Degrowth revisited

19 June 2024 – In mid-May 2023, the European Parliament hosted a major conference on degrowth, sparking a wide range of reactions in the media. This diversity of opinions did not contribute to fostering broad support for the concept. Degrowth advocates argue for phasing out the fossil fuel industry, and while one can relate to that when it comes to a specific sector, it is harder to grasp how it can be applicable to the entire world economy. Such a complex idea demands careful consideration. 

Imagine you’re diagnosed with life-threatening conditions due to severe obesity. Your doctor advises you to change your diet and lifestyle to extend your life expectancy. Now, picture she labels this advice as “de-feeding.” At the next family gathering, you decline a toast with foie gras, sharing your doctor’s advice as an explanation. An uncle points out that people in impoverished regions often have to de-feed due to famines, and suggests your doctor should consult those people before giving you such advice. A cousin has scientific evidence showing that people in famine-stricken areas consuming 200 daily calories instead of 100 go less hungry, so whoever defends de-feeding clearly is unscientific. Your family unanimously agrees that one needs to eat to survive, so a small toast won’t hurt. Despite the soundness of your doctor’s advice, her choice of words is counterproductive. Perhaps degrowth faces a similar issue with its terminology. 

For over fifty years, we have known there are limits to growth, and we have surpassed them in many areas. So there is an issue with the concept of growth, but what is it? Most people agree that a primary function of the economy is to efficiently allocate the planet’s resources to meet society’s needs. A ‘functional’ economy, therefore, doesn’t consume resources faster than the planet can regenerate them, or it would undermine its very foundation. Moreover, it earns social trust by ensuring the wellbeing of all people rather than creating excessive wealth for a few at the expense of many. More and more people find it unacceptable that today people must massively flee their countries to survive.  

Currently, the day when we exhaust all renewable planetary resources falls in the middle of the year, meaning we consume approximately 200% of what is really available annually. This Overshoot Day has been creeping earlier every year since the 1970s, reflecting the increasing economic growth. As planetary buffers deplete, the ecosystem suffers, pushing species, including humans, toward endangerment. Despite high productivity levels, a significant portion of the world’s population lives in dire poverty. Clearly, our growth model is in urgent need of reform. 

What truly needs to grow is the economy’s functionality. This should be the new parameter to measure its success. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increases even when industries harm people and nature, making it an inadequate indicator. Economic functionality should be gauged by the wellbeing of people and the planet, not merely by the financial success of businesses and shareholders. We must redefine growth and recalibrate our economic success indicators. Perhaps “regrowth” is a more fitting term. Companies that restructure with the mission of enhancing human and planetary wellbeing and transparently report their impact should set the new standard and become the new normal. Innovative policies must support and solidify this transformation. Higher education and ongoing training should equip everyone with this new compass. 

Of course, saying ‘no’ to delicious toast and adopting a new lifestyle isn’t easy. But once you understand the reasons behind it, it allows you to look forward full of hope to an economy that fosters a healthy, prosperous world. This is the kind of growth we need.

First published in Trends

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This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of The Club of Rome or its members.

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