The ideas of degrowth and steady-state have been around in the fringes of economics for a while. Their key arguments are
1. The mainstream economic pursuit of continuous/infinite growth on a planet with finite resources can only result in the collapse of our civilization, sooner or later.
2. We should consciously degrow or at least maintain a steady state and distribute economic goodies more effectively to avoid collapse
Is degrowth possible?
We have been pursuing economic growth, individually & collectively, for ages. But, it has gained exponential proportions in the last century. Nations, businesses, communities, & individuals pursue growth as a primary goal. Nations pursue GDP growth. Businesses pursue revenue & profit growth. Communities pursue growth in quality of life. Individuals pursue income growth. Collectively, we produce & consume more. We desire, need, & want more. Not less.
Encouraged by many scientific advancements & technological innovations, we also believe that ‘growth’ and ‘more’ are not only possible, but are also the best ways to solve big problems. Nations believe growth can lift more people out of poverty, hunger & disease. Businesses believe growth can create more food, houses, medicines, entertainment, comforts, luxuries etc. for all. Communities believe growth can continuously improve their quality of life. Individuals believe growth can make them more healthy & happy.
The mainstream argument is that growth is natural/inevitable and human ingenuity will find ways to manage growth effectively, efficiently and responsibly. Problems created by growth can be solved by more growth. All inequalities created by skewed economic growth in certain pockets can be solved by more GDP growth, the fruits of which can be efficiently distributed to more deserving people by responsible governments & other institutions. Big problems such as pollution & climate change, which were largely fuelled by modern industrial growth, can also be solved by more investments and growth in our scientific and technological prowess.
The degrowth & steady-state ideas are keen to dislodge this mainstream growth idea to save the planet. Is that possible?
Growth happens because we have needs & wants, which keep growing. As long as we are swayed by our desires, fears, greeds, & envies, growth is bound to happen. As long as we struggle to exercise collective self-control, growth will happen. Few individuals voluntarily suppressing their needs & wants cannot help contain growth. Collective suppression of desires, needs & wants, at community, national & global levels, might be possible temporarily through coercive measures, but cannot be sustained. Is a planet-wide change in human thought & behaviour towards growth possible?
And growth, by its very nature, will have unexpected and unhappy side-effects. Growth comes with costs. Collateral damages cannot be avoided. Human ingenuity which makes possible faster growth will also make possible greater disasters. Even if we solve great threats like cancer & climate change, future growth will result in other yet unknown challenges. Our innate natural desires, fears, greeds & hopes will make us ride the growth roller-coaster for as long as possible, till collapse.
Won’t saviours appear to reform us? Won’t wars & revolutions save us? Won’t science & technology help us?
Human nature & behaviour has remained remarkably consistent throughout known history. Some big events may divert us for a while. But we get back on course soon. We cannot help but desire & grow. We may wade through civilisational collapses, but our desire to grow will not collapse.
Degrowth will remain a fringe idea, despite the better intentions of a few.