Envisioning a post-growth future.
Imagine a future where everyone has what they need to survive. People have less income but more free time – human wellbeing is the centre of life. Autonomy and direct democracy are crucial components. There are no “bullshit” jobs but creative projects. At the core of the economy – care amongst humans and the non-human environment.
Conviviality, sharing and solidarity have replaced individualism, profit and xenophobia. There are alternative food networks, cooperatives, basic income and healthcare, co-housing, local currencies, convivial spaces and art.
This future you are envisioning is a post-growth future. It is painted by those who are part of the academic association Research and Degrowth in Barcelona, and countless others who are part of the degrowth movement across the globe.
It’s also made its way into policy. In May last year, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Arden unveiled plans to abandon GDP growth as an objective in favour of wellbeing, focusing on goals like community, cultural connection and equity across generations. Since then, the leaders of Scotland and Iceland have indicated they will follow suit.
Marula Tsagkari, member of Research and Degrowth and PhD candidate at the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Barcelona, describes degrowth as “a series of transformative changes primarily in the economic system, but also a broader social-ecological transformation.”
It combines policy proposals (e.g. basic income, less working hours, green tax reforms, the abolishment of GDP) with cultural changes at the individual level (e.g. less car use, less consumption), as well as bigger changes in the way we value the world around us.
Growth as an objective is “irrational”
In recent weeks, degrowth has become more and more relevant. This is due to increased pressure from the pandemic, fear of the next economic recession, and the looming threat of climate change.
“The COVID-19 crisis unfolded all the vulnerabilities of the capitalistic system and is teaching us what really matters: health, family, community and conviviality care,” Tsagkari said to me over email correspondence.
“Additionally the urgency and severity of climate change have drawn attention to the insufficiency of ‘business as usual’ to tackle climate change and have increased the need for alternatives like degrowth which provide tangible solutions.”
Dr Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist, author and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. A leading expert in degrowth policy, he says “it’s irrational to organise the economy around growth as an objective.” Economies in high-income nations have overshot ecological limits and thus, the current lifestyle cannot be sustained infinitely.
In his report Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance, Dr Hickel says the objective is to “scale down the material and energy throughput of the global economy, focusing on high-income nations with high levels of per-capita consumption,” bearing in mind the stark differences between the global North and South.” He writes that “by destabilising the biosphere on which human life depends, it becomes clear the greatest public wealth of all – the integrity of the planetary biosphere – has been sacrificed for the sake of private riches.” He believes the only way to resolve it is to reverse it: “to reorganise the economy around generating an abundance of public wealth even if doing so comes at the expense of private riches.”
An economy in balance with the living world
To move in the right direction, Dr Hickel proposes we abolish Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and look towards alternatives such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which starts with GDP but then subtracts ecological or social costs, resolving the current measurement’s principal setback. As he explained to me over the phone, “the problem with GDP is that it counts the monetary value of all the stuff you extract, produce and sell, but it doesn’t count any of the ecological costs of that,” or social costs for that matter.
He pointed me towards countries like the US for example – the GDP per capita is 60,000 dollars a year per person and yet they have worse social outcomes than countries like Portugal which has 66% less GDP per capita and yet has a higher life expectancy and higher social outcomes across the board.
“A growth-oriented economy that endlessly produces more GDP all the time is not actually necessary for human flourishing,” he said.
He also believes it’s “essential” for us to invest in basic universal services: “The more we can provide access to the goods that people need to live well, without them needing to rely on ever-increasing production and private consumption, the better.”
In high-income nations unnecessary industrial production needs to be scaled down immediately for us to have a technologically feasible, ecologically coherent and socially just transition. This includes the scaling down of SUV production, private jets, arms production, and so on.
Considering low-income nations
Degrowth is designed for high-income nations only. Most low-income nations are actually below planetary boundaries – they are under-consuming. The objective for them is to organise their economy in such a way that delivers high levels of human wellbeing whilst remaining within planetary boundaries – a model the global south has previously pursued.
In the immediate post-colonial decades, the 50s, 60s and 70s, most global-south countries focused the organisation of their economies around human wellbeing, economic sovereignty and independence – something they should be pursuing again, says Dr Hickel. It was only with the structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s and 1990s that the World Bank and IMF forced this objective of focusing on GDP growth at all costs.
The changes proposed in this model, despite requiring some effort on the part of individuals, mostly require collective cultural and structural changes: “This is not about blaming people for their consumption patterns and forcing them to consume less. This is really about dealing with a system that basically produces immense amounts of waste and unnecessary production,” said Dr Hickel.