The environmental crisis is not only a climate change problem caused by the massive release of Green House Gases (GHG), but it is also a problem of biodiversity destruction, fishery collapse, pollution of the soil, etc.The report from Stockholm Resilience Centre (2015) had even pointed out that biodiversity destruction is the leading factor above climate change for humanity extinction. The number of catastrophic events is rising every year with massive forest fires (Australia 2020, California 2021, Canada 2021), heat waves and climate change (Temperature record in Canada, Europe, Siberia in 2021) and an increasing number of climate refugees among the world. From those observations, a large number of people all over the world are calling for solutions which are often based on deep societal changes. In order to assess those changes and to evaluate their potential impact, it is necessary to develop indicators. A common way to describe the current societies is to refer to the economy and in particular to the way it is evaluated: the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In this report, a first part is dedicated to show and explain what the GDP is. From this definition, the second part will show why humanity need a degrowth of the GDP and why societies need to assess their current states with other indicators. The last part will focus on how societies can achieve degrowth.
Part I: Degrowth of What?
The Gross Domestic Product is an old concept defined just after the second world war. The accurate definition is/would be: “Final result of productive activities of the present production units” (Jancovici, 2014). It is a monetary measure of all the final goods and services produced by “the present production unit” on a given territory regardless of property of the means of production and of the goods produced. As GDP is a monetary measure, it can only measure activities and goods which are “marketable”, i.e which have monetary value. The services done without a “marketing value” i.e., without exchange of money (bartering) are not taken into account. It can be somebody working in their garage, harvesting vegetables in their garden and so on… Finally, things that “appear” naturally like the fish who grow up in the sea are not reflected in the GDP metric This measure needs human activity to give it value. However, the fish growing in a pisciculture is taken into account as it requires paid labour. Therefore, the same good can be or not be accounted for in the GDP. It is already possible to see that this measure is not representative of the physical flux of our society. It does not account well for the value of the natural resources which can lead to something called the environmental crisis. This stock of natural resources is composed of two types of resources: the non-renewable resources (NRR) and the renewable resources (RR).
With the development of new technologies in the industrial sector, it has been easier and easier for humans to extract natural resources from the NRR stock. This has helped them to create monetary value from the natural resources by processing them which has led to exponential GDP growth. In summary, the GDP is the indicator of the flux of natural resources that are becoming finished products, without accounting the value of the discarded product nor the value of the initial natural resource.
Part II: Why Degrowth ?
The GDP is not a good indicator for assessing the wealth of a society. In fact, it could be compared to the turnover of a company: when somebody wants to evaluate the economic viability of a company it does not just check only for the turnover but also for the final balance which takes into account the charges. That is what is happening with the GDP. It does not account for the limitation on the NRR stock and for the pollution that human activity creates by adding value to the resources. A good indicator will then account for all of those additional costs that human a
However such an indicator still does not exist, and even if it did, it is hard to think that governments would start using it as it would emphasise the problematic situations instead of economic growth, as does GDP. So, if governments keep the GDP as the main indicator to describe the current state of societies, one must separately take into account the previously mentioned value of the natural resources as well as the pollution associated with the product throughout its life. Taking this into account would contradict the goal of maximising the GDP and would inherently promote GDP degrowth as an optimum. Moreover, as the stock of NRR is finite and is decreasing, the inherent value created by the GDP is in fact stolen from the latter. In the long run, the diminution or depletion of the NRR stock is inevitably going to reduce the GDP. If humans wait for the stock to be empty, the consequences on the population and the future GDP will only be greater.
The social and economic movement of degrowth is not only about decreasing the GDP, it is also about bringing a new economy that focuses on basic human needs. For now, the economy can be called an “economy of the wallet” (Parrique, Heated Debate & Misconception about degrowth, 2021), which means that it is influenced by the people who have a lot of money. It is people like Elon Musk who decide which car people are going to drive tomorrow, or influence the course of their stocks only by writing a message on social networks. This kind of model is quite far from what political economist Timothée Parrique agues would be a desirable purpose for our economy which is “economise for collective organisation to satisfy their needs”(Parrique, Heated Debate & Misconception about degrowth, 2021) and here, the term “economise” stands for resources and not for money. So degrowth stands for an economy of wealth that focuses on the needs of people. The economy should make societies enter the doughnut of Kate Raworth (2017) meaning above social minima and below planetary boundaries. Such an economy could be named as the “Human needs economy”.
Part III: How to Degrow?
How do societies kickstart this economy of human needs? How do they reinvent the way of living with the planet and not only on the planet? Well, there are plenty of ideas of solutions.
The first one being the movement of “Low-Tech” which finds its strength in technologies designed during the last century but today forgotten because they were not considered as “profitable” from an economic point of view. In fact, making technology so resilient that it is understandable and repairable by the user doesn’t provide the seller with a long-term profit. A clear application of those technologies is based in Switzerland, where Sebasol, an association, is helping people install solar thermal collectors to heat up their houses and to provide hot water for sanitary purposes. It is an association so they are not aiming to make a profit out of it, but they employ several persons and teach how to build those systems.
The concept of non-profit organisation is really important. In fact, it gives the opportunity to provide good quality services while at the same time lowering the cost for it. This way, Vienna became the European capital of the most affordable housing, with 25% (HUDUser, s.d.) of its housing being social housing governed by non-profit companies.
Vienna is only one example. In fact, cities represent a huge playground for degrowth opportunities. For example, they are now considered as a massive stock of resources that can be used for the construction industry. Architecture offices such as In Situ in Switzerland are now looking after any building in deconstruction to reuse components and build new things with them. It has been demonstrated that the reuse of concrete panels is possible (Architectural potential of deconstruction and reuse in declining mass housing estates, 2019). There are now guides for identification of the reuse potential of components (Interreg North-West Europe, 2020). Cities also represent a production zone of phosphor which can be recovered from humans’ excrement. Victor Hugo in his book “Les Misérables” was already pointing to the waste caused by the problematic design of the sewage in France whereas the Chinese farmers were going into cities to find this precious excrement.
All those actions are a result of clear and voluntary policies held by politicians and citizens together. Both are required to overcome the different barriers that the current economy is building for the sake of profit. However, politicians and policy makers have the biggest responsibility as their action can achieve greater and faster impact (We Can’t Do It Ourselves, 2018). Ideas for the “human needs economy” are not lacking, and a lot of them are already tested and only require to be scaled in the world. More and more people are conscious about the planetary limits that humanity is facing but the crisis is every day stronger and time is lacking. Ideas for degrowth are not enough, it is possible to find articles about people building with reused components in the 20th century (The recycled House in Odense, 1994) and still this concept is far from being the first option considered when people want to build something. Economists, such as Timothée Parrique, are asking for global policies to democratise the economy so that it can be discussed among people from different social backgrounds to find what the needs of the population really are. To know what activities should be enhanced, and what should be shrunk. In the same way, politicians should take actions to change the behaviours among societies like the prohibition of advertising in public areas, to avoid promoting increased consumption.
Conclusion: Ecology without revolution, it’s gardening
The environmental crisis is perhaps the most complex problem that societies among the world have ever faced. There is no global solution and solving it requires a multitude of highly disparate solutions. However, one thing is certain, the economy as it is running nowadays cannot keep on working and a massive change is required. This can be done by setting new indicators to characterise the economy. Those indicators, if carefully selected, could help the economy to satisfy the needs of everyone at the same time as complying with the limits imposed by the planetary boundaries. Moreover, a lot of sustainable and social solutions already exist and are only waiting to be implemented at a larger scale. Cities represent a playground to implement those solutions with a potential of large impact on the populations and the environment. It is in the hands of policy makers to kick start those solutions. However, citizens should not wait for them. In fact, deep societal changes do not occur spontaneously in capitalist societies. Intense lobbying from private and rich industries are freezing the situation, and coordinated militant actions are required to overcome this situation (Full Spectrum Resistance, McBay, 2019). Equal rights and justice are won with great combinations of violent and non-violent actions. The example of the Gilet Jaune rising in France should inspire but there is no time for another defeat, time is lacking, action is calling.
Stockholm Resilience Centre. (2015). From https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html
Parrique, T. (2020). The Political economy of Degrowth.
Parrique, T. (2021). Heated Debate & Misconception about degrowth. (A. Athanassiadis, Interviewer)
HUDUser. (n.d.). Vienna’s unique social housing program . From https://www.huduser.gov/portal/pdredge/pdr_edge_featd_article_011314.html
Huuhka, S. (2019). Architectural potential of deconstruction and reuse in declining mass housing estates.
Interreg North-West Europe, F. (2020). A guide for identifying the reuse potential of construction products.
Nielsen, A. (1994). The recycled House in Odense. Odense.
Kris De Decker. (2018). We Can’t Do It Ourselves. From Low-Tech Magazine: https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2018/07/we-cant-do-it-ourselves.html
Jancovici, J.-M. (2014). L’économie peut-elle décroitre ? From https://jancovici.com/transition-energetique/choix-de-societe/leconomie-peut-elle-decroitre/
Raworth, K. (2017). What on Earth is the Doughnut? From https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/
McBay, A. (2019). Full Spectrum Resistance: Building movement and Fighting to win
Illustration credit : “Can’t Help Myself” installation of artists Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Musem, Photograph by Ana Romero López, Wikimedia Commons