Degrowing our way to genuine progress

October 28, 2013

Illustration by Raj Kottamasu

Erik Assadourian, a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute, questions the presumed marriage of growth and progress. Our planet’s ecological limits, in his view, make limitless growth and consumption a mathematical impossibility; degrowth and the responsible stewardship of resources, he argues, go hand in hand with a new definition of true progress. To encourage new ways of thinking, talking, and acting on climate change, architecture, and our economic future, we need to know our options. We also need visionary thinking that is capable of creating new possibilities and revealing feedback loops—whether positive or negative—among existing ones.

Degrowing Our Way to Genuine Progress by Erik Assadourian

Since the very creation of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) indicator, people have criticized it as a poor measure of societal progress. Even the father of the GDP, Simon Kuznets, explains that “distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”

Yet somehow, even today, after its flaws have been critiqued for decades, GDP is the de facto measure that policymakers, economists, and journalists point to day after day as the measure of national success. So it’s not surprising that so many people regularly clamor for abandoning GDP, encouraging adoption of the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Gross National Happiness, the Index of Sustainable Economic Wellbeing, Green GDP, or some other alternative.

But in truth, by focusing on changing indicators, it’s like we’re trying to make a car drive more slowly by making alterations to the dashboard. Our societies, our cultures revolve around growth. Failure to grow is understood implicitly and explicitly as evidence of a dysfunctional society—needing immediate intervention through stimulus (Check Engine!) or some sort of government action, even if the economic doctrine of the time is otherwise laissez-faire.

Indeed, in the growth-centric consumer cultures dominant around the globe today, growth is always good—unquestionably. Unless perhaps it’s growth in cancer rates, but even that means growth in cancer drug and technology sales, growth in cancer research spending, growth in casket and cemetery plot sales. In GDP terms, even cancer seems good for the economy.

Genuine Progress

Transcending this obsession with GDP could help reveal that societies aren’t actually better off just because more expenditures are being made by consumers, businesses, or the government. A new article in the journal Ecological Economics analyzes the global Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) for the 17 countries that have data available. (These 17 countries make up 53 percent of the world’s population and 59 percent of global GDP). GPI is very similar to GDP in what it measures: consumer purchases, government spending, and business investments. But it subtracts out some bad forms of economic activity, like pollution and resource degradation, costs of accidents, and expenditures on fighting crime, and adds in some good ones like the estimated dollar value of hours spent volunteering or parenting. What the analysis shows is that while GDP has nearly doubled since 1970, GPI has stayed essentially flat, suggesting little progress has been made in the past four decades.

But even GPI still celebrates growth in consumption and economic activity at its base—just modified to value certain types over others. If this indicator had been adopted back in 1962 when Kuznets was calling for measuring the quality of growth and when “just” 3.1 billion humans were living on the planet (and still within Earth’s ecological capacity), GPI might have worked great to direct human civilization’s growth along a sustainable path. Fifty years later, humanity has so far transcended the limits of the planet that we not only have to stop growing as a whole, but overdeveloped countries like the United States have to proactively degrow their economies until they return to well within Earth’s limits.


Adjusted global GPI/capita and GDP/capita. GPI/capita was estimated by aggregating data for the 17 countries for which GPI or the Index for Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) had been estimated, and adjusting for discrepancies caused by incomplete coverage by comparison with Global GDP/capita data for all countries. All estimates are in 2005 United States Dollars (USD).Source: Ida Kubiszewski et al, “Beyond GDP: Measuring and Achieving Global Genuine Progress,” Ecological Economics, 93, (2013).

But before getting into that touchy topic, let me give some background. No one will argue with the fact that we live on one planet (not two, three, or more). And yet we use the resources of 1.5 planet Earths, according to the Ecological Footprint. This indicator measures the amount of land area used around the world to produce humanity’s food, materials, and infrastructure and to absorb our carbon emissions, and compares this total land needed to the land available. This adds up to a deficit of biocapacity to provide for all of human society’s needs, and thus to an erosion of the natural capital that not only our economy but also all of human society depends on. It’s like having a bank account and living off the principal instead of the interest. In the short term, that’s not a problem. But eventually, the principal is gone and suddenly you’re bankrupt. The increasing destabilization of the climate, revealed as more droughts, sea-level rise, erratic weather, acidifying oceans, and melting glaciers, are all signs that maybe we should get a better accountant or at least cut up our credit cards.


Source: Adapted from Global Footprint Network: National Footprint Accounts, 2012 Edition, page 6.

Of course, 1.5 planets doesn’t sound too bad—with new technologies surely we can correct the imbalances in a few decades, right? But certain countries—who happen to be major drivers of the global economy and the consumer culture—consume far beyond that. If everyone lived like Americans, we’d need not just 1.5 planets but 4 planets. Or better put, if we all lived like Americans, the Earth could only sustain 1.67 billion people without depleting natural capital, not the 7.1 billion now alive. And the American way of consuming is spreading around the world, with more Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and other new consumer populations buying ever more cars, air conditioners ( as well as hiring a Heating & Air Pros company), cell phones, computers, cats and their cat water fountains, and disposable diapers.

So How Are We to Live?

Let’s look at what a one-planet way of life entails (admittedly assuming a magical amount of equity that has not existed since perhaps as far back as Adam and Eve). A recent chapter in Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? explores this in detail and finds that one-planet living isn’t going to be easy. Look at the table below. If we are really going to encourage others to develop and yet live within Earth’s limits, this will require that the average person live in a much smaller home, with more people sharing said home, consuming a lot less electricity, eating much less meat and far fewer calories, living essentially car-free, and flying almost never. For example, if the average person can own 0.004 cars in a one-planet future, Washington, DC, could have an entire fleet of about 2,500 vehicles for its 632,000 residents—and that includes buses, emergency vehicles, delivery trucks, and taxis. That might leave space for a few Zipcars or rental cars but certainly no private vehicles. (And sorry Senators, you’ll be riding bikes from now on.)



To an American consumer who can currently buy nearly anything he wants, go anywhere he wants, and eat anything he wants, that doesn’t sound very attractive. But certainly it sounds more attractive than economic and ecological collapse driven by 4 degrees of climate change or more, complete with Biblical levels of flooding, extreme weather, droughts, and pestilence. In 2012, The World Bank came out with a new report discussing specifically how we need to avoid a 4-degree future. And when The World Bank—not the most alarmist or progressive institution—starts writing about this level of change as a real possibility, we know it’s time to get nervous.

That’s especially the case when even the International Energy Agency found that in order to have just a 50-50 chance of keeping temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius we’ll have to keep two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves secured safely in the ground (i.e. unburned). Keeping this fuel in the ground is incredibly difficult on multiple levels, not least because those reserves are accounted for as assets to fossil fuel companies. As Carbon Tracker’s 2012 report Unburnable Carbon reveals, this would translate to a massive financial bubble if suddenly all those assets become ‘stranded’ and companies couldn’t cash them in. (Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that those ‘assets’ are created over millions of years of geological and biological processes and belong to the Earth, not fossil fuel companies, since assuming an eco-centric perspective from fossil fuel executives is probably not very realistic.)

Making the Choice

A major contraction in human consumption, in human energy use, in material goods produced, and even in human numbers, is inevitable—even if we have yet to accept the necessity of doing so. The question is only whether or not that contraction comes proactively, through economic degrowth, or reactively, through an economic contraction brought on by climate change, the collapse of ocean systems, the mass die-off of pollinators, or the breakdown of some other essential ecosystem service, 60 percent of which are currently degraded or being used unsustainably.

As Serge Latouche, economist and a leading thinker on degrowth, explains, the difference here is between a controlled diet and starvation. A diet comes with all sorts of benefits, such as longer life-span, being more energetic, and a reduction in need for health-managing drugs for typical complications of being overweight (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol). Starvation comes with none of these benefits, and often leads to compromise of the immune system and premature death. Applying this analogy at a societal level isn’t all too difficult.

Thus, the ideal is for society to choose to diet, knowing that not only is our feasting making us sick, but that food supplies are limited and there are others, both humans and non-, that would like to eat too. But what does this look like? One apt comparison comes from Cuba. Cuba, not for environmental reasons but because of a U.S. embargo coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union, suddenly went from the most industrialized agricultural system in Latin America to almost completely lacking the fossil fuels necessary to run that system (fertilizers, fuels, and pesticides are all fossil-fuel based). Thus, the country had to rapidly switch directions and today is one of the few countries with a high level of human development that lives almost with a one-planet footprint on a per capita basis. This took significant coordination—including rationing of food (to prevent hoarding) and facilitating the production of countless small gardens and farms (26,000 in Havana alone) for people to generate food and basic livelihoods. It certainly wasn’t an easy path, but Cuba’s commitment to health and education for all meant that even with modest resource use Cubans are some of the healthiest, most educated people on the planet. In fact, Cuba, with its ecological footprint at just a quarter of the United States’, has health indicators nearly equal to, some even better than the United States—with lifespans just 9 months shy of Americans’, obesity rates one-third the level of America’s, and infant mortality levels at 4.8 deaths/1,000 live births versus the U.S. at 6.06/1,000 (see Chapter 30).

If we don’t proactively pursue degrowth, current levels of consumption will be able to continue for a time, as our ecological bank account still has a positive balance. But if we don’t control the descent, when systems do eventually unravel we’ll face major societal disruptions. Whether that looks like the recent Greek recession with significant youth unemployment and growing radicalization of politics, the Soviet collapse where the poor were forced out of urban cores they could no longer afford to live in and struggled to buy necessities like food and fuel, or a much sharper decline or destabilization as we’ve seen other times in history, your guess is as good as mine.

Re-tuning the Engine

While it certainly doesn’t hurt to install a new odometer in one’s car to encourage a driver to slow down—maybe one that flashes and beeps annoyingly as he crosses a certain speed threshold—to succeed we’re going to have to do much more.

When trying to change a system, people typically want to focus on flow rates, as systems analyst Donella Meadows once pointed out. Prices are often a main shaper of flow rates in our economy-centric system. Thus, a common refrain is: increase the price on carbon and things will work themselves out. Granting for a moment that this major change could be passed by governments that are mostly captured by fossil fuel interests, this would indeed have a significant effect. In our increasingly strained engine metaphor, it’d be like narrowing the fuel injectors so less fuel was reaching the engine (since the increased expense of fossil fuels would reduce demand and thus fewer would be extracted).

Others want to substitute the engine with a hybrid or electric one, daydreaming about how then not only will this save the planet but will even serve as a mobile energy supply that will help build a high-tech smart grid. But while technologies will play an important role in the future, that’s only true in the context of a massive reduction of consumption of materials and energy. Yes, from now on everything should be designed cradle-to-cradle: 100-percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable. But looking at the numbers, even renewable energy infrastructure takes a lot of fossil energy to create. And with little usable reserves left (if we are to prevent climate catastrophe), we’ve already stepped into what physicist Tom Murphy calls the “energy trap,” where demand for consumer energy is in direct competition with the energy needed to build a future renewable energy infrastructure. No matter how you slice it, the conversion to renewable energy is far from enough to get us to a sustainable future—not without major reductions in consumption.

Thus, what becomes essential is not just to adjust the odometer, the fuel flow, or even the engine, but the entire culture that celebrates cars and driving in the first place, or what Meadows calls “the paradigm out of which the system arises.” Just as the consumer culture was engineered over the past few centuries (and particularly over the past sixty years), we need to proactively engineer a culture of sustainability to take its place, so that our proverbial car, and this now exhausted metaphor, is melted down and made into 100 bicycles.

We can ensure that the best parts of modernity actually make it through the economic and ecological transition that’s coming.

It’s a daunting idea, I admit, even a bit frightening. But it could be quite the opposite. Joyful and inspiring—filled with time for family, developing interesting hobbies, and taking care of ourselves—cooking meals instead of rushing out for take-out, staying active and fit, having more time to just simply be present in the moment. There’d be less stuff cluttering up your home, fewer daily frustrations as this or that breaks, as unpaid bills become overdue. There’d be reconnection with extended families, perhaps with your elderly parents moving in and helping to take care of their grandchildren (and the grandchildren helping take care of their grandparents too). There’d be fewer hours working—as there’d be fewer day-to-day costs and the flexibility to work half time—even state-supported maternity and paternity care—would be integrated into the economic structure. Sure, more time would go into daily chores—into cooking, hanging the laundry on the line, gardening—but joy could come out of these too, as would reconnecting with neighbors, bartering your skill with a drill for their time baby-sitting, their prize-winning zucchinis for some of the honey from your beehives. Sounds idyllic and yes, even a bit naïve, though not as naïve as continuing the fetishization of economic growth even when all ecological signals point to the suicidal potential of this.

By proactively thinking through which elements of modernity we want to save, and which we want to scrap, we can ensure that the best parts of modernity actually make it through the economic and ecological transition that’s coming. I, for one, vote for antibiotics, vaccines, and other life-saving technologies, but am perfectly willing to abandon the majority of cars, planes, disposable diapers, and convenience foods. If we don’t make these hard choices now then nature will make them for us, and the future will probably get pretty bleak for all but the very few.

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute, where he has studied cultural change, consumerism, economic degrowth, ecological ethics, corporate responsibility, and sustainable communities over the past 11 years. Erik has directed two editions of Vital Signs and four editions of State of the World, including State of the World 2013.