Critics of ‘degrowth’ economics say it’s unworkable – but from an ecologist’s perspective, it’s inevitable

Written By: - Date published: 8:00 am, August 20th, 2023 - 22 comments
Categories: climate change, economy - Tags: , , , ,

by Mike Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington. Cross posted from The Conversation

Shutterstock/Matt Sheumack

You may not have noticed, but earlier this month we passed Earth overshoot day, when humanity’s demands for ecological resources and services exceeded what our planet can regenerate annually.

Many economists criticising the developing degrowth movement fail to appreciate this critical point of Earth’s biophysical limits.

Ecologists on the other hand see the human economy as a subset of the biosphere. Their perspective highlights the urgency with which we need to reduce our demands on the biosphere to avoid a disastrous ecological collapse, with consequences for us and all other species.

Many degrowth scholars (as well as critics) focus on features of capitalism as the cause of this ecological overshoot. But while capitalism may be problematic, many civilisations destroyed ecosystems to the point of collapse long before it became our dominant economic model.

Capitalism, powered by the availability of cheap and abundant fossil energy, has indeed resulted in unprecedented and global biosphere disruption. But the direct cause remains the excessive volume and speed with which resources are extracted and wastes returned to the environment.

From an ecologist’s perspective, degrowth is inevitable on our current trajectory.

Carrying capacity

Ecology tells us that many species overshoot their environment’s carrying capacity if they have temporary access to an unusually high level of resources. Overshoot declines when those resources return to more stable levels. This often involves large-scale starvation and die-offs as populations adjust.

Access to fossil fuels has allowed us to temporarily overshoot biophysical limits. This lifted our population and demands on the biosphere past the level it can safely absorb. Barring a planned reduction of those biosphere demands, we will experience the same “adjustments” as other species.

One advantage humans have over other species is that we understand overshoot dynamics and can plan how we adjust. This is what the degrowth movement is attempting to do.

To grasp the necessity of reducing ecological overshoot we must understand its current status. We can do this by examining a variety of empirical studies.

Material flows and planetary boundaries

Analysis of material flows in the economy shows we are currently extracting more than 100 billion tons of natural materials annually, and rising. This greatly exceeds natural processes – erosion, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes – that move materials around the globe.

Such massive human-driven material flows can destroy ecosystems, cause pollution and drive species extinct.

Only about 10% of these resource flows are potentially renewable. In many cases, we are harvesting more than can be regenerated annually (for example, many fish stocks).

Humans have now transgressed at least six of nine planetary boundaries. Each boundary has distinct limits, but in some instances the overshoot is at least double the safe operating level.

A graphic showing the planetary boundaries and humanity's overshoot.
We have now exceeded six planetary boundaries, and for some by at least double the safe operating level.
Stockholm Resilience Centre, CC BY-SA

Both material flow analysis and planetary boundaries provide critically important information about our impacts on the biosphere. But they fail to capture the full picture. The former doesn’t directly measure biosphere functioning. The latter doesn’t capture inter-dependencies between various boundaries.

The biosphere is a holistic entity, with many self-organising and interconnected subsystems. Our generally reductionist scientific methodologies are not able to capture this level of complexity. The methodology that comes closest to achieving this is the ecological footprint.

Biocapacity

The ecological footprint measures the amount of productive surface on Earth and its capacity to generate resources and assimilate waste. These are two of the most fundamental features of the biosphere.

It then compares this available biocapacity with humanity’s annual demands. Humanity’s ecological footprint has exceeded the biosphere’s annual biocapacity since at least 1970 and is currently almost twice the sustainable level.

The reason we can use more of what is generated annually is because we use stored biomass – ancient solar energy captured over millennia – to power this draw-down.

We must note that the ecological footprint is an acknowledged underestimate of our demands on the biosphere. Also, the biosphere isn’t there only for us. At least 30-50% of the biosphere should be reserved as wilderness to protect other species and global ecosystems.

Humanity exceeds its fair share of natural resources by more than 50%, and likely needs to reduce this demand by 70-80% to operate within carrying capacity. Those with greater wealth are responsible for a disproportionately large share of overshoot.

It’s not just a climate crisis

The political and public concern about climate change is considerable internationally and in New Zealand. But this is one of many environmental crises, together with soil erosion, groundwater pollution, deforestation, the rise of invasive species, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and the depletion of resources. They are all symptoms of overshoot.

The climate crisis is seen as a problem requiring a solution rather than a symptom of overshoot. The problem is generally formulated as looking for a way to maintain current lifestyles in the wealthy world, rather than reducing overshoot.

The ecological perspective accepts that we exceed biophysical boundaries and emphasises the importance of reducing energy and material consumption – regardless of how the energy is provided.

The scope of human disruption of the biosphere is now global. This ecological perspective highlights the current magnitude and closeness of significant and unwelcome changes to Earth systems. The reduction of humanity’s demands on the biosphere is an overriding priority.

Ecological economics, with its emphasis on a steady-state economy, is perhaps the most rigorous existing economic framework with specific proposals for determining priority actions. We urge scholars of all disciples to examine these.


The author acknowledges the contribution of Jack Santa-Barbara.

Mike Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

22 comments on “Critics of ‘degrowth’ economics say it’s unworkable – but from an ecologist’s perspective, it’s inevitable ”

  1. PsyclingLeft.Always 1

    I have met, and heard Mike Joy speak at an Ecology/Environment meeting, where he described the NZ freshwater Koura as like the canary in a coal mine. When they died….Warning ! He is a very down to Earth guy, able to talk to all people.

    In the post he uses the term "Ecological economics". Maybe thats a way to get through to some?

    Maybe our Earth is a "bank"…that we are getting overdrawn on? …

    And the payback..with interest, is going to be increasingly horrible.

    • weka 1.1

      I thought the term ecological economics was interesting too. It's clear that a big part of our problem is ecological illiteracy, then how to contextualise economics within that rather than seeing the environment as something over there we can take into consideration but it's separate from the real stuff.

      There are some other posts I will put up about what degrowth might look like, but this was a good starting point for understanding the problem.

      • PsyclingLeft.Always 1.1.1

        the environment as something over there we can take into consideration but it's separate from the real stuff.

        Yes, I see that too. There does seem to be a "it won't affect me, its overseas… somewhere."

        Have to say though, lately, I have seen a quite bit more about NZ Climate change problems on the media…incl the TV News. Some good clips too on Sponge Cities etc…

        Good on you for putting up Posts on same. I have seen and heard about Kate Raworth also.

        Also I agree the NZ lockdown period…while "bad" , also showed what came back…when streams of cars were not backed up in jams.

        Public Transport for all NZ would be a great Climate saver.

        • weka 1.1.1.1

          The pandemic was hard on many people but it also was an opportunity to change, One that we seem to have wasted, although I think when the next crisis hits we will be able to draw on some of the NZ pandemic response.

          That's good you are seeing more of the positive stuff in the MSM. I see this a bit too, it's quietly making it's way through.

          The election is so depressing I have to put up something proactive or it will do my head in 😉

          • PsyclingLeft.Always 1.1.1.1.1

            Its all good Weka. You do seem a Positive person. I find the same..you sometimes have to..search for the uplifts. But they are there.

            And I am finding more active Environment people and groups.

            Particularly around Public Transport. Bus and Rail. I liked the Nelson E Bus uptake..and Joe 90 linked to the Te Ngaru, The Tide

            https://thestandard.org.nz/open-mike-17-08-2023/#comment-1964788

            I do feel…the Tide : ) is turning.

            • weka 1.1.1.1.1.1

              cool thread.

              I think you are right that PT is a good focus. I don't follow a lot of the Auckland stuff because I don't know the landscape. But it seems like PT is the sweet spot between mitigation, adaptation, cost of living crisis, and something people can get behind because it helps them and the planet.

      • joe90 1.1.2

        a big part of our problem is ecological illiteracy,

        Perhaps, in the global south. Our problem in the north is that despite our ecological literacy, we persist with our self entitled consumption of whatever we want, whenever we want it.

        • weka 1.1.2.1

          Not quite following you there. The over-consuming world is very ecologically illiterate. We just don't think in systems.

        • joe90 1.1.2.2

          The over-consuming global north has spent >50 years developing an environmentally literate citizenry.

          (In 1969 the first issue of the Journal of Environmental Education was published. The Belgrade Declaration 1972 and the Tbilisi Declaration 1977 etc, etc followed.)

          Labeling the over-consuming world as very ecologically illiterate lets us off the hook.

          The term environmental literacy was first used 45 years ago in an issue of the Massachusetts Audubon by Roth (1968) who inquired “How shall we know the environmentally literate citizen?” Since then, the meaning of the term has evolved and been extensively reviewed (e.g., Roth 1992, Simmons 1995, Morrone et al. 2001, Weiser 2001, North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) 2004, O’Brien 2007). The notion of environmental literacy has been and continues to be promoted through creative and intensive discourse from a diversity of perspectives. The most widely accepted meaning of environmental literacy is that it comprises an awareness of and concern about the environment and its associated problems, as well as the knowledge, skills, and motivations to work toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones (NAAEE 2004).

          https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1890/ES13-00075.1

  2. AB 2

    In the first phase of CC denialism 25+ years ago, denialists claimed that we were hearing about the topic only because scientists got research grants to work in the area, and were pushing it to keep their funding streams going. The irony and hypocrisy in that claim, as we can now see, is that any such interest on the part of scientists is infinitesimal compared to the financial interests ranged against them on the denialist side.

    Denialists have a talent for adjusting their narrative to accommodate any new information – and have done so successfully in the years since then. . This overshoot idea that Joy describes will play quite neatly into some vaguely Malthusian idea that we can keep everything going as is, but need a sharp downward adjustment of non-elite population levels. There will be a few tech-bro billionaires who are up for that plan I would think. Scientists are admirable and earnest people, but the human capacity for evil is not something their work says anything about.

    • weka 2.1

      best we get on with transitioning to a steady state economy while we still have the democratic structures to enable that in a fair way then.

  3. Hunter Thompson II 3

    In both economic and environmental terms, governments all over the world have borrowed heavily, hoping for the best. The lenders are future generations.

  4. Mike the Lefty 4

    I doubt there would be anyone in National or ACT that would even be capable of understanding all this, let alone doing anything about it.

  5. jay11 5

    Degrowth won't save us now ; we have trashed the Planet.

  6. LawfulN 6

    This stuff is dreck – it's just an absolute waste of everyone's time.

    Degrowth is not a politically sellable strategy, particularly for people in developing nations. If there is a solution, it will be based on technology, probably including a revival of nuclear power. If there isn't, it will be no great mischief.

    • Leaps 6.1

      And therein lies the problem LawfulN. It's politically unsaleable because most people and politicians do not understand (or refuse to accept) that there are limits to what we can do. We are partying hard on the heady swill of extractive/polutting industries while ignoring the future consequences of the limits.

      Another big problem with degrowth economic systems is that they mean adopting many socialistic characteristics to ensure an appropriate share of our limited resources. The transition from neoliberal economics to much more socialist economics is to radical to contemplate for both economists and the wealthy that influence government policies.

    • That_guy 6.2

      Genuinely thanks for your comment, but I think you've simultaneously missed the point and proved the point.

      This is not an article about politics. This is an article about what is going to happen according to the laws of physics, which do not care about us and owe us nothing, not even our continued existence.

      Degrowth will happen. One way it may happen is that, by a combination of political action and changes in societal values, rich people consume a whole lot less.

      The other way it will happen is the way it happens when other species overshoot: most of the members that species die.

  7. That_guy 7

    Yep, good article, I think the choice is quite stark and obvious.

    Degrowth by means of political action and changes in societal mores, using already existing technologies. Handled right, most people will be able to live a good life, it's just that we need to leave behind our expectations of constantly increasing resource use. New technologies can add a buffer but cannot be a required component of the planned degrowth.

    or

    Degrowth the way other species do it: by most members of that species dying.

    • Hunter Thompson II 7.1

      At the end of his TV series Life on Earth, David Attenborough acknowledges that humans are just another species on the planet, having been brought about by evolution. There is no guarantee we will be here permanently.

      And even within the span of human history, civilisations have come and gone.

  8. Ad 8

    There is no biostasis possible.

    The earth is not going to back to the way it was.

    All the storms and sea level rises and droughts are now inevitable, particularly now we are past the 1.5c rise already. This is what the IPCC reports have been telling us since Kyoto. What we are doing is focusing on extending new forms of civilisation as long as we can; defend and extend.

    Great to "urge scholars to examine these" plans, but we (especially NZ) are now just in constantly-recover mode, no matter what form of agricultural business model you are in.

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