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Degrowth in a Green-Growth World

March 21, 2023

I’m having an ongoing conversation with a friend about the merits and drawbacks of degrowth as a climate action strategy. She is easily the most astute climate thinker I know, with insights available only to those deeply immersed in the nuances of climate finance and decarbonization. She’s wary of the degrowth movement, as are many prominent players in the climate transition. She views it as an unhelpful distraction from humanity’s efforts to grapple with the climate crisis.

My friend’s problem lies more with degrowth as an action plan on climate than it does with degrowth’s theoretical underpinnings. Degrowth runs perpendicular to the current, hard-won momentum of the global climate response. It critiques the only consensus solution available today: the decarbonization of the global economy through a “green growth” renewable energy revolution. For green growthers, degrowth is an impractical diversion. It’s like an annoying heckler best relegated to the sidelines of climate strategy.

Degrowth’s foundational opposition to continued economic expansion presents a clear challenge to coalition-building on climate. But degrowth is grounded in the ecological reality that resources are finite, a key truth that mainstream climate advocates seem to ignore. Integration of this and other ecological insights into climate dialogue and action is crucial for shifting the needle toward a more holistic, structural response to emerging environmental collapse. Here I make the case for degrowth and green growth as crisis response strategies, then explore the potential for a productive interlocution between the two.

drawing of a snail

The snail, symbol of the degrowth movement (CC0 1.0 Public Domain)

A Case for Degrowth

The degrowth movement embraces the inconvenient truth that climate change is only one of several macro-scale challenges unfolding on the planet today. The most striking examples are today’s rapidly advancing ecological overshoot, whereby renewable resources are used faster than they are regenerated by nature, along with the sixth mass extinction. Existential crises like these are the direct result of human economic activity.

Today, humans and their livestock account for 96% of mammalian biomass, and wild animals make up only 4%. Half of the earth’s habitable land has been converted to agricultural use. We use more water, forests, soil, and other biological resources than the earth can naturally replenish, creating scarcity for future generations of humans, not to mention our fellow species. These concerns extend well beyond carbon emissions and require aggressive action in step with initiatives to address the climate crisis.

Today’s global polycrises are fundamentally intertwined, which means that we would be unwise to prioritize decarbonization over the restoration of ecological integrity, or vice versa. A whole-systems approach like degrowth recognizes the need to overhaul simultaneously our carbon-intensive energy infrastructure and the materials-intensive consumer economy it supports. Degrowth calls for structural reforms that decarbonize the economy and decrease its material intensity, while bolstering human wellbeing and democracy.

Green Growth: A Temporary Assist?

In contrast to the comprehensive ecological vision of degrowth, green growth’s scope of action is environmentally narrow. Green growth is an economic strategy as well as a political slogan whose very name demonstrates an obliviousness to the causal relationship between economic growth and environmental destruction. It heralds a sort of promised land in which humanity overcomes climate change through aggressive adoption of low-carbon energy technologies, creating enormous wealth along the way.

stylized bar graph, in green, depicting economic growth

The greenest thing about “green growth” is its signage. (CC0 1.0 Public Domain)

It is a rhetorical narrative that connotes profitable, market-based decarbonization and minimal institutional disruption. Crucially, green growth punts on issues of ecological overshoot and global resource inequity, with decarbonization as the only approach to protecting the environment. Green growth advocates treat any ecological side effects of green-growth policies, whether positive or negative, as secondary or incidental.

To give them their due, economic and political actors have used the widespread appeal of green growth to mobilize markets and governments worldwide toward the IPCC’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Despite their flaws, capitalism and democracy are powerful tools for collective action, and green growth engages these institutions at the level of their key interests: profit and popularity. It’s hard to imagine where climate action would be without the use of these important levers.

An Argument for Green Growth

Another strength of green growth is its presumed ease of implementation. Whatever view we hold of the value of capital-backed tech solutions, most people view them as more feasible in the short term than large-scale behavior change or structural reform. Bill McKibben, once an outspoken proponent of a growth-critical climate response, recently made a tactical shift on this question on The Ezra Klein Show:

“The physics of climate change enforces a certain brute reality in one’s set of solutions. And the timing question is the single biggest enforcer of that reality. We have to make very, very rapid change. And so changes in basic human desires or even changes in the physical setup of our world around us come, if they come at all, more slowly.

I think in 100 years, it’s unlikely human beings will be amusing themselves by consuming immense amounts of stuff. I think we’re likely to have moved beyond that. But in seven years, I doubt it. I think for the moment, we’re stuck with things like the suburb, where I grew up, and the physical limits that it enforces on us, which means lots of people driving cars. So we better figure out how to make electric cars work, at least for now. And we better do it very quickly…”

This conversation helped me, begrudgingly, to view green growth as a vehicle that can help us outpace the disaster nipping at our heels. But several factors prevent me from a wholesale embrace of green growth.

The Limits to (Green) Growth

First, it is very unclear whether green growth can actually deliver all the climate progress it promises, given the rising energy demands built into growth. In 2018, the IPCC released a report modeling pathways to net-zero “under a range of  assumptions about economic growth, technology development and lifestyles.” Pathways to net-zero that assumed business-as-usual economic growth rely heavily on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), of which the IPCC had this to say:

“CDR deployed at scale is unproven, and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. CDR is needed less in pathways with particularly strong emphasis on energy efficiency and low demand.”

In other words, a key tool in the green growth toolbox is yet to be verified as effective.

Beyond the unknown effectiveness of CDR schemes are its side effects. One type of CDR, known as BECCS, for “bio-energy with carbon capture and storage,” could involve converting massive amounts of land to monoculture tree plantations. It is projected to result in a 10% loss in global forest cover and 7% loss in biodiversity. Just what we need!

In a green-growth world, we trade forests for plantations. (CC BY-SA-NC 3.0 by Herzi Pinki)

Furthermore, in relying so heavily on the market, green growth situates opaque financial entities like BlackRock and other asset-management firms at the vanguard of the climate response. These companies are patently more concerned with short-term profits than with climate-change mitigation. Aside from a naive faith that the invisible hand of the market will lead to an optimal allocation of resources, what makes us think these titans of capitalist finance are willing to play by the rules? Finally, the zeitgeist of green growth undermines and ignores the potential for structural reforms to advance decarbonization. It is too mired in ideology to act in our best interests and attack climate change from all available angles.

With a generous vision, one can see how green growth might allow us to innovate our way out of the climate crisis, if kept on a tight leash. Green growthers argue that, once we’ve decarbonized, we can turn our attention to other ecological and social crises. But even in a best-case scenario, the resource demands of green growth will undoubtedly exacerbate environmental destruction and social inequality. Even if green growth could proceed without sacrificing ever more ecological integrity, the emerging collapse of planetary systems requires our intervention now, not in thirty years.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Herman Daly, the father of steady state economics, emphasized that steady-state policies should be politically salient within “historically-given initial conditions.” Our initial conditions are clear: The international community has essentially agreed to pursue, as its primary climate strategy, market-based decarbonization through investment in “green” technologies. This strategy would use as little structural reform as possible. In other words, we plan to curb emissions without curbing economic activity.

Given this tricky starting point, how might degrowth toward a steady state economy proceed? First, we need to recognize that degrowthers and green growthers are invested in the same outcome: a viable future for life on earth. We have different timelines and priorities, but we are all on the same team—and we can’t afford to proceed without dialogue and coordination. We need each other.

Moreover, we can look for the considerable areas of mutualism that exist between the two strategies. For example, 40% of all shipping traffic consists of transporting fossil fuels. A global switch to renewable energy across all economic sectors, from power generation to transportation, would eliminate almost all of that 40%, effectively de-growing the shipping sector. There are also, obviously, many decarbonization gains built into degrowth reforms.

It is therefore not unthinkable that a brief period of “green-growth decarbonization” could still serve as the beginning of a larger degrowth transformation toward a freer, more relational future. In this speculative article, Patrick Loftus envisions a degrowth transition that begins slowly, with market-based, green-growth strategies building out a foundation of low-carbon technologies. We would utilize these to support increasingly regenerative, no-growth communities as the crisis deepens and the limits to growth become more visibly and violently clear.

A Suggestion

I suggest that degrowth thought leaders shift at least in part from evangelizing a birds-eye, long-term view of degrowth and the steady-state future to identifying degrowth opportunities available within the given institutional framework. This approach would bring about incremental but substantial degrowth, providing proof of concept and laying the foundation for a larger transformation away from consumerism and growth dependence.

We should pick the low-hanging fruits first, those with high decarbonization potential and relatively low implementation barriers. One example has to do with the rollout of electric vehicles. As Bill McKibben argues, we need to invest aggressively in electric vehicle technology and make fossil-fuel transportation a thing of the past.

image of a downward leaning branch with low-hanging fruit

Low-hanging degrowth fruits are ripe for the picking. (CC BY-SA 2.0 by Karunakar Rayker)

At the same time, replacing the global vehicle fleet with electric vehicles on a 1:1 basis is unrealistic, unnecessary, and even imperialist. Consider, for example, the amount of lithium that would have to be mined throughout the global south to enable this “renewables-based re-boot” of western hyper-consumerism. A recent report from the Climate and Community Project offered this vital insight:

“As societies undertake the urgent and transformative task of building new, zero-emissions energy systems, some level of mining is necessary. But the volume of extraction is not a given. Neither is where mining takes place, who bears the social and environmental burdens, or how mining is governed.”

The authors outline several policies for achieving net-zero transportation emissions while minimizing environmental harm and fostering collective wellbeing, all while effectively de-growing the personal transportation sector. They advocate for an expansion of public transportation infrastructure—trains, buses, subways—to greatly reduce car dependency and, therefore, the amount of mining required to decarbonize. For example, expanding the American passenger train network to rival that of Europe would greatly reduce the emissions and material intensity associated with car and airplane travel. Such an intervention could result in degrowth at large and set a precedent for integrating structural reform into the mainstream climate response.

Incremental change can be tough to accept when you’re trying to prevent mass suffering and extinction, but as Herman Daly and Joshua Farley remind us, we must start “from where we are, even if the basic idea is not to remain there.”


Photo by Kay Dittner on Unsplash

Rosalie Bull

Rosalie Bull is CASSE’s Communications Assistant.

Tags: degrowth perspectives, green growth