Degrowth is the idea that, for the sake of the planet given the threat of catastrophic climate change, we (or, more accurately, capitalists) must cease our pursuit of neverending economic growth and reorient to developing an economy that can meet the needs and desires of people within the amount of resources we can sustainably use. The Verso Books article linked below explains it like this:
[D]egrowth can be defined as the democratic transition to a society that – in order to enable global ecological justice – is based on a much smaller throughput of energy and resources, that deepens democracy and guarantees a good life and social justice for all, and that does not depend on continuous expansion.
In recent years, degrowth has become a popular concept among left-wing and left-ish people.
Some of the measures suggested by degrowth advocates include:
- Reducing “less necessary” production, which means scaling down “destructive” industries like fossil fuels, advertising, fast fashion, aviation, automobiles, and mass-produced meat and dairy. It also means the abolition of “planned obsolescence”, with the goods we do produce being built to last, and with repairability in mind.
- The expansion of public services and the provision of a strong social safety net – this includes things like mass public housing, education, healthcare, transportation, energy grids (powered by renewables, obviously) and, long-term, a universal basic income.
- Introducing a green jobs guarantee – basically, guaranteeing that anyone who wants a job can get one, working to construct the necessary infrastructure for a more environmentally-friendly existence.
- Reducing work time – for example shorter working hours, shorter work weeks, and lower retirement ages. There simply isn’t enough work that is actually necessary for everyone to have to work 40+ hour weeks until they’re very elderly. Better to distribute the workload equitably than have some people hyperstressed from long work hours and others unemployed. There is the suggestion that caregiving work should be highly prioritised.
- Enabling sustainable development – basically, quit the onerous requirements and debt repayment schedules imposed on low and middle-income countries, so people living there can be brought up to the same standard of living as the developed world.
Some leftists, calling themselves “eco-modernists”, don’t support the concept of degrowth. Among these is Leigh Phillips. Reading the Jacobin interview linked below, I feel like they have a fundamentally different concept of what “degrowth” means from what I do – for example they bring up the fossil fuel lobby’s cliche that we still need public hospitals to function “when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing”, and allege that “degrowth” supporters don’t support technological progress to make such a thing possible, when obviously they do 🥴
There’s also the claim that degrowth would mean a dramatic reduction in the standard of living for workers in the developed West, but to me that presupposes that we all keep living under neoliberal capitalism (when this very person is also arguing for centralised economic planning). Do you need as high an income if housing, healthcare, utilities, etc. are all free? While $100 a week would struggle to cover our grocery budget, why do our weekly groceries cost $100 a week when they certainly wouldn’t cost that in a country where people earn lower incomes? The article also talks about a “decoupling” of inputs vs outputs – either a relative decoupling where outputs increase disproportionately to inputs, or an absolute decoupling where outputs increase while inputs decrease. The implication is that “degrowthers” don’t understand this, or maybe don’t support it (?) but like… the whole point of the degrowth idea is to make the most of the resources we have (without “borrowing” from our future). That doesn’t mean “we can never make more of the resources we have than what we do right now”!
Kohei Saito wrote a really influential book about degrowth, Marx in the Anthropocene. From the review republished in Red Flag (see links) I get the impression that this book was much more strident about the level of cutting back required (for example, that we should not build high-speed railways because even this is too ecologically damaging; instead we should just not travel, ever). He is also, apparently, against air conditioning and the eating of meat, and seems sharply critical of urbanisation (even though honestly the solution to good farmland being wrecked by having cities expand onto it is for cities to get even more dense). He criticises both “Green New Deal” type politics and “fully automated luxury communism” type politics. I guess I can see why Phillips would criticise this variety of “degrowth” politics, and I don’t think you’re very likely to win workers, en masse, to this kind of vision for the future. But I also don’t think this is what everyone means by “degrowth”…
See Also / References
- The Guardian: ‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan (9 Sep 2022)
- Verso Books: The Case for Degrowth (14 Sep 2022)
- Nature: Degrowth can work — here’s how science can help (12 Dec 2022)
- Jacobin: Degrowth Is Not the Answer to Climate Change (8 Jan 2023)
- Red Flag: Thinking about ecology with Marx – A review of Kohei Saito’s ‘Marx in the Anthropocene’ (24 Feb 2023)