10.4 Work: Degrowth

Author: Madeline Dawson

ABSTRACT: In order to achieve decarbonization and sustainability, an abolishment of society’s objective of economic growth will be necessary. The term “degrowth” refers to a planned economic contraction and a shift away from our current system of production and consumption, creating a new structure with a reduced use of energy and raw materials (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth).


The notion of “degrowth” has been discussed since the 1970’s, as a critique and questioning of the ever-present objective of economic growth in our capitalist system. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s and the founding of the Institute for Economic and Social Studies on Sustainable Degrowth that the movement became widespread, adopted and supported by green and anti-globalization activists around the world (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth, 24).

An idea central to capitalism is continuous economic growth. Every year GDP’s are expected to increase, corporations and businesses to produce a greater and greater profit, and raw materials transformed into something even more valuable. Degrowth rejects this idea and insists that it is an unsustainable structure of life – it calls for an equitable, collective shift away from our continual consumption of natural resources and an equitable downscaling of production, in turn lowering our reliance on energy and raw materials (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth, 24).

Currently in our society, above the level of economic growth required to satisfy all basic personal needs, any increased amount of wealth is invested in “positional goods”. These goods can be material or otherwise, such as cars, university education, or real estate, that generally are intended to convey one’s social as well as economic status – things that depend on and display your income level. Such things are by definition scarce – if everyone had an expensive car it is no longer a symbol of wealth. (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, 167). However, this practice is actually made less accessible by growth: as the “material component of the economy gets more productive, positional consumption becomes more expensive” – resulting in the drastic income divide we see in our society today (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, 167). The promise of growth, however, is currently the only way in which the illusion of upward social mobility can be sustained (albeit temporarily) without active redistribution of wealth.

It makes sense to pursue wealth on a personal level, since that is the system in which we reside; yet collectively, continuous growth is a “zero-sum game” (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, 167). Growth wastes resources – in affluent societies like ours a high proportion of social income is wasted on positional consumption, while public goods that would improve the quality of life for all are ignored and left to deteriorate (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, 167). Time is budgeted and quantified in money – essentially growth puts a price on free time. It also commodifies unpaid goods and services, like education, or even simple things like entrance fees for parks and beaches (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, 168). Once the level of wealth in which basic necessities are met, increased economic growth no longer increases wellbeing, but instead deteriorates it for the majority of the population. Affluence grows further and further out of reach, and the drive for increased wealth grows in a terrible cycle (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, 168).

Furthermore, research suggests that growth is already declining – and will inevitably decline or collapse, whether due to diminishing material and energy stocks, or a restriction from climate change. Either way, currently economic growth is tied to fossil fuels, and will only become more unsustainable over time (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth, 26). We can choose to plan this descent and use it to our advantage, or let it take advantage of us. Degrowth will make positional goods less expensive, increasing wellbeing and releasing collective resources from unnecessary consumption. It would mean an improvement in and increased access to basic goods like education, healthcare, and public infrastructure. It would mean more people have access to what they need, and less people have access to what they do not.

The key point, however, is that within this current system sustainable energy use is not possible. As long as increased profits are the goal, increased consumption and increased energy use will be the result (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth, 26). In order to actually decrease energy usage, supply and demand have to decrease. Shifting to a degrowth model is necessary to shape society into a sustainable way of living. Some of these changes would include: a shift to producing things for our own use, exchanging of goods as reciprocal offerings instead of monetary payment, an increase in unpaid labour and voluntary participation, a reduction in the commodification and specialization of labour, “communing”, and foremost a dismissal of the current culture of constant accumulation and expansion (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth, 28). Some practical alternative examples of these practices already exist, including guaranteed basic and maximum income, work-sharing, community currencies, co-operatives business models, civic agriculture, and debt-audits (Kallis, Demaria, and D’Alisa, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era).

While many of these practices are out of reach on a truly individual level, there are many ways degrowth can be embraced in day-to-day life, in ways like radically reducing waste, re-localizing food production, cycling, installing household and community solar panels, domestic biogas production, solar ovens, peer-to-peer sharing, gift economy, and re-communing public and private space (Alexander and Gleeson, 912).


Alexander, Samuel & Gleeson, Brendan. “Suburban Practices of Energy Descent.”

American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 79, no. 3, 2020, pp. 907-940.

Kallis, Giorgos & Demaria, Federico & D’Alisa, Giacomo. “Degrowth.” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, vol. 6, no. 2, 2015, pp. 24-30.

Kallis, Giorgos & Demaria, Federico & D’Alisa, Giacomo. DeGrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. Routledge, 2015.

Leave a Reply