What if…we took degrowth seriously?

Ditching planet-popping expansion for justice is a vision worth getting behind, says Dinyar Godrej.

Illustration by Andy Carter

Continual cumulative growth is the central hegemonic pillar of mainstream economics. Growth – an accelerating frenzy of material production and economic activities – is seen as the only guarantor of security and abundance for all. It actually achieves the reverse.

Capitalism’s organizing principle is put with elegant simplicity by economic anthropologist Jason Hickel thus: ‘Take more than you give back.’ Growth is all about this accumulation, the creation of massive surplus by devaluing the material resources of our planet and the labour of the very many – for it to be captured by the very few. Today the richest one per cent grabs nearly a quarter of all income and owns half of all wealth.

The growth dogma is also an ecological disaster – and eventually a physical impossibility. We are overshooting ecological limits year on year currently at nearly twice the level of sustainable material extraction.

But the alternative – degrowth – is considered the kiss of death at the polls by politicians Right and Left. It has been portrayed as bringing the horrors of continual recession, austerity and joblessness. But, if we took it seriously, we would have a world to win. Degrowth means reorienting our world to live within ecological limits. The starting point is to view the natural world as essential rather than an ‘other’ to be colonized and plundered.

Next, we would need to rebalance the use of ecological space and resources. Poorer nations, where inhabitants reach just a quarter of their annual per capita material boundary, would be given space to expand and develop. Those in high-income nations – who exceed their per capita share by nearly four times – would need to shift to a culture of sharing rather than acquisition.

The focus, across the world, would need to shift back from increasing private ownership and accumulation, which only serves the few, to a return to ‘commoning’ via initiatives such as: a guaranteed basic income, social housing, public services, public spaces, public resources that would be shared and knit communities together. Neighbourhoods could share the things not everyone needs to own, easing the atomization in today’s late capitalist set-up, which spurs neurotic overconsumption.

Enacted degrowth policy would end extreme private wealth, and politicians would have to tackle what they usually shy away from – fair distribution.

In material terms we would seek to eliminate food waste. Saving just a quarter of all food lost or wasted would be enough to feed all the world’s undernourished people. Appliances would have to be built to last – imagine a smartphone for life! – and be repairable.

Ecologically destructive industries would be scaled down, while planet-friendly activities like public healthcare and regenerative agriculture would be scaled up.

Governments would ditch GDP, which includes all kinds of damaging economic activity, as a measure of human progress and focus on justice and welfare instead. The economy would be directed towards social objectives rather than insane capital accumulation. The government-corporate love-in would end.

The withering of consumer society would be accompanied by a realization that current levels of overproduction of material things just aren’t necessary. Work would be shared out in terms of what’s required, not to create profits for the few. Care work would be recognized as essential to the social economy and appropriately compensated. Leisure time would increase, which would build bonds of family and community.

The fair-shares worldview would also change economic relations between nations, dismantling the current system of continuing economic colonization by the rich West through unfair trade arrangements that devalue the labour and resources of poorer nations.

Capitalism pursues growth relentlessly, because it is premised on scarcity, there never being enough for everyone. Degrowth paradoxically offers a vision of abundance and justice for all, if we learn to live modestly, and would lead to our flourishing in a world where everyone’s needs were met and we regain a deep connection with the natural world.

How to get past the ‘it will never happen’ stage? It’s time to start talking and demystify degrowth, building up public awareness. Surveys routinely show that people are fed up with capitalism and anxious about ecological issues. It’s time we said: ‘There are answers.’