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

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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 on to the belief that growth and the damages cased 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 growters. 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.

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