What is degrowth and how does it intersect with the population movement?

Written by Olivia Nater | Published: October 23, 2023

Degrowth, an environmental ideology that seeks to replace our current growth-based economic systems, has been gaining traction in recent years. Let’s explore what degrowth proponents aim to achieve and how this fits in with the goal of ending human population growth.

The origins of degrowth

The term ‘degrowth’ (translated from “décroissance”) was coined in 1972 by Austrian-French political theorist André Gorz, who during a debate posed the question, “Is the Earth’s balance, for which no-growth—or even degrowth—of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?” That same year saw the publication of the Club of Rome’s seminal The Limits to Growth, which used mathematical models to demonstrate that continuing on existing growth trajectories would likely lead to economic and population collapse within a century. Broadly, degrowth refers to the need to end consumerism and the reckless pursuit of GDP growth and to instead focus on improving human and planetary well-being.

Logo of the French political party dedicated to degrowth, founded in 2006. The snail imagery is widely used in the degrowth movement.

The degrowth movement began forming in France in the early 2000s, when the term was used to push back against the newly popular buzzwords ‘sustainable development’ and ‘green growth,’ which some see as oxymorons and attempts to greenwash business as usual. Unlike green growth proponents, degrowth supporters were (and are) skeptical that economic development can be sufficiently decoupled from resource use to avoid further deterioration of our environmental crises. The first international conference entirely dedicated to degrowth was held in Paris in 2008, and the Degrowth Conference has occurred biennially ever since, traveling to cities around the world.

Current degrowth movement and interpretations

Degrowth is a form of ‘post-growth,’ the umbrella term for alternative economic models that are not growth-based, which recognize planetary boundaries and reallocate funding from destructive industries to environmental protection and ensuring a good quality of life for all.

Degrowth.info, a “political collective” which runs an extensive online library of degrowth-themed resources, defines degrowth as “an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction,” and states the movement “advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production, and excess consumption.”

Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and the author of “Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World,” defines degrowth as “a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.”

Policy ideas include universally accessible healthcare and education, eliminating harmful subsidies (such as for fossil fuels and intensive farming), higher taxation of the wealthiest people and environmentally damaging products and activities (such as beef and air travel), a universal basic income, better working conditions, decentralized decision-making, and fostering community cooperation, self-sufficiency, and resilience. The movement also calls for abandoning GDP — which reflects the total value of the final goods and services produced in a country — and replacing it with more holistic well-being indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, which includes environmental and social factors. For example, rapid industrialization generally leads to a surge in GDP, but usually entails greater pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, worker exploitation, and inequality.

Criticisms of degrowth

Critics of degrowth liken it to an enforced recession, which would lead to hardship and suffering. Some claim that it’s unfair to low- and middle-income countries, which need to grow their economies in order to raise living standards. However, prominent degrowth scholars explicitly state that well-being and social and environmental justice are a priority — they call for drastically reducing production and consumption in wealthy nations to “make space” for developing countries to grow theirs. The degrowth movement also aims to increase well-being within high-income countries — while some would face a reduction in their material consumption and home size, for example, proponents argue that these inconveniences would be more than compensated for by job and income security, better health, and a greater sense of community.

Critics also contend that shrinking the economies of rich countries would indirectly harm poorer countries due to the interconnectedness of the global economy and potentially reduced aid budgets. In addition, they argue that economic shrinkage would lead to less innovation, which could set back important progress in medicine, renewable energy, etc.

Finally, degrowth is often considered politically infeasible, but degrowthers argue that all major social movements were difficult to achieve, and that we have to make it happen anyway, as it is required to end overshoot and thereby prevent environmental and societal collapse.

Degrowth and population concern

The degrowth movement and the population movement are based on the same basic understanding that a finite planet cannot support infinite growth. Despite this shared principle, population discussions don’t seem to crop up very often within modern degrowth literature.

London Underground crowdAn article on degrowth.info acknowledges that population is an important factor in our collective impact on the environment, referencing the IPAT equation — where impact (I) is a product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T) — but then goes on to argue that policies to reduce consumption are preferable as they are “less intrusive.” The author doesn’t seem to be aware that the most effective way to slow and end population growth is to empower women to make their own decisions about their bodies and lives. In every country where women are free to access contraception, education, and the job market, fertility has dropped below the replacement rate, leading to population “degrowth” in the absence of high immigration.

Investing in international family planning and education is morally essential because it helps fulfill basic human rights, but it is also critical because on average, developing countries are experiencing the fastest economic and population growth. Both lead to rapidly increasing environmental pressure, but while economic growth in these countries is key to reducing poverty, rapid population growth threatens already fragile services, infrastructure, and peace and security, and can cause recessions.

The World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, published in 2019, also made it clear that both consumption and population need to be tackled. The authors indirectly express support for degrowth, stating:

“Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality.”

They also call for stabilizing and “ideally reducing” world population through policies that “make family-planning services available to all people, remove barriers to their access, and achieve full gender equity, including primary and secondary education as a global norm for all, especially girls and young women.”

Earth4All, a think-tank collaboration, recently published a report showing that the Earth could sustain our current population of 8 billion and counting if everyone adopted a minimum standard of living with an annual income per person of $15,000–$19,500. Achieving a smaller population size, even though it is not a quick fix, would ultimately enable a higher average quality of life.

Degrowth and population concern are closely intertwined. Our capitalist systems demand a continuously growing population to support a continuously growing economy — this is why many governments (and Elon Musk) are now fretting over low birth rates instead of embracing them as the hugely positive development they represent. The push for more babies (which in some countries is already turning coercive) won’t end until we kick our addiction to economic growth and begin to see the world through a less nationalistic lens.

Policymakers still shying away from real solutions

Policymakers, unfortunately, generally aren’t attracted to either capping consumption or empowering population action. Instead, they prefer to focus solely on the T factor in the IPAT equation, wishfully thinking that technological innovation will enable a continuation of business as usual, even though the scientific evidence shows otherwise. It’s rather telling that recent reports by the scientific authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), mention both degrowth and population, while their Summaries for Policy Makers — which are authored by governments and corporations — don’t.

We need better technology, and an end to overconsumption and overpopulation. Pursuing only one of these while ignoring the others won’t solve our ecological overshoot and will only lead to further deterioration of human and planetary well-being. The more we address all three factors, the less drastic of a reduction we’ll need to make in any one factor.

Interested in learning more about degrowth and how it differs from green growth? Here’s an interesting debate hosted by Oxford University: