Ecological Economists Are Rethinking Endless Growth and Prosperity

Compiled by SCA Staff Writers 

The critique against continuous economic growth, a perspective gaining traction due to increasing environmental concerns, notably the climate crisis, is on the rise. The “degrowth” movement, once considered fringe, is now a significant player, calling for advanced countries to embrace zero or even negative GDP growth.

Influential figures such as Greta Thunberg and Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have highlighted the potential negative impacts of the relentless pursuit of GDP growth, including environmental damage and societal inequality. Suggestions made by the degrowth movement include dismantling global capitalism and promoting “post-growth economics.”

These post-capitalist ideas were promoted by prominent degrowth writers Jason Hickel, Tim Jackson, and Georgios Kallis in a 2022 article in Nature.  “Researchers in ecological economics,” they wrote, “call for a different approach — degrowth. Wealthy economies should abandon growth of gross domestic product (GDP) as a goal, scale down destructive and unnecessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use, and focus economic activity around securing human needs and well-being.”

However, not all ecological economists support degrowth. Kate Raworth, well known for her book on Doughnut Economics, makes a point about being agnostic about growth: sometimes growth can be sustainable, such as with alternative energy use, other times it may not be, such as when using massive amounts of fossil fuel to produce luxury items nobody really needs.

The ecological critique of economic growth is gaining widespread attention. Even mainstream economists are challenging the growth orthodoxy, and the concept of “slow growth” is advocated by some economists like Dietrich Vollrath. Vollrath’s analysis suggests that slower growth in advanced countries is a result of changing lifestyles, such as reduced labor force growth and a shift towards service-oriented economies.

Among economists and environmental activists, there is now an ongoing debate on whether “green growth” is a feasible alternative. Proponents argue for the possibility of absolute decoupling—economic growth without increased carbon emissions. However, recent data challenges this optimism, showing a rise in global carbon emissions over the past three years. As Systems Change Alliance co-founder Roar Bjonnes suggested in his book Growing a New Economy, green growth capitalism may be a contradiction in terms.

The challenges faced by proponents of degrowth include addressing distributional conflicts, poverty reduction, and the economic impact on developing countries heavily reliant on exporting goods and services. Some degrowth proponents suggest solutions like work-sharing, decentralized economics, income transfers, and even a universal basic income to manage the consequences of reduced growth.

No matter where ecological economists stand on the issue, all seem to agree on the importance of reevaluating the pursuit of endless economic growth, and to consider alternative strategies to balance environmental concerns, social equity, and global poverty reduction.

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