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Economic Growth Can't Go Back to Normal If We Are to Solve the Ecological Crisis

Most scientists agree that an unprecedented economic transformation is now needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avert climate breakdown.

Degrowth calls for a fundamental restructuring of the economy to reduce its ecological impact and improve well-being by abolishing economic growth as a social objective. (Photo: Piotr Chrobot/Unsplash, CC BY-SA)

Degrowth calls for a fundamental restructuring of the economy to reduce its ecological impact and improve well-being by abolishing economic growth as a social objective. (Photo: Piotr Chrobot/Unsplash, CC BY-SA)

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a sharp and sudden shock to the global economy’s usual diet of ever-expanding economic growth. Measures to tackle the virus have seen industries grind to a halt, and high streets become ghost towns. Experts are predicting the worst global recession since the 1930s, and the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is forecast to fall by 14% in 2020. 

For the beneficiaries of our existing economic system, this hit to growth is a waking nightmare.

Growth is heralded as a rising tide that lifts all boats, creating larger incomes and more jobs, as well as funding essential public services like healthcare and education. Strong and uninterrupted growth is considered an unquestionable good that benefits all of society.

The problems with growth

But what drives economic growth? Our economy relies on burning fossil fuels and depleting natural resources to expand production and consumption, while polluting the environment with the waste. Most of us are forced to work for wages in order to survive, creating the goods and services which generate growth, while a minority siphon off the profits. In 2018, 82% of new wealth created went to the world’s richest 1%, while the poorest half of the global population got nothing.

Most scientists agree that an unprecedented economic transformation is now needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avert climate breakdown. Meanwhile, the destruction of ecosystems to claim land and resources in service of more economic growth is contributing to the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

“Green growth” has been touted as a solution to these problems. But recent research suggests that growth cannot be decoupled from environmental pressures at a scale or speed sufficient to halt ecological breakdown.

Transitioning to renewable energy can reduce carbon emissions, but it increases pressures on rare Earth minerals and land to build wind and solar farms. Reducing emissions in one country often involves exporting dirty production processes to another. When goods are made more efficient, they become cheaper to produce, and their lower ecological impact is often offset by increased consumption. Think of someone switching to a fuel efficient car but driving more often. Put simply, attempts at “greening” growth often shift, rather than eliminate, environmental impact. 

Governments have taken action to reduce the spread of COVID-19 at the expense of economic growth. But as the post-pandemic recession kicks in, rebooting growth will be the priority. This would set us right back on the path of ecological catastrophe.

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Yet, polling suggests a public appetite to prioritise wellbeing over growth in the post-COVID economy. To achieve this while tackling ecological crisis would require turning the current short-term disruption to growth into a long-term managed downscaling of the economy. As researchers, we work with a concept which can guide this task: degrowth.

Well-being without growth

Degrowth calls for a fundamental restructuring of the economy to reduce its ecological impact and improve well-being by abolishing economic growth as a social objective.

The pandemic will shrink the global economy, but not in a targeted way that downscales carbon-intensive sectors. For this reason, a degrowth transition would look very different to a crisis-driven recession such as the present one. Still, there are useful lessons to be drawn from COVID-19. Firstly, when confronted with a major crisis, we must stop activities that threaten well-being, regardless of the impact on growth.

Once we have established the necessary boundaries to protect well-being – whether it’s closing non-essential industries to prevent the spread of a virus, or curtailing those which threaten to push global warming beyond 1.5°C – our task as a society is to build an economy which helps everyone live well within those limits. For instance, the appeal during the pandemic to “stay home” could afterwards become “stay grounded”, as we scale down the enormously carbon-intensive aviation industry while expanding green public transport. 

Secondly, COVID-19 has also prompted society to reconsider how we value different forms of labour. The heroes of the pandemic are those undervalued by our current economic system, often working for low wages or in poor conditions. They are, among others, the cleaners, shop workers, farmers, nurses, rubbish collectors, teachers, postal workers and food couriers. Feminist economists describe this work - disproportionately done by women - as the “reproductive economy”, so called because it provides the essential services on which the rest of society depends for its day to day functioning.

Lots of vital reproductive work also occurs outside of the waged labour market, such as care of relatives in family homes. If all this unwaged labour were paid, it’s estimated that its global value would total $10.8 trillion per year. A care income could support all those doing unpaid work caring for other people and their local environments.

Reproductive work is central to sustaining well-being, but it also tends to have a lower ecological impact than much of the industrial economy. For these reasons, a degrowth transition could reduce ecological degradation by shrinking the sectors that pollute the most, like the fossil fuel industry and aviation, while expanding reproductive sectors such as health care, education and ecosystems restoration.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably created an upsurge of political imagination. Now, as the restructuring of the post-pandemic economy begins, we must resist the return to infinite growth. The future of life on Earth depends upon it.

Joe Herbert

Joe Herbert (@joefherb) is a doctoral researcher in Human Geography at Newcastle University (UK).

Riccardo Mastini

Riccardo Mastini (@r_mastini) is a doctoral researcher in Political Ecology in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain).

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