In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Year of the Flood, an outcast religious group called God’s Gardeners prepares for a pandemic by following a belief system based on pared-down consumerism coupled with kindness toward both human and non-human life. “They view us as twisted fanatics who combine food extremism with bad fashion sense and a puritanical attitude toward shopping,” their leader tells a newcomer.
A utopian response to impending doom is not so strange; choices forced upon us by extreme situations might be bolder than what we’d consider in calmer times.
Of course, these are not calmer times. The start of our own pandemic, COVID-19, forced us to curtail consumerism, travel, work, and socializing in ways we’d never imagined. Some of us had more free time than usual to spend with family and on passion projects, even as we mourned the loss of time spent with friends, neighbours, and people we’ve yet to meet. Closed factories and work-from-home imperatives led to cleaner skies and braver wildlife, even as essential workers sacrificed their own health to keep us fed and comfortable.
The pandemic lockdown has taught us about the parts of our society we’d give up willingly and the parts that are more difficult to have taken away. The confused urgency of it has been more catastrophic than Eden. It’s certainly not what the advocates of degrowth have in mind, though many degrowthers have seen our current crisis as an ideal time to start the conversation about what exactly we can live without.
The degrowth movement, which has been picking up steam over the past decade, is based on the belief that the earth cannot support infinite growth, no matter how clever humans show themselves to be. Though it’s been around since the 1970s as a concept, and since the 2000s as a movement, it’s still a bit ragtag and abstract. Its most compelling trait might be its knack for seeing, beyond our efforts to prevent environmental collapse, a way to reinvent civilization as healthier, more inclusive, and more pleasant. Examine the stick in the right way and you can see a carrot.
An English translation of the French word décroissance, “degrowth” isn’t an ideal brand for a progressive social movement; it seems to emphasize loss. That’s why some proponents will talk about “post-growth,” “frugal abundance,” and “voluntary simplicity.” Sometimes, it’s called “convivial degrowth” to add a sense of joy and affirmation. Indeed, proponents of the movement—a wide range of academics, environmentalists, feminists, and social justice advocates—describe how degrowth could bring us more leisure time, less stress, greater equality, a closer connection with nature, and stronger bonds with family and community. For some, degrowth is a personal decision about consuming less and more thoughtfully.
Yet degrowth has a sharp edge. Most degrowthers reject mainstream notions of sustainable development, where increased efficiency, better regulations and a transition to green energy can mitigate human impact on the environment. It can be decidedly anti-capitalist, sometimes sounding a little communist, or a little anarchist, depending on who’s doing
“It’s about dethroning the idea of growth as the main societal objective, which has been missing in the debates around sustainability,” says Bengi Akbulut, an assistant professor in geography, planning and environment at Concordia University. Originally from Istanbul, Akbulut spent summers studying at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (while she was completing a PhD at University of Massachusetts Amherst), which is considered to be the epicentre of the degrowth movement. “Degrowth is often set against sustainable development, because degrowthers would say that no development can be sustainable.”
While mainstream climate-change activists have for years been stuck with the task of explaining why humans need to shrink our carbon footprint, arguing over and over again with nitpickers about how we can have tough winters as the earth gets warmer, the degrowth conversation takes their “why” as a given. In the words of Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba and one of the leading thinkers on degrowth, “Nothing this civilization does is sustainable, that is kindergarten physics.” If you have to ask why degrowth is necessary, you’re not paying attention. The movement’s biggest challenge, then, is figuring out how to degrow, and how to make it speak to our craving for joy. And how to do it before nature gives up on us.
Though there have been growth skeptics dating back centuries, the term décroissance was coined in 1972 by André Gorz, a French-Austrian social philosopher and writer. But the first international degrowth conference wasn’t held until 2008 in Paris. That first Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity issued a declaration calling for a “right-sizing” of the human footprint. That means reducing the footprint in richer countries and, in poorer countries, increasing consumption “to a level adequate for a decent life.” Once right-sizing has been achieved, “the aim should be to maintain a ‘steady state economy’ with a relatively stable, mildly fluctuating level of consumption.” Since that first conference there has been an increasing focus on quality of consumption over quantity of consumption, just as advocates have shifted emphasis from degrowth’s sacrifices to its potential benefits.
Bob Thomson was one of the Canadian volunteers at the inaugural conference. A former born-again Christian
and founder of TransFair Canada (now FairTrade Canada, a fair-trade certification system), Thomson was eager to apply his organizational and evangelical skills to the cause. He helped organize a Montreal Degrowth in the America conference in 2012 and established the not-for-profit group Degrowth Canada.
“Degrowth in some ways is a political suicide term. The idea of growth is so inculcated into economics and everything else that nobody even questions it,” says Thomson, who lives in a condo on the edge of the Ottawa River.
On the simplest level, degrowthers reject the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a useful measure of human happiness, and certainly not an indicator of the health of the planet. GDP fails to capture how wealth is unequally distributed across a society, and prioritizes the production and consumption of material goods, while ignoring unpaid work and the importance of leisure and the environment. Also untenable is the mainstream economic belief that a country in the global north should, ideally, be aiming for annual GDP growth of two to three percent, doubling the size of the economy every 25 years or so.
“Our economy needs to give priority to climate change and the loss of biodiversity,” says Peter Victor, professor emeritus at the faculty of environmental studies at York University and author of the book Managing Without Growth. Although Victor doesn’t call himself a degrowther, his work also challenges our GDP-obsessed way of looking at things. “If we focus on what contributes to well-being—health, education, security—and then put viable limits on material and energy throughput, and limits on land conversion, then GDP growth becomes of secondary significance. It shouldn’t be there as an objective.”
In the global north, we’d have to learn to live with less than we have now. Though there are many different visions of what degrowth would look like, most large-scale infrastructure and resource-extraction projects would not likely make the cut, says Akbulut. Smartphones and other tech may not disappear entirely, but many degrowthers envision disincentives to building things with planned obsolescence—products would have to last and justify the resource and energy extraction needed to produce them. There would have to be increased consensus and planning about what’s essential and what’s a frill. Both supply side and demand side would see controls to limit production and consumption; our economy would be less driven by market demands.
“Determining biophysical limits, the ‘right size’ of the biophysical footprint, is not a technocratic decision, it’s not something that will be decided for us by a bureaucratic institution. It needs to be decided democratically,” says Akbulut.
Addressing income equality would be an essential part of the degrowth recipe, not only on its own merits, but because it would discourage wasteful consumption driven by social status, says Akbulut. The lure of fast fashion and fast cars, for example, would be pointless if we all had the same clothing and transportation budget. We might find ourselves signalling status by other means, like artistic creativity or generosity.
National fiscal policies would have to fundamentally change: taxation, of course, and our social programs. Thomson says many products and services currently supplied by the global marketplace could be provided by local and regional co-ops or through peer-to-peer networks. “How do we take capital from transnational corporations and turn them into co-ops?
As you can well imagine, there’s a certain amount of resistance,” says Thomson with a chuckle. “You have to have examples on the ground of people working together at a smaller scale, along with people linked in at a more macro policy level.”
Degrowth’s emphasis on shared resources, rather than private wealth, could challenge the laws we have around intellectual property (IP) and how IP drives our economy by constantly emphasizing “newer is better.” The IP that has made so many global corporations rich could become part of the collective commons. “The private sector is always trying to find ways of excluding people from things that should be free so they can make money out of it,” says Victor. “But information ought to be a public good.”
Degrowth does offer something more than martyrdom. Greater income equality, and restricted availability of material goods and the energy needed to make and consume them, would diminish the stress of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Without the growth imperative, people would spend less time at paid work, freeing up time to be more connected to home and community.
“Most people aren’t really that happy under the current system…. Most workers are not necessarily that happy in their jobs. There’s a huge drug problem, depression problem,” says Leah Temper. An ecological economist, scholar, activist, and filmmaker based at McGill University, Temper encountered the idea of degrowth while studying economic history at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and eventually co-organized the second world conference on degrowth there. One of her goals has been to bring a feminist perspective to a school of thought that’s been traditionally dominated by European male scholars. “We have to look at what types of work people value, what are the outputs we value and what are the jobs that people enjoy doing and ask how do we restructure the system so we have more of what we enjoy.”
While many degrowth advocates propose a complete upheaval of capitalism and market-driven economies, skepticism of GDP and growth has become increasingly common among non-revolutionaries. Last year New Zealand, for example, introduced its first well-being national budget. Deemphasizing short-term outputs—growth numbers—the country created a system to evaluate success according to five priorities, including, among other goals, transitioning to a sustainable and low-emissions economy and reducing child poverty. Scotland and Iceland have also begun to include measures of well-being in their budgeting processes to counterbalance the traditional emphasis on growth. In Canada, the University of Waterloo has established the Canadian Index of Wellbeing to complement the GDP for measuring quality of life. In one of its studies, for example, researchers found that while Canada’s GDP did gradually bounce back after the 2008 recession, people’s living standards did not recover as quickly because there had been a shift to precarious and part-time work.
“The perpetual linear upward growth in economic productivity isn’t necessarily resulting in a higher quality of life,” says Bryan Smale, director of the index and professor in Waterloo’s department of recreation and leisure studies. When Smale was getting his undergraduate degree back in the 1970s, he learned that academics were predicting, as far back as the 1960s, the coming of a leisure age: shorter work weeks and a better quality of life though technology and increased industrial productivity. It never happened. “There’s been a growing acknowledgement about the degree to which the marketplace and the economy have been dominating the narrative,” he says.
Mainstream environmental organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation tend to have a higher tolerance than degrowthers for, say, large-scale green energy projects that could feed our craving for more and more energy. But even here, there is growth skepticism. Yannick Beaudoin, the foundation’s director general for Ontario and Northern Canada, says the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a disruption on such a scale that people are more willing to question their assumptions about what our economy is for. “If you have to pause the system to deliver well-being, isn’t that a bit of a problem? There’s something there that’s not working right. You have to ask:
What does it take to deliver well-being for people and planet, what does it take to thrive, what is essential and meaningful, and how do you shift the purpose of the Canadian economy from its old purpose?” Beaudoin says.
Our livelihoods and mindsets have been shaped by the global growth-oriented economy. People measure their lives in how much materially better off they are this year than last. Neither employees nor corporations want to be told that no cheque will ever be bigger than the one they have now. Governments, which spend based on expected increases in future revenue in a growing national economy, will be reluctant to give up their grand promises.
Yet because degrowth is still mostly an idea-in-progress, it has the advantage of being able to tuck itself into other movements and institutions. Even if it fails to vanquish capitalism, it can infiltrate it. “One of the weaknesses of degrowth thinking is that there is no grand vision, no blueprint,” says Akbulut. “That’s also its strength.”
That may set it apart from other revolutionary ideas. It has an ability, as God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood might say, to “use what’s to hand.”