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Addressing Climate Change Through Degrowth: It May Be Less Contentious Than You Think.

It may seem far-fetched and radical to hope that degrowth could receive widespread public support, but it is impossible to shift society unless we begin putting forth a vision of what alternatives could look like

Degrowth is an alternative economic model that emphasizes limiting production and consumption. It involves reducing the economic growth of the highest consumers to improve human well-being and ecological health. (Photo: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

To address climate change, our society must come to grips with reality. Capitalism’s growth dependency is an insurmountable barrier to environmental sustainability. Economic production is a key source of greenhouse gases and studies continue to find a positive relationship between economic growth and emissions. It is also increasingly clear that there is no magic bullet that can “decouple” the relationship between growth and environmental destruction.

The potential environmental benefits of green technologies are often partially or completely offset by growth. For instance, the generation of non-fossil fuel energy over the past five decades did not displace the use of fossil fuels across the majority of nations. Economic growth generates the need for more energy, and consequently renewable energy sources are for the most part added to, not used in place of, fossil energy sources.

Because of these relationships, we cannot sufficiently reduce emissions through individual, community, or technological change alone. We need to begin to shift away from a growth dependent economy.   

Degrowth is for everyone

Degrowth is an alternative economic model that emphasizes limiting production and consumption. It involves reducing the economic growth of the highest consumers to improve human well-being and ecological health. Downscaling consumption of products, like fossil fuels, reduces greenhouse gases directly and limiting economic growth would enable “green technologies,” like renewable energy, to be implemented in ways that reduce total emissions.

It may seem far-fetched and radical to hope that degrowth could receive widespread public support, especially given that the public in the United States is deeply divided along political lines and conservatives use “socialist” as a derogatory term. But elements of a degrowth economy may appeal to the average person, conservatives, and liberals alike.

Core conservative values include self-reliance and independence, personal responsibility, individual liberty, and limited government. These values are about empowering individuals to solve problems.

Core liberal values include sense of responsibility to people with fewer resources, equality of opportunity, social and economic equality, and government to help ensure well-being. These values are about empowering the government to help solve problems.

Contrary to perceptions that degrowth is incompatible with conservative values, both conservative and liberal values complement the goals of degrowth. Indeed, the vast majority of people would likely see their quality of life improved in a degrowth economy.

For conservatives, life in a degrowth economy offers the potential to diminish government corruption associated with ever-expanding businesses. It would also strengthen people’s local ties and resources, reducing dependence on distant supply chains and thereby engage with conservatives’ desire to end our reliance on foreign energy sources.  

One persistent myth about degrowth is that it means that people in developed countries will have to sacrifice modern conveniences. People would not have to revert to former ways of living. Instead, we would pursue a strategy that likely appeals to conservatives’ strong sense of independence and individual work-ethic: stop adding environmentally harmful conveniences, and instead rely on our human ingenuity to use what already exists.

Liberals may need less convincing that degrowth is the right path to pursue, but because most people live and think within a capitalist economic framework, liberals will also benefit from exploring how degrowth aligns with their values. For example, many strategies to achieve degrowth would help reduce wealth inequality, while making space for developing countries to continue to improve their quality of life.

What could degrowth look like?

We can think of transitioning to a degrowth economy in three stages: (1) imagining our future, (2) imagining pathways to the future, (3) and implementing strategies to achieve a shared vision. If we envision degrowth in this manner, there are ample opportunities for people of all beliefs and values to work together towards a shared vision.

Most people in developed nations are only familiar with living in and thinking about a society based singularly on capitalism. This makes imagining a society structured at least partially by principles of degrowth critical. Thinking about degrowth includes having conversations with friends, neighbors, city council members, state and national government officials, and other people about topics like these:

  • Ever-expanding consumerism is not only environmentally destructive, but is psychologically harmful to humans and is not a replacement for the meaning and connection that humans seek. In another sense, willingly degrading natural resources is simply not sound economics. What can we do to move away from consumption, especially of fossil fuels, as the center of our society? For example, should we reduce advertising of environmentally detrimental products or nationally incentivize solar over coal energy?
  • Work ethic is a core value of many Americans. How could we reconceptualize work so that work ethic is not undermined or devalued? What do we want “work” to mean? How many days should a working week have?
  • How can we encourage the use of existing housing and create living spaces that encourage resource sharing?
  • What new institutions, such as policies or laws (including international policies), might we implement to support changes in these areas?
  • Degrowth may not need to occur in all parts of the economy. What would incorporating key components of degrowth (e.g., Americans consuming fewer fossil fuels) look like in the existing capitalist economy? Could we have a hybrid economy where growth is irrelevant in some categories but discouraged in others?

Everyone will have different thoughts about these ideas, but the important part is to find common ground and continue, or maybe begin, conversations. We cannot move society towards changes people cannot envision.

We are not delusional in thinking that after centuries of capitalism’s dominance, everyone will immediately desire to or be in a position to move away from capitalism’s growth imperative and enthusiastically transition to a new system. But it might be time to dispel the with the myth that degrowth is fundamentally a contentious topic, incompatible with conservative values and to instead start conversations with friends, family, and neighbors about alternative futures—even if they sit on the other side of the political aisle.

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Abigail Sullivan

Abigail Sullivan is an Assistant Research Scientists at Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute. Abigail researches the social and ecological factors that influence environmental governance outcomes, like biodiversity and equitable resource access. 

Matthew Houser

Matthew Houser is an Assistant Research Scientists at Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute.  Matthew primarily studies how social and biophysical processes constrain individuals’ capacity to recognize and respond to climate change.

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