Aug 7, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Arguing over degrowth

Degrowth illustration

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A series of new articles and studies illustrate the growing struggle over "degrowth" — the argument by some environmentalists that we must shrink and rebalance the global economy to avoid climate catastrophe.

Why it matters: Degrowth is a radical solution for what can feel like a radical problem, but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that if it could ever be implemented, degrowth would be a cure worse than the disease.

What's happening: In a smart piece for Vox's Future Perfect vertical earlier this week, Kelsey Piper meticulously picked apart some of the leading arguments for degrowth.

  • Degrowth — which calls for accepting shrinking GDP as a prerequisite to saving the planet — is "a bold, even romantic vision," Piper writes. "But there are two problems with it: It doesn’t add up — and it would be nearly impossible to implement."

By the numbers: Contrary to the arguments of degrowthers that it's impossible to keep economies growing while reducing carbon emissions, Piper notes that 32 countries — including the U.S. — have achieved absolute decoupling, reducing carbon emissions even as GDP keeps rising.

  • And while degrowthers want industrialized economies to take the lead in shrinking GDP, Piper argues that degrowth "would do nothing about the bulk of emissions, which are occurring in developing countries" that need to keep growing fast to pull their citizens out of poverty.

The other side: Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and a leading proponent of degrowth, co-authored a paper published this week arguing that further growth in already rich countries isn't necessary for social progress and that new climate models are needed to map out a post-growth world.

  • Continued growth while combatting climate change requires betting on "speculative and risky" technologies, like direct air carbon capture, that may never be feasible, Hickel and his co-authors write.

The bottom line: Technofixes alone, as I write above, won't be enough to save us.

  • But degrowth requires relying on radical political changes that are at least as speculative and risky as many of those technofixes, and which seem even less likely to pan out.

Go deeper: How stalling growth hurts the planet

Go deeper