Degrowth: A Good Life for Everyone within Planetary Limits

Monday, December 20, 2021 - 1:00pm
Jack Hammond

Of the various approaches to catastrophic climate change, the most radical is degrowth. CUNY sociologist Jack Hammond is a prominent proponent of this view. Not only can we not continue to consume more and more, Hammond argues that we in the wealthy countries of the world need to consume less and less to leave room for the people in poor countries to reach a decent, universal standard of living. Without degrowth our already dire situation will only grow worse.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, called the recent IPCC report on the climate crisis a “code red” for humanity. “We are at the verge of the abyss,” he said. Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg declared, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Everyone should understand that we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Clearly growth cannot continue. We need degrowth in the north so the south can continue to grow. We could achieve a decent standard of living for everyone by redistributing resources from the wealthy to the poor. It may sound like a painful adaptation to scarcity, but in fact degrowth would mean a shared good life for everyone, recognizing that the fruits of the earth are enough to take care of all our needs as long as they are more evenly distributed.

This is a truly radical proposal. It goes beyond what proponents of a Green New Deal advocate. They appear to be in favor of green growth rather than degrowth. What would degrowth lead to? In many Western countries over the past couple of decades, just slower growth has been accompanied by rising political polarization. In the U.S. it gave us Donald Trump.

Degrowth can be politically toxic if it is not accompanied by a change in social values that prize human relations rather than material benefits. With degrowth we’re talking about a new Economics of Happiness, or what in some countries is being called buen vivir (good living) -- sufficiency.

In the influential book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at University College, London and the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, says, “We can shift from an economy that’s organized around domination and extraction to one that’s rooted in reciprocity with the living world.”