This story was originally published by Undark and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The global conversation about climate change has revolved largely around a single, misguided idea: that we can replace carbon-intensive technologies with cleaner ones and reach the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions without fundamentally altering our economy. In other words, that we can achieve, and indefinitely maintain, green growth.

But a competing narrative argues that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible and that even supposedly green technologies will perpetuate the extraction of natural resources and the destruction of the natural environment. Even if these technologies help us mitigate climate change to an extent, they might backfire, for example, by disrupting biodiversity. In this narrative, the underlying problem lies not in the so-called cleanliness of our technologies but in our compulsion to keep growing our economies.

Proponents of this second view argue that to preserve the planet, we must reduce our consumption of resources, a strategy that has come to be known as degrowth. This approach calls for us to shrink parts of our economy and to move away from measures such as gross domestic product as indicators of economic health.

Many scientists, politicians, and commentators have disparaged degrowth as unrealistic and asserted that there simply isn’t enough political will to pursue it. We must act on climate now, they say, and we must act within the parameters of our current economic system. There is no time for a revolution.

This, arguably defeatist, perspective is in part the result of a misunderstanding of what degrowth really stands for. Degrowth doesn’t imply a radical decline in living standards, as some commentators have suggested, nor does it mean that poor people would become even poorer. This is because degrowth calls not only for reducing the extraction of resources but also for distributing those resources more equitably. Neither does degrowth mean that all sectors of the economy would shrink; sectors less dependent on resource extraction, such as education and health care, could keep expanding.

But even more importantly, degrowth is too often portrayed merely as an economic idea when it is, in fact, just as much a cultural notion. The culture of degrowth calls for us to view ourselves as stewards of the planet. It pushes us to recognize that our relationship with the natural environment is a two-way street — that we must take care of nature if we want nature to take care of us. And it calls for us to respect our planet’s limits, to look out for other species, and to recognize that our own fate is tied up with the health of the ecosystems we inhabit.

A culture of degrowth sees justice as intergenerational and respects the rights of the world’s future inhabitants.

What would it take for society to embrace degrowth as a new cultural paradigm?

Opinion: A culture of #degrowth sees justice as intergenerational and respects the rights of the world’s future inhabitants, writes environmental anthropologist Peter Sutoris. #ClimateChange

We can start by questioning the underlying ideologies that have enabled our economic system for decades, including extractivism, the idea that the Earth is ours to exploit, and speciesism, the idea that human beings are morally superior to all other species, which fuels the widespread belief that non-human species are essentially disposable. At the same time, we must beware of ageism, the idea that adults know best. Children’s imaginations of alternative worlds and futures will be essential in creating a cultural shift. Why not start publishing children’s writings and drawings on the opinion pages of major newspapers?

A key step is for our culture’s gatekeepers — curators, editors, artists, influencers — to diversify the conversation about climate solutions beyond clean technology and decarbonization. Journalists, editors, and commentators, in particular, carry tremendous power to set the cultural agenda, especially in the world’s more democratic countries. It is time they use it.

It’s worth remembering, for example, that our current global system of infinite growth didn’t emerge by chance. It was partly an outgrowth of cultural forces that took hold in the post-Second World War era: a revolution in advertising, media coverage that stressed the benefits of capitalism and globalization, and a drumbeat of Hollywood films depicting material wealth as the symbol of success.

Similar forces could be marshalled to drive a cultural shift toward degrowth.

Take the arts and entertainment. The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argued in his 2016 book The Great Derangement that climate change was conspicuously absent from works of fiction. Yet today, climate and the environment remain mostly in the domain of non-fiction. With a few notable exceptions — such as Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees — best-selling novels and blockbuster movies of recent years have hardly engaged the question of our relationship with nature.

Education is another space that shapes culture. Many of the world’s education systems are currently focused on churning out productive workers who can keep the infinite-growth economy spinning. Even at so-called elite educational institutions, critical thinking too often equates with problem-solving for infinite growth. Our education systems — currently preoccupied with STEM subjects and with imparting technology skills demanded by corporate employers — must place greater emphasis on creativity, imagination, and political engagement. We need to be able to imagine alternative futures before we can bring them into being, and degrowth is no exception.

An objection I often hear when I speak about the culture of degrowth is that cultural change takes time, and we are out of time when it comes to climate change. Yet, history teaches us that rapid cultural and political change is possible. Just take the impacts of social movements like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter that manifested within months, if not weeks. Skeptics may be right that imposing degrowth policies from above is unlikely to work, but that doesn’t mean degrowth is impossible — it just means that the demand needs to come from below.

But is it realistic to expect that a critical mass of people might come to support degrowth? After all, our mainstream economic theory claims that people act rationally when they act in their self-interest. And acting in our self-interest often means accumulating wealth, which fuels infinite growth.

But it is no coincidence that our hearts break when we see environmental devastation firsthand or that we are more likely to give up meat if we witness the conditions in which livestock are kept. Appreciation for natural beauty, compassion for other living beings, and a concern for the fate of humanity’s future generations are as much ingrained in us as self-interest, even if our culture of infinite growth has blinded us somewhat to these traits.

Ultimately, degrowth is inevitable. We will either choose this path voluntarily, or we will be forced into it violently and uncontrollably as a result of environmental disasters. If we want to prevent the suffering and tragedies that accompany such drastic shifts, we must bring about a culture of degrowth. And where the cultural winds blow, the political winds will follow.

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Oh. My. God.
Are they anti-maskers too? I couldn't bear to read long enough to find out.

I know! Quite possibly many are anti-maskers, I mean theirs is an alternate reality, and there is this common "suite" of stupidity with believers.
And if you believe THAT, it's not far to leap into all KINDS of other magical thinking. At this point, the U.S. is on the verge of being a theocracy as much as a democracy.

I wonder how many children the author has raised, or spent any amount of time with.
All blessings on the young folk who are pushing for climate change action. Some are doing it because if nothing's done, they won't have a very nice life. Others are doing it because, well, it's the zeitgeist of those in the social sphere of their generation.
Children, by and large, lack the particular kind of creativity needed to solve our problems, and that is the kind applied to fact and data. There are a small proportion who are willing to take less and have less so that others with less can have enough: probably about the same proportion as that of their parents similarly inclined.
"Everyone" seems to be able to see their own situation, and that of people in their social and economic milieu, and hold fast to the belief that they have a right to what they have, and in fact, more than what they have. This idea of degrowth hinges on Someone Else investing their time and effort into bettering the situation, but everyone's convinced that because the opportunity is there, and someone else is doing it, that they should have the latest vehicles, tech gizmos, travel and other "experiences" ...
Everyone (and their dog: big carnivores, btw, whose urine burns plants and whose poop harbors pathogens, and causes emissions). That goes double for "rescue dogs" especially those that were slated to be part of the food supply, and were transported by air all the way here. There are more dogs than households in my neighbourhood, with a goodly proportion of owners not terribly neighbourly about their animals' behaviours. I sometimes ask if they are neutered: only rarely is the answer yes.
Most of the idea of "degrowth" amounts to forcing ever more density on already unhealthily dense urban centres (lots of ppl living on large rural properties are ready to prescribe "building up" and an ever larger proportion of residential areas being given up to new builds. To the extent that I've had it pointed out to me that I could give up part of my 20' X 40' lot to more housing, or that I should "move on" and let someone else live here, "because a senior doesn't need a house." But then it is popular to diss boomers, without regard to their lifestyle, income or past behaviours, as "their generation" "caused this mess." If they looked at all the facts, they might be surpised to find that a big proportion of that generation, too, didn't exactly have a particularly coddled journey, or wind up on Easy Street, and yet many of them behaved highly responsibly vis a vis their communities, the climate, etc.

I do not think it beside the point to insist the "overly rich" should pay their fair share for a change, and make do with the benefits those at the bottom of the ladder have. As though that will ever happen.

Unfortunately, institutions of higher learning are now largely funded by corporations run by such, and politicians likewise.

And that's why we wind up getting screwed over, every time.

I favour degrowth. But I find that people who talk about degrowth often don't seem to actually understand the implications of what they're saying. This article, for instance, is largely blather and fundamentally misunderstands where "infinite growth" comes from.

You can talk culture all you want, but we have a political economic system which arranges how resources are allocated. That system is based around capitalism and money. The capitalism involved is controlled by a relatively small elite of capitalists and of politicians those capitalists pay for the allegiance of. But even that elite makes decisions within a particular systemic setup. So for instance, if Jeff Bezos suddenly becomes a good man and decides to apply "degrowth" principles to Amazon, other businesses will expand into Amazon's space. They will grow while Amazon does not, their worthless CEOs will acquire more money and influence while Amazon's does not, evil hedge funds will invest in them rather than Amazon. The system overall will continue endless growth. A cultural shift will not in itself change anything about the way this works, any more than Black Lives Matter has changed anything about the way policing works.

The capitalist system is based on endless growth and has been since the beginnings, like 1600s or so, not since post-World-War-II as the article claims. The basis of capitalism is investment of money, CAPITAL, to make a PROFIT, which then becomes increased capital and is reinvested to make MORE profit. That's growth. And it's based on competition between people doing that, which means that the highest growth wins. If you want degrowth you cannot do it by fiddling around with culture, although a cultural shift would help get people to do what is really required: Ending capitalism, and replacing it with a system not based around investment and profit. If you are not willing to go there, you are not actually in favour of degrowth and should just shut up about it.

The "radical" degrowth movement (don't know what else to call it) rejects renewables outright. Degrowthers repeat many of the renewables myths recycled endlessly by fossil fuel boosters. Opposition to renewables merely perpetuates fossil fuels and hastens climate disaster:

"At present there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels."
"The modern world is deeply addicted to fossil fuels and green energy is no substitute."
"Despite the hype about the green energy revolution and enhanced efficiency, the global community in 2019 remains addicted to fossil energy and no real cure is on the horizon."
(Retired population ecologist Prof. William Rees)

Radical degrowthers call themselves "realists".
“I'm neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a realist."
OK, so what do the "realists" suggest?
"Yes, reducing fossil fuel spending means communities will have to rely on human muscle and community energy to get many things done. Agriculture will have to revert towards a human and animal enterprise instead of an industrial mining machine. Small farms may employ a third of the population."
(Andrew Nikiforuk)

Retired population ecologist Prof. William Rees (frequently cited by Nikiforuk) proposes schemes ranging from the not remotely possible to the unworkable on a time-scale relevant to addressing climate change:
- "The inevitable conclusion: In the absence of abundant cheap portable energy, it will not be possible to provision large cities and megacities. Many urban populations will have to be dispersed and redistributed.
- "Allocate any remaining carbon budget (there may be none) to absolutely essential uses in agriculture and transportation. Invest in truly renewable energy sources: mechanical wind and water power; managed biomass, and in technologies making efficient use of human and animal labour.
- "Facilitate breeding programs to supply the draft horses and mules that will be needed to work the land, particularly in agriculture, as fossil-fuelled technologies are phased out."
"To Save Ourselves, We’ll Need This Very Different Economy"
No, we are not returning to an agrarian society powered by donkeys. Not now and not ever. Cities are going to get bigger, not smaller. Deal with it.
We all know this is not going to happen. What is the point of talking about it?

Prof. Rees' water mills and draft mules and burning wood (pollution?) are not going to get us far. His degrowth plan has zero chance of being implemented. As he has previously admitted:
"What? A deliberate contraction? That's not going to happen!" I hear you say. And you are probably correct. It should by now be clear that H. sapiens is not primarily a rational species."
Memo from a Climate Crisis Realist: The Choice before Us

The climate "realists" are not very realistic. The sources they rely on to buttress their extreme views on renewables are not remotely credible.
Pundits who propose unrealistic and unworkable solutions are effectively advocating inaction, which leads inevitably to failure. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even in Rees' one-planet-Earth-footprint world, we are still going to need energy. Where do we get it from? From fossil fuels — or from energy systems with a smaller footprint that do not fry the planet?
If not renewables, then what?
"None of the above" is not a realistic answer.
No sensible environmentalist claims electrification via renewables is the entire solution. Just one part of the puzzle. But it is the best available path to limiting dangerous climate change over the next three decades. Either that or nothing. No other solution, not even nuclear, is workable on a relevant time-scale. Proposing impractical or impossible solutions like overthrowing capitalism, abandoning our cities, or reducing population by 80% amounts to preaching inaction.

Improbable degrowth schemes and attacks on renewables make climate action less likely, not more. The proximate cause of AGW is fossil fuel combustion, not overshoot. The immediate solution is to stop burning fossil fuels. By the time we get around to the degrowth agenda, it will be far too late to prevent dangerous climate change.
In the long run, we must solve overshoot on every front if our species — and others — is to have a future. But if degrowthers insist on solving overshoot before we halt GHG emissions, we shall quickly drive over the climate cliff without solving either.
Our house is on fire. First priority: put out the fire.

Very important article. Dr. Peter Victor, an economist and York University Environmental Studies professor outlines the de-growth direction in his book, Managing without Growth: Slower by Design which outlines a number of costed scenarios on how this can be achieved. Dr. Victor also just released a book on American economist, Herman Daley who was the forefront of this work in the 1970s forward with his work on steady-state economics. Dr. Victor will be speaking at the Sources of Knowledge Forum in Tobermory, Ontario on May 1, 2022.