Degrowth: The Case for Constraining Consumption
Ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the economic goal has been to grow profits by growing consumption. Every country wants to report that its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose. It didn’t matter if the workers exhausted their health or if many products were harmful (guns, cigarettes).
Marketers played a critical role in pumping up the economic growth engine. It was not enough just to produce an endless stream of sold products and services. Marketers made their best use of advertising, salesmen, promotion, and pricing to get all the product sold.
A number of critics have emerged to challenge the endless push toward more consumption. The economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out that “Companies not only produce goods but bads!” Economies produce cigarettes, fattening foods, poorly made cars and housing, and some other bads. Other critics see non-stop Capitalism as harming or depleting our natural resources and causing poorer soil and the loss of important minerals. Other critics worry that industrial activity is producing pollution that hurts our air and water. Some critics accuse endless production and consumption as threatening the survival of our Planet.
The emergence of sustainability raised this question of the Planet’s survival. Sustainability is the hope that our economic activity today would leave the next generation with as good or even a better life than our generation.
The sad truth is that sustainability is now less likely to be achieved. We have learned that industrial and consumer activity generate so much carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that the earth will inevitably heat up. People living near the equator will find it difficult to breathe. They will flee to cooler climates and overwhelm urban areas with growing shortages of food, clothing and shelter. As the Planet warms, the climate worsens with more intense hurricanes, floods, wildfires and soil blanching, all of which contribute further to the growing deficit of food, clothing and shelter.
The Limits to Growth Study
The problem of endless economic growth was highly debated in the 1970s under the name Limits to Growth (LTG). The Limits to Growth is a 1972 report studying the consequences of interactions between the earth and human systems. The report used computer simulation to project the impact of exponential economic and population growth on the earth’s finite supply of resources. The findings were reported by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The report warned that, without substantial changes in resource consumption, “the most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”.
The simulation model used five variables: population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources. All these variables were increasing and were assumed to continue growing exponentially, while the ability of technology to increase resources grew only linearly. The authors examined three scenarios. Two of the scenarios saw “overshoot and collapse” of the global system by the mid- to latter-part of the 21st century, while a third scenario resulted in a “stabilized world”. A subsequent review held that if the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continued unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.
Critics complained that the entire endeavor behind Limits to Growth was to get economies to slow down their growth rate. Many critics rejected the idea of limiting consumption and held that technological advances will solve all the so-called problems of resource depletion. As a precious resource runs down, its price would rise and humans would use less and be motivated to find substitute materials. Critics warned that intervention and restraint of growth would be bad moves and “consign billions to permanent poverty”.
Four groups saw the LTG findings to be a threat: businesses, professional economists, the Catholic Church that promoted high population growth, and the political left who worried that workers would no longer believe that a proletarian paradise would be possible.
Yet others saw LTG as a rigorous and creditable study that sadly lost 30 years of necessary action. They held that endless economic growth on a finite planet will ultimately lead to an overshoot of the Earth’s support capacity or a societal collapse.
What Can Be Done
Marketers were specifically blamed for the endless growth of consumption. Marketers used their art and scientific tools to nudge consumers into endless buying. Marketers were in no position to tell their companies to slow down consumption. For their livelihood, commercial marketers must push for endless consumption.
Will some companies willingly slow down their production and consumption to protect the planet from overwarming. This is unlikely. Most companies want to pursue strong profits. Companies need profits to satisfy their investors if they are to obtain needed capital. They need profits to provide jobs and money for workers and consumers.
This leaves primarily government as the force that might restrain endless economic growth. Governments could propose policies to slow down population growth by persuading families to have fewer children. Government might put limits on car production on the grounds that not everyone needs to have a car. Government might discourage the introduction of new models of products that really don’t make the product much better.
Some consumers may also join the movement to slow down consumption. These consumers would reject the mantra “More is Better.” These consumers acknowledge that they buy more clothes than they need, eat more food than they need, and many have more housing than they need. Some consumers might escape from this Capitalist plot by buying less on the mantra “Less is More.” They might keep their car longer and wear their clothes longer before replacing them.. They might eat less and choose to diet more and exercise more. They may grow to a new consciousness that “less is more.”
This new consciousness of “less is more” won’t come from commercial marketers, it might come from social marketers. Many social marketers work for nonprofit organizations that use marketing to change behavior and lifestyles. Social marketers fought the cigarette industry’s glamorization of cigarette smoking by pointing out the health harm caused by cigarettes. Social marketers are busy helping overweight people to find new ways to reduce their food intake.
The Emergence of the DeGrowth Movement
Nonstop Capitalism pushes consumption far beyond what mankind needs. Powerful advertising persuades people that they need the latest car, clothing, appliances and homes. Many citizens end up feeling stressed and unhappy when they can’t do more shopping and buying and accumulating more goods.
William Wordsworth pointed out, in his poem The World is too Much with Us, that “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” We work so hard to accumulate wealth and leave little time to enjoy our lives.
Nonstop Capitalism is leading to deforestation, overfishing, soil erosion, mass extinction of species, and more fires, extreme storms, and floods.
What is the Alternative to Nonstop Capitalism?
“”Degrowth”, namely growing our economy and our population at a slower rate, is one answer. Jason Hickel spelled this out in his thoughtful book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World.[i] He spells out how Capitalism’s pursuit of endless growth destroys our natural ecological lives and processes.
A Harvard study reports that 51% of young Americans (ages 18–39) no longer support American capitalism. Regarding the statement “Capitalism does more harm than good,” 69% of French agree and 74% of Indians agree. A Yale University study in 2018 reported that 70% of Americans agreed with the statement that “environmental protection is more important than growth.”’ New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made headlines in 2019 promising to abandon GDP growth in favor of well-being. The leaders of Scotland and Iceland followed suit. Note that all these leaders are women. And there is young Greta Thunberg speaking to global elites:
“We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of endless economic growth. How dare you!”
A major consumer research study found that 70% of people in middle-and high income countries believe that over-consumption is putting our planet and society at risk, that we should buy less and own less, and that doing so would not compromise our happiness or well-being. Many people are yearning for a better system.
What Actual Steps Can be Taken?
Persons in advanced economies need to cut down on their consumption. Jason Hickel, in his book Less is More, proposed five actions that would help save the planet and improve people’s lives. They are:
1. Cut planned obsolescence. American Capitalism needs to produce products with short lives so that consumers will need to replace or upgrade them on a regular basis. Some fashion houses design clothes that last only for a few wears or rapidly go out of style. Manufacturers could build appliances that last five times longer with manufacturers guaranteeing to keep them operating. This would greatly reduce material throughput and carbon generation without affecting people’s lives.
2. Cut advertising. Advertising is the main business tool that drives people to want more than they need. Ads exploit anxieties and make invidious comparisons that can be solved by products offering higher status, or more social acceptance or glamour. Companies are gathering increased information about each individual consumer so that they could trigger the hot psychological button to generate a purchase.
3. Shift from ownership to usership. Most home owned goods stay idle most of the time. The family car, lawn mower, power tools and other possessions are parked in the garage or closets. The idea of sharing more idle goods with friends and neighbors is on the rise. Persons owning cars can join Uber and persons with an empty bedroom can join Airbnb. More people are interested in renting goods than owning goods. If 10 neighbors all use the same lawn mower, this saves producing nine lawn mowers and saving a lot of materials and carbon fallout. Members of a community need to do more sharing.
4. End food waste. Studies show that 50% of food produced each year is destroyed during poor harvests, or on its way to the market or in homes and restaurants. Poor transportation or storage facilities lead to a lot of waste. If much of the waste could be ended, agriculture could meet our food needs with half as much land and create much less carbon. Instead of food waste ending up in landfills, more use should be made of composting the discarded food.
5. Scale down ecologically destructive industries. The need is urgent to replace fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal) with renewable sources of energy. A case can also be made that the beef industry generates high levels of methane and requires huge feed and slaughtering areas of land. The country could scale down the arms industry and the private jet industry.
I would add two other polices.
6. Place higher taxes on the rich. Use the funds to enable poorer families to have a more livable income.
7. Encourage lower population growth. Increase women’s education and career opportunities so that they will want fewer children.
Questions Still to be Answered
I confess that there are still questions to be answered in curbing consumption to preserve a healthy planet. Here are key questions and my speculations.
1. In curbing consumption, will the economy be able to produce enough jobs? In any economy transformation, some old jobs are lost and some new jobs are created. We may produce fewer “gas-driven” cars and more electric cars that will last longer and need new job skills and workers. Also the work week needs to be shortened so that people can benefit from having more leisure time.
2. Will people view reduced consumption as a sacrifice or view it as leading to a better lifestyle? This begs the question of whether human consciousness and behavior can be changed. The answer is yes, that people are essentially socialized into new lifestyles as economic conditions change. More people have moved from rural life styles to urban life styles as they moved into urban areas. People will be able to find new pleasures to replace older pleasures. Marketers are always ready to help shape new lifestyles.
3. Does Capitalism need to be replaced by another system? My answer is no. My answer is that Capitalism has to be improved. Look around the world and you will find all types of Capitalism. Let us assume that good Capitalism lies in the number of happy, healthy, and educated people the system produces. Then we would want our Capitalism to move to Nordic Capitalism. The countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland all have populations of happy, healthy, and highly educated people. Their citizens pay higher taxes and receive in return free health care services, free college education, five week vacations, maternity and paternity paid leaves, and generous childhood benefits. Nordic citizens don’t have to be stressed about health and college costs, lack of available housing, and other deprivations.[ii]
4. Will “Less is More” work in the world of poor countries? People in poor countries already live a “Less is More” life by necessity, not by choice. They would prefer to pursue “More is Better”. The problem of the world is that too many people have more than they need and even a greater number of people have much less than they need. Much of this article is primarily directed to the richer world in the hope that they may consume less and leave more to the poorer world to consume.
5. If growth is to be slowed down, how quickly should it be slowed down? If consumer spending suddenly dropped by 25 percent, the consequences would be harmful and disastrous. Many jobs would be lost and many people would not be able to pay their bills. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, its neighbor Finland went through a depression for four years. Formerly wealthy Finns found themselves going to soup kitchens. They were saved by the strong Finnish social welfare system. Clearly the slower the transition from an endless growth economy to a slower growth economy, the better.
Growth is the unquestioned goal in politics and economics. But this goal will ultimately lead to disaster in a world of diminishing resources. Transitioning to slower growth is the answer. The challenge is to promote wellbeing, equity, and sustainability as guideposts in moving toward more sensible growth. Our aim is to embrace a more sustainable and equitable path of growth. We need to lead leaner, happier, healthier and more satisfying lives.
[i] Jason Hinkel, Less is More. How Degrowth Will Save the World, London: Penguin-Random House, 2020. ISBN 978–1–786–09121–52020.
[ii] Philip Kotler, “Is America Ready for Nordic Capitalism?” The Sarasota Institute: A 21st Century Think Tank, Sarasota, Florida, December 14, 2020.