degrowth economy

Is a Degrowth Economy Necessary to Save the Planet

Steve Russell - November 3, 2022

We are reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn affiliate commission.

Business magazines devote endless space to figuring out what’s driving the great resignation. Perhaps the answer lies in pressing pause on the spin, looking at the world and listening to the people. 

Climate change is a real and pressing issue, causing would-be parents to avoid giving birth, terrified of bringing children into an uninhabitable world. People are waking up to realize that the relentless pursuit of profit has led to significant, potentially catastrophic problems. At the same time, they’re not feeling valued for their labor. 

Some scientists argue that the world needs to hit the stop button on consumerism and focus on distributing sustainable resources more equitably to all. Is a degrowth economy necessary to save the planet? Is humankind capable of the sweeping change in mindset it would take to implement? 

Defining a Degrowth Economy 

By definition, a degrowth economy recognizes innate environmental limits to growth. This ideal contradicts the capitalist ideal that the only measure of progress is a nation’s ability to produce more and more stuff for people to buy. 

Another element of a degrowth economy is that economic growth has become divorced from improvements in the human condition. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 million people die each year from air pollution, many of them low-income. 

Technologies like solar power and alternative fuels promise to cut emissions, but economic forces often limit their full implementation. It costs money to convert factories and residences to renewable energy, cash that corporations are loath to spend if the result is less profit to distribute to shareholders. 

Is It Possible to Grow Without Emissions? 

Money rules society, even as inequality soars and millions stand powerless before the force of climate change, unable to take individual action to stop it due to circumstance. However, some critics of a degrowth economy argue that many nations with the highest GDPs have decoupled emissions from economic growth. 

These experts argue that absolute decoupling is possible. They note that all the services we rely on today can be replaced with zero-carbon alternatives. However, the question remains — will the current economic climate allow these changes in time to prevent catastrophe? Other researchers remain skeptical. 


The GDP Versus Genuine Value 

Another idea driving the degrowth economy movement is that the gross domestic product (GDP) has become divorced from real improvements in the human condition. Statistics back up this assertion. For example, although average worker productivity grew by nearly 60%, wages have increased by a measly 15% between 1979 and 2019. If pay increases matched effort, most American workers would earn $9 an hour more today. 

Somebody’s getting the surplus value produced by workers, and it isn’t those doing the labor. At the same time, soaring housing and healthcare costs have put one or both out of reach of many workers. Grim realities, like working multiple jobs while living in a car, have caused some to throw up their hands, drop out of the labor force altogether, sometimes tragically succumb to deaths of despair. 

Perhaps what much of the mainstream media has ignored as fodder for the great resignation is the dawning realization that spending your days destroying the planet to make someone already rich even richer is a lousy deal. One of the lures of a degrowth economy is that it addresses widening inequality, in essence forcing those with the means of production to slow down and focus on what people need instead of fueling pointless consumerism for those who can afford it.  

Global Considerations 

Two other problems exist with implementing a degrowth economy: all countries would need to get on board and address the needs of developing nations whose economies still rely on growth to address widespread poverty. Achieving such a consensus may well nigh prove impossible. 

However, that’s not to say that individual nations can’t implement certain principles of a degrowth economy to address widespread inequality and combat climate change. For example, a wealth tax on the highest earners could generate revenue for switching to renewable energy resources and providing all citizens basic needs like health care. The majority of Americans support such measures to increase sustainability and address poverty. 

Proponents of a degrowth economy note the distinction between a recession and such measures. Unlike an unplanned economic catastrophe, implementing degrowth strategies like a universal basic income and a shortened workweek would distribute existing resources more equitably, leading to significant improvements for most of the population. 

Is a Degrowth Economy Necessary to Save the Planet? 

Economists studying the drive behind the great resignation often focus on factors like pay and benefits, but deeper philosophical beliefs also influence the trend. As more people recognize the impact unfettered growth and consumerism could have on all life on earth, they want an economy based around the needs of all humanity, not a handful of shareholders in large corporations. 

Whether a full degrowth economy is necessary to save the planet remains debatable. However, what’s certain is that human beings must take swift action to combat climate change. Taking measures to combat inequality and the relentless pursuit of profit that drives it won’t only improve the human condition. It may save it altogether. 


Want more from Environment.co? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter to receive our latest posts and exclusive content straight to your inbox.

About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.