Almost 7 years have passed since I wrote my first article on Degrowth. Back then, I could not have imagined how popular Degrowth would become. I remember searching for videos on YouTube and media articles about Degrowth, and there were only a few. Nowadays, there are promising developments that indicate Degrowth is gaining political momentum (e.g. Professor Jason Hickel spoke at the Dutch parliament about Degrowth, the President of Ireland criticized the excessive focus on economic growth, the Beyond Growth 2023 Conference is organized by 20 Members of the European Parliament). While there is still much ground to cover in terms of political acceptance, given the urgency of the climate crisis and social injustices, Degrowth presents itself as a promising vision for the future that we can strive for.
Degrowth is also becoming more explicit, suggesting policy proposals and instruments that could serve as a starting point for envisioning and implementing concrete measures that align with the principles of Degrowth (eg. An Open Letter is published across Europe including a comprehensive set of policy proposals, along with suggested policy instruments, aimed at achieving a just, inclusive, sustainable, and democratic transition beyond growth). These could provide practical guidelines for policy-makers and stakeholders to navigate the complex process of transitioning. Nevertheless, it is important to note that these proposals and instruments are not prescriptive or definitive. They should be considered as a basis for further discussions, adaptations, and improvements as they could be context specific. At least in my view, Degrowth opens spaces for critical thinking, dialogue and collaboration among various actors to refine and develop strategies for achieving a sustainable and equitable future beyond growth.
In this piece, I have chosen to address the legitimate concerns that many people have regarding the financial feasibility of implementing such policies. I do recognise that this cannot be fully addressed in a few paragraphs. Nevertheless, I will try to inspire the reader to think a bit more critically about this issue.
Considering typical economic policy-making, one potential solution is to finance such policies through public investments. Instead of allocating resources towards mitigating socio-ecological problems, governments can redirect funds to prevent these issues and promote socio-ecological benefits. Wealth redistribution also plays a critical role, which can be facilitated through measures such as wealth taxation or taxing socio-ecologically destructive economic activities. However, it is important to consider the potential consequences of taxing socio-ecologically destructive activities. In some cases, it may lead to increased inequalities, as those who can afford to pay may continue supporting these activities as producers or consumers. In my opinion, a more suitable approach might be a combination of different financial interventions. For example, particularly harmful activities (e.g. fossil fuels) could be banned in addition to implementing a wealth tax to address the historically created socio-ecological problems resulting from these activities.
There are two common arguments against these interventions that I hear a lot. The first argument suggests that private capital investments might flow to other countries with less stringent regulations and higher profit margins. Politicians argue that these private capital investments are necessary to create jobs, production, consumption, profits, taxes, and debt repayment. Hence, a more favorable economic environment is required to “keep the economy competitive”. Otherwise, if there is no strong international cooperation to prevent capital flight, “the economy of a country would be at risk”. The second argument posits that international industries and corporations are the primary drivers of innovation and efficient use of resources. Again, a more favorable economic environment is preferable.
I think both arguments could make sense in the context of increased privatization of essential public goods and resources. However, the pandemic has shown that market competition is neither effective nor efficient for the public well-being. I can also draw from recent experiences in Greece related to the privatization of the energy sector or railway services, which have dramatically failed to deliver on what was promised. Interestingly, the work of Mariana Mazzucato in “The Entrepreneurial State” demonstrates that states often provide essential infrastructure and resources either for free or at minimal cost, thereby subsidizing and fostering innovations and technological advancements utilized by businesses. Hence, these narratives that support the need for private capital investments for economic stability and “progress” could be challenged empirically.
But let’s assume that financial liquidity is indeed the issue. Another potential solution could involve the creation of new money (Modern Monetary Theory), particularly when investing in supportive schemes such as Universal Basic Services (UBS) and the Job Guarantee. This approach need not necessarily lead to inflation, especially in situations of high unemployment and unmet basic needs. Moreover, money can be withdrawn from circulation through taxation. It is important to note, however, that within the European Union, member states do not have the freedom to utilize their monetary policy in this manner. Nevertheless, during the 2008-2009 crisis, there was an increase in the usage of alternative local currencies, which served as a temporary solution to the liquidity problem. It was not perfect nor ideal, yet it was feasible.
Moreover, delving into the history of colonialism, the enclosure of commons and the structural adjustment programmes might help us better understand the underlying dynamics of a growth dependent system that is relying on enhanced commodification and privatization, value extraction and profit accumulation. While a detailed exploration of these topics is beyond the scope of this discussion, it is worth noting that these underlying dynamics have historically favored a few individuals or groups at the expense of others. Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, for example, demonstrates that wealth accumulation tends to exacerbate inequality rather than reducing it. So, the narrative of pursuing economic growth to provide social services or address inequalities, for example, can still be challenged.
It is also crucial to recognize the disparities between exchange value and the actual value of labor, resources, and social contributions. There is a common tendency within mainstream economics to place excessive emphasis on prices as the ultimate mechanism for efficiently allocating limited resources. Even when market failures are acknowledged, proposed solutions still tend to be market-based. Take, for instance, the economic valuation of ecosystem services. However, prices represent exchange values, which are determined in markets through the complex interplay of demand and supply. These prices are often influenced by media, advertising, and marketing schemes. As a result, they do not necessarily reflect the true value of labor, reproductive work, community work, energy, natural resources utilized, and the resulting waste generated during the production process. This realization can be beneficial to reconsider what truly constitutes the productive foundation of economic activities and reflect on the capacity of people to mobilize and allocate resources with the aim of enhancing well-being and planetary health rather than solely pursuing profits.
In line with this, there are numerous socio-economic processes that actively support both the economic system and people’s livelihoods (i.e. the diverse economies or community economies as introduced by J.K. Gibson-Graham). By recognizing the value of decommodifying our lives and acknowledging the essential human and non-human work, both paid and unpaid, involved in meeting social and material needs, we can realize that our dependence on economic growth, as defined by mainstream economics, may not be necessary. This is because we already possess the productive capacity and resources (at least collectively) to produce and provide for Universal Basic Services, Universal Care Income or Job Guarantee, for instance. Instead, the focus may shift towards ecological limitations, and collective, democratic decision-making ought to determine which products and services are to be produced or discontinued, along with the supportive mechanisms needed to facilitate this transition.
In my opinion, the implementation of such policies is not solely a matter of feasibility but a matter of political willingness. It requires a political willingness as a society and members of a community to acknowledge that the privileges we may have grown accustomed to should not persist as they come at the cost of social justice and the well-being of the planet.
A participatory, social and solidarity economy may hold great relevance in fostering this transformation and willingness mobilization. A deeper culture of democracy, participation, sharing and caring could be cultivated through our everyday socio-economic, socio-ecological and relational practices to build alternative “common senses” (D’Alisa & Kallis, 2020) of being and becoming in common within a finite planet.
Trying to see my place in this, more and more, I realize that it is essential to create spaces of interactions and skills sharing where critical thinking is increased, people become more empowered, emancipated and alliances are possible to emerge. I would like to imagine communities using more participatory instruments on decision making in different levels and topics. On the one hand, it might be needed to advocate for tools and processes for democratic planning to become the norm to challenge the democratic deficit of representative democracy and, on the other hand, regularly reflect on the knowledge, the access and the ability of diverse people to use them in order to challenge structural inequalities that hinder their participation in the first place.
Nevertheless, we should not forget that, as it was noted by Corinna Dengler during the fourth focus panel of the Beyond Growth Conference “Unlocking a just and sustainable economy through Universal Basic Services”, “in order to really push for a global justice agenda we need to tackle neocolonialism and patriarchal structures that underlie the European Union and international corporations and financial institutions.” Extractive practices and forced dependencies between the Global North and the Global South should be radically challenged. That may require the mobilization and networking of the civil society (Hickel, 2021) and the democratization of the current international institutions (Hickel et al., 2021). To draw upon Doreen Massey’s (2004) work on geographies of collective responsibility, it is essential to promote collaborative efforts and foster shared accountability in order to address these complex issues (Massey, 2004).
Teaser photo credit: The European Citizens’ Initiative for Basic Income in the streets of Luxembourg. L’initiative européenne pour le revenu de base dans les rues de Luxembourg. basicincome2013.eu/. By Revenu de base – https://www.flickr.com/photos/revenudebase/10099425226/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128769179