Skip to main content

Topic / Environment and Energy

Growing Beyond Growth: Can We Really Have It All?

As the climate emergency heightens, the once fringe idea of degrowth is gaining ground, paving the way for a course correction.

How does “code red” sound? Probably bad. What about “a ticking time bomb?”  Probably worse. And when used together? It’s certainly a serious problem. While this framing might seem sensational, it’s precisely how the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General characterized the recent (prior to the climate COP in UAE in December 2023) reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighting the state of the climate.1, 2 It clearly articulates the ongoing ‘triple environmental crises’ — greenhouse gas emissions surpassing Paris Agreement limits, biodiversity loss verging on mass extinction, and pollution claiming more lives than ever.3 We have now transgressed six of the nine planetary boundaries. There’s no panacea to our climate woes, but degrowing may be one solution.

Figure 1. The Evolution of the Planetary Boundaries Framework

Source: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.

Ironically enough, the way to “outgrow” this predicament might be to “degrow.” From the undercurrents of politics, academia, and advocacy, the long-overlooked idea of “degrowth” is finally surfacing. Originating in 1970s France and challenging the prevailing paradigm of “growth for the sake of growth,” it instead calls to assess the need, quality, and direction of this growth. It envisions the coexistence of economic prosperity, human well-being, and environmental sustainability. It argues that we can do more with less and calls for preserving the world’s dwindling resources by shrinking rather than growing the economy. In technical language, “reducing material and energy throughput.”

This paradigm places the environment as an integral element of the economy and not an inconvenient externality, thus contending that we must live within our means, economic and ecological alike. As balancing economic deficits is conventional wisdom, addressing ecological deficits should be equally imperative. Consider Earth Overshoot Day, symbolic of our resource consumption surpassing the planet’s annual capacity, like a natural resource budget. In 1972, we breached it in December; this year, we will do so in July.4 This comparison underscores the urgent need to recalibrate our approach to natural resource utilization.

Figure 2. Earth Overshoot Day, 1971-2023

Source: National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts, 2023

Increasingly, degrowth is gaining resonance across the mainstream spectrum. Avenues like Foreign Policy, Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, the World Economic Forum, Vox, and Nature have highlighted its conceptual merit, emphasizing the need to take it seriously. So has the Indian Council on Foreign Relations, an anomaly for a transitioning economy leaning on growth to meet its global ambitions.5

Theorists have articulated many versions of a degrowth economy and continue to debate the means to get there. While some suggest planned GDP reduction, the more prudent approach for enabling this transition focuses on diversifying our measures of progress by prioritizing indicators that simultaneously focus on human well-being and environmental health. Our current obsession with GDP perpetuates an irresponsible and dangerous worldview agnostic to quality of life (wellbeing) — where pollution, disasters, and war are considered gains because of increased economic activity, and leisure time is seen as a negative. Governments around the world understand this fallacy and, in 2012, agreed at the UN Rio+20 Summit to explore “measures of progress beyond GDP.”6

For example, the Happy Planet Index assesses human development vis-à-vis ecological footprint.7 Essentially, it is how efficiently a country creates human wellbeing given its natural resource consumption. Such a focus would change the parameters of governments’ success, reorienting priorities and reallocating resources away from solely GDP maximizing activities that perpetuate the climate crises, and towards those that enhance wellbeing. The primary headline would not be trends in GDP numbers but how much wellbeing is created and at what cost (environmental and economic). This includes incentives and regulations for shorter work weeks, quality fashion over fast fashion, reduced single-use materials, less planned obsolescence, and more renewables in the energy mix. While these are complex issues, they will only be more accessible within a degrowth paradigm.

Figure 3. Happy Planet Index of Regions, 2006-2019

Source: Happy Planet Index

As with any policy, the many dimensions of degrowth warrant due discussion. Critics believe it is a slippery slope into the stone age. However, degrowth is not about living in the past but recalibrating for the future by growing the good and degrowing the bad. Techno-optimism and well-reasoned skepticism highlights alternatives like “green growth,” which allege perpetual growth can be decoupled from environmental repercussions. Unfortunately, such thinking defies the laws of physics — entropy and thermodynamics. The minimal instances of decoupling have only occurred when rich countries have outsourced environmentally destructive activities of their supply chains to poorer counterparts. Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. Even endless recycling fueled by renewables requires continuous extraction of finite elements. There is, of course, the question of political feasibility with the prevailing narrative of “growth is always good.” This can be addressed. It isn’t hard to understand that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.

We can haggle over semantics while marching into environmental Armageddon or pause to consider that degrowth has something to offer — a humane and science-based paradigm. It is humbling and empowering. It reminds us that our prosperity is entangled with the health of our planet and embraces the fundamental truth that we share a finite planet with soon-to-be nine billion fellow humans and several other lifeforms.

To borrow Carl Sagan’s insight from the Pale Blue Dot: “In the humbling vastness of the universe, we are all alone. No help is coming to save us from ourselves; for the foreseeable future, the earth is our only home.”

  1. United Nations, “Secretary-General Calls on States to Tackle Climate Change ‘Time Bomb’ through New Solidarity Pact, Acceleration Agenda, at Launch of Intergovernmental Panel Report,” SG/SM/21730, March 20, 2023, ↩︎
  2. IPCC, “Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report: A Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” 2023, ↩︎
  3. United Nations Environment Programme, “Making Peace with Nature: A Scientific Blueprint to Tackle the Climate, Biodiversity and Pollution Emergencies,” 2021, ↩︎
  4. Earth Overshoot Day, “Country Overshoot Days 2024,” ↩︎
  5. Rajni Bakshi, “Degrowth: Consumer Less. Share More,” Indian Council on Global Relations, July 4, 2016, ↩︎
  6. “Future We Want – Outcome Document,” Sustainable Development, ↩︎
  7. “Happy Planet Index,” ↩︎