How to Save the Planet: Stop Economic Growth

After decades of inaction, humanity faces potential extinction through an ecological collapse of its own making.1 Climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction, soil depletion, acid rain, rising seas, extreme weather, unstoppable wildfires, pollution, deforestation, and desertification would each be immense challenges for global governance individually—the
combination seems insurmountable, but because all share an underlying cause, there is hope. We can save the planet by directly targeting and dismantling the system underpinning modern ecological destruction:
economic growth. Growth is a problem because its compound nature is inherently unsustainable and because it inextricably drives ever-increasing resource demands. Instead, we must pursue “degrowth,” a radical reorientation of the economy’s social function away from growth for growth’s sake and toward meeting human needs in harmony with nature.

The Absurdity of Infinite Growth
Growth is the driving imperative of our modern economic system. Ideologically, capitalism promises consistent returns to capital, so the entire system must consistently grow.2 Owners of capital only fund businesses and governments based on promises of returns on their investment, forcing both public and private sectors to pursue endless growth (in revenue
or GDP) to repay debts. Yet collectively, global debt sums to an estimated $57 trillion compounding at a 5.3 percent rate, much faster than global GDP
growth.3 The solution: more, faster growth. It is an unending cycle. But no such cycle can continue endlessly on a planet with finite resources. Maintaining a typical 3 percent annual compound GDP growth rate doubles economic production every 24 years. Given the ecological and thus economic and human costs we’re already facing from growth at these rates, global growth clearly has a ceiling—and it seems we’re starting to hit it.

But economic growth is an abstraction; goods and services with little or no environmental footprint also contribute to the economy. Is it possible to sufficiently shift the economy into these domains so that we may grow without hitting planetary limits?

The Problem with Decoupling, Ecomodernism, and Green Growth
“Decoupling”—the idea of economic growth without increasing resource and energy use—drives two leading environmental theories that (usually) preserve capitalism: ecomodernism and green growth.4,5 Like degrowth, these ideas rely upon technological innovations, renewable energy, and rethinking major systems to reduce ecological impact. The difference is
that ecomodernism and green growth seek decoupled economic growth. Ecomodernism posits that technological advances like hyper-efficient agriculture and nuclear power will make our civilization sustainable without fundamental economic change. Green growth argues that economic growth can continue, so long as more environmentally friendly industries
and low-resource activities expand to make up most of the economy. To understand why this is problematic, we need to critically evaluate whether decoupling is realistic and how it relates to infinite growth.

Recent research has demonstrated that while some decoupling is possible, some is not. We already have renewable energy technology cheap and reliable enough to absolutely decouple economic activity from fossil fuels. But a 2020 review of 835 articles on decoupling finds that human civilization cannot decouple fast enough to stay within safe planetary
boundaries while economic growth continues.6 This pessimistic projection includes massive and unprecedented declines in renewables’ prices. Recent history is illustrative; since 2000, we have added 8 billion megawatt hours in clean energy production, but in the same time frame, new energy demand due to economic growth totaled 48 billion megawatt hours.7

Meanwhile, decoupling from resource use has been even harder to achieve. The relationship between GDP and materials use has been remarkably stable and shows no signs of decoupling against a background of continued economic growth.8,9 Materials use actually increased faster than GDP from 2002 to 2013.10 What resource efficiency gains do occur are undermined
by the Jevons paradox: higher efficiency decreases prices, subsequently increasing consumption and often easily outstripping any environmental gains.11 This has not stopped green-growth proponents from claiming industrial economies are dematerializing, but these claims are easily debunked when accounting for resources used to create imported goods.12,13 Shifts to seemingly immaterial online services won’t help either. Digital technologies have huge carbon footprints (Bitcoin alone consumes as much power as New York State) and rely upon scarce materials with high environmental and human costs.14,15,16,17,18

Even if renewables completely run our energy sector, unending economic growth still means runaway resource demands and ecological collapse.
Economic growth is clearly incompatible with solving climate change; we must turn to exploring the possibilities of degrowth.

What Degrowth Is Not
First, degrowth is not recession (unmanaged economic contraction, usually creating higher unemployment, debt crises, and devastating shortfalls in basic human needs) nor austerity (government policies with similar consequences). Degrowth is an intentional, managed reorganization of our economy to produce and consume less, not an economic disruption resulting from disaster or system failure. Degrowth has a complex set of policy proposals to mitigate and reverse the damages of economic contraction, including debt auditing and jubilees, jobs guarantees,
work sharing, and even temporary increases in some industries that are today undersized, such as small-scale farming and health care. In other words, degrowth does not just entail idly doing less of everything, but
intentionally refocusing our economy on improving human well-being.

Second, degrowth is not primitivism or Malthusianism. Primitivists argue for regressing to a pre-industrial lifestyle to truly live in harmony with
nature. Although many preindustrial societies had harmonious relationships with nature, degrowth does not forbid modern technology nor its advancement. Degrowth’s criticism of modern industrial society is
technology agnostic, instead focusing on systems and structures that incentivize endless growth and environmental destruction. Malthusianism contends that there are not enough resources to go around and that we must decrease our population to survive. Degrowth contends instead that there are plenty of resources to go around, particularly in systems with more egalitarian resource distribution than capitalism—the gross societal excess that capitalism requires is what is unsustainable.

Third, degrowth is not communism. While it is true that degrowth is explicitly anti-capitalist, it may be compatible with or opposed to a wide range of other ideologies depending on the circumstances. Degrowth supporters would oppose, for example, the practices of many actually existing communist societies: the first country to ever set economic growth targets was the Soviet Union in 1958, and the USSR left a far from perfect—though heavily contested—environmental legacy.19,20 Regardless, degrowth cannot succeed without a heavily democratic implementation process and an intense relocalization of politics and political life, giving people much more control over their lives under degrowth than exists in any country today.

Finally, degrowth is not economic growth but in reverse or applied to new realms. In addition to measuring the wrong things, our current economic
system also measures things in the wrong way. This has caused many well-meaning environmentalists to call for growth in sectors like child care, education, or bicycles. Just as we cannot achieve infinite GDP growth, we cannot seek infinite growth in bicycles, child care, or even education. What degrowth calls for instead is improvement in the areas that improve our quality of life as the main activity in society. We want better education, not 32 years of mathematics training.

What Degrowth Is
In short, degrowth is an intentional reorganization of our economy to improve human life while living within our collective means. Materially, an ideal degrowth scenario involves reducing resource consumption to sustainable levels and continuing in an evolving but non-growing steady state. This means doing less of what is harmful to our planet and society and emphasizing what regenerates us. Degrowth means technical changes like reorganizing taxation and debt to reduce wasteful consumption, but it also means spending more time in your neighborhood building community, at home with your family, and enjoying your hobbies wherever they take place. Degrowth is as much a psychosocial change as an economic one. To redefine society so holistically, concrete policy changes are imperative. There is an incredible literature articulating many different interpretations on degrowth and its tenets, so in the interests of space, this section will summarize the most important ideas.21,22

The first and most crucial principle of degrowth is the replacement of economic growth with a new, reimagined economic system. Ending the quest for growth will both immediately reduce human activity’s environmental impact and make room for new, harmonious ways of living, best characterized as “frugal abundance.”23 Here, frugal means letting go of
overconsumption, fast-paced resource competition, and ecologically harmful activities to make room for regenerative activities like community development, free time, and enjoying nature—the abundance. Of course, this means sweeping changes to material aspects of the economy, but top-line organizational changes are needed, too. This means tracking progress
in new metrics beyond GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, which measures holistic well-being and factors in environmental impacts; explicitly changing the stated purpose of governments; and rewriting the social contract, in a just, well-managed transition that avoids the downsides of recessions, austerity, and other sudden contractions in growth under capitalism.24

The most important preparation for reducing economic activity is to develop strong material support systems that allow society to reinvigorate the commons, like universal basic income (UBI), universal basic
services (UBSs), and/or an unconditional autonomy allowance (UAA).25 UBI involves monetary support, usually through monthly cash transfers, to provide all members of society with basic needs, as each person prioritizes them. UBSs means making services like health care, education, public transportation, child care, and housing affordable or free for all. Free sustainable public transportation is a particularly central UBS, as it can reduce demand for personal vehicles and fossil fuels, while offering a critical route out of poverty.26 UAA, like UBI, involves universal support
for all people from birth but is more comprehensive. It includes in-kind contributions, like work-sharing or work reduction programs, and free access to basic goods and services for all.27 These systems intend to redesign labor relationships to avoid exploitation and encourage people to do work that rejuvenates their communities, rather than increasing profits
and GDP at the expense of personal, community, and ecological well-being.

A common suggestion to quickly reduce economic activity—without harming employment—is to shorten the work week and/or implement work-sharing schemes with no decrease in overall pay. Shorter work
weeks are better for workers’ health and leave more time for personal activities, reduce working hours while increasing wage rates, and reduce unemployment.28 This is far from radical and is supported by historical
evidence. Dropping standard work weeks from six days per week (and often more than eight hours per day) to current levels created lasting improvements to health, well-being, wages, and employment.29 More
recently, work-week reductions in various European countries and a New Zealand company’s shift to a four-day work week have produced similar results.30

Work-length reductions should accompany a jobs guarantee, both eliminating involuntary unemployment and enabling the tremendous amount of work necessary for climate resilience and mitigation that,
at present, falls completely outside the private-sector wage economy. Creating and funding a jobs guarantee allows communities to decide what work needs to be done democratically and assign those tasks to those
who need work; the community will better be able to meet its own needs.

A reform that compliments this labor overhaul is rewriting taxation. In summary, as Kallis et al. put it, “We need to stop taxing what sustains societies (people’s work) and instead tax what destroys society (pollution and inequality).”31 Taxation can reduce resource extraction and greenhouse gases not only through direct levies on mining and emissions but also by discouraging excessive consumption through targeting luxuries and unnecessarily resource-intensive products. Targets or caps on resource use at the national level could be used to guide tax levels. These taxes must be designed carefully to avoid being shifted to the poor and to ensure dividends reach the masses, either through spending revenues on public goods or through funding universal systems like UBI or UBS. Another crucial degrowth policy is reducing material throughput by increasing product durability. Today’s ubiquitous planned obsolescence generates
GDP growth because it forces repeated purchases of the same product, directly sacrificing the environment for profit.32 To counteract this, one could implement right-to-repair laws, mandate warranties (incentivizing manufactures to make more durable goods), create appliance libraries, implement quotas for incorporating recycled materials, and reform
intellectual property laws to facilitate repairs via increased access to knowledge. The intent of these policies is to reduce the amount of stuff we create and waste without sacrificing quality of life.33

Can Degrowth Work?
Though there are currently no post-growth societies, there is real-world evidence that degrowth is plausible. United Nations data show that various countries have achieved the highest category of educational attainment and life expectancy at a GDP per capita of just $9,000.34 Adding in employment, nutrition, social support, democracy, and life satisfaction at the highest category still requires a GDP per capita below the world average: theoretically, the entire world could “degrow” immediately while drastically increasing virtually everyone’s quality of life.35

However, degrowth does not intend to degrow the entire world. Many countries still need to increase economic activity in key sectors to meet their material needs, and the vast majority of environmental harm is caused by rich countries. The more immediate question is can rich countries maintain a high quality of life while massively reducing economic activity. The data say: absolutely. Japan’s life expectancy is almost six years
higher than the United States with 35 percent lower income per capita. Portugal has higher levels of human welfare than the United States with $38,000 less in GDP per capita, meaning $13 trillion of the American economy is essentially wasted every year from the perspective of improving quality of life.36 Costa Rica also has a higher life expectancy and
self-reported happiness than the United States with 80 percent less income per capita and a massively lower impact on the environment.37 Countries like Costa Rica are far from optimized, so it is safe to say that massive amounts of resources can be cut from the budgets of developed countries like the United States without negative effects on well-being.

Many degrowth policies have already had pilots and full-scale implementations with favorable results. Experimental UBI programs have shown improvements in mental health, happiness, sanitation, nutrition, trust in people and institutions, entrepreneurship, education outcomes, addiction rates, stress, poverty, crime, and even employment.38 Countries that invest in universal public health care (a quintessential UBS) see better health outcomes and some of the fastest increases in life expectancy.39 The
popularity of recent programs to cut working hours suggests a four-day work week will be as popular as the 40-hour week once was.40

Finally, could degrowth really be implemented? The opposition of entrenched interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry, pose major obstacles.41 However, many of degrowth’s flagship proposals—like universal health care, jobs guarantees, and wealth taxation—are already wildly popular.42,43,44 Successfully implementing them can increase their popularity further. Lastly, as John F. Kennedy School of Government researcher Erica Chenoweth’s research shows, only one government has ever survived a social movement mobilizing 3.5 percent of the country’s population.45 The numbers don’t lie: demanding a degrowth future, by ballots or mass movements, can make a degrowth future not just essential, but real.

Morgan Pratt is an editor at the Progressive Policy Review and an MPP candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, focusing on human rights strategy, migration, and climate change.
Morgan has previously worked in diplomacy, refugee advocacy, and as an elementary school teacher.

Image Source: Li-an Lim via Unsplash.

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