Envisioning a degrowth civilisation

By Jack Santa Barbara

People often ask what a degrowth civilisation would look like. The short answer is, I think, we don’t know. That is something we have to work out together.

We can start with what we do know at this point:

  1. The current human footprint is disrupting fundamental natural processes – the capacity of
    natural systems to regenerate and assimilate wastes; this is a terminal condition.
  2. The magnitude of this disruption is approximately twice what is a safe limit.
  3. We are daily making this worse with our use of fossil fuels and our growing material footprint.
  4. We risk irreversible ecosystem changes in the next decade or two.
  5. Stopping what we are doing that causes this damage (fossil energy use and material throughput at such a high level) is a necessary step - this is what degrowth is about.
  6. Another way of looking at this is that we need to learn to live within the regenerative capacities of the earth (in terms of producing both sources and sinks); this means largely living with a harvest culture rather than a mining culture.
  7. Degrowth will inevitably be disruptive to the economic and social system we now have, which is based on extractivism and continuous economic growth.
  8. We need to anticipate the kinds of disruption that will occur and plan to provide support to those adversely affected; this will require a significant realignment of many economic and social priorities.
  9. A focus on basic human needs (both material and non-material) will likely need to be a major part of our planning and realignment efforts; human needs will always be relevant regardless of what uncertainties unfold. But we know what they are and they seem like a good starting point to focus our efforts - along with principles of fairness and inclusivity – everyone’s basic needs should be secure – seems like a good goal.
  10. Given that nature’s capacity to provide for human needs is limited, we need to prioritise what we use nature for – basic needs is suggested as the focus.
  11. Exactly how to do this is something for each community and nation to decide, as decisions will be influenced by local needs, risks and strengths, as well as culture and demographics, etc.
  12. Given the level of material reduction necessary, it is likely that it will involve a considerably lower level of material use. So yes, considering some of the ways we met our needs pre fossil era is likely. But how much of our new knowledge and how much we can repurpose existing infrastructure and stuff we’ve already produced, also has to be added to the planning. This hasn’t been done before with any civilisation. So we are on new ground and need to work together, and bring all our creativity and cooperation to meet this unprecedented challenge.
  13. Population size is relevant to this discussion because with a fixed amount of natural resources available for human use, it is obvious that the more people there are the lower the per capita consumption must be. How we achieve a sustainable balance is for each community/nation to decide based on their available natural resources. Our current trajectory is toward population collapse. The maximum number of people who can be supported by natural systems should be very large – over time. We don’t all have to be alive at the same time.


Many of us have more than we need, and if we are going to take seriously reducing our demands on nature, then redistributing existing material assets, and money, seems a necessity. Some degrowth advocates claim that degrowth is only for wealthy nations. Given the magnitude of reduction needed, and the fact that many poor nations are also in overshoot, they cannot grow.

But many poor nations have a small elite that are responsible for exporting natural resources to rich countries, leaving the majority of their population impoverished. If this no longer occurred and people in poor nations used their nation’s natural resources for their own basic needs, they would be much better off without necessarily increasing overall consumption.


Redistribution, within and between nations, is necessary to minimize future demands on nature. This is another difficult idea for most people to accept, but the data suggest it is an unpleasant reality. If we had been having these conversations several decades ago, perhaps the dynamics would have been different. But our advanced state of ecological overshoot indicates redistribution has to be part of a sustainable future. And fairness says we must share the limited resources to ensure everyone’s basic needs are met.


Of course, there are many millions today whose basic needs are not being met, and growing the economy to provide for them can only be done sustainably if, and only if, greater decreases in material throughput occur in other areas. The net effect of our economic activities has to be negative. Some areas can physically expand (e.g. affordable nutritious food, adequate housing, etc), but can only do so sustainably if greater decreases in material use occur elsewhere (e.g. mining, air travel, private vehicles, etc).



Here are some references attempting to envision what an ecological civilisation might be like:

The ambiguity, uncertainty and difficulty associated with the above response can be overwhelming. It is one vision of the reality we face. It can also be enthralling and energising to be part of humanity’s greatest challenge, and perhaps bring us together in a common task that could serve to unite the many unnecessary divisions that now exist. We have a choice of how to respond.