How To Save The Planet 101: Degrowth vs Green Growth 

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

The term “degrowth,” is an economic concept gaining more traction in Europe than it is in the United States right now. Degrowth is shaped by the recognition that economic growth is directly related to increased carbon emissions. It emphasizes the harmful effects that consumerism has on the environment and how a shift in individual and collective value is absolutely necessary if we want to save the planet from destruction. This “shift in value” can range from boycotting fast fashion by prioritizing longevity and organically produced clothing to increased budgets for clean energy and lower budgets for natural “resource” extraction. I use quotes for “resources” because our understanding of them is fundamentally wrong. A resource is not, and realistically never should have been, something predicated on extraction and the harming of the planet that gives us life.

Recently, a little over a week ago, Daniel Driscoll, a soon-to-be sociology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote an article critiquing degrowth in the leftist magazine Jacobin. Firstly, this article does not seem to align with Jacobin’s claim as a “leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” The author is clearly a proponent for “green growth” which fundamentally believes that economic growth can increase as carbon emissions decrease (think “Green New Deal,” which prioritizes sustainable growth). I wouldn’t say that I am necessarily an advocate for socialism, but there seems to be nothing socialist about green growth if the main focus is reinforcing the power of the free market. Conservatives in the United States seem to disagree. Lisa Friedman at the New York Times writes about the Green New Deal saying it has been “vilified by opponents as a socialist plot to take away your ice cream.” Either way, “green growth” is better than blatant growth that disregards the health of our people and planet. We must make sure not to vilify others working towards the same planetary preservation goals, and I do believe the Green New Deal is one step forward. Unfortunately, the bar is so low right now and much of the world, especially the United States, seems to have trouble understanding that.

Where this conversation becomes particularly interesting is Timotheé Parrique’s response to Driscoll’s critique. His response is incredibly well thought out with just the right amount of feistiness; you can easily recognize Parrique’s passion for degrowth. Parrique immediately points out Driscoll’s reductionist perspective of global sustainability. In the opening line of his argument he writes, “For Daniel Driscoll, sustainability equals decarbonisation.” This point emphasizes the dangers of ignoring the interconnectedness of environmental issues occurring today. Parrique explains, “Achieving carbon neutrality is like solving one face of a Rubik’s cube – necessary but not sufficient. And watch out: trying to solve one problem might mess up another….This is why sustainability is so complex: all faces of the Rubik’s cube must be solved together.” If there’s anything I’ve learned as a sociology and anthropology major at a liberal arts college, it’s that our world’s problems are all interconnected (check out Daniel Schmachtenberger and “The Metacrisis” if you want to learn more about this). Ultimately, reducing the issue down to one small piece of the puzzle is not an effective solution to drive policymaking during a time of crisis.

The article beautifully breaks down many concepts and ideas that would make this piece far too long if I were to go through it all, so I highly encourage you to read it yourself. However, one of the most important ideas Parrique breaks down is a “rebound effect” where an increase in the efficiency of production paradoxically leads to an increase in harmful emissions. He points out that an iPhone 14 Pro Max is “between 32% and 125% more carbon-intensive than the iPhone 3G” and explains that “fourteen years of technological progress have not managed to bring down the footprint of the main product made by a company acclaimed as one of the most innovative in the world.” An increase in the efficiency of production, or new technology, might lead to economic growth, but it has not proven to decrease emissions, and we need quick results. How can we reevaluate our systems that determine if new technology is worth pursuing in the first place? 

I think the biggest difference between “degrowth” and “green growth,” put simply, is that degrowth prioritizes how we budget money that already exists whereas green growth relies on the creation of new money and products that do not currently exist. Driscoll believes that “a global investment boom is necessary to pay for decarbonization,” but why don’t we just, as Parrique proposes, “free up an ecological budget somewhere else?” He explains that even if a revolutionary electric car were to be released to the public, it would take too long to fully replace what already exists. I would also add that it would simply be just another thing that people will want to have more of. A better solution then, would be to find ways to sell fewer gas-powered cars and reduce the need for cars in the first place. More bikes are so much better than more cars.

Again, this is a short introduction to the “degrowth” versus “green growth” discourse, but I believe as the world continues to rely on us to save it, we should all be more mindful of how we think about growth and how we choose to spend our time, money, and energy. Nobody wants climate change, so why are so many of us acting like we don’t care? As Alexa Firmenich would say, there is no economy without the Earth to sustain one. 

I believe the answer to this existential issue lies in a collective shift in the valuation of our own time and resources. Some may say that degrowth will lead to lower standards of living, but I can almost promise that only having one reusable Stanley mug or an iPhone that doesn’t break after four years (seriously, we need to end planned obsolescence), or only having a few pairs of shoes, isn’t going to lower your standard of living. Am I oversimplifying it? Not really… we can all be working to “[find] more ecologically efficient ways of securing decent living standards” as opposed to buying stuff that clogs up our lives. I do want to point out, however, that this is no fault of one’s own and more so a result of the social conditions that have made us constantly longing for another one of their products. We can all work to curb this way of thinking through our everyday actions. A little restraint might go a long way.

Again this is only a small introduction and I highly encourage you to read Parrique’s response. If you have different opinions or want to talk about it, feel free to reach out. I hope you learned something new and gained new perspectives on how to solve the problems that have developed from humans’ failure to protect and respect the one thing none of us can live without. That’s the Earth, not our iPhones, by the way.

1 Comment

  1. Good piece, Freddie. Jacobin is not great.

    But this really is quite the morass. Consider: much has been written about the environmental devastation wrought by LLMs and generative AI (I recommend “Atlas of AI” by Kate Crawford), and Parrique’s response piece you linked is a WordPress blog. WordPress’s parent company, Automattic (which also owns Tumblr), is in talks with OpenAI and Midjourney to provide these companies training data, according to a report by 404 Media.

    Will Parrique’s own words be levered by Automattic, OpenAI, and Midjourney to grow their profits and further jumble the Rubik’s cube of sustainability? Essays on degrowth to grow the machine? This feeds right into his observation of “energy addition” if the consumption of these industries keeps pace with the development of green energy.

    So I agree with you that a collective shift in our valuation of time and resources is needed. I don’t know if that will look like bicycles, reusable mugs, or less wasteful phones (though these are all good things). When I think of collective shifts, I envision things like boycotts against OpenAI, more calls for the likes of Swarthmore College’s endowment to divest from destructive industries, and electrified public transit.

    And whose AI did I train to answer the reCAPTCHA to post this? I wonder who would need to know what crosswalks look like.

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