The movement for “degrowth”

Green Daily
Bloomberg

In climate news today...

Akshat Rathi's Net Zero

Is eternal economic growth getting in the way of tackling climate change?

In recent years, a group of economists, ecologists, and anthropologists have converged on a way to address both climate and ecological crises that will also make the world happier, healthier, and more equal. The gist: "less is more"—which also happens to be the title of a new book by one member of this intellectual squad, Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at Goldsmiths University of London.

Known as the "degrowth" movement, these scholars first want the world to reconsider the value of gross domestic product as a metric for progress, as GDP may still be rising even as inequality worsens and overall well-being falls. Second, they contend that a sustainable planet must find a way to live within certain limits for things like climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss, called "planetary boundaries"—and that rich countries are abusing these boundaries by consuming too many resources. And third, they question the wisdom—and even the morality—of most climate models looking to keep temperature increases below 1.5°C, which require the use of negative-emissions technologies that draw down carbon dioxide from the air and are still in early stages of development.

Altogether, it makes for powerful rhetoric. As climate activist Greta Thunberg put it in her speech at UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September 2019: "We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!"

There are still has plenty of gaps in the theory, however. Some economists have shown that well-being does keep rising along with GDP. Technologists have shown that it's possible to eke out more economic gains from less material use. Others say that the idea of degrowth goes against the deep-seated human desire to have it at least as good as one's neighbors—an impulse that has geopolitical consequences, as well.

Hickel doesn't shy away from the notion that degrowth will require overturning the world order. "The way that I approached it is I started with the ecological objective," he says. "What is required in the economy to make it possible that you not only sustain livelihoods but actually enhance human flourishing for the majority of people?"

The answer as outlined in Less Is More is that rich countries should stop aiming for economic growth and instead focus on improving well-being, whether or not it brings growth. Poor countries, on the other hand, should continue to grow their economies, at least until they're within sight of planetary boundaries.

I spoke to Hickel about his book, its intellectual precursors, and what people get wrong about what he and his friends are trying to do. You can read our conversation here.

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