Discussion of the economy
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The degrowth movement says the growth of the economy is inextricably tied to an increase in carbon emissions. It calls for a dramatic reduction in energy and material use, which would inevitably shrink GDP.
Popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal seeks to reduce carbon emissions by growing the renewable energy industry. Degrowth movement adherents believe we need to take this further, by designing a social upheaval that disentangles the idea of progress and economic growth once and for all.
Insofar our economy has been based on growth for so long, it’s not enough to merely pull the emergency brakes, said Giorgos Kallis, author of the book Degrowth. In order to slow the economy down and not wreak havoc, he said, we have to reconfigure our ideas about the entire economic system.
Degrowthers envision a transition from a materialistic society to one where values are based on simpler lifestyles and unpaid work and activities. Along with a reduction in material and energy consumption, which will constrict the economy, there should also be a redistribution of existing wealth.
This new accounting of economic success would focus on a shorter work week, free public services, and an increase in leisure time. This approach, they say, will not only combat climate change, but free us from a workaholic culture in which so many struggle to make ends meet.
Degrowth would ultimately mean we'd have less stuff: not as many people working and producing materials, not as many brands at the grocery store, and fewer cheap and disposable goods. In addition to increasing free access to public services, some degrowthers also call for a universal income to compensate for a shorter work week.
The degrowth movement wants to intentionally shrink the economy to address climate change, and create lives with less stuff, less work, and better well-being. But is it a utopian fantasy? How will we self-impose a reversal on growth when our entire economic and political structure has been based on it? How will we organize society to deliver high levels of human well-being, in the context of a shrinking economy?
Since there are so few real-world examples of degrowth, Kallis has used a fictional utopia to explain the concept. In a 2015 paper, he referenced the planet Anarres, from the book The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin—a society that has modest resources, but through its egalitarian structure is a fair and meaningful place to make a life, compared to the more capitalist near-by planet, Urras.
“It’s how we imagine the good life,” Kallis said. “A life that is simpler, not a life where we keep producing more and more running faster and faster, and having more and more products to choose from.”
Degrowth critics say that this is more of an ideology, than a practical way forward—that shrinking the entire economy wouldn't successfully get carbon levels down to zero, and given the unequal income distribution that exists already, constricting the economy could rob those who need it the most of essentials like energy and food.
Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the political economy research institute there, said while he shares many of the degrowth movement’s sentiments, he fundamentally disagrees that such a system could work, at least in the time we need it to.
“If we take the climate science seriously, we only have a few decades to make huge progress," Pollin said. "And whether I like it or not, we’re not going to overthrow capitalism in that time.”