As the coronavirus pandemic grows, it brings a secondary, economic disaster—unemployment, small business closings, local government budget shortfalls. Given the way our economy is structured, widespread job losses and plummeting consumer demand trigger a whole lot of suffering. But, as philosopher Barbara Muraca explained in 2013, the activist and scholarly movement known as degrowth is building a vision of a society where economies would get smaller by design—and people would be better off for it.
Muraca traces the start of the degrowth movement to the 1972 publication of Limits to Growth, an influential report by the Club of Rome. The report presented an ecological argument—that humans were unsustainably consuming the Earth’s resources. In the years that followed, French scholars expanded the argument into social and psychological realms. They critiqued the central role of constant growth in modern western societies. By the early 2000s, degrowth had come to include criticism of wealthy countries’ advocacy of “Western-style” growth-oriented economies in the Global South. For example, some degrowth writers embrace the struggles of indigenous people in Ecuador and Bolivia to achieve a constitutional right to a “buen vivir”—a concept of community-level well-being rooted in economic and cultural relationships with local ecological systems.
When it comes to what an ideal degrowth society would look like, the writers Muraca cites are not a unified bloc. Some focus on small-scale democracy and economic activity, such as local food systems. Others envision the centrally planned production and distribution of a minimal set of goods to satisfy everyone’s basic needs. Some degrowth thinkers have also advocated universal basic income or jobs guarantees as ways to provide for people’s basic necessities while reducing overall economic activity and resource use.
Whatever the specifics, degrowth is a radical idea. But it’s gotten increasing traction among activists and scholars in rich countries, particularly since the worldwide recession in 2008. Given the need to reduce carbon emissions to lessen the impacts of climate change, curbing material consumption in rich places seems to many like a necessary goal.
The coronavirus crisis previews another aspect of climate change. Ecological disruption now underway will bring new pandemics, as well as massive storms and other disasters. Degrowth’s focus on producing basic necessities for all within a stable, democratic framework could represent a way of protecting people from the devastation that job losses caused by these external shocks represent in our current system.
In fact, many countries’ leaders are already adopting policies like (short-term) universal basic income that they would usually dismiss as too likely to discourage paid work and economic growth. These are emergency measures that may be unsustainable in the long term, at least in the particular ways they’re being structured. But they might offer a clue to ways that we could retool our economies to become more resilient in the face of climate change, ecological destruction, and the new disasters still to come.