasn't produced big wins for many people. Outside of access to more plentiful, cheaper goods, people intrinsically understand that the benefits of growth are not evenly distributed. 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. “This means that workers have been producing far more than they receive in their paychecks and benefit packages from their employers,” wrote the Economic Policy Institute, an economics think tank.

Even during periods of overall growth, millennials were dubbed the "burnout generation." Many struggle to find and keep jobs, are unable to find affordable homes, pay for healthcare, and are still finding that their wages aren't enough to cover the costs of living.

In the midst of this, degrowth offers a world in which the noise of commoditization quiets down, where self-worth isn't rooted in monetary value, and where you don't have to work to utter exhaustion to access basic necessities.

That doesn't mean degrowth is necessarily the most effective strategy to curtail our carbon emissions by a strict deadline, but the movement itself raises important issues about how we measure our success as a society and country.

“To put it colloquially, more stuff doesn’t automatically equate to more well-being or, to put it even more colloquially, more happiness," David Pilling, the author of The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations, said in an interview with The Washington Post. He offered the example of the healthcare system in the United States. It contributed 17 percent to the GDP, which is much more than what other countries spend—even though many would argue other healthcare systems are better.

Our GDP also ignores invisible labor where money isn’t exchanged, like caretakers—jobs that are often performed by women and marginalized people. “It is funny that, if I steal your car and sell it, that counts toward growth, but if I look after an aged relative or bring up three well-adjusted children, that does not,” Pilling said in the interview.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from degrowth that has more to do with the fundamental ways we live than politics. As Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has written, degrowth calls for “human flourishing." We’ve associated growth with being able to solve social problems like eradicating poverty, improving livelihoods, and ensuring jobs for all, Hickel said, but it's not working.

"Why is it that when it comes to the economic system, we’re convinced this is the only way it can be?" he said. "It’s ludicrous actually. I think we need to liberate ourselves from the absurd subjection we have to this system and recognize that we need to evolve a better one."

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