Is a Minimalist Economy Possible? Degrowth Advocates Say Yes.

Image for post
Image for post

The Argument for a New Economic Paradigm

Degrowth economics have a simple solution to global warming: downscale production and consumption and ditch GDP as a measurement of human flourishing. Degrowthers argue that this is possible without affecting our standard of living through measures such as work-sharing, consuming less, and devoting more time to art, family, nature and community.

“Degrowth means a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.” — Samuel Alexander (The Conversation)

Dr. Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, author and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, also argues that degrowth is not about reducing the GDP but “restoring public service and expanding the commons so that people will be able to access the goods they need to live well without a high-level of income”:

I reject the fetishization of GDP as an objective in the existing economy, so it would make little sense for me to focus on GDP as the objective of a degrowth economy. Wanting to cut GDP is as senseless as wanting to grow it.

The objective, rather, is to scale down the material throughput of the economy. From an ecological standpoint, that’s what matters. And indeed some orthodox economists might even agree. Where we differ is that while they persist in believing (against the evidence) that this can be done while continuing to grow GDP, I acknowledge that it is likely to result in a reduction of GDP, at least as we presently measure it. In other words, if we were to keep measuring the economy by GDP, that’s what we would see in a degrowth scenario.

And that’s okay.

It’s okay, because we know that human beings can thrive without extremely high levels of GDP.

There’s research to support the unsustainability of growth. The largest consumer of goods is the U.S. If we all consumed as much as an American, we would need four more Earths to sustain us. Even worse, our consumption in the Global North is directly related to the amount of climate-related deaths in the Global South.

At a more basic level, degrowthers oppose productivism (the belief that economic productivity and growth is the purpose of human organization) and argue that sustainable development is an oxymoron.

The problem is that the minimalist movement, led by Leo Babauta, The Minimalists, Joshua Becker, Courtney Carver, Marie Kondo, and so forth, focus too much on the personal benefits from living with less.

I suggest that focusing on the external benefits will reap significant personal benefits. For example, preferring to walk or take public transit over driving your own vehicle directly impacts the amount of carbon emissions that enter the atmosphere. But, as we can assume, this is not just good for the planet. Taking public transportation saves money, is safer and has been linked to healthier lifestyles. Research has also shown that walking (especially in green space) improves your mood, reduces heart disease, and helps you maintain your weight. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, also encourages going for walks to think through complex problems.

A minimalist economy does not mean we never buy things again or transform into subsistence farmers. Rather, it’s an economy based on a philosophy that growth is not a solution — it’s the problem.

The Hamster Wheel of Corporate Capitalism

Given that we have a free market system that has swung dangerously towards corporate capitalism, our economy relies on consumer spending to fuel a significant part of its growth. This inevitably leads to a hamster wheel of pollution, exploiting the poor, and making us more emotionally and financially insecure:

→ Companies locate the cheapest labour in jurisdictions with the weakest labour laws →

→ Companies spend a ton on advertising to convince us we need to buy their products →

→ Playing on our insecurities, companies convince us to buy their products to improve our social status →

→ We throw out (or accumulate) things that we deem no longer serve us and are left with less money to save for retirement and emergencies →

→ Our waste gets transported (causing more pollution) to domestic landfills that are inching closer to maximum capacity and/or we export our trash to countries in the Global South

→ Given the incessant need to grow and replenish their supply, companies continue to use and exploit cheap labour overseas. →

And the cycle restarts.

Bottom Line

To conclude, I am not sure how the logistics of this would work, other than stringent laws and policies would need to be passed, restricting economic output and penalizing those who surpass its limits. However, this becomes complicated since corporations are legal persons that come with most of the rights and protections that we have. Also, public opinion might torpedo this idea.

But at the very least, it’s an encouraging sign that people much smarter than me are developing research into alternative solutions to tackle climate change and modernize our measurement of human flourishing.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store