Degrowth Economics: A tale of Spaceships and Cowboys

We must reimagine what growth looks like in the future we want to see, and we must diligently board the spaceship that will get us there.

“I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism, and industrialism, and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth.” – Ursula Le Guin

Economic growth has long been a talking point and key policy objective of politicians around the world. It cannot be denied that rapid industrialisation and economic growth, where tied to rising wages, has alleviated poverty over the centuries. However, if economic growth is to remain our economic North Star metric, how do we reconcile this with the fact that our resources are subject to scarcity and depletion and the Earth’s natural ecological limitations? 

American economist Kenneth E. Boulding quipped, “anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” More seriously, Haydn Washington and Paul Twomey, editors of A Future Beyond Growth, suggest that, “the current endless growth economy is thus, at the most fundamental level, a delusion, a very dangerous one that is the key cause of the environmental crisis.” When ecological inputs such as fossil fuels, minerals, forests, and clean water are not replenished at the same rate they are consumed, continuous growth is destructive and impossible. This is the central idea of degrowth economics. 

Ecological economist Giorgos Kallis preliminarily describes degrowth as “a critique of the ecological consequences of economic growth”. In practice, it looks like a slow and intentional restructuring of how we approach the production and distribution of resources. On a more conceptual level, it is a radical rejection of the neoliberal ‘cowboy’ economy aimed at unlimited expansion, with reference to the endless horizons ready for exploration by the cowboys of great Westerns. Boulding argues instead for a ‘spaceship’ economy, in which we conserve and reuse resources like a space crew, who must prioritise a cyclical ecological system capable of reproducing itself and not extending beyond its means.

Any conversation about ecological limits to growth must acknowledge that the ruling elite of the developed world is responsible for more than their share of global resource extraction. We’ve grown increasingly reliant on offshored primary production, including the extraction of finite natural resources like lithium and cobalt. Degrowth economics is described by anthropologist Jason Hickel as a “demand for global justice” that is targeted primarily at the developed world. While economic degrowth can look like many diverse policies in practice, its most meaningful iterations draw on anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics and struggles.

Further, global capitalism since the 1500s has been founded on black slavery, Indigenous genocide, the economic opression of the developing world and its workers. With this in mind, alongside an acknowledgement of infinite expansion and growth as key tenets of capitalism, degrowth ought to be anti-capitalist. Socialist economies, while not as definitionally or innately incompatible with degrowth, have also had a tendency towards rapid industrialisation and economic expansion, although they have better distributed the material wealth engendered by this. Any kind of economy, however, that wishes to coexist sustainably with the Earth must learn to respect ecological limits. We should also recognise the potential political value within the process of degrowth: any transitional process towards degrowth has to itself centre social equity and ecological sustainability through the process of a just transition. 

The just transition, taken to mean a complete labour transition away from the fossil fuel industry, is necessary to the construction of a steady-state economy. It is, like degrowth itself, not a simple thing nor a singular one. Both are intricate, sprawling mosaics of policies, yet have a strong and shared vision.

The case against growth starts with how it is currently being measured. The standard measure of economic growth is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the total monetary or market value of all goods and services produced by a country over a certain time period, typically a year. GDP has come to be used not just as a measure of economic progress but also social progress, with rising GDP invariably a positive, according to politicians. However,  things that are conducive to GDP growth are not necessarily good for society. Often they are even negatively correlated. For example, if Australia were to nationalise the electricity grid and make household energy free, that would decrease GDP. Perversely, money spent cleaning up oil spills increases it. Policies implemented to decommodify and democratise our daily lives are great for people, but contribute negatively to GDP. 

On the other hand, policies that are bad for workers, such as longer working days, privatisation, higher consumer prices, and even war, are great for GDP. It is clear that a better measure of growth would more closely reflect what is good for the public. We are otherwise left in a limbo in which economic growth is accompanied by social regression. Having acknowledged this relationship, degrowth suddenly seems a less daunting prospect. It simply argues that ‘throughput’, the amount of natural resources incorporated into and flowing through the economy (i.e. production and consumption), must be reduced in line with ecological limitations in order to respect natural scarcity, as social progress is also prioritised. We must learn to live in the ‘spaceship economy’.

While GDP has been loosely linked to increased standards of living, economic growth (as measured by GDP) and social progress are not always so inextricably linked as is suggested by mainstream economists. Further, an infinite increase in production and consumption, infinite growth, is simply not possible on a planet with finite resources. As Kallis summarises, we must learn to “prosper without growth.” We must reimagine what growth looks like in the future we want to see, and we must diligently board the spaceship that will get us there.

*Authors’ Note: Regrettably, we did not have the space to deal fully with all of the interesting facets of degrowth, nor its criticisms. The intention of this article was, rather, to serve as an introduction to the topic of degrowth. If your interest has been piqued we would recommend authors mentioned above, who helped introduce us to these topics, as well as ECOP3015 – Political Economy of the Environment!