The term ‘growth’ has always been associated with an upward movement. In literal terms, it refers to “an increase in the size or the importance of something” (Cambridge Dictionary, n.a.). In economics, growth is a subject area in itself. Primarily, economic growth is a rise in the production of goods and services in an economy over time and is gauged by indicators like the Gross National Product (GNP) or more commonly Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Economic growth has been an inevitable part of the discourse surrounding economic progress and development. Most economists in the early half of the 20th century were of the belief that economic growth was the only solution for charting a path towards a bigger, better and developed economy. But is this really true?
Focusing on growth has led to an increase in mass production and consumption, the world GDP has reached new highs but at the same time, the rampant exploitation of resources to fuel this growth has had negative effects on social well being of people and natural resources. Despite this trade off, growth continues to be an important indicator of the health of an economy.
So, the question arises, why is growth that important?
The answer to this lies in understanding the capitalist system. Capitalists have the basic goal of increasing profits which makes growth imperative under that system. The effect of such profit driven economic activities has led to major implications for our biosphere. In order to address the ecological unsustainability, there was a new thought – ‘sustainable development’ which encouraged eco-friendly growth to reduce environmental hazard, but is this the solution? Let’s come back to this later.
The next question here is that, is growth really necessary and does it have any alternative?
Numerous attempts have been made to answer this question by different economists and schools of thought. In them is a movement which supports the idea of ‘Degrowth’.
‘Degrowth’, the word itself has a negative connotation to it. Yet, the notion of degrowth as many have misunderstood is far from negative growth or even stunted growth, rather it can be termed as a critique of the idea of growth. The word was first introduced as ‘décroissance’, a french word for degrowth by André Gorz in 1972. Gorz’s analysis centered around the question of whether earth is compatible with the existence of the capitalist system irrespective of whether there is no growth or degrowth of production. Another thinker Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen considered as the pioneer of bioeconomics, put forth the notion that even when there is zero growth and production is still taking place, there will always be consumption of finite natural resources resulting in their potential exhaustion.
Lets look at what ‘Degrowth’ actually means. The idea is a direct contrast to the assumption of everlasting growth and that it being a primary objective of societies. It abolishes economic growth as a social aim of the economy and supports a change in the consumption and organisation of natural resources. Thus, degrowth is representative of a change in the outlook, a different societal landscape which would organise its resources and priorities differently and live a life drastically altered than the current reality.
To understand degrowth, it is necessary to first assess its stance against growth. Growth has always been considered as the betterment of the extant scenario, an unidimensional progress. In economic theory, growth has been associated with ramped up production and consumption of goods and services. In other words, it is a quantitative development.
Degrowth criticises this basic idea, it believes that to have for instance better healthcare facilities doesn’t always mean the growth of such services, what it highlights is the qualitative improvement of these facilities. Degrowth also draws from the inadequacies in the development approach which calls for sustainability which as per the degrowth approach is an improper tradeoff. It argues that sustainable development still holds the assumption of growth intact, it being unlimited.
In economies today, metabolism has been driven by commodity frontiers which are engaged in continuously increasing the production and consumption of societies. It takes a negative stand against commodification, which can be delineated as a process which converts “social products and socio-ecological services and relations into commodities with a monetary value” (D’Alisa et al, 2014, p.47). Rather, advocates for societies that have small metabolism or societal metabolism. Societal Metabolism can be understood as the harnessing of energy and resources to remain functional. Societal metabolism doesn’t focus on the quantities of resources consumed but rather aims at the biophysical process present and links them to production and consumption.
Protection of the environment from rampant exploitation, pollution, decay and abandonment and environmental justice forms the crux of the degrowth debate. Communities have protested the uncontrolled investment in environmental resources which have rendered them fragile and broken. It has been observed that environmental inequalities exist both in the extraction & allocation of natural resources as well as distribution of environmental bads. The agenda of environmental justice is a multifaceted movement including the idea of shared spaces or commons which aid to repair and bring together communities and people. Environmentalism of the poor is also part of the larger environmental justice.
Degrowth supports having resources caps as it understands that finite resources can’t lead to unlimited growth. Along with environmental justice, it reiterates the philosophy that the extant resources must be more equally divided between people than few controlling most of them.
To conclude, degrowth poses fundamental doubts regarding the current perception of growth. It shows a novel path to tackle the mounting environmental pressures and the future economic progress. One of the basic things we need to remember, in the words of Edward Abbey, an author and environmentalist, is that “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” and now is the time to choose between growing and thriving.
– Jui Chawan (Writer, Econ Declassified)
Edited by: Shreya Singh (Editor, Econ Declassified)
D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F., Kallis, G. (2014). Degrowth : A Vocabulary For A New Era, Routledge.
Cambridge Dictionary. (n.a.). Growth. Retrieved from : https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/growth
Degrowth Info. (n.a.). What is degrowth?. Retrieved from : https://www.degrowth.info/en/what-is-degrowth/#:~:text=Degrowth%20is%20an%20idea%20that,human%20exploitation%20and%20environmental%20destruction.
Edward Abbey. (n.a.). Quotes, Goodreads. Retrieved from : https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1267628-the-journey-home-some-words-in-defense-of-the-american-west
Kate Raworth. (2018). A Healthy Economy Should Be Designed To Thrive Not Grow, Tedtalks. Retrieved from : https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_raworth_a_healthy_economy_should_be_designed_to_thrive_not_grow?language=en
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