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Degrowth Is a Dead End

The once-niche concept of degrowth, which calls for actively shrinking rich economies and transferring resources to the Global South, is gaining more attention. But the political obstacles facing the movement are insurmountable, owing to its all-or-nothing strategy and reliance on a collective moral awakening.

CAMBRIDGE – The concept of degrowth has recently captured the imagination of academics, activists, and politicians – particularly in rich countries – who are concerned about environmental sustainability and socioeconomic justice. Last May, the European Parliament organized a Beyond Growth Conference. Since then, a spate of articles (including in leading scientific journals) has documented the rise of this once-niche movement, which calls for abandoning GDP growth as a goal, reducing energy and material use, and focusing economic activity on human well-being.

But despite the fervor of its adherents, the degrowth movement lacks a coherent theory of change, and is thus a dead end. While the ideals that underpin the movement and some of its proposals, such as universal access to public services and a green-jobs guarantee, resonate powerfully, its overarching goals are politically impractical. Moreover, because degrowth is an all-or-nothing strategy, it would actually impede progress on climate policy.

For starters, degrowth is premised on the idea that “the system” is to blame for our climate predicament, which implies that the solution is to abolish capitalism. In this context, advocates do not view incremental progress toward the movement’s stated goals, such as reduced working hours or targeted bans on highly polluting activities, as a step in the right direction; on the contrary, they interpret such changes as a way for policymakers to defend the current system against criticism. In other words, reform is anti-revolutionary.

At the international level, degrowth calls for actively shrinking rich economies and launching a voluntary transfer of resources to the Global South. Notwithstanding abstract social-justice considerations, this would be a political non-starter: when fewer resources are available, countries become less, not more, generous. Even now, when advanced economies are expanding, securing adequate funding for the Loss and Damage Fund operationalized at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai has proven difficult.

On a societal level, degrowthers urge a collective moral awakening. If only people fully grasped the damage caused by the current economic model, the thinking goes, they would rapidly embrace an ascetic lifestyle. They would give up meat, flying, SUVs, and other carbon-intensive products and services.

But while proponents of degrowth imagine an enlightened society, betting on the moral improvement of humankind is a poor wager. As philosopher Emrys Westacott has shown, most world religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism, have long preached simple living. It is safe to assume, given the state of the planet, that these calls for moderation have done little to tame the relentless drive for consumption. Expecting a moral revolution to kickstart structural transformation is like waiting for Godot.

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In fact, a backlash against the current pace of climate action – which is far from sufficient – is already gaining steam, with nationalist parties running in several upcoming elections exploiting fears about greener lifestyles. In this context, the idea that a swift change of heart among the rich would make degrowth politically feasible looks even more unrealistic.

The politics of climate change and environmental policy are complex precisely because of the need to balance people’s immediate demands for quality of life, affordable energy, and economic security with long-term sustainability. As the New York Times’ Ezra Klein eloquently put it, the degrowth movement is “trying to take the politics out of politics” and is “attacking the flaws of the current strategy as not moving fast enough when the impediments are political, but then not accepting the impediments to its own political path forward.”

Instead of trying to halt growth, we must redefine and reorient our growth patterns toward sustainability, so that we can reconcile the persistent desire to consume more with the imperative to make greener choices. Technological advances, renewable energy, and a shift toward a circular economy offer ways to align economic progress with environmental stewardship.

The political obstacles facing the degrowth movement are insurmountable, which is why its newfound prominence will prove ephemeral. The most degrowthers can hope to achieve is to prod a privileged few toward more sustainable consumption habits. To the extent that it is successful, the movement will contribute, albeit modestly, to mitigating the effects of climate change.

As climate experts often remind us, there is no silver bullet for global warming. Avoiding a climate catastrophe demands a multifaceted strategy comprising multiple solutions. But degrowth is not one of them.