Economy featured

It’s getting to look a lot like degrowth: Part 2

April 24, 2023

  • The end of fossil fuels is inevitable.
  • Humanity is in overshoot: we are consuming far more resources than the planet is capable of replenishing.
  • This overconsumption is quite unevenly distributed. High income nations are reportedly responsible for 74% of the excess material consumption occurring today.
  • Alternative energy sources can compensate for some of the energy fossil fuels have supplied for the last 100 years, but not all.
  • Consequently, energy availability in a post-carbon future will be significantly less than energy availability today.
  • Degrowth requires scaling down the material and energy throughput of the global economy, focusing on the source of the problem: high-income nations with high levels of per capita consumption.
  • Advocates believe degrowth can be achieved voluntarily, by reducing waste and shrinking sectors of economic activity that are ecologically destructive or offer little or no social benefit.
  • Voluntary degrowth will require a series of radical and integrated policy reforms to soften the impact of economic disruptions on vulnerable populations.
  • Voluntary reductions in economic throughput are likely to produce significant declines in national and global GDP.
  • If degrowth is not achieved voluntarily, it will happen involuntarily.

Given our fixation on perpetual economic growth, is voluntary degrowth even a possibility?

  • Legislate extended warranties on products, so that goods like washing machines and refrigerators last for 30 years instead of ten.
  • Ban planned obsolescence and pass “right to repair” laws so that products can be fixed cheaply and without proprietary parts.
  • Legislate reductions in food waste.
  • Ban single-use plastics and disposable coffee cups.
  • Enact a “fair share” wealth tax for high-income individuals.
  • Decrease the share of passenger car transport by 81% in Global North urban areas by 2050.
  • Reduce ground freight transport by 62%.
  • Limit per-person air travel to one trip per year by 2025 and one trip every three years by 2050.
  • Reduce living space per person by 25%.
  • Reduce the average number of appliances in Global North homes by 50%.
  • Decrease meat consumption in rich nations by 60% by 2030.
  • Reduce overall calorie consumption per person in the Global North by 24% by reducing food waste and encouraging healthier diets.
  • Severely limit advertising and marketing to reduce pressures for material consumption.
  • End subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
  • Government-directed scaling down of industries deemed ecologically destructive or lacking in social value (including, in one author’s words, “the production of SUVs, arms, beef, private transportation, advertising and planned obsolescence”).
  • Government-directed rationing programs to curtail consumption of unsustainable resources and redirect consumption to more sustainable alternatives.
  • Massive job retraining programs to channel laid-off workers into more sustainable jobs and careers.
  • A shorter work week with full “living wage” compensation to maintain employment levels in the face of shrinking production in scaled-down economic sectors.
  • A universal basic income program to sustain workers during periods of unemployment and job transition.
  • Much more progressive and aggressive tax systems to reduce income inequality and share national and international income more fairly. Significant increases in taxes on wealth, carbon, land use, resource extraction, and corporate profits.
  • A major expansion of public goods and services such as healthcare, education, transportation, and housing, to bring these resources more fully into the public domain, freeing them from access-control by private, profit-driven gatekeepers (i.e., corporations).

Voluntary degrowth, I fear, is beyond our leaders’ capacity to imagine and beyond our society’s capacity to implement.


  1. According to Wikipedia, a kludge is “a workaround or quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, difficult to extend and hard to maintain.” An apt description of the “overshoot factor” in these IPCC climate models.
  2. This last task (reducing CO2 emissions by 5-10% per year) needs to be considered in light of what happened during 2020, the worst year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that year, we shut down just about everything: schools, retail businesses, commuting, business travel, social gatherings, family vacations, etc. Yet, in what was essentially the biggest voluntary shutdown of global economic activity since the invention of the steam engine, we only managed to reduce our CO2 emissions by 4.6% (source). That’s less than what we need to do, every year, for the next couple of decades. You can draw your own conclusions.


Image generated by DALL-E2, “ants panicking on a log, floating toward a waterfall”. 

Steve Genco

Steve is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019) & Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013). He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University.

Tags: building resilient societies, degrowth perspectives, powering down