What is degrowth?

There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what degrowth is, so a very quick overview, because it may be the most important economic idea of this century.

Degrowth is not about giving up technology and comfort. It does not aim at getting rid of cars, computers, AC, internet, electricity, etc. Degrowth is based on the idea that in a world of finite resources, it is delusional to think that we can grow our economies infinitely.

Economies centered around the production & sale of ever more goods and services (which is what “growth” is) are inherently unsustainable. Degrowth holds that to preserve our environment, we must produce and consume less. Instead of making cheap, low-quality goods that are discarded within a few months or years, we should make goods that are repairable and can last decades, and that can be truly recycled (not the kind we currently call “recycling”). Yes, manufacturing those goods would be more expensive, it would take more time and engineering. But that's the point: we need to take the time to build goods that are high quality and durable.

A concrete example: 1.5 billion smartphones are sold around the world every year. Each of those 1.5 billion devices require a huge amount of minerals and raw material. This material is extracted from the earth, transported thousands of miles to factories. The manufacturing process itself of turning this raw material into parts requires huge amounts of energy. These parts are then transported to other facilities to be assembled, often in a different country. And the finished product, once assembled, is yet again transported to the store or warehouse where it will sold, often half way across the planet. This entire process for 1.5 billion devices per year is an environmental disaster.

Yet, growth-based economics holds that we should continue to grow this number and sell ever more smartphones: we should encourage people to change smartphone more often, seduce them with new, shiny features and capabilities, and push those who hold back to get a smartphone to get a smartphone. Or alternatively, if the market is “saturated”, we should create new industries that will similarly produce and sell billions of other devices, to ensure we continue to grow. That's of course an absurd logic, completely disconnected from the material and environmental reality we live in.

Degrowth doesn't hold we should get rid of smartphones altogether. It holds that it's ridiculous and evidently unsustainable to have the production and sale of smartphones be an end in itself. Instead, degrowth holds that we should produce more ethically and make smartphones that can last far longer.

This really is not a far-fetched, unattainable utopia. On average, people change phone every 2.5 years. If we 1) discouraged people from changing this often and 2) made phones that can be upgraded and repaired, we could keep phones up to 10 years and drastically reduce our environmental footprint.

Apply the same idea to all the goods we produce—cars, clothes, electronics, home appliances, furniture—and the result is economies that are far smaller (that is, that have lower GDPs) but that are far more sustainable, all the while keeping the comfort and convenience of modern life.

This is just a small example of what degrowth can look like. Degrowth also looks at producing things locally and building “commons” so we can better share what we produce, rather than have an atomized, individualistic society where we all own the exact same goods, but use them less than 5% of the time.

Degrowth aims at moving from consumption-based economies to needs-based economies: we shouldn't produce just to produce, just to “grow” our economy or “create jobs”; we should produce to respond to our real-life wants and needs, and better allocate what we produce. And that production should be sustainable.

That's all degrowth is.