Some economists have long argued that to really save the planet – and ourselves – from the climate crisis, we need a fundamental overhaul of the way our economies work. This episode of The Conversation Weekly, we explore the ideas of the degrowth movement and their calls for a contraction in the world’s consumption of energy and resources. We also compare degrowth with other post-growth suggestions for governments to decrease their fixation on economic growth.
As world leaders prepare to meet with their negotiators, Glasgow for the COP26 UN climate summitThe focus is on emissions targets, net-zero pledges, and money to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Many of the solutions to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees celsius above preindustrial levels center on technology and renewables. In many countries, the focus is on green growth – continuing to grow the economy by using renewables instead of fossil fuels and introducing more efficient and sustainable ways to produce goods.
Some economists think otherwise. it’s impossible to decouple economic growthIts negative impact on the environment. They include those involved in the degrowth movement.
The first time degrowth was used was in coined in the 1970sA group of French thinkers believed the world should move away from an obsession with economic growth. These ideas and other post-growth ideas have gained momentum over the years. They focus on shifting away form the use of gross domestic products (GDP), as a measure for economic progress.
The European Environment Agency (EA) questioned whether it was possible to fully decouple economic growth from environmental pressures in January. It said “societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress” and that post-growth and degrowth alternatives offered “valuable insights”. Michael Higgins was the president of Ireland a few months prior. had argued that failure to secure sufficient decoupling “implies that degrowth remains the only sustainable strategy for planetary survival”.
In this episode, Sam Alexander, a degrowth advocate and research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia, explains that degrowth means: “A new societal or economic model based on planned contraction of the energy and resource demands of our economies, in a way that enhances ecological conditions and ensures that everyone has enough to live well.”
But Alexander says this “doesn’t mean we are going to be living in caves with candles”. Rather, for people in the world’s richest countries, it might involve driving less, rethinking diets, travelling less and living in smaller houses. “We can live well on less, but it does require a rethinking of high impact cultures of consumption.”
Lorenzo Fioramonti, professor of political economy at the University of Pretoria and also a serving independent MP in Italy, is a prominent critique of governments’ obsession with economic growth and GDP. While sympathetic to the degrowth argument, Fiormanti says the word degrowth doesn’t travel well in politics. “Those countries that have never seen growth, will never embrace degrowth”, Fioramonti says. “I take you to Malawi and they’re going to tell you, ‘Oh, we’ve had degrowth for the past 50 years and we don’t live well, you know?’” Instead, he argues for the focus to shift on wellbeing and measures that try to capture progress towards it.
For Beth Sratford, PhD candidate at the School of Environment at the University of Leeds in England, the debates between the green growth and degrowth camp “is in danger of becoming an own goal”. Stratford, a self-described post-growth economist says that sometimes the debate can get bogged down with technical concepts that can be alienating. She says it might better to focus on “arguments that are easier to win”, for example, constraints on resource use, protecting habitats or regulating supply chains to make sure they aren’t exploitative or causing harmful ecological consequences.
Veronika Meduna (Science, Health and Environment Editor at The Conversation in Wellington) concludes the episode by suggesting some reading on the coronavirus situation in New Zealand.
Gemma Ware and Mend Marwany produced this episode. Eloise Stephens sound designed it. Our theme music is by Neeta Sharl. You can find us on twitter @TC_AudioInstagram: theconversationdotcomOr via email. You can also sign up The Conversation’s free daily email here.
This episode features newsclips The Independent.