On May 18th, 2023, The Economist ran a piece titled “Meet the lefty Europeans who want to deliberately shrink the economy,” commenting on the Beyond Growth conference organised in the European Parliament on 15-17th May. There is nothing remarkable about this article. It’s one of these superficial anti-degrowth boohoos one (too) often finds in dominant media.[i] The fact that the author (Stanley Pignal) doesn’t even manage to spell the word correctly (it’s degrowth, not de-growth) says it all about how much effort has been put into researching the subject.
“For what is Europe, if not a post-growth continent already?”, the author writes, before hailing Italy as a post-growth utopia. Classic mistake. In reality, degrowth differs fundamentally from a recession. A recession is a reduction in GDP, one that happens accidently, often with undesirable social outcomes like unemployment, austerity, and poverty. Degrowth, on the other hand, is a planned, selective and equitable downscaling of economic activities. Recession: unplanned and unwanted. Degrowth: designed and desired. Associating degrowth with a recession just because the two involve a reduction of GDP is absurd; it would be like arguing that an amputation and a diet are the very same thing just because they both lead to weight loss.
The piece conflates “degrowth” and “post-growth” without ever defining the terms. In the literature, degrowth describes a temporary downscaling of production and consumption, planned democratically to reduce environmental pressures in a way that is equitable and for the sake of improving wellbeing. Post-growth, on the other hand, refers to a broader family of growth-sceptical ideas, ranging from critiques of GDP and pleas for wellbeing economies to more radical alternatives to capitalism. In Ralentir ou périr. L’économie de la décroissance (Slow down or perish. The economics of degrowth), I differentiate between degrowth (the transition) and post-growth (the destination). I also like to speak of degrowth towards a sustainable steady-state, a reduction leading to a stabilisation of economic output at a level compatible with the carrying capacity of ecosystems.
The piece is full of misconceptions and many of them could have been avoided by actually listening to the conference. No, economic growth is not solely made of “human ingenuity.” No, the degrowth policies and planning discussed in the growth-critical literature are not the same as “the more stringent policies of the early Soviet era.” And no, small reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are not enough to make growth sustainable.
“Already, its [Europe] emissions are coming down even as the economy is growing.” The main message of my presentation on the impossibility of green growth was that this view is simplistic. To make economic growth truly sustainable, we need to (1) absolutely decouple production and consumption (relative decoupling is not enough) (2) from all environmental pressures (not only carbon) (3) wherever these happen (taking into account imported impacts) (4) at a pace that is sufficiently fast to avoid ecological collapse (taking into account science-based targets in line with equity) (5) and we need to maintain that decoupling over time (as to avoid recoupling). This genuinely green growth has never been achieved anywhere on Earth and I haven’t seen any convincing evidence showing that it could (see Decoupling in the IPCC AR6 WGIII).
I did call the green growth discourse a “a macroeconomic form of greenwashing” and this article is a perfect example of that. Just like the typical business greenwashing (e.g., KLM online bragging about “taking steps to reduce environmental impact on flights by recycling coffee cans and pads” as a way to achieve “a more sustainable future for the aviation industry”), pointing to insignificant decrease of one single environmental indicator and calling it “green growth” is deceptive. Don’t worry, everything is going to be okay, “economics may take us to net zero all on its own,” titles an article in the Financial Times. The waiting-for-decoupling story has turned into a dangerous discourse of climate delay that justifies inaction or inadequate efforts. As ecosystems crack at a historically unprecedented speed (see the presentation from Johan Rockström), we are losing precious time arguing that maybe, one day, perhaps, if-this-if-that, decoupling could happen. In the meantime, we are merely tinkering with a system that should be radically transformed.
This is especially true since part of these cuts in emissions can be explained by an economic slowdown. This is paradoxical: we are expecting faster economic growth to accelerate decoupling even though a large portion of historically achieved decoupling has happened because of slower growth. One thing is sure: GDP growth makes it harder to reduce emissions compared to a no-growth or negative growth scenario. The opposition between “investing in green technologies” and degrowth is missing the point entirely. Today, in all countries (even the handful that have managed to slightly reduce their carbon emissions), producing and consuming more makes it more difficult to reduce ecological footprints. This is true for emissions and it’s even truer for other environmental pressures who are more intensely coupled with GDP.
Whatever technology we have, it is easier and faster to reduce ecological footprints in a situation where levels of production and consumption decrease (hence the importance given to sufficiency in the last IPCC report). If eco-innovation speeds up, great, it means we’ll reduce environmental pressures even faster. This being said, it feels irresponsibly foolish to bet our future on a highly improbable miracle. Indeed, as I showed in my presentation, the speed of emission-reducing technological change necessary to achieve Fit for 55 (-55% of 1990 levels of European territorial emissions by 2030) is historically unprecedented by several orders magnitude.
Either you can show that high-income nations can keep growing while falling back within planetary boundaries (that’s the green growth position), or you must accept that a certain downscaling of economic activities will be necessary (that’s the degrowth position). Tweeting raw graphs showing that a few countries have reduced greenhouse gas emissions is far from closing the case (see, for example, A response to Paul Krugman: Growth is not as green as you might think).
This publication by The Economist is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the dominant economic culture. A 5000-people, 3-day conference whose very purpose is to find solutions to the ecological crisis is dismissed in a few paragraphs as a “pretty whacky” “growth-as-the-root-of-all-problems jamboree” among a “cast of minor academics.”[ii]This is exactly the toxic, territorial attitude economists gave to The Limits to Growth back in 1972: if you’re not a (mainstream) economist, just shut up. This contemptuous superiority of economists explains why the discipline jumps from one failure of collective imagination to the other, from a blindness to financial crises to the promotion of supposed-to-be-good-for-growth austerity, and soon to the biggest screw up of all: making it sound optimal to let the planet burn. The lack of critical introspection explains why swathes of economics has become so scientifically worthless. This article perpetuates this counter-productive bashing of alternatives. At a time where plan B are precisely what we lack, this mentality is tragically uneconomical.
[i] There are exceptions though. A few examples of good coverage of the topic: The Guardian, CNN, Al Jazeera, Reuters, The Nation, Scientific American, New York Times, Popular Science, BBC, Foreign Policy, Vox, New Yorker, Vice, or Bloomberg.
[ii] Speakers included Joseph Stiglitz, Vandana Shiva, Johan Rockström, Kate Raworth, Raj Patel, Yamina Saheb, Gaël Giraud, Ann Pettifor, Lucas Chancel, Anna Coote, Michael Braungart, Julia Steinberger, Dominique Meda, Robert Costanza, Daniela Gabor, Jason Hickel, Tim Jackson, among many others.
Teaser photo credit: Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash