The concept of degrowth dates back to the 1970s, when a group of French intellectuals led by the philosopher Andre Gorz proposed a simple idea: In response to mounting environmental and social problems, they suggested that the only real solution was to produce and consume less — to shrink our economies to cope with the carrying capacity of our planet. The proposal was considered by many at the time to be too radical. But with today’s the climate crisis, debates around degrowth have been reinvigorated, and many major figures such as Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis and Anthony Giddens have, to varying degrees, expressed support for the idea.
For others though — especially business leaders — degrowth is completely unthinkable, not least because of the anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist roots of the term. The prevailing view is that growth is an economic necessity, and any threat to that not only undermines business, but basic societal functioning. For instance, the CEO of H&M Karl-Johann Persson recently warned about the dire social consequences of what he perceives to be a movement of “consumer shaming.” Framed in these terms, the resistance of multinational CEOs and entrepreneurs alike is predictable, as is the reluctance of politicians to promote degrowth policies that would potentially prove unpopular with key constituents. The economist Tim Jackson provides a concise assessment: “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.”
Critics of degrowth have also put forth other arguments that, at face value, seem valid: the economist Joseph Stiglitz argues, for instance, that since growth is unquestionably good for human development, we simply need a different kind of growth that is better for the environment, not less of it. Others argue that the philosophy of degrowth does not seriously account for technological innovation — specifically the idea that we can continue current growth patterns if we innovate products that are less resource-intensive and generate fewer waste by-products.
There are, however, problems with these perspectives. First, given the finite nature of our planet, infinite economic growth — even of a different variety — is a logical impossibility. Secondly, innovation and improvements produce, in many cases, unintended consequences. One of which is the Jevons paradox, where individuals compensate for efficiency through increased consumption. For instance, more energy-efficient refrigerators lead to more refrigerators in a home.
The third and most fundamental issue is that the degrowth movement has already begun: at a grassroots level, consumer demand is actively being transformed, despite political and corporate reticence. A recent YouGov poll in France highlights that 27% of respondents are seeking to consume less — double the percentage from two years prior. The number of people eating less meat or giving it up altogether has been rising exponentially in recent years, too. Similarly, the movement of Flygskam (literally “flight shaming” in Swedish) has had early successes in reducing pollution: 10 Swedish airports have reported considerable declines in passenger traffic over the past year, which they attribute directly to Flygskam. In the apparel industry, fast fashion is still popular, but garment manufacturers like H&M are preparing for a backlash as consumers voice growing criticism of the ecological impact of clothing. Accounts such as these indicate how consumers in many contexts are increasingly conscious of the negative consequences of consumerism and are seeking to change their habits. We are witnessing the emergence of consumer-driven degrowth.