Degrowth and the Sustainable Development Goals
Degrowth noun – (1) the biophysical process of degrowing, (2) something (e.g., an economy) that has degrown or is degrowing in terms of matter/energy throughput, (3) a movement aiming to reduce the size of the global economy and improving the overall well-being.
The term “degrowth” is created by adding the prefix “de-” to the word “growth.” The word indicates the removal, descent, and reversal of economic growth. Degrowth is operationalized by the notion of matter/energy throughput, which measures the biophysical metabolism of an economy, that is, how much nature humans use and transform in absolute terms (see Goodland and Daly 1996). An economy is degrowing when its matter/energy throughput reduces. It is important to note here that less gross domestic product/gross world product (GDP/GWP) does not necessarily signify decreasing matter-energy throughput, even if GDP and GWP are used as rough measures of throughput (see Boulding 1966). Therefore, biophysical input-output evaluations are needed to estimate the actual throughput.
In addition to referring to the realized reductions in the biophysical flow of matter-energy, “degrowth” is the name of a movement of academics and activists seeking to reduce the size of the global economy, in particular in the affluent, over-consuming economies, while improving the overall well-being. A driver of the movement is the observation that infinite growth on a finite planet is a biophysical impossibility. The current growth of matter/energy throughout not only jeopardizes the diversity of earthbound life but also the existence of humankind. The movement has its roots in several contexts, it often also opposes the idea of development (see, e.g., Latouche 2009) and voices ecological concerns beyond narrow human interests (see, e.g., Heikkurinen 2018). The academic side of the movement originates in ecological economics, and in particular in the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who developed a critique of economic growth based on thermodynamics and biology (Schneider et al. 2010; D’Alisa et al. 2015).
Since the twentieth century, a society’s level of development has mainly been measured through economic growth, particularly in the form of increases in gross domestic product (GDP) (Jackson 2011). The reason for evaluating societal success through indicators of growth is based on the assumption that affluence correlates with well-being. Production and consumption are considered to be the drivers of ever greater prosperity (Cobb et al. 1995). The pro-growth argument, at its simplest, is that increased economic activity will lead to higher income levels, which signifies greater prosperity (Jackson 2011). This means that to deliver increased prosperity and standards of living, economic activity needs to continuously increase. For the majority of economists, further economic growth is not problematic but highly desired, as it creates more jobs and is also assumed to reduce poverty by means of the so-called trickle-down effect (see Mankiw and Taylor 2011). Consequently, it is no surprise that economic growth and particularly GDP as a measure of development has become a goal for a majority of political institutions (Jackson 2011).
The problem with economic growth, however, is its close correlation with environmental damage (Barnosky et al. 2012; IPCC 2014). It is exactly the growing economic activity that has been identified as a main driver behind global environmental change (Victor 2008; Jackson 2011; Daly and Farley 2011). Despite the efforts to develop technology and more efficient processes of production, economic growth has neither been successfully decoupled from global resource and energy use nor rising emission and waste. The link between environmental damage and economic growth was established as early as the 1970s, when Meadows et al. (1974) showed using the World 3 model (a system dynamics model mapping society and its activities in relation to resources, emissions, global temperatures, etc.) that population growth and natural resource use impose limits on economic activity. The authors of The Limits to Growth report (Meadows et al. 1974) argued that the ecological footprint of humanity (at the time of the publication) was barely within the safe operating space. This meant that in the 1970s the planet was still able to carry – both provide the resources to and to absorb the wastes of – the human populace of 4 billion and its level of economic prosperity. Meadows et al. (1974) argued that continued economic growth, accompanied with increasing human numbers, would eventually increase the ecological footprint beyond the carrying capacity of the planet leading to diminishing resources globally and unprecedented climate change. The 30-year update of the report showed that by the year 2000 human activity had increased to a level where more than 1.2 planet Earths would be required to stay within a safe operating space (Meadows et al. 2004; Rockström et al. 2009).
These findings have paved the way for critical sustainability scholarship to question the role of growth for sustainable change. The emerging degrowth theory claims that infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet and that economic growth is not a precondition for increasing human well-being (see, e.g., Daly 1997; Latouche 2009; Victor 2008; Jackson 2011; Demaria et al. 2013; Büchs and Koch 2017). One of the characteristics that separate degrowth thinking from other approaches to sustainable development is that it is not strictly limited to academia but is also a social movement. The fundamental aim of the degrowth movement is to reduce economic activity in order to reach a safe operating space or a level of economic activity that can be considered to be ecologically sustainable (Demaria et al. 2013; D’Alisa et al. 2015). To attain sustainable development, this means the matter/energy throughput of societies and human organizations must reduce (Heikkurinen 2018). In other words, the amounts of resource and energy use that travel through an economic system need to be cut through the reduction of consumption and production. Hence, the call for degrowth is not only to make economic activity more responsible by improving its quality but also to have less of it.
The aim of this entry is to introduce and apply the core degrowth concepts in analyzing the sustainable development goals (SDG) established by the United Nations. The entry will first review some key academic degrowth literature and then analyze the SDGs from a degrowth perspective. The entry ends by proposing how the United Nations can integrate degrowth objectives into the SDG framework.
A Movement of Academics and Activists
Degrowth as a concept is relatively young, but it has multiple intellectual roots geographically dispersed around the globe (see, e.g., Martínez-Alier et al. 2010). On the one hand, the idea of degrowth has its roots in the French décroissance activist movement which opposes the idea of development and voices ecological concerns (Latouche 2009; Cosme et al. 2017). On the other hand, the academic history of the idea can be traced to ecological economics, where Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen built a critique of economic growth based on his expertise on thermodynamics and biology (Bonaiuti 2011; D’Alisa et al. 2015). In the 1960s and 1970s, Georgescu-Roegen also influenced the work of Dennis Meadows and his group. In their correspondence Professor Meadows thanks Georgescu-Roegen for his work and acknowledges its importance to his work on The Limits to Growth (Meadows 1972 in Bonaiuti 2011, p. 221).
The academic discourse mainly critiques economic growth as a desired end for human action, as well as highlighting its limitations as a means for well-being. Furthermore, economic growth is not even considered to be an apt indicator of prosperity, as Jackson (2011) notes. Because the degrowth discourse is convinced that socioeconomic systems based on growth will not achieve sustainability (Cosme et al. 2017), societies are expected to use fewer resources and find a balance with the natural environment (D’Alisa et al. 2015). In practice, this ecological balance or sustainability means that a society must “keep [its] wastes within assimilative capacities; harvest within re-generative capacities of renewable resources; deplete non-renewables at the rate at which renewable substitutes are developed” (Goodland and Daly 1996, p. 1002). In the current global state of ecological overshoot, this signifies that economic throughput – human society’s use of resources and energy – needs to be reduced to a level where human action is within the safe operating space (see Rockström et al. 2009).
This mission is of course difficult, if not impossible, to measure on a national or regional level, as in an international economy, the resource inputs and outputs are not confined by national or regional borders. Nevertheless, the call for degrowth can be considered to signify that there is a need to reduce not only consumption of goods but ultimately also the production of goods (Bonnedahl and Heikkurinen 2019). It is important to note here that this does not mean that nothing would be consumed or produced but that resources are used to meet human and nonhuman needs rather than responding to ever-increasing human wants (Bonnedahl and Heikkurinen 2019; see also Cosme et al. 2017). Beyond the reduction in the matter/energy throughput, a cultural change is required within society (D’Alisa et al. 2015). This means not only changing the ways a society produces and consumes but also how it organizes itself to actually accommodate these fundamental ecological changes and meeting the needs of the future generations. The critique of growth in combination with the call for a new structure of society has further lead to a stark critique of capitalism within the degrowth movement. This is not only due to the fact that capitalism is the main driver of today’s society that requires change but also because capitalism as an economic system requires growth to function (D’Alisa et al. 2015; Ruuska 2017). Capitalism is based on the principle of accumulation of capital and thus requires ever more input to do so (Mason 2015). Capitalism thus not only requires growth to satisfy the insatiable “hunger” for accumulation but also enforces the concept of profit maximization. Profit maximization within capitalism requires production and consumption to constantly increase, consequently leading to economic growth (Foster 2011; Jackson 2011).
With a stark opposition to capitalism, it should be no surprise that a wide range of social issues that go beyond the notion of ecological sustainability have been adopted within the social movement of degrowth. These issues range from general social injustice to anti-globalization and anti-development (D’Alisa et al. 2015) similar to post-development (see Escobar 2015). The critique of capitalism in the academic field is shared by the social movement of degrowth (D’Alisa et al. 2015; Cosme et al. 2017). In general, degrowth as a movement opposes environmental destruction that takes place through continued economic activity, industrialization, and development (D’Alisa et al. 2015). This means the movement takes various forms and shapes. The term degrowth also has an important function to re-politicize environmentalism, which is still largely dominated by natural sciences and environmental engineering. An example of this re-politicization is degrowth’s connection to movements such as the occupy movement (Asara and Muraca 2015), which has been occupying social spaces after the recent economic crises. Civil disobedience, that is, disobeying unjust laws as well as resisting environmentally damaging projects such as new mining projects, has also been related to degrowth (Renou 2015), as well as movements such as “back to the land,” which seek to change agricultural practices and bring people back into touch with the origins of produce (Calvário and Otero 2015). There are several other social movements that can be grouped under the movement of degrowth or be connected to it.
Where the academic study and the activist movement come together is in the pursuit of creating a new social and also economic system that operates within the biophysical limits of the planet (D’Alisa et al. 2015). A rigorous exchange of ideas and experiences between academics and activists takes place at the biennial International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity. The first of these conferences was held in Paris in 2008 with the second following in Barcelona in 2010, helping to spread the idea of degrowth to an ever-increasing audience (Schneider et al. 2010; D’Alisa et al. 2015).
Critique of Degrowth and Responses
The main criticism made of degrowth is that it is often unfeasible or fails to present implementable actions (Schwartzman 2012). This criticism might mainly stem from degrowth having strong roots as a social movement that might seem insufficiently academic. Schwartzman (2012) particularly criticizes degrowth for seeing economic growth as a purely quantitative measure instead of also recognizing and accepting its qualitative measures. In this argument, it is accepted that carbon-intensive industries such as the fossil fuel industry have to degrow, but other industries such as the renewable energy sector should be allowed to grow. The counter argument essentially considers degrowth too radical and revolutionary. It seems, however, that the discourse on degrowth is partly misunderstood in this context. The degrowth aim is to reduce the overall economic activity or shrink the size of the overall economy measures as matter/energy throughput (D’Alisa et al. 2015; Heikkurinen 2018), which means that the renewable energy sector can be allowed to grow but at the same time various other economic activities need to degrow so that an absolute reduction in throughput occurs or better is ensured.
The argument that a growing renewable energy sector is required to solve the climate crisis further shows how much emphasis is put on technology in general to help humanity overcome future ecological challenges (Jackson 2011; Heikkurinen 2018). The hope is that through technology the negative impact on the environment can be offset resulting in the potential to continue economic growth (Blowfield and Murray 2011). This idea of decoupling economic growth from emissions and resource use (Jackson 2011), however, is an empirically poorly grounded assumption and is also behind the popular slogans of “sustainable growth” and “green growth”.
Relative decoupling of the economy from emissions and resource use, however, is attainable as eco-efficiency increases. Eco-efficiency is the notion of using less energy and fewer resources per unit produced (Dyllick and Hockerts 2002). According to Porter and Kramer (2006), it also makes economic sense for businesses to adopt eco-efficiency measures as they represent a reduction in the cost of production through reduced resource usage. This might also explain why eco-efficiency has been widely adopted by businesses as a conventional sustainability measure (Málovics et al. 2008). Here, however, lies the first pitfall, as eco-efficiency is known to lead to rebound effects (Alcott 2005; Dietz and O’Neill 2013). The rebound effect describes the phenomenon of an unintended increase in the overall resource use or emissions. In other words, less resource use or fewer emissions per unit does not yet signify less overall resource use or fewer emissions. This is because greater eco-efficiency often leads to lower prices, which leads to higher demand. That is, through a reduction in cost to produce a good (as it requires fewer resources), the price is likely to fall, which in turn is prone to lead to an increase in demand increasing production and the overall resource use compared to the potential saving through eco-efficiency. This is known as the direct rebound effect. If the reduction in cost enables the use of funds for other production or consumption using other resources, one speaks of the indirect rebound effect. Should the use of resources/energy reach a higher level than before the eco-efficiency measure, backfire takes place. In these cases the actual measure meant to reduce resource use actually leads to a higher overall resource use in the end (Alcott 2005). And the global data depicts a brutal scenario in which despite more eco-efficiency measures being introduced, the absolute levels of emission and resource use are still rising (Jackson 2011).
For increased eco-efficiency not to lead to the rebound effect, producers would have to cap their overall production, which in a growth-based capitalist economy seems unlikely (Foster 2011; Mason 2015). The notion that the economy can continue to grow while emissions decrease implies that economic growth be absolutely decoupled from emissions (Jackson 2011). Jackson (2011) calculates that with the economic and population growth predictions current at the time of his publication, carbon intensity would have to decrease 130 times by 2050 to reach the IPCC (2007) target, making the pursuit of absolute decoupling not a viable option. The average decrease in carbon intensity per year (leading up to 2011) has been 0.7% (Jackson 2011). Trust placed in technology to solve the climate dilemma might seem displaced in light of those numbers (Heikkurinen 2018).
Degrowth also faces criticism for not having a clear definition. Van den Bergh (2011) identifies five different definitions for the term by degrowth proponents. He also criticizes the degrowth movement by interpreting degrowth mainly as GDP degrowth (i.e., negative GDP growth) and laments a certain GDP fetishism. Van den Bergh thus introduced the term “a-growth” as a critique to degrowth (Kallis 2018). “A-growth” represents opposing GDP as an indicator rather than GDP as a whole and thus an indifference toward economic growth (van den Bergh 2011). Such criticism, however, is too focused on degrowth as a purely economic concept (Schneider et al. 2010). Furthermore, by only problematizing the indicator of growth and not growth itself, “a-growth” does not address the requirement of reducing matter/energy throughput to be able to live within the given planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009; Kallis 2018). Changing or ignoring economic growth or matter/energy throughput indicators hardly achieves the required re-politicization of the economy (Latouche 2009; Swyngedouw 2015). Degrowth does not only represent a reduction in economic activity but a broader transformation of society, values, and practices to accommodate these changes by re-politicizing the growth debate. The proposition of “a-growth” that it is just a question of policy to loose society’s “growth addiction” is too simplistic (van Griethuysen 2010; Kallis 2018). In this sense, van den Bergh (2011) describes “a-growth” as politically and socially more palatable and easier achievable than this radical form of degrowth. The notion that degrowth is too radical and will meet resistance does not change the validity of its implications. Indeed, the prophesized resistances further emphasizes the movement’s call for the need of a radically changed society.
The lack of implementable solutions is not so much because degrowth as a discipline is fairly young (D’Alisa et al. 2015) but mainly because the proposed solutions, such as lower material standards of living and restrictions to individual freedoms to consume, are not compatible with the current political climate; yet the need to transform society is unquestionable (Hopwood et al. 2005). Degrowth represents a multifaceted approach to bringing together various social discourses that might help to envision and achieve a sustainable society (Kallis 2011; D’Alisa et al. 2015). According to D’Alisa et al. (2015), degrowth is receiving more and more attention in academia leading to an exponential increase in academic papers on the field. This increase in academic attention should also lead to more tangible policy recommendations in various aspects of society in future.
Sustainable Development Goals
Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits, but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effect of human activities. (WCED 1987, p. 8)
One of the most common criticisms raised of this definition is that it is too vague and can easily potentially be misused (Robert et al. 2005). At the center of the definition above is the notion of keeping economic growth going in line with the environment: the report even mentions the revival of economic growth (WCED 1987) and features an explicit denial of absolute limits in the natural environment. It should therefore be no surprise that the Stern Review in the UK in 2007 argued that tackling climate change is essential to ensure economic growth (Blowfield and Murray 2011). This idea that economic growth and ecological sustainability can go together is very questionable from a degrowth perspective. Further, the WCED definition mentions limits but immediately reiterates that these limits are not absolute but just limited by technology and society. Not only the degrowth discourse but also several other literature streams argue that there are clear absolute limits to economic growth and development set by the planet (see, e.g., Meadows et al. 2004; Rockström et al. 2009).
The 17 SDGs are the latest addition to the mainstream sustainable development discourse building on the Brundtland Commission’s report. Although these goals might be considered a step in the right direction and relatively better than previous approaches (Costanza et al. 2014), peculiarly, there is no mention of the need to reduce consumption and production in the SDGs; that is, there is no reference to the key findings of the burgeoning body of scholarly literature on degrowth, which problematizes economic growth and calls for reducing the matter/energy throughput of human society. Very much to the contrary, economic growth is actually encouraged throughout the framework, as explicitly shown in goal 8 that targets sustainable economic growth and full employment for all. Apart from the obvious critique on growth, as well as sustainable growth discussed above, economic growth is here seen as the main driver providing employment for a growing global population.
One of the major failures of the conventional sustainable development discourse and SDGs is that they do not seek a transformative way to organize work and human action in general, but rather settle for mere reformist change within the current techno-capitalist global structure (see Suarez-Villa 2012; Banerjee 2016). In tackling unemployment and poverty, for instance, the innovative idea of reduced working time and potential automation of production processes, as proposed by John Maynard Keynes, (Skidelsky and Skidelsky 2013; Srnicek and Williams 2016) is not considered. And as regards the necessity to reduce consumption and production, goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) falls very short of the mark. The SDGs contain no mention of a need for a reduction in either consumption or production. From a degrowth point of view, achieving responsible forms of consumption or production is impossible without cuts in matter/energy throughput (Heikkurinen 2018). The goal’s main aim is to achieve this responsibility through efficiency measures (i.e., eco-efficiency), and it is thus very prone to the rebound effect. The narrative of (eco-)efficiency as a solution is present in several of the goals. Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), for example, mainly focuses on efficiency and increasing sustainable energy practices, but problematically it does not mention the need for reduced energy consumption to help reduce throughput. Similarly, technology is portrayed in these goals as a solution to unsustainable development, in particular in goal 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure). Goal 13 (Climate Change) also offers technology as one of its main solutions. Technology is clearly still considered the solution to continue economic growth while having a healthy ecosystem, despite there being little, if any, empirical evidence on the success of technology (Jackson 2011; Dietz and O’Neill 2013; Heikkurinen 2018). Other SDGs seem very commendable, such as goal 10 (Reduced Inequality), even though a closer look reveals that redistribution of wealth is not mentioned in the description of the goal. To achieve global social equity within the planetary boundaries, redistribution of wealth is indeed vital from the degrowth perspective (Daly and Farley 2011; D’Alisa et al. 2015). Instead, the SDGs growth narrative continues its march through the notion that reduced inequality should be achieved through the creation of opportunity and development aid. Goals such as goal 2 (Zero Hunger) and goal 5 (Gender Equality) on their own fit very well into the degrowth perspective. However, if all 17 goals are taken together and viewed systemically from a degrowth perspective, it becomes apparent that even though many of the SDGs (even parts of goal 8) look very admirable, the idea that the unwritten main aim would still be to continue economic growth is nullifying potentially good intentions, as well as making the mainstream sustainable development agenda unrealistic. Building on evidence from the natural sciences, the degrowth movement is almost unanimous in thinking that economic growth leads to further environmental degradation and eventually to social degradation mediated by climate change and ecological collapses.
As the mainstream sustainable development discourse is strongly built on the premise that more quantitative development is desired (Blowfield and Murray 2011), it is no surprise that the economic growth narrative also persists in the SDGs. This, however, means that the SDGs fall short on the transformative potential they aspire to deliver. The SDGs very much promote the status quo, or a reform at best, with bits of sustainability sprinkled in (see, e.g., Hopwood et al. 2005). Swyngedouw (2010) goes as far to argue that the term sustainability has been hijacked and repurposed to fit a new form of populism in relation to climate change that serves to draw attention away from the economy to continue the economic growth narrative in favor of the capitalist class. In contrast, the degrowth movement – similar to post-development (Latouche 1997; Escobar 2015) – has also adopted an anti-development narrative (D’Alisa et al. 2015) that advocates the idea that prosperity is possible without economic growth and development. As a result, the degrowth movement not only implies reduction of throughput in the global North (Goodland and Daly 1993) but also emphasizes that this does not mean an unconditional increase in throughput or growth in the global South (Alcott 2008). Much rather this means reemphasizing the need for global redistribution (D’Alisa et al. 2015) and emphasis on the global economy. Unquestionably, this can mean an increase in throughput in the global South as long as throughput reduces in absolute and global terms.
From the perspective of degrowth, to achieve sustainability, the SDGs have to adopt key points from the degrowth movement. On a generic level, this would entail the SDGs (1) acknowledging that the natural environment sets absolute limits on human action and (2) consequently recognizing the fundamental incompatibility between economic growth and environmental conservation. The SDGs therefore have to start to advocate limits to growth instead of continuing to further popularize the empirically unfounded idea that infinite economic growth can prevail on a finite planet. Goal 8 has to be reformulated to represent such a change. Other goals will have to include and emphasize the importance of reduced consumption and production instead of efficiency measures to continue business as usual or other reformist objectives. Several goals therefore need to primarily draw attention to such reductions, while eco-efficiency ideas are seen as secondary. These changes will enable the SDGs to strive toward qualitative development and sustainability (for implications and measures, see Daly 1990; Goodland and Daly 1996).
The turn away from the currently persistent economic growth paradigm to degrowth entails radical changes in the economic system and to society as a whole (Jackson 2011; D’Alisa et al. 2015). Given the political importance of the SDGs, it is very important to revise these objectives to represent and drive more fundamental changes. To guide the development of SDGs, there is a growing body of literature explaining how society and economy can look in a degrowth society.
The SDGs are a continuation of the international community’s response to the social and ecological challenges that appeared as early as the 1980s with the awareness of the harm caused by economic development to the environment. As no countries participating in the process were willing to give up economic growth but each wanted to avoid the related environmental threats of pollution, acid rain, deforestation, desertification, and destruction of the ozone layer, there was a need for a concept that reconciled economic development with environmental protection. Hence, the Brundtland report introduced the idea of sustainable development, which combines economic growth and environmental protection conceptually but still today has not found its empirical counterpart.
Similarly to the Brundtland report, the SDGs have importantly brought sustainability issues to the lips of many policy makers and business people. Problematically, however, they also further the denial of absolute limits imposed by the biosphere and the utopia of not having to let go of growth. Perhaps the SDGs are another international compromise, a consequence of negotiations where no countries were willing to give up economic growth. After all, the SDGs are part of the long tradition of international deals, rather than scientific validity. There are great national, as well as global, economic interests and forces trying to keep the growth-critique off of the official sustainable development agenda.
The aim of this entry was to introduce and apply the core degrowth concepts in analyzing the SDGs. The degrowth movement posits that the current growth-driven economy and sustainable development discourse can be seen as the main drivers of global environmental change. Despite the advances in technology and social organization, efficiency as such will not offset the impacts of a growing economy and rapid increase in human numbers. As the SDGs fail to recognize and advocate ecological limits to human action, they are prone to fail in terms of contributing to sustainability. Even though several of the goals might seem to have good intentions, this paper shows that sustainable development cannot be based on further economic growth. As the proposition to shrink the size of the economy is unlikely to gain traction under the current socioeconomic growth paradigm, a counter-hegemonic discourse to capitalism is also called for.
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