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Degrowth as the Imperative in the Age of the Polycrisis

By Kohei Saito

March 6, 2024

“No is not enough.”

This famous phrase from Naomi Klein is more compelling than ever as we hurtle full speed towards planetary catastrophe. Today, it is indispensable to envision a new future because what we cannot envision cannot be achieved. The idea of degrowth is central to that vision.

The idea of deliberately slowing the economy is a radical one. Other alternatives to neoliberal globalization—ranging from the Green New Deal and the Great Reset to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Mission Economy (2021)—may appear more realistic and attractive. But can they really save the world from the polycrisis of climate change, inflation, war, and right-wing populism? They aim to fix devastating problems by reforming capitalism. But they do not chart a convincing path towards the Paris Agreement’s target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. And they do not address the underlying problem of global economic inequality, a source of the fragility, conflict, violence, and food and water insecurity—all compounded by climate change—that are only getting worse from year to year.

The widespread apathy of the affluent classes in the West in the face of climate breakdown, poverty, and starvation demonstrates a level of comfort in the face of mass suffering as long as capital accumulation and geopolitical hegemony are secured. However, the harder it becomes to externalize the negative impacts of the polycrisis and the harsher competition over limited resources becomes, the greater the likelihood of authoritarian regimes to secure the affluence of the few.

In order to prevent a rise of fascism, a much more radical egalitarian vision is necessary, one that acknowledges and challenges capitalism as the root cause of the polycrisis.

Contrary to what is routinely claimed for it, capitalism is inefficient. It does not produce what is necessary but what is profitable. It drives economic inequality and an extreme concentration of the wealth, allowing the few to monopolize the planet’s finite resources at the expense of the many.

Capitalism is also unjust. Those who are most responsible for today’s crisis can escape its worst consequences by externalizing the costs onto others.

Most importantly, capitalism is unsustainable. Even new green technologies such as electronic vehicles require massive amounts of resources and energy. The decoupling of economic growth from resource and energy use will not take place on a sufficient scale. And the ongoing expropriation of resources in the Global South by the Global North will exacerbate ecologically unequal exchange.

Because the discourses claiming to reform and adapt capitalism—from ESG (environmental, social, governance) to SDGs—obviously have not and cannot address the underlying structural problems, public cynicism and distrust of institutions are increasing alongside growing social and global divides. Any solution that does not radically challenge capitalism often functions as an “opiate of the masses” that hides the necessity of a transformative change and justifies business as usual for the ruling classes.

A degrowth perspective is not opposed to markets—which are not the same as capitalism. It acknowledges the laws of supply and demand but insists on strong social regulation and collective, as well as private forms of ownership as keys to a just and sustainable economy.

Degrowth is anti-capitalism. It demands that we abandon GDP as the measure of social progress and scale down the economy in the Global North. Taking into account non-economic factors of social well-being, environmental justice, and sustainability, degrowth calls for banning unnecessary goods that are often produced for the rich such as private jets, cruise ships, and yachts, as well as reducing meat consumption, SUV production, and the exploitative advertising industry built around the idea of planned obsolescence.

GDP has a simple appeal, obscuring the complexity of economic reality by reducing everything into a single economic value. But there is nothing democratic about it, and in many places, such as India, aggregate economic growth is used by authoritarian leaders to conceal massive transfers of wealth to a few individuals. The common good is reduced to economic growth as the measure of social prosperity, and all other issues of gender, race, and ecology become a matter of personal preferences. The ultimate goal of our collective life is determined a priori without any deliberation and consensus, and the “good life” is defined within the dominant growth framework. Relativizing GDP is a prerequisite for social justice and democracy. It opens the way to freely deliberate on questions of justice, sustainability, and equality beyond the hierarchical binaries of the Global North/Global South, male/female, and human/non-human.

The perpetual injustice and inequality around us are not due to lack of economic development. Our society already has the technology and resources to meet the basic needs of all. But they are concentrated in the hands of remarkably few, who use them to maximize endless economic growth. Accelerating growth will not solve the polycrisis. A degrowth perspective is essential to decolonize our imaginations, to envision a better future for all, and to save the planet.

Kohei Saito is a philosopher and activist who sees degrowth as the way out of the global climate crisis.