Actually, We Don’t Need To Grow the Economy

Protecting the planet requires scaling down, not up.

BY Dayton Martindale

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de • growth


1. A decrease in the energy and raw material used by human economies, and a managed decline in GDP

2. The movement to bring about this decrease in an equitable, sustainable and democratic manner

An economic decline—isn’t that called a depression? 

It’s true that economic contraction usually hits the poor the hardest. But, degrowthers contend, economic expansion doesn’t always help—just look at the United States, where most recent growth went straight to the rich.

A managed decline in total GDP, with less work and consumption and more time for community, leisure and political engagement, might lead to an overall healthier society. Many European countries, for instance, have smaller GDPs per capita than the United States, but more supportive welfare states and generally happier people.

Can’t we have sustainability and equity and also keep growing?

Many, even on the Left, believe we can—that automation, wealth redistribution and technological innovation will allow luxurious standards of living for all.

Degrowth advocates aren’t so sure. One paper suggests that, were everyone on the planet to consume at U.S. levels, it would take four Earths to sustain us all. While tech such as renewable energy can help, even a solar panel requires rare earths mining, and windmills pose a threat to wildlife.

We still need “growth” for solar panels though, right?

We do! Degrowth is a macro prescription for the entire economy of a country or the world. It doesn’t mean we can’t selectively invest in transit, healthcare, education or other crucial sectors. It also doesn’t mean the global poor must remain poor—it’s the affluent whose consumption needs to change. That’s why a recent gathering in Chicago called to “Degrow America First.”

How do you build a movement for shrinking?

The term degrowth comes from French ecosocialist André Gorz, and until recently was mainly used by European academics. Indigenous movements in Latin America, however, have provided perhaps the best model of a degrowth movement, resisting mining and deforestation projects and building cooperative economies outside the capitalist market.

Calls for degrowth are now entering the mainstream, in publications such as Foreign Policy and the Guardian. Degrowthers advocate policies such as a shorter work- week and the “right to repair”—requiring tech companies to let us fix our own devices rather than buy new ones. They fight airport and highway expansions, and plan “zero waste” cities where all discarded items are recycled, reused or composted. Ultimately, the fight against growth is a fight against capitalism—for a world of sharing and cooperation over property and profit.

This is part of “The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For related In These Times coverage, see, “The Case Against Using the GDP as a Measure of Economic Health” and “Maximum Production for Short-term Economic Gain: Our ‘Collision Course.' 

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Dayton Martindale is former associate editor of In These Times, and a founding member of Symbiosis. His writing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Journal and The Next System Project, Boston Review and Harbinger. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.

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