Degrowth is having a moment.
As the pandemic era released continuous shocks – more than 1 million U.S. deaths from Covid-19, supply chain freeze-ups, an insurrection at the Capitol, runaway inflation and mysterious understaffing nationwide – Americans were prodded to question what they knew of reality.
Naturally, the U.S. economic system (culprit? victim? collateral damage?) has come up for debate – as it typically does when chaos or calamity hits.
The vector is, of course, America’s unique brand of capitalism. Critics say the U.S. is on a mindless hunt for growth, creating inequality and environmental destruction. The country worships GDP, a misleading benchmark for the developed world, they charge — and in particular America worships GDP growth.
But degrowth is not the answer.
Proponents of degrowth – or post-growth, a less negative descriptor – want to replace gross domestic product with another measure, or measures. It’s not clear what those should be, as there’s some debate in the degrowth community. Regardless, an economic system should be sustainable, because you can’t have infinite growth in a finite world, the degrowthers argue.
What they put forward instead is a hodgepodge of unattainable ideals. The following passage is an example of the type of theoretical mumbo jumbo that’s common among academic degrowth adherents:
“In contrast to [a] false security sought through ‘bigger, better and faster,’ degrowth nurtures a transformative culture of minimalism, of slowing down and valuing diverse human and ecological qualities and the perpetually cyclical dynamics of life. That is why the snail is a symbol of degrowth. In the process imperial, expansive and exploitative managerial and hierarchical drives wither under horizontalist approaches applied to collective governance, collective reliance and collective autonomy.”
Maybe a brief history of degrowth is in order. The movement’s modern era was kicked off in 1972 with the publication of “The Limits to Growth,” based on the research of MIT systems scientist Jay Wright Forrester. The book sought to understand five variables: population, food production, industrialization, pollution and the use of natural resources. At the time, all five were expanding. The conclusion was that their increase would lead to a sudden and uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity within 100 years.
But the movement’s seeds were planted much earlier. Henry David Thoreau, the Massachusetts naturalist beloved for his mid-nineteenth century experiments in simple living, is often cited as a touchstone. And others since then have been persistent critics of GDP as an index of success. Even the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently published a primer on alternatives, such as the Better Life Index, which focuses on people’s well-being and quality of life.
Here’s why degrowth is destined to fail:
1. It’s utopian.
The degrowth crowd seeks to map out a future where humans live in harmony with one another and with the planet. The aim is to fix our problems – income inequality (social), environmental destruction (science) – all at once, as if turning the economy upside down in a grand experiment would neatly bring about predictable change, like puzzle pieces coming together.
Plans and prescriptions abound in the degrowth movement. Like most utopian ideas, degrowth depicts a better world – above all, an escape from the current predicament. “If we only did x and y, we could have z in the future.” That’s why degrowth is, ironically, a backward-looking ideology. Growth got us here, and we don’t like it, so let’s return to simpler times when we had less and therefore lived with less, they say. It’s wishful thinking taken to the extreme.
2. It has bad incentives.
This is especially true for rich nations. If the U.S. were to focus less on economic growth, what would it favor instead? And how would it go about meeting that end? If the government used the “stick” approach, then it would grow more powerful and impose policies that would restrain industries and companies. It’s hard to imagine freedom-loving Americans supporting that. If it used the carrot approach, then which industries or companies might be accommodated?
An irony: Most degrowth adherents are worried about the environment and, as a result, promote renewable energy. The twist is that any incentive program typically leads to higher output. That’s exactly what’s happening with the Green New Deal and, to a greater extent, the Inflation Reduction Act, which so far has incentivized companies to invest $115 billion in the manufacture of clean energy products.
Like socialism, degrowth looks good on paper. But it fails to account for human behavior. When the economic pie shrinks, there’s more tension in society. There’s less to go around, and jealousy and anxiety rise. The result is class conflict and, often, war. In the 100 years after World War I, upwards of 80 million people died unnatural deaths in communist regimes. When the pie expands, wealth grows, even if unequally.
3. It excludes investing in innovation to find solutions.
Environmental alarm bells in the past half-century have been answered with new technology: clean air and clean water (emissions restrictions, less pollutive vehicles and machinery), the depletion of the ozone layer (bans on certain chemicals including refrigerants and the formulation of new ones), peak oil (shale fracking, deepwater drilling and, yes, renewable energy technologies).
What has GDP growth achieved in the 150 years since the second industrial revolution? (That was a period in which steel, chemicals, petroleum, electrification and hydropower propelled industries.) For one, world life expectancy doubled. And from 1950 to 2020, global extreme poverty fell to 8.1% from 58.5%.
The newest innovations are combating climate change and extending life even further. But those technologies require risk capital.
In the end, degrowth raises the danger of bringing an end to progress through innovation, which has made the U.S. so wealthy that we now have the luxury of debating whether we want it in the first place.