The relentless growth of degrowth economics

The relentless growth of degrowth economics

Jessi Jezewska Stevens writes:

The ninth International Degrowth Conference, held in August this year in Zagreb, Croatia, opens with a provocation. Keynote speaker Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, the newly elected vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has two requests to make of the audience. The first is to figure out how to coordinate with governments of all stripes, since the climate crisis requires global unity.

The second? “Maybe consider a different word.”

It’s about as close to blasphemy as this niche, academic, and politically radical conference can get.

To a rising minority of European leftists, the term “degrowth” is proving an attraction rather than a turnoff. The protean climate movement that exists under its banner is gaining momentum among academics, youth activists, and, increasingly, policymakers across the continent.

The European Parliament hosted its second (and terminologically defanged) Beyond Growth Conference just this past May, this time with unprecedented buy-in from elected officials; as organizer and European Parliament member Philippe Lamberts (of the Belgian Greens) told the Financial Times, the “big shots” are now “playing ball.”

Those in Zagreb frame the Brussels push as “extraordinary” and “major,” with the parliament building “filled to the brim” by a new swell of activists, nongovernmental organizations, academics, and elected officials totaling some 7,000 strong. Julia Steinberger, a longtime researcher of the social and economic impacts of climate change at the University of Lausanne, adds: “And they were young.”

This energy carries over to the degrowth circuit proper, which multiple veterans tell me has long outgrown its humble beginnings. At a watershed, self-organized gathering in Leipzig, Germany in 2014, ragtag participants made their own meals. This year’s conference, by contrast, is co-sponsored by the city of Zagreb, attended by the mayor and representatives of the IPCC, and professionally catered with vegan canapés.

With its deepest roots in direct democracy and anti-capitalism, the degrowth movement is bent on challenging the central tenet of postwar economics: that further increases in GDP—strongly correlated with increases in carbon emissions—translate to further advances in social and individual well-being.

The implications of the critique extend far beyond the usual calls for countries to reach net-zero emissions targets. To degrowthers, the climate crisis is a social problem, and addressing it will require no less than reengineering the entire global, socioeconomic order, especially in the wealthy global north.

Why the sudden interest in this radical program? Why Europe, and why now?

Perhaps the answer should be obvious: Late August 2023, when the Zagreb event convenes, caps off the hottest global summer ever recorded. The defining characteristic of degrowth’s latest influx of followers, as the movement’s major figures will stress to me again and again over the next four days, is youth—which is to say, a heightened vulnerability to the future effects of climate change.

The status quo has left these young supporters disillusioned and alarmed. And no wonder. When, during her keynote address, Ürge-Vorsatz draws up a heat map showing the proportion of the Earth that will become unsuitable for human life by 2070 under business-as-usual projections, no one bats an eye; it’s data that this particular audience has seen before.

The suggestion to “find a better word,” however, is met with an affronted laugh. For Europe’s young people, degrowth isn’t just a utopian slogan, but an intentionally provocative, environmental necessity—and an existing reality. [Continue reading…]

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