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The Case for Degrowth

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How can we achieve prosperity without GDP-focused growth?

The Case for Degrowth

In the wake of Liz Truss’ targeting of the supposed “anti-growth coalition”, Rahila Gupta explores the thinking around how societies can achieve prosperity without focusing on GDP

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Ever since Liz Truss damned her Greenpeace hecklers as part of the “anti-growth coalition” – in which she included Labour, SNP, the unions and Remainers – a number of public figures have rushed to dissociate themselves with the label.

RMT chief Mike Lynch dismissed it, saying that “everyone believes in economic growth, otherwise the economy doesn’t move forward”. Labour Leader Keir Starmer too baulked at the suggestion that his party is “anti-growth”. 

The mainstream orthodoxy on ‘growth’ is such that every TV news bulletin on the state of the economy tends to feature a graph in which success is measured by the country’s percentage growth in GDP – with a fall in GDP over two successive quarters spelling out that we have hit the buffers. To what extent the tills go kerching at Christmas is an indicator of economic health and, by extension, wellbeing.

In this context, it is worth giving some thought to the concept of ‘degrowth’ economics, which has been seriously promoted by a number of economists, notably Serge Latouche. Degrowth is about not measuring the health of a society through its economic growth. The movement behind it embodies a critique of an economic system which prioritises profit over wellbeing, which is delivered through an ever-increasing consumption of the Earth’s limited resources, in a way that is antithetical to ecological sustainability. 

Degrowth emphasises a time-rich society of solidarity, equality and mutual care, redistribution of resources and proper democracy based on extended political participation – all ways of living proven to enhance wellbeing rather than anxiety-producing materialism.

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Even former Prime Minister David Cameron was on to something when he announced his intention to measure happiness, having recognised that GDP was not necessarily a measure of progress if people weren’t happier. He was in good company, along with Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. Of course, much of Cameron’s rebranding turned out to be hot air, with the years of austerity that followed making a mockery of any index of ‘GWB’ (General WellBeing).

But is it possible to achieve prosperity without growth?

Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner for the Sustainable Development Commission, makes a stab at answering this in his report ‘Prosperity without Growth’ by laying out the steps that could be taken towards a sustainable economy. The adverse impact on employment, for example, could be rectified by a shorter working week.

The Case for Degrowth – a collection of essays by Spanish and American academics – identifies ways of living well by living differently; among them, removing subsidies from economic activities that jeopardise wellbeing such as fossil fuels, pollution-emitting enterprises, extreme wealth and income, and natural resource use. 

While there are many proposals for what an alternative economy could look like, degrowth has no template that can be analysed and tested. As Latouche observes, “the idea of a contraction-based society is just a way to provoke thought about alternatives”. It is an attempt to divest ourselves of the growth fetish. 

One aspect of the growth dynamic is the production and consumption of novelty. It is argued that changing habits of individual consumption is difficult because material goods play an important role in status signalling. But, in a limited way, there have been some changes.

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Buying secondhand – now rebranded as ‘pre-loved’ – can reinforce social status when celebrities like Julia Roberts, Helen Mirren or Sarah Jessica Parker reveal their love for ‘thrift’ shops. The secondhand market in clothes and furniture is now moving into the mainstream with stores like Asda, John Lewis and IKEA beginning to sell used goods. Repairing and reusing are being encouraged by TV shows like the BBC’s The Repair Shop, The Great British Sewing Bee and Channel 4’s Make Do & Mend.

There is also a complacent view that technology will help us square this circle – but not while we’re addicted to growth. Studies show that technological innovation has led to a reduction of energy use per unit of economic output, but our overall ecological footprint hasn’t diminished because the global economy is five times bigger than it was 50 years ago.

Then there is the difficult issue of the Global South, where development hasn’t reached the levels it has in the West. Latouche believes that the South too should not go down the blind alley of growth but that more prosperous countries have to opt for non-growth in order to free the South. “As long as hungry Ethiopia and Somalia still have to export feedstuffs destined for pet animals in the North, and the meat we eat is raised on soya from the razed Amazon Rainforest, our excessive consumption smothers any chance of real self sufficiency in the South,” he writes. 

Slowing down by design rather than being catapulted into it by disaster is surely the rational way to go. Will our politicians take note?

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