Economics, Politics, Quick Fix

Against Degrowth

Degrowth is the political platform that holds our current economic growth as unsustainable and advocates for a radical reduction in our resource consumption. Critically, it rejects that this reduction can occur at the same time as our GDP continues to grow. Degrowth, per its backers, requires an actual contraction of the economy.

The Canadian New Democratic Party came perilously close to being taken over by advocates of degrowth during its last leadership race, which goes to show just how much leftist support the movement has gained since its debut in 2008.

I believe that degrowth is one of the least sensible policies being advocated for by elements of the modern left. This post collects my three main arguments against degrowth in a package that is easy to link to in other online discussions.

To my mind, advocates of degrowth fail to advocate a positive vision of transition to a less environmentally intensive economy. North America is already experiencing a resurgence in forest cover, land devoted to agriculture worldwide has been stable for the past 15 years (and will probably begin to decline by 2050), as arable land use per person continues to decrease. In Canada, CO2 emissions per capita peaked in 1979, forty years ago. Total CO2 emissions peaked in 2008 and CO2 emissions per $ of GDP have been continuously falling since 1990.

All of this is evidence of an economy slowly shifting away from stuff. For an economy to grow as people turn away from stuff, they have to consume something else, for consumers often means services and experiences. Instead of degrowth, I think we should accelerate this process.

It is very possible to have GDP growth while rapidly decarbonizing an economy. This simply looks like people shifting their consumption from things (e.g. cars, big houses) towards experiences (locally sourced dinners, mountain biking their local trails). We can accelerate this switch by “internalizing the externality” that carbon presents, which is a fancy way of saying “imposing a tax on carbon”. Global warming is bad and when we actually make people pay that cost as part of the price tag for what they consume, they switch their consumption habits. Higher gas prices, for example, tend to push consumers away from SUVs.

A responsible decarbonisation push emphasises and supports growth in local service industries to make up for the loss of jobs in manufacturing and resource extraction. There’s a lot going for these jobs too; many of them give much more autonomy than manufacturing jobs (a strong determinant of job satisfaction) and they are, by their nature, rooted in local communities and hard to outsource.

(There are, of course, also many new jobs in clean energy that a decarbonizing and de-intensifying economy will create).

If, instead of pushing the economy towards a shift in how money is spent, you are pushing for an overall reduction in GDP, you are advocating for a decrease in industrial production without replacing it with anything. This is code for “decreasing standards of living”, or more succinctly, “a recession”. That is, after all, what we call a period of falling GDP.

This, I think is the biggest problem with advocating degrowth. Voters are liable to punish governments even for recessions that aren’t their fault. If a government deliberately causes a recession, the backlash will be fierce. It seems likely there is no way to continue the process of degrowth by democratic means once it is started.

This leaves two bad options: give over the reins of power to a government that will be reflexively committed to opposing environmentalists, or seize power by force. I hope that it is clear that both of these outcomes to a degrowth agenda would be disastrous.

Advocates of degrowth call my suggestions unrealistic, or outside of historical patterns. But this is clearly not the case; I’ve cited extensive historical data that shows an ongoing trend towards decarbonisation and de-intensification, both in North America and around the world. What is more unrealistic: to believe that the government can intensify an existing trend, or to believe that a government could be elected on a platform of triggering a recession? If anyone is guilty of pie-in-the-sky thinking here, it is not me.

Degrowth steals activist energy from sensible, effective policy positions (like a tax on carbon) that are politically attainable and likely to lead to a prosperous economy. Degrowth, as a policy, is especially easy for conservatives to dismiss and unwittingly aids them in their attempts to create a false dichotomy between environmental protection and a thriving economy.

It’s for these three reasons (the possibility of building thriving low carbon economies, the democratic problem, and the false dichotomy degrowth sets up) that I believe reasonable people have a strong responsibility to argue against degrowth, whenever it is advocated.

(For a positive alternative to degrowth, I personally recommend ecomoderism, but there are several good alternatives.)

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