As COP26 draws to a close, politicians from around the world continue to push their own agendas. From the UK government’s doubtful claims about huge successes, to the Australian government’s lacklustre attempt to greenwash their way through, the aim to show climate action whilst not taking anywhere near enough of a radical approach is widespread. To paraphrase Greta Thunberg, the ‘blah blah blah’ continues apace.

All of this is underpinned by a distinct lack of desire to face up to what we might need – a significant overhaul of the way our entire economic system is based.

Although used copiously, the idea of ‘sustainable growth’ is, in itself, an oxymoron. In a planet of limited resources, growth can simply not continue forevermore. Although there are plenty of economists backing this up, it doesn’t take an expert opinion to understand it. In fact, anyone should be able to understand that the more we take, the more we make, and the more we consume; the less of a chance we have of survival.

Degrowth is a concept that is gaining ground amongst those deeply-embedded in our planet’s future, but it’s still not broken through sufficiently into the public consciousness as a desirable way forward. 

The basic concept behind degrowth is that we can actually reduce the size of our economy (and environmental impact in the process) while increasing human wellbeing. In other words, instead of having to increase the size of the economic ‘pie’, if we were to share that pie more fairly – even if it were smaller than it is now – we’d be able to all live better. At the moment, too much of said pie is rotting away in huge stashes owned by the richest among us. In fact, according to Oxfam, 1% of people have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people.

There is a huge amount of research demonstrating that GDP is not a good proxy for human wellbeing, especially past a certain point. And the reasoning behind that is simple – the gross product of a country might show the entirety of the economic activity, but it doesn’t mean it’s spent well. Examples from around the world abound whereby huge GDP does not translate into better living standards – think of the classic example of the US without healthcare or welfare, for example; compared to countries like Spain and Portugal which have a lower GDP but perform better on human wellbeing indices. You can hear more about degrowth in this fascinating podcast featuring economist Jason Hickel.

The problem is, as a society, we are still conditioned to see growth as good. Open any newspaper – even left-leaning ‘progressives’ like The Guardian, and you’ll see economic growth still offered up as an indicator of government success. The simplicity of a number – positive is good, negative is bad – continues to pervade. Therefore governments strive to deliver economic growth endlessly, purporting that it is possible to do so in a sustainable way, without ever being able to specify how that sustainability will logically be possible.

Why is this? Here are a couple of major reasons.

One is that the opposite of capitalist economic growth is, in our minds, a recession. A recession implies an absence of growth (or a loss of activity) in an economy that is only set up to work when growth is happening. There is then a logic that runs in the mind of the citizen that economic shrinkage will lead to lower living standards for all because the money is going to ‘run out’. Therefore economic growth, in the mind of the public, continues to be a hallmark of whether a government is working or not. And yet if the Covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is that governments actually do have the opportunity to suddenly conjure up money they said they didn’t have in order to deliver public spending (think furlough), even when growth is not happening. 

Another reason is the fear around the idea of redistribution – which sounds specifically like communism, in other words, something many people have roundly decided does not work. Redistribution in this circumstance also, by default, means taxes for the rich; a social justice issue which is hard to fight for when the rich have so much control over whether governments can rise or fall. In other words, a government that aims for degrowth is putting themselves right in the firing line of those with vested interests in maintaining their wealth.

But it is time for the degrowth agenda to start seeping its way into the public consciousness. Without it, the flawed idea of infinite growth that is somehow sustainable and equitable for all will continue to spread. The question is, when will we find a politician with the balls to stand up for it?