Oct 4, 2021 • 41M

#20 How much growth is enough

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If you’re familiar with the term degrowth, you’ll probably have noticed that it’s popping up more and more frequently.

At last month’s battle in France for the Green Party leadership in next year’s presidential race, degrowth was referenced but never tackled in depth or in detail. Yannick Jadot, a green growth candidate, won by a narrow margin over his “eco-feminist” rival, Sandrine Rousseau.

Degrowth made an appearance recently on the front page of the international edition of the New York Times. It was an opinion piece called “Degrowth as a saviour to the planet”.

Ezra Klein talked about it on his podcast in August. He said “I understand its appeal, but I don’t understand its politics.”

You can study degrowth. There’s a masters programme at a university in Barcelona in Political Ecology, Degrowth and Environmental Justice.

So what’s driving this interest in degrowth, and how is degrowth different from green growth?

Green growth is the idea that we can have economic growth and sustainable development at the same time. It’s an idea that’s been around for over a decade. And it’s the underlying assumption of almost all current policy discussions about net zero.

What’s changed is that that assumption is starting to come under scrutiny as being not fit for purpose for the scale of our crisis.

So is degrowth the alternative to green growth? Or are they two sides of the same coin.

To find out, I talked to two experts in the field - Julia Steinberger, from the University of Lausanne and Malcolm Fairbrother of Umea University in Sweden.

The first thing I learned is that degrowth is not what it seems. It’s not about less economic growth, nor is it about voluntary simplicity.

For anyone who has ever stumbled trying to follow this debate, or who wants to understand what’s at stake and how our actions can count, then this episode is for you.

We talked about:

  • 2.09 Green growth is not just economic growth with a bit of sustainability tacked on as an afterthought.

  • 3.16 Degrowth: the main goal is to decouple human prosperity and wellbeing from environmental degradation and resource use emissions.

  • 5.27 Difference between GDP as a goal and saying that GDP growth can be reconciled with sustainability

  • 7:56 Why is degrowth getting more attention?

  • 15:30 Julia points out one reason why green growth isn’t working: when we communicate on the basis that we don’t need to change our economic systems, we just need to throw extra money at R & D, what policy makers hear is “You don’t have to do anything.”

  • 16:44 Scientific literature on degrowth is growing; the IPCC’s WG3 report in 2022 includes more radical alternatives in terms of what the economy could be doing & more literature critical of existing models which equate prosperity with growth.

  • 18:06 Malcolm explains a key point of divergence between green growth and degrowth: we’ve have success in solving environmental problems with policy shifts to induce shifts in production and consumption in the past - if we use our existing tools to their full capacity, we can save the planet. The real problem is politicians not doing their jobs because of corporate lobbying.

  • 27.00 Degrowth also emphasizes distribution and sufficiency: we need to make sure that everyone has access to basic standards for a good life. This goes against the political winds of our time related to neoliberalism which says whoever can afford whatever it is, they get to do that thing.

  • 34.38 Malcolm warns of the risk that if we don’t communicate which positive changes we can achieve through policies, people will get cynical and think than nothing good can come of politics or policymaking

  • 36.23 Julia and Malcolm agree that it’s all about political action. It doesn’t matter who your politician is, you need to make their life a living hell until they do the right thing.