What Does Degrowth Look Like?

What would “degrowth” look like and why is it needed?  At the Degrowth conference in Montreal in May, Josh Farley, an ecological economist at the Gund Institute in Vermont, gave a brisk overview of the problems with our current debt-driven growth economy -- and the feasible alternatives -- in a seventeen-minute video.  Farley and eight other co-authors give a more detailed critique in a paper that they presented, “Monetary and Fiscal Policies for a Finite Planet."

Normally, I prefer to read a paper than to watch a video summary.  But in this case, Farley is so compelling that I found it a pleasure to watch him deconstruct the conceptual errors of mainstream economic thinking and GDP.  One fact that he cited really jumped out at me -- in 1969 U.S. per capita consumption as measured by GDP was only half of current levels -- and yet Americans were just as happy if not happier than they are now.  Indeed, since 1969, there have been many declining metrics of health and happiness, such as greater obesity, infant mortality, etc. 

For those dead-enders who insist that economic growth is a prerequisite to solving any of our social problems, it’s worth pausing on this fact -- that Americans were in fact once healthier and happier despite consuming at half of contemporary rates.  This proves that it is not utopian to think that we could lower our consumption and still be happy.  It’s an historical fact!

Farley would like to conduct a more systematic study of how we might return to such a society.  He calls his proposed research project “QOL 350,” which stands for the quality of life (QOL) that could be sustained at energy consumption levels not exceeding atmospheric concentrations of 350 ppm of carbon – the level that scientists say is needed to prevent climate change.  A vital element of any QOL 350 vision, Farley says in his video, is to ensure greater fairness in economic distribution and to create institutions that encourage cooperative action.

Here’s the abstract for the paper Josh Farley and his co-authors submitted at the Degrowth conference:

Our current interest bearing, debt-based system of money creation exacerbates booms and busts, systematically transfers wealth and resources to the financial sector.  Since interest rates exceed economic growth rates, this monetary system would be unsustainable even on an infinite planet, and it can only finance the creation of market goods and services. We must restore the power of money creation to the public sector, with built in mechanisms for reducing money supply over time as the economy contracts.  This will allow the public sector to spend money as needed for public goods, including the restoration of natural capital, without going into debt.

This paper assumes the necessity of a steady-state economy. A steady-state economy must follow clear rules:  renewable resource extraction cannot exceed the regeneration rate, pollution outflows cannot exceed absorption capacity, neither extraction nor pollution can threaten essential ecosystem functions, and essential non-renewable resources cannot be depleted faster than we develop substitutes.  Currently, levels of throughput exceed all these rules.  De-growth, defined as decreasing levels of throughput, is therefore an essential first step towards a steady-state economy.

To read other papers presented at the May 2012 Degrowth conference in Montreal, visit this webpage

Degrowth is frequently misunderstood, so it is worth reviewing a short piece that Yves-Marie Abraham wrote to clarify the meaning of degrowth as a economic vision.

  • This [degrowth] is not an economic depression, nor a recession, but a decline in the importance of the economy itself in our lives and our societies.
  • This is not the decline of GDP, but the end of GDP and all other quantitative measures used as indicators of well being.
  • This is not a decline in population size, but a questioning of humanity's self-destructive lifestyle.
  • This is not a step backwards, but an invitation to step aside, out of the race in pursuit of excessiveness.
  • This is not nostalgia for some golden age, but an unprecedented project to invent creative ways of living together.
  • This is not degrowth imposed by the depletion of the biosphere's resources, but a voluntary degrowth, to live better here and now, preserving the conditions necessary for the long-term survival of humanity.
  • This is not an end in itself, but a necessary step in the search for models depicting free societies, liberated from the dogma of growth.
  • This is not a project of voluntary deprivation and impoverishment, but an attempt to find a “better life,” based on simplicity, restraint, and sharing.
  • This is not “sustainable development,” but a rejection of capitalism, no matter if it is “green” or “socially just,” and no matter if it has State-run or private enterprises.
  • This is not ecofascism, but a call for a democratic revolution to end our productivist-consumerist model of society.
  • This is not voluntary simplicity, but a revolutionary political project that implies the adoption of the principles of voluntary simplicity on the individual level.
  • This is not is not an "anti-modern" movement, but a "neo-modern" movement, based on respect for the values of freedom and equality.

In summary, degrowth is a call for a radical break from traditional growth-based models of society, no matter if these models are "left" or "right", to invent new ways of living together in a true democracy, respectful of the values of equality and freedom, based on sharing and cooperation, and with sufficiently moderate consumption so as to be sustainable.