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If we want to survive on Earth, it's time to degrow

If we want to survive on Earth, it’s time to degrow

Dr. Milena Büchs, Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low Carbon Transitions at the University of Leeds Sustainability Research Institute in the UK, shared the November Atlas Award with Prof. Max Koch of the Lund University School of Social Work in Sweden.

Bigger, more, better, faster – we seem to be programmed to push for growth in every way. It’s the same in politics and economics: almost every economy in the world is built on a growth model, and capitalism is coupled with growth. But our planet is straining under the pressure: growth means a bigger demand for resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions – which means we are already pushing past planetary boundaries.

Atlas trophy and logo Each month, the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world. October’s award goes to Prof. Milena Büchs and Prof. Max Koch for their article in the journal Futures:

If we want a future in which our wellbeing is protected, some researchers say we need to stop and rewind; instead of growth, we need degrowth. That doesn’t mean going back to a prehistoric way of life, but it does mean reducing our consumption until whatever materials and resources we use, and the greenhouse gas emissions we generate, stay within sustainable planetary boundaries.

Regardless of how vital degrowth is to our future, it might not be easily accepted in today’s society. Degrowth would change our lives dramatically and have a big impact on our wellbeing; we need to understand that impact and overcome the social and cultural barriers to degrowth if it’s to be a feasible solution.

Dr. Milena Büchs, Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low Carbon Transitions at the University of Leeds Sustainability Research Institute in the UK, and Prof. Max Koch of the Lund University School of Social Work in Sweden, have been exploring this phenomenon; their recent in Elsevier’s Futures journal has won the Atlas Award for October.

“Loads of institutions have evolved around our economic growth model – the legal system, the political system, our cultural system – and growth has played a massive role in stabilizing rich societies,” said Prof. Büchs. “People have been used to incomes increasing over time, so they have that expectation. I think it's very easy to see the potential for social conflict in such a scenario. If we don't understand the potential implications of degrowth on people’s wellbeing, it will never become a reality.”

In their paper, which follows a book they have written on degrowth, Profs. Büchs and Koch explore the concerns people have about the impact degrowth would have on their wellbeing in the short to medium term. For current generations in rich countries, moving from the familiar growth model to an unfamiliar degrowth model would involve a significant decrease in consumption, which itself could have all sorts of implications for wellbeing.

“People’s consumption often corresponds to their identities and their aspirations and expectations for how life should be lived,” explained Dr. Büchs:

People aspire to buy a house, have a car and fly on ‘nice’ holidays; these are the expectations that we grew up with. I think this will be the change that is required – to not see consumption of material goods and services as something that can fulfill our need to have an identity and some kind of status in society. The question is how that can be addressed in zero carbon ways.

The broader links degrowth has to our culture and society also have implications for wellbeing that might hinder its adoption – many of society’s welfare-related institutions are coupled to the growth model: the welfare state and the labor market, for example. Changing all this would be an unprecedented undertaking, as Prof. Koch said:

“We can argue that the growth model has resulted in a multiple crisis now. We know we need to make some major changes in the next 10 years, basically of everything at the same time and roughly at the same speed. We have been discussing this and actually could not come up with any example where change of that caliber has been carried out under democratic circumstances. However, to succeed in the long term, this transition will need to be democratic and participatory, and this will be one of the major challenges we need to work on.”

Understanding the impacts degrowth might have on wellbeing will highlight the objections different groups might have to it. This understanding is vital in order to come up with ways to overcome barriers to degrowth. Dr. Büchs and Prof. Koch believe degrowth is critically needed to tackle climate change, otherwise our livability on the planet will be under threat.

“If we don't do anything, if we just carry on as usual, very soon our survival will be under threat,” said Prof. Koch. “One of the counter-arguments to degrowth is that degrowthers want to make people poorer and that this would have negative wellbeing implications ; I think what one would need to make clear is that everybody’s wellbeing will be undermined by climate change if we do not act now.”

More research is needed, and both Dr. Büchs and Prof. Koch have a lot of work in the pipeline; Prof. Koch is currently planning a project that will involve holding citizen forums where people reflect on the more or less sustainable ways in which they satisfy their basic needs.

A conversation with Profs. Milena Büchs and Max Koch

Max-Koch-quote-card

Degrowth could be key to our future survival, so we need to start looking at its implications for wellbeing and how we can overcome the barriers to degrowth in today’s society. I talked with the authors of the Atlas Award-winning about their paper about their research what needs to be done to protect our future.

We invite you to podcastlisten to the podcast or read the transcription here:

What is degrowth and how does it relate to climate change?

Büchs : The idea is that if we want to stay within planetary boundaries, very likely we have to actually shrink our economies or the physical throughput to the economy. Degrowth refers to that phase of shrinking to a steady state – one in which biophysical throughput would remain at a sustainable level so that resources can be renewed and waste products effectively absorbed. This includes greenhouse gas emissions, which are already transgressing planetary boundaries.

Can you tell us about your paper?

Büchs: The paper follows on from a book that Max and I have authored: Postgrowth and Wellbeing. The paper shares main messages and looks at how we can take degrowth forward (and) what are the very first steps to addressing some of the barriers and difficulties that we've identified in the book in moving to a degrowth economy or society.

Why has there been a lack of support for degrowth?

Koch: To produce growth, to work hard, seems to be a natural way of being and the only way to care for yourself and the family. We can argue that this model has resulted in a multiple crisis now. We know we need to make some major changes in the next 10 years, basically of everything at the same time and roughly at the same speed. We consider what it would actually take to make a degrowth transition; all these institutions in the welfare state – the education system, the labor market, the legal system – all of it is entangled in many ways with the growth model.

Büchs: The barrier that we see is that degrowth is very different in the culture that we have at the moment. The difficulty is that it’s the current generations and near future generations which have to make these changes and will have to cut back material consumption to facilitate wellbeing for future generations. Growth has played a massive role in stabilizing rich societies, and people have been used to incomes increasing over time, so they have that expectation. I think it's very easy to see the potential for social conflict in such a scenario. If we don't understand the potential implications of degrowth on people’s wellbeing, it will never become a reality.

How might degrowth affect wellbeing?

Büchs: There’s this assumption that people's happiness doesn't seem to improve over time even though their income is increasing, which often leads to the conclusion that happiness is not related to income. But there's evidence that actually people respond differently to increases in income compared to decreases in income; that's sometimes called loss aversion. That might be a problem in a deep crisis scenario, and people might protest against income losses related to reductions of consumption.

What are your suggestions for making degrowth a feasible strategy?

Büchs: We need the public’s support for this, which requires a lot of discussion and cultural change. We need to identify minimum and maximum thresholds within which we could move; the minimum would be to satisfy our basic needs and the maximum would be defined by what is physically possible within the limitations of climate change and the emissions that we can still release into the atmosphere. We would also have to redistribute resources much more evenly and in a fair way in order to limit the potential for conflicts around resources, and that has all sorts of implications for how we organize the welfare state. The problem isn't that there aren't enough ideas; the problem is that we don’t know how to implement them.

Koch: We have to develop concrete eco-social policies – policies that at the same time address social inequality and climate change. And we haven't come far enough there, especially not with degrowth. It is very important to not lose the people on the way, which is why we think that citizen forums might be a good way to develop policy reform suggestions that have a much stronger social base than what we currently have.

What do you think the future will look like if we achieve degrowth — and if we don’t?

Koch: If we don't do anything, if we just carry on as usual with a bit of green growth and a bit of carbon markets, very soon our survival will be under threat. One of the counter-arguments to degrowth is that degrowthers want to make people poorer and that this would have negative wellbeing implications. I think what one would need to make clear is that everybody’s wellbeing will be undermined by climate change if we do not act now.

A Sustainability Debate: challenges for the #degrowth transition; the debate about wellbeing

As part of the current debate on sustainability, degrowth scholars have convincingly argued that degrowth in developed nations will need to be part of a global effort to tackle climate change, and to preserve the conditions for future generations’ basic needs satisfaction. In collaboration with the Pufendorf IAS, Elsevier hosted a debate on the topic on October 30, 2019. After introduction of the topic by Prof. Max Koch followed by a debate with several panelists.

Panelists included:

  • Anna Meeuwisse - Professor of Social Work, School of Social Work, LU
  • Inger Kristensson Hallström - Professor, Child and Family Health, BioCare, LU
  • Lewis Akenji – Atlas Advisory Board member – Executive Director SEED: Promoting entrepreneurship for sustainable development
  • Herve Corvellec - Professor of Business Administration, Department of Service Management and Service Studies, LU
  • Pernille Gooch - Associate Professor, Human Ecology Division, LU

A Sustainability Debate

Panelists at “A Sustainability Debate: challenges for the degrowth transition; the debate about wellbeing” at Lund University on October 30, 2019.  (Photo by Ruona)

About Futures

Elsevier’s Futures journal looks at the medium and long-term futures of cultures and societies, science and technology, economics and politics, environment and the planet, individuals and humanity. Covering methods and practices of futures studies, the journal publishes new contributions to knowledge which examine possible and alternative futures of all human endeavors, as well as humankind's multiple anticipatory relationships with its futures.

Get involved  in degrowth

Degrowth is a feature of many initiatives. Here are some activities you can do on your own: Were these recommended by the Atlas winners or the author of this story?

Learn more about degrowth

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Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

After a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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