The many misunderstandings of degrowth: A response to Kelsey Piper’s “Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy?”

Carlos Tornel[i]

“Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Kenneth Boulding

In the book The Case for Degrowth, Giorgios Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Demaria argue that there is nothing natural in perpetual economic growth. Following the above epigraph, the argument of degrowth is that we need to slow down and liberate peoples’ time and energy to engage with patience, compassion, and care. Above all, degrowth seeks to question the commonly accepted idea of economic growth and the associated ideas of progress and development, calling for a radical transformation of the way we relate to each other and nature. In her recent article “Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy?,” Kelsey Piper rails against the possibility of degrowth becoming a viable alternative to address the ongoing climate crisis. She, paradoxically, accuses degrowth of being too radical and not radical enough (based on its calls for radical dematerialization and the limited proposals addressing climate crisis); of being a romantic idea that works better individually, and as a pessimistic narrative that paints a grim future for humanity.

I aim to argue that the exact opposite is true: degrowth is radically hopeful, and necessarily collective. Piper’s dismissiveness of degrowth is based on a problematic double dealing of the climate crisis, and problems such as poverty and inequality. While she expresses concern for these issues, she fails to engage with the capitalist system that brought them to the fore. She argues that the world has been getting richer and hence better, but she sidesteps the issue of how these riches were created, and why they are unattainable for most of the world’s population as inequality continues to rise. She advocates for some tweaks within the existing system, but fails to make a convincing case as to why and how this would lead to solving the problems caused by it. Drawing on examples from the degrowth literature, I argue that we do not need economic growth to reduce poverty nor do we need to rely on the indicators and institutions that depend on it. Ultimately, I find there are much more dystopic and pessimistic arguments in proposals like the ones advocated by Piper, which continue to place hope on a few technological and market fixes to meet the manifold crises of the Anthropocene.

Serious questions are being posed on the elite assertion that climate change could be addressed using technological and market fixes.

An answer to a critic

Piper’s main criticisms of degrowth are threefold: first, she argues that it seems to be a problematic idea in a world where billions still live in poverty; secondly, she dismisses degrowth as incapable of articulating “serious policy programs to solve climate change” because it “doesn’t add up and it would be nearly impossible to implement.” Finally, she argues that degrowth is a romantic idea, which can only work if applied as a personal pursuit, and signifies a naive understanding of reality.

First, the argument that economic growth is needed to lift billions of people out of poverty is outright flawed. As Giorgos Kallis et al. argue in their book, GDP has continued to increase in places like the US, but this increase has been proportional to the widening wealth gap between the rich and the poor, which has reached its largest point in the last 50 years.[ii] Similarly, Gerber et al. address this specific issue in the case of India. They show how, for example, the meteoric rise of GDP has benefited only a small percentage of the population, with roughly 80% of them still living with less than $0.30USD per day. Moreover, growth has been associated with machine productivity, debunking the myth that growth yields higher levels of employment. Additionally, Gerber et al. reveal how the relentless pursuit of growth has resulted in tactics that cheapen lives and land, which in turn, create new forms of poverty by exacerbating dispossession, contamination, and commodification.[iii]

One only need to look at the air quality in places where growth has been rampant, or where the logic of growth persists relentlessly: Beijing, New Delhi, Mexico City, have become toxic cities, where health problems increase and people’s lives are cut short because of air pollution. Sacrifice zones[iv] like the “Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where a majority black population experiences cancer rates 50 times higher than the national average, are becoming more prevalent as economies continue to pursue growth even at the cost of the health of the people. As Jason Hickel demonstrates in his book The Divide, poor countries have been exploited to maintain rich ones. He uses the notion of unequal exchanges – how labor, nature, materials, and energy are extracted and moved from one place to another – to understand our current predicament. Hickel compares the global aid budget for the South and shows that the plunder from extraction and the historical impact of exploitation and colonization amounts to more than 20 times its value[v].

This has been conveniently erased by the so-called pragmatic optimism of people like Steven Pinker who, very much like Piper, argue that we have never been in a better place historically (with fewer people living in poverty or dying from curable diseases, and so on), but the reality, as Hickel shows, is that these statistics are usually muddied with shifting baselines and accounting tricks. Stripping the numbers exposes the true problems with these arguments: The number of people living in actual poverty is not the fictitious 1 billion that global institutions expect to live with 1.25USD per day. By raising the bar to $5 USD per day (a threshold that would be enough to drastically reduce child mortality rates) the total number of people in poverty in the last 40 years has been growing, not decreasing – accounting for roughly 60% of the world’s population.[vi]

The climate question

Secondly, Piper’s case against degrowth hinges on the concept of decoupling, arguing that green growth can, and already is, dealing with climate change. Quoting Zeke Hausfather from the Breakthrough Institute – the technophiles par excellence – she uses the example of renewable energy transitions in Western Europe as evidence to argue not only that decoupling is possible but also that it’s already happening. A distinction, however, must be made here. Degrowthers who focus on the quantitative side of degrowth, show that decoupling can be relative (i.e., you can, through efficiency gains, temporarily separate GDP growth from material throughput and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)) but not absolute. In their 2019 review of green growth, Hickel and Kallis[vii] argue that decoupling can happen, but only temporarily for some rich nations, and more importantly, this does not seem to be a feasible solution at a global scale, as it would be impossible to maintain it in the long term.

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that economic growth cannot continue without an environmental fallout.

In terms of material throughput, decoupling is usually used in conjunction with the argument of a circular economy, but as ecological economists like Joan Martínez-Alier (JMA) have documented thoroughly for decades, the global economy is becoming less circular and more entropic: roughly 6% of the materials entering the global economy are recycled, with the rest being lost through entropy (i.e., burning fossil fuels) or added to the built environment (i.e. pouring concrete).[viii] Similarly, according to Hickel’s calculations, the reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting warming to under 2° by the end of the century, emissions would have to drop by 4% annually in the current decade. But, with sustained economic growth of 3% annually as promised in SDG 8 (U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 8), emission reductions would have to rise to a whopping 7.5% annually (this of course would mean a higher percentage for a 1.5°C scenario, six times faster than historical rates of emission decoupling.[ix]

Technological optimists usually solve this conundrum with energy efficiency (producing more with less) and geoengineering, that is, with a set of technological and ‘natural solutions’ that would reduce emissions by sequestering carbon emissions we are “incapable” of mitigating. This trend can be seen clearly in the last two major IPCC reports, where GDP growth continues be presented as ‘necessary’, even when it has exceeded its correlation to wellbeing in most over-developed countries.[x] The main issue with this argument is that it adds a false layer of accountability for governments to maintain the Business as Usual (BAU) posture that they have grown accustomed to – for example, the recent use of the term Net-Zero implies the massive deployment of geoengineering proposals such as BECCS (Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) and SAI (Stratospheric Aerosol Injection) that would allow states and companies to continue burning fossil fuels way into the 21st century.[xi] These proposals outright dismiss other studies that show it is possible to meet the temperature targets (2 and 1.5°C) with equitable access to renewable energy services with roughly 65% less energy than the estimates made by the IPCC and the International Energy Agency.[xii]

So, in a nutshell, in an economy that would be 11 times the size of the actual one by the end of the century, any efficiency gains will be dwarfed by the scale of the industrial economy, one that is linear by nature, and that necessarily will increase the unequal demand and distribution of minerals, land, energy and space. This means that although there is evidence of relative decoupling in rich countries, as Piper argues, these trends are impossible to sustain globally in the long run. Nevertheless, Piper insists that degrowth is ill equipped to reduce carbon emissions, because the main increases will happen in ‘middle-income countries’ where degrowth still feels like a stretch.

Is degrowth the right approach?

At the Mexico City Degrowth Conference in 2018, we asked ourselves if degrowth was a reasonable option for ‘not over-developed’ countries. Take the case of Mexico, a highly unequal country, not only in terms of wealth, but in the case of emissions, too. The country has a low motorization rate (278 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants) and yet the majority of GHG emissions come from auto-mobility (23%), similarly, more than half of the electricity is fed to the industrial sector, while roughly 36% of households still experience energy poverty.[xiii]

Here, some of the degrowth policies that Piper qualifies as ‘laughable’, would seem quite appropriate. We could reduce single-car use drastically, invest in a cycling infrastructure, and create a massive electric transit system. Simultaneously, we could decrease energy use in the industrial sector to address energy poverty in households that need more electricity. This could be done locally, through community owned and distributed renewable energy generation, while increasing food sovereignty, reducing our dependence on fossil fuel based agriculture and localizing production.[xiv] This, of course, doesn’t mean that all the proposals advocated by some proponents of degrowth (i.e., Universal basic and maximum income, work-sharing, reducing working hours, etc.) should be applied universally and indiscriminately.

Degrowth spurs community leadership in activities like food and energy production.

For Piper, the solution is then to abandon the ‘romantic idea’ of degrowth and act with the cards we have been dealt. Or, in other words, she argues that there is too little time to consider such radical proposals, arguing instead for a swift deployment of renewable energy technologies at a massive scale to address climate challenge quickly, and if there is time, we can worry about the social justice aspects of our actions, later. This argument, which seems to have taken hold even in some of the more radical wings of the environmental movement[xv], reproduces a dangerous proposition of what the role of politics in the climate crisis must be.

As geographer, Eric Swyngedouw has convincingly argued, the global discussion over climate politics has fallen into the realm of the post-political, where debate seems to be encouraged but reduced to a predetermined set of technocratic and managerial choices, and where actual decisions over what is to be done are alienated and transformed into a populistic discourse over a common enemy: the eradication of CO2. This discourse maintains the idea that, by eliminating CO2, society as we know it (i.e., globalized, industrialized, capitalist societies) can continue without nothing really having to change. We should be wary of this disingenuous attempt at solving a global emergency with a massive deployment of technology and money. More power in the hands of a global technocratic and managerial elites would simply lock the planet’s future to an incessant and accelerated deployment of technology with very limited space for maneuvering.[xvi]

A limited understanding of degrowth

Thirdly, looking beyond the economic rationale behind degrowth, we can visualize the more life-affirming aspects of it. I am referring to what Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson (2020)[xvii] have described as the qualitative aspect of degrowth. This is captured by concepts like “frugal abundance” and “conviviality” that challenge the predominance of growth in our collective and individual imaginations. In the contemporary context where the monologues of development and progress leave little room for alternative ways of being, doing and imagining the future, degrowth is much more than an economic proposal, it entails a societal project that seeks to escape the imperialist discourse of the growth economy, and revitalize a plurality of alternatives.[xviii]

Degrowth is a radical rejection of the dogma of economic growth, extractivism and industrialism, but it also encompasses quite a diverse and sometimes contradictory set of currents and positions. As Burkhart, Schmelzer and Treu (2020) show in their book[xix], Degrowth in Movment(s), degrowth does not seek to impose a universal understanding of the problems or the solutions we face, instead, it seeks to build alliances with other transition discourses in different places like Buen Vivir, Swaraj, Ubuntu, Comunalidad, and the struggle to reclaim the commons, to name a few. These movements, while incredibly diverse, share some commonalities with degrowth as they locate the roots of the problem in a linear, unidirectional, material and financial conception of development, a system driven by commodification and capitalist markets, managed by experts in pursuit of endless growth, which necessarily forecloses any alternative visions of the future.[xx] These movements seek to (re)politicize the possibility of multiple ways forward (beautifully captured in the Zapatista dictum: a world where many worlds fit) by resisting the enclosures of the commons, extractivism, the green economy discourse, and by arguing instead for radically pluralizing, democratic and multiple futures.

Accompanied by a radical vision of politics, degrowth is inducing fresh thinking on socio-economic relationships in society.

Degrowth allows us to separate ourselves from the viscous cycle and the self-fulfilling prophecy of neoclassical economics (i.e., Homo economicus): the idea that humans are naturally selfish and greedy, where competition and individualism rule, and everything has a price, but nothing has value. This understanding of the economy has been embedded into our thoughts, imaginaries, relationships, institutions, policies and even the idea of who we are. By using concepts like scarcity, which have themselves become “common sense,” economists tend to assume that human wants are great, not to say infinite, while means are limited. Because of its local, egalitarian, and democratic nature, a degrowth society would thrive by sharing and focusing on use instead of exchange values. It would be better equipped to tackle poverty, inequality, and the climate crises (what worries Piper so much), while simultaneously destabilizing the logics of individuality and consumerism globalized through neoliberal economics, and replacing it with a more effective way of defining social limits, and redistributing and sharing the commons.

These impacts are not only experienced through global heating and local pollution, but increasingly in what the Lancet journal has called a global syndemic: the result of a constellation of concurrent diseases and widespread chronic conditions, arising from health inequality caused by poverty, stress and structural violence. Cries against alienation are conspicuously transformed into consumption frenzies, breeding dissatisfaction, anxiety and discontent, further eroding the means for conviviality and solidarity and promoting instead systems of merit, radical individualization and ruthless competition, which in turn lead to a growing sense of loneliness, alienation, and burnout.[xxi] These conditions are often downplayed or altogether disassociated from economic growth and capitalism, and even when they are acknowledged they become mere side-effects compared to the incredible material wealth produced by a growing economy. Degrowth challenges the notion that we are isolated individuals, and our suffering is a consequence of our “human nature”, showing that these forms of behaviors are reproduced precisely by economic systems that seek to perpetuate endless economic growth.

Understanding degrowth as a societal project counterweights the claim by Piper that degrowth is pessimistic and associated with other words with the prefix ‘de,’ such as, decline, decrease, and diminish, which usually equates degrowth with advocating for poverty or decreasing everything, everywhere. As several authors and activists have asserted: “degrowth has never been about the imposition of austerity everywhere and shrinking ‘everything’ indiscriminately.”[xxii] When degrowthers speak of a post-growth society, we’re not only speaking about reducing GDP, we are referring to a society that has liberated itself from the hegemonic idea of endless economic growth as the only motivator and driver.

Against despair and for radical hope

The purpose of this article is not to foreclose any criticism to the degrowth literature. Quite on the contrary, degrowth is radically democratic, which means that it must encourage dissent and celebrate differences. However, simply dismissing degrowth as romantic, individualistic, politically unfeasible and/or too radical means undermining the need for transforming the existing system, focusing instead on an alternative that conveniently asks us to do very little – such as recycling, consuming “green and sustainable products”, and leaving decisions to the experts – so that our lives can go on relatively unchanged.

Degrowth is the modern reflection of a time tested vision of a world in harmony with nature, embraced and preserved by indigenous communities all over the world.

Moreover, the dismissive tone with which Piper’s article engages with degrowth echoes a broader pattern with which many ‘left-leaning’, liberal or progressive media outlets have previously engaged with the idea. By reproducing the jaded logic of neoliberal economics, and using the spurious myths and dogmas of economic growth and technology, they fail to engage with growth as part of a system of exploitation and unpaid work (for women, nature and racialized subjects) that sustains the engines of production/accumulation of capitalism. In other words, “the social and ecological costs of growth are systemic, not incidental.”[xxiii] Simply ignoring this, as mainstream media continues to do, conveniently reduces problems like global heating to “silver bullet-type solutions”. The Green New Deal, for example, celebrated as a progressive policy, simply seeks to deploy renewable energy and infrastructure to reduce emissions. But, implementing a program of this massive a scale without addressing the unequal exchanges (of energy and materials) that would be necessary to keep such a policy afloat, would only transfer much of the costs of decarbonizing from the North to the South.[xxiv] This issue is completely ignored by media outlets because it’s an inconvenient truth. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated what happens when economic growth decreases because of a crisis of capitalism[xxv]. This is not an argument against degrowth, precisely because the problem is not about decreasing everything indiscriminately. Degrowth calls for recentering human and non-human wellbeing, it encourages us not to erase the past to simply argue for a better future through technology or the market. Instead, it asks us to consider how we got here and what are the radical steps we need to take towards a more egalitarian, convivial and solidaristic future. If these sounds too radical, then it is radically hopeful. There could not be anything more dystopic than to argue that all we can and should do is to tweak the existing system that brought us here in the first place. That option seems truly pessimistic.

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Carlos Tornel is currently a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Durham University. His research focuses on the energy transition processes in Mexico analyzing the implications of energy justice from decolonial, critical political economy and political ecology approaches. Since 2012 he has collaborated with various civil society organizations and networks in Mexico on issues related to climate justice, energy transformations and movements in defense of the territory.” Contact: [email protected]

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References:

[i] [email protected]. My Thanks to Pallav Das, for his suggestions and comments to several drafts of this article.

[ii] Kallis, G., Paulson, S., D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F. (2020) The Case for Degrowth. Cambridge: Polity. (P:4)

[iii] Gerber, J.F.; Aknulut, B.; Demaria, F.; Martínez-Alier, J. (2021) Degrowth and environmental justice. An alliance between two movements. In Coolsaet, B. (Ed.) Environmental Justice. Key Concepts. New York and London: Routledge. (PP:101-2)

[iv] Zografos, C., Robins, P. (2020) Green Sacrifice Zones, or Why a Green New Deal Cannot Ignore the Cost Shifts of Just Transitions. One Earth 3: 543-546.

[v] Hickel, J. (2017) The Divide. A brief guide to global inequality. Windmill books: London (P:30).

[vi] Ibid: pp: 51-55.

[vii] Hickel, J. L., & Kallis, G. (2019). Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy. https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964.

[viii] Martínez-Alier, J. (2021) Mapping ecological distribution conflicts: The EJAtlas. The Extractive Industries and Society. Article in press: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2021.02.003.

[ix] Hickel, J (2019) The contradiction of the sustainable development goals: Growth versus ecology on a finite planet. Sustainable Development. PP: 1–12.

[x] Hickel, J., Brockway, P., Kallis, G., Keßer, L., Lenzen, M., Slameršak, A., Steinberger, J., Ürge-Vorsatz, D. (2021)

 Urgent need for post-growth climate mitigation scenarios.  Nature Energy: Comment. (pp:1-3).

[xi] See Surprise, K (2021) Gramsci in the Stratosphere. Solar Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony. In Sapinki, J.P.; Jean Buck, H.; Malm, A. (Eds.) Has it Come to this? The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering: 189-206. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. See also: https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/05/11/carbon-removal-experts-support-splitting-net-zero-twin-targets/

[xii] Millward-Hopkins, J., Steinberger, J. K., Rao, N. D. & Oswald, Y. (2020) Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario. Global Environmental Change 65: 102168.

[xiii] See: https://www.jornada.com.mx/2021/07/18/ecologica243.pdf (In Spanish).

[xiv] Macera, O; Ferrari, L (2020) ¿Qué implica una transición energética sustentable? Diálogos Ambientales. México: Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales.

[xv] Dembicki, G. (2020) A Debate Over Racism Has Split One of the World’s Most Famous Climate Groups. Vice World News. Available at:

https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgey8k/a-debate-over-racism-has-split-one-of-the-worlds-most-famous-climate-groups. Accessed 05/09/21.

[xvi] Swyngedouw, E. (2019) The Perverse Lure of Autocratic Postdemocracy. The South Atlantic Quarterly 118:2, pp: 267- 286.

[xvii] Liegey, V., Nelson, A. (2020) Exploring degrowth. A critical Guide. London: Pluto Press. See in particular chapter 2.

[xviii] Demaria, F.; Latouche, S. (2019) Degrowth. In Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., Acosta, A. (Eds.)  Pluriverse: A Post-development dictionary. New Delhi: Tulika Books (pp: 148-50).

[xix] Burkhart, C., Schmelzer, M., Treu, N. (2020) Degrowth in Movement(s). Exploring pathways for transformation. Zero Books: Winchester and Washington.

[xx] Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., Acosta, A. (Eds.)  Pluriverse: A Post-development dictionary. New Delhi: Tulika Books.

[xxi] For a good analysis on these issues see: Chul Han, B. (2015) The burnout society. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press; and Monbiot, G. (2018) Out of the Wreckage. A new politics for an age of crisis. London and New York: Verso.

[xxii] Op. Cit. Gerber, et al. 2021.

[xxiii] Op. Cit. Kallis et al. 2020: 36. For some excellent discussions on this topics see: Moore, JW (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life. Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London and New York: Verso Books;  Barca, S. (2020) Forces of Reproduction, Notes for a counter-hegemonic Anthropocene. Cambridge Elements Environment and Humanities series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[xxiv] Zografos, C., Robins, P. (2020) Green Sacrifice Zones, or Why a Green New Deal Cannot Ignore the Cost Shifts of Just Transitions. One Earth 3: 543-546. See also: https://www.jamhoor.org/read/2020/5/20/no-harm-here-is-still-harm-there-looking-at-the-green-new-deal-from-the-global-south

[xxv] The crisis of capitalism can manifest, as Marx thought, through a crisis of overproduction or as argued by James O’Connor -and more recently by Andreas Malm-, because of a second contradiction where the environmental degradation created by capitalism can engender a systemic crisis. See: https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/andreas-malms-new-pamphlet-climate-corona-communism-fails-to-ignite

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