The idea of economic growth as the key to human progress has been a dominant force in modern society. However, questions about the ecological and social sustainability of endless growth are arising. In light of this, the concept of “degrowth” has emerged as an alternative to the growth paradigm. A degrowth model proposes that societies should move away from a unilateral focus on economic growth and instead prioritize human well-being, ecological sustainability and social equity.
What is Degrowth?
Degrowth challenges the idea of economic growth as the key to human progress. It argues that the pursuit of unlimited growth is not only ecologically unsustainable but also socially unjust. According to degrowth theorists, the current economic system leads to the depletion of natural resources, environmental destruction and widening social inequalities. “The faster we produce and consume goods, the more we damage the environment,” stated Barcelona-based economist Giorgos Kallis. “If humanity is not to destroy the planet’s life support systems, the global economy should slow down.”
A degrowth model centers on the idea that societies need to reduce the emphasis on GDP as the primary measure of improving human well-being and instead focus on sustainable, equitable and regenerative systems. While this may sound radical, evidence suggests that a degrowth model has widespread potential to improve lives around the globe.
Degrowth’s Potential for Poverty Reduction
For instance, economic growth alone has not reduced poverty and inequality. In fact, the gap between rich and poor has widened in recent decades. According to an Oxfam report, “The richest 1% grabbed nearly two-thirds of all new wealth (around $42 trillion) created since 2020, almost twice as much money as the bottom 99% of the world’s population.” In the U.S., the top 1% owns almost as much as the bottom 90% of the population combined. Such stark inequality has real-world consequences: many suffer from a lack of access to basic resources like food, water and health care. Also, there are such issues as political instability, conflict and climate-related disasters.
These issues suggest that the problem is more one of wealth distribution than of underproduction. According to 2019 Economics Noble Prize winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, higher growth (GDP) does not guarantee an improvement in livelihoods, especially if GDP is distributed unequally.
Degrowth offers a different vision of society. In this vision, resources are shared more equitably and the needs of all people and the planet are prioritized over the well-being of a few. In a degrowth economy, basic needs like housing, health care, education and food security would be prioritized over the accumulation of wealth and consumer goods. As London-based scholar Jason Hickel summarized, “Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.”
For example, in 2018, Barcelona implemented a “right to the city” program, which prioritizes affordable housing, public spaces and public services for all residents, regardless of income. The initiative demonstrates how, by reducing the concentration of wealth, degrowth can help create more just and inclusive societies.
Degrowth’s Environmental Vision
In 2021 alone, humans used an estimated “1.7 Earths worth of resources,” depleting natural resources faster than the planet could replenish them. Such overconsumption is leading to deforestation, water scarcity and climate change, all of which threaten the stability of ecosystems and the survival of many species, including humans.
Degrowth offers a different approach, emphasizing sustainability and regeneration. For example, Amsterdam has implemented a “doughnut economics” model that aims to create a circular economy that operates within the limits of the planet’s resources. This means reducing waste, using renewable energy sources and adopting regenerative agriculture practices.
Degrowth’s Potential for a Better Life
Ultimately, degrowth has the potential to create better lives for people around the globe. Despite the idea that consumption leads to happiness, studies have shown that prioritizing money, earning more and increasing consumption do not necessarily increase happiness. In fact, a recent study of University of British Columbia graduates found that students who prioritized money (nearly 40%) were less happy a year later than those who prioritized time.
Degrowth emphasizes community, cooperation and creativity. By reducing reliance on consumer goods and material possessions, its approach allows people to focus on building meaningful relationships and engaging in fulfilling activities. As University of Surrey professor Tim Jackson explained, “People can flourish without endlessly accumulating more stuff. Another world is possible.’’
Found to be a “resounding success,” recent four-day week trials in the U.K. and Europe support this idea. The reduced work week led to less burnout for workers, without negatively impacting productivity, and reduced fossil fuel consumption.
In reimagining society’s approach to progress, the concept of degrowth presents a compelling alternative to the pursuit of endless economic growth. By prioritizing human well-being, ecological sustainability and social equity, degrowth has the potential to address issues of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. Initiatives like Barcelona’s “right to the city” program and Amsterdam’s “doughnut economics” model demonstrate how degrowth can lead to more just and inclusive societies while ensuring the preservation of our planet’s resources. Ultimately, embracing degrowth offers the promise of happier, more fulfilling lives built on community, cooperation and a sustainable future.
– Sarmad Wali Khan