Perhaps only degrowth can save usBMJ 2023; 382 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p1545 (Published 04 July 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;382:p1545
We are failing to mount the response we need to avoid catastrophe from the crisis in climate and nature. If governments continue with the same environmental policies currently in place, the world will become 2.8°C hotter by the end of the century, which would be “a death sentence,” warned the United Nations Secretary General in April.1 If the feedback loops kick in—for example, the release of methane from beneath melting ice—it could be much worse and much faster. We need drastic change—and a move to degrowth may be the only answer.
Just before the pandemic began, I attended a debate entitled “Must capitalism end to avoid climate collapse?”2 Although uncertain of the answer before the debate began, I voted—like most of the audience—against the end of capitalism, partly because capitalism was developing technologies that could help respond to the climate crisis and more because it didn’t seem we had time to change our whole economic system. At the debate Adair Turner, the first chair of the UK Climate Change Committee who spoke in favour of capitalism, said that he thought we had only a 30% chance of avoiding economic and social collapse. He would, I’m sure, put it much lower now.
At the end of last year, I commented on an article that debated the merits of “green growth” and “degrowth” and concluded “by any reasonable standard of argument, the burden of proof doesn’t lie with the degrowthers: it lies with those who hold fast to growth.”3 I’ve now read “the Bible of degrowth”—Less is More by Jason Hickel and become convinced that “green growth,” which is advocated by the US, European Union, and several British political parties is a fantasy and that we have no choice but to move to degrowth, even though, as Hickel concedes, “No one can give us a simple recipe for a post-capitalist economy; ultimately it has to be a collective project.”4
For most of human history we had economies based on exchange: I cut your hair, and you give me a loaf you have cooked. Such an economy is compatible with money and even with profit. You make a profit on your bakery, but you make roughly the same profit year after year. You don’t feel the need to grow, but if you think you would like to grow you will require investment, capital. The investor expects a minimum of a 3% return year after year, which means you will have to grow and keep growing (compound growth). If you don’t give investors their 3% return, they will invest elsewhere, bankrupting your bakery. As I was taught at the Stanford Business School, it’s grow or die once you start down this path. Small bakeries don’t have to grow, but they may be put out of business by supermarkets, which because of investors have no choice but to grow. Big companies like Amazon, Meta, Pfizer, and BP must find a way to give their investors a minimum return of 3%, allowing the odd down year, or finish—and most companies do die after 20-50 years.
Economic growth has produced great benefits, including jobs and taxes, lifting many people out of poverty and funding improvements in health, housing, education, transport, and much more. Politicians, including the present leaders of Britain, see economic growth as essential, although it is proving harder and harder to achieve in mature economies, like that of Britain.
One big problem with capitalism is that compound growth is exponential, growing faster than humans can imagine. The pandemic helped us understand a little more about exponential growth, but still the best understanding comes from the ancient story of the man who asks a king to pay him with one grain of rice on the first square of a chess board with the number of grains doubling with each subsequent square. After the first row he has fewer than 200 grains, but the 64th square he has 18 million trillion grains, enough to cover the whole of India with rice a metre thick. The graph of global economic growth is the familiar “hockey-stick,” virtually flat until the beginning of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, beginning to accelerate in about 1950, increasing 10-fold by 2015.5 As Hickel calculates, if the global economy grows at even a moderate 3% it will double every 23 years, quadrupling before the middle of the century.
This might be acceptable—even desirable—but for a second problem with capitalism, that the earth’s resources—for example, clean air, rivers, seas, and much of nature—are seen as “free goods,” externalities in economic jargon. Fossil fuel companies pay nothing for filling the air with pollutants. Infinite growth and a finite planet are simply incompatible.
A further problem with capitalism is that it creates huge inequalities. The wealthiest 1% of the global population owns half of the world’s wealth, whereas the poorest 3.5 billion adults own just 2.7% of the wealth. Hickel explains how capitalism has grown by enclosing common land and creating colonies. “The South,” writes Hickel, “has suffered twice over: first from the appropriation of resources and labour that fuelled the North’s industrial rise, and now from the appropriation of atmospheric commons by the North’s industrial emissions… atmospheric colonisation.” And the end of colonialism did not end inequalities: “the real per capita income gap between the global North and global South is four times larger today than it was at the end of colonialism.”
Despite the inescapable problem with capitalism, modern politicians of left and right cannot abandon the concept. The American philosopher Fredric Jameson once famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Most politicians have recognised that capitalism as it has proceeded until now is no longer possible and have created the concept of “green growth.”
Hickel identifies the four major problems with green growth. Firstly, despite huge and admirable progress with renewable energy we can never keep up with a growing economy, meaning we will continue to depend on fossil fuels. Secondly, solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric cars depend on metals and rare earths, and mining on the scale required to feed a growing economy will create massive and growing environmental damage. Nuclear power from either fission or fusion cannot develop fast enough to meet the energy requirements of economies that continue to grow. Similarly, carbon capture technologies are not maturing fast enough, and ironically depend on energy to work; plus they are a response to only one of our environmental problems. Thirdly, geoengineering projects like injecting the upper atmosphere with particles to create a veil to reflect sunlight, which the European Union is already considering, are extraordinarily risky. Fourthly, our problem is not confronted simply with rising temperatures but with a damaged planet, and if we had 100% clean energy we would “raze more forests, trawl more fish, mine more mountains, build more roads, expand industrial farming, and send more waste to landfill—all of which have ecological consequences our planet can no longer sustain.” Economists have long identified a paradox that innovations that create more efficient ways of using energy and resources briefly reduce consumption but then increase it. As Hickel explains it’s not really a paradox but what would be expected—because companies use the savings to reinvest in more production and the growth swamps the efficiency improvements.
Degrowth depends on reducing energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just, and equitable way. It means reducing inequality, investing in universal public goods, and distributing income and opportunity more fairly. Because we already have enough. I think of the graph of life expectancy against GDP that shows that life expectancy in countries flattens at around 80 when the per capita GDP is around $12 000 and that countries like the US (per capita GDP $55 000) and the United Arab Emirates (per capita GDP $76 000) have life expectancies below 80.6 The American ecologist Herman Daly recognised that after a certain point growth begins to become “uneconomic,” creating more “illth” than wealth through polluted air, excessive consumption of unhealthy foods, using machines rather than our bodies, and overwork.
Making degrowth happen will, Hickel writes, “require a movement, as with every struggle for social and ecological justice in history.” He has no ready made formula, but he identifies seven steps. End planned obsolescence. Smartphones are a good example: 13 billion were manufactured between 2010 and 2019 with 10 billion discarded. Cut advertising, most of which is persuading us to buy things we don’t need. Shift from ownership to usership; the future of cars is not everybody owning an electric car but people mostly using public transport and sharing cars when necessary. End food waste seems obvious, but GDP, the aim of growth and a flawed, inhuman measure, rises not only by producing more food, but also by companies disposing of the waste. Scale down ecologically destructive industries like fossil fuels, beef farming, flying, and mining. Work less in paid employment, which would mean better quality of life, lower unemployment, and less environmental destruction. Cancel debts, particularly those of low-income countries. This anti-capitalist measure has religious roots in the Hebrew Law of Jubilee, whereby debts were automatically cancelled every seventh year. The law is associated with the Hebrew concept of redemption.
Redistributing wealth will be essential for degrowth, and will the 1% who own half the world’s wealth approve such a measure? The immediate reaction is “Of course not,” but many of the ultrawealthy—Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos—are planning to give away all or most of their personal wealth. The very rich might be able avoid the worst of environmental collapse, but not for ever. Moving to degrowth would require all of us to change, and it would require a change in thinking akin to those that happened when we recognised that the earth is not the centre of the universe and that we are descended from other creatures and will like other species become extinct. We need to move away from our individualistic view of the world and recognise our profound interdependence not only with each other, but with other species, rivers, seas, and mountains. We need to move from being dualists, believing ourselves being apart from and masters of nature, to being animists, as humans were for the first 200 000 years of existence, the end coming only with philosophers like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes.7
Hickel quotes at length the words of Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary psychiatrist and intellectual from Martinique who died of leukaemia aged 36 in 1961, and I want to quote them as well. They give us a vision of a sustainable world:
“Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe. Europe now lives at such a mad, reckless pace that she has shaken off all guidance and all reason, and she is running headlong into the abyss; we would do well to avoid it with all possible speed. The Third World today faces Europe like a colossal mass whose aim should be to try to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers. But let us be clear: what matters is to stop talking about output, and intensification, and the rhythm of work. No, we do not want to catch up with anyone. What we want to do is to go forward all the time, night and day, in the company of Man, in the company of all men. So, comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies which draw their inspiration from her. Humanity is waiting for something other from us than such an imitation.”
Competing interests: none declared.
Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.