Degrowth: The Path to a Sustainable Future?

In the present time on earth the human race is faced with mounting challenges to be overcome in order to shift to a sustainable way of living. The human population has surpassed 7.3 billion and shows no signs of slowing down (Worldometers). Climate change looms over us, threatening the worlds most vulnerable people with droughts, floods, increasingly powerful storms, and food and water shortages which are leading to mass migrations and social disharmony (Declaration 1). Many of the world’s most wealthy nations have fallen into recession, and economists and leaders are calling for a return to growth: economic growth that has been heralded as the means to the ends of happiness, success, and prosperity (Alexander 7; Dhont). However, the question remains: is this the best path to creating a world in which all people cannot just survive, but thrive within the biophysical boundaries of the planet? Many people are advocating for a paradigm shift towards the degrowth model (van den Bergh, 910), which is defined as “the equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions” (Schneider et al. 511).

At the current rates of production  and consumption, resources are being used much faster than the earth can replenish them (Dhont). Since the industrial revolution we have seen exponential rates of economic growth, to the point where the economies of the western industrial world are exceeding the carrying capacity of Earth (Alexander 9). The ecological implications of this fact cannot be ignored and in order to avoid ecological disaster a drastic restructuring our of economic reality is required. Dhont, in a summary of Herman Daly’s work on steady state economies, writes, “Because of the enormous change of mind and heart that this type of thinking takes, it may look like a (political) impossibility. But the alternative to a sustainable economy, an ever growing economy, is biophysically impossible” (Dhont). The reality is that we cannot continue down a path that leads to a biophysical impossibility. Two of the options that are available to us: continue with business as usual and face a reality in which the restructuring of our system is forced through ecological destruction and societal collapse or make a plan to move to a system in which the demand does not outweigh the capital and the throughput is not greater than what can be sustained by the biosphere (Dhont; Schneider et al. 516).

We have built our societies around the idea that we can use the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the measure of a country’s economic success. The traditional world economists believe that this aggregate collection of data pertaining to the total of all incomes and expenditures per capita is a valuable measure of social well being. Samuel Alexander writes, “according to this conventional view, there is a direct and positive correlation between consumption expenditure and human wellbeing” (Alexander 5). However, there are downsides to this measurement. First, the GDP does not take into consideration the costs of growth; when the ecological and societal expenses of maintaining the rate of growth surpasses the benefits gained from that growth we move into uneconomic growth (Alexander 14; Dhont; Declaration 1). Second, GDP does not accurately reflect the wellbeing of a population (Schneider et al. 512). Studies have shown that beyond a threshold wealth no longer improves wellbeing, suggesting that a move towards equitable distribution of wealth would offer societal benefits on a greater scale than the generation of more wealth for those who are already wealthy (Alexander 9; Dhont; van den Bergh 911). This distribution of wealth and downscaling of consumption can be done in a number of ways including work share programs, guaranteed basic income, and tax system restructuring (Alexander 17-18; Declaration 2).

After considering the environmental impacts of growth and the lacklustre effects of the GDP and the growth paradigm, one begins to wonder what the alternative looks like. The alternative look like decreasing inequality around the world by “right sizing” economies which involves bringing developing nations up and overgrown nations down so that all people may live within the bounds of the planet (Declaration 2). The alternative looks like a basic income for all people and reevaluating the tax systems (Alexander 16; Declaration 2). The alternative looks like more time for people to engage in creative endeavours, be with their families and follow their passions (Declaration 2), which could lead to greater innovations and quality of life. Work co-operatives, co-housing projects, food sharing, and locally based economies would become the new normal. One can hope that this would be brought about with a deepening sense of people power and democracy for the empowerment and continuation of the human race (Schneider et al., 515).

In an ever-changing world that is quickly growing beyond the sustainable boundaries of the planet we must take decisive action as a collective in order to move into a new way of living on earth. We have access to philosophies and technologies that could drastically improve the way all people are living on the planet: we just need to implement the necessary changes. A wise mind once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” The time has come for a new method of thought, and now the steps must be taken to guide the human race towards a new paradigm of abundance without greed and a measure of success that comes from the well being of the populous, not from the material accumulation of the economically advanced.

Annotated Bibliography

Alexander, Samuel. “Planned Economic Contraction: The Emerging Case for Degrowth.” The Simplicity Institute.

This paper discusses the basis of the growth model, as assess critiques of the social, economic, and ecological impacts of growth. Alexander outlines the theoretical foundations of the model of economic growth, and addresses the common western assumption that more consumption leads to more happiness. He also acknowledges that in neoclassical economics growth is the only answer to the issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality. He speaks to the inconsistencies between the belief that there is an optimum size to be reached at the microeconomic level but not at the macroeconomic one, which allows for the economic paradox of infinite growth within a finite system. He recognizes that there are social limits to growth and it’s benefits that have been surpassed in much of the western world. He discusses the limitations of the idea of sustainable development within the growth paradigm and writes, “few people – and no governments, in the developed world, at least – are prepared to accept that attaining an ecologically sustainable global economy requires a fundamental reassessment of the growth model” (9). He goes on to lay down a framework of the alternative approach to growth such as the restructuring of the labour market, a shorter work week, basic income, restructuring of taxation and inheritance, redistribution of working hours amount the population, and investing in renewable energy.

This is an academic paper though it is not published by a peer reviewed source. The author is a co-director of the Simplicity Institute in Melbourne, Australia. It is a 24 page paper and as such goes into lots of detail and presents a great amount of information on how growth works and how it does not. The language is technical, but not written in a way that it is too hard to digest which leads me to believe that the intended audience is general. This paper is written in a persuasive style. It is clear that his intention is to convince the reader that the growth model is not working and that degrowth is a viable alternative.

The purpose of this paper is to give the reader a clear understanding of why the current paradigm of growth above all is ineffective in bringing about social well being and is counter productive in moving towards environmental sustainability. It makes a strong argument that is clearly broken down into easy to digest pieces. I came away from reading this paper with a much better understanding of the functions that drive our economic reality and in what ways they have negative impacts on the world as a whole. This paper gives necessary insights into the way the current economic system is built and how it can be restructured so that people may begin to create the preconditions in which degrowth would be possible.

“Declaration of Degrowth.” Paris Conference on Degrowth. 2008.

This document is a declaration of the main issues and proposed solutions that the degrowth movement is built upon. The issues include the repercussions of global inequality, poverty, and unsustainable development beyond the capacity of the earth. The proposed solutions include a paradigm shift towards decreased production and consumption, “Right sizing” of economies so that the wealthy nations degrow while the developing nations catch up, and reevaluation of the importance of what is now considered to be economic prosperity (material wealth).

The author of this document is unknown but it may have been created collectively by the minds that came together for the Paris conference on Degrowth in 2009. The language used in the declaration is clear and simple so that it may be understood by a general audience. The purpose of creating such a document is to clearly explain the why and how of the degrowth movement so it may be broadly understood and accepted around the world.

Dhont, Rudy. A Steady State Economy (Herman Daly). Responsible Business European e-Learning Module. Web. November 17th, 2015.

In this paper the author addresses the concept of growth and the common attitudes towards it, most notably that growth is seen as the solution to many problems facing the planet today, but Dhont also speaks of how unending growth is unrealistic within a finite system and addresses the negative impact of growth as it shifts to uneconomic growth. The alternative presented in this paper is a steady state economy in which the optimum size of the economy is maintained with resource use being less than the regenerative capacity, waste being less than the absorption capacity, and non renewable resource use not being greater than the rate of development for alternatives. This vision allows for growth where growth is needed and also requires degrowth in many sectors.

The website is a learning resource and wiki page in which multiple people can submit contributions and the author’s credentials are unknown, though he appears to have gone to a University in the Netherlands. The language used is more casual and easier to understand than many of the academic papers but technical language is still used. This article is a summary of the works of Herman Daly, who is an ecological economist and professor at the University of Maryland, and also worked as the Senior Economist in the environmental department at the World Bank which gives credibility to the ideas being spoken of. The website contains information directed at students and business and economic professionals in order to give them tools to work within a changing world. It does not appear to be peer reviewed and it has a clear leaning towards a new paradigm of business and economics.

This paper explores the idea of what it looks like to be living in a full world.  The purpose is to demonstrate that there are realistic alternatives to the traditional growth model and to show that these alternatives are not only realistic, but necessary. The message that is conveyed is that the costs of maintaining our current approach to growth are too great to continue and under the current model these costs are not taken into consideration, especially by those who most benefit from the growth economy. He makes an appeal to emotion to make the point that we all need to care about shifting to a new model of economics in order to be able to continue living without environmental catastrophe.

Schneider, François, Kallis, Giorgos & Martinez-Alier, Joan.Crisis or opportunity? Economic Degrowth for Social Equity and Ecological Sustainability.” Journal of Cleaner Production. Elsevier LTD. January 2010. 511-517.

This journal article examines various contributions to the field of degrowth and goes on to define degrowth and assert that the implementation of degrowth will require radical restructuring of the institutions that run our world. The author suggests that degrowth should not be forced upon people, but realized through “a democratizing process; result of a collective choice for a better living, not an imperative imposed by an external authority” (515). There is an appeal to our adaptability, suggesting that we would be able to adopt this new way of living if the current circumstances changed. It describes various ways that degrowth could be implemented: a basic income, caps and rations for resources, co-housing, and work sharing. It also discusses the green technology movement and how it is limited in its impact due to creating a false sense of action in which we continue to over consume resources.

This article was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production and is peer reviewed. The authors are experts on the degrowth movement, and all work out of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. This article is discussing information that was presented at the 2008 Paris conference on degrowth as well as various literature that has been published on the topic. The experience of the authors and the fact that this article was published in a peer reviewed journal gives credibility to this source as reliable information on the topic of degrowth. The language used is technical and it is written for an audience of economists, environmentalists, and policy makers.

The purpose of this paper is to give a clear picture on what degrowth is, and what it is not. It draws clear lines between planned degrowth and unplanned degrowth, otherwise known as recession. The authors want the reader to understand that there is more to quality of life than material possessions and that wellbeing can be improved by changing to a paradigm of simple living and sharing of abundance.

van den Bergh, Jeroen C.J.M. and Kallis, Giorgos. “Growth, A-growth or Degrowth to Stay within Planetary Boundaries?” The Journal of Economic Issues. Vol. XLVI, No. 4. December 2012. 909 -919.

This paper talks about the benefits and limitations of GDP as a measure of social wellbeing and development and offers the concepts of ecological economics, as well as a-growth and degrowth as alternatives to traditional economic paradigms. The paper asserts that the traditional model of economic growth is a barrier in the path to implementing necessary ecological policies and presents alternatives for transitioning to a greener way of life within the a-growth and degrowth models, such as developing alternatives to fossil fuels, and creating work sharing and co-housing co-operatives. It proposes that giving up the GDP growth model would give more time for family, leisure, creativity, and social progress and suggests investing in social programs over economic advancement. The relationship between economic growth and environmental damage is highlighted.

This is a scholarly article that was published in the Journal of Economic Issues, which is a peer reviewed publication. Kallis and van den Bergh are professors of environmental science and technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and van den Bergh is also a professor of environmental and resource economics at The University of Amsterdam. The credentials of the authors and the fact that it is a peer reviewed publication written by experts in the fields of environment and economics gives credibility to this article as a reliable source.

The language is technical and the tone is neutral. The authors address both sides of the argument, presenting a balanced picture of traditional economics and the proposed alternatives. The article is meant to be considered by economists, leaders, and developers as they go forward with creating new policies to benefit humanity. The purpose of their communication is to put emphasis on the importance of creating a new system for the human race to work within as we continue our evolution on the planet.

Worldometers. “Current World Population”. World Population Clock: 7.3 Billion People (2015). Web. November 23, 2015.

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