Degrowth is a political and economic theory which emphasises changing priorities of society from economic growth and production to a society based on sustainability, well-being, concern for environment and co-operation. The motives for pursuing degrowth include the need to provide environmental sustainability for the long-term and improve quality of life. Critics argue degrowth is a luxury of the middle classes and many very poor still need to see economic growth to lift them out of poverty.
What is degrowth?
Degrowth comes from the term “la décroissance” in France or la decrescita in Italy. The term ‘la descrescita‘ means “river going back to its normal flow after a disastrous flood.” (Degrowth.info) Degrowth aims to reshape society away from its current trends of environmental damage, alienation and inequality towards a society which promotes harmony, respect for environment and extension of local democracy.
In a positive sense, degrowth involves maximising happiness, promoting co-operation and well-being. It achieves this through lower levels of consumption on ‘luxury’ good and prioritising looking after the environment, local communities and spending on social services.
One a practical level this could involve reducing the working week, to allow more time for leisure. It could involve placing more resources to create national parks and areas of environmental protection for people to enjoy.
Degrowth has evolved out of the past few decades and critiques of laissez-faire economies. For example, E.F. Schumacher wrote an influential book “Small is Beautiful” (1973) which was an early critique of western capitalist economies. He argued it is a mistake to emphasis output and higher-income when real-life satisfaction comes from the quality of life, such as levels of pollution, free-time, education and cultural opportunities and political freedom.
“An attitude to life which seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism – does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.”
In a more ‘negative’ sense, degrowth involves seeking to reduce unnecessary consumption and production, and also changing the assumption that higher rates of growth are good. Under degrowth, a government may seek a lower rate of economic growth and measure the success of an economy through other factors related to well-being.
Examples of degrowth
Individuals switching to a less materialistic approach to life. This can involve buying fewer consumer goods and instead seeking to ‘make do and mend’ the goods you already have.
Prohibit planned obsolescence. A government may pass legislation banning practises such as ‘planned obsolescence.’ Many mobile phone companies work on the assumption that a phone will need ‘upgrading’ after 2 or 3 years. They make it hard and expensive to change the battery and provide incentives for customers to trade-in phone and buy a new more expensive model, every few years. This leads to excessive use of precious metals and resources in making new mobile phones. Degrowth strategies would be to force companies to make it easy to stick with the same phone, change the battery and get many more years of active use for consumers.
Switch away from private cars. Rather than use scarce resources to produce cars and fuel, degrowth could involve designing city centres for pedestrians and cyclists. If fewer cars and fuels is produced, it may lead to lower GDP. However, for people who live in the city, they may enjoy better air quality, more exercise, fewer traffic accidents and feel a better quality of life. It may also lead to a revitalisation of city centres if they become more attractive to walk around. This is an example of how outwardly, we get less ‘output’ and less GDP but quality of life may increase.
Growing own food. At the moment, we import food from around the world, leading to high carbon footprint. However, rather than importing food, a society could eat more seasonal food and try to grow more food in back gardens and local farms. This would lead to less choice of food, but locally, seasonally produced food may be more attractive to air-freighted food.
Suppression of advertising from public space. Advertising is an example of a product that doesn’t materially increase well-being but often just encourages consumerism and unconscious bias towards well-advertised brands. Reducing advertising in city centres would improve well-being as we would not be bombarded with ads all day.
Organic food over non-organic. Many food items are used with the heavy use of antibiotics and chemicals. These enable greater efficiency but have environmental costs. If we switched to organic food, food output may fall in the short-term, but it would have long-term benefits for the environment and could prevent the deterioration of the topsoil, which is a long-term concern.
Making use of empty houses rather than building new ones. Landlords who hold empty properties could be taxed on land and empty homes, freeing up accommodation for homeless and avoid the need to build more. There could also be higher taxes on ‘second homes’ to free up accommodation.
Local initiatives and encouraging volunteers. Rather than rely on central government to provide all public services, small communities could replace some federal intervention with local volunteers to
Policies for degrowth
Tax. Higher taxes could be placed on goods with high environmental/social costs. For example, higher tax on airline travel.
Regulations. Regulations could be brought in to ban single use plastics, or single use-items. This would encourage firms to produce longer-lasting goods. This would lead to lower consumption but would help reduce the impact on the environment.
Make well-being a criteria for budget choices. For example, in New Zealand, the prime minister Jacinda Ardern introduced a budget, which aims to do things differently. She says in New Zealand budget choices will be made according to the criteria of well being, environment, mental health, child poverty and aiding a transition to a sustainable economy
“We’re embedding that notion of making decisions that aren’t just about growth for growth’s sake, but how are our people faring? How is their overall well-being and their mental health? How is our environment doing? These are the measures that will give us a true measure of our success.” – J. Ardern (We Forum)
Subsidies for environmentally friendly solutions. For example, a tax on carbon emissions could be used to subsidise alternative energy sources, such as solar power and wind power.
Criticisms of degrowth
- Economic growth reduces poverty. For many developing economies, economic growth has enabled many people to be lifted out of poverty. Degrowth may seem a good idea for advanced western economies, but for those in developing economies with widespread poverty, economic growth and higher output make a significant difference to living standards.
- A supporter of degrowth may argue that the concept also supports poverty reduction, it is more aimed at avoiding the excess of consumption we see in the developed world. Degrowth also involves a narrowing of global inequality. Confusing, degrowth doesn’t necessarily imply no economic growth.
- The term is confusing. Degrowth implies a negative connotation of lower living standards. We are so used to growth being considered a good thing, that degrowth implies less. A better term would be to focus on notions of positive well being. Some have criticised degrowth for placing too much emphasis on economic growth, when the real key is not reducing growth, but promoting growth which helps the environment. For example, supporters of the Green New Deal argue, investment in renewable energy can lead to higher growth and a better environment. The term degrowth originated from Italian and French words and the translation has different connotations in English.
- It requires a change in people’s attitudes. It is hard just to implement ‘degrowth’ strategies from top-down. There needs to be some change of attitudes amongst the population. For example, would consumers be happy to keep their mobile phone for 10 years or do they really feel the necessity of wanting to change every two years? Some countries and cities have successfully introduced more pedestrian areas and cycling, but in other cities, people have a strong attachment to cars and may not want to give up.
Covid and degrowth
COVID-19 has indirectly raised the issue of degrowth. The forced closure of sectors of the economy has forced people to consider what consumption is really essential. There has been a drastic fall in international travel and the virus may change long-term demand for air-travel as people consider taking holidays closer to home. It is the kind of disruptive event that might also make people consider what are the important goals of an economy. In Covid, we have prioritised public health over GDP. Accepting very large falls in GDP, in return for getting on top of virus and protecting vulnerable people. The question is whether the experience of COVID-19 will encourage more discussion about issues which are more important than growth.