As national and global economies grind to a halt in the attempt to contain COVID-19, people may ask whether this shock to the system resembles what ‘degrowth’ advocates have been calling for in recent years.
Degrowth is a movement that sees the goal of limitless economic growth as being dangerously incompatible with a finite planet. From this perspective, the notion of “green growth” – where economies grow but in sustainable ways – is considered a myth not based in reality. These critics of growth also argue that the inequalities that have developed under global capitalism are grossly unjust and socially corrosive. Not good for people or planet.
In response to these failings, economic degrowth is called for in order to downshift global material and energy demands to sustainable levels. However, any economic contraction must be coupled with redistribution of wealth and power, so that all people have enough to meet basic needs and live a good life based on material sufficiency. That’s the basic vision.
So, is the current economic downturn what degrowth looks like in reality?
Degrowth is not recession
First of all, let’s be clear. Degrowth means planned economic contraction. Nothing about the existing economic shut down in response to COVID-19 was part of the plan for Australia (from where I write) or the world. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago it was almost unthinkable. The plan was economic growth.
When an economy contracts involuntarily, that’s called a recession or, if it lasts long enough, a depression. Nobody advocates for such unplanned economic contraction because that has all sorts of negative social effects, including rising unemployment, stress, and poverty. So we must never confuse degrowth with recession.
Nevertheless, from a degrowth perspective, the current economic shut down does raise some important questions about how best to manage and understand the unfolding economic and cultural responses to the pandemic.
Isn’t the economic shut down environmentally beneficial?
The current shut down is not aiming to save the planet. It is motivated solely by the need to constrain the spread of COVID-19. But some climate commentators have been quick to point out the environmental benefits.
For example, airlines have begun to shut down because so few people are travelling, and this will obviously reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, across the economy, large economic sectors have been closed, meaning most of us will be spending far less money on consumer goods and services over coming weeks and months, especially as anxieties over work and income increase.
The lesson here is profound: we really can act “as if the house is on fire” when we believe our lives are at risk. But COVID-19 is a crisis within a broader crisis. The current economic contraction has been in response to the pandemic, but flying less, consuming less, and producing less is actually needed for a range of ecological and social reasons, including climate change.
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While acknowledging that the current economic disruption is causing a great deal of hardship, let us also acknowledge that a huge reduction in superfluous consumption has proven to be tolerable. Life goes on even when people can’t fly across the globe for a friend’s wedding. Now imagine we planned this contraction, in line with safe planetary limits, rather than waited for it to be imposed upon us through a pandemic. We could have had the environmental benefits without the social suffering and economic insecurity.
That’s what degrowth means.
Impacts are reducing for now, but isn’t the goal a return to growth?
From an environmental perspective, the risk is that everything bounces back to “normal” levels of growth and consumption as soon as this pandemic passes. History shows that emissions go down during recessions or depressions but tend to rise again as soon as the growth engine starts turning again.
The question is whether we can manage this pandemic in a way that stops the virus getting out of control, avoids the “bounce back” to high impact, carbon-intensive living, while also ensuring all people feel economically secure in a downshifted economy.
That will obviously require significant shifts in the ways our economies are structured, including exploring innovative new ways to govern access to land and having difficult but compassionate conversations about things like redistribution and population growth.
And, if the response to COVID-19 shows us anything, it’s that governments can mobilise extraordinary amounts of money when there is political will. This is good news for funding a transition to renewable energy, for example.
A degrowth transition will also mean a cultural recognition that high consumption lifestyles are unsustainable and that only lifestyles of material sufficiency, moderation, and frugality are consistent with social and ecological justice. This challenges us to reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture.
So, are our ambitions merely to return to business as usual? Or do we aspire for a resilient and sustainable society?
How crisis can be an opportunity to rethink
Recently, the prominent French philosopher Bruno Latour tweeted: “Next time, when ecologists are ridiculed because ‘the economy cannot be slowed down’, they should remember that it can grind to a halt in a matter of weeks worldwide when it is urgent enough.”
The current crisis shows that we can manage economic contraction when we feel we need to. Degrowth advocates argue we need to – both for people and planet. But we need to manage contraction by design, not be forced into it by crisis after crisis.
In the wake of COVID-19, we need to ask ourselves, more than ever, what type of society we want to live in. Bouncing back to business as usual would be no solution at all.
Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs and researcher with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.