Degrowth in Economy & Philosophy

Takeaways from Purdue University’s Degrowth and Sustainability Conference 2024

Published 2024/04/011

On March 28th 2024, Purdue University hosted its first-ever conference on Degrowth and Sustainability, where multidisciplinary scholars were invited to present and discuss topics regarding science, economy, philosophy, language and politics as they relate to the Degrowth movement. The full event details can be found here.

While the entire event and all speakers were inspiring, the following are some stand-out takeaways from the discussions that should be given priority consideration to better understand how to successfully proliferate and operationalize Degrowth in the real world:

“Degrowth was created from the skepticism of sustainability outcomes”

This was the opening statement of the conference that I believe best sums up the purpose and importance of Degrowth for those who are new to the concept. Post-growth is a relatively new school of thought that asks the question: can human well-being be achieved without the need for growth, and what could our current society look like after growth is no longer the primary driver for success? There exists a number of distinct theories under the umbrella of post-growth (Degrowth being one of the largest) that was inspired by a dissatisfaction with the sustainability movement over the last few decades, and the reality of what it has delivered, without drastically changing our economic, political or cultural systems.

Common Better’s Take: Concepts such as Degrowth can be considered part of what “Sustainability V2” will look like in the coming decades, now that V1 has run its course and experts are beginning to understand what needs to be improved upon to achieve “strong” sustainability. Specifically, Degrowth claims that this “Sustainability V2” can only be achieved if we recognize that our global society is currently existing outside of planetary boundaries, and the only way to ensure the continued existence and well-being of the Earth’s ecology (humans, animals and plants alike) is if we actively “shrink” the economy down to an equitable, steady-state economy within these planetary boundaries.

“Humanity has experienced unprecedented improvement to overall Quality of Life over the last 70 years”

The Industrial Revolution is often cited as the “event” that began our global society’s march towards and outside of planetary boundaries. On one hand, it is important to recognize that this Revolution has brought unprecedented prosperity to the largest number of people in human history. The average person’s access to healthcare, clean water, nutritious food, education, energy, information and communities have all accelerated as a result of technological advancements made since the 1800s. On the other hand, this access has (and will always, whether we recognized it or not) come at an unrealized cost to our environment. This slowly building “hidden” cost over the last 200 years represents the current biggest blocker to Degrowth’s widespread proliferation: how do you reign in this progress for a society that has become accustomed to seemingly unlimited potential? How do you communicate the importance of needing to degrow without seeming to claim that we need to go back to living like a pre-Industrial Revolution society?

Common Better’s Take: The answer will change whether you ask a politician, and economist, a psychologist or a scientist, but the root of every answer goes back to shifting societal values. Speaking from a Western capitalist influence, we need to create opportunities for people to understand their core values, and help them frame these values in a way that is non-material. We can do this by having open and honest discussions with each other about why we live the way that we do, and collectively brainstorm ways that these outcomes can be achieved without necessarily relying on buying something to make it happen. Building awareness in the contentment of “enoughness” will help curb our consumer culture away from so many behaviours that are ecologically damaging and perpetuate this Industrial way of being. For example, a core value of “spending quality time with family” can be achieved the same through lavish, global travel at luxury resorts as it can through weekly picnics in the local park. Given that this core value does not correlate what activity is necessary to spend quality time with family, contentment can be found in participating in less ecologically damaging ways while still achieving the same desired outcome. Diving deep enough into these core values will also remove the expectation bias of societal class pressure and political spectrum alignment, for example, allowing for seemingly opposing communities to align on ecologically positive behaviours.

“Revolutionary solutions might not be politically feasible, which is why going for the 2nd or 3rd compromise is better than remaining at an impasse.”

Speaking from a North American perspective, current political discourse remains extremely adversarial. Public opinion in the United States believes that politicians spend most of their time fighting each other rather than actually working on solutions. In Canada, it is common for political adversaries to cite all of the things that are wrong with the current government without clearly stating the details of what a better alternative would entail. This stalls productive conversations on real solutions and instead replaces them with an all-or-nothing mentality that ends up accomplishing much less that a compromised solution that may initially fail, but in the end will “fail forward” and allow everyone to understand what can be done better next time.

Common Better’s Take: This behaviour from politicians arguing back-and-forth to attempt to come out as the “winner” with all of their ideas implemented without compromise is anti-democratic. The world is built on compromise, and collaboration needs to be fostered to achieve positive outcomes to the wicked problems plaguing our world. No one single person, philosophy, or political party will achieve a solitary solution - it will be necessary to collect the opinions and perspective of diverse stakeholders, while agreeing on common core values and desired outcomes, to achieve true steady-state prosperity.

“Using the term ‘Degrowth’ is too reactionary for people outside of the field. The concept needs to be redefined to be as pragmatic as possible for people to engage.”

When you tell someone that you want to “de-” something, you are implying the lack of or taking away of something. As mentioned above, the last 200 years of Industrial progress have conditioned our society to always want more of everything, not less. The “de-” terminology prevents people from objectively considering the outcomes that Degrowth is trying to achieve, and instead triggers a protective reaction to retain what is already acquired.

Common Better’s Take: The concept of Loss Aversion proves that people perceive more harm from a loss versus the pleasure from an equivalent gain. This is reason enough for Degrowth experts to shift their focus towards using more widely acceptable language (i.e. without “de-”ing anything). In addition, most experts in Degrowth were first introduced to the concepts it was trying to achieve and then later found out the name to summarize the school of thought, rather than the other way around. Unless people have the capacity to dive that deeply into the prerequisite research, they will encounter the “Degrowth” term first and most likely stop there. While different in its desired outcomes, the post-growth concept of “Sufficiency” provides a more inclusive, values-driven framework that I believe allows newcomers to the field to more easily engage with its discourse. Degrowth and Sufficiency should combine resources to increase their respective proliferations, or at least engage with more communications and marketing experts to better understand how to present these ideas in a mainstream-acceptable way.

“Solutions are unique to countries, cultures and groups.  Blanket solutions should not be considered effective.”

One school of thought that Degrowth directly opposes is “green growth” - the concept that resource use and environmental damage can be reduced through the continued implementation of better technologies. Electric vehicles, carbon capture, responsible AI and the circular economy are all technologies that have the potential to grow faster than (and therefore, mitigate) the negative effects being experienced by surpassing our planetary boundaries. However, trying to apply technologies as “one-size-fits-all” solutions around the world is not effective, as every culture, climate and community have different strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered to effectively implement these technologies.

Common Better’s Take: EV performance is notoriously affected by cold weather, so adoption in cold-winter climates has been less effective than more temperate regions. Carbon capture technologies come at a price premium to reach high enough efficiencies to be worth the infrastructure investment, such that only the most wealthy nations would be able to realistically implement. AI has the capability to cause unprecendented harm, and attempting to make it “responsible” without fully understanding its limits begs the question: responsible for who, and in what scenario? The basics of a circular economy are easy to understand, however the first generation of implemented circular systems are showing that rebound effects might actually negate the overall benefits. This summary of downsides to these technologies is not meant to negate their inability to be successful and overall positively impactful. Rather, it highlights how trying to apply these technologies in such broad strokes without focusing on the nuances requires for successful adoption in each locale can result in an overall perception of failure. This perception might not be entirely true, but it shapes culture to lose trust in these systems and prevent productive “failing forward” conversations from achieving more effective, specific implementation. Rather than trying to implement sweeping reform, practitioners of Green Growth and Degrowth alike need to incorporate more design thinking principles, where the user’s desires, perception, biases and expectations are the driving force behind the implementation of new technologies, economies or philosophies.

Now What?

The information shared during this conference provided important, expert perspectives on the current state of the biggest issues currently facing our society. Now, the question remains: what can anyone do about it?

Change can come both from top-down and bottom-up directions. Individuals can start to shift culture within their own communities by getting honest with themselves and reevaluating personal values and lifestyle choices. If people allow themselves time to think deeply about their core values and desired life outcomes, they can start to identify non-material ways of achieving contentment and consider less ecologically damaging ways to fulfill their desires. Through this self-reflection, people can then engage in open conversations about sustainability and Degrowth with friends and family to spread awareness and collectively brainstorm alternatives to consumer culture.

Companies need to first acknowledge the environmental impacts of their operations, and understand that “business success” can be achieved outside of growth and profit. Implementing KPIs such as Employee Satisfaction, Total Carbon Emissions, Generated Waste, Resource Consumption and Renewable Energy Ratio might not seem to have a direct correlation to profits, but studies show that these factors are what will drive consumer loyalty in the near future. To hone in on what specific outcomes matter most to their customers, businesses can create opportunities to engage with their communities through surveys, open dialogues and feedback sessions that put stakeholder demands first. Then, businesses must implement changes based on this feedback and resist the urge to abandon their efforts if short-term gains are not realized, as any effective systems change will require time to implement and will often result in better long-term outcomes overall.
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