It’s time to give up on growth – is degrowth the key?

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After a year or so watching YouTube and reading books like How Everything Can Collapse, I realised in January 2022 there was one more possibility. So with two others I started a new nonprofit called Degrowth Aotearoa New Zealand.

It wasn’t long before we had a keen group talking to each other. In mid 2022 our energetic secretary started a Facebook group. That now has over 1400 members, many from other countries. We have a rapidly growing and highly motivated tribe.

Why this interest? Surely the very word “degrowth” turns people off? Shouldn’t we change the word and make it sound a bit more politically palatable?

Well, apparently not. When degrowth groups discuss this topic, they invariably return to the original word because it says what it means and there is no sugar-coating. Just a pity you don’t like the word. Suck it up! A growing number of academic articles are being published.

Well, isn’t espousing degrowth a suicidal step for a politician? Maybe. Perhaps we should turn to Europe where the degrowth and overshoot discussion is ahead of ours.

In June this year, one of Spain’s governing parties, the United Left, adopted degrowth.

A representative of the United Left party told the media, “That we have to live within the limits of the planet was already clear; now we are going a step further and proposing that degrowth is a reality and that together we have to design a political roadmap so that this degrowth does not fall, as always, on the most vulnerable”.

The people not profit message has been a familiar one in climate protests, but the world needs to confront what that actually means in terms of economic growth, argues Deirdre Kent.
The people not profit message has been a familiar one in climate protests, but the world needs to confront what that actually means in terms of economic growth.

Let’s define degrowth

Degrowth is a planned and democratic reduction of unnecessary production in rich countries designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe and equitable way. (Jason Hickel’s definition)

It is different from a recession which is not planned. Degrowth is a planned, coherent policy to reduce ecological impact, reduce inequality, and improve well-being.

The Limits to Growth, planetary boundaries and degrowth

It is now 50 years since the publication of the landmark book Limits to Growth. Tony Brunt, the founder of the Values Party of New Zealand, wrote in 1972 that economic growth was causing pollution.

Now, of nine planetary boundaries, we have breached seven. The one we talk most about is climate change.

Shockingly, Putin’s war on Ukraine has brought the crisis forward. Europe has had a shock with a sudden reduction in the supply of natural gas.

In early October 2022, French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne talked about the need for energy sobriety. She wants a 10% reduction in overall energy use.

French prime minister Elisabeth Borne, who has called on her country to make a 10% reduction in its overall energy use.
French prime minister Elisabeth Borne, who has called on her country to make a 10% reduction in its overall energy use.

They mandated lower indoor temperatures, turning off advertising signage at night, reducing speed on the highways and no hot water in government buildings at night.

This is a dress rehearsal for all of us, not just France and Germany, and the UK.

Everyone has 100 fossil slaves working all day for them

We rely on an economic system that relies on buried ancient sunlight. Globally we now use a great deal of fossil energy. It has been estimated that it is the equivalent of everyone on earth having 100 slaves working 24 hours a day for us.

Technology isn’t the answer to the ecological problem of overshoot. Yes, there is a role for technology, but we mustn’t rely on it because it uses both energy and materials. And these are the very things we must reduce.

Nate Hagens left his career in Wall Street to study ecological economics. He teaches a university course called Reality 101 – A Survey of the Human Predicament, and hosts a podcast, The Great Simplification. Since Nate has been alive we have lost 70% of birds, animals and fish.

And for me, an octogenarian, 90% of all the fossil fuels used ever have been burnt in the time I have been alive, 50% in the last 30 years.

Globally, we have used more fossil fuel almost every year, but our stroke of luck is all going to come to an end.

But isn’t degrowth a recipe for political suicide?

So how might a degrowth agenda be tackled by government, given that on the surface it sounds like political suicide? It depends. Greta Thunberg thinks politicians won’t do anything much.

That is true. Politicians can never be too far ahead of the people who elect them.

So a massive public education campaign is needed. Only when every club and family and friendship group starts to discuss and argue on the topic of degrowth. Only then will the population move enough for politicians to act.

Given France aims to reduce its energy use by 10% in two years, and given that economic growth is very tightly linked to energy growth, it may be that their economic growth will decline about 10%. They will have to work out how to do it so it doesn’t burden the poor.

There will be winnable battles. Take the idea of legislating to ensure products can be mended. Take the idea of banning certain advertising of luxury goods. Maybe. Take the idea of rationing fossil fuel use and allowing trading in rations. That depends on which faceless bureaucrats are going to recommend against it.

Hopefully, it will be degrowth by design and not by disaster.