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. 

Juliette is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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