By Julia Horowitz, CNN Business
Conventional economic logic is based on a central assumption: bigger economies are better, and finding ways to sustain or boost growth is critical to improving society.
But what if growth, at best, does little to solve the world’s problems, and at worst, fuels the destruction of the planet and jeopardizes its future?
That is the radical message of the “degrowth” movement, which has spent decades on the fringes of politics with its warning that unlimited growth must end. Now, after the pandemic has given people in some parts of the world a chance to rethink what makes them happy, and as the scale of change needed to address the climate crisis becomes clearer, his ideas are gaining momentum. greater recognition, even when anxiety increases. what could be a painful global recession.
For economists and politicians of all stripes, growth has long served as a lodestar. It is a vehicle to create jobs and generate taxes for public services, increase prosperity in rich countries and reduce poverty and hunger in the poorest.
But degrowthists argue that a never-ending desire for more—bigger national economies, higher consumption, higher corporate profits—is shortsighted, misguided, and ultimately harmful. Gross domestic product, or GDP, is a poor metric for social well-being, they emphasize.
In addition, they see the expansion of a global economy that has already doubled in size since 2005 and, at 2% growth per year, would be more than seven times larger in a century, putting the emissions targets needed to save emissions out of reach. to the world.
“A naive 2 or 3% per year, that’s a huge amount of growth (cumulative growth, compound growth) over time,” said Giorgos Kallis, a leading degrowth scholar based at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. “I do not see it compatible with the physical reality of the planet.”
The solution, according to the degrowth movement, is to limit the production of unnecessary goods and try to reduce the demand for items that are not needed.
This unorthodox school of thought has no shortage of critics. Bill Gates has called degrowthists unrealistic, emphasizing that asking people to consume less for the sake of the climate is a losing battle. And even believers acknowledge that his framework may be a political failure, given how hard it is to imagine what weaning to growth would look like in practice.
“The fact that it is an uncomfortable concept is both a strength and a weakness,” said Gabriela Cabaña, a degrowth advocate for Chile and a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.
However, in some corners, it is becoming less taboo, especially as governments and industry are falling behind in their efforts to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, after which some effects of change climate will become irreversible.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently cited the decline in a major report. The European Research Council has just allocated approximately $10 million to Kallis and two peers to explore practical “post-growth” policies. And the European Parliament is planning a conference called “Beyond Growth” next spring. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is expected to attend.
Even some on Wall Street are starting to pay more attention. Investment bank Jefferies said investors should consider what happens if the downturn picks up steam, noting that “climate-eager” younger generations have different consumption values.
Diagnose a problem
In the debate about how to avoid climate catastrophe, there is a key point of consensus: if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided, the world must reduce annual carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. After that, they must decrease. . abruptly and quickly.
Most roadmaps that lay out a plan to achieve this involve drastically reconfiguring economies around clean energy and other emissions reduction solutions, while promoting new technologies and market innovations that make them more affordable. . This would allow the global economy to continue to grow, but in a “green” way.
However, degrowth advocates are skeptical that the world can cut emissions in time, and protect delicate interconnected ecological systems, while pursuing endless economic expansion, which they argue will inevitably require the use of more energy.
“More growth means more energy use, and more energy use makes it harder to decarbonise the energy system in the short time we have left,” said Jason Hickel, a degrowth expert who is part of the team that received funding from the European Research. Council. “It’s like trying to run down an escalator that’s speeding up against you.”
Even if energy can go green, growth also requires natural resources like water, minerals, and wood.
It’s a concern echoed by Greta Thunberg, arguably the most famous climate activist. She has criticized “fairy tales about non-existent technological solutions” and “eternal economic growth.” And she has touched on another point degrowthists raise: Does our current system, which has produced rampant inequality, even work for us?
This question resonates in the Global South, where there are fears that the green energy revolution may simply replicate existing patterns of exploitation and over-extraction of resources, but with minerals such as nickel or cobalt, key components of batteries, instead. of oil.
The “love of growth,” said Felipe Milanez, a professor and degrowth advocate based in the Brazilian state of Bahia, is “extremely violent and racist, and has only been reproducing local forms of colonialism.”
The end of growth?
It can be hard to talk about degrowth, especially as fears of a global recession mount, with all the pain of job losses and company destruction that entails.
But the advocates, who often speak of recessions as symptoms of a broken system, make it clear that they are not promoting austerity or telling developing countries that are eager to raise living standards that they should not reap the benefits of economic development.
Instead, they talk about sharing more goods, reducing food waste, moving away from privatized transportation or healthcare, and making products last longer, so they don’t need to be bought at such regular intervals. It is about “thinking in terms of sufficiency,” said Cabaña.
Embracing degrowth would require a dramatic rethinking of the market capitalism that has been embraced by nearly every society on the planet in recent decades.
However, some proposals could exist within the current system. A universal basic income is often mentioned, in which everyone receives a single payment regardless of their employment status, allowing the economy to reduce its reliance on polluting industries. This is a four-day work week.
“When people have more economic security and more economic freedom, they make better decisions,” Cabaña said.
high profile critics
The latest report from the IPCC, the UN authority on global warming, noted that “addressing inequality and many forms of status consumption and focusing on well-being supports climate change mitigation efforts,” a nod to one of the higher degrowth targets. The move was also verified by name.
But degrowth is also the subject of significant opposition, including from academics and climate activists with similar goals.
“The degrowth people are living a fantasy where they assume that if you bake a smaller cake, for whatever reason, the poorest will get a bigger share,” said Per Espen Stoknes, director of the Center for Green Growth at the BI. Norwegian Business School. “That has never happened in history.”
Supporters of green growth are convinced that their strategy can work. They cite promising examples of decoupling GDP earnings from emissions, from the UK to Costa Rica, and the rapidly increasing affordability of renewable energy.
Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who prioritized investment in climate innovations, admits that reforming global energy systems is a Herculean task. But he believes that boosting the accessibility of the right technologies can still get you there.
Degrowthists know that their criticisms are controversial, although in a way that is the intention. They think a more radical and revolutionary approach is necessary given that the UN estimates global warming will increase by between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees Celsius, based on the world’s current climate pledges.
“The less time [that] remains now, a more radical change is needed,” said Kohei Saito, a professor at the University of Tokyo.
Might a growing cohort agree? In 2020, her book on degrowth from a Marxist perspective became a surprise hit in Japan, where concern over the consequences of stagnant growth has influenced the country’s politics for decades. “Capital in the Anthropocene” has sold close to 500,000 copies.
The CNN Wire
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