May 31 2019

Calling Capitalism a BAD THING: Degrowth Movement to Save the Planet by Owning, Working Less

Calling Capitalism a BAD THING: The degrowth movement wants to intentionally shrink the economy to address climate change, and create…

Calling Capitalism a BAD THING: The degrowth movement wants to intentionally shrink the economy to address climate change, and create lives with less stuff, less work, and better well-being. But is it a utopian fantasy?

Activists, researchers, and policy makers are questioning the dogma of growth as good. This skepticism has led to the degrowth movement, which says the growth of the economy is inextricably tied to an increase in carbon emissions. It calls for a dramatic reduction in energy and material use, which would inevitably shrink GDP.

The Green New Deal, popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seeks to decrease carbon by growing the renewable energy industry. But the degrowth movement believes we need to take this further, by designing a social upheaval that disentangles the idea of progress and economic growth once and for all.

This new accounting of economic success would instead focus on access to public services, a shorter work week, and an increase in leisure time. Their approach, they say, will not only combat climate change, but free us from a workaholic culture in which so many struggle to make ends meet.

Today’s degrowth movement has its roots in France: In the early 2000s, University of Paris-Sud professor of economic anthropology Serge Latouche began to write passionately about décroissance in Le Monde Diplomatique.

The question was no longer if there was a limit to growth. The new question was much bigger: How can we self-impose a limit to growth when our entire economic and political structure is based on it? How do we organize a society that delivers high levels of human well-being in the context of a shrinking economy?

Degrowth is now a buzz word in left-leaning and academic circles around the world; its proponents are economists, environmentalists, democratic socialists, and activists, young and old. They see a post-growth world as a way to fundamentally change how we measure success and well-being, thereby addressing our growing financial and social inequalities while also saving the planet.

In 2018, 238 academics signed a letter published in the Guardian calling for a post-growth future to be taken seriously.

This is how degrowthers envision the process: After a reduction in material and energy consumption, which will constrict the economy, there should also be a redistribution of existing wealth, and a transition from a materialistic society to one in which the values are based on simpler lifestyles and unpaid work and activities.

Degrowth would ultimately mean we’d have less stuff: not as many people working and producing materials, so not as many brands at the grocery store, less fast fashion, and fewer cheap and disposable goods. Families would perhaps have one car instead of three, you’d take a train instead of a plane on your vacation.

Practically, this would also require an increase in free public services.

Some degrowthers also call for a universal income to compensate for a shorter work week.

Working less, making less money, and reducing material use likely will negatively impact most people’s quality of life unless society comes in to meet those needs.

Degrowth critics say that this is more of an ideology than a practical way forward – that shrinking the entire economy wouldn’t successfully get carbon levels down to zero, and that given the unequal income distribution that exists already, constricting the economy could rob those who need it the most of essentials like energy and food.

Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the political economy research institute there, said that while he shares many of the degrowth movement’s sentiments, he fundamentally disagrees that such a system could work, at least in the time we need it to.

Pollin said it’s true that reducing GDP would lower emissions, but not by much. Contracting the economy by 10 percent would reduce emissions by about 10 percent. Economically, that’s over two times worse than what happened during the Great Recession – in other words, high potential social risks for only a 10 percent CO2 reduction.

“If we take the climate science seriously, we only have a few decades to make huge progress,” Pollin said. “And whether I like it or not, we’re not going to overthrow capitalism in that time.”

Could America come around to degrowth? The most recent Yale Climate Survey found that more than half of Americans, including those in red states, agreed with the statement that environmental protection was more important than economic growth. (Emphasis added. Read More)