Industrial-capitalist development has had an alarmingly destabilising effect on Earth’s ecosystems: since the 1970s the biomass of wild mammals has dropped by 82%, the area of natural habitats has contracted by around 50%, and a million species are at risk of extinction. Growing greenhouse gas emissions are locking in the global warming well in excess of 2°C above the pre-industrial average, accompanied by sea-level rise, acidification of oceans and extreme weather. Phosphorus and nitrogen cycles have been dangerously disrupted, endangering the productivity of soils. A host of other biophysical processes are approaching critical boundary levels beyond their Holocenic variability that has benefitted human societies over the last 10.000 years.
Both the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have thus called for urgent action, including “transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors” (IPBES 2019) and “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” (IPCC 2021).
In a few short decades, the world needs to undertake radical action to prevent runaway climate change and preserve natural habitats. Global policymakers have focused efforts on developing clean technologies and financial instruments to support them. However, even the modest policies aiming to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 or by 2070 require historically unparalleled levels of technological buildout — of renewables, carbon capture and biomass. Yet, of these technologies, only renewables are expanding rapidly, while others remain underdeveloped and underinvested. Thus, a technological transition might not be sufficient in scale and scope to achieve the decarbonisation goals in time.
Current decarbonisation policies leave only a 50:50 chance to limit global warming by 2100 to 2.7°C. Transformative changes to economic, social and political factors are needed and needed urgently.
Degrowth as a social movement and a research project has emerged in response to this urgency, offering comprehensive proposals of societal transition across all aspects of society.
Degrowth posits that an environmentally safe and socially just transition can be more adequately and timely achieved by delinking the ecological transition from the imperative of economic growth and by shifting its focus away from technological restructuring toward collective wellbeing. If the growing demand for energy and materials in affluent societies is throttled down through a democratic transformation of the patterns of production and consumption, following the principles of private sufficiency, material conservation and public abundance, the deployment of green technologies does not need to scale at such a historically unprecedented rate, while the fossil fuels can be phased out more expediently.
Degrowth is an ecological transition framework that starts from a systems-thinking perspective and combines values of ecology, justice, wellbeing, and democracy with a theoretical grounding in Earth system science, ecological economics, political ecology and post-development.
It draws on a rigorous and non-reductivist scientific understanding of the environmental crisis, models alternative epistemic tools, studies intra- and inter-societal inequities, and articulates integrative North-South perspectives.
Degrowth’s double objective of reducing ecosystems’ overuse while achieving wellbeing is primarily addressed at affluent societies.
It is the affluent societies that should lead the way in throttling down growth and redistributing social wealth domestically and internationally. By doing so, they would relieve other societies from the competitive pressures of the polluting industrial-extractivist development and allow them to pursue their own pathways to sustainable wellbeing, thereby securing a horizon of environmentally safe and just futures for all societies. In more affluent societies, planned degrowth, if accompanied by a democratically deliberated redistribution of income, wealth, and power, might make sense for the many.
After a certain level of affluence, it is not higher income but lower inequality that leads to longer life and better education.
Welfare states with stronger public healthcare, education and housing contribute to a greater sense of social wellbeing, while lower inequality leads to greater environmental protection.
A perspective on degrowth from the post-socialist semi-periphery of Croatia, with a turbulent transition to capitalism in hindsight, suggests that capitalist development can lead to dedevelopment, depopulation and environmental degradation — making an alternative pathway into a just and sustainable future not only necessary but also politically desirable.
Particularly, if viewed from the historical vantage point of the Non-Aligned Movement’s internationalism, worker self-management and collectively-managed welfare system that characterised pre-capitalist development in this part of the world, an altogether different green transition might be both imaginable and practicable.