An Utopian Dream? - what a degrowth society would really look like

Written by Laura Smith

Posted on 8/05/21

You might have come across the word “degrowth” or “steady state economy” in an article or seen Dan O’Neill’s TedTalk on the topic, or this might even be the first time you come across this term, but what does this concept exactly mean? What would a degrowth society look like? Degrowth is not to be confused with “green growth”, which, as opposed to degrowth, believes economic growth is compatible with our planet’s ecology.
The degrowth movement
The degrowth movement emerged as a critic of the traditional economic paradigm striving for unlimited growth, production and consumption. As this paradigm does not take into account Earth’s limited capacity, we are already crossing three planetary boundaries and would need 1.5 planets to continue our way of life with the current capitalist mindset. This is obviously not possible and underlines the unsustainability of our current way of life. The degrowth paradigm is an alternative to this current functioning of our societies and rethinks economic growth within the planetary boundaries. It is a movement rooted in political ecology but also environmental justice as it also tries to tackle problems of injustice and inequality brought about by our current economic system.
The degrowth mindset
‘Degrowth’ might make you think of an economic recession, however it is different to a recession because it would be a phase of planned and fair economic restraint in the richest countries in order to live within Earth’s environmental limits. It would require a decrease in resource and energy use in the richest countries, so that in turn the poorest and “less developed” countries can develop their economies and attain a good quality of life, while preserving the planet. An important element of degrowth is the switch from the traditional goal of increasing GDP to the goal of improving people’s lives. As mentioned by Dan O’Neill, the activity of cleaning up an oil spill for example adds to a country’s GDP, although it is clearly not beneficial to society and the environment. Measurement of a population’s well-being, on the other hand, is much more indicative of whether things are going good for both people and the planet. An alternative measurement to GDP is for example the GNH index (Gross National Happiness) which is based on the measurement of 9 variables including psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience as well as living standards.
What would a degrowth society look like?
If you think of a degrowth society, you might then picture it as a life of deprivation or sacrifice in comparison to our current modern lifestyle. However, degrowth’s aim is to come back to what is essential: it makes sure our basic needs are met in a simple and low-impact way while maintaining a high quality of life and favouring individuals’ well-being. A degrowth society would be based on principles of localism, community and sharing. First, we would aspire to localise our economies as much as possible, as well as use renewable energy to considerably reduce our common carbon footprints. Indeed, since the Great Acceleration of the 1950s and increased globalization, carbon emissions have skyrocketed as seen in the figure below.
Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide and Methane in the atmosphere through the Great Acceleration of the 1950s.

Second, a degrowth society is one where there are less working hours: this allows individuals to have more leisure time, favourable to their well-being, quality time with loved ones and home-production. We may then have a smaller income, but more freedom with our time. Community would be fostered through community gardens producing organic food. The constant consumption of new clothes would be replaced by the exchange of clothes, buying/selling second hand or even making our own. We would learn to be more self-sufficient and to rely on ourselves in our own communities.
Finally, reduction of inequality would be fostered through the implementation of a minimum and maximum income, eliminating poverty as well as the inequality of top CEOs earning 10 times more than their employers at the bottom. Indeed, Oxfam stated in a report in 2014 that half of the world’s wealth is now owned by only 1% of the population. Such disproportionate income revenues call for greater regulation on minimum and maximum wages.

How would a transition to degrowth take place?

Degrowth is not an eco-future of glossy green homes and communities; rather, it is a more realistic and humble come back to what is essential. We would use existing infrastructures and homes and make them more energy-sufficient, while empowering our local communities to do the same and join the transition to a degrowth way of life. The nature of a transition to a degrowth society would be most realistically plausible through a “bottom up” rather than a “top-down” approach. The transition towns movement already helps communities to transition to the degrowth idea, illustrating the plausibility of this transition when there is a strong motivation for change. For instance, the Transition Town Nijmegen in The Netherlands exists since 2009. It is an organisation of six active groups that focus on the different themes of edible gardens, organic food out of the region, transport, sustainable energy, saving energy and a local currency. Overtime, if the degrowth paradigm is applied to several communities and the desire to transition to degrowth is expanded to enough towns and communities, governments will have to consider it as a viable alternative to our current way of life, and a more global change could take place.

Challenges with implementing degrowth

While personal and household community changes are essential elements for a transition to a degrowth society, it is also important to note the social and structural obstacles to this transition. Structural changes such as safe bike lanes and good public transport can only be provided by the ‘top’ of society. Personal actions are not sufficient in themselves to enable this transition. Our culture and post-capitalist structure also needs to promote a simpler way of life, for instance with a decrease in advertisement as it promotes endless consumption and the idea that what we have is never enough. This demands a radical change of consciousness from everyone. Other challenges to degrowth include the criticism that it would lead to a loss of well-being in current rich nations in the short and medium term because of a loss of material living standards. However, if one considers the loss of material wealth compared to the gain in well-being from a simpler life that also ensures a reasonable quality of life for future generations and a mitigation of climate change, we might actually prefer the second alternative. While the idea of degrowth will probably not be accepted by everyone, it seems to be one of the only alternatives to our current addiction to “growth”, which is slowly destroying us and the planet.

Oppositions to degrowth and alternatives

Oppositions to degrowth from scholars and economists have been vocalised as the pursuit of economic growth is very much ingrained into society. Less “radical” approaches than degrowth have notably emerged, such as “green growth”. Green growth believes we can continue to foster economic development while ensuring environmental resources are sustained ro provide for our needs. It is in that sense an anthropocentric approach. It’s main aim is to enhance productivity by being more efficient in the natural resources we use, boost investor confidence, open up new markets to green goods, contribute to fiscal consolidation through green taxes or subsidies as well as reduce risks to negative shocks to growth. Although both degrowth and green growth agree on the fact that our current economic system is flawed, they disagree on the compatibility of environmental protection with economic degrowth.
So, what do YOU think? Is degrowth too utopian? Or should we go for it?

Sources

A movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world.
https://transitionnetwork.org

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. (n.d.) Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. https://ophi.org.uk/policy/gross-national-happiness-index/

Büchs, M., & Koch, M. (2019). Challenges for the degrowth transition: The debate about wellbeing. Futures, 105, 155-165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2018.09.002

Duvergé, T. Degrowth: the history of an idea. (n.d.). https://ehne.fr/en/encyclopedia/themes/material-civilization/transnational-consumption-and-circulations/degrowth-history-idea

Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it. (October 1, 2014). https://theconversation.com/life-in-a-degrowth-economy-and-why-you-might-actually-enjoy-it-32224

O’Neill, D. (2014, June 13). The Economics of Enough. TED Conferences. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIG33QtLRyA

Oxfam. (January 20, 2014). Working for the few: political capture and economic inequality, 178 Oxfam Briefing Paper, Summary, Oxford: Oxfam GB. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-01-20/World-s-richest-1-has-twice-the-wealth-of-the-rest-of-humanity-Oxfam-NpIr04LiXC/index.html

Research and Degrowth. https://degrowth.org

What is green growth and how can it help deliver sustainable development? OECD. https://www.oecd.org/greengrowth/whatisgreengrowthandhowcanithelpdeliversustainabledevelopment.htm

Green Growth vs Degrowth: Beyond a Sterile Debate. (2014, March 12). https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/green-growth-vs-degrowth-beyond-a-sterile-debate/

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