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Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. on ‘Defund the Economy’ – ‘The marvelous, muddled mess that is ‘degrowth’

It has become fashionable over the past decade to promote the idea of “degrowth” — or if you wish to sound smart at a dinner party, décroissance. On Monday, Nature published a call to “degrowth,” claiming that “degrowth can work” and “wealthy countries can create prosperity while using less materials and energy if they abandon economic growth as an objective.”

As they say — Big, if true.

Let’s start with what “degrowth” actually means. Here, there is a lot of confusion, not least among advocates of degrowth. The Nature article this week leads with a policy objective: “Wealthy economies should abandon growth of gross domestic product (GDP) as a goal . . . “. But elsewhere, in an article titled “What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification” the lead author of this week’s Nature commentary explains:

It is important to clarify that degrowth is not about reducing GDP, but rather about reducing throughput.

If the central concept of your economic theory requires an entire paper to clarify that it doesn’t mean what you think it means, you might rethink the concept. But I digress.

So “degrowth” — which literally in the English language means reducing growth — may not actually mean reducing growth. In fact, “degrowth” according to another clarification might not have anything at all to do with GDP: “Degrowth is about reorganizing the economy to meet people’s needs regardless of what happens with GDP.” Still others explain that “degrowth” simply means getting more from less — which actually is the definition of “growth.”

Twitter avatar for @mattyglesias

Matthew Yglesias @mattyglesias
This is how growth works is the thing

One might be forgiven for thinking that “degrowth” — and by that, I mean, décroissance — might just be a code word for elite snobbishness. Consider that the sorts of activities that have been judged unnecessary in human society by degrowthers include many that are central to the American middle class.

Advocates of degrowth have explained what they envision in examples of societies that have degrown:

[D]egrowth brings together diverse ideas about, and examples of, non-growing economies. Overgrown societies can learn from Indigenous peoples, peasant societies, ancient civilizations, our grandparents, the poor, and other movements from the tapestry of alternatives.

While there is a lot to unpack here, I’ll just pick out “grandparents” from the above list and recommend that everyone drop everything and watch Hans Rosling below on his grandmother and the “magic washing machine” — some lessons to be learned there for sure:

Long-time readers and followers will well know that the notion of “degrowth” (however defined) runs right into what I have called the “iron law of climate policy.” That’s the main reason that I haven’t devoted much energy to the topic. “Degrowth” is a perfect issue for classroom discussions, but it sits far outside the Kuiper Belt when it comes to policy relevance. You can read my most recent piece of this topic (2011) here. My views have not changed.

It seems clear that everyone acknowledges that degrowth is not politically popular. No politician has gained office (that I am aware of) anywhere in the world on a platform of degrowth. Indeed, as the Nature commentary observes this week:

[P]olitical parties that have put forward degrowth ideas have received limited support in elections. That begs the question: where would the drive for degrowth policy come from?

It is a good question.

I’m all for discussions of increasing social justice, greater income equality (and other types of equality), accelerating decarbonization, increasing the dematerialization of human activity, protecting biodiversity, eliminating poverty and more. These are incredibly important policy aims. After spending the past two weeks in South Africa I am even more aware of them.

Such discussions are of critical importance. Let’s not be distracted by a slogan.