Published on 3rd of September 2023.
Increasingly there are calls for de-growth, not just to abandon the pursuit of economic growth, but to shrink economies. The call for de-growth comes from environmentalists, including activists in groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and some economists, particularly in the field of ecological economics. It is related to concerns about climate change, pollution, species extinction, and resource exhaustion. Economic growth is to blame, proponents say, and the proposed solution is de-growth, an aggressive contraction of economic activity that requires an acceptance of significantly lower living standards.
The de-growth movement is not just a fringe movement. It is gaining attention worldwide, has international conferences dedicated to it, and tenured academics are supporting or contemplating de-growth. For example, the University of Sydney’s Professor Manfred Lenzen has modelled de-growth as a climate change mitigation strategy, and, along with co-author Lorenz T. Keyßer has concluded “de-growth pathways should be thoroughly considered.” Furthermore, books preaching de-growth are gaining widespread attention. The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf selected Jason Hickel’s Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World as one of the newspaper’s “Best Books of 2020: Economics” — although Wolf at least observed “this programme is neither a plausible nor an effective way to respond to the imminent climate crisis.” More recently, in August 2023, the New York Times profiled so-called ‘de-growth communism’ proponent Kohei Saito, a University of Tokyo philosophy professor and author of Capital in the Anthropocene.
While its origins may have been altruistic, its impact on society would be devastating. It would require restrictions on personal freedoms, as well as the aforementioned lower living standards. These could only be enforced by an authoritarian government — a serious curtailment of the principles of capitalism, free markets, and a liberal democracy.
This paper first reviews the arguments for de-growth and then dissects them, addressing several myths which appear to drive this call. The paper then considers what would likely happen if a de-growth agenda were adopted. Finally, the paper considers how policy advisers and policy makers should think about economic growth and whether the calls for de-growth should be heeded.