A degrowth economy in a post-pandemic world
Today, June 6, is Global Degrowth Day, an annual celebration to make the public aware of the value of an economy that is not addicted to GDP growth and geared toward degrowth.
Activists, academics, and other supporters of the degrowth movement have been celebrating this day since 2013. Degrowth came from the French word “decroissance,” and it refers to a river going back to its normal flow after a disastrous flood.
The degrowth movement aims for a good life for all that is not hinged on a growth-based economy. This includes deceleration, time welfare, and conviviality. Among its main principles are a reduction of production and consumption in the global north and a liberation from the one-sided Western capitalist paradigm of development. Achieving these will allow citizens to exercise agency in charting their own collective pathways. These are in contrast with mainstream economic principles of capital accumulation and productivity, the two obsessions of capitalist modernity.
The advent of neoliberalism has brought more sophisticated ways of ramping up economic growth. Through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s policies of structural adjustments, and state co-optation due to corporate greed as manifested in deregulation, privatization, and economic liberalization policies, we have become witnesses to the encroachment of commodities and capital in our everyday lives, while the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit.
The lockdowns imposed by countries affected by COVID-19 have seen a massive reduction in daily economic activities. It has already caused the loss of countless jobs and affected the livelihoods of people around the world. While the planet is “breathing” somewhat at last and pollution levels have been reduced, the present unplanned and chaotic downscaling of economic activity is not degrowth.
Instead, it is an example of why degrowth is needed. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is this: the fragility of the current model of neoliberal development with its focus on false targets (growth) instead of public services like health care, its massive inequalities, and its unsustainability. Moving forward, we cannot rely on business as usual anymore. We must rethink the way we conceive of our economies.
Given the cracks of neoliberalism that the pandemic has exposed, the extent of our ecological overshoot, and the fact that the poorest countries still need room to adjust their economies to allow millions of people to attain a dignified level of existence, a post-pandemic scenario will require industrialized nations and upper classes everywhere to radically downscale their resource and energy demands.
Together with more than 170 academics based in The Netherlands, we are calling for five key areas of policy intervention in a post-COVID-19 world: First, we need to focus on human needs, not GDP growth. We need to differentiate between sectors that can increase and need investment, and sectors that need to radically degrow due to their fundamental unsustainability or their role in driving unnecessary consumption.
Second, post-COVID-19 prosperity does not require a general increase in wealth, but the better distribution of that wealth. We need an economic framework that establishes a basic universal income and a strong progressive taxation of income, profits, and wealth. We need to recognize care work and essential public services such as health and education for their intrinsic value.
Third, we need a transformation toward regenerative agriculture based on biodiversity conservation, sustainable and mostly local and vegetarian food production, as well as fair agricultural employment conditions and wages.
Fourth, we need to reduce consumption, including that of travel. We need a drastic shift from luxury and wasteful consumption to basic, necessary, sustainable, and satisfying consumption and travel. We need to reorganize around a new conception of the “good life” and rethink what is important in our communities.
Lastly, we need to cancel debts (both from richer countries and international financial institutions), especially for workers and small business owners and for countries in the global south.
This pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to chart a more just, inclusive, and sustainable COVID-19 recovery. It is the alternative to the current ways of thinking—a degrowth-based economy that will usher us toward creating open, connected, and localized economies based on solidarity.
Jed Alegado teaches post-graduate courses at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government (ASoG) in the Philippines. Julien-François Gerber is an assistant professor at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands.
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