Shrink the Economy, Save the World?

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A rising tide and a bigger pie: Economic growth has long been considered such an obvious boon that it’s pursued by governments across the world as a matter of course. But in 2016, when a London professor warned an audience in Newcastle that Brexit would lead to a precipitous drop in Britain’s gross domestic product, that well-worn measure of economic activity, one woman’s heckling caught him by surprise. “That’s your bloody G.D.P.,” she shouted, “not ours!”

The eruption tapped into a suspicion supported by reality: Gains in economic growth have too often buoyed the fortunes of the richest instead of lifting all boats. Prosperity even in the most prosperous countries hasn’t been shared. But all the attention to inequality is just a crack in the edifice of economic orthodoxy. Now a much more radical proposition has emerged, looming like a wrecking ball: Is economic growth desirable at all?

Less than two decades ago, an economist like Herman Daly, who argued for a “steady-state economy,” was such an outlier that his fellow economist Benjamin Friedman could declare that “practically nobody opposes economic growth per se.” Yet today there is a burgeoning “post-growth” and “degrowth” movement doing exactly that — in journals, on podcasts, at conferences. Consider some of the books published in the last several years: Tim Jackson’s “Post-Growth: Life After Capitalism,” Kate Soper’s “Post-Growth Living,” Giorgos Kallis’s “In Defense of Degrowth,” Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson’s “Exploring Degrowth,” Jason Hickel’s “Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World.” The proliferation of the term is as good an indicator as any: The literature of degrowth is growing.

In 1972, the French theorist André Gorz coined the word décroissance to ask whether “no-growth — or even degrowth” in material production was necessary for “the earth’s balance,” even if it ran counter to “the survival of the capitalist system.” Gorz was writing the same year that “The Limits to Growth” was published, a report by a group of scientists warning that surges in population and economic activity would eventually outstrip the carrying capacity of the planet. “The Limits to Growth” was initially met with skepticism and even ridicule. Critics pointed to humanity’s undeniably impressive record of technological innovation. As one representative economist put it, “Our predictions are firmly based on a study of the way these problems have been overcome in the past.”

And so degrowth remained on the fringes of the fringe for decades, until increasing awareness about global warming percolated into public debates in the early aughts. The realization that we hadn’t innovated our way out of our ecological predicament, along with inequalities laid bare by the 2008 financial crisis, fueled a more widespread distrust of the conventional capitalist wisdom. Maybe relentless economic growth was more poison than panacea.

An Ideology of ‘Growthism’

This doubt has taken varied forms, from cautious agnosticism to categorical doomsaying, with degrowth occupying the furthest end of the spectrum. For advocates of degrowth, it’s a core tenet that in high-income countries the constant expansion demanded by capitalism isn’t required to improve people’s lives; instead, the ensuing inequality and environmental havoc have frequently undermined them.

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