It is certainly the case that the “degrowth” movement contains a lot of positions and ideas that all degrowthers do not necessary agree with. To call degrowth “intellectually chaotic” feels a bit over the top, although not totally inaccurate. The degrowth scholarly literature is growing rapidly and there are still many unrelated and even contradictory ideas that come under this broad heading. Different scholars emphasize different aspects of the issues. This is typical of social movements at an early state of their evolution. It is also an indication of just how broad the implications of degrowth are.
My point here is that it is easy to find disfavour with at least some aspects of degrowth, even for degrowthers. However, it would be a disservice to let these problems blind us to the important features of degrowth.
Here is my take on the key elements of degrowth that are science based, free of ideology, and let’s put aside for the time being at least, the issue of terminology (degrowth, agrowth, post growth, etc). Let’s accept “degrowth” and focus on the concepts rather than the terms.
Perhaps the first key point to make is that degrowth is not just about climate change; it is about ecological overshoot – human consumption of nature’s sources and sinks. As you indicate in the paper, we are consuming these resources at an alarming rate. A critical but often ignored aspect is the magnitude of this over consumption.
There are a variety of empirical measures of this overconsumption:
- the ecological footprint index (approximately twice what nature produces annually)
- the planetary boundaries approach (now exceeding at least 6 boundaries into the danger zone)
- human appropriation of Net Primary Production (doubled over the past century)
- the rate of species’ extinction (at least 100 to 1000 times above the natural rate)
- the extent to which pollution has degraded our entire biosphere, including human tissue.
The ecological footprint data seems especially relevant to me, as it measures nature’s capacity to reproduce itself, and assimilate wastes, the two most fundamental features of a biosphere. We have been in excess for at least the last 50 years, and daily we make it worse.
This is obviously a terminal condition if we do not reverse it before we trigger irreversible disruption of the earth’s systems we depend on for our wellbeing – a state we are currently rapidly approaching.
So I am glad to learn that you agree with Hickel’s call for a reduction in energy and material throughput in our economy. This is the key issue for degrowth as I understand it.
A key question is the magnitude of throughput reduction necessary to bring us to one-planet living. My sense is that green growthers, as well as some degrowthers, do not fully appreciate the scope, scale and speed of disruption associated with our current rate of throughput in the economy. Understanding that the scope is global, the scale is at least 50% beyond a sustainable level, and the speed accelerating exponentially, degrowthers call for a programme of radical transformation.
Yes, degrowth is a provocative term; it is intended to get attention to the urgent need to radically reduce our material throughput. Yes, it is a reduction of throughput (not GDP) that is essential. But given the magnitude of the reduction necessary, it becomes obvious that such a significant reduction in throughput will have dramatic implications for economic activity.
In my view, the strength of the degrowth position is that it acknowledges:
- the magnitude of reduction needed from an ecological sustainability perspective, based on empirical evidence
- the importance of providing supports for people affected by the inevitable disruption that reducing throughput will cause
- the need to make systemic changes in many of our institutions and legal systems to support a one-planet living arrangement with the rest of nature.
These are the three major features of the degrowth movement that make sense to me, and that are embedded in much of the degrowth literature, but often mixed in with a variety of other important, but secondary, issues.
If we don’t get the reduction of our ecological footprint under control, none of these other issues will matter much.
May I encourage you to take a deeper look at the research on decoupling. Some general points:
- Absolute decoupling only makes sense at a global level, because it is global ecosystems we are disrupting
- Even if the claims of decoupling advocates were valid, their magnitude of improvements do not match the challenges posed by the scope, scale and speed of disruption we are now causing
- Climate change and GHGs are NOT the only existential risk. Ecological overshoot is the fundamental risk, of which all the others are but symptoms. If we decouple from fossil fuels but continue to over consume natural resources we will end up in the same irreversible state change of earth systems that will spell collapse for human society.
This is why many of us are increasingly concerned about the green growth approach, which if
implemented, will create more over-consumption – assuming the natural resources are even there to support it.
Max, I sincerely hope you will continue to engage with this critically important issue. It is profoundly intertwined with the issue of inequality to which you have contributed so much.
I was surprised that in your article you stated that “degrowth is also an excuse to promote various left-wing causes…that … are only loosely connected to the core theme”.
By acknowledging the biophysical limits within which humanity must operate to live sustainably, degrowth strives to ensure that these limited resources will be shared equitably. Greater equality will only come from redistribution, not growth. Living within the relatively fixed planetary limits (which we have already grossly exceeded) means finding a fair balance between per capita consumption and number of people consuming.
Are all of the degrowth proposals to achieve fairness relevant and desirable? That is certainly a valid question and one that degrowthers are debating and trying to clarify.
So I can easily agree that there is much within the broad degrowth movement that is less relevant to the key issues of reducing throughput, ensuring that basic needs are fairly met, and implementing systemic changes in how we deal with throughput in our economy. Let’s focus on these three key features of the movement and collaborate on how to achieve the dramatic paradigm shift required.
Another issue that is worth mentioning is the distinction between economic growth and economic activity. Your article seems to use these terms somewhat interchangeably, although I am sure you appreciate they are different. Some critiques of degrowth incorrectly claim degrowth seeks the elimination of economic activities. This may be at least partly the result of some degrowthers wanting to do away with market activities entirely and replacing it with a gift economy, for example.
Dramatic reductions in material throughput may reduce economic growth, but they will not eliminate economic exchanges, a fundamental activity for such a social animal as humans. Markets can be a very efficient means of distributing goods, but are problematic if they are not restrained by both ecological limits and social justice norms. This approach is already embedded within degrowth – i.e. making the market “subordinate”, as you suggest, to “rock hard bottom lines for the planet.” To me, this is the core of degrowth; unless we manage this, little else will matter.
If you would like to explore a considerably more intellectually robust and comprehensive system than the current degrowth literature provides, may I suggest Peter Victor’s “Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World.” It rigorously deals with the issues of limited throughput, just distribution and market allocation. Peter does a terrific job of summarizing and organizing Herman’s writings over 60 years. From my perspective, Herman’s work is the conceptual underpinning of the key elements of the degrowth movement, and offers many useful policy proposals to achieve a genuinely sustainable economy – the steady state notion.
Max, I would like to invite you to engage in a dialogue on these issues with Degrowth Aotearoa NZ. Your depth of knowledge regarding inequality, concern for democracy, and expertise with respect to institutional reform, are the kinds of skills that can make a constructive contribution to this dialogue. Humanity is facing unprecedented existential challenges and none of us know with certainty how to respond to avert disaster. But constructive dialogue (not debate) seems a positive step in the right direction.
And apologies for the length of this note; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.
Dr Jack Santa Barbara
With support of DANZ Committee and Associates:
Deirdre Kent (author, activist and inspiration forDANZ)
Sahra Kress (Midwife and DANZ Coordinator)
Paul Bruce (former Meteorologist and Wellington Regional Councillor)
Dr Mike Joy (Ecologist; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies)
Nathan Surendran (Transition Engineering Consultant)
Dr Piers Locke (Anthropologist and Sustainability Consultant)
Dr Catherine Knight (Policy Professional and Environmental History Researcher; Senior Associate, Institute of Governance and Policy Studies)
Peri Zee (Urbanist and Transport Equity Advocate)