Welcome to the new face of anti-consumerism growing in Europe: degrowth.
In a nutshell, degrowth asks that we should abandon economic growth as a metric for measuring progress. It argues that gross domestic product (GDP) is a particularly poor measure of prosperity. It rarely reflects living standards, while the gains from economic growth all too often help the rich and leave mere crumbs for the poor.
Moreover, according to degrowth’s proponents, if we want to avert the impending climate apocalypse, we must urgently and permanently pursue a lower rate of economic growth. Sustainable growth and green capitalism are fantasies. Instead, we should centre our societies on values like conviviality, work sharing, redistribution and happiness.
Suppose that our economy is a pie. Instead of expanding the pie, our focus should be to redistribute who gets which slice.
Degrowth’s supporters have been around for decades, closely tip-toeing calls for a steady-state economy in which there would be no economic growth at all. The seminal The Limits to Growth (1972), commissioned by the Club of Rome, criticised resource depletion and warned that once the limits to economic growth became evident during the 21st century, we would suffer a precipitous collapse in industrial activity. More recently, a series of biennial conferences has sustained the degrowth movement, bringing together its disparate advocates to agree on common manifestos. An online website, degrowth.org, collects research and news on the campaign.
Support is burgeoning. In 2019, 3,200 academic articles were published on degrowth, compared to fewer than 100 at the turn of the century. Earlier this year, a report from the United Nations rubber-stamped some of its prescriptions. New works to propagate the principles of degrowth are endlessly forthcoming. Recent titles include Prof. Onofrio Romano’s ‘Towards a Society of Degrowth’ (2019) and Dr. Jason Hickel’s ‘Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World’ (2020).
Degrowth’s psychological allure should be unsurprising: its stoic call to live more simply is nothing new. Its coupling with environmental justice adds an even greater ethical justification. Perhaps degrowth is also a product of modern prosperity. Now that most Westerners can afford a standard of living well above subsistence, of course they should be expected to question the benefits of any additional improvements. Did we all live so unhappily before smartphones came along in the 2000s?
Needless to say, degrowth is a worrying proposal. Something has gone wrong when, just as widespread global famines of “biblical proportions” are threatened by the pandemic’s economic disruption, its supporters suggest not “fixing” the global economy.
Degrowth’s lay supporters follow the Club of Rome in misunderstanding the economics of resource depletion, leading to their misguided neo-Malthusianism. More importantly, economic growth delivers visible improvements in living standards. We can see these by tracking a range of real-life metrics: better literacy rates, lower infant mortality rates, and much more besides. GDP may have its limitations, but in most cases, it is a useful shortcut to encapsulate these improvements. It would condemn the world’s poorest to rely on the generosity of developed countries through redistribution, not the possibility of their sustained economic growth, to lift them out of poverty and subsistence.
For sure, the rules and regulations underlying the world economy could be reconfigured to ensure that more of the gains of economic growth go to those that need it most – especially when it comes to trade, tariffs and borders. Degrowth is not the answer to that problem, and at worst threatens to ‘pull up the drawbridge’, locking the global poor out from sharing the same prosperity as the global rich.
Additionally, economic growth certainly encounters trade-offs: working 80 hours a week may produce more output than working 40, but many would prefer working 40 to 80. Working 40 hours also likely consumes fewer resources. If this is all that degrowth has to say, it is nothing special. The more interesting question is who should decide whether we work for 40 hours or 80.
It is degrowth’s psychological appeal that might be harder to conquer. That task requires making the case that the new technologies furnished by the incentives of innovation capitalism find solutions to real problems, rather than solve unnoticeable minor inconveniences. A three-inch-by-six smartphone contains technologies that previously would have required a whole room to host, allowing us to live more simply and more smartly than before. Each generation looks back with nostalgia at its predecessors and forgets their problems. There is nothing mystical about economic growth: it is a real-life phenomenon with real-life consequences.
Liberals should pay attention: this is a movement growing roots and gaining ground. Debunking degrowth cannot wait.
Matteo Baccaglini is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Oxford, where he studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He was formerly President of the Oxford Hayek Society.
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