Can degrowth help us realise our Sustainable Development Goals? 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a statement during the opening of the Sustainable Development Goals Summit 2023 at the U.N. headquarters on September 18, 2023.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

It has long been the catch-all metric that economists and politicians the world over have coveted as the definitive measure of wellbeing. That said, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – that is, the primary measure of the value of all goods and services produced within an economy in a certain time period – has garnered a growing wave of critics who are concerned that the pursuit of economic growth is increasingly coming at the expense of the sustainability of the planet. Simply put, untethered growth is at odds with the health of the planet, and it is spurring a growing wave of concerned stakeholders to push for alternative measures of individual, collective and planetary wellbeing.   

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Even the original creator of GDP – the economist Simon Kuznets – acknowledged in 1934 that the welfare of a nation “can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP”. And with the likes of Greta Thunberg now advocating for alternatives to “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”, the movement to address the shortcomings of GDP and unabated profit-generating resource exploitation in the face of an impending global ecological disaster, has never been stronger than it is today.   

In its place, many are turning to sustainable degrowth, which according to Research and Degrowth, an academic association which conducts research and raises awareness around this concept, is “a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet.” It envisions a world in which societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions. As such, societies will no longer have to “grow or die,” the association adds. 

“As a society, we are so locked into the ideology of growth that it becomes almost impossible for anyone to question it. Growthism has a kind of totalitarian character, to the point of precluding critical thought,” Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, explainedto CNBC in February 2021. “We need to be able to have an open, democratic conversation about it.” And it is this need to widen the debate and explore alternatives that explains why degrowth, as both a tenable idea and as a flourishing movement, has become crucial. 

By challenging the primacy of GDP as the be-all-and-end-all of economic policy objectives, degrowth’s “critical framework” argues for a reduction of the entire global economic system – that is, lower and more sustainable levels of production and consumption – as a way to accommodate much higher levels of human cooperation and ecosystem management. “Despite its dominance as an indicator of progress, GDP was never intended to measure a society’s overall health,” Till Kellerhoff, program director at the influential non-profit Club of Rome, and David Collste, researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, recently asserted. “Rather, it was intended to measure society’s economic activity level in monetary terms – as the value of the total output of goods and services.”  

Growing relevance

And there is now a growing trove of literature on the importance of degrowth. Among the most coherent arguments in favour of the movement is Hickel’s highly acclaimed 2020 book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. “Ecological science requires that we learn to see the human economy not as separate from ecology but embedded within it,” Hickel argues in the book, which also serves as an insightful critique of the dominant economic and political systems which, over the last 500 years, have relied on “enclosure and dispossession” to facilitate growth. “Degrowth represents a reversal of this process. It represents release. It represents an opportunity for healing, recovery and repair.” 

That said, it should come as no surprise that this “reversal” from such dyed in the wool convention has more than its fair share of detractors, with the many of the titans of capitalism – those who have amassed untold levels of wealth under the current system – only too keen to weigh in on the subject. “Anyone who says that we will tell people to stop eating meat, or stop wanting to have a nice house, and we’ll just basically change human desires, I think that that’s too difficult,” Bill Gates contended on a Bloomberg podcast in September 2022. “You can make a case for it. But I don’t think it’s realistic for that to play an absolutely central role.” Instead, then, Gates sees technology as being the critical gamechanger for alternative models to flourish that can achieve global sustainability goals.  

Some would argue that such an approach is simply too incremental in the face a world hurtling towards a climate emergency. Radical solutions are needed. But the myopia with which the powers that be continue to revere prevailing political and economic systems as unimpeachably supreme means that the promotion into the mass consciousness of more relevant measures of collective prosperity remain very much on the sidelines in 2023. And the sheer short-termism of politics means that quarterly GDP figures will continue to trump all else for the foreseeable future.  

Nonetheless, there are glimmers of hope that GDP growth is not the glittering prize it was once regarded in some parts of the world. “If it wasn’t clear before COVID-19 hit, it is now apparent that Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, does not prize economic growth above social and political factors,” Sara Hsu, author of “China’s Fintech Explosion” and Clinical Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management at the University, wrote in an August 2022 article for current affairs publication The Diplomat. “In fact, growth appears to be further down on China’s agenda than it has been in several decades. We can conclude this since China is still following a zero-COVID policy despite the reduction of COVID-related restrictions in the West.”  

Should more examples surface of growth being decisively put on the back burner, the case for degrowth will only be strengthened as the world more fervently pursues diverse solutions that promote collective wellbeing and prosperity. The corollary of such a trend might then be a more comprehensive reassessment of the incumbent economic and financial systems that have too often failed the planet and its inhabitants. Indeed, degrowth strikes directly at the heart of such systems, asking uncomfortable questions about the very essence of territorial expansion and resource accumulation upon which they remain dependent. By dramatically downsizing our accumulation of resources, we can strive to achieve a more equitable balance with the natural world once again. 

(Akash Kalra is an expert on Transfer Pricing and International Economics, based in Houston, Texas. Views expressed are those of the author’s)

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