Degrowth in a Green-Growth World

by Rosalie Bull

I’m having an ongoing conversation with a friend about the merits and drawbacks of degrowth as a climate action strategy. She is easily the most astute climate thinker I know, with insights available only to those deeply immersed in the nuances of climate finance and decarbonization. She’s wary of the degrowth movement, as are many prominent players in the climate transition. She views it as an unhelpful distraction from humanity’s efforts to grapple with the climate crisis.

My friend’s problem lies more with degrowth as an action plan on climate than it does with degrowth’s theoretical underpinnings. Degrowth runs perpendicular to the current, hard-won momentum of the global climate response. It critiques the only consensus solution available today: the decarbonization of the global economy through a “green growth” renewable energy revolution. For green growthers, degrowth is an impractical diversion. It’s like an annoying heckler best relegated to the sidelines of climate strategy.

Degrowth’s foundational opposition to continued economic expansion presents a clear challenge to coalition-building on climate. But degrowth is grounded in the ecological reality that resources are finite, a key truth that mainstream climate advocates seem to ignore. Integration of this and other ecological insights into climate dialogue and action is crucial for shifting the needle toward a more holistic, structural response to emerging environmental collapse. Here I make the case for degrowth and green growth as crisis response strategies, then explore the potential for a productive interlocution between the two.

drawing of a snail

The snail, symbol of the degrowth movement (CC0 1.0 Public Domain)

A Case for Degrowth

The degrowth movement embraces the inconvenient truth that climate change is only one of several macro-scale challenges unfolding on the planet today. The most striking examples are today’s rapidly advancing ecological overshoot, whereby renewable resources are used faster than they are regenerated by nature, along with the sixth mass extinction. Existential crises like these are the direct result of human economic activity.

Today, humans and their livestock account for 96% of mammalian biomass, and wild animals make up only 4%. Half of the earth’s habitable land has been converted to agricultural use. We use more water, forests, soil, and other biological resources than the earth can naturally replenish, creating scarcity for future generations of humans, not to mention our fellow species. These concerns extend well beyond carbon emissions and require aggressive action in step with initiatives to address the climate crisis.

Today’s global polycrises are fundamentally intertwined, which means that we would be unwise to prioritize decarbonization over the restoration of ecological integrity, or vice versa. A whole-systems approach like degrowth recognizes the need to overhaul simultaneously our carbon-intensive energy infrastructure and the materials-intensive consumer economy it supports. Degrowth calls for structural reforms that decarbonize the economy and decrease its material intensity, while bolstering human wellbeing and democracy.

Green Growth: A Temporary Assist?

In contrast to the comprehensive ecological vision of degrowth, green growth’s scope of action is environmentally narrow. Green growth is an economic strategy as well as a political slogan whose very name demonstrates an obliviousness to the causal relationship between economic growth and environmental destruction. It heralds a sort of promised land in which humanity overcomes climate change through aggressive adoption of low-carbon energy technologies, creating enormous wealth along the way.

stylized bar graph, in green, depicting economic growth

The greenest thing about “green growth” is its signage. (CC0 1.0 Public Domain)

It is a rhetorical narrative that connotes profitable, market-based decarbonization and minimal institutional disruption. Crucially, green growth punts on issues of ecological overshoot and global resource inequity, with decarbonization as the only approach to protecting the environment. Green growth advocates treat any ecological side effects of green-growth policies, whether positive or negative, as secondary or incidental.

To give them their due, economic and political actors have used the widespread appeal of green growth to mobilize markets and governments worldwide toward the IPCC’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Despite their flaws, capitalism and democracy are powerful tools for collective action, and green growth engages these institutions at the level of their key interests: profit and popularity. It’s hard to imagine where climate action would be without the use of these important levers.

An Argument for Green Growth

Another strength of green growth is its presumed ease of implementation. Whatever view we hold of the value of capital-backed tech solutions, most people view them as more feasible in the short term than large-scale behavior change or structural reform. Bill McKibben, once an outspoken proponent of a growth-critical climate response, recently made a tactical shift on this question on The Ezra Klein Show:

“The physics of climate change enforces a certain brute reality in one’s set of solutions. And the timing question is the single biggest enforcer of that reality. We have to make very, very rapid change. And so changes in basic human desires or even changes in the physical setup of our world around us come, if they come at all, more slowly.

I think in 100 years, it’s unlikely human beings will be amusing themselves by consuming immense amounts of stuff. I think we’re likely to have moved beyond that. But in seven years, I doubt it. I think for the moment, we’re stuck with things like the suburb, where I grew up, and the physical limits that it enforces on us, which means lots of people driving cars. So we better figure out how to make electric cars work, at least for now. And we better do it very quickly…”

This conversation helped me, begrudgingly, to view green growth as a vehicle that can help us outpace the disaster nipping at our heels. But several factors prevent me from a wholesale embrace of green growth.

The Limits to (Green) Growth

First, it is very unclear whether green growth can actually deliver all the climate progress it promises, given the rising energy demands built into growth. In 2018, the IPCC released a report modeling pathways to net-zero “under a range of  assumptions about economic growth, technology development and lifestyles.” Pathways to net-zero that assumed business-as-usual economic growth rely heavily on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), of which the IPCC had this to say:

“CDR deployed at scale is unproven, and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. CDR is needed less in pathways with particularly strong emphasis on energy efficiency and low demand.”

In other words, a key tool in the green growth toolbox is yet to be verified as effective.

Beyond the unknown effectiveness of CDR schemes are its side effects. One type of CDR, known as BECCS, for “bio-energy with carbon capture and storage,” could involve converting massive amounts of land to monoculture tree plantations. It is projected to result in a 10% loss in global forest cover and 7% loss in biodiversity. Just what we need!

In a green-growth world, we trade forests for plantations. (CC BY-SA-NC 3.0 by Herzi Pinki)

Furthermore, in relying so heavily on the market, green growth situates opaque financial entities like BlackRock and other asset-management firms at the vanguard of the climate response. These companies are patently more concerned with short-term profits than with climate-change mitigation. Aside from a naive faith that the invisible hand of the market will lead to an optimal allocation of resources, what makes us think these titans of capitalist finance are willing to play by the rules? Finally, the zeitgeist of green growth undermines and ignores the potential for structural reforms to advance decarbonization. It is too mired in ideology to act in our best interests and attack climate change from all available angles.

With a generous vision, one can see how green growth might allow us to innovate our way out of the climate crisis, if kept on a tight leash. Green growthers argue that, once we’ve decarbonized, we can turn our attention to other ecological and social crises. But even in a best-case scenario, the resource demands of green growth will undoubtedly exacerbate environmental destruction and social inequality. Even if green growth could proceed without sacrificing ever more ecological integrity, the emerging collapse of planetary systems requires our intervention now, not in thirty years.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Herman Daly, the father of steady state economics, emphasized that steady-state policies should be politically salient within “historically-given initial conditions.” Our initial conditions are clear: The international community has essentially agreed to pursue, as its primary climate strategy, market-based decarbonization through investment in “green” technologies. This strategy would use as little structural reform as possible. In other words, we plan to curb emissions without curbing economic activity.

Given this tricky starting point, how might degrowth toward a steady state economy proceed? First, we need to recognize that degrowthers and green growthers are invested in the same outcome: a viable future for life on earth. We have different timelines and priorities, but we are all on the same team—and we can’t afford to proceed without dialogue and coordination. We need each other.

Moreover, we can look for the considerable areas of mutualism that exist between the two strategies. For example, 40% of all shipping traffic consists of transporting fossil fuels. A global switch to renewable energy across all economic sectors, from power generation to transportation, would eliminate almost all of that 40%, effectively de-growing the shipping sector. There are also, obviously, many decarbonization gains built into degrowth reforms.

It is therefore not unthinkable that a brief period of “green-growth decarbonization” could still serve as the beginning of a larger degrowth transformation toward a freer, more relational future. In this speculative article, Patrick Loftus envisions a degrowth transition that begins slowly, with market-based, green-growth strategies building out a foundation of low-carbon technologies. We would utilize these to support increasingly regenerative, no-growth communities as the crisis deepens and the limits to growth become more visibly and violently clear.

A Suggestion

I suggest that degrowth thought leaders shift at least in part from evangelizing a birds-eye, long-term view of degrowth and the steady-state future to identifying degrowth opportunities available within the given institutional framework. This approach would bring about incremental but substantial degrowth, providing proof of concept and laying the foundation for a larger transformation away from consumerism and growth dependence.

We should pick the low-hanging fruits first, those with high decarbonization potential and relatively low implementation barriers. One example has to do with the rollout of electric vehicles. As Bill McKibben argues, we need to invest aggressively in electric vehicle technology and make fossil-fuel transportation a thing of the past.

image of a downward leaning branch with low-hanging fruit

Low-hanging degrowth fruits are ripe for the picking. (CC BY-SA 2.0 by Karunakar Rayker)

At the same time, replacing the global vehicle fleet with electric vehicles on a 1:1 basis is unrealistic, unnecessary, and even imperialist. Consider, for example, the amount of lithium that would have to be mined throughout the global south to enable this “renewables-based re-boot” of western hyper-consumerism. A recent report from the Climate and Community Project offered this vital insight:

“As societies undertake the urgent and transformative task of building new, zero-emissions energy systems, some level of mining is necessary. But the volume of extraction is not a given. Neither is where mining takes place, who bears the social and environmental burdens, or how mining is governed.”

The authors outline several policies for achieving net-zero transportation emissions while minimizing environmental harm and fostering collective wellbeing, all while effectively de-growing the personal transportation sector. They advocate for an expansion of public transportation infrastructure—trains, buses, subways—to greatly reduce car dependency and, therefore, the amount of mining required to decarbonize. For example, expanding the American passenger train network to rival that of Europe would greatly reduce the emissions and material intensity associated with car and airplane travel. Such an intervention could result in degrowth at large and set a precedent for integrating structural reform into the mainstream climate response.

Incremental change can be tough to accept when you’re trying to prevent mass suffering and extinction, but as Herman Daly and Joshua Farley remind us, we must start “from where we are, even if the basic idea is not to remain there.”

Rosalie Bull is CASSE’s Communications Assistant.

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21 replies
  1. Cole Thompson
    Cole Thompson says:

    A very timely article, thank you. It’s tough for those of us who like to think long term to engage with those who are essentially good people, but have had a lifetime of conditioning that “the economy must grow.”

    A good mindset, I think, is to adopt the same relationship as one would with a family member who has an unhealthy addiction of some kind. You don’t really give up in disgust, rather, you look for little opportunities to deflect that family member from their addiction. Celebrate the wins and tolerate (for now) the things they won’t change.

    One thing I’ve found useful – but it takes patience – is leaning on the Socratic method, whereby one asks questions, but in a nice and friendly way. So let’s suppose Rosalie has an acquaintance Mary, and Mary is all in for green growth. Rosalie might ask, in conversation: “I wonder how long it will work to keep mining 2% more lithium every year. I’m just sort of scratching my head a bit, wondering how that will go.. because you know, the easiest deposits are typically the ones that get mined first, and then by definition it gets harder. Dunno, what do you think?”

    Key here is not to argue, or even explain, but just periodically bring up questions like this. Expect responses filled with “human ingenuity”, “resource substitution will find a way” and so on. But I’ve found that over time, nudging people to just *think about* these kinds of questions does help. It’s a bit like learning math, chemistry, or a foreign language: after a period of struggle and background processing, things start to click, and people will begin to ask themselves, how *is* this endless growth going to work?

    In summary, thanks for this and I endorse the approach: meet people where they are. Crawl, walk, run. Be patient with others, and with yourself.

    • Rosalie Bull
      Rosalie Bull says:

      Thanks, Cole! I agree. There is no point in exasperation or purity politics. We are all searching for solutions. What degrowthers need is to find tactical ways to integrate degrowth in the here and now. In our conversations, communities and bioregions. We’re arguing for a response that makes use of humanity’s capacity for imagination, care and resilience—so our strategies had better center this conception. I see too many degrowthers giving into misanthropy, which does less than nothing to advance a steady state future.

  2. Mark Cramer
    Mark Cramer says:

    No questions here on Rosalie Bull’s beautifully nuanced logic, with Cole Thompson’s Socratic method as one way to wean our strategic allies off the growth machine. As one who must weave a bicycle through traffic that includes both electric and gasoline cars, I wonder whether the e-car is just displacing pollution while prolonging the public health epidemic caused in part by the car-“driven” sedentary lifestyle. I see this problem from both ends, with family in Bolivia, where the lithium extraction industry is having deleterious effects, and I thank Rosalie for using the word “imperialist”. And yes, expanding passenger trains would, in the long run, lead to degrowth in the transportation sector. It was great news that car-dominated Phoenix voted to expand light rail by a 2/3 margin against fierce opposition from a Koch-funded fossil fuel lobby.

  3. Samuel Bull
    Samuel Bull says:

    Hi Rose, I agree with these other comments, your work here is reallllly upstanding and balanced! Your integrational conclusion makes me think that maybe what has happened sometimes in Europe, when there are apparent leaps in sustainability, is this approach being implemented by another name.

  4. Leslie Haggard
    Leslie Haggard says:

    I love it that the de-growth concept is gaining traction. It was a tribute to Heman Daly that led me to Jason Hickel’s book “Less is More…how degrowth will save the world.” I’m attempting to promote this book through an interview on a popular podcast.

  5. Erwin Dreessen
    Erwin Dreessen says:

    Thank you, Rosalie. Both degrowth and steady-state advocates too often state where they want to go but not how to get there. Dealing with the reality of “initial conditions” is essential. These include immigration flows which are not within the control of the given jurisdiction (e.g. a municipality). How to handle growth then becomes an issue, choosing a path that leads us towards steady-state, or not.

    • Geoffrey Matthews
      Geoffrey Matthews says:

      I agree with you Gary, Rosalie’s eloquent article has really set me off, as per my first comment. The last paragraph quoting Herman and Joshua’s reminder re “starting from where we are…” is worth thinking about. For me the first sentence of Chapter 4 The Nature of Resources and the Resources of Nature is the point of departure for everyone interested in climate change and steady state i.e. “The economic system is a subsystem of the global ecosystem…” This means that we are not in charge, as I stated in my comment on the European water crisis. To me steady state means that the human economic subsystem is in harmony with the sustaining ecosystem. Considering the vagaries of the climate etc. maintaining inter system harmony is the challenge. The subsystem economy will have to be very agile, whilst simultaneously making every effort to conserve and reinforce the sustaining ecosystem.

  6. Geoffrey Matthhews
    Geoffrey Matthhews says:

    Climate change and the consequential destabilising of the global hydrological cycle are already creating the conditions for degrowth within Europe, as per this article in The Guardian. As the alpine water towers in Switzerland and Austria are receiving les and less snow, all the major rivers will dry up eg. Po river in Italy. This is exacerbated by a winter drought throughout the continent. Agriculture is in crisis as the ground water is 40% less than usual, with no winter replenishment in sight. Nuclear power stations will soon be lacking cooling water; river and canal transportation will become less viable and building permits are already being suspended; and the French Ministry of the Environment is suggesting that the country begin preparing for a 4°C increase in temperature. Degrowth is firmly on the agenda. The climate and hydrological cycle are in charge:

  7. conor desmond
    conor desmond says:

    Hi Natalie, green growth investment is delivering the tech that will facilitate sustainable non growth futures. We are likely to see an evolution not a revolution as minds start to realise that the world is round. Government policy also plays its part as the spade work of Steady State influencing thinking enlightens our politicians.
    One fine example is in Norway where tax changes help, now taxing electric cars based on their weight. Heavy energy and mineral hungry electric SUVs being discouraged, efficient light electric cars encouraged.

  8. Steven Kurtz
    Steven Kurtz says:

    Green growth is not sustainable according to Bill Resend Mathis Wackernagel who developed Global Footprint Analysis. Shrinkage must occur in total throughput. Technology cannot avoid this. If people don’t reverse population growth voluntarily, nature will see to it the hard way. See paper originally presented to The World Congress of the System Sciences in 2000. (Toronto)

    • Geoffrey Matthews
      Geoffrey Matthews says:

      Steven, Thank you for the link to The World Congress re the population conundrum. Very interesting reading. A real challenge for steady staters. I read recently that the populations of China, Japan and South Korea are declining and that the respective governments are working hard to reverse this trend. In all cases it seems that education, especially for women, and the cost of raising a child play important roles. The most dramatic is South Korea, where women are reluctant to let go of their hard earned rights to respect, and employment. The latest birth rate is 0.78 per woman. As these countries are in the high material consumption bracket this should be perceived as a positive trend, from the degrowth perspective. Perhaps this trend will eventually change to a “normal” replacement rate at some point. Would that point be a steady state I wonder?

  9. Dave Darby
    Dave Darby says:

    Great article.
    There is no ‘global climate response’, unless you count 27 years of COP meetings followed by record global carbon emissions as a ‘response’.

    ‘Green growth’ is an oxymoron – it’s impossible to dematerialise GDP growth, because:
    • GDP growth means an increase in overall spending power, otherwise the increase in output can’t be purchased (and what would GDP growth actually mean if there were no corresponding increase in spending power?).
    • Once overall spending power has increased, there’s no mechanism to ring-fence it so that it’s only spent on immaterial things.
    • So, countries with bigger per capita GDP use more material resources per person, because they fly more, have more cars, clothes, food, furniture, electrical goods etc.
    • And you can’t increase material resource use without increasing damage to the biosphere.
    Capitalism has to grow forever, and therefore there is no climate solution within capitalism. Defenders of growth are in fact defenders of capitalism. It’s ideological, which means that reasoned argument is going to be very difficult.
    (I’m not laying blame here either. If a pro-capitalist was given the task of persuading me that capitalist growth was beneficial or even possible on a finite planet, they’d find it very hard. People don’t change their fundamental narratives easily). I think in the end, we need to start building new ‘commons’ infrastructure ( that a) doesn’t require perpetual growth and b) provides the essentials of life affordably. Once we do that, we don’t have to persuade any more (Socratically or otherwise). People will come to us.

  10. Bill Nelson
    Bill Nelson says:

    Let’s discuss hybrid (PHV/HV) tech as a stepping stone to degrowth. All electric is too far right now, so hybrid tech is a good first step to green growth and degrowth. Jumping over hybrids to all electric too soon will crash and burn, and that’s what is happening. We need to build out hybrids right now.

  11. Jonathan Miller
    Jonathan Miller says:

    Hi Rosalie

    Thanks for engaging in this issue in this way. There is no point being ‘right’ if we are ineffective. It is fine to dream that our understanding of the situation will be rapidly accepted and implemented, but we also need to make hard-headed assessments as to what is the best outcome we can achieve and the best strategy to get there. Your blog helpfully explores this ground.

  12. Chris Andrews
    Chris Andrews says:

    Your closing paragraphs seem to be saying that we can redirect some elements of green growth (the “low hanging fruit”) to bring about areas of degrowth.

    Whether we can or can’t do this, we won’t be able to do it unless we deal with the structural growth imperative in the global economic system. That structural growth imperative is that we create our money suppl by creating debt with interest, in commercial banks. The consequence of this is that, if the economy stops growing, there will not be enough money being created for people to be able to pay off their debt and interest, and there will be mass defaults on loans, causing an economic depression and great trauma.

    Governments will do what ever it takes to stimulate growth to avoid this happening, so unless we resolve this dilemma by changing the way our money is created nothing else we do to bring about degrowth can succeed.

  13. Chris Andrews
    Chris Andrews says:

    Your closing paragraphs seem to be saying that we can redirect some elements of green growth (the “low hanging fruit”) to bring about areas of degrowth.

    Whether we can or can’t do this, we won’t be able to do it unless we deal with the structural growth imperative in the global economic system. That structural growth imperative is that we create our money supply by creating debt with interest, in commercial banks. The consequence of this is, if the economy, and therefore the money supply, stops growing there will not be enough money being created for people to be able to pay off their debt and interest, causing mass defaults on loans, and an economic depression and great trauma.

    Governments will do what ever it takes to stimulate growth to avoid this happening, so unless we resolve this dilemma by changing the way our money is created nothing else we do to bring about degrowth can truly succeed.


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