Why ‘Green Growth’ won’t work, and why Degrowth is the only sensible path forward

Why ‘Green Growth’ won’t work, and why Degrowth is the only sensible path forward

By Sahra Kress


Debate between Green Growth and Degrowth advocates continues because we share concern for the destruction of the biosphere which is unprecedented and presents an existential threat to much of life on Earth.


But do we have the same understanding of those existential threats? This is not just about climate change. The perilous nature of ecological overshoot is the situation we have created – a system of continuous economic growth that is destroying the biosphere.


It’s about the SCOPE, SCALE, and SPEED of destruction of biosphere we are utterly dependent on. We are seriously interfering with the most fundamental features of living systems – their capacity to reproduce and to assimilate wastes.


The trajectory we are on is one of collapse.

We’re not just fouling our nest, we’re destroying it.

The scope of our destruction is now global – we are interfering with planetary systems that provide us with a range of services that cannot otherwise be produced by humans. This is new. In the past we might have destroyed some life supports of a particular area but could move on to another. No longer. The planetary scope of the problem cannot be ignored. Any “solution” has to address this global scope.


The scale of the problem is also unprecedented. Ecological overshoot is so severe that we must reduce our material throughout by something like 80% to 90% overall. Any “solution” has to address the scale or magnitude of the problem.


The speed of the destruction of earth systems is not only unprecedented but accelerating. Species are going extinct hundreds if not thousands of times faster than with previous extinctions – to give just one example. Climate is also changing faster than any point in human history. Any “solution” has to address the accelerating damage we are doing to the biosphere.


We are collectively putting too many demands on earth systems – too much energy and material use to satisfy our needs and wishes.

The actual data, as distinct from the hype, shows that Green Growth cannot adequately deal with the scope, scale or speed of destruction. Gradualism is the route to disaster. Only the kind of dramatic change identified by Degrowth has a chance of bringing humanity back to living within the carrying capacity of earth systems in the very short time frame remaining to us.


What is worse than the challenge of managing this kind of planned change, is the further destruction to the biosphere that Green Growth will cause if we continue to pursue it, as Green Green involves additional material throughput – the cause of ecological overshoot, including the paradox that more efficient use of resources often lowers their costs and thus ultimately leads to greater use.


It’s a race against time. And we’re racing in the wrong direction.

Green growth is misnamed: it’s Technology Growth.

Green Growth is not Green.


It is inappropriate for many reasons- but especially because it’s reliant on MINING. And for all that extraction, you need Fossil Fuels to go “Green” to build the new “green” infrastructure. This will lead to a significant emissions pulse, when we are already nearing fragile climate tipping points.


Green Growth will accelerate ecological overshoot. Green Growth will make things worse: more emissions, earth systems destruction and injustice.


The purpose of the current economy is the pursuit of profit. The problems with that are physical growth and unfair distribution. We can’t grow our way out of poverty.


So we need to think carefully about our risk management approach: what is your acceptable risk? A 50% success rate? Either/or? That’s the current gamble.

In my work, a 1:1000 chance is deemed an unacceptable risk.

Global emissions need to fall by 50% in the next ten years.


Energy and material throughput need to decline dramatically to regain a sustainable balance with natural systems – something in the neighbourhood of a 80% to 90% reduction in developed nations. Reducing greenhouse gases is only part of the challenge.


We need to get on task, together. Now, urgently. We need to get moving together in the RIGHT direction.



What is Degrowth and how do we achieve it?

If you’re going in the wrong direction, more ingenuity won’t help. We need to redirect our ingenuity to a different goal – we need to do it together on a massive scale to deal with the global scope of the challenge.


Green Growth will accelerate ecological overshoot. Green Growth will make things worse: more emissions, earth systems destruction and injustice.

We need to get on task, together.


Deliberative democracy is needed to make difficult choices about what to prioritise – what are the essential goods and services we should continue using energy and raw materials for?



We need to prioritise: limit scale, fair distribution, efficient allocation. Efficient allocation alone will NOT adequately deal with either scale of the economy or just distribution – although that is the current assumption - we need separate policies for each of these independent goals.


- We must consider intergenerational justice.

- We need to work out a “when to stop” rule together.

- Life satisfaction is based on non-material things; that should be our goal.


The argument for Degrowth is that we need to abandon the ideology of the constant pursuit of economic growth as something that is good, desirable, necessary, and natural- it is none of these things. If we really want to stay within planetary limits that make sense, we need to change and transform our economy and how we organise our lives.

Degrowth is not less of the same - but building something different.


So we’re talking about bigger transformations here. Increasing the activities where we share- we share time, we share production, we share consumption- it’s about transforming the infrastructure- the transport infrastructure, our energy infrastructure. The ways we produce and the ways we consume. It’s about changing the stories we tell about ourselves. One of the big stories we tell about ourselves is that we- as a nation and as communities- we constantly have to strive to grow. That’s a story that has to change.


If not GDP, how do we measure the economy? We can shift to using ecological and social indicators. Planetary and social wellbeing- that’s what we’re after.


You can’t grow your way out of poverty.


Universal basic human needs for everyone– ensuring these as a minimum should be our goal. Beyond that we can work toward consensus as to what the non-essential priorities are.


Degrowth has inevitably come under severe criticism, indeed, many initially understand Degrowth as a call for economic recession and for practicing lifestyle austerity.


Instead of austerity, however, Degrowth aims to avoid the blows to prosperity that the market-driven status quo would inevitably entail in the face of the climate crisis, through a socially just transition toward public abundance.


First, scaling down those sectors of the economy that cannot be made sustainable in time or that mainly serve elite consumption, such as fossil fuels, fast fashion, advertising and aviation. Second, government provision of “universal public services” such as high-quality health care, education, housing, transportation, Internet, renewable energy and nutritious food. Third, introducing a green jobs guarantee, mobilising labour for the ecological transition and improving social care. Fourth, reducing working time to not only lower the carbon emissions of production and stabilize employment, but also to free people to enjoy more time not working.



In essence, Degrowth aims at a society in which well-being is mediated less by the market and material consumption and more by collective forms of providing for physical and social goods—and the pursuit of fulfilling, and meaningful lives.


These ideas have come to be known collectively as “Degrowth,” which calls for a planned contraction of economic activity aimed at protecting nature and increasing wellbeing.


For those of us concerned that the global ecological crisis demands a transformative rather than merely incremental response, it is heartening then to see shifts occurring in corporate, civic, and political thought spaces. In its latest report, the IPCC recognises Degrowth as a critique of the decoupling claims so integral to Green Growth, as an alternative perspective on development, and as a strategy for sustainability. Post-growth transition has also been discussed in the UN panel on Biodiversity (IBPES) and the European Environment Agency.


In Spain, the United Left Party, with a seat in cabinet, has endorsed Degrowth as its official policy position. Last month Degrowth researcher Prof Jason Hickel, addressed the Dutch parliament, which is now setting up a working group on Degrowth for MPs.


There are multiple international conferences on Degrowth this year, including the Research and Degrowth association where Degrowth academics and researchers will meet with top level policy makers including Ursula von der Leyen. And last year the EU awarded them a 6 year, 10 million Euro, Synergy Grant titled ‘Pathways Toward Postgrowth Deals’, which is concerned with escaping the growth economy, and ensuring social welfare and planetary sustainability.


Here in New Zealand, it has been heartening to see the need for Degrowth filtering into the national conversation, and all areas of society- Civic, Corporate, Political- now showing an interest in Degrowth. At a Degrowth event last year, Climate Change Minister James Shaw said “New Zealand needs to have a critical discussion about Degrowth”. We couldn’t agree more.


broken image