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Degrowth: The Only Way To Grow

Economic growth is apparently the Holy Grail, rooted in outdated measurements like GDP and arbitrary stock market digits.

But what if these assumptions are wrong and, actually, for our own well-being and for the future of the planet, we have to redefine success and embrace degrowth?

Host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Jason Hickel and Asad Rehman to discuss.

The Challenge Ahead

Several countries have introduced targets to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. These targets are included and achieved in the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). Realizing the pace and scale of emissions reductions, however, require a far-reaching set of actions going above and beyond the existing SDS measures. The challenge to meet zero emissions by 2050, if not already difficult enough, have been compounded by the global targeted objective embodied in the Paris Agreement.

This agreement recognizes the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. This means that the nations of the global north which, historically, have been driving climate breakdown the most have a greater responsibility to reduce emissions to zero than their southern counterparts who have contributed less.

But the challenges for the global north are even more dramatic than that. According to scientists in the Stockholm Environment Institute, high-income nations like the U.K. and the USA, need to get to zero emissions within a decade at the latest. The crucial thing to grasp here is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself is clear that the only way that dramatic reductions in emissions can be accomplished, is to rapidly shift the notion of economies organized around growth towards renewable alternatives.

The problem, though, as Jason Hickel acknowledges, is that such rapid transition involves a massive scaling down of excess industrial activity which currently is not even being discussed or planned for in a manner necessary to stave off planetary risk for humans. There are no signs that the global north are prepared to fundamentally shift priorities away from economic key drivers such as exchange value and elite accumulation towards more rational ways of thinking about the economy and the question of growth.

Tackling global injustice

Connected to this are the issues around global justice. As Asad Rehman acknowledges, in a world that’s divided along global lines, it’s those who are least responsible and able to pick up the pieces of the impending catastrophe who are likely to be the ones who pay the biggest price. Indeed, it’s precisely the fact that the devastating environmental impacts resulting form the growth model are disproportionately affecting the poorest that has allowed this model to continue unabated by the richest who initiate it.

The killer droughts, famines and floods experienced disproportionately in the nations of the global south have yet to fully register in the nations of the global north to justify, from the latter’s perspective, the radical shifts required to address them.

Although Rehman states that there have been some positive shifts in the decade since Copenhagen, they have not been sufficient enough to shake the complacent rich world from it’s foundations:

“What’s happened is, is that people have taken this economic argument and then balanced it with saying what is an acceptable sacrifice for people and places around the world. And so you had economists who said, well, two degrees it’s safe only in the interests of would it disrupt our economic model? And at the time, there were people who argued it wouldn’t disrupt our economic model, therefore let’s adopt the two degree target, even whilst poorer countries were saying, look at what’s happening to us already. It’s impacting on the food production. It’s displacing people. It’s amplifying all of the other existing inequalities that exist in the world. It is not safe to have temperatures go even above one degree. We’re now at a point of saying we’re at one point five. We have to keep temperatures well below that.”

Rehman continues:

“Everything that we do is literally about deciding how much of the world and the world’s citizens we’re going to prevent from having what the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights called a climate apartheid, where the rich seek solace because of their wealth and the poor are left to die. But that’s only one part of the story, because if you look at economic inequality, the richest elite in the world have amassed the wealth while the poorest are still struggling to live on less than five dollars a day. So fundamentally, this is not a question about carbon, it’s not a question about climate in its abstract. It’s actually a question about justice and about global justice and about how we construct our economy and society which is premised on the idea that is acceptable to exploit people and our planet for profit. And within that logic, it’s acceptable to sacrifice people for to defend this economic model, which we all know has failed both people and our planet.”

Worried about GDP growth

Jason Hickel argues that the reason policymakers are unwilling to take dramatic action to prevent or to slow climate change is because they’re worried about the impact they might have on GDP growth which is basically the ideology of capitalism. It’s a cognitive seal that, we as a society, need to break. Even on its own terms, incessant growth is not making people happy. The world and our economy is failing the majority of people.

And even now in richer countries, more and more people are coming to the realization that after a decade of austerity they’re not working to live, they’re just working to survive. People are asking some profound questions like what is the purpose of our economy and society? There currently appears to be few nations in the world who are leading by example to reverse the situation, although New Zealand has pledged to remove GDP growth as an objective for the government’s budget. Scotland and Iceland have followed suit. In the global south, Kerala, Costa Rica and Cuba are other interesting examples of economies primarily organized around human well-being, social solidarity and justice.

These encouraging signs, though, are offset by the fact that the crisis has been framed in technocratic terms which are aimed to depoliticise and remove the conversation from ordinary people. However, what is encouraging is that over recent months various grass roots protests throughout the world have shone the spotlight back on to systems of oppression and racialized injustice which are creating new sets of political demands.

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