May 16, 2020 - Economy

Coronavirus and the degrowth movement

Illustration of a deflated money balloon

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred new interest in a movement that wants to reverse the pace of economic growth.

The big picture: Degrowth advocates believe that the only way to save the Earth is to stop focusing on growth at all costs in favor of a more equitable redistribution of resources. The pandemic is providing a crash test of those principles — for better and for worse.

What's happening: On May 13, more than 1,100 experts from around the world released a manifesto calling for a degrowth strategy to tackle the economic and human crisis caused by COVID-19.

  • The open letter urged the adoption of a "democratically planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy, leading to a future where we can live better with less."

How it works: The degrowth movement is a radical response to the challenges of climate change and inequality. While economic growth of some kind is the stated goal of virtually every policymaker and economist, degrowthers believe that the obsession with economic growth is ruining the planet and leading to human unhappiness on a global scale.

  • This position puts them to the left of even most environmentalists, who push for "green growth" — the idea that economic growth can be made more sustainable by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and other pollutants.
  • To degrowthers, simply decarbonizing the economy isn't enough. Humanity has to shrink its overall footprint, while sharing what remains in a more equitable fashion.

Context: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a period of enforced degrowth, as economies around the world have been thrown into reverse.

  • A new forecast by the Asian Development Bank predicts that the global economy could suffer losses as high as $8.8 trillion because of the pandemic — equivalent to nearly 10% of global GDP.
  • The reversal of economic growth has led to a reduction in carbon emissions, which could fall 5.5% or more this year. But that's a lot of economic and human pain to endure for a carbon footprint that would still be almost 95% as large as it was before the pandemic.

The bottom line: Degrowthers are arguing for the equivalent of a managed retreat from economic growth, not the helter-skelter measures we've seen with COVID-19. But it's difficult to see their ideas gaining mainstream traction at a moment when much of the world seems more interested in regaining normalcy than igniting revolution.

Go deeper: The changes that will outlast the crisis

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