A Brief Introduction to Degrowth


28 januari 2021
Auteur(s): Shanchuan Tian
This article gives an insight into the concept of degrowth and how the change in consumption and production is necessary.

Written by Shanchuan Tian


As a student from China which used to be an underdeveloped country, I was educated since my childhood not to waste any food. Thus, I felt astonished and uncomfortable when one day I saw a bag of bread and an unopened box of chicken in the dustbin of my residence which is mainly rented by students from European countries. Approximately one third of food is wasted across the entire supply chain every year. Food waste in low-income countries occurs at the production, post-harvest handling, storage and processing stages, while in middle-and high-income countries it mostly takes place in distribution and consumption phases. It is argued that food wasted by consumers in rich countries every year is as much as the net production of Sub-Saharan Africa. Agriculture is accountable for around 18.4% of Greenhouse gases (GHGs) emission every year, which results from the consumption of fossil fuels, decomposition of food and other sectors. In this regard, the reduction of food waste entails a decline in non-essential agriculture, which is helpful to mitigate climate change. In light of these aspects, a new paradigm “degrowth” has drawn my attention.

The concept of degrowth emerged in the first International Degrowth Conference for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in 2008. It is defined as a process of political and social transformation that reduces a society’s consumption while improving the quality of life. Characterized by reducing energy and resource consumption, degrowth provides a pathway so that inequality is reduced and human well-being is enhanced. The currently predominant capitalism has built up an economic system seeking perpetual growth and disproportionate bias to a minority rich class. The basic rule is “to consume more so as to produce more”. However, unnecessary and wasted products are also counted as consumption in the value chain. Therefore, plantations and factories keep manufacturing products no matter whether they are really consumed or end up in a landfill. In contrast, degrowth presents an alternative. It features a substantial reduction of dependence on economic growth and an increase in free time because working hours are reduced by cutting production, consumption and wasteful expenditures. It also proposes to reverse the development pattern by a transition to a “right-sizing” economy so that ecological footprint can be reduced and a more equal distribution of income can be achieved. Therefore, a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society will be developed. 

It is stressed that only high-income countries need to degrow, in particular those which disproportionately exploit natural resources more than their legitimate share. Developed countries are the primary contributor to the cumulative emissions of CO2 since 1850, which is accelerating global warming. Therefore, one feasible way to attain a safe carbon budget (a carbon budget is the cumulative amount of CO2 emissions permitted to keep within a certain temperature increase like 2°C set by Paris Agreement) is that high-income countries actively slow down their pace of material production and consumption as well as downsize the per capita footprint within a reasonable timeframe. Take the agriculture sector for example. If developed countries take initiatives to reduce food waste, fewer resources will be exploited to expand farming or import food. In consequence, less carbon emissions will be discharged in the process of production and transportation so that climate change is likely to be curbed. 

In addition, consumption of natural resources in the Global North relies extremely on the appropriation of the Global South’s share through unfair trade In a way degrowth represents a process of decolonization. Developed countries disproportionately appropriate natural and labour resources supplied by developing countries to sustain their material wealth, which is unsustainable and unfair from a global perspective. Therefore, developed countries should promote degrowth by reducing consumption of energy and natural resources. Degrowth is essentially a new mode of the North-South relationship by ending the unequal appropriation and unfair exchange which only benefits the accumulation of wealth in developed countries. If developed countries degrow, developing countries will retrieve opportunities to benefit from their own resources and improve their life quality. Some changes are taking place in the food sector. It is a good practice that supermarkets in Belgium sell food near the expiration date at 30% or 50% discount so that food loss is to a large extent reduced. In addition to initiatives taken by businesses, it would be a more pro-environment lifestyle if every household makes full use of food. It is much easier to promote this lifestyle compared to neutralizing carbon emissions within a settled time limit because the former pathway is a bottom-up approach that billions of people can optimize and make a significant change collectively. On the other hand, developing countries can also promote degrowth and advance sustainable development. Researchers focus on the restructuring paradigm in developed countries while neglect progress could also be made by developing countries. Promotion of sustainability is a common goal of mankind and all countries should take differentiated responsibility. If developed countries “sacrifice” their interests by degrading the present lifestyle and practising frugality, developing countries can also make contributions by investing in more energy-efficient and eco-friendly infrastructure and industries. For instance, China ranks first in terms of GHGs emission because it functions as the world factory, while it also endeavours to construct wind and solar power plants as well as launches afforestation projects so as to offset its carbon emissions. In this sense, developing countries drive economic growth and in the meantime reduce consumption of non-renewable energy, which aligns with the principle of degrowth. In addition, it is suggested that “design global, manufacture local” practice can provide localized solutions to human needs. Developing countries can fully utilize global division of labour by enhancing the capacity of local industries to gain a more independent and equitable economy when collaborating with enterprises from developed countries. In this way, decolonization is advanced and a new Global-South interrelationship is built.

To summarize, degrowth stresses reduced consumption of natural resources and more equal relationships between developed and developing countries. It puts an emphasis on quality of life rather than quantity of consumption so that a reduction in material wealth does not necessarily mean a decline in human well-being. When development is not only measured by GDP growth, and more concern is given to the enhancement of welfare and happiness of mankind, degrowth can be widely accepted and well promoted.

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