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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 published in 1972, 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 in part follows from 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 the 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 of, 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] This is openly acknowledged by the IPCC and the Paris climate agreement as unobtainable.


According to a report released by the World Health Organization, if policymakers didn't have a "pathological obsession" with GDP, more would be available to spend on healthcare.[12] Healthcare does not contribute to GDP spending in the same way that military spending does, however.[13] Many degrowth scholars argue that the current system can cause psychological and physical damage to people and that social prosperity should be measured by only well-being and not GDP.


See the main article on this topic: feminism

Feminist criticisms of growth include that GDP measurements exclude unpaid labor such as care work or reproductive labor.[14] Socialist feminist criticisms of growth include that growth relies on the exploitation of female labor.[15]:21

Feminists propose a reduction in work-time,[16] or a redistribution in care labor to more adequately account for gender imbalances in growth models.[17]

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.[18]: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.[19] 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 quality of life measures and outcomes; and that countries with the highest GDPs tend to have the highest quality of life regardless of the quality of their healthcare.[19]

Another criticism towards this narrative is the claim 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”.[19] Of course, if you are inclined to see these as isolated events, and not as ongoing issues, then you may argue that this does not account for the fact that most of the economic growth happened after these “events”, in fact, within the XXth century. As economist Oded Galor puts it describing periods of remarkably significant growth:

Between 1870 and 2018, worldwide average income per capita surged by a previously inconceivable factor of 10.2 to $15,212 a year. Income per capita in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand rose by a factor of 11.6 to $53,756 a year; in Western Europe it rose by a factor of 12.1 to $39,790 a year; in Latin America, by a factor of 10.7 to $14,076 a year; in East Asia, by a factor of 16.5 to $16,327 a year; in Africa, while this improvement had been significantly smaller, income per capita still rose by a factor of 4.4 to $3,532 a year.[20]:111

This sort of response (not Galor’s per se) is partially based in a strawman fallacy. Of course the simple objection to this is that the on-going colonization of India; the extraction of natural resources from indigenous communities within the Americas, Africa, and Asia; and the various famines in reference did not “stop” before 1870. Ignorant still considering the Bengal famine of 1943,Wikipedia which notably occurred in the XXth century. It is important to stress that neither Hickel, or other post-colonial critics are actually tying this phenomena as a direct consequence of economic growth itself. Rather, the argument being made is how the advent of capitalism and its subsequent development which measures its sustainability on the basis of growth required these atrocities to begin with.

The argument in general also ignores the degree to which indigenous genocide as considered was ongoing up into the 1990’s, if we are willing to cast the Canadian residential schoolsWikipedia as examples of cultural genocide. There also a sort of pre-supposition that the negative effects of slavery ended with its abolition in the United States. A complicit denial of generational traumaWikipedia and subsequent sociological effects that developed out of slavery in the form of systematic racism.Wikipedia

As stated earlier, a problem with many studies citing causal interaction between GDP and Quality of Life measurements is the fact that they don’t account for the influence of public utilities like sanitation.[19] 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.[19]

While it's true that nations with higher incomes generally have better life expectancies than poorer nations, this isn't, as, at least according to Hickel, 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.[19]

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.[19] Hickel points out that, excluding sanitation, the most significant impactor on life expectancy rates is "access to universal healthcare, including child vaccination."[19] After that, it's access to education, especially women's education. "The more you learn, the longer you live."[19]

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 that 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 be 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 simple fact that a 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]

Growth leading to technological innovations, and carbon decoupling[edit]

An argument used against degrowth is that technological innovation will lead to ways to produce more while using fewer resources.[21] 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.[18]:5 Additionally, economic growth also results in more resources to combat environmental problems. For instance, a growing GDP means that the society will be able to combat deforestation better.[18]:225 Furthermore, there's evidence that poorer regions might pollute even more than rich regions. A region with 50 million people and an income of $10,000 per capita emits significantly more carbon than a region with 10 million people and an income of $50,000 per capita, despite the fact that the two regions have precisely the same aggregate income. This argument essentially being, we should strive for more, not less growth to tackle climate change.[20]:117

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] Ignoring that detail, the case made above would be example of the notion of "environmental decoupling" which is the notion that environmental impact and/or resource consumption can be reduced alongside economic growth as measured by GDP.

A literature review authored by Vadén, et al. (2020), and published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, included 179 articles published between 1990 - 2019, and concluded there was a lack of robust evidence for international and absolute resource-decoupling from economic growth. [22] The vast majority of the studies looking at environmental decoupling did so on the basis of studying relative decoupling, and not absolute decoupling. Most of the studies that did look at absolute decoupling did not look at resource decoupling, but impact decoupling; and only a small minority of those studies even looked at decoupling on economy-wide or national scales. [22] The studies that did look at economy wide or national scales only did so measuring relative decoupling. Such results lead the authors to conclude....

"The research literature in our review tells of the historical situation up to date, and the evidence does not suggest that decoupling towards ecological sustainability is happening at a global (or even regional) scale. The literature finds evidence of impact decoupling, especially between GHG emissions (such as COX and SOX emissions) in wealthy countries for certain periods of time, but not of economy-wide resource decoupling, least of all on the international and global scale." - p.243 [22]

The authors also suggest that the appeals to the existing evidence that show relative decoupling within particular nations can be misleading, given the environmental impact or resources consumption overall can still increase globally and absolutely with the rise of GDP.[22] This may be due to the dependence that many industrialized nations have on developing nations to produce their products. If the resource consumption is not happening within the national boundaries but outsourced to another country it can look as if GDP rises as resource consumption falls, when in actuality, it is not.

Their articles ends with the following passage...

“In view of this, it seems that the claim that the economy can grow while at the same time the “environmental bads” diminish needs further support from sources other than empirical research literature. The claim needs to be supported by detailed and concrete plans of structural change that delineate how the future will be different from the past. Otherwise the onus of the claim will rest on the abstract possibility of decoupling; an abstract possibility that no empirical evidence can disprove but that in the absence of robust empirical evidence or detailed and concrete plans rests, in part, on faith." - p.243.[22]

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. Valuing Health for All: Rethinking and building a whole-of-society approach - The WHO Council on the Economics of Health for all - Council Brief No. 3[a w]World Health Organization
  13. Are there limits to economic growth? It’s time to call time on a 50-year argument[a w]Nature
  14. Waring, Marilyn (1989). If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-49262-5.
  15. Fraser, Nancy (2017). Crisis of Care? On the Social-Reproductive Contradictions of Contemporary Capitalism. In: Bhattacharya, Tithi. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.
  16. Kallis, Giorgos (2018). Degrowth. Agenda Publishing. ISBN 978-1-911116-79-0.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Mark., Koyama, (2022). How the world became rich : the historical origins of economic growth. Polity Press. ISBN 978-1-5095-4022-8. OCLC 1337820056. 
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 19.6 19.7 19.8 Hickel, J. (2021). Less is more: How degrowth will save the world. Windmill Books. Available at Amazon here.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Galor, Oded (2022). The Journey of humanity: the origins of wealth and inequality. United States: Dutton. ISBN 978-0-593-18599-5. 
  21. "Is infinite economic growth possible on a finite planet?". 2021-11-09. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 T. Vadén, V. Lähde, A. Majava, P. Järvensivu, T. Toivanen, E. Hakala, J.T. Eronen, Decoupling for ecological sustainability: A categorisation and review of research literature, Environmental Science & Policy,Volume 112, 2020,Pages 236-244, ISSN 1462-9011,