What is degrowth (and more importantly, what is it not)?

Despite the popularity of the EU Beyond Growth Conference 2023 in May, the past weeks have seen an increasingly heated and misinformed debate across Member States concerning the meaning of a new term: “degrowth”. Nick Meynen, the European Environmental Bureau’s (EBB) senior policy officer for systemic change, sets the record straight.

The following piece was first published in Knack.

Last May saw the largest conference hosted in the European Parliament under von der Leyen’s Commisison, bearing the title “Beyond Growth“. During the event, new approaches to the debate on economic growth were discussed, including the pro’s and con’s of the degrowth approach to economics. But because the term “degrowth” remained majorly unfamiliar to the public, subsequent ill-informed discussions in the mainstream media has resulted in the spreading of alternative facts and disinformation. 

Various public figures, including Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, have recently shared critical but misinformed opinions on the concept of degrowth. “We sometimes hear people saying that the solution would be degrowth, the myth that we could combat climate change with a strategy of less: Less growth, less investment, less consumption, probably also less job creation,” – De Croo said.

But what does “degrowth” indeed mean, then? Let’s take a step back first.

“Degrowth” is an adaptation of the original French term “décroissance“. The word points to a collective of economic theories developed over the past two decades, amassing to over 600 peer-reviewed publications to date. But on top of being a research topic, degrowth also relates to the rapidly developing socio-ecological movement where scientists, economists, concerned members of the public, and, more recently, representatives of almost all major parties (except the extreme right) have joined forces in brainstorming approaches to achieve greater sustainability. 

The main goal of degrowth can be best described as making the necessary transition to an environmentally-friendly and sustainable economy in a way that is smart, social, and democratic. Ecological economics, political economics, geography, biology, and political ecology are just some academic disciplines that contribute to the expanding body of knowledge that shapes the discipline of degrowth. Like Keynes and Friedman before them, degrowth economists are keen on not staying in some ivory tower but having a real impact on society.

Supporters of the degrowth approach rely on the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that continued economic growth dependency leads to gradual collective destruction and impoverishment through the detour of its environmental impact. 

Degrowth is in opposition to the idea of “green growth”. Green growth supporters promote environmental awareness and care for humanity but cling to the belief that growth and the damages caused by growth can be decoupled in a timely and sufficient manner. However, multiple studies in top academic journals, such as Nature and Science, have refuted this core assumption thoroughly. Since 2019, when the EEB published its groundbreaking and much-cited report titled “Decoupling Debunked”, the burden of proof concerning decoupling prospects arguably lies with green growthers. To date, all the rebuttals in the Flemish media have been based on selective data that also fail to demonstrate how decoupling is or can be adequate and timely in the face of reality.

As explained in the “Decoupling Debunked” report, the economy’s carbon intensity should fall 100 times faster than now – an unrealistic number –  for green growth to work. In turn, degrowth as a physical necessity is an inconvenient truth that frequently encounters populist resistance and disinformation. As long as we only add renewable energy and do not phase out fossil energy, our existential problem will continue to grow.

Natural science, therefore, recognises that the rate of “decoupling” in reality cannot be sufficient to halt with environmental breakdown. The little amount of time we allow for ecosystems to regenerate is already insufficient. Continuous growth makes this task evermore challenging. Recent research in Nature shows that seven of the eight planetary boundaries (a concept setting limits to human activities in different spheres, ensuring consistent self-regulation of the planet’s environment) have already been crossed, the cost of which has only just begun to unfold. In our climate system and how our bodies deal with chemical pollution in particular, there is a time lag between the damage inflicted and the ultimate consequences. In both planetary and personal health terms, this means that whatever we see today will be worse than what we already witnessed, because the damage done to both systems is worse today than it was ten years ago. 

Degrowth economists rely on data about what makes life on Earth possible, while classical economists rely on data about money, such as the Gross National Product (GNP) and capital flows. Yet these two datasets are fundamentally different. Money can be seen as a social construct – and something you cannot eat or drink. In contrast, soil fertility, oxygen availability, and climate stability are physical, essential, and irreplaceable. Degrowth economists offer models for a sustainable society within the planetary boundaries, which classical economists ignore.

Policy proposals based on degrowth concepts cover a broad spectrum of domains. Examples are a far more intelligent distribution of the available amount of work, a different monetary system to the one where debt and interest create an eternal growth lock-in, and a footprint-based redistribution of the remaining carbon budget. Some degrowth-rooted proposals are also implemented at local, regional, and even national scales, but to be truly effective and transformational, a continental scale could help. And no continent is better placed to benefit from a degrowth transition towards a post-growth economy than Europe.

Below are six of the most common myths shared in the media concerning degrowth and the actual facts.

Myth 1: Degrowth is ideological.

What this means: You must think that whoever says this phrase is not guided by ideologies.

Reality: The ideology of classical economists is based on a theory of free competition and free trade handled by markets, while degrowth economists treat earthly reality as the foundation. If the word ‘ideology’ is used in a derogatory ‘not-objective’ way, it applies far better to classical economists.

Myth 2: Degrowth is recession.

What this means: You must believe that degrowthers are blind to the misery a recession creates.

Reality: Degrowth is a well-organised and social transition to an economy with guaranteed basic services and better jobs, paid through redistribution of wealth and implementation of policies that tackle extreme affluence. Recession is a growing problem caused by inherent contradictions in the current systems of exploitation and extraction, trying to create infinite wealth out of finite resources. And yes, in a recession, the poor usually end up paying the rich. But that is unfortunately the price of growth.

Myth 3: Degrowth is communism.

What this means: You must think degrowth supporters want poverty and dictatorship.

Reality: Degrowth opposes economic growth goals as a policy compass, whether it happens in a capitalist or communist framework. Degrowth shows that extreme wealth is a direct source of poverty and impossible levels of ecological destruction. Degrowthers also work on the democratisation of the economy, more than neoclassical economists do. In fact, it is the countries that follow the neoliberal path that are the ones that slide towards dictatorships more quickly. In reality, it is growth in high-income countries that creates poverty and dictatorship.

Myth 4: Degrowth is anti-innovation.

What this means: You must think that in degrowth, technology is taboo.

Reality: Degrowth supporters want technology and innovation to achieve the necessary transition, but they are against policies in which technology and innovation only move the problem elsewhere, instead of solving it. If innovations in cars and housing are offset by increasing the size of the car and house, the net total is still more emissions. They also argue that there is no good reason why the government does not print the money for the required technology and innovation itself. The destructive detour of money creation for all the wrong purposes to have money for innovation we need is the real problem, not the tech itself.

Myth 5: Degrowth is an attack on your lifestyle.

What this means: You must think that degrowthers are hippies.

Reality: Green growthers emphasise we all have a choice to live differently, yet very few degrowthers are trying to convince people to change lifestyles. Degrowthers usually advocate for a far more effective approach to excessively destructive behaviour. For example, a carbon credit card that does not ask but makes sure that 1% of all people who take planes do not remain responsible for 50% of all aircraft emissions. You would still be able to fly, just not every single day. The publication “Scientists warning on affluence” in Nature states that the necessary transition can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes are enforced on a specific segment of the world’s population – the one that is by far the most disproportionately impactful. According to degrowthers, for instance, there is no room for frivolities such as space tourism. While many growthers will call these ideas an attack on the middle class or freedom, the reality is different. They are a call to end on the self-aclaimed liberty of the ultra-rich to take away the freedom of all to live.

Myth 6: Degrowth ignores “developing countries”.

What this means: You must think degrowth is white and elitist.

Reality: Green growthers defend over-exploitation in “developing” countries and unequal trade that actively drive down the development of poorer countries in a broader sense than monetary terms. Degrowthers want to reduce this often violent pressure. Countries that have been resisting this pressure for some time include Costa Rica, Vietnam, Cuba, Bhutan, and Uruguay. They all realised a higher standard of living with a lower footprint compared to developing countries that loyally follow economic growth as a policy goal prescribed by the IMF and World Bank. For resource-rich “developing” countries, the growth logic is most often a curse that wreaks havoc and fuels wars. Degrowthers have published concrete data in Nature about what international climate justice, based on historical responsibility, could look like in practice. 

In the real world, which is still in the green growth paradigm, land expropriations, chemical pollution, burnouts, and climate instability are accumulating at an increasing rate, while our usable soils, and local availability of essential raw materials, such as drinking water and construction sand, are actually declining. This paradigm is already causing a collapse.

Degrowth supporters also warn of carbon tunnel vision. Climate, land use, soils, and biodiversity are inextricably linked. One part of the globally connected system just cannot be put on “pause”, as Prime Minister De Croo suggested. The restoration of nature is not an optional issue to deal with. Such a political choice would drive up the overall price for humanity, which violates the duty of care. The one question to any political leader who calls for a pause in the extinctions, heatwaves and hurricanes should be: “who do we call”? 

Degrowthers do not aim to reduce GDP, but are prepared to accept that consequence as one likely effect of the necessary and much faster shrinkage of sectors that are far too harmful, such as the fossil, chemical and meat industries, as well as (private) aviation. And, as a society, we need to be ready for this consequence and reduce our dependence on it to create wellbeing.

The best available scientific synthesis is increasingly pointing to degrowth as a necessity, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the climate to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for biodiversity. A rapid reduction in the most harmful extraction and production is a scientifically proven prerequisite for achieving global sustainability, social justice, and well-being.

Degrowth as an academic discipline and movement is on an unstoppable rise. The Beyond Growth Сonference, the most significant event in von der Leyen’s term, is a logical consequence of the fact that the truths will eventually come out. A recently circulated degrowth database that is only the tip of an iceberg already lists 400+ degrowth policy initiatives, 600+ scientific papers, 500+ books in 28 languages, 40+ courses and 240+ organisations. 

Generation Greta Thunberg is totally done with all the greenwashing and lies. They, same as us, see through all that. This does not mean we give up the fight for a future in which humanity and nature can thrive together. It means we get hope from the degrowth discipline and movement, as it is currently the only one that offers evidence-based ways out of the mess created by false growth prophets.

Nick Meynen and the wider economic transition team at the EEB contributed in many ways to the milestone Beyond Growth Conference and its current aftermath. Rewatch our panel debate with Kate Raworth and DG GROW’s chief economist, download a copy of our special issue magazine “Imagining Europe Beyond Growth”, check the open letter with our top-line political demands and related media work in any of the 23 languages available and check the EEB’s economic transition page for far more details on the team and their work.