Notes: De-Growth

When it comes to conceptualizing the economic future of our planet, “De-Growth” is perhaps the most radical notion discussed in sustainability circles, at least from a mainstream government perspective. “De-Growth” means embracing growth’s opposite: economic shrinkage. The “De-Growth Movement” consists largely of a network of academic researchers and economic activists who study and promote the idea that aiming for smaller-scale economies will generate greater human well-being, while reducing the pressure on natural resources and ecosystems.

The concept rose to international attention with the publication
of a report, by economist Tim Jackson, issued in March 2009 by the United Kingdom’s official Sustainable Development Commission. Titled “Prosperity without Growth?,” Prof. Jackson’s report was remarkable in being the first such treatment of the topic issued by an official national government body. It was later republished as a book — without the question mark in the title. This book, Prosperity without Growth, has become the most widely read introduction to De-Growth and an essential reference on the topic.

Jackson’s argument can be summarized (he summarizes it himself this way) in three short statements:

1. Growth is unsustainable. Jackson accepts the decades of scientific research that establish the “Limits to Growth” and the “Planetary Boundaries” within which we humans must live. Given these facts, endless expansion in resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste is patently impossible.

2. De-Growth is unstable. Here, Jackson builds a bridge between traditional economic thinking, and proponents of the alternative. He acknowledges the extent to which national economic systems are completely dependent, for their core stability, on continuous growth.“ Recessions” and “depressions” bring with them serious social unrest and political instability — which governments are supposed to prevent. This systems perspective helps to explain the intensity with which governments strive, at all costs, to keep growth going, despite all the accumulated evidence about growth’s negative environmental consequences, and growth’s inability (as De-Growth theorists see it) to deliver ever-increasing well-being.

3. Decoupling won’t work. “Decoupling” means maintaining continued monetary economic growth (increases in GDP), while reducing resource use, waste, and pollution (which ordinarily rise with growth in a “coupled” fashion). First introduced as a goal of policy by the Dutch government in the early 1990s, decoupling involves increasing the efficiency with which the economy turns resources into things of value, as measured by indicators such as “carbon intensity” (how much CO2 is emitted per dollar of GDP produced by an economy). Jackson noted that decoupling’s gains had been marginal when compared to the absolute growth in emissions like CO2. Efficiency- based approaches to reducing overall impact on planetary ecosystems are not realistic, according to De-Growth analysis. There is no way that economies can decouple — that is, separate the process of growth from the process of ecosystem destruction — fast enough to turn the tide on problems like global warming. [Note: Jackson was writing in 2009 and 2011. By 2017, more data had accumulated that appeared to demonstrate decoupling was in fact possible, in some countries and situations. See separate article.]

Jackson’s work essentially leaves the world with a question, which he articulates as “What is the path forward?” But he and other proponents of De-Growth have also created policy proposals and even alternative economic models that attempt to demonstrate a different, indeed transformative, economic pathway. Jackson and Canadian economist Peter Victor, author of Managing without Growth and one of Jackson’s frequent collaborators, published a newspaper column in September 2011 that summarized key elements of the alternative economic pathway that the De- Growth movement proposes to the world, from “braver policy-making” to “a renewed sense of shared prosperity.” More specifically, their vision of transformative change includes:

• A “radical overhaul” of the capital investment markets, with the aim of dramatically reducing speculation in commodities like food futures or financial derivatives like hedge funds, and increasing investments in low-carbon technology, transportation, health care, education, and efficient housing and transportation.

• Ending “unrestrained profiteering at the expense of the customer and taxpayer,” presumably through tighter regulation of business behavior and encouragement of new corporate forms — such as the “B-Corporation,” or “Benefit Corporation,” which involves setting stronger governance rules in place to ensure that a corporation acts to benefit society in social and environment terms as well as economically.

• Dramatic cultural changes to reduce the emphasis on consumerism and materialism, and increase a general cultural swing in the direction of “good nutrition, decent homes, good quality services, stable communities, decent, secure employment and healthy environments.”

These are revolutionary ideas that reflect a strongly idealistic and communitarian set of values, and De-Growth conferences, studies, and texts are generally focused on (1) searching for evidence that such changes are under way, and/or (2) promoting arguments and strategies for making such changes (including abandonment of the GDP in favor of other indicators of well-being).

But while De- Growth can be seen as sitting at one end of the spectrum of alternative New Economic ideas, and as a kind of radical departure from traditional growth economics, it is important to note that there are differences of view within the De- Growth movement itself. Some advocate a fairly aggressive and proactive approach — one should attempt to make De-Growth happen — while others believe that De-Growth is simply inevitable, given the constraints placed on traditional growth by a depleted resource base. For this second group, the work of “De-Growth Economics” is not about promoting change; it is about preparing for an unavoidable descent (as reflected in the title of Peter Victor’s 2008 book, Managing
without Growth), and about creating more resilient social structures or self-sustaining communities (as reflected in movements such as the Transition Towns).

While De-Growth has long since escaped from the absolute outlands of economic thinking thanks to Tim Jackson’s breakthrough report (which carried the legitimacy of a UK government commission, though that commission was later disbanded), it remains a marginal concept whose protagonists are not generally in positions of decision-making authority. De-Growth proponents tend to reject half-way concepts such as “Green Economy” and “Sustainable Development,” seeing these as just Growth as Usual in somewhat greener clothing. The absolutist approach of De-Growth may be justified by the movement’s interpretations of the facts on resource use and waste; but in practice, this approach means (of course) that De- Growth proposals are not seriously entertained by national governments. Still, by staking out the radical end of the New Economics spectrum in a clear and uncompromising way, De-Growth also serves the function of making other alternative ideas — such as National Happiness indicators, or proposals for a “Tobin Tax” on financial transactions — appear much more mainstream.

[Adapted and updated from the book/report “Life Beyond Growth,” published by Random House Japan in 2012 and available in English here.]

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