Degrowth is not austerity – it is actually just the opposite

Adopting a degrowth model can ensure abundance for the majority.

French health workers and labour union members attend a protest in Nantes as part of a nationwide day of actions to urge the government to increase staff as hospitals fill once again with COVID-19 patients, France, October 15, 2020. The slogan reads "Austerity kills". REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
French health workers and labour union members attend a protest in Nantes as part of a nationwide day of actions to urge the government to increase staff in hospitals on October 15, 2020. The slogan reads "Austerity kills". [File: Reuters/Stephane Mahe]

“We are living through the end of abundance,” French President Emmanuel Macron recently declared after a summer that saw parts of Europe ravaged by forest fires and unprecedented heat and drought. Meanwhile, officials at the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve have warned of a larger “sacrifice” that will be needed to “tame surging inflation”.

The language political and economic leaders are using to send a message to the public that it should prepare to accept the end of the limitless availability of products and resources may sound quite familiar to some.

It was used in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the recession of the early 1990s, and even the 1973 oil crisis, when politicians warned that the general population would need to tighten their belts and accept cutbacks on social welfare and services.

But the past does not have to repeat. In this context of accelerating ecological breakdown and economic crises, the degrowth movement has steadily been gaining ground. Based on a robust body of scientific literature, degrowth proponents suggest that capitalism’s demand for unlimited growth is destroying the planet. Only degrowth policies can repair this by rapidly scaling back our material and energy use, slowing down production and transitioning to an economy focused around needs, care and the sharing of wealth.

Degrowth: A ‘recipe for misery and disaster’?

The term degrowth was first coined in 1972 by French political theorist André Gorz as a provocative response to the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report. In the 1990s, it was reintroduced as a “missile word” against the then-dominant ideology of sustainable development and green growth: an ideology that was being used by governments and international organisations to greenwash ineffective climate politics, attacks on public services and predatory lending.

Since then, degrowth’s popularity has accelerated, with regular conferences with thousands of attendees being held and dozens of books published on the subject. Most recently, the book Capital in the Anthropocene by Kohei Saito, a Japanese Marxist scholar, sold more than half a million copies and became a bestseller in Japan.

Unsurprisingly, degrowth has come under severe criticism from pundits, mainstream economists, and the jet-setting Davos elite. In a March 2020 column, one member of a conservative British think-tank, for example, claimed that “the coronavirus crisis reveals the misery of degrowth”, that degrowth would make the recession permanent, or that it would be a “recipe for misery and disaster”.

Indeed, this is how many people understand degrowth: as a call for austerity and a trigger of recession. In reality, degrowth is just the opposite.

To begin with, austerity is always imposed for the sake of growth. We have been convinced, for half a century now, that cutting public services is good for us because it will increase competitiveness, balance the budget, and eventually lead to growth. Degrowth, by contrast, is the argument that we can, and should, move away from an economy that exclusively depends on economic growth.

While austerity increases inequality by curbing public services and benefitting the rich through tax cuts and privatisation of government services, degrowth policies focus on democratising production, curbing the wealth and overconsumption of the rich, expanding public services, and increasing equality within and between societies.

Degrowth is also not a recession: recessions are unintentional, while degrowth is planned and intentional. Recessions make inequality worse, degrowth is about making sure everyone has their needs met. Recessions often cause bold policies for sustainability to be abandoned for the sake of restarting growth, while degrowth is explicitly for a rapid and decisive transformation.

Growth: Austerity for the poor, abundance for the rich

Most of the crises we are experiencing right now – from absurd levels of inequality to supply chain shocks, inflation and ecological devastation – are caused by the growth-oriented capitalist economy. Because profits are based on making labour and nature as cheap as possible, the very basis of profit is always at risk, for example, through labour shortages or supply bottlenecks. Thus, constant economic expansion will also see constant crises.

These crises present opportunities for capital. As argued by Naomi Klein in the book Shock Doctrine, crises are often taken advantage of by the owners of capital because they make it possible to thrash social and ecological legislation, thus lowering the costs of wages and resources, and further generating windfall profits through inflation.

All of this comes hand-in-hand with offloading the costs of the crises onto the poor and the environment: government services are axed to reduce government debt, wages are cut to increase profits, and extractive industries are stimulated to kick-start growth.

Today, we are promised by many political leaders, particularly in the West, that economic growth will be green. Yet, infrastructure projects which will lock in fossil fuel use for decades continue to be built and expanded, while banks, energy companies and multinationals that are involved in polluting and carbon-intensive industries are bailed out with public money and given lucrative government contracts.

Amid the global economic crisis, fossil capital and big banks – which hold large shares in the oil industry – are enjoying a record profit bonanza. Meanwhile, we are seeing a drastic decline in wages in Europe.

Globally, for the first time in decades, there is a catastrophic decline in development indicators. A recent UN report found that nine out of 10 countries worldwide have fallen behind on life expectancy, education and living standards. For decades, international organisations have promised to fight global inequality and poverty with growth – but the results are anything but promising.

Of all the wealth produced between 1995 and 2021 globally, the top 1 percent captured 38 percent, while the bottom 50 percent captured a shocking 2 percent. At the same time, the brunt of the social and ecological costs of this impoverishing growth – as evidenced by droughts, fires and floods around the world – are largely borne by the poor.

Degrowth proponents clearly see that governments’ obsession with growth always leads to sacrificing the poor. That is why they argue for moving away from the dependence on growth to meet the wellbeing needs of the general population.

Degrowth means public abundance

How would this be done? A key part would be to guarantee access to “universal basic services” like housing, food, healthcare, mobility, and childcare to the general population, by taking them out of the market.

There are already examples of such policies giving positive results. Germany’s three-month experiment with a $9 monthly ticket for all regional and city public transport could serve as an example. It not only reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 1.8 million tonnes – equivalent to powering about 350,000 homes for a year – but it also helped mitigate the effects of high inflation rates, increased freedom of mobility for all, and was quite popular with the public.

This policy is a great example of what we call in our book, The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to A World Beyond Capitalism, politics of “public abundance”: an economy where everyone has enough to meet their needs, and more, based on public services and community-run commons.

What would this look like? We can turn the millions of empty houses and condos – which exist as purely speculative assets – into cooperatives or social housing. We can expand public transport to make mobility available to everyone, regardless of fuel prices. We can make energy publicly owned, democratically run, and truly sustainable and affordable.

We can even set up cafeterias that offer food for everyone at a low cost in every neighbourhood – something that many countries, including Britain, have historically done in times of hardship. And we can end the practice of planned obsolescence that makes everything – from printers to smartphones to clothes – break early, be purposefully made too slow to use, or fall out of fashion.

From tool libraries – where we can take out tools like drills or sewing machines from the library instead of everyone buying their own – to childcare collectives – such as those in Quebec, available at low cost to every parent – we can ensure that the basics of life, as well as the fun things in life, are available to everyone.

This would mean that living a “sustainable” life would not be just for those who can afford to buy an electric car or organic food. What is more, adopting such policies would actually drastically reduce energy use and the amount of stuff we produce, as people would have much less need for it. We would meet wellbeing standards while reducing waste and the material intensity of the economy we rely on.

And there are more and more studies that show that this can be done. For example, a 2020 research paper on energy sufficiency found that it is possible to provide a decent life to the entire global population at 40 percent of current energy use, despite population growth until 2050.

While the details may be debated, it is clear that reducing the excess energy and resource use of the rich and making designs more efficient within the framework of a truly circular economy have huge potential to reduce demand. For example, an estimated 57 million tonnes of electronics were thrown away in 2021. That is bigger than the Great Wall of China. If we only designed smartphones, TVs and other appliances to last twice as long as they currently do, we could reduce this by half right away, without reducing wellbeing (but probably reducing profits).

A degrowth economy would be much more efficient in translating drastically reduced levels of energy and resource throughput into high levels of wellbeing. It could be financed through redistribution and public money, restructuring the monetary and financial system so that we no longer depend on private capital to invest in the public good.

Certainly, life would look a lot different, many people would likely possess fewer material objects – but most would have access to better services and society would be more sustainable, just, convivial, and fulfilling. In essence, degrowth aims at a society in which wellbeing is mediated less by capitalist market transactions, exchange values, or material consumption and more by collective forms of providing, shared human values, and meaningful social relationships. As one degrowth slogan states: “moins de biens, plus de liens!” (“fewer things, more relations!”).

A degrowth economy would be the inversion of austerity. For the majority, it would mean a more abundant, more convivial, more fulfilling lifestyle. For the wealthy few, it would mean the end of private abundance, excess emissions and concentrated power. For humanity, it would be our only shot at a future worth living in.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.