By Deirdre Kent
Yes, it’s an awful word but we won’t try and change it because there are already over 500 academic articles on degrowth. The movement is strong in Europe. This diagram shows the occurrence of key words in books since 2010.
We have recently started a group called Degrowth Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ). Our members come from concern about planned obsolescence, fast fashion, overpackaged food, aviation, too many cows, too many cars. Ordinary people in rich countries are saying we are “too developed”. Those who have been in climate action often suddenly realise you can’t reduce emissions easily in a growing economy.
What is Degrowth?
Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being. It is not a recession. It is a planned reduction in the GDP by design and not by disaster.
What has caused this environmental crisis?
It’s a combination of an economic system that has a built-in growth imperative together with what Nate Hagens calls our collective energy blindness. That is, we grossly underestimate the real energy density of fossil fuels and appear almost ignorant of the central role of energy in the economy. Energy is at the heart of everything in the economy. We have been given a one-time bonanza of unique energy dense fossil energy and we have underestimated its significance.
Growth is the problem not the solution
In the sixties when the population was growing rapidly and a new environmental awareness was emerging, PM Keith Holyoake was boring us silly talking about the need for economic growth.
So in 1972 the Values Party emerged. Founder Tony Brunt wrote in the first manifesto, “Population growth encourages economic growth which is the chief cause of the environmental crisis which the earth is presently going through. Ecologists throughout the world are warning that population and economic growth must be stabilised in order to stop pollution and ease the pressure on natural resources.“
He then mused about the dangers of a zero growth economy and suggested a four day working week, even daring to suggest a substantial tax on advertising. “Advertising is the essential support of much useless economic activity, creating wants for a variety of dubious goods.”
Today we know that it is not just population growth that causes environmental damage. It is a product of that together with affluence and technology. The equation I=PAT (Impact = population x affluence x technology) actually predated the Values Party, but Tony wasn’t to know that Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren had developed it about the same time.
And this was the decade when everyone was reading the 1972 MIT computer modelling study The Limits to Growth, a study which showed that continued expansion would confront resource and pollution barriers in the early 2020s. This would lead to falling population, industrial production and agricultural output.
Many decades ago economist Kenneth Boulding said, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either an economist or a madman.”
The Secretary General of the United Nations is now tweeting about the dangers of infinite growth, the NZ Productivity Commission is noting growth has led to more emissions intensive goods. The latest IPCC report mentioned degrowth 28 times and the World Economic Forum now has degrowth in its vocabulary.
Harder to Change to Renewables
The Chairman of the Climate Change Commission Dr Rod Carr told radio host Heather du Plessis Allan the economy was going to grow by 1.85% every year till 2050. That means the economy will have grown by 73% by 2050. More concrete, more timber, more people, more cars, more computers, more roads, more flights, more cars, more cows, more fertiliser, more water pollution and bigger houses. And all this requires more energy and more materials.
So we are going to need 73% more energy, will all come from renewable energy? Already we are only a very tiny way towards converting our transport and industry to renewables and now we will have 73% more to replace.
Many have grasped the issue – changing to renewable energy in an economy that is growing is like trying to walk down an accelerating escalator – extra hard.
New Zealand has broken many planetary boundaries. Climate is just one of these. In fact New Zealand passed its overshoot day on April 19, 2022. That was our fair share of using the biosphere. If everyone lived like a New Zealander we would need 3.4 Earths.
Growth of stuff
In 1970 global materials use was less than 30 billion tons annually; today it is over three times that level at about 100 billion tons. We don’t have figures for New Zealand, but we do know our waste to landfill has doubled in the last decade which might give us a clue.
When it comes to vehicle ownership, we are the fifth highest per capita country. Whereas in 1967 only 30% owned a car, by 2021 this was over 80%.
Between 2000 and 2019, the number of motor vehicles in New Zealand increased by 64%, to 4.4 million motor vehicles in 2019.
Domestic transport has seen the biggest growth of all energy sectors, rising 85% between 1990 and 2018.
The number of light commercial vehicles more than tripled in the last two decades
A visit to the mall will show that fast fashion, the mass production of cheap, poor quality, disposable clothing and this is clearly too much stuff. The industry churns out 80 billion garments a year, 10 for everyone on earth.
A trip down supermarket aisles will leave us asking why we need all these overpackaged, ultra-processed, not very nutritious foods.
Growth of energy use
We have tripled our oil consumption since 1965.
In peak year 2019, New Zealand used 178.476 barrels of oil a day.
And even the per capita use of energy has increased by about a fifth in the last decade.
To reduce energy is simple. Degrowth scholar Timothée Parrique tweeted, “If rich economies want to get down to sustainable levels of resource use and emissions, the fastest, most fail-safe way is to fly fewer planes, drive fewer cars, eat less meat, build fewer roads.”
Our group (DANZ) is not necessarily going to follow the European solutions. Believing that fossil energy is the problem, and that everything in the economy requires energy, we are going to start with a petition for Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) – where energy means fossil energy.
And beyond that other big issues include reducing inequality and dealing with debt. But that is for another day.