Don't Diss Degrowth, It May Be the Key to Decarbonization

It is fashionable to dismiss degrowth in North America, but a lot of people are taking it seriously.

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Is this Degrowth?.

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Degrowth isn't talked about much in North America; the buzzword here is green growth, the idea that the economy can continue to expand, but that it can be decoupled from carbon emissions.

Bryan Walsh of Axios recently dismissed degrowth somewhat flippantly, noting that "for degrowthers, simply cleaning up the global economy by switching from fossil fuels to zero-carbon sources of energy isn't enough. Economic growth — the goal of essentially every government everywhere — is itself the problem."

He used the economic contraction caused by the pandemic to discredit degrowth, noting that, "The very real human pain of 2020 — and the political fallout it created — should be taken as a warning sign to degrowthers ... While carbon emissions did fall significantly in 2020, it came at a high cost. One analysis estimated that each ton of CO2 reduced due to pandemic-related degrowth will have an implied cost to the economy of more than $1,500."

This is silly, like suggesting after a plane crash that controlled descents and landings are impossible. Instead, Walsh thinks technofixes like carbon capture and storage might be cheaper. One might just ignore him, but technofixes and green growth techno-optimism are everywhere these days, with everyone from oil companies to banks promising to go net-zero by 2050; which we complained about here, and which Simon Lewis of the Guardian describes as "a confusing and dangerous mix of pragmatism, self-delusion and weapons-grade greenwash." Even Greta has had enough of it:

What is Degrowth?

Perhaps it is time to forget about business as usual and think about a controlled descent, which is what degrowth is. Or as Jason Hickel put it in his book "Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World" (review here) "a planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way." This is very different from Walsh's pandemic-caused contraction; "a recession is what happens when a growth-dependent economy stops growing. It is chaotic and disastrous. What I’m calling for here is something completely different."

Madeline Dawson, one of my sustainable design students at Ryerson University, tackled degrowth and explained the problem we face with our current form of capitalism.

"An idea central to capitalism is continuous economic growth. Every year GDP’s are expected to increase, corporations and businesses to produce a greater and greater profit, and raw materials transformed into something even more valuable. Degrowth rejects this idea and insists that it is an unsustainable structure of life - it calls for an equitable, collective shift away from our continual consumption of natural resources and an equitable downscaling of production, in turn lowering our reliance on energy and raw materials."

With a degrowth economy, we turn away from "positional goods" that convey one's social as well as economic status, and get by, spending less money on fewer fancy things.

"There are many ways degrowth can be embraced in day to day life, in ways like radically reducing waste, re-localizing food production, cycling, installing household and community solar panels, domestic biogas production, solar ovens, peer-to-peer sharing, gift economy, and re-commoning public and private space."

This all sounds very Treehugger, because it is. As Samuel Alexander explains in The Conversation, degrowth is closely related to what we have described as sufficiency:

"It is critical to acknowledge the  social and structural constraints that currently make it much more difficult than it needs to be to adopt a lifestyle of sustainable consumption. For example, it is hard to drive less in the absence of safe bike lanes and good public transport; it is hard to find a work-life balance if access to basic housing burdens us with excessive debt; and it is hard to reimagine the good life if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements insisting that 'nice stuff' is the key to happiness."
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The Finnish Climate Change Panel

In a recent post we quoted a Finnish study that looked at the questions of how to dial back consumption and reduce carbon emissions, I wrote that it is not about sacrifice; the message is "enough can be plenty." It is about making appropriate choices and lifestyle changes, many of which are Treehugger correct: "repairing, reusing, sharing, recycling and prolonging the lifespan of goods, as well as decreasing or stopping using goods and services with a high ecological impact."

We Don't Have a Choice

Vaclav Smil wrote in his book "Energy and Civilization":

"Techno-optimists see a future of unlimited energy, whether from superefficient PV cells or from nuclear fusion, and of humanity colonizing other planets suitably terraformed to the Earth’s image. For the foreseeable future, I see such expansive visions as nothing but fairy tales."

He continued in another book, "Small Growth," (review here) saying again that technology won't save us:

"There is no possibility of reconciling the preservation of a well-functioning biosphere with the standard economic mantra that is akin to positing a  perpetuum mobile machine as it does not conceive any problems of sustainability in relation to resources or excessive stress on the environment."

So here we are, with degrowth being ridiculed in the USA, while I quote writers and thinkers from Britain, France, Australia, and Canada, all of whom are saying that degrowth may be the only path that can get us out of this carbon crisis.

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Ministry of War Services, Ottawa. McGill Collection

Perhaps the problem is the name; Americans are positive, active types, that's why I thought Passive House has trouble catching on, such a downbeat name. Degrowth is negative and downbeat too. We could call it the Treehugger Economy as it encompasses all those things we talk about; living with less, zero waste, walking and biking in 15-minute communities. Or we could call it a Victory Over Carbon Economy, using the World War II model where everyone pitched in to save stuff for the war. Don't dismiss or diss degrowth, it may well be our future.

View Article Sources
  1. Walsh, Bryan. "Axios Future." Axios, 2021.

  2. "COVID-19 Could Result in Much Larger CO2 Drop in 2020." The Breakthrough, 2020.