What Energy Paradigm Might Underpin Degrowth and Steady State Economies?

by Nick King

Degrowth’ and the ‘Steady State Economy’ describe a grouping of related concepts and ideas which are critical of economic growth being a central tenet and goal of modern societies.  Proponents of degrowth seek to arrest and ultimately reverse the primary global trend of the last 200 years or so (relentlessly growing economies), whilst those seeking a Steady State Economy imagine an economic system which would be stable in magnitude (via balancing feedbacks e.g., tight loops of material recycling) in order to stay within ‘planetary boundaries’.  The latter would likely be the ultimate destination of the former, and together they may be labelled as ‘non-growth economic models’ [[1][2]].

Degrowth traces its origins to several 19th century thinkers including John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau, and modern degrowth theory started to gain traction during the 1970s.  This resulted from work undertaken by scientists, economists and philosophers such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and E. F. Schumacher, with pioneering work such as the ‘Limits to Growth’ (LTG) report also providing a significant tailwind at that time.  For steady-state economics, one of the early proponents was (perhaps surprisingly) Adam Smith; although considered a founding hero of orthodox economic theory today, he concluded that economies of all nations would reach a final ‘stationary’ state, and these ideas were later built on by other famous economists such as Herman Daly, John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes.  Through most of their history, non-growth economic models have however been considered by the mainstream as fairly fringe ideas, existing mainly as unworkable theories in textbooks, and having little relevance to the supposed real world business of creating wealth and driving progress forward.  However, in recent years that has started to change, and these models are starting to move much more towards the mainstream once again [[1][3]].

This shift is being driven largely by increasingly wide recognition that the pursuit of endless economic growth is the driving force of virtually all aspects of the gathering global predicament, captured by the term ‘polycrisis’ (i.e., interlocking, interacting and worsening crises such as climate change, biodiversity loss, global toxification and financial system instability).  The potential for growth to drive these phenomena was recognised 50 years ago in the groundbreaking LTG report, but despite these insights this growth has continued apace, and we now find ourselves collectively in a deteriorating situation.   The renewed interest in non-growth economic models as means to ease us back from this precipice has to date focused on different key social, economic and infrastructure aspects.  This includes concepts such as: ‘contraction-and-convergence’ (reducing growth in developed regions to give developing regions ‘room’ to alleviate poverty); ‘universal basic income & bullsh*t jobs’ (provision of an unconditional payment to all citizens to separate employment and survival, and elimination of unproductive and wasteful employment); and ‘doughnut economics’ (operating societies within the boundaries of upper ecological limits and minimum social metrics) [[4][5][6]].

Despite the increasing depth and granularity of non-growth economic model research, one aspect is currently relatively under-represented in these efforts, namely the nature of the energy paradigm that could underpin societies operating in this form.  To address this question, there are two aspects to consider: the energy paradigm that would support the transition to a non-growth economic model (i.e., the implementation of degrowth), and that which would support a society into the longer term (i.e., ongoing operation of a steady state economy) [7].  The beginning of an answer to this question is explored in a book (‘Future Energy Options from a Systems Perspective’ [[8]]) which I co-authored with Professor Aled Jones at the Global Sustainability Institute (part of Anglia Ruskin University in the UK) during 2023.

This book considers the uniquely crucial role that energy plays in maintaining complex societies through an account of the ‘phases’ of human energy use through time, and the ‘energy bind’ we collectively find ourselves in (i.e., that we are wholly reliant on energy, but our current sources are proving harmful and depletable).  The book presents three broad pathways (or ‘branches’) that global society could follow in future [9]; these trifurcating options are: the ‘Fossil-Seneca’ Branch (essentially fossil fuel business as usual, potentially leading to a climate change-induced collapse); the ‘Continued Growth’ Branch (hypothetical use of low carbon fusion or renewables systems to grow the global economy indefinitely, which may avoid climate collapse but would likely generate other severe negative consequences) and the ‘Stabilisation’ Branch (emulation of natural systems that achieve systemic equilibrium via a full renewables transition, combined with degrowth, giving the best chance of achieving societal stability and longevity).  It is therefore this Stabilisation Branch scenario that is most directly relevant to this question.

Degrowth would likely be a necessary aspect of a transition to a fully renewables based energy system for several reasons.  Such a system would have a lower overall ‘energy return on investment’ (EROI) value (meaning that it would generate less ‘discretionary’ energy for non-essential but growth-supporting purposes such as consumption) and would generate intermittently as per environmental conditions.  In these cases, the amount of renewables infrastructure could be made larger to offset these effects (e.g., through over-capacity and/or energy storage infrastructure to compensate for intermittency) but that would require more significant ‘re-materialisation’ (an increase in global mining activity, and energy and land demands), which could in itself generate destabilising dynamics for society.  Therefore, the overall magnitude of an implementable and sustainable renewables system (even where materials recycling could be introduced) would likely be limited, and hence the scope of a society it could support would likely have to decrease to accommodate such a transition.

Once in place, a renewables-based system could be amenable to achieving an equilibrium output.  This is because these systems extract energy from a fixed exogenous input (total solar energy), so once the extraction becomes aligned with a value at or below this total ‘flow’ limit, they could in theory continue without effective limit (assuming recycling loops for the required materials can be closed).  This would emulate Earth’s biosphere, which has equilibrated around the solar input value (in terms of total biomass supported by global scale photosynthesis) and has thus achieved stability over geological time.  This contrasts with the ‘stock’ based energy sources which global society currently uses, which will inevitably deplete in the long run.  Detractors of non-growth economic models often cite concerns that societies operating under these conditions would become unstable, impoverished and/or stagnant, and would therefore not be practical or sustainable.  The biosphere analogy may apply here again, in that although it has operated in a steady state over prolonged timescales, it has maintained rich and ever-changing diversity under a ‘hard’ and unchanging limit.

Non-growth economic models are still a far from accepted idea by the majority of economists, governments and business leaders, but the global predicament must urge us to consider them more seriously.  Indeed, without action, degrowth may well occur in the form of uncontrolled economic contraction or collapse as a result of the growing feedbacks associated with the polycrisis.  If degrowth were to happen to global society rather than it being a choice or strategy, there would likely be little chance of it settling into a controlled steady state in which hallmarks of modernity (e.g., power grids) would persist in a big way.  In this scenario, human extinction may be unlikely, but organised societies and knowledge accumulation as we understand them could well be over.  The Stabilisation Branch scenario described here indicates that a large scale renewables-based energy system may be an inherent feature and necessity of achieving degrowth, and that once in place, may be well suited to maintaining a steady-state economic system which may be much more stable than our current paradigm.  Armed with this knowledge, perhaps it is time for the proponents of non-growth economic models to become more assertive in discussing them as a real possibility for the future.

[1]. Kerschner, C. (2010) Economic de-growth vs steady-state economy.  Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, 6, 544-551.

[2]. Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (2023) Definition of a Steady State Economy.  Available online: https://steadystate.org/discover/definition-of-steady-state-economy/

[3]. Degrowth (2024) A History of Degrowth.  Available online: https://degrowth.info/about/history-of-degrowth

[4]. Cascade Institute (2024) Polycrisis.  Available online: https://cascadeinstitute.org/polycrisis/

[5]. Hickel, J. et al. (2022) Degrowth can work – here’s how science can help.  Nature, 612, 400-403.

[6]. Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.  Random House Business.

[7] Another important consideration might be the scale of such as society (i.e., whether it would be global or regional in scope), but for the purposes of this discussion it is assumed that a non-growth economic model would be global and homogeneous in its extent.

[8]. King, N., Jones, A. (2023) Future Energy Options from a Systems Perspective.  Palgrave Macmillan Cham.

[9] Note that the focus is primarily the systemic characteristics of different energy paradigms, rather than the details of policy, economic or other practicalities of implementation.

Nick King is an environmental scientist working in professional consulting and the energy industry. He is also affiliated with the Schumacher Institute’s think tank.

Published with permission from resilience.org

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