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

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 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 14,423 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 10,058 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 7,739 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 5,950 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire
Jake Johnson · 4,718 views today · When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things. One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 3,079 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...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 2,866 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Men Loving Men
Bianca Vivion · 2,430 views today · When my father was seven he and his best friend Phil cut their index fingers open and placed them together to create a “blood pact” that they would always be brothers. To this...
The Empire Vs. The People - Police Attack and Arrest Peaceful Protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline
6 min · 2,324 views today · On October 22, just before dawn, hundreds of people, including many families, gathered and prepared to march toward the Dakota Access pipeline construction site near Standing...
These Incredible Stories Remind Us of Our Better Selves
36 min · 2,026 views today · #WhoWeAre is a campaign to share the stories of people whose actions show us compassion and to send a message of empathy, hope and optimism. These videos will automatically...
The Burden of the New Story
Adebayo Akomolafe · 1,950 views today · The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,772 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...
And After the Election, The Reaction
Ret Marut · 1,266 views today · Could there be any better illustration of the shortcomings of representative democracy than this year’s Presidential campaign? For months upon tiresome months, the whole world...
Writers Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein Talk About Journalism and Activism
27 min · 1,131 views today · Author, Activist and Former California State Senator Tom Hayden talks in depth with the author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, about the state of the fourth...
'The Climate of Fear Is Unacceptable' - Ken Loach on I, Daniel Blake
6 min · 955 views today · Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a man who is denied disability benefit after a heart attack and who is then subsequently caught in a...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 757 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Three Massive Mergers - Millions for One Bank and a Disaster for Food, Water, and Climate
Wenonah Hauter · 700 views today · In addition to advising on all three mega-mergers, Credit Suisse is playing a big role behind the scenes of the Dakota Access pipeline.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 636 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Ode to Lesvos
5 min · 509 views today · An inspiring story of a few remarkable heroes on the Island of Lesvos who helped almost half a million refugees in 2015 has been documented in a new short film called Ode to...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 461 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Time for Degrowth: to Save the Planet, We Must Shrink the Economy