In the aftermath of a global economic crisis, South Korea decided in 2009 to invest two percent of its GDP—close to $38 billion—in what was then known as ‘green growth.’ The National Green Growth Strategy involved investment in environmentally friendly projects such as renewable energy. It was estimated that the plan would create about a million new green jobs and kickstart the economy.
While the plan was economically successful, South Korea emitted more greenhouse gases from 2009–2014 than ever before. This raises an important question: Is it really possible to pursue continued economic growth without damaging the environment?
A recent study in Nature suggests that balancing these goals is harder than it seems. The authors raise a serious question about some of the underlying assumptions of the highly regarded Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). None of the 222 scenarios modeled by the IPCC in their report included constant or declining GDP growth, whereas all of them included optimistic assumptions that negative emission technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, would be successful on a global scale.
Thus, trusting the report’s assumptions without further investigation is risky. One alternative outlook, known as ‘degrowth,’ targets the possibility of limiting GDP expansion in favor of investments in environmental justice and securing the well-being of nature in balance with economic needs.
GDP, as a measurement of economic output, only accounts for economic benefits while neglecting costs such as environmental degradation. Even efforts to supplement GDP with so-called Gross Ecosystems Products (GEP)—a measure that includes ‘the value of the contributions of nature to economic activity’— can only partially address the IPCC report’s omission.
Rapid Economic Development Sacrifices Environmental Health
In just twenty-five years, the Chinese economy has grown tenfold to become the world’s second-largest—accounting for fifteen percent of global GDP. The transformation of China over the last four decades as it embraced consumption-led, market-driven, pro-growth economic policies has lifted millions out of poverty. However, rapid growth has come at a tremendous cost to China’s environment and has led to rising social and economic inequality.
China and, to a lesser degree, Southeast Asian countries—including India—illustrate best the strengths and weaknesses of pro-growth policies driven by technological leapfrogging. Growth does deliver much-needed financial resources to the government to take up large-scale environmental conservation, remediation, and social welfare action. However, the results are far from satisfactory in addressing rising economic inequity in developing countries with weak institutional mechanisms and rampant corruption.
Even in mature developed economies like that of the United States, economic inequality remains an untamed beast. While the US economy grew three times between 1975 and 2015, the income of only the top 5% of the population grew significantly while the median income grew at a far slower pace and the income of the bottom one-fifth of Americans remained stagnant.
Degrowth Shifts Societal Priorities
The French philosopher, Andre Gorz, first introduced the term ‘Decroissance’ (French for degrowth) in the early seventies. He asked whether or not capitalism is compatible with an earth in balance with human need. And what if achieving that balance requires no economic growth or possibly even degrowth?
Unlike an economic recession or chaotic collapse, degrowth is a controlled contraction of the economy that ensures enhanced socio-economic equality both within and among countries. To that extent, degrowth policy would reject economic growth at any cost while placing environmental sustainability and quality of life at the center of policy making.
Degrowth policy would reject economic growth at any cost while placing environmental sustainability and quality of life at the center of policy making.
Degrowth policy would consist of programs such as job guarantees, universal minimum basic income and shorter workweeks. High-income, developed countries would be expected to follow degrowth principles to rapidly reduce their unsustainable environmental footprints. Lower-income, developing and under-developed countries would be encouraged to implement green growth policies to ensure growth and employment generation with minimum damage to the environment. Such policies would encourage investment in healthcare, education, public transport, women’s empowerment, environmental protection, and renewable energy.
Collective Action Targets Environmental Protection
A common thread among environmental advocacy groups and political movements is a growing call for “systemic change.” As perceived, systemic change holds the State and various macro structures, such as mega-corporations, accountable for the current ecological crisis. While systemic change is crucial, only bodies like the State, the UN, and other powerful institutions can hold giant corporations accountable while ushering in policy changes to make future paths more sustainable. This reality raises the critical question of where the responsibility of the individual stands. Is humanity ready to play its role in embracing degrowth?
Reconciling the ideas of macro-accountability with micro-responsibility—the role of the individual—requires that individuals envision a role for themselves in holding the state structures and mega-corporations accountable. What might individuals hold the state accountable for? That is where the study of degrowth strategies becomes relevant.
Macrostructures like mega-corporations are key instigators of environmental damage. Urgent action at scale requires that individuals devote all their energy to making sure that their voices are heard.
Mega-corporations, especially the fossil fuel industry, spend vast amounts on blaming the climate crisis on individual choices and promoting concepts like ‘personal carbon footprint’ as a way of deflecting their culpability. It is clear that an individual’s action, no matter how well-intentioned and practical at the micro-scale, would hardly make a dent by itself.
The time for ‘be the change you want to see’ is long past. Urgent action at scale requires that individuals devote all their energy to making sure that their voices are heard, loud and clear. The Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion movements have been compelling recent examples in this direction.
Excess Consumption Worsens Climate Change
It is becoming increasingly clear from the experience of the pandemic that humanity has serious choices to make in the face of impending social collapse resulting from the climate crisis. Either we face chaotic economic contractions due to climate crises or consider planned contractions of economic activities for the purpose of mitigating climate change and protecting decent living standards for all people.
It seems to be the nature of a market-driven, growth-centric economy to adapt and appropriate climate concerns—this nature is visible in the trends of ‘greenwashing’ that we see corporations indulging in today. A growth-oriented, consumption-led economy encourages spending that leads to such outcomes as the commercialization of holidays. Year-end holiday shopping leads to the release of as much as 650kg of CO2 per person into the atmosphere. As this system encourages us to spend and find ways to commodify every occasion, it also appropriates climate concerns by asking us to look to individual responsibility instead of advocacy for a new system. This is where we must turn to the possibility of climate-mitigating degrowth to counter any consumption-driven growth policies that damage the environment.
It is well established that the acquisition of material possessions alone does not lead to our happiness. The nineteenth century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously said, “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” Great thinkers like Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Schumacher were inspired by such thoughts and have shown an alternative to consumerism-driven market capitalism. By taking the path of climate-mitigating degrowth humanity will be returning to the source for the next stage of evolution towards a more evolved and enlightened being.
*Dhanada Mishra, Ph.D., is a civil engineer, academician, and technologist with a strong interest in the sustainability of the built environment. He is currently serving as the Technical Director in RaSpect Intelligence Inspection Limited, a start-up based in Hong Kong.