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Economic Systems

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Major Concepts
The Worldly Philosophers
Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.
—Kenneth E. Boulding

Degrowth is an economic, academic, and social movement that argues that the objective of constant economic growth is environmentally destructive and that societies should focus on limiting economic growth in favor of producing only what is necessary to fulfill human needs and promote well-being. The major stated aim of degrowth is in materializing a sustainable level of production in our ever-changing climate.[1] It is commonly associated with anti-capitalism and the political left.

History of the concept[edit]

The modern concept of degrowth was founded on the book Limits to Growth, a report produced by the Club of Rome, which concluded that growth in a finite world was limited and that if society kept increasing production and population, it would face the limits of growth, which would lead to a sudden decline in both population and industrial capacity. Its core predictions seem to have held true.[2][3] The report suggested that growth trends could be altered to achieve sustainable ecological and economic stability.

Proposed policies[edit]

Degrowth proponents tend to support renewable energies and recycling, but consider that it still consumes natural resources to build and maintain, and so, the limitation of the consumption of energy and production is also necessary. They believe in reducing conspicuous consumption and useless consumption in general. Many believers in degrowth oppose planned obsolescence and advertising, and they also believe in ending the over-reliance on cars. They do this by promoting biking and free public transportation. The degrowth movement is generally supporting of a reform of agriculture, for example in supporting permaculture. On the economy, the degrowth movement generally support cooperatives, local currencies[4] (and generally relocalisation of the economy),[5] alimentary sovereignty.[6] Many Degrowth activists support public housing, education, and healthcare for all.[7] Policies for universal basic income is also supported by some degrowth economists.[4]

Hickel et al. (2022) writing an op-ed for Nature has made specific policy proposals in the aim of degrowth namely in...

  • Scaling down fossil fuel industries, factory farming, fast fashion, and luxury transportation - this can be achieved by ceasing subsidies to fossil fuels, increasing taxation on such industries and re-investing the money into public services.
  • Abolishing planned obsolescence by pushing legislation that requires the production of products that will last as long as they’re able.
  • Redirecting the focus from increasing GDP to other relevant factors such as the public’s access to health, nutrition, shelter, etc.
  • Reducing working hours so as to reduce production, energy usage, etc. Shorter working hours also means more shifts can be fit into the working day; expanding the number of jobs in a single firm. Couple this with a green job guarantee this prevents people losing their jobs and livelihoods in a transition to a degrowth economy.
  • Shifting to renewable energy sources, as well as implementing efforts to limit energy usage so as to limit the need to build more solar panels, wind mills, etc.
  • Expanding the use of social housing, universal healthcare, and worker co-operatives.[8]

Degrowthist arguments[edit]

Overshoot Day[edit]

Earth Overshoot Day is the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day was in August 03.[9]

Peak minerals[edit]

The degrowth movement argues that resource depletion will end up in peak minerals. For example, nickel and zinc could face production peaks in a few decades.[10]

Climate change[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Climate change

Another obvious argument is that increases in economic growth leads to increases in production and increases in energy consumption, which in turn then drives increases in the release of greenhouse gases. This is fundamentally at odds with the goals to reduce or outright eliminate the production of greenhouse gases as called for by organizations like the IPCC.[8] A counter to this argument is typically that this is only the case if the means of production rely on the energy output of energy resources like coal, but it would not be the case if the energy was provided by renewable sources instead. A problem with this reply is that with increased energy demands this would require the production of more and more renewable machines such as solar panels, which would then require the extraction of rare metals and greater land usage. This gets back into the previous problem of peak minerals, and the production of greenhouse gases in the manufacturing process. Regardless if the manufacturing of a given good required the production of greenhouse gases on plant then it would not particularly matter if the power used to keep the lights on in factory was sourced from a wind turbine.

Another one of the challenges in regards to climate change is the rate of decarbonization required if GDP were to continuously grow at a rate at say 3% per year; the required rate of decarbonization would have to be at 10.5% every year in order to meet below the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target.[11] Something openly acknowledged by the IPCC and the Paris climate agreement as unobtainable.

Arguments against degrowth and responses from degrowthers[edit]


A graph and data used to illustrate how economic growth lifted billions from poverty. Proponents for growth worry that in the absence of economic growth this trend will reverse.

The main argument against degrowth is that its proposals cannot be applied, that an economic model based on degrowth would be unable to supply enough food and other commodities, and that it would end with everyone being poor (or worse). Leisure time, long life, good health, literacy, education, female empowerment, and rights and protections for the vulnerable are all said to be central to having a happy and fair society and all of these features are made possible by economic growth.[12]:5

This sort of criticism is anticipated by the likes of economic anthropologists like Hickel, who argues that the major research tying GDP and economic growth to quality of life often ignore relevant confounding factors like public sanitation.[13] Historically the narrative has been that even including for factors related to funding and efficacy of healthcare, GDP seems to be the primary predictor for QOL measures and outcomes; and that countries with the highest GDP’s tend to have the highest QOL regardless of the quality of their healthcare.[13]

This narrative however is complicated by the fact that the rise of capitalism from the 16th century onwards came with the closure of common resources, expansive colonization with the extraction of foreign natural resources, indigenous genocides, the North Atlantic Slave Trade, and multiple famines in India. It’s difficult to argue that for the people victimized by such atrocities their quality of life has been “improved”.[13]

To argue otherwise borders onto racist narratives regarding the lifestyle, civilizations, and sustainability of non-European societies pre-colonialism.

A problem with many studies citing causal interaction between GDP and Quality of Life measurements is the fact they don’t account for the influence of public utilities like sanitation.[13] Basic sanitation involving the simple separation of sewage from drinking water dramatically improved health outcomes and helped prevent the spread of infectious diseases. But due to the requirement to dig up privately owned land and the massive constructive projects to create the infrastructure, many private landowners initially opposed the early sanitation efforts.[13]

Poor sanitation according to the world health organization is linked to various infectious diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, and intestinal worms; as well as being a major contributor to malnutrition.[14]

Additionally in the 19th century you saw the rise of germ theory, and simple medical practices such as hand washing.[15]. This dramatically reduced mortality rates in hospitals and again reduced the spread of infectious diseases. This may not be something easily identifiable via quantifiable measures of healthcare funding, efficacy, or “quality”.

In addition to sanitation, many unions and public interests groups pushed for the expansion of public education, housing, better wages, and labour regulations at the expense of the capitalist class.[13] It would be hard to discount how better wages and shorter working hours impacted quality of life for working class people — and such consequences were not simply achieved by the rising of GDP but the organized action of the working class.

Education is another factor at play here that GDP measurements ignore. The nation of Belarus, which has a GDP per capita of $5,500, beats out nations like Austria, Spain, and Hong Kong in the education metric (all of which have higher GDPs per capita than Belarus). Finland is known to have "one of the best education systems in the world," despite its GDP per capita being 25% less than the United States. Poland beats the US in this metric too, and that's with 66% less income than the US.[13]

While it's true that things like universal health care, sanitation, and what not require financial resources, there's also a curve of diminishing returnsWikipedia involved here. The interventions that are of actual relevance here past a certain point (which high income countries have certainly reached) are independent of economic growth.[13] Costa Rica, for instance, has a life expectancy rate of 79 years[16], compared to the US' 78.7 years.[13] Japan has a life expectancy rate of 84 years, despite having 35% less income than the US.[13]

While it's true that nations with higher incomes generally have better life expectancies than poorer nations, this isn't, as Hickel says, an automatic relationship:

'The historical record is clear that economic growth itself has no direct, necessary positive implications for population health,' Sretzer points out. 'The most that can be said is that it creates the long-term potential for population health improvements.' Whether or not that potential is realised depends on the political forces that determine how income is distributed. Progress in human welfare has been driven by progressive political movements and governments that have managed to harness economic resources to deliver robust public goods and fair wages. In fact, the historical record shows that in the absence of these forces, growth has quite often worked against social progress, not for it.[13]

This is backed up by statistics on water sanitation in the United States. The improvement in water sanitation alone between 1900 and 1935 is responsible for roughly 75% of the decrease in infant mortality rates, and half the total decline in mortality rates overall.[13] Hickel points out that, excluding sanitation, the most significant impactor on life expectancy rates is "access to universal healthcare, including child vaccination."[13] After that, it's access to education, especially women's education. "The more you learn, the longer you live."[13]

All of this argued above by the likes of those like Hickel draws skepticism on the direct tie between societal happiness, health, and other measures as directly caused by and as solely a consequence of economic growth. This of course does not by any means directly suggest a degrowth economic model is therefore sustainable and would not itself lead to things like famine as proponents of economic growth maintain.

Hickel and others object of course to the growth-proponents objections on the grounds it confuses degrowth for an economic recession. [11] There is an argument to made that the removal of systems of artificial scarcity would prevent the sort of economic consequences we would see during a recession due to the re-opening access to public resources, the dramatic reinvestment into public services, and the simply fact that an post-capitalist economic system of degrowth would not be reliant on growth to sustain itself as the current capitalist system is required to do.[11]

Technological innovations[edit]

An argument used against degrowth is that technological innovation will lead to ways to produce more while using fewer resources.[17] For example, Norman Borlaug's artificial selection and shuttle breeding research significantly increased wheat yields across Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the middle part of the 20th century.[citation needed]

Economic growth also makes available the resources and the new technologies needed to tackle important challenges. The United Kingdom saw its carbon emissions fall by 38% between 1990 and 2017, from 600 million tonnes to 367 million tonnes. However the country's GDP (adjusted for inflation) increased by over 60% in the same period.[12]:5 Additionally, economic growth also results in more resources to combat enviromental problems. For instance, a growing GDP means that the society will be able to combat deforestation better.[12]:225

Of course all this information presented does rub against the previously mentioned required rate of decarbonization, to which this example with the UK does not even remotely meet the targets for.[11] There also ways to fib using the data by decreasing domestic carbon output via pushing production on another nation; e.g. Canada can sell its oil and other fossil fuel resources to another country so that Canada can still experience economic growth but maintain an overall decrease in carbon output. Overall, the total amount of greenhouse gases released in the atmosphere ends up remaining the same, but a country like Canada can look as if it’s achieving economic growth while decreasing their greenhouse gas emissions. It would be misleading and the planet overall would suffer for it.

Notable degrowth proponents[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. "Definition" - Research and Degrowth
  2. Graham Turner. A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality. CSIRO Working Paper Series 2008-2009.
  3. "Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse" - The Guardian. Written by Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander. Published Sept. 2, 2014.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Can the basic income lead to economic degrowth?
  5. The globe downshifted
  6. Food Sovereignty - Archived from ""
  7. "Momentum Institute analyses Basic Income / Unconditional Autonomy Allowance: « Living income for free and egalitarian societies »"
  8. 8.0 8.1 - Hickel et al. (2022) writing for Nature.
  9. "Humans have already used up 2015's supply of Earth's resources – analysis" - The Guardian. Published Aug. 12, 2015.
  10. Exhaustion of cheap mineral resources is terraforming Earth – scientific report - The Guardian. Published June 4, 2014.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Hickel, J. (2019). "Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance." Real-World Economics Review 87 (19), 54-68.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Mark., Koyama, (2022). How the world became rich : the historical origins of economic growth. Polity Press. ISBN 978-1-5095-4022-8. OCLC 1337820056. 
  13. 13.00 13.01 13.02 13.03 13.04 13.05 13.06 13.07 13.08 13.09 13.10 13.11 13.12 13.13 Hickel, J. (2021). Less is more: How degrowth will save the world. Windmill Books. Available at Amazon here.
  14. "Sanitation" - World Health Organization
  15. McIntyre L. C. (2019). The scientific attitude: defending science from denial fraud and pseudoscience. MIT Press. Available at Amazon [here.
  17. "Is infinite economic growth possible on a finite planet?". 2021-11-09.