Don't Diss Degrowth, but Do Seek Sufficiency

We could all use a little degrowth and decoupling—it is not one or the other.

Our House is on Fire
Extinction Rebellion poster.

 Ollie Millington/Getty Images

In the brief review of Jason Hickel's book, "Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World," I noted it would not be popular in North America. Indeed, dissing degrowth has become a growth industry.

Hickel defines degrowth as "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." He calls for "an economy that is organized around human flourishing instead of around capital accumulation; in other words, a post capitalist economy. An economy that's fairer, more just, and more caring."

In my review, I noted it "will be written off as a commie rant if it ever makes it to North America." And that's what appears to be happening.

Dissing degrowth is not new: After an earlier American attack by Bryan Walsh of Axios, I wrote: "Don't Diss Degrowth, It May Be the Key to Decarbonization." Then economist Branko Milanovic called degrowth semi-magical and then outright magical thinking. Now we have Kelsey Piper in Vox asking: Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy?

Piper likes capitalism and the economic boom of the last 70 years, saying it "means a lot of things. It means cancer treatments and neonatal intensive care units and smallpox vaccines and insulin. It means, in many parts of the world, houses have indoor plumbing and gas heating and electricity."

We could start by noting that many of these wonderful things have nothing to do with capitalism and a 70-year-old boom. Insulin was developed 100 years ago and the patent was sold for a buck so everyone could have it. The electrification of America was considered one of Franklin Roosevelt's socialist plots. Neonatal care in the U.S. is among the worst in the world. 

One might also note that unfettered capitalism gave Americans SUVs, space tourism, and the most amazing monster house on TikTok.

The running argument is about whether we need degrowth, or whether we can achieve "decoupling," where we separate growth from carbon emissions by switching to zero-carbon sources of energy, so we can have our economic growth cake and eat it too. And indeed, in many countries including the U.S., growth has increased and decoupled from the rate of increase in emissions.

But overall, emissions are still going up. Piper writes:

"Where an optimist might see, in the decoupling of the past few decades, signs that growth and climate solutions can coexist, a pessimist might find the degrowth diagnosis more persuasive: that our growth-focused society clearly isn’t up to the task of solving climate change."

The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. I devoted a chapter of my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," to the question of degrowth and decoupling.

The fundamental problem is the economy is built on energy consumption. According to economist Robert Ayres, the economy is energy consumption: “The economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services.”

Or as I interpreted it–the purpose of the economy is to turn energy into stuff. Vaclav Smil wrote in his book "Energy and Civilization":

"To talk about energy and the economy is a tautology: every economic activity is fundamentally nothing but a conversion of one kind of energy to another, and monies are just a convenient (and often rather unrepresentative) proxy for valuing the energy flows."

Smil, in his next book on growth, (short review here) noted nobody really wants to delink energy and the economy, and so everyone is promising high-tech solutions like carbon capture, mini-nukes, and of course, hydrogen, changing the form of energy. Decoupling is one of those fantasies:

"Of course, most economists have a ready answer as they see no after-growth stage: human ingenuity will keep on driving economic growth forever, solving challenges that may seem insurmountable today, especially as the techno-optimists firmly anticipate wealth creation progressively decoupling from additional demand for energy and materials."

I was confused and skeptical about both degrowth and decoupling until I read the work of Samuel Alexander, co-director of the Simplicity Institute, and realized it all sounded very much like the concept of sufficiency that we have long preached on Treehugger, asking the question: What is enough? Why drive a car if an e-bike can get you there? Alexander, who has been writing about sufficiency since long before I learned about it from Kris de Decker, wrote: "Our aim should not be to do “more with less” (which is the flawed paradigm of green growth), but to do “enough with less” (which is the paradigm of sufficiency)."

So now it gets personal, about the way we live. No doubt some readers are rolling their eyes about me going on about personal responsibility, but studies have shown that 72% of emissions come from our lifestyles, whether by choice or necessity. I had some fun with this in my book: When Gwyneth Paltrow split with her husband, she described it as “conscious uncoupling,” to much derision. I stole the term and changed it to "conscious decoupling": 

"Making decisions in our personal lives to separate, to decouple, the activities that we do and the things that we buy from the fossil fuels that are used to run them or make them, without giving up nice things. (I like nice things.) The idea is that one can still live a nice life where there actually is growth, development, improvement, satisfaction, and a positive future without running on gasoline." 

So I consciously decoupled my transportation from fossil fuels by walking or biking, my diet by eating seasonally and locally, my winter by switching from snowboarding a two-hour drive away to cross-country skiing in the local park. 

The economy doesn't have to crash because of degrowth. I have a mortgage paying for the renovation that let me divide my house in half, and I paid more for my e-bike than I got when I sold my Miata. People still need roofs over their heads and transportation and entertainment, but maybe they just don't need as much of everything. 

It's not a question of degrowth vs decoupling. We need a bit of both, a synthesis we might call sufficiency. I have written about it here, but Alexander said it better:

"This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions—a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty."
View Article Sources
  1. Dubois, Ghislain, et al. "It Starts at Home? Climate Policies Targeting Household Consumption and Behavioral Decisions are Key to Low-Carbon Futures." Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 52, 2019, pp. 144-158., doi:10.1016/j.erss.2019.02.001