What’s the Degrowth Movement all about?

It has been a difficult few weeks in terms of news relating to the climate crisis, to say the least.

Extreme weather events, the frequency and intensity of which scientists have linked to changes in climate, have dominated headlines across Europe. New warning signs of Gulf Stream collapse have been reported which would severely disrupt the rains that billions of people in India, South America and West Africa depend on for food, while also pushing up the sea level off eastern North America and further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

And the Sixth Assessment Report released on Monday by the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated (amongst other things) that if current emissions are sustained, global average temperatures are expected to exceed 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2040  – a decade earlier than was anticipated just 3 years ago. Despair can be a natural response to all of this news, but the IPCC report does offer hope that climate change can be limited through strong and sustained reductions in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases now.

At a fundamental level, this of course means leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Beyond that, some argue that carbon sequestration along with a wide expansion of renewables and other green technologies will be the way forward. But given that this carbon capture technology is largely in its infancy, other climate scientists advocate for a total system overhaul, a contraction of economic growth – or degrowth as the movement is known.

To a lot of people, the idea of purposely shrinking the economy is complete lunacy. As a concept, it goes against everything we seem to know: increase in GDP equals good, decrease in GDP equals bad. Economic growth means high levels of employment and increased living standards, it means less deprivation and better services. And this is true, up to a point.

It’s well documented that beyond a certain amount of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) what matters for social outcomes is not increased GDP but instead distribution and access to public services. Proponents of degrowth are often at pains to defend the theory to its critics, and as a result the conversation and narrative around it often ends up hijacked. So, we wanted to take a deeper look at what degrowth would mean in a tangible, digestible sense.

So what is degrowth?

One of the trickier things about the concept is its elasticity. There’s no real fixed definition and depending on who you speak to it varies in its extremity.

But generally, it’s based on the understanding that decoupling of economic growth and environmental damage (greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss) is impossible on a large scale and thus to reduce environmental damage a reduction of output (and resource use) is necessary.

Proponents reject the idea that ‘green growth’ is possible in the aggregate. According to Caroline Whyte, an ecological economist at FEASTA (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) certain sectors of the economy are capable of ‘green growth’ or at least greener growth, but at an aggregate level “the economies of industrialised, energy-intensive countries such as Ireland are going to need to shrink in order to become able to fit within the limits of our biosphere.”

In Ms. Whyte’s view, degrowth is something that is going to happen as we reach our planetary boundaries and the option in front of us is not whether to reject or accept it, but instead to either manage it in a way that can potentially improve livelihoods and reduce inequalities or allow it to happen without any control.

Dr Patrick Bresnihan, lecturer in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University highlights that one of the important elements of degrowth is that it understands that even if Europe or North America goes through a low carbon growth-based transition, that transition is likely to mean ongoing and extensive extraction, pollution and degradation of the Global South and other parts of the world, allowing the unequal global economy to continue.

In Dr. Bresnihan’s view, the movement goes back to the 1960s and 70s, to what was a transnational, global revolt of women and people of colour. To various anti-colonial struggles in Africa and South America. Workers, environmentalists, pacifists, and anti-imperialists. A time where a huge mobilisation of society was taking place, and radical critiques of work, capitalism and patriarchy began to emerge.

And what would degrowth look like?

So while degrowth is primarily cited now as a necessary response to the climate and biodiversity crises, it also represents a complete overhaul of how society would operate with social and environmental justice at its core.

According to Dr. Bresnihan, “advocates of degrowth will say that it is limiting growth of some things, like carbon emissions and single-use plastic but growing other things like free time and personal autonomy.”

It would mean governments creating policies to support work that is socially useful rather than supporting industries creating commodities that have an exchange value but at the same time contribute to massive waste and environmental harm. It would mean giving more autonomy to workers, improving public infrastructure, and undertaking greater redistribution efforts to reduce inequalities.

Those who argue against degrowth say that it means increased unemployment and thus increased poverty and lower standards of living for the average person. The criticisms of degrowth are easy according to Dr. Bresnihan, who told The Green News, that critics “set up this strawman, that degrowth has simplistic demands but because degrowth is holistic it understands that you can’t just let people go out of waged work and that be a good thing. The whole point is that you create alternative institutions so people aren’t as dependent on waged work.”

In a tangible sense, for both Dr. Bresnihan and Ms. Whyte this would mean reducing the hours in a working week, creating a universal basic income, creating more public or cooperative housing and creating universal basic services like free public transport.

 “When we think about what kind of future we want it’s not just about how do we become slightly more efficient in our cars, it’s about what kind of world we want to live in. What is it that brings us joy and meaning? These questions are very important but are often out of the picture, but degrowth does bring them in,” Dr. Bresnihan said.

According to Dr. Bresnihan and Ms. Whyte, degrowth would mean limiting the growth of specific undesirable strains on our ecosystem while at the same time placing greater value on sectors and work (including unpaid work) that generate positive outcomes for society but aren’t currently fully valued. This would mean an expansion of the care economy and greater investment in health, education and well-being, which in turn would have a positive impact on gender equality.

Indeed, a new study published by Ursula Barry, Emeritus Associate Professor of Gender Studies at UCD, argues that by funding quality diverse care services, women’s time spent on unpaid work would be reduced and new opportunities would be opened up for women in education and paid employment which would be particularly significant for those in low-income, migrant and lone-parent households.

In terms of actually moving the world in this direction, Caroline Whyte points to the importance of a change in vision towards wellbeing as the goal rather than growth. She also highlights the interconnected relationship between the financial system and environmental well-being.

“A follow on [to the change in vision] is changes to how the financial system is governed and structured. It doesn’t need to be a coup or a revolution, it can be a gentler thing than that but there needs to be a change in mentality,” she said.

Do we have enough time to put it in place?

Another argument cited against degrowth is that we simply do not have the time to advocate for and implement such a wide-ranging systems change within the timeframe that we have to deal with the climate crisis.

The urgency expressed in this week’s IPCC report makes this argument more compelling. Even the climatologist, Michael Mann has made comments of this nature. In a recent interview with Vox he is quoted as saying “If we are to avert catastrophic warming, we have to lower carbon emissions by a factor of two within the next 10 years. I find it highly implausible that capitalism/market economics will be abandoned by the world on that time frame. That means we have to act on the climate crisis within the framework of the current system.”

But while this argument may seem pragmatic, it assumes that aggregate green growth is actually possible and also leaves no room for questions of climate equity and justice. Proponents of degrowth are fully aware of the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to reduce emissions right now.

In response to the same article, ecological economist and degrowth advocate, Giorgos Kallis, stressed the importance of stopping fossil fuel extraction now and implementing a fossil fuels lockdown. He highlights that the degrowth community are the ones trying to develop the economics to deal with such a lockdown. It is in this context that the degrowth movement is strongest.

As Caroline Whyte put it, if this is something that is going to happen whether we like it or not, isn’t it best to plan and manage it as well as we can?

By Jane Matthews