I miss critiques of degrowth. A few years back, a single online search for the term would unleash a stream of fury. But no more. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I stumbled upon a well-argued critique. Why degrowth is wrong by Adam Lee is definitely not one of them – not even close (I will soon show that it is substandardly poor). And yet there is something vintage about it. Something that makes me nostalgic of the good old bot-like written boo-hoos.
Step 1: Is degrowth necessary?
Degrowth is a “cramped, pessimistic vision of the future. Fortunately, it’s also completely wrong.” I was already thinking that the title of the piece (“degrowth is wrong”) was a bit presumptuous (it brings flashbacks of Matt Huber trying to “destroy degrowth with facts and logic” or Noah Smith attempting to show that “degrowth is bad economics”), but the addition of “completely” turns up the volume. But is it really?
“We’re nowhere close to the physical limits of what’s possible” sounds like the opening line of a 1950 economics textbook. In 2022 however, such a statement is as false as it gets. Don’t trust me for it, just read the latest IPCC report or the latest IPBES report (if you’ve never heard these acronyms before – which is probably the case for someone who ends up making such a claim – I strongly suggest you refrain from writing about sustainability). Long story short: we are already in a situation of global ecological overshoot, with cases of super-overshoot in most high-income nations. (This study is only a few months old, but since its publication, scientists discovered that another one of the nine planetary boundaries had been crossed.)
“The good kind of growth comes from technological improvements that allow us to make more stuff quicker, more efficiently and with less effort.” Let me translate in more precise terms: technological progress can decouple economic growth from environmental pressures – the so-called “green growth.” This is a well-known hypothesis, but it remains just that, a hypothesis. After spending considerable time studying the scientific literature on the topic (1, 2, 3, 4), my view is that the story of growth turning green is both mistaken and deceiving.
It is mistaken because it is simply not true. Proof: this systematic review of the empirical literature on decoupling (835 studies) concludes that “large rapid absolute reductions of resource use and GHG emissions cannot be achieved through observed decoupling rates.” This is the most solid empirical fact we have: GDP and environmental pressures have until now always been tightly coupled.
It is deceiving because it assumes that this decoupling can happen in the future. I don’t think it can, as I explained in the last part of Decoupling debunked. And even if it could, it wouldn’t happen fast enough to make it an effective mitigation strategy. Risk compensation theory may have been debunked (the author claims), but the theory of the rebound effect has not (again, if you’ve never heard about the term, drop the pen, you’re punching above your weight).
It is time to admit that we are not living in a solar punk world where Hextech alchemy allows us to bypass the laws of nature. As the author writes himself: basic physics can’t be denied. If that is true, how are we supposed to produce an ever-increasing quantity of batteries, solar panels, robots, and 3D printers in a world with limited materials? The laws of thermodynamics impose limits to how much matter and energy we can use, just like the laws of biology impose limits to the services ecosystems can provide. How much vertical farming can you do without pollinators, fertile soil, and clean water? (I remind you that biodiversity is currently collapsing, precisely because of economic growth.) Bottom line: the decoupling hypothesis makes for good sci-fi novels, but it’s not a serious ground for policy-making.
Step 2: Is degrowth urgent?
“There are billions of people still seeking to rise out of poverty [and] we owe it to them to make this possible.” Now, explain to me how affluent consumers in rich countries getting SUVs, updating their smartphones every year, or more generally earning more money is going to help them? Fact: it won’t because it does precisely the opposite.
We’ve long known that that the bulk of environmental pressures is exerted by the richest (e.g., the top 10% generates around half of all emissions), and that the degradation they cause harms the poor first and hardest (e.g., this is one of the key messages of the latest IPCC report). But now, we also know that high-footprint lifestyles in rich regions of the world directly deprive poorer countries of their resources (that’s the theory of unequal exchange: 1, 2, 3). This is why degrowth targets high-income nations; it’s not a universal recipe, but rather a macroeconomic diet for these few nations and classes who live above their sustainable means.
I can hear many of you saying: yes, but these countries who sell resources get money for it, which helps them to develop. But here is the disturbing paradox of global capitalism: even money flows upward the wealth distribution. Powerful nations make everything they can to keep Southern prices low as to be able to import cheaply (think of the cheap labour used to manufacture our smartphones). And they also make everything they call to keep Northern prices high in order to sell dearly (over-priced medicine is a good example). As a result, for every unit of labour that the South imports from the North, they have to export thirteen units to pay for it. Overtime, this means international trade makes the least powerful countries poorer, and not the opposite.
Add to that the repayment of debts and you get yourself a perfect loot. Between 1973 and 1993, the global South debt grew from $100 billion to $1.5 trillion, out of which only $400 billion was actually borrowed money, the rest being cumulated interest. Calling the accumulation of wealth in the North “growth” is maliciously misleading. In reality, it is closer to an economic raid.
What humanity needs is not growth, but rather a more equitable sharing of wealth in all the forms it takes, including nature. Acknowledging that North America and Europe are responsible for half of all emissions since 1850, and that the remaining carbon budget is rather small (11 years at current levels of emissions), would it not make more sense to preserve as much of this budget as possible for those who would benefit the most from using it? Said differently, do we prefer to burn our last barrels of oil to upgrade Western cars to SUVs or to build solar panels, water pipes, and hospitals in the global South?
This logic applies to all natural resources. Wealthy consumers eat more steaks, take more planes, build more houses, etc. but at the expense of less biodiversity, water, and food sovereignty in countries who must deforest to supply the global North with cheap feedstock, less climate stability, and less minerals available to build renewable energy infrastructure. In a world in ecological overshoot, too-much somewhere systematically means not-enough elsewhere.
Step 3: Is degrowth desirable?
For Adam Lee, degrowth is a “cramped, pessimistic vision of the future.” It brings visions of scarcity, hardship, and sacrifice. I understand how one may, at first sight, perceive degrowth as such, but what I will try to show is that the very same process the author fears could also be celebrated.
Just so readers don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not implying that degrowth is going to be all joy and giggles. Adapting to a life without fossil fuels will demand radical lifestyle changes, and the dangers to avoid on the way are manifold (unemployment, austerity politics, inequality, authoritarian populism, etc.). But there is a silver lining: What if producing and consuming less was a means to liberate time and energy for other, more meaningful pursuits?
Imagine if all the people currently working bullshit jobs, making ads, selling cars, and speculating on financial markets were suddenly free to do whatever they wanted? For my part, I see degrowth as an opportunity to recentre our economies on what really matters (so very much in the spirit of eco-socialism, wellbeing economy, and buen vivir). Today, we ‘invest’ in companies, cryptocurrencies, and real estate hoping we’ll make a profit out of it. But what about investing in more sleep, in quality relationships, or in a thriving nature? This may mean a smaller GDP, but it sounds like a better society.
“We might have to get rid of our cars and rely on mass transit.” Would you even need a car if you were working closer from home, if you could easily ride a bike to work, if your kids could safely go to school in a walking bus, or if you had access to high-quality public transports?
“We might all have to move into small apartments, abandoning suburban houses with big backyards.” Who would need a suburban backyard in a city scattered with community gardens, food forests, and public parks? Would you miss living alone in a large suburban mansion in a world with merry co-living and co-housing arrangements?
“No more coffee or bananas or strawberries in winter.” Would you regret your tasteless frappuccino in a world where your edible garden alone contains a dozen different herbal teas? Would you really miss your banana after rediscovering thousand different varieties of apples? Would you even want to eat strawberries in Winter after discovering the thrills of seasonal eating?
At this point, it is perhaps tempting to brush away these utopian depictions of life after capitalism. I don’t care, one may say, I just want my car, my mansion, and my fucking strawberries. But not that fast. Here comes the reminder of what we previously discussed: this is not really a choice. I mean, it is a choice, but one with heavy consequences. Are we willing to risk the collapse of planetary ecosystems for exotic smoothies and sport cars? I prefer to think about it this way: the joys of voluntary simplicity and shared conviviality can be the silver lining of a well-planned transition to a smaller economy, even though it should not detract from the fact that degrowth is necessary and urgent.
Degrowth might be wrong, but it will take more than a two-page mumble to convince me that it is. Why degrowth is wrong is the archetypical degrowth hit-and-run. No references, no numbers, no theories, no definitions – just one opinion served raw. If it convinced me of anything, it is that those who want to criticise degrowth really need to up their game. There is much to criticise, and I do a fair share of it myself, but this shallow pestering is not moving the discussion forward.
A few readings to go further:
What is degrowth?
What is degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social movement, 2013
Introduction to Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, 2015
Degrowth (2021) and Degrowth (2020)
On why degrowth is desirable
Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it, 2014
Demystifying degrowth, 2021
Commoning Care, 2021
Imaginaries of hope: the utopianism of degrowth, 2015
On why degrowth is urgent
The anti-colonial politics of degrowth, 2021
How to achieve full decolonization, 2021
The imperial mode of living and the limits to environmental governance, 2013
Teaser photo credit: Wikimedia Commons