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Degrowth offers alternative to global consumer culture

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Industrial countries are overdeveloped and now need their economies to start contracting. Heresy? Photo: Zohar Manor-Abel.

If everyone lived like the average American, according to the Global Footprint Network, the Earth could sustain only 1.7 billion people — a quarter of today’s population — without undermining the planet’s physical and biological systems. Over-consumption in industrialized societies and among developing world elites causes lasting environmental and human impacts. In his chapter, “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries,” Worldwatch Senior Fellow and State of the World 2012 Project Co-director Erik Assadourian describes the benefits and opportunities of proactive “economic degrowth” — defined as the intentional contraction of overdeveloped economies and more broadly, the redirection of economies away from the perpetual pursuit of growth.

Fixation with economic growth and increasing levels of consumption contributes to debt burdens, long working hours, increased rates of obesity, dependence on pharmaceuticals, social isolation, and other societal ills, Assadourian writes. Meanwhile, the window to prevent runaway climate change is closing, and mitigating global warming will be all but impossible without dramatic reductions in consumption and fossil fuel use. High levels of warming will result in large population shifts due to natural disasters, such as coastal flooding, prolonged drought, and the introduction of disease to new regions — a future scenario not only incompatible with perpetual economic growth but likely to lead to economic and societal decline.

In response to the destructive impacts of the growth-centered global economy, degrowth has begun to gain traction as an economic strategy in recent years. In Italy and France, there are now degrowth political parties, and worldwide, the third bi-annual International Degrowth Conference recently concluded in Venice with over 700 registered participants. More broadly, there is growing recognition that an end to or reversal of growth will be an essential rite of passage for global civilization as humanity comes to understand that climate change and natural resource scarcity are rooted in the impossibility of perpetual human growth in a finite biophysical environment.

Efforts to facilitate degrowth are in the early stages worldwide and range from shifting taxes and moving from private to public goods, to building Transition Towns and promoting healthier, more sustainable consumption habits, such as “Meatless Mondays” that are helping to reduce levels of meat consumption.

“Moving toward degrowth will involve redefining prosperity altogether — resurrecting traditional understandings of what this word means with regard to health, social connectedness, and the freedom to work less while still earning a livable wage,” said Assadourian. “Degrowth offers a new vision of prosperity focused on living well with less, instead of maximizing growth and consumption. It strives to establish a stable economic system that no longer transcends Earth’s limits.”

Advocates of degrowth also voice the need for equitable distribution of societal benefits. Industrialized countries will need to curb their overconsumption, while the poorest third of humanity undoubtedly will need to increase resource consumption at least modestly to improve their quality of life through improved sanitation and safe water, nutrition, shelter, and transportation. “By realigning economic priorities, policymakers can improve individual well-being, strengthen community resilience, and start to restore the Earth’s ecological systems,” said Assadourian.

In Chapter 2 of State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, Assadourian details three reforms that would augment the global movement toward degrowth in industrialized societies:

Transform the consumer culture: Shifting societal norms regarding food, housing, and transportation can affect great change. To promote degrowth, governments can help normalize living in smaller homes, leading walkable lifestyles, and eating less food as well as food that is less processed and lower on the food chain. Communities can also facilitate degrowth and increase their resilience by cultivating opportunities for localized formal and informal economic activities, such as small-scale farming, child and elder care, midwifery, and helping to develop essential skills like repair and carpentry.

Distribute tax burdens more equitably: Taxes on the wealthiest sectors of societies, on polluting resources, on advertising, and on financial transactions could discourage excessive economic growth and overconsumption. This new revenue could further fund degrowth initiatives, such as goods-sharing services, or improve existing essential infrastructure (like water and sanitation services and public transit) and help build important sustainability infrastructure like green roofs, renewable energy, and bicycle paths.

Share working hours: If the real average per-capita work week were calculated, counting the unemployed, the underemployed, and people working excessive hours, it would be much shorter. Indeed, in the United Kingdom, this real average work week was 21 hours in 2010, according to the New Economics Foundation. Restructuring the work week to better distribute work hours would help reduce unemployment and poverty, while also significantly improving the quality of life of employees.

These reforms are just a few of the many initiatives that societies can implement in order to catalyze a movement toward global degrowth. Degrowth, Assadourian argues, offers a new perspective and an array of solutions to the social and environmental problems that afflict the global community today.

About State of the World 2012

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2012, released in April 2012, focuses on the themes of inclusive sustainable development discussed at Rio+20, the 20-year follow-up to the historic Earth Summit of 1992, also held in Rio de Janeiro. The report presents a selection of innovative ideas and practices to achieve global environmental sustainability while meeting human needs and providing jobs and ensuring dignity for all.

– Worldwatch Institute, Transition Voice

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