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Governments Must Focus on Degrowth to Combat Climate Change

Curtailing excess production and waste could help save the planet and create more equitable societies, says Thomas Perrett

Flooding at Pudding Mill Lane DLR Station in London in July 2021. Photo: Rob Day/Twitter

Governments Must Focus on Degrowth to Combat Climate Change

Curtailing excess production and waste could help save the planet and create more equitable societies, says Thomas Perrett

The devastating effects of climate change are reaching a global crescendo.

A recent deluge of flooding across Germany and north-western Europe has claimed the lives of more than 200 people and left 1,000 missing, while at least 122 people have been reported dead in the district of Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate alone. Record-breaking heat waves across north America, which were made 150 times more likely by climate change according to The New Scientist, exceeded the temperature record in the Canadian village of Lytton by nearly five degrees Celsius. 

Climate scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the consequences of climate inaction; earlier this year, a draft of an upcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) was leaked to France-Presse which stated that failure to prevent prolonged warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius could have “progressively serious, centuries’ long and, in some cases, irreversible consequences”.

World leaders, in spite of their impressive climate promises, have stalled in their commitments to decarbonisation by the middle of the century. Boris Johnson was recently criticised by Chris Stark, CEO of the Climate Change Committee, who stated that the Government had made “woeful” progress on decarbonising agriculture.

Clearly, a gargantuan effort is required to reverse the effects of climate change and, although efforts to speed up the roll-out of renewable energy sources are essential, the underlying imperative for the economy to grow at 3% a year, doubling every 24 years, has considerable implications for the future of the living planet.

The ‘degrowth’ alternative, which involves a planned contraction of energy and resource use within ecological limits, could “minimise many key risks for feasibility and sustainability compared to technology-driven pathways”, according to a recent report by climate science journal Nature.

Waste Fuels Growth

Degrowth – despite being widely maligned as a form of ‘eco-austerity’ in which the lives of the poorest are sacrificed in the interest of sustainability – in fact seeks to curtail excess production and waste, ensuring that more equitable forms of distribution replace the profit incentive.

There are a number of global initiatives which already seek to minimise food waste and restore mutual reciprocity to the heart of the economy. In Austin, Texas, the Austin Recovery Master Plan is a strategy for making Austin “the most liveable city in the country”, which was launched in 2011 focusing on sustainability and the diversion of reusable resources to compost heaps, rather than landfills or incinerators. 

The plan, which entailed moving “beyond zero waste systems to an economy based on maximising the value of goods and services while reducing the impact of our ecological footprint on the environment”, succeeded in diverting 42% of municipal landfill waste to composting and recycling by 2016. It aims to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill by 90% by 2040. Moreover, a 2020 report found that the recycling economy could create around 6,300 jobs in areas related to waste-elimination within Austin.

Other communitarian initiatives have channelled the movement for minimising waste into a broader effort to provide employment opportunities and tackle food insecurity.

Washington DC’s Central Kitchen – which in 2015 alone prevented 743,000 lbs of food from going to waste – offers a scheme to train unemployed adults in preparing and delivering meals. In 2016, the organisation achieved a job placement rate of 88%. This indicates that infinite growth is by no means a requirement for achieving prosperity and providing communities with the resources required to stimulate employment. In fact, it is the way in which resources are used, and the means of distributing them, that enables the twin objectives of counteracting ecological degradation and raising human prosperity to be achieved. 

These examples show that it is possible to create an economic ethos that places mutual collaboration above profit as a principle for the organisation of society. Coordinated, redistributive efforts to minimise surplus production demonstrate that we already produce enough to feed everybody, but market imperatives distort the equitable distribution of resources.

Currently, one-third of global food production is wasted due to capitalist over-production, which ensures that goods that cannot be sold at a profit are simply discarded, as workers cannot afford to buy them. It has also been estimated that wealthier nations could meet their citizens’ material needs with up to 80% less resource use

GDP Growth Is Not the Answer

Many mainstream political solutions to the climate crisis, however, eschew this approach in favour of a marriage of limitless GDP growth with decarbonisation initiatives and the provision of clean energy infrastructure.

For instance, the Green New Deal, which US Senators Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey reintroduced back in April, is wedded to the ideology of growth-ism. Degrowth, in counteracting the wasteful nature of the continuous expansion of markets, seeks to criticise the metric of GDP as a measure of human prosperity. 

GDP is merely a measure of the total exchangeable value of all commodities in a country at any given time and is unrelated to, and often diametrically opposed to, genuine and tangible measures of wellbeing. For example, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico increased GDP despite incurring substantial environmental damage; and even a car crash could increase GDP if more production and manufacturing was required to repair the cars, irrespective of the damage done to the victims. Indeed, GDP in the United States had tripled in the four decades prior to the Coronavirus pandemic while wages stagnated, homelessness rocketed and food insecurity mounted. Only the richest in society accrued any concrete advantages from this.

An economy in which planned obsolescence was eliminated and the longevity of products extended, alongside the widespread provision of public goods and progressive taxation to deter excessive consumption levels by the wealthiest, would begin to alleviate the inequities and environmental damage caused by focussing exclusively on GDP as a measure of prosperity.

Tackling the intentional inefficiencies of our system with grassroots initiatives such as those outlined in this article, in tandem with an effective political movement, could prove effective in curtailing the excesses of growth.

What is ultimately required is a refutation of the notion that economic growth is inextricably connected with human prosperity. Environmentalists must make the case that fairer redistribution, scaling-down the production of unnecessary goods, and minimising the amount of wasted food sent for incineration, can at the same time significantly mitigate the effects of climate change and provide a more equitable society, ensuring a better standard of living for all.

It is imperative to address the fact that ‘growth’ is not a description of a rising tide that raises the majority of people out of poverty – it describes capitalism’s insatiable desire for expansion and reinvestment, and the consequent ruination of working people and the living planet, that it entails.

Degrowth, with its focus on communal solidarity and mutual cooperation, could lead us down new paths, giving us a chance to place the common good at the heart of politics.

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