The case for economic degrowth

 Luxembourg’s public transportation system is free of charge for riders. GRAPHIC COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The UN Panel on Climate Change recently published its Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report, and it’s bad news again. 

The report projects that we are due to pass a 1.5 degree Celsius limit by the early 2030s. The Washington Post reported that “beyond that threshold… climate disasters will become so extreme that people will not be able to adapt. Basic components of the Earth system will be fundamentally, irrevocably altered…” However, United Nations scientists agree that the worst thing to do is give up hope. We can still turn the tide, and as the deadline looms, experts are turning to economic degrowth as a potential part of the solution.

The World Economic Forum defines economic degrowth as the process of “shrinking rather than growing economies, so we use less of the world’s energy and resources and put wellbeing ahead of profit.” The concept, which is inherently anti-capitalist, recognizes that quick fixes and technological advancements aren’t an effective solution to climate change. 

Economic degrowth is very different from our current approach, which largely focuses on throwing money at the problem internationally and changing our habits individually. 

For example, the Biden Administration billed its Inflation Reduction Act as “by far the most ambitious climate and clean energy legislation in U.S. history,” but that’s only because the U.S. has largely failed in climate policy. The President promised $11 billion in climate reparations aid to the international community, which seems like a large number. But in reality, the U.S. currently gives only 1% of what it should for climate aid, relative to its historical carbon emissions

The Biden Administration also favors a shift to electric vehicles (EV) away from a fossil fuel dominated auto industry. That would mean investing heavily in building EV charging stations and offering a tax break to people that buy electric vehicles. According to Statistica, passenger cars produced approximately three billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in 2020. EVs are the favored alternative of the economic growth mindset because the automobile industry still makes profit selling individual cars — electric or not. 

Jason Hickel, an author and one of the leading thinkers around degrowth, argues that instead of the solutions currently modeled, economic degrowth will require leaders to rethink how society operates to stop widespread damage to the environment. For the transportation industry, applying an economic degrowth philosophy would replace personal vehicles with electric public transportation. Electric public transportation reduces the number of individual vehicles in transit, decreasing the carbon emissions per person, and requiring less production than private vehicles. It’s a solution that will heavily decrease profits in the transportation sector, but is increasingly necessary for curbing carbon emissions, according to Bloomberg. This solution doesn’t end the negative effects of lithium mining, but as we’ve seen in countries like Malta and Luxembourg, increasing public transportation usage is effective at reducing carbon emissions and is a direct challenge to ideals of personal property and overconsumption. 

Economic degrowth could be incorporated into society in ways that go beyond the automobile industry. Preventing further growth of suburbs — the least carbon efficient way of life per person, according to a study from UC Berkeley — is a necessary step. We should return suburban sprawl to nature, and move people into areas with higher population density that are inherently more carbon-efficient than suburbs. Higher population density areas would also enable the native habitat restoration and work well with an electric public transportation system. 

A commitment to economic degrowth would also pressure corporations to stop outsourcing their labor to formerly colonized countries and shift production to the local level. Local production reduces transportation emissions and promotes local sustainable practices, even if profit margins take a hit. 

Money in politics is preventing these ideas from becoming reality. Fossil fuel companies spent about $124.4 million lobbying the government in 2022, according to political watchdog OpenSecrets. Working within current political and economic restrictions is hurting our ability to address climate change — the United States needs to protect our future. The evidence is clear on the choice we must make: it’s either the economy or the planet.

We are not too far gone. The goal ahead of us is daunting, but it is possible, and economic hand-wringing will only slow us down. We can’t worry about how we’ll pay for saving our planet. We need economic degrowth. 


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