Growth is the “beating heart of a free economy,” U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan told the Economic Club of Washington D.C, earlier this year. In his speech, Ryan repeated the common narrative that without steady economic growth, we’re all doomed.
Degrowthers – members of a flourishing movement of academics and activists pushing to equitably and sustainably downscale the economy – think otherwise.
Growth is not a solution, but a part of the problem, degrowthers argue, and cannot be endless in a world with finite resources. It perpetuates a cycle of consumption and production, putting the planet and our well-being at great risk. But, despite all the costs, economic growth continues to be the raison d’etre in politics and the business sector.
The GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, measures the value added of goods and services produced in a country during a given period. It’s widely considered the king of all popular indicators for tracking economic growth, often used to score political points. U.S. President Donald Trump cheered the 4.1 percent GDP growth in the second quarter of 2018 – the highest rate since 2014 – calling it “amazing” during an impromptu press conference in July.
But what Trump failed to mention is that a bigger economic pie does not necessarily translate into higher living standards for everyone. That’s especially true in a deeply unequal society like the United States, where the benefits of economic growth are increasingly captured by the 1 percent.
In an interview with The Washington Post, David Pilling, the journalist and author of The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations, says GDP measures economic “quantity not quality” and should not be conflated with well-being, especially in richer countries. In some instances, GDP growth could even mean the opposite.
GDP has long been widely criticized for counting defense spending, financial speculation, and even theft as positive contributions to growth, while excluding non-monetized trade and ignoring environmental and social costs. “If I steal your car and sell it, that counts toward growth,” Pilling explains, “but if I look after an aged relative or bring up three well-adjusted children, that does not.”
Pilling recommends complementing GDP with more inclusive data and measurements. But the leaders of the degrowth movement don’t just challenge growth indicators. They’re taking on the dogma of economic growth.
Degrowth “does not call for doing less of the same,” as the editors of the first comprehensive book on the movement make clear. “The objective is not to make an elephant leaner, but to turn an elephant into a snail.” They call for a radically different political-economic system needed to preserve the environment and improve well-being.
The term décroissance – French for degrowth – was first used decades ago by European intellectuals. But the term became the umbrella slogan for a movement in 2008, when an academic collective organized the first international degrowth conference in Paris.
Conference-goers made the term concrete, defining degrowth as a “voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society,” making clear that a downsizing process was necessary for wealthy countries. They envisioned a society organized around sharing, simplicity, and solidarity, rather than the profit, efficiency, and competition inherent to capitalism.
In the decade since the Paris conference, six other international gatherings have further cemented their ideas, including at this year’s meeting in Sweden. These conferences have helped shape an international degrowth community of academics, activists and practitioners.
The movement is also solidifying the global nature of its message. The first North-South degrowth conference is being held this week in Mexico City. The gathering is crucial: a frequent criticism of the degrowth movement is that the economies of Global South countries have the same right to grow to meet basic needs that Northern countries have. Sociologist Miriam Lang responded to this criticism at the Malmö conference. The economic “growth” that critics point to as being necessary, Lang said, generally rely on natural resource extraction and other industries that exploit local populations, reinforcing a destructive ideal of progress.
The degrowth movement is more of a coalition of social and environmental ideas rather than one cohesive force with a unified political agenda. One shared understanding, however, is the need for systemic change. The next step for degrowthers? Developing a plan for a radical transformation.
A survey of published scholarship on degrowth found that policy proposals align with three broad goals:
Reduce the environmental impact of human activities
Redistribute income and wealth both within and between countries;
Promote the transition from a materialistic to a convivial and participatory society.
The proposals include common-sense ecological plans, like the reduction of energy and material consumption, carbon caps, bans on harmful activities, and incentives for local production and consumption. Degrowthers are also looking to transform traditional ideas of the economy with the promotion of community currencies and alternative credit institutions, reduced working hours, basic and maximum incomes, and voluntary simplicity and downshifting.
These proposals are gaining traction in the political sphere. In the UK, economist Tim Jackson has promoted an all-party working group in the UK Parliament devoted to discussion and research on limiting growth. Jackson will also be a keynote speaker later this month at the European Parliament’s Post-Growth 2018 conference. The gathering offers activists and scientists a unique opportunity to directly engage with EU officials on degrowth, and to present alternative to the dominant economic and financial orthodoxy.
The conference couldn’t be more necessary, as European politicians are already coming up against the limits of growth. French environmental minister Nicolas Hulot resigned last week, frustrated at the lack of support he received to tackle urgent environmental issues while Macron and his government “stubbornly try to revive an economic model that is the cause of all this mess.” Hulot is ringing an alarm that’s all too familiar to degrowthers: we can’t deal with our environmental crises without radically rethinking the economy.