Degrowth: The Medicine No One Wants
Greta Thunberg famously dismissed “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”. And Greta isn’t the only one who thinks that economic growth (and it’s core reliance on fossil fuels) is driving civilization off an ecological cliff. As early as 1972 a book called “Limits to Growth” detailed the problem in depth. Today, buoyed on by the latest IPCC report, many scientists are openly warning that despite all our best attempts we aren’t reducing climate emissions enough. They say there simply isn’t any alternative than to perform a total system overhaul, a contraction of economic growth – or degrowth as the movement is known.
However degrowth is the medicine that few want. For many the idea of purposely shrinking the economy is insane. Economic growth, we’ve been told, is the cure for all ills in society – it gives more employment, better living standards and less deprivation. And to a point this is all true. However as the overwhelming consensus among scientists confirms, all economic growth comes at an environmental cost. And with the climate and environment at tipping point, they say there is no alternative than to reduce growth now or face catastrophic climatic changes in the decades ahead which could collapse society.
Degrowth is in conflict with what most Governments around the world are currently proposing. I.e., to continue to grow the economy while switching to more green technologies (like solar power and electric cars). This isn’t enough say proponents of degrowth. Caroline Whyte, ecological economist at FEASTA (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) says that “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.” So while the years ahead might involve lots of retrofitting of homes for energy efficiency and switching to electric vehicles, on the whole, our economies must simultaneously shrink. Indeed Caroline thinks we won’t have an option to reject or accept degrowth, but in essence we must only decide how we want to manage it.
Dr Patrick Bresnihan, lecturer in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University explains that it may not all be bad. It would involve “limiting growth of some things, like carbon emissions and single-use plastic but growing other things like free time and personal autonomy.” And instead of supporting industries that pollute, Government expenditure would move to improved public transport, education, health and housing. Critics of degrowth say that it would increase poverty and weaken individual spending power but proponents say that proper planning can overcome these hurdles.
Other critics of degrowth claim it represents an interference in personal consumption preferences and it amounts to an attempt to tell people what they can and can’t do. They also warn that it’s socialism in disguise and would involve the redistribution of private wealth. On the other side, Niko Paech, Germany’s most radical degrowth proponent argues that many rich Westeners have a misguided sense of entitlement. He argues that our generation is effectively stealing from our grandchildren’s inheritance; living a gluttonous lifestyle based on needless consumption of the goods and services. Our lifestyle, Paech argues, is that of the bankrobber, flaunting a wealth that was not his in the first place. Such a comparison will anger many of us who have worked hard in life. But when you consider that fossil fuels took hundreds of millions of years to form and that we’ve used much of them (within two hundred years of discovery) it’s hard not to see some similarity.
Certainly if you had suggested eliminating most air travel two years ago you may have been declared irrational. Then Covid changed everything. It proved that while flying is desirable, life can continue without it. So perhaps the CASSE draft legislation inspired current Scottish Transport Minister Graeme Dey to say (in September 21) that “without a reduction in aviation demand, the transport sector will not be able to achieve its emissions envelope for 2030.” (Michael O Leary, Ryanair Supremo will not be impressed.) It’s important to note that the Scottish Greens (who are a coalition partner and are clearly influencing Transport policy) are specifically against infinite economic growth. So could this be the first tentative steps to degrowth in a Western European country? And will degrowth become the economic norm? Watch this space…
You can read about CASSE’s draft legislation at: https://steadystate.org/forgoing-flights-for-america-the-beautiful-act/