As world leaders gathered in Paris this week for yet another United Nations Climate Change Conference, the stakes, according to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, have never been higher. While plenty of potential solutions will be on the table, it’s unlikely that any politicians will suggest slowing the economy down.
But maybe they should.
As Pope Francis noted during his recent visit to Philadelphia, consumerism has come to define many facets of our lives. This includes the way we try to address climate change. President George W. Bush suggested in a speech back in 2002 that economic growth could be a solution to global warming. “Economic growth is the key to environmental progress, because it is growth that provides the resources for investment in clean technologies,” he said. “Growth is the solution, not the problem.”
It’s not surprising that this idea would be trumpeted by the leader of a country that produces a huge percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions. Wouldn’t it be amazing if industrialized countries could reverse climate change without making any fundamental changes to consumer lifestyles?
Here’s what we know so far. Humanity has a carbon budget, which we must not overspend if we want to keep temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels, the limit prescribed by leading scientists. Once we pass that benchmark, things on planet Earth are likely to get much worse, fast.
Much attention has been placed on “greening” the growth economy by switching the energy grid to renewables and increasing efficiency in consumer products. But these methods may not be enough.
More efficient energy systems and renewable energies will take decades to roll out—far more time than we have to stay within the carbon budget. Increases in efficiency could also potentially be negated by increases in consumption, a controversial theory known as the Jevons paradox. For example, as Rob McDonald illustrates in an article for Nature, more efficient light bulbs have led us to put lights all over the place.
It is time for an intervention. Through near-omnipresent advertising, people in industrialized nations have been encouraged and cajoled into consuming since childhood. Rather than increase well-being, this hyper consumption has had the counterintuitive effect of lowering life satisfaction and happiness.
Beyond our emotional state, this behavior has broader consequences. It may be easier than ever to buy things at the touch of a button, but each purchase we make has an ecological and human legacy. There’s a good chance that hip graphic tee you wear to bed takes 900 gallons of water to make, to say nothing of the fact that it may have been made by sweatshop workers laboring in Bangladesh.
Unlike a recession, degrowth would be a controlled and intentional shrinking of the economy until it reaches a sustainable state. In other words, degrowth is the total opposite of what we understand economic progress to be today. Obviously, this kind of radical project seems more symbolic than practical. But advocates say it’s important to get people to imagine a world where unrestrained growth isn’t the inherent objective.
“The ultimate objective is not to establish a degrowth economy—the goal is to establish an economic system which is in line with biological limits,” Dr. Nicolas Kolsoy, a professor in Ecological Economics at McGill University, tells Quartz. “It would be achieved through small-scale practices on a community level.”
In a degrowth economy, resource-intensive production and consumption would incrementally decrease. As GDP in a growth economy depends in part on these activities, there would be some negative impact. However, as Dr. Francois Schneider, a prominent degrowth researcher, wrote in the Journal of Cleaner Production in 2010: “What happens to GDP is of secondary importance; the goal is the pursuit of well-being, ecological sustainability and social equity. GDP can go down and nevertheless other dimensions of life can improve.”