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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some environmentalists and economists are pushing for "degrowth" — stabilizing or even shrinking the economy — to avert environmental catastrophe.

The big picture: Degrowthism may seem like the only reasonable response to the climate challenges we face, but the experience of enforced economic shrinking during the pandemic indicates the pain would outweigh the benefits — especially for the world's poorest.

Where it stands: The global economy shrank by an estimated 4.3% in 2020, according to data from the World Bank.

  • That contraction was due both to the direct pain of the pandemic and the effects of social distancing measures, but it also led to a roughly 6% reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions — the biggest annual drop since WWII.

How it works: However accidental, 2020 represented perhaps the best example we've ever experienced of degrowthism in action.

  • For degrowthers, simply cleaning up the global economy by switching from fossil fuels to zero-carbon sources of energy isn't enough. Economic growth — the goal of essentially every government everywhere — is itself the problem.
  • Environmental activist Greta Thunberg summed up the argument when she chastised delegates at a UN climate summit in 2019: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
  • The movement now has its own dedicated academic journals, associations and conferences.

The catch: The very real human pain of 2020 — and the political fallout it created — should be taken as a warning sign to degrowthers.

  • A new Pew Research Center analysis found the ranks of the global middle income — those who live on $10.01 to $20 a day — fell by 54 million in 2020 compared to the number projected before the pandemic, while the number of global poor rose by 131 million.
  • And while carbon emissions did fall significantly in 2020, it came at a high cost. One analysis estimated that each ton of CO2 reduced due to pandemic-related degrowth will have an implied cost to the economy of more than $1,500.
  • That's "an order of magnitude greater than the most costly of 'technofixes'" like direct capture of carbon from the air, as Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute wrote last year.

Between the lines: The strongest argument around degrowth is one rooted in a goal that its own advocates strive for: global equity.

  • In a piece posted earlier this week, economist Max Roser of Our World in Data estimated the amount of global growth required to bring everyone in the world up to the level of poor people in the fairly rich nation of Denmark would be 410%.
  • Whether or not global poverty can be truly conquered — meaning getting everyone at least to the minimum of the developed world — "overwhelmingly depends on whether the average incomes in those countries that are home to the poorest billions of people in the world will increase or not," Roser writes.

Be smart: With reason, we tend to focus on the huge and growing wealth gap between the ultrarich and the middle class and poor in rich countries like the U.S. But a much bigger gap exists between even the relatively less well-off in the developed world and most of humanity.

  • Take electricity access, one of the basic fundamental requirements for a modern lifestyle: Californians use more electricity just to play video games than the total amount of power consumed by everyone in countries like Ghana and Kenya, according to one estimate.

Flashback: This isn't the first time the idea of degrowth or economic stasis has been raised. Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in mid-19th century England that "economic growth in the richest countries had run its course."

What to watch: For all the environmental pressure growth has created, in recent decades, both rich and poor countries have been able to continue to grow while reducing many pollutants through more efficiency and cleaner energy.

  • Growing while reducing carbon emissions enough to avert dangerous climate change will be tougher, but that's beginning to happen as well.

The bottom line: To paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy, the pursuit of growth has its faults, but it still may be the least worst way to organize an economy.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

In photos: Students evacuated as wildfire burns historic Cape Town buildings

Firefighters try, in vain, to extinguish a fire in the Jagger Library, at the University of Cape Town, after a forest fire came down the foothills of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, on Sunday. Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images

A massive wildfire spread from the foothills of Table Mountain to the University of Cape Town Sunday, burning historic South African buildings and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 students, per Times Live.

The big picture: Visitors to the Table Mountain National Park and other nearby attractions were also evacuated and several roads including a major highway, were closed. South Africa's oldest working windmill and the university's Jagger Library, which houses SA antiquities, are among the buildings damaged.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

3 killed, 2 wounded overnight in Kenosha bar shooting

Three people died and two others were hospitalized with serious injuries after a gunman entered bar in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, the police department said in a statement on Sunday.

The latest: Officers arrested a "person of interest" Sunday afternoon in connection with the 12:42 a.m. shooting and there's "no threat to the community at this time," per a later police statement.

Updated 3 hours ago - Sports

Big European soccer teams announce breakaway league

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) after striking the ball during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Liverpool F.C. and Real Madrid at Anfield in Liverpool, England, last Wednesday. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

12 of world soccer's biggest and richest clubs announced Sunday they've formed a breakaway European "Super League" — with clubs Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona Real Madrid, Juventus and A.C. Milan among those to sign up.

Why it matters: The prime ministers of the U.K. and Italy are among those to express concern at the move — which marks a massive overhaul of the sport's structure and finances, and it effectively ends the decades-old UEFA Champions League's run as the top tournament for European soccer.

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