Time for Degrowth: to Save the Planet, We Must Shrink the Economy
Time for Degrowth: to Save the Planet, We Must Shrink the Economy
Billion Photos / shutterstock
By Jason Hickel / theconversation.com
Aug 25, 2016

What is so refreshing about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is that they recognise the inherent tension between economic development and the ecology of our planet. Or so it seems. The preamble affirms that “planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home” and underscores the necessity of achieving “harmony with nature”. It commits to holding global warming below 2℃, and calls for “sustainable patterns of production and consumption”.

This language signals awareness that something about our economic system has gone terribly awry – that we cannot continue chewing through the living planet without gravely endangering our security and prosperity, and indeed the future viability of our species.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

But if you look more closely, a glaring contradiction emerges. The core of the SDG programme relies on the old model of indefinite economic growth that caused our ecological crisis in the first place: ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. SDG 8 calls for “at least 7% GDP growth per annum in the least developed countries” and “higher levels of economic productivity” across the board. In other words, there is a profound contradiction at the heart of these supposedly sustainable goals. They call for both less and more at the same time.

This call for more growth comes at an odd moment, just as we are learning that it is not physically possible. Currently, global production and consumption levels are overshooting our planet’s biocapacity by nearly 60% each year. In other words, growth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists tell us that we are blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed and witnessing the greatest mass extinction of species in more than 66m years.

The hard truth is that our ecological overshoot is due almost entirely to over-consumption in rich countries, particularly the West.

Ecological overshoot in action. Canadapanda/Shutterstock

SDG 8 calls for improving “global resource efficiency” and “decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation”. Unfortunately, there are no signs that this is possible at anything near the necessary pace. Global material extraction and consumption grew by 94% between 1980 and 2010, accelerating in the last decade to reach as high as 70 billion tonnes per year. And it’s still going up: by 2030, we’re projected to breach100 billion tonnes of stuff per year. Current projections show that by 2040 we will more than double the world’s shipping, trucking, and air miles – along with all the things those vehicles transport. By 2100 we will be producing three times more solid waste than we do today.

Efficiency improvements are not going to cut it. Yes, some GDP growth may still be necessary in poorer countries; but for the world as a whole, the only option is intentional de-growth and a rapid shift to what legendary ecological economist Herman Daly calls a “steady-state” that maintains economic activity at ecological equilibrium.

De-growth does not mean poverty. On the contrary, de-growth is perfectly compatible with high levels of human development. It is entirely possible for us to shrink our resource consumption while increasing things that really matter such as human happiness, well-being, education, health and longevity. Consider the fact that Europe has higher human development indicators than the US in most categories, despite 40% less GDP per capita and 60% less emissions per capita.

This is the end toward which we must focus our full attention. Indeed, the surer route to poverty is to continue on our present trajectory, for, as top economist Joseph Stigltiz points out, in a world of ecological overshoot, GDP growth is diminishing living standards rather than improving them.

We need to replace GDP with a saner measure of human progress, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, and abandon the notion of exponential economic growth without end. Sadly, the SDGs pass this urgent challenge down to the next generation – at the bottom of SDG 17 it states: “By 2030 build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP.” In other words, they shelve the problem until 2029.

Relaxation isn’t counted in GDP stats. Maxpetrov/Shutterstock

But what of employment? Whenever I lecture about de-growth, this is always the first question I get - and we have to take it seriously. Yes, de-growth will require eliminating unnecessary production and work. But this presents us with a beautiful opportunity to shorten the working week and give some thought to that other big idea that has captured the public’s imagination over the past couple of years: a universal basic income. How to fund it? There are many options, including progressive taxes on commercial land use, financial transactions, foreign currency transactions and capital gains.

Let’s face it – in an age of rapid automation, full employment on a global scale is a pipe dream anyhow. It’s time we think of ways to facilitate reliable livelihoods in the absence of formal employment. Not only will this assist us toward necessary de-growth, it will also allow people to escape exploitative labour arrangements and incentivise employers to improve working conditions – two goals that the SDGs set out to achieve. What’s more, it will allow people to invest more of their time and effort into things that matter: caring for their loved ones, growing their own food, nourishing communities, and rebuilding degraded environments.


Jason Hickel is a lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science

0.0 ·
0
Trending Today
"The Myth of Time" - Martin Luther King Jr.
3 min · 12,093 views today · Excerpt from MLK Jr.'s last sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". Delivered at The National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 (4 days prior to his...
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 6,112 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Surviving Capitalist Depression
Michael Emero · 6,046 views today · We live in a toxic society filled with toxic people. Even the ones with the best hearts- including ourselves- have been raised in ignorance, with disinformation. Our examples...
Real Underground Kingdom That Has Existed for Millions of Years Went Unnoticed, Until Recently...
Kid Krunk · 6,040 views today · 28 Stunning Photos Of The World’s Largest Cave
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 3,238 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Hans Rosling Brilliantly Explains Complexity of Population and Resource Issues Using Simple Tools
3 min · 2,114 views today · Let me show you the world, says Swedish academic Han Rosling as he demonstrates the dynamics of population growth, child mortality and carbon dioxide emissions. The challenge...
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 2,010 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 1,892 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
True Justice Should Have Compassion in It
Thich Nhat Hanh · 1,798 views today · I believe that true justice should have compassion in it. When someone does something harmful, destructive, the destruction is done not only to the person who is the victim...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,766 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Price of Certainty
7 min · 1,074 views today · It’s alarming to see how polarized politics have become in the United States. The wider the gulf grows, the more people seem to be certain that the other side is wrong...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 855 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 721 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 588 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
How to Fire Your Boss: A Worker's Guide to Direct action
IWW · 541 views today · The indignity of working-for-a-living is well-known to anyone who ever has. Democracy, the great principle on which our society is supposedly founded, is thrown out the window...
Meet the Earthship
7 min · 395 views today · Outside of Taos, New Mexico, you'll find a community of people living in off-grid homes made of garbage. The homes are called Earthships and were invented by Michael Reynolds...
The Importance of Empathy
3 min · 382 views today · With an increasingly polarized and divided world, we need empathy more than ever before. Too often we are talking at each other, unable to listen and jumping to entirely wrong...
HUMAN (2015)
382 min · 373 views today · What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery?  Driven by these questions, filmmaker and artist...
Growing Huge Amounts of Food on 1/2 an Acre - Urban Abundance
5 min · 335 views today · In the small town of Oxford, Kane and Fiona Hogan have transformed their urban 1/2-acre property into abundant veggie gardens. Their business Urban Gardener aims to build...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 327 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Time for Degrowth: to Save the Planet, We Must Shrink the Economy