Are We Ready for Degrowth?
Like It or Not We Are Going to Have to Slow Down, Says New Research
A slew of reports on the state of our shared planet, its resources, and sustainable living are being released these days in the run up to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June. I have been browsing through some of them the past couple of weeks and, really, it seems there’s not much that’s new to learn. Almost all the studies point out the depressing truth that we are fast reaching the limits of Earth’s carrying capacity and yet are miserably far behind in our efforts to carve out a just, sustainable, and environmentally sound world.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress
This report from the United Nations, for instance, (that, rather to my dark amusement, opens with the Dickensian “Today our planet and our world are experiencing the best of times, and the worst of times,”) talks of how “sustainable development remains a generally agreed concept, rather than a day-to-day, on-the-ground, practical reality.” Then there’s this one from senior Oxfam researcher Kate Raworth that describes a doughnut-shaped area — an area that lies between the planet’s carrying capacity and our basic human and social needs — that is a “safe and just space for humanity to thrive in.” We gotta live within the doughnut, she says, but (surprise!) we are not managing to do that so well. If this sounds like gobbledygook, read Raworth’s own lucid explanation of her concept, which seems to be gaining quite a bit of traction in environmental and policy circles.
And then last week, yet another report landed in my inbox — Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012. The book-length report, officially released yesterday, is part of an annual series assessing the world’s social, economic, and environmental health that the institute began putting out in 1984. Like the other reports, this one too, stresses that we must redouble our efforts to make that life on Earth sustainable and redefine our ideas about what construes “the good life”. What intrigued me in this report (rather ambitiously subtitled “Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity) was a policy brief that called for “degrowth” in “over developed” countries.
Obviously, this means slowing down economic growth and consumption, especially in developed countries like the US that are using up the lion’s share of Earth’s resources, something environmentalists talk about all the time. But what was new to me was the terminology and the discovery that “degrowth economics” as an intellectual concept has been around for several years now, especially in Europe. (We journalists are not quite the know-it-alls we often pretend to be. But then, again, this is why I love my job. Learn something new everyday.)
Here’s how the Worldwatch report defines the degrowth:
“Degrowth is the intentional contraction of overly inflated economies and the dispelling of the myth that perpetual pursuit of growth is good for economies or the societies of which they are a part.”
The idea being that this would not just reduce stress on the physical world, but also help achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources to disadvantaged communities and countries. It's not exactly about promoting economic depression, but rather the creation of a stable economic system that is in balance with Earth’s carrying capacity.
Degrowth can be achieved, the report says, by a mix things including shortening work weeks, “denormalizing” certain types of consumption, shrinking home sizes (live in multigenerational homes), living in walkable and bikeable communities, owning less stuff, and “taxing ecologically harmful industries, financial transactions, and advertising.”
“Wow,” I thought, as I read the brief over, this sounds pretty ideal… and nearly impossible to implement in this country that’s so obsessed with consumption and so divided politically. Shorter work-weeks might seem like a sweet deal for workers, but what of the consequent lower wages? Would companies driven by the profit margin even agree to that? And what of living with your parents (and maybe even grandparents) in small homes? Is that even possible at a time when the “cult of the individual” still reigns supreme and more Americans are living by themselves than ever before?
The concept intrigued me enough to get brief writer, Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at Worldwatch and also co-director of the entire State of the World 2012 report, on the phone. Do you think Americans will ever be convinced that less is more, not just for the world, but them too? I asked. Is such a big shift in ideology and lifestyle possible in this society?
Assadourian admitted that the idea is probably the “most edgy” in the entire report. “If you take it on at the macro scale it’s probably politically impossible [to implement],” he said. “But already there are at smaller trends leading to it, caused not by concern for environment, but by economic realities.”
He pointed to the recent increase in multi-generational housing due to what’s now being called “The Great Recession,” that resulted in adult, jobless children moving in with parents. “One of the things observed in these homes is that poverty rates are lower even though median income is lower, and that’s because resources are being shared,” he said. He also cited clothing line Patagonia’s advertising campaign asking consumers to buy used Patagonia clothes on e-bay. Small changes like these, he said, were already starting to break the paradigm of “buy more”.
We will get to degrowth either way, Assadourian believes, whether we make a voluntary choice to do it or whether we are forced to when we run out of resources. The question is whether we will make a conscious choice to cut back and figure out in advance how to live with less, or have degrowth thrust upon us when our backs are to the wall. Interestingly though, he doesn’t see conscious change happening from bottom up as much as from top down. “I think the government will have to play a huge role in marketing this solution,” he said. The job for environmentalists and sustainability advocates, he said, is to figure out how to mobilize the people in power to make that change.
“This is not a ridiculous idea though people might initially think so,” he told me. “During the Second World War the government managed to get Americans grow 40 percent of their produce through community and home gardens. Of course, that (home grown food and urban farms) by itself isn’t going to lead to degrowth, but it’s one of the many small steps.” Though he doesn’t expect overnight changes, Assadourian is optimistic that sowing the idea of degrowth now would bear fruit in the future — like say, when some policymaker trying to cope with a resource crisis will remember the message and actually adopt it.
“Having policy and knowledge sets ready will make all the difference between having a decent quality of life and higher levels of human suffering,” he said.
Hard to quibble with that. But ideas like these take a long time to catch on. Somehow I can't quite visualize our leaders actually waking up to the fact that we are using up Earth's resources at 1.5 times the rate than it can replenish them, and agreeing on a course of action to avert the impending existential crisis. Rio+20 will come and go, and our nations will still be squabbling about who's to blame and who needs to sacrifice more. Finding fault, after all, is so much easier than taking action.