Over the past years, with escalating climate urgency, degrowth has become a viable economic alternative, an hot topic in need of widespread discussion. Degrowth has been defined as a voluntary, democratically negotiated, equitable downscaling of societies’ physical throughput until it reaches a sustainable steady-state (Alexander, 2012; Latouche, 2010; Schneider et al., 2010). But if all this sounds reasonable on paper, it is difficult to take the measures to include degrowth in the political agendas of the main parties, and even convince the common citizen of its importance.
One of the most anxious arguments criticising the degrowth movement pertains to well being. If we go the path of downscaling our economy, how will that impact our well being ? In developed societies, growth is deeply interconnected with identity (for example the sensation of self worth connected with the idea of work), and in developing countries, the need to reach objective well being goals (such as national health system, education and sanitation infrastructure etc) is the top priority. So when we speak about degrowth as a possible solution for the current crisis, its impact on well being needs to be thought through carefully.
3 percent of economic growth per year, is not sustainable at all, and is actually highly damaging. Climate change and the crisis in biodiversity are self evident facts, and as various studies confirm there is a direct correlation, between these and absolute economic growth. As Kenneth E. Boulding said : “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” If nothing is done urgently, the well being of future generations will be profoundly jeopardised. The current situation is one of urgency.
In the article “Challenges for the degrowth transition: The debate about wellbeing“, Milena Büchs and Max Koch make a comprehensive analysis of degrowth’s relationship with wellbeing.
Their argument is that Degrowth comes as a plausible alternative particularly when we realise how the current system is not providing the expected well being populations strive for. For example in health, various studies have confirmed how in developed nations, the highly technology- and medicalisation-focused health systems, mostly driven by private profit interests, has triggered massive unnecessary medicalisation of the population since childhood.
On the other hand, a growth-oriented consumer capitalist model, has produced high levels of stress and all kinds of mental health conditions in people, due to extreme competition and pressure to perform, leading to sleep deprivation and unhealthy choices. Present day hyper capitalism, emphasising competition, individual gain and market relations, has affected not only individuals but it has put a lot of strain in the moral and social values of communities. Finally the latest technological innovations as the ones anticipated by the fourth industrial revolution, are seen as threatening people’s jobs and sense of identity, which in the current system, is mostly connected with work.
At a global scale, the idea that growth, in its “trickle down” hypothesis, would work to solve society’s global problems has also failed. Hunger, poverty and global inequality are rising to inimaginable levels, and very visible… which is new, as famous economist Thomas Piketty has describe in his various writings.
If we all know this, and mostly agree at a conceptual level, how important it is to downsize our economy, its hard to transform discourse into practice. The growth paradigm, states the authors, is deeply embedded in people’s minds and bodies, both leaders and the common citizen. Just think about the last Davos meeting: while David Attenborough urged world leaders to take urgent action on climate change, up to 1,500 individual private jets were flying to and from airfields serving the Swiss ski resort.
In developed countries the common citizen also has embedded in himself and herself behaviours compliant with the growth paradigm. In 2017 according to IATA, the number of commercial flights was 36.8 million, not including private, business and military aviation. Who wants and is willing to give up on acquired standards for their holidays abroad ? As the concept of “hedonic adaptation” explains, once new standards are reached, people take these for granted as a status of well being, and demand more to remain happy. That is just plain human nature. Desire to expand. Well, that expansion needs to occur towards something else.
So, degrowth sounds like a great project, but to put it into practice is not easy as it requires a tremendous degree of will from the populations that is not easy to reach.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, and as explained in the the essay, economic growth as a characteristic of market capitalism, is what underpins the foundational architecture of our modern societies and what provides us with most of the structures, welfare state, entertainment, education that we all are part of. They write : “it is needed to stabilise modern societies as it provides employment, public sector provision through tax revenues, rising wages, and the social stability we all know and that make our world go round.”
If we break economic growth into its tiny bits that transform it into a practice, we realise how it unfolds in all sorts of structures, institutions, cultural activities, discourses, technologies, and even identities. Economic growth began with industrialisation in the 19th century, in the UK and then the rest of the western world.
As the writers write: “In a co-evolutionary process, a range of institutions developed which are now coupled to a growth-based capitalist economy, including the nation state, representative democracy, the rule of law and current legal, financial, labour market, education, research, and welfare systems. These are based on philosophies which emerged to justify and give meaning to these institutions, for instance on individualism, freedom, justice, sovereignty, or power.”
The system is so embodied in us, and all the institutions that surround us, that just to change quickly to a degrowth system would be incredibly difficult, plus it would imply a parallel transformation of all kinds of systems. As the authors mention, two examples of the parallel structures to degrowth we are talking about and that have a direct impact on people’s wellbeing are the welfare state, and people’s own mind-sets and identities.
“Rising economic prosperity in the post Second World War period provided the resources for establishing welfare states in Europe and elsewhere, and the funding of current welfare state institutions is closely coupled to economic growth as it largely depends on income-related taxes and social security contributions. The positive relationship between economic growth and welfare states in many ways also works the other way round: welfare states support growth by enhancing the population’s health and education levels, providing unemployment and minimum income benefits for people out of work.”
So in order for a shift towards degrowth to occur, a structural reorganisation of the economic and welfare system would be required. And that takes time. On the other hand, the fears that degrowth would produce less wellbeing by producing more unemployment and inequality are unfounded. Actually by downsizing their lives, people would achieve better wellbeing since they would have more time or creative, spiritual and political endeavours and less stress. The writers state: “Employment levels could be maintained through working time reduction and active labour market policies; poverty and inequality be reduced through redistributive policies.” And step by step, one would be moving towards a business ownership and management model, aligned with a more cooperatively managed economy in which decision-making and incomes would be more evenly shared.
This again, would imply a complete shift in terms of identity and this is the hard step, that takes time. But we are getting there.
Maria Fonseca is the Editor and Infographic Artist for IntelligentHQ. She is also a thought leader writing about social innovation, sharing economy, social business, and the commons. Aside her work for IntelligentHQ, Maria Fonseca is a visual artist and filmmaker that has exhibited widely in international events such as Manifesta 5, Sao Paulo Biennial, Photo Espana, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Joshibi University and many others. She concluded her PhD on essayistic filmmaking , taken at University of Westminster in London and is preparing her post doc that will explore the links between creativity and the sharing economy.