The rise in popularity of degrowth

In advance of the highly anticipated 2023 Beyond Growth Conference, this piece is the fourth in a weekly series to be published together on 8 May in the special issue magazine “Imagining Europe Beyond Growth”, developed in partnership with Belgian de-growth think tank Oikos. The magazine, curated by our Senior Policy Officer for Systemic Change Nick Meynen, will feature 18 articles from diverse actors in the “beyond growth” sphere: from thought leaders such as Kate Raworth and Timothée Parrique to political figures and a variety of civil society allies and EEB staff passionate about system change. Stay tuned for 1 article every week for the next eight weeks!

Degrowth is no longer a swearword. Twenty years after the emergence of décroissance in France, the concept has travelled far and wide. Born as a strange breed of activist slogan and scholarly jargon, the term has become one of the trendiest themes of contemporary environmental politics. 

The doughnut economy of Kate Raworth inspired new forms of city planning in Amsterdam and Brussels. Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, Wales, Finland, and Canada designed alternative indicators of prosperity in line with a wellbeing economy. The European think-tank ZOE organised several events around the theme of policymaking beyond growth. The Japanese Marxist scholar Kohei Saito became a media sensation after selling half a million books arguing that degrowth communism could halt the escalating climate emergency. The European Environmental Agency advocated for growth without economic growth; and in September 2018, the European Parliament hosted the Post-Growth conference, an unprecedented effort to bring these ideas into European politics. 

There are two reasons explaining the rise in popularity of growth-critical ideas. First, the controversial belief of early degrowth activists has developed into a rigorous science. At the time of the first international degrowth conference in 2008, there were only a handful of academic papers on the topic. A decade later, the literature has bloomed to more than 600 scientific studies. In a review of more than one thousand texts, we identified 380 policy instruments discussed in the context of a degrowth transition. The scholarship now offers a precious toolbox of concepts and strategies, including sophisticated policy designs concerning work time reduction, wealth and income caps, and welfare, among more general discussion on green new deals, sustainable work, and alternative business models.

Our latest report highlights the need to rethink green growth policies and complement efficiency with sufficiency.

The second reason has to do with the ecological context. The aggravation of the ecological polycrisis and the meagre results of pro-growth environmental policies have made the plan-B of degrowth more appealing than it ever was. The tide is turning, and what was previously considered the pragmatic position (green growth) is gradually becoming an unrealistic utopia. In the summer of 2019, several colleagues and I published Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability, a report for the European Environmental Bureau. We concluded that there was no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown and that such a decoupling appeared unlikely to happen in the future. Four years ago, this was blasphemy. Today, this view is almost mainstream

The idea is getting popular, but there is still a long way to go. Even the choice of titles for the European Parliament conferences (“PostGrowth” in 2018 and “Beyond Growth” in 2023) shows that not everyone is comfortable using the D-word. The word might not be there, but the idea is: a democratically planned downscaling of production and consumption to lighten ecological footprints while reducing inequality and improving wellbeing around the world. Degrowth as a macroeconomic diet to sufficiently reduces environmental pressures to stabilise the metabolism of high-income economies at a scale that can be sustainable. Degrowth as a societal transformation would lead to smaller, steady-state economies in harmony with nature that could prosper without growth (the idea of postgrowth). 

For a long time, the idea of green growth has sustained a don’t worry, everything is going to be okay narrative, becoming a form of macroeconomic greenwashing mobilised to discredit more radical proposals. The lesson we should take from the last decades of environmental politics is that whatever has been tried until now has not managed to put us on the path to sustainability. Now, more than ever, is the time for plan Bs. The growth-critical discourse (degrowth as a transition and postgrowth as a destination) offers a solid body of knowledge and know-how to try new things.