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Can “Degrowth” Save the World?

The relationship between economic growth, poverty, and the environment

June 2024

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

Imagine the size of your home cut in half.

Imagine you open your freezer to find all the meat has been removed.

Imagine that your thermostat limits how high you can set the heat or how low you can set the A/C.

If you woke up one morning to discover this is what happened to your life, what would you call it?

For a growing number of people, the answer to that question is … “progress.”

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

If you had a time machine that could take you back to any point in history, where would you go?

Ancient Greece?

Renaissance Italy?

The American founding?

Those were all important moments in history but allow us to suggest a more practical answer: If someone offers you time travel, you probably want to go back to … sometime last week.

Here’s what we mean: While we may be fascinated by the events of the past, most of us wouldn’t want anything to do with what it was actually like to live in the past.

You’d be sicker.

You’d be hungrier.

You’d be a lot poorer.

And, we don’t mean to scare you, but you’d also have a hard time finding a Pilates class.

Now, here’s the thing: Because we live in an era when improving living standards — and near-constant economic growth — are pretty much all we’ve ever known, we tend to take them for granted.

But to put into perspective just how recent a development this is, this is what the history of the world’s economic growth looks like.i

Now the difference between this guy’s life [7th-century man] and this guy’s life [14th-century man] isn’t that large, especially by modern-day standards. But the difference in the much shorter time period between this guy’s life [19th-century man] and this guy’s [21st-century man] is the difference between this and this:

Which is pretty much the definition of progress.

Well, unless you were in the “pulling giant carts of hay” business. That job is not coming back.

But here’s the question: Is all that progress … y’know, worth it?

These days, more and more people are saying “no.” Their argument: We’re victims of our own success.

Yes, we’re wealthier and healthier but at what cost? What about the ways we’ve damaged the environment, the vast amount of resources we’re consuming, and the yawning gap between wealthy countries where people spend absurd amounts of money on luxuries and poor ones where people struggle to even get basic necessities?

It's precisely those kinds of questions that have led a growing number of people to embrace a philosophy known as “degrowth,” in which we consciously try to limit our impact on the planet — and in which we try to equalize living standards between countries.

So, what would this look like in practice?

The European Environment Agency describes it as a world in which we grow in “purpose” or “empathy” rather than “material standards of living.”ii

The best-selling degrowth author Kohei Saito says that it means a society that recognizes that it has “too many cars, too many skyscrapers, too many convenience stores, [and] too much fast fashion.”iii

Another degrowth scholar says, “it might mean people in rich countries changing their diets, living in smaller houses, and driving and travelling less.”iv

He also says, by the way, that it “doesn’t mean we are going to be living in caves with candles.”

Which, honestly … sounds like a surefire sign that it means we’d be living in caves with candles.

In fact, if degrowth fails to catch on, a big part of the reason why may be that, while the idea may initially seem appealing, most people wouldn’t want to follow it through to its logical conclusions — and not just for selfish reasons.

Want the world to drastically reduce eating meat, as many degrowth advocates do? That would mean denying citizens of the developing world their most calorie-rich food. v

Want to get rid of “fast fashion,” the trend of mass-producing stylish clothing at low prices? You’d be imperiling the jobs of the people who make those clothes: tens of millions of workers in some of the world’s poorest countries. vi

And as for making sure that all countries have an equal amount of resources? In practice, that wouldn’t mean that the developing world would start to look more like the rich one. Instead, research finds it would mean that everybody on the planet would have about the same living standards as the average citizen of Botswana or China — about $17,000 per person per year.vii

So, the bad news: Degrowth likely wouldn't even solve the problems it’s meant to address.

But, the good news: We already have at least one way of addressing most of those same problems.

It’s called … growth — the process of countries getting wealthier.

Want to reduce carbon emissions? That’s already happening … in the world’s most prosperous nations. Meanwhile, countries like India and especially China are emitting far more than they used to.viii

Want to make sure we do more to help the world’s poor? No mechanism has ever done more for them than economic growth. Remember when we contrasted these two worlds [Graph comparing 1820 to 2018]? In this one, 76 percent of the global population lived in extreme poverty. In this one, nine percent did.ix

Want to make our economy less resource-intensive? In just the first two decades of this century, the U.S. managed to cut the energy intensity of our economic output by 1/3.x

And when you think about it … this all kinda makes sense. Wealthy countries have the luxury to spend time and energy worrying about things like how much meat we’re eating or how fuel-efficient our cars are. Countries where much of the population is living in fear of poverty, hunger, or disease don’t.

There’s a reason we call them first-world problems.

Bottom line: The world’s biggest problems … tend to get solved by the countries with the most resources. So, if we really want to tackle those issues head-on, we need to be focused on how we accelerate economic growth around the world — not how we stop it.

Because the alternative is … well, you know.

Source(s)

  1. Global GDP Over the Long Run  Our World in Data
  2. Growth Without Economic Growth  European Environment Agency
  3. "Can Shrinking Be Good for Japan? A Marxist Best Seller Makes the Case" (Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno)  New York Times
  4. "Degrowth – What’s Behind the Economic Theory and Why Does It Matter Right Now?" (Victoria Masterson)  World Economic Forum
  5. What Would Happen if Everyone Stopped Eating Meat?  National Geographic 
  6. Global Fashion Industry Statistics  Fashion United
  7. "People Are Realizing That Degrowth Is Bad" (Noah Smith) — Noahpinion
  8. Annual Co₂ Emissions  Our World in Data
  9. "The History of the End of Poverty Has Just Begun" (Max Roser)  Our World in Data
  10. Energy Intensity  Our World in Data

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