Skip to navigationSkip to content

What if the only way to save the planet is to dramatically slow our economies

Reuters/Brendan McDermid
Could we do more—with less?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As world leaders gathered in Paris this week for yet another United Nations Climate Change Conference, the stakes, according to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, have never been higher. While plenty of potential solutions will be on the table, it’s unlikely that any politicians will suggest slowing the economy down.

But maybe they should.

As Pope Francis noted during his recent visit to Philadelphia, consumerism has come to define many facets of our lives. This includes the way we try to address climate change. President George W. Bush suggested in a speech back in 2002 that economic growth could be a solution to global warming. “Economic growth is the key to environmental progress, because it is growth that provides the resources for investment in clean technologies,” he said. “Growth is the solution, not the problem.”

It’s not surprising that this idea would be trumpeted by the leader of a country that produces a huge percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions. Wouldn’t it be amazing if industrialized countries could reverse climate change without making any fundamental changes to consumer lifestyles?

Unfortunately, this is harder said than done. In fact, what if an economy based on ever-increasing growth is more a 20th century memory than a viable plan for future global change? It could be that the only way to slow climate change is to implement the unthinkable: economic degrowth.

Time for an intervention

Here’s what we know so far. Humanity has a carbon budget, which we must not overspend if we want to keep temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels, the limit prescribed by leading scientists. Once we pass that benchmark, things on planet Earth are likely to get much worse, fast.

It’s not a limit to be taken lightly. The 1 degree Celcius of warming we’ve already experienced has lead to unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet in the summer and amplified natural disasters. By continuing business as usual, we risk expelling enough carbon into the atmosphere to push increased warming by 4 degrees Celsius. Warming of 4 degrees Celsius would be, as the famous climate scientist Kevin Anderson noted in 2011, “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community.”

Increases in efficiency could also potentially be negated by increases in consumption, something known as the Jevons paradox.

While the threat could hardly be clearer, there is still a great deal of confusion about what to do. The world is on track to expend its carbon budget within the next couple of decades. Both developed and developing nations need to make the necessary changes—today.

Much attention has been placed on “greening” the growth economy by switching the energy grid to renewables and increasing efficiency in consumer products. But these methods may not be enough.

More efficient energy systems and renewable energies will take decades to roll out—far more time than we have to stay within the carbon budget. Increases in efficiency could also potentially be negated by increases in consumption, a controversial theory known as the Jevons paradox. For example, as Rob McDonald illustrates in an article for Nature, more efficient lightbulbs have led us to put lights all over the place.

In the face of this not-so-rosy reality, some researchers have suggested a drastic solution. At a time when consumption needs to be decreasing, it is breaking records. This year, the Worldwatch Institute—an environmental research organization based in Washington, DC—reported that humanity has reached new peaks in production and consumption. From meat to coffee to plastic to cars, we seem to be consuming more of everything.

It is time for an intervention. Through near-omnipresent advertising, people in industrialized nations have been encouraged and cajoled into consuming since childhood. Rather than increase well-being, this hyper consumption has had the counterintuitive effect of lowering life satisfaction and happiness.

Beyond our emotional state, this behavior has broader consequences. It may be easier than ever to buy things at the touch of a button, but each purchase we make has an ecological and human legacy. There’s a good chance that hip graphic tee you wear to bed takes 900 gallons of water to make, to say nothing of the fact that it may have been made by sweatshop workers laboring in Bangladesh.

With its threats to the emotional health and survival of the human species, degrowth challenges the benefits of a growth economy and the ever-increasing consumption on which it depends. Degrowth offers another way to run society.

Life in degrowth

Unlike a recession, degrowth would be a controlled and intentional shrinking of the economy until it reaches a sustainable state. In other words, degrowth is the total opposite of what we understand economic progress to be today. Obviously, this kind of radical project seems more symbolic than practical. But advocates say it’s important to get people to imagine a world where unrestrained growth isn’t the inherent objective.

“The ultimate objective is not to establish a degrowth economy—the goal is to establish an economic system which is in line with biological limits,” Dr. Nicolas Kosoy, a professor in Ecological Economics at McGill University, tells Quartz. “It would be achieved through small-scale practices on a community level.”

“The ultimate objective is to establish an economic system which is in line with biological limits.”

In a degrowth economy, resource-intensive production and consumption would incrementally decrease. As GDP in a growth economy depends in part on these activities, there would be some negative impact. However, as Dr. Francois Schneider, a prominent degrowth researcher, wrote in the Journal of Cleaner Production in 2010: “What happens to GDP is of secondary importance; the goal is the pursuit of well-being, ecological sustainability and social equity. GDP can go down and nevertheless other dimensions of life can improve.”

Kolsoy, an advocate of degrowth economics, notes that changing the goals of work—and allowing people to work less—would be one quality of life perk. “You’ll see full employment. People will earn what they need in order to have a full life and all essentials will be covered publicly [by the state].”

Sure, we won’t be able to update our phones every 22 months, waste 40% of the food we produce, or compulsively shop for new clothing. However, we’ll have more time. As a paper by the Center for Economic and Policy Research demonstrates, significant reductions in greenhouse gasses could be achieved with workers adopting a 3 or 4-day work week.

Tilting at windmills

According to Kolsoy, most advocates for degrowth are academics and members of small activist groups, like the Transition Town network. Government officials are skeptical. “Most politicians reject degrowth,” Kosoy admits, “although some politicians in Canada have shown support, such as Elizabeth May [Green Party Leader of Canada and Member of Parliament].” (Elizabeth May spoke at the 2012 International Degrowth in the Americas Conference.)

He also noted the example of Bhutan, which since 1971 has used a Gross National Happiness as an indicator of national health instead of GDP alone. Although lauded for its symbolic power, the GNH system has since fallen out of favor in Bhutan, especially among its crop of younger, more modern leaders.

When asked about political support for degrowth in the USA, the world’s leading economic power, Kolsoy laughed and said “none that I know of.”

Degrowth would require a radical—and frankly unrealistic—shift in economic policy, as well as cultural attitudes. It represents a drastic move away from capitalism as we understand it today, toward a society with much more collaboration, free services and shared property. But while you are unlikely to hear the term mentioned very often during the 2016 presidential campaign, the concept is still worth discussing–even as a way to jumpstart conversations about more moderate solutions.

Because when it comes to addressing climate change, we need to realized that very few non-radical ideas will keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Thoughtless, consumption-fueled growth is not a viable option in our finite world. One way or the other, this reality must be addressed.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.