8 October 2019

“Green growth is doomed to fail” - Jacob Smessaert a finalist in The Economist's short essay competition

“Green growth is doomed to fail, since it refuses to acknowledge the root cause of climate change: continued economic growth which proves impossible to dematerialize”. This is an excerpt from the short essay PhD researcher Jacob Smessaert submitted to The Economist when they asked young citizens of the world “What fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?”.

Jacob Smessaert’s 1000-word piece, which was written as part of a call for fresh thinking in the response to climate change, was a finalist from over 2400 entries. Smessaert is a PhD researcher at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, where he is part of the research programme UNMAKING. He researches grassroots innovations as agents of societal transformation towards sustainability, with an empirical focus on Spain and the Netherlands.

This essay contest proved to be an interesting opportunity to question some of the beliefs that are so firmly embedded in contemporary society: about the ways political changes occur, who the legitimate actors of these changes are, and what sustainability might actually mean in practice. With this essay, I want to broaden the discussion about climate action beyond green growth’s one-way street into ever more ecological degradation. Degrowth ideas provide a thought-provoking starting point to this discussion, and specifically so because of its emphasis on the transformative potential of citizen-initiatives in sustainability transformations.

What fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?

For decades the world has been aware that human activity is heating up the planet to dangerous levels, with potentially calamitous consequences. Despite efforts by government, business and individuals to curtail the trend, carbon emissions are still rising. Perhaps new thinking is needed, since previous attempts to deal with the problem have failed. So what might be done?

Our societies are addicted to economic growth. Economic processes convert energy, resources, and matter into goods, services, and waste. As such, beyond its expression as a percentage of gross domestic product, economic growth is essentially a biophysical process: ever more energy and material resources are extracted, transformed, and ever more waste is generated. Climate change, often over-simplified as the exponential rise of atmospheric CO2-concentration, is a manifest expression of the waste accumulation inherent to the dynamics of economic growth. Other devastating impacts of ever-growing human economic activity include ocean acidification, massive deforestation, and alarming biodiversity loss, in what adds up as a global ecological crisis. As such, decades and decades of exponential growth have put our generation facing a world which is already burning, where temperatures are already soaring, where forced displacement is already happening.

In a context of ever grimmer scenarios and changes occurring as we speak, dominant environmental policy puts blind faith in future technological fixes (carbon capture and storage, solar radiation management) and market-based solutions (emission trading schemes), and urges citizens to become more responsible eco-consumers. Underlying this individualization of responsibility and technocratic environmental management, one finds the myth of ‘green growth’: the belief that the economy can continue to grow without concomitant rises in greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource use. The green growth discourse, advocated by governments, the European Commission and international organisations alike (World Bank, OECD), upholds that it is possible to ‘dematerialise’ the economy and ‘decouple’ economic growth from environmental pressures. Continued, ‘sustainable’ economic growth would then not only be possible within our planet’s biophysical limits, it would also be a necessary ally in effectively tackling climate change, by shifting investment to renewables and incentivising green technological progress.

However, scientific backing of this extraordinary claim is incredibly weak, as a recent report commissioned by European Environmental Bureau reveals. Its conclusion is crystal clear: “Not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future.”

Green growth thus is doomed to fail, since it refuses to acknowledge and address the root cause of climate change: continued economic growth which proves impossible to dematerialise. It also highlights a very narrow, top-down world-view on how political changes occur – putting ‘business’ at the driving wheel, ‘governments’ as co-pilots, and ‘individuals’ in the back of the smooth Tesla depicting the great transition towards a sustainable future. However, in rapidly changing times and ecosystems, questions of democracy cannot just be sidestepped in order to ‘make our planet great again’. Pressingly, the question arises who actually gets to define what our collective futures will look like.

The degrowth movement tackles this question head-on, by challenging both our societies’ addiction to growth and the passive role citizens are made to play in the current environmental paradigm. Degrowth is simultaneously a social movement, a political project and an emergent academic field aiming to downscale the size and impact of our economies, re-embedding them into society and the planet’s biophysical limits, and striving for society to live better with less. Its actors include activists, artists, scholars, practitioners, organised and less organised individuals, who work together to decentralise political decision-making and experiment with collective deliberation and direct democracy. In doing so, they ostentatiously posit citizens at the centre of the political stage, showing that sustained changes do not occur through price signals, technological innovation, or top- down interventions, but through concrete actions of actual humans.

By developing pathways for societies to thrive outside of the growth paradigm, degrowth addresses climate change at its root cause. It does so through the creation of novel imaginaries that conceptualise ‘the good life’ beyond mere consumption and material accumulation. These imaginaries are manifested in alternative ways of living, consuming, and producing which respect local and global ecological limits, are less energy- and resource-intensive, and focus on the collective rather than the individual. Sustainable bottom-up initiatives are sprouting everywhere, in the form of eco-villages, voluntary simplicity movements, alternative farming practices, and energy cooperatives – all aiming at collectively building a socially and ecologically sustainable society which is not constructed, nor dependent, on economic growth. They show what citizen responses to sustainability challenges mean in practice.

Of course, these local initiatives do not in themselves suffice to bring about the radical transformation our societies need to undergo. Practitioners are aware that collectively reducing material consumption patterns and levels should only occur in an institutional context of wealth redistribution and enhanced public goods and services provision. This is where the micro-level of degrowth initiatives connects to the macro-level of existing political institutions. Degrowth research increasingly includes macro-economic modelling of steady-state or degrowing economies and analyses how they affect employment, welfare models, public debt and investment. From this, ambitious policy proposals emerge that could readily be implemented by current institutions. One proposal is abolishing GDP as indicator of economic progress – enabling societies to become less growth-oriented; another one is a reduced working week – allowing people more time to engage in other meaningful activities such as community commitments. These policy measures, if collaboratively designed with all concerned, would greatly corroborate the network of sustainable initiatives being developed everywhere.

Ultimately, at the heart of degrowth theory and practice lies the attachment to the democratic values of equality, justice, and freedom in collectively facing the unfolding crisis. Degrowth is re-opening the political space for discussing and democratically deciding how we deal with climate change. Should we – a generation of creative, lively, passionate youngsters – passively await the giant stratospheric sulphur-shield which will reflect incoming solar radiation and allow emissions and the economy to continue growing exponentially? Or should we take matters into our hands and invest this exquisite energy in building a global network of spaces liberated from economic growth? This is what degrowth is about: doing things differently, and creating sustainable, convivial, frugal, and future-proof worlds where humans and non-humans alike can thrive.

Jacob Smessaert