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Is Degrowth the answer to the climate crisis?

Green growth strategies have proven futile in averting climate change and environmental degradation. Is it time to abandon the capitalist mode of development and employ a strategy of degrowth?

Photo Credit: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/radical-combination-degrowth-and-basic-income/

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted the fact that the earth is on the brink of climate catastrophe, with greenhouse gas emissions acting as the key threat to ecosystems (Watts, 2018). This crisis has come as a result of the capitalist mode of development which relies on the extraction of resources in the search for growth and profit. As such, there is an urgent need for humanity to radically change the way in which they do things in order to achieve environmental sustainability and avert the ecological crisis.

This post investigates the changes required for societies to achieve environmental sustainability. The paper argues that the strategies of both ‘green growth’ and ‘degrowth’ are unlikely to achieve the required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the time scale available. While ‘green growth’ approaches, which view continued economic growth as the key to environmental sustainability, have dominated both academia and policy, they have been ineffective in achieving an absolute reduction in global emissions. As such, degrowth has emerged as a radical critique of the growth paradigm, arguing for a contraction in world consumption and production. Indeed, such an approach appears very appealing, forwarding fundamental changes that will promote the well-being of both humans and the environment, while also liberating space for developing countries to pursue a path different to that which the industrialised nations have followed. Yet, degrowth remains marginalised and would require a radical change in the way global society is organised, including the transcendence of capitalism itself. Such a transformation is unlikely to take place in the limited time we have available to avert a climate crisis. Resultantly, this paper promotes an agrowth strategy in which the GDP indicator is abandoned worldwide. This would enable governments to form agreements and enact policies which are crucial if we are to avert a global climate crisis. This is not to say, however, that degrowth should not be a long-term goal, indeed a society which lives frugally and values simplicity and care appears essential if we are to sustain an ever growing population.

Capitalist Development and Environmental Sustainability

Finding its roots in seventeenth-century England, capitalism has become the basic framework for almost all nations in the world (Sachs, 1999: 91). Under this system, the means of production, such as machinery and resources, are concentrated in the hands of the few, with workers forced to sell their labour to capitalists in return for wages (Crossman, 2018). As such, production is driven by a profit motive; capitalists take the products produced by workers but do not use them immediately, rather they sell the goods on markets in order to make profits (Andreucci & McDonough, 2015: 59). Thus, the inherent logic of capitalism is accumulation- capitalists take the surplus value generated and reinvest it in order to expand production further and realise greater profits (Andreucci & McDonough, 2015: 60; Wallerstein, 1994: 6). This creates an economy in which businesses are constantly in competition with one another, seeking to accumulate increasing levels of wealth, the outcome of which is economic growth. The process of capitalist development can, therefore, be seen as one in which natural resources are extracted by labour and converted into commodities for sale on the market (Canterbury, 2018: 36). Such a process relies on growth; businesses must expand in order to survive, leading to an ever-expanding system which draws increasing volumes of resources into its grasp (Andreucci & McDonough, 2015: 60).

For many, capitalist development has been a great success. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures the overall growth in the production of goods and services and treats market transactions as the key driver of development (Fioramonti, 2017), has surged since the inception of capitalism, with World GDP expressed in US dollars at 2011 prices increasing from $1.2 trillion in 1820 to $95 trillion in 2011 (Roser, 2019). Similarly, absolute poverty has reduced significantly, falling from 80% of the World’s population before the industrial revolution to less than 20% now living on less than $1 a day (Skarbek, 2010). Simultaneously, the standard of living has improved markedly; life expectancies and incomes have increased considerably (Ibid), while people around the world now have an endless choice of products to consume. Thus, capitalist development appears to have been highly successful, improving people’s lives around the globe.

Yet, capitalist development has also had negative effects. Capitalism has increased inequality in terms of income and wealth which is negatively correlated with issues such as mental health and social mobility (Hodges, 2016). Similarly, the growth in output and incomes that capitalism provides has been shown to deliver diminishing returns, such that economic growth in developed countries adds little in terms of well-being and happiness (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2011: 8). These factors complicate the idea that capitalism and its focus on economic growth is providing a form of development which elevates the lives of all.

Simultaneously, capitalism and its drive for accumulation and growth have produced environmental problems. Ever-expanding production and consumption has led to the overexploitation of natural resources and excessive burning of fossil fuels, with over 1,480 billion tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution (Scharf, 2017). This is leading to significant ecological harm, with air pollution, rising sea levels and global warming threatening the existence of both the Earth and its inhabitants (Magdoff & Foster, 2011: 85). As such, the current system is inherently unsustainable; humanity is currently consuming 1.6 times the amount of natural resources that the Earth can sustainably provide (Sandberg et al, 2019: 136). Indeed, the current situation is set only to worsen, with the global population to increase to 9 billion by 2050, requiring a six-fold increase in the world economy if all of humanity is to live at a standard comparable to the 2007 EU level (Meadway, 2016: 91).

Clearly then, substantial change is required if we are to achieve an environmentally sustainable future. This appears as a matter of urgency, with the IPCC stating that to restrict global warming to 1.5°C would require carbon pollution to be cut by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050 (IPCC, 2018: 14). An increase above 2°C will produce many negative impacts, including extreme weather events, coral die-off, increased ocean acidity and the loss of insects (Watts, 2018). Indeed, to have even a 50% chance of avoiding a 2°C increase in global temperatures will require the industrialised nations to cut their emissions by 8-10% per year (Hickell, 2017). The following sections analyse how such goals can be achieved.

Green Growth

In order to combat the ecological crisis facing the world, ‘green growth’ has emerged as the dominant solution among policymakers and academics (Sandberg et al, 2019: 138). Green growth approaches view further economic growth as the key to environmental sustainability (Alexander, 2012: 353), relying on innovations in markets and technology in order to ‘improve the efficiency of production and…decouple the use of natural resources and environmental impacts from continued economic growth’ (Sandberg et al, 2019: 133). The green growth perspective, therefore, outlines a path towards a sustainable future which ties in with the prevalent institutions and ideas that capitalist societies are organised around (Dale et al, 2016: 1); economic growth remains the main goal but is achieved in a way that protects natural systems. The green growth strategy has been adopted by most governments with the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 °C and strengthen nations’ ability to deal with the impacts of climate change (UN, 2015: 3), working on the basis of continued economic growth and high levels of consumption (Hickell, 2017; Sandberg et al, 2019: 133).

An important innovation in the realm of green growth has been the creation of carbon markets. Here, systems such as the EU Emissions Trading System place caps on greenhouse gas emissions and provide incentives for firms and industries to meet these caps as cheaply as possible (Böhm et al, 2012: 1620). Key is the profit incentive; if firms are able to reduce their emissions below their permitted level, they can sell their excess pollution permits to other firms in order to generate income (Ibid). Thus, the market and the capitalist drive for profit is mobilised in a way that reduces carbon emissions. However, such cap and trade policies have been largely unsuccessful. In the case of the EU Emissions Trading System, there is little evidence that a reduction in total emissions has been achieved, while the system has also been hampered by the oversupply of pollution permits (Stuart et al, 2019: 92). Concurrently, carbon markets have had negative impacts on society, allowing large firms such as Goldman Sachs to achieve large profits through the trading of permits, thus further concentrating wealth in the hands of the elite (Lohmann, 2010: 236; Stuart et al, 2019: 95).

Similarly, green growth goes hand in hand with a belief in the environmental Kuznets curve (Martinez-Alier, 2015: 38). This model suggests that as societies undergo economic growth, environmental damage will take place. However, a tipping point is reached in which further growth in income leads to environmental protection and restoration of ecosystems (Agarwal, 2019). As such, as a nation’s income rises, a point is reached in which demands for environmental protection escalate, while resources are also made available for investments in cleaner, more efficient, technologies (Stern, 2004: 1421). Thus, economic growth can lead to a situation in which sustainability is achieved and environmental damage is alleviated. This relationship between income growth and environmental quality has been shown in numerous studies (Giovanis 2013; Keene & Deller, 2015; Sephton & Mann, 2013), dating back as far as the beginning of the 20th century in London where air pollution rose with wages but then decreased as gas became more readily available and businesses invested in more efficient production processes (Clay & Troesken, 2011: 306)

Figure 1: Global Primary Energy Consumption 1800-2017 (Source: Ritchie & Roser, 2019).

Yet, it is important to scrutinise the idea of the environmental Kuznets curve. Firstly, scholars argue that a rebound effect takes place such that technological advances and improvements in efficiency lead to increased consumption and investment and do not reduce ‘absolute material and energy consumption levels’ (Andreucci & McDonough, 2014: 62; Demaria, 2018). This is evident in figure 1 above; while the world is finding new energy sources such as solar- and hydro-power, we are simply adding these on top of existing energy sources and expanding production, rather than substituting them for fossil fuels (Kallis & Jacobs, 2018). Further, this relationship is ignorant to the fact that as economies have grown, they have outsourced production to places such as China (Dale at al, 2016: 9), meaning that environmental damage is simply shifted to another location. Indeed, evidence suggests that the Kuznets curve only holds for relatively easy problems including smoke and acid pollutants, not for global problems such as carbon emissions (Jackson, 2009: 76; van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 914). Thus, while it may operate in some small-scale cases, it appears that the relationship between income growth and environmental protection does not exist for issues such as greenhouse gas emissions (Dale et al, 2016: 8).

In sum, green growth strategies have not produced the changes required to ensure environmental sustainability. Technological innovations and efficiency improvements in production have produced signs of relative decoupling, with the amount of primary energy required to produce each unit of global economic output having fallen almost continuously over the last 50 years (Jackson, 2009: 69). Yet, there is no evidence of absolute decoupling- an absolute decline in emissions (Dale et al, 2016: 11). Rather, there has been a surge in the use of fossil fuels, with carbon dioxide emissions increasing by 80% since 1970 (Jackson, 2009: 71). In light of the poor progress made, it appears that ‘green growth is highly unlikely to succeed in stopping environmental degradation’ (Sandberg et al, 2019: 133). Resultantly, Anderson (2013) has argued that for ‘a reasonable probability of avoiding the 2°C characterization of dangerous climate change, the wealthier nations need, temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy’. The following sections analyse whether degrowth is the answer to capitalist development and environmental sustainability.

The Degrowth Alternative

First coined by Andre Gorz in 1972 (Asara et al, 2015: 376), degrowth has emerged as a possible solution to the question of environmental sustainability. From this perspective, it is simply not enough to rely on ‘technological magic bullets’ (Magdoff & Foster, 2011: 124); for industrialised countries to cut carbon emissions by the required 8-10% per year, they need a reduction in consumption and energy that is ‘incompatible with continued economic growth’ (Stuart et al, 2019: 96). Thus, degrowth has emerged as a paradigm which challenges the ‘growth mania’ of capitalist development, viewing continuous economic growth as uneconomic, unjust and unsustainable (Liegey, 2016; Pollin, 2018: 5). Instead, proponents of degrowth argue for a ‘downscaling of economic production and consumption to assure that society’s throughput… stays within safe ecosystem boundaries’ (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 912). Degrowth, therefore, promotes a future in which society moves away from greed and endless accumulation to one which focuses on frugality, simplicity and self-limitation (Kallis, 2014). This view resonates with Schumacher’s ‘Buddhist Economics’ which promotes the ‘modest use of resources’ and analyses 'how to attain given ends with minimum means' (Schumacher, 1969).

Figure 2: The effect of GDP growth on carbon emissions since 1960 (Source: Kallis & Jacobs, 2018).

Indeed, the prominent degrowth scholar Serge Latouche argues that this cultural shift towards ‘living with enough’ does not require the abolition of markets or profit incentives, but simply a reduction in their scope (Fotopoulos, 2010: 105). Therefore, degrowth imagines a change within the capitalist structure, ending people’s obsession with economic growth and creating societies which are ecologically sustainable. Such a transition appears inevitable in the context of an ever-rising global population and the continued economic development of nations around the world. Hickell (2017) argues that the industrialised nations have no option other than to downscale their economic activity by 4-6% per annum while developing countries will have to ‘follow suit after 2025, downscaling by about 3% per year’. Indeed, evidence suggests that degrowth may be key to reducing environmental damage, with contractions in GDP associated with an absolute decline in carbon emissions (van den Bergh, 2011: 882). This is supported by figure 2 above which demonstrates how the global growth rate affects carbon emissions; just 1% lower growth since 1960 would have led to a substantial reduction in carbon emissions. Degrowth, therefore, appears crucial to achieving environmental sustainability.

However, Pollin (2018: 22) argues that contractions in GDP will cause crippling recessions, leading to mass unemployment and severely reduced standards of living, particularly for the poor. Further, losses in GDP will severely impede investment in key areas such as education and healthcare (Pollin, 2018: 24). Yet, Kallis (2014) states that degrowth is not just about less GDP and less consumption; it’s about less and different. The degrowth paradigm, therefore, imagines a very different society, whereby institutions are developed to enable humanity to live with enough (Kallis & March, 2015: 367). Indeed, this requires selective degrowth, with dirty industries shrinking while education and healthcare services are allowed to flourish (Kallis et al, 2015: 6).

Simultaneously, policy innovations are required. Key here is the suggestion of reducing working hours and creating job sharing schemes; predicted to reduce consumption, alleviate issues of unemployment, and allow people to take more leisure time (van den Bergh, 2011: 883; Andreucci & McDonough, 2015: 61). Similarly, social welfare institutions have been targeted, with proposals for redistributive taxes and basic income legislation which would reduce wealth inequality, ensuring that everyone has enough to live comfortably (Mastini, 2017). Degrowthers also argue for relocalisation, in which communities become self-sufficient, using local resources to meet local needs (Kallis, 2015; Schumacher, 1969: 3). Such communities are likely to be run according to the principles of direct democracy, with society valuing reciprocity and sharing rather than profit-making and accumulation. Thus, degrowth envisages substantial changes to our everyday lives; changes which are likely to bring about a more equitable society and increase the well-being of citizens in tandem with environmental sustainability.

There is already evidence of grassroots economic practices which secure the basic needs of people while reducing material throughput (Asara et al, 2015: 378), a key example being cohousing. Under such systems, homes are situated around shared spaces and are managed by the residents. This creates a community organised around sharing; residents share everything from maintenance tools to cooking equipment to children’s clothes, the result of which is heavily reduced consumption levels (Lietaert, 2010: 578). These communities heavily reduce their ecological footprints through car sharing, with one cohousing community in Denmark using just 6 cars when, individually, they would require nearly 40 cars (Ibid). Cohousers also enter relationships with local farmers, sourcing food in a way that is both cheaper and greener (Lietaert, 2010: 579). The results of cohousing systems appear to be very positive, significantly reducing resource consumption and waste production, while also allowing citizens to build strong social networks which contribute to their well-being (Williams, 2008: 271). Resultantly, cohousing schemes tend to cut their carbon dioxide emissions by around 50% (Lietaert, 2010: 578); this demonstrates how strategies of degrowth can produce tangible results in terms of providing environmental sustainability.

Further, Degrowthers offer a more fundamental critique of the very idea of ‘development’, arguing that it has led to a ‘uniform change towards the American way of life’ (Martinez-Alier, 2015: 38). As such, degrowth seeks to open up space for alternatives to development, emphasizing the role of grassroots movements and communities in these processes (Muraca & Schmelzer, 2017: 184). This liberates space for developing countries to sidestep the western form of capitalist development, which focuses on resource extraction and breeds environmental damage, in favour of a more sustainable system. An illustrative example here is the South American concept of Buen Vivir. This worldview promotes harmony between humans and the environment, opposing the commodification of ecological systems and encouraging people to take care of nature (Balch, 2013). Indeed, while it is not incompatible with a market capitalist framework, it puts an emphasis on reducing consumption and taking account of the environmental and social costs that are bound up in products (Balch, 2013; Mercado, 2017). Thus, Buen Vivir sets out a way of doing things that is much more ecologically sensitive than the paths taken by the industrialised nations. Indeed, some nations have adopted Buen Vivir in their constitutions, with Ecuador attempting to achieve a ‘style of life that enables happiness and the permanency of cultural and environmental diversity’ (Williford, 2018: 107). In this sense, Ecuador is not interested in achieving endless economic growth but sees economic growth as a means to enhance the ‘abilities and capabilities of the public’ (Ibid).

Thus, degrowth appears as a crucial strategy in achieving environmental sustainability. Transformations in society and in its institutions will reduce the total amount of resources being used and will heavily reduce humanities environmental footprint. Simultaneously, human well-being will be improved through increases in leisure time, a reduction in inequality and closer bonds with society as well as nature. The following section delves deeper in order to evaluate whether degrowth is the answer to environmental sustainability.

Degrowth: Critical Aspects

Despite the positive outlook outlined previously, critics have questioned whether degrowth will deliver environmental sustainability. Van den Bergh (2011: 882) argues that GDP degrowth could ‘depress investments in cleaner technologies, renewable energy and research’ while firms may shift to dirtier, less efficient production techniques in the short-run. Thus, it is possible that degrowth may backfire; a contraction in GDP could cause higher greenhouse gas emissions and have negative impacts upon ecological systems. Yet, in response to these claims, Kallis maintains that degrowth will not hamper innovations or intensify the use of dirty fuels (Kallis & Jacobs, 2018). This is because negative growth will reduce investments in dirty industries, while reduced profit motives will allow existing technologies to be deployed, and new technologies to be developed, at a fraction of the cost (Ibid). This suggests that degrowth will not create a situation in which emissions suddenly escalate.

However, there are also fears that degrowth does not go far enough and will be unable to meet the required reductions in carbon emissions, particularly in the short time frame available. Even a substantial contraction of 10% in global GDP over the next twenty years would only reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 10% (Pollin, 2018: 21). Such outcomes would fall way short of the IPCC’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. Further, Trainer (2010) highlights the fact that we should also be targeting the market. From this perspective, the capitalist drive for economic growth is not the only vice, with the market being viewed as a destructive force which threatens both society and the natural environment (Polanyi, 2001: 76). Therefore, the goal should be focused not only on downscaling production and consumption but also on building institutions which transcend the market; institutions which promote cooperation and reciprocity in order to do what is best for the environment and society (Trainer, 2010: 4).

Yet, it is not only the effectiveness of degrowth which has been questioned but also its political feasibility. While degrowth has entered mainstream discourses, it remains on the margins; no major governments appear interested in degrowth or view it as the strategy to achieve environmental sustainability (Kallis & Jacobs, 2018). Indeed, any attempt at pursuing degrowth would face substantial backlash from corporations; actors who exert significant power over national governments and hold significant interests in preventing economic restructuring and reductions in fossil fuel consumption (Kallis, 2011: 878; Pollin, 2018: 10). Further, many governments are likely to be hesitant in adopting degrowth, since negative growth would eliminate their use of interest rates as a policy tool; a mechanism which is crucial to neoliberal economic governance (Trainer, 2010: 2).

A bottom-up process of degrowth is also unlikely, with the myopic, self-interested nature of humans preventing many in society from significantly changing their lifestyles and reducing their consumption (van den Bergh, 2011: 889). As such, ‘degrowth would require draconian state intervention’ such as rationing and prohibitions (Kallis, 2011: 873); interventions which are unlikely to be supported by citizens. Further, the transition to degrowth requires global support. If a nation were to pursue degrowth in isolation, it would face severe penalties in the form of capital flight and the collapse of core institutions including banks (Kallis, 2015). Similarly, the downscaling of just a few economies is likely to depress global resource prices, thus creating a rebound effect in consumption elsewhere (Ibid). These factors suggest that degrowth would be very hard to implement in the real world, requiring the support of governments, corporations, and citizens from across the globe.

More critically, there appears to be a fundamental contradiction between degrowth and capitalism. Continual growth is essential for the health of capitalism, with capitalist economies falling into difficulties when GDP growth falls below 3% per year (Trainer, 2010: 12). As such, negative growth rates would lead to the fall of the capitalist system; destroying businesses, blocking access to credit and preventing debts from being paid off (Kallis, 2011: 875). As such, degrowth and capitalism are inherently incompatible since degrowth ‘violates the basic motive of capitalism- its own expansion’ (Magdoff & Foster, 2011: 56). Resultantly, degrowth requires not just a shift in culture and behaviour, but a ‘multi-scalar transformation beyond capitalism’ (Asara et al, 2015: 379). Andreucci and McDonough (2015: 62) argue that the majority of degrowth scholars already acknowledge this incompatibility between capitalism and degrowth, but adopt pro-capitalist positions in order to promote degrowth to mainstream economists and social scientists. Yet, this incompatibility between degrowth and capitalism deepens the issue of feasibility, since the transition to degrowth would require the overthrow of capitalism and the founding of a new system. Indeed alternative forms of social organisation, such as socialism, have been historically poor at protecting the environment due to their inefficient technologies and poor pricing structures (Fotopoulos, 2010: 111). Degrowth, therefore, requires a fundamental change in the way that society is organised, with Degrowthers yet to forward concrete ideas on what should replace capitalism (Schwartzman, 2012: 123).

The preceding arguments do not, however, suggest that degrowth is impossible or undesirable; instead it illuminates the difficulties in transitioning to a degrowth society. Indeed, ‘nothing is a-priori politically impossible’ (Kallis & Jacobs, 2018), meaning that it is entirely conceivable that nations around the world can adopt a new form of social organisation which is built upon the principles of degrowth. However, such a transformation will not occur overnight (Magdoff & Foster, 2011: 137). It will require a ’multifaceted struggle against the system of capital’ (Ibid), drawing upon coalitions of groups in societies including trade unions and environmentalists (Kallis, 2011: 876). Similarly, a global agreement to enact degrowth is feasible but would require a substantial amount of education, debate and information transfer (van den Bergh, 2011: 886), all of which takes time. Degrowth, therefore, is possible but is likely to take a long time to come to fruition, especially since no major governments are currently considering such a radical change. Yet, ensuring the health of our planet demands that we take urgent action, achieving drastic changes in the next 10-15 years (Kallis & Jacobs, 2018). As such, it appears that while degrowth may be a long-term goal if we are to achieve environmental sustainability and greater human well-being, it is unlikely to avert the immediate climate crisis. The following section investigates what can be done to reduce emissions in accordance with the IPCC’s targets.

An Alternative Avenue: Agrowth

In response to the issues highlighted in the preceding section, van den Bergh (2011) has suggested that instead of opposing economic growth, nations around the world should oppose the GDP indicator; an approach he calls ‘Agrowth’. This would mean that governments and societies ignore the GDP indicator, focusing instead ‘on sound environmental, social and economic policies independently of their effects on economic growth’ (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 910). From this perspective, the focus by governments on GDP growth acts as a barrier to good policies which would facilitate a transition to sustainability (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 911). Ignoring the GDP indicator would have the effect of opening up much greater policy space for governments to tackle the urgent climate crisis (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 912) allowing them to sacrifice growth in the short-run in order improve the health of both the environment and society (van den Burgh, 2011: 886).

This enlarged policy space would allow many reforms to take place that would go a long way in meeting the IPCC’s targets. It would make international agreements with strict reductions in emissions much more achievable (van den Bergh, 2011: 888), particularly in light of the fact that the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement due, in part, to its impact on GDP growth (Garden, 2017). At the same time, ignoring GDP would allow for the ‘large-scale transition from fossil-fuels to renewable energy sources’ (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 911) through the implementation of stringent industrial policies which will significantly enhance investment in clean energy (Pollin, 2018: 18) and cause a shift towards the use of resources with ‘a lower energy concentration and productivity’ (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 911). These measures could be coupled with sectoral policies which promote both environmental and human wellbeing, including; reductions in working hours, regulations on advertising and education programmes on the negative impacts of consumption (Kallis, 2011: 873). Indeed, these policies are likely to lead to a short-term reduction in economic growth, or even degrowth (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 913), but the absence of growth is entirely compatible with capitalism as long as the contraction is temporary (Kallis et al, 2015: 10).

Undeniably, agrowth faces problems, with the abandonment of GDP appearing just as unfeasible and utopian as degrowth. Yet, it is highly conceivable that society could shift towards agrowth, with growing ‘recognition among politicians and economists of the shortcomings of the GDP indicator’ (van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012: 916). Indeed, GDP is a weak indicator for human and environmental well-being, rewarding activities which damage ecological systems and ignoring factors such as inequality, household work and quality of life (Meadway, 2016: 103; Stiglitz, 2009). Progress has been made in creating alternative indicators which better reflect the well-being of society and the environment, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which has already been adopted by many states in the U.S. (Ceroni, 2014). Similarly, agrowth appears as a more feasible strategy than degrowth, since it outlines clear policies and sets out tangible goals (Kallis, 2011: 873). Resultantly, the agrowth strategy appears much more realistic than degrowth, providing a radical change that would allow governments to intensify their focus on policies that will avert the fast-approaching climate crisis.


This post has investigated how environmental sustainability is to be achieved. Capitalist development, focused on resource extraction and economic growth, has dominated around the world, producing an ecological crisis which must be dealt with in an urgent manner. In order to avert the crisis and achieve environmental sustainability, both academics and governments alike have focused on the idea that continued economic growth is key to reducing emissions and reliving ecological harm. Yet, these green growth approaches have proved to be ineffective and will not reduce emissions in line with the IPCC’s target of zero carbon emissions by 2050. As such, degrowth has been promoted as the required strategy to avert the ecological crisis.

Degrowth, as presented in this post, appears as a very appealing strategy. Through a reduction in consumption and production, and a change in the ethos of society towards frugality and sharing, it promotes a future that will improve the well-being of both humans and the environment. Indeed, there are already examples of how communities are cutting their environmental footprints by sharing resources with others. Similarly, the degrowth paradigm is opening up space for developing nations to follow an entirely different path to the one followed by the industrialised nations which was focused upon more and more economic growth. Yet, degrowth appears a long-shot and would be very difficult to achieve in the 10-15 years that we have to take action. It would involve the entire world shifting to a degrowth approach, transcending capitalism and unveiling a new form of social organisation coordinated around institutions which promote reciprocity and enable people to live with enough.

As a result, agrowth appears as a third option which could provide the required changes to avert an ecological crisis. By eliminating the GDP indicator and adopting a new measure of progress, such as GPI, governments would uncover the space to enact strict agreements and regulations in order to heavily reduce carbon emissions. In the immediate future, this appears a much more likely change than degrowth, considering the fact that many academics and politicians are already very critical of the GDP indicator. As such, a move away from GDP could be the required change to avoid the dangerous 2°C increase in global temperatures. In the long-run, however, degrowth may be both a valuable and inevitable strategy to follow if the world is to sustain an ever-growing population.


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