The more I study economics, the more I realize how this world is really stupid and rotten. In the decades to come, we, and all of the generations that we’ll come, will see a world rotten socially, financially, and environmentally. This last problem, because of the real threat to the whole world, without one unique country being able to escape from it, is the one that has raised awareness and made appear a new vision for our societies, degrowth.
Image: Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. — « The World is a Fine Place for You to Fight For »
Progress is the realization of Utopias, wrote Oscar Wilde. So of course, the degrowth, one of the environmental economics theories, is a utopia. But that’s not a reason why we shouldn’t study and learn from this knowledge, and even try to put it in practice. At the end, democracy is also a utopia and, even so, we’re so tremendously trying to keep it, protect it and improve it, even knowing that we’ll never arrive to a “perfect democracy”. All changes starts with a utopia. All starts with a dream. And that, I think, is what Degrowth is about.
Such as communism or anarchism, degrowth is an anti-capitalist theory. This movement started with a simple and true fact: an unlimited growth in a limited world is impossible. The term in itself is challenging: capitalism and market economy is based in growth, we just have to watch how people, media and politics panic when they hear that growth is contracting, we all pledge allegiance to this growth religion. Indeed, we all have this axiom that growth of GDP must be a good thing, irrespective of what has grown and who, if anyone, has benefited. The idea that there could be pathological growth, unhealthy growth, disruptive or destructive growth is a perserve idea which must not be allowed to surface
Naming this young theory degrowth is an oxymora in capitalism system, because that’s what this theory shoes, the contradictions of capitalism – or new contradictions, added to the list of its numerous others ones.
That’s what we are going to talk about in this post, the contradictions, the solutions, and the practice of those ones.
The fact is simple: the declining of the environment quality. Indeed, even if the “ tremendous leader of the free world” disagree, there is a global warming, and it’s caused by human activity.
We don’t need to enter in the proofs and scientific demonstrations in this matter. Indeed, we’re spectators of the declining quality of air and the decline in health of flora and fauna upon which humans depend. Some studies say that we have 10 to 30 years before arriving to a critical level where, our countries will maybe continue with, more or less: this is the problem of the rise of negative societal side-effects. We will see a gap more and bigger between societies classes in health and quality and variety of the products consumed – when the rich get a cold, the poor freeze. That being added to ever-expanding use of resources by the west countries to satisfy our lifestyles that consume more food and energy, and produce greater waste, at the expense of the third world. This second gap between first and third world is at the air of the responsibility of climate change: some argue that developing countries are the more polluting, others that the pollution in those countries is due to the production to satisfy the consumption of developed countries, and also some argue that developed countries polluted in their time – at the same or a worst level. Continuing with our current consumption, and taking as a hypothesis the continuing trend of development of the developing countries, we still have 24 years of petroleum. What will we use after?
Growth and inequalities
First thing is the first, the aim of this theory is to arrive to a controlled degrowth. Before setting off alarm bells let’s go deeper about this aim. Let’s comment this figure below. If we say that, actually, we use 100 resources. A degrowth project will use 80% of the resources used today. This 20% less is the necessary decrease of the production to have a sustainable world – we will talk about it later on. Going deeper on this decrease, we see that developed countries should decrease their use of resources by half – pass by 80% of the use of world resources to 40%. The developing countries should increase their production and consumption by two – 20% to 40%. All that to have a fair share of the worlds resources between all of the countries. So, degrowth is just a temporal stage for developed countries, that will see a reduction of their consumption and production to arrive to a fair level of world’s resources repartition. To poor countries, it just means a huge increase! The aim is, after arriving to this equity share, adopt a zero global growth.
As wrote Kenneth E. Building, “an infinite growth in a finite world is impossible.”
Growth is typically shown in economy as a mean to reduce inequalities. That’s what shows, for instance, the curve of Kuznets – growth induces reduction of inequalities. But is this analysis really working? Not if we look at the recent statistics. In fact, since 2000s growth hasn’t always been synonym of inequalities decrease: since 2011, in France, 1% of the population has increased its wealth up to 25% more, while the middle classes have seen theirs stagnate. Another study of Oxfam shown that in 2025, 1% of the world population will own 50% of the world wealth, the same amount as 99% of the population! Do we really want a system like this? If putting out the taxes to the 1% will result in an increase of the growth, we will do it, without caring if inequalities will increase.
“We live in a world where those that earn 100 000€/month persuade those that earn 1800 that nothing is going right because of those that earn 535€. And it’s working” Félix Lobo.
The need to shift to another measure of hapiness
The phenomenology of Kant shows us that to change the world; we first need to change our vision of it. Changing the vision that we have to measure “economic growth” will help to shift the aim of growth to a progress aim.
The substance of man cannot be measured by GDP. Perhaps it cannot be measured at all, except for certain symptons of loss.
The shift for degrowth focus from current metrics of success such as GDP – the current measure of growth and countries power, calculated by the quantitate amount of wealth accumulated in one country, for one year – to new ones such as the Human Development Index – the HDI, theorised by Nobel price Amartya Sen, a metric that also take as measure inequality, education and health – or the Gross national happiness (GNH), the Happy Planet Index, and/or – the more, the better! – other well-being indices.
Another relevant statistics is the raising of stress and burnout at work. Indeed, since 2000 this indicator has constantly increased.
This trend has placed Japans in the first position and US just after, followed by the others developed countries – Canada, EU etc. 64% of American employees report high levels of stress (source: satista, facts on stress and burnout). And, beyond this amount, an average of 70% say that money is the top source of stress (same source).
Why do we need so much money to live? Aristotle already wrote that to be happy, you only need enough money to don’t worry about your basic needs plus a little amount more to be able to give gifts to your friends: money if just a mean towards something else. If you don’t have this first and basic thing, it’s almost impossible to reach hapiness. He added, “life of a rich trader is a life of constraints, and wealth is not the asset that we are looking for: it’s just something useful, a mean towards something”.
For a more recent example, I think about Walter White, alias Heisenberg, the main character of Breaking Bad TV show. In the beginning we see a normal American middle-class who is struggling between two jobs – school teacher and a job in a local car wash – to pay for the house and his family life. Watching the show I thought, why do he need two jobs? To pay for his big house in a good neighbourhood, with his two cars, a TV screen in the salon and each bedroom and a swimming pool. And when, during the show, it turns out the idea of selling their swimming pool, Walter and his wife are horrified! But why do you need a piscine and a house like that? When you don’t see, at almost any time, that they actually use their swimming pool.
The GNP, actual measure rate of growth, has also the problem to not measure environmental impact of our industries. Indeed, if you try to measure the reduction in the rate of growth by taking into account damages caused to the environment and its consequences on our natural and cultural patrimony, you will generally obtain a result of zero or even negative growth. “In 1991, the United States spent 115 billion dollars, or 2.1% of the GDP on the protection of the environment. The Clean Air Act increased this cost by 45 or 55 million dollars per year. […] The World Resources Institute tried to measure the rate of the growth taking into account the punishment exerted on the natural capital of the world, with an eye towards sustainable development. For Indonesia, it found that the rate of growth between 1971 and 1984 would be reduced from 7.1 to 4% annually, and that was by taking only three variables into consideration: deforestation, the reduction in the reserves of oil and natural gas, and soil erosion.” Serge Latouche, on Pari pour la décroissance.
Recognising these limits of the view of the world that our societies have today, and due to these limits, it is necessary to embrace shifting beyond economic growth as a goal. The government policies don’t have to be based on the annual growth and estimation.
A society with cooperation, sharing, social justice and ecological stewardship
Degrowth use the wisdom gained in the growth-based economic era – and before it – in order to transcend to sustainable futures. It’s about thinking and acting according to values of cooperation, sharing, social justice and ecological stewardship, on local as well as global levels. Degrowth is not a return-to-the-past idea. It’s a different vision of society.By its nature, this theory is an anti-capitalist idea. The key to the concept of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring or a decrease in well-being. It’s an aim maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means: sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community.
Nevertheless, in order to arrive at such level, it’s mandatory to adopt some changes.
A sharing economy
Firstly, we need to reduce working hours and, therefore, share the work, to arrive in what we’ll name a “sharing economy”. Indeed, reducing the working hours will liberate work for the unemployed, while having more time to enjoy our hobbies. Of course, in order to do that, this change must be significant: one unique country cannot do that because, of course, work will go to the nearest countries with a most flexible legislation. Let’s take the hypothesis where a general legislation is voted in EU to reduce, let’s say, at 32 hours/week the working time of every employee. In this case, I think, most of the firms would not leave the EU – because it represents a large market, for consumers and employees with one of the higher rate of productivity and human capital.
A more equitably distribution of tax burdens is also necessary. Indeed, how can we aspire to have a plenitude society having such higher inequalities? Felix Lobo, Spanish economist, wrote that “we live in a world where those that earn 100000€ per month persuade those that win 1800€ that all is going badly because of those that live with 535€. And it works” – 535 is the minimum salary per month in Spain.
Without going to a communist distribution, a progressive tax weighted on the amount of incomes, patrimony and heritage has to be set up. In order to assure to all of the population an amount enough to live decently, without worrying about the day of tomorrow. As we saw before, the top countries in the Gross national hapiness ranking are the ones with the most sharing economy, where people trust the estate paying high rates of taxes but have, in return, an assurance in the money matters.
Reduce overall consumption by overconsumers
“Man has to become master and possessor of the nature” wrote Descartes. Heavy responsibility. Between 1900 and 2000 the FAO – food and agriculture organization of the United Nations – estimate that 75% of the diversity of cultivation has been lost. And because of the global warming, world agriculture production could decrease of 2% every year.
If all of the world population had the same consumption than the United States we’ll need up to 5 Earths resources and lands to ensure this “needs”. Consequently, consumption is, at the best of the case unfair and, at the worst, suicidal. The next step is obvious: change this way of consumption. That is, in my opinion, the biggest and hardest change for western countries. Because that implies to change our most routine and day-to-day way of living. Indeed, degrowth tackles the root of the problem, the consumption, to arrive to a sustainable way of living: eat meat just once a week, avoid buying unnecessary clothes, do not change of phone every year etc.
Indeed, earth population is growing, because of the demographical transition that is having – and almost ending – the developing countries. Some philosophers, demographics or economist defense a child policy – such as Chinese policy between 1980s and 2015. That’s, for instance, what theorized the reverend Robert Malthus, in his Essay on the Principle of Population, where he argued that a growing population in incompatible because of the limited resources. How will we feed this growing population? By producing more? Even if we did, this increase in production has to be tremendous! The answer is simple, by changing our consumption. Indeed, all of those analysis are based on the actual consumption: what if we changed that?
Actually, our industrial production can fed 12 billion people, which is 3 more than the actual earth population. Then, why does hunger and starvation still exist? It’s a question of what we eat, and what we don’t eat.
To actually be able to feed this 12 billion people, we need to re-allocate our resources. Producing meat, for instance, uses 70% of the earth agricultural area and 30% of the land mass. Producing vegetables uses up to 50 times less land! So, indeed, in a degrowth system we won’t be able to eat meat every day, or going to McDonalds every week, but that’s the necessary change to have a fair and sustainable consumption around the world.
Let’s talk about what we don’t eat: 1.6 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year, which represents 30% of the annual production. It covers what we throw in the garbage, the developing countries system to avoid food expiring – which is not optimal – but it covers mostly the food that we don’t find in our supermarkets in the developed countries. I’m talking about vegetables that doesn’t have the right size, or colour etc. In the United Kingdom, for instance, 30% of the vegetables aren’t in the supermarket because they are not like the “standards”.
Cultivate a plenitude economy
The last point that I’m going to talk about is the “plenitude economy”. In other words, a complete society, which unites hapiness, sustainability and social justice. To finish this point, we will use some examples that give hope for this necessary change.
Firstly, we need to get rid of the planned obsolescence. It’s obvious, if we can make phones that last decades, why make phones that just last 2 years to increase consumption? I’m not going to talk a lot about this point because it just seems logical. Just say that some solutions already exist today to consume fairly and avoid planned obsolescence. I think, for instance, of the Fait Phone. A growing startup from Netherlands that produces a phone, almost at the same level as the latest iPhone, with fair materials. This phone does not need updates every year, that reduces at the end the phone capacity, and, when the phone is broken, they send you the pieces necessary to repair it – without having to buy a new one.
Degrowth is also a local theory. It’s not against globalization, it’s just about taking the good things of this one without the bad things. For instance, there was this fun story in the news a few years ago that tells that a truck. Which transported tomatoes of greenhouse cultivation cultivated in Spain, when he was leaving from Spain, impacted a truck that also transported tomatoes from Holland to Spain.
It’s clear that this method of production is not sustainable. That’s the aim of the produce local, consume local. Agriculture is subject of 15% of the worlds CO2 emission. Most of it is because of the extension of GMO, mass production and transportation. Agro agriculture, proximity, direct sell, short circuits, that the system that we need to have a sustainable agriculture.
One of the examples of these new visions is Detroit, where the neighbours started a local and urban agriculture, a shared and community experiment to put to use the huge amount of land liberated by the industrial space.
That’s what degrowth is about: acknowledging these limits to our economic system and then trying to find a new system, with more social justice, in the time that we have left, to put in practice an environmental friendly new way of living. It’s necessary to embrace shifting beyond economic growth as a goal. Degrowth is a bet, because we can estimate the future, try to find numbers and statistics, but the truth is that we can’t know exactly what will happen.
But how could we even begin to disarm greed and envy, keystones of the capitalism? Perhaps by being much less greedy and envious ourselves; perhaps by resisting the temptation of letting our luxuries become needs; and perhaps by even scrutinising our needs to see if they canot be simplified and reduced. It also involves talking and debating with friends, but without falling in the intellectualist trap to agree at one system without changing one’s way of living. Going in the streets and demonstrating, changing our way of consumption, consuming less and in a fair way, not buying luxury things, acting for being the change that you want to see. Even if that’s kind of a cliché, that’s all what we can do, acting and hoping that others will follow.
Facts about global warming are here, and we need to change to a more sustainable system. Degrowth isn’t maybe the best system, but it’s, at the moment, the only system that can prevent to reach a tipping point. Degrowth is, by paraphrasing Churchill, is the worst form of society, with the exception of all others.
Don’t doubt to share your opinion about this topic!
Marc Becat Busquet