Degrowth, what next?

Development Policy29 Mar 2010Gjalt Huppes

We face a number of highly challenging tendencies which require fundamental new approaches to get us on the track of a decent global society. First, the industrial transformation of societies has taken off globally. It is not a matter if but only when and how the majority of the eight or so billion people on earth will participate in it, with global consequences. Next, the global population will stabilize after industrialisation, but only after several decades to come, with the most advanced nations shrinking in stead of growing, most visibly Japan, Italy and Spain now already, where a degrowth of the working population of up to forty percent is expected towards 2050.

Third, the ecological destruction we see already now will magnify, with climate change advancing, nature transformed into agriculture and agriculture transformed in high yield agriculture. Combined with overexploitation, and with other environmental stressors added, biodiversity loss is alarming now already, but just starting. Regulatory functions of the environment are jeopardised. Exploitation of mineral and fossil natural resources is increasing steadily, with decreasing cost still overriding their scarcer availability, for most resources leading to lowering prices per ton in the long run.

At the Barcelona Degrowth Conference II, we investigated directions for solution. The core is that we reduce economic growth, both for environmental reasons, which remained unspecified and abstract, and for social reasons. The social and cultural reasoning were dominant, based on the goals of happiness and justice, as the Good Life. Solutions dominant in the Degrowth Movement, place emphasis on local community and sharing and on the imaginary against the commodification of life, and against capitalist market based organisation of production and consumption. The more science oriented participants in the debate agree that fundamental changes in society are required, in culture, institutions and social structure, and from there in the organisation of the economy and in the way we produce and consume.

Coming from the ecological debate, what is my position? We have seen debates on Limits to Growth, Selective Growth, Selective Shrinkage, with the new emphasis on Green Growth as the new political convergence. In this view, eco-efficiency improvement of production and consumption is to solve environmental problems, while growing on happily. In a technical sense this may be true, but clear reasoning on the requirements is lacking. Win-win sounds nice. A 20% cost reduction combined with a 20% reduction of environmental stress, who would not applaud? Well don’t. The cost reduction or value increase will also make us richer, as the same amount of labour and capital input will now produce more products, be it goods or services. The increased production will eat away the environmental improvement per unit of product; there will be no net environmental improvement. For substantial environmental improvements, eco-efficiency, as the environmental intensity of production and consumption will have to improve substantially. Of course we then have to be precise as to what constitutes environmental burden, and link these to specific activities and technologies. As drivers for such improvement are mostly lacking there is undue optimism with the growth people. However, there is benign neglect of these technological issues with the Degrowth community. Small may seem beautiful, but inefficiency and low eco-efficiency in a world of eight billion people will just make impossible a decent consumption level for all, and it will destroy the now remaining nature, including indigenous people living there. Simple choices on biofuels have, at less then one half percent of our energy consumption, have contributed already to food price instability and mass destruction of rainforest. Careless technology choice for solving one problem has played havoc with humans and the environment!

We should both eco-innovate the technology of production and consumption, and we should reduce the higher levels of consumption. Given the increasing levels of labour productivity, through steeply increasing levels of research and development, the only alternative is to work less, fewer hours. This option is clear: lower life time working hours on average. Reduced daily hours, fewer days per week, more holidays, more study, more part time work, earlier retirement or any combination.

How can we combine the assets of both communities, and resolve their blind spots in the process? First bridge is the recognition that the political process is not just a technical affair. Direct private interest based politics, that is policy-as-usual, will not create the incentives for societal improvement. A visionary element in policy is essential. The degrowth movement has a position at the political spectrum, but for a long time fare away from dominant politics. For applied scientists, the connection with the cultural and political domain should be made, but with a broader coverage. More options are to be considered, and evaluated against criteria of ´ultimate feasibility´, that is combined cultural, social, political, economic, technical and environmental feasibility.

The starting point may be visions and dreams, linking them to environmental quality and human happiness, or it may be environmental quality to be realised, and it may be specific steps in between, linking them to visions on the one side and to environmental quality on the other.

Of course, there will not be a single line linking dreams visions and principles with environment in its many manifestations. Nor will environmental quality link to only one vision. But the intention of linking allows for more rational analysis and discussion of all in between. How to link is an essential question, requiring more knowledge and more focused knowledge than now is available.

This leads to a research agenda, a most complex one, and an interesting one.