Last week, I attended the launch of Worldwatch Institute’s journal State of the World 2012. The topic of the latest State of the World issue is “Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity,” and is focused on environmental sustainability. Perfectly timed two months in advance of the Rio 2012 Earth Summit, the launch was one of the most impassioned and inspired events I’ve attended in the run up to Rio, in part because the authors involved in this year’s State of the World were not afraid to talk about the radical changes developed countries will have to endure if we are going to be serious about reversing climate change.
The most compelling idea of the day came from Erik Assadourian, who wrote about the concept of degrowth. A terrible moniker that is unlikely to replace “green” or “clean” economy, the ideas behind degrowth are nonetheless sound and important. According to Assadourian, “degrowth is the intentional contraction of overly inflated economies and the dispelling of the myth that perpetual pursuit of growth is good for economies or the societies of which they are a part.” He goes on to say that “degrowth can be achieved through policies to discourage overconsumption, raising taxes, shortening work hours, and ‘informalizing’ certain sectors of the economy.”
What does this look like in practice? Basically, the United States’ new model would be focused less on infinite growth and expansion, and more in keeping with the finiteness of the planet itself. Indeed, if everyone in the world lived and consumed like Americans, only 1.4 billion people could live on the planet. If we don’t start radically changing habits — perhaps by taxing carbon, better distributing work so that the unemployed and the overly employed both lead better lives, and making more sustainable lifestyles more economically feasible — it’s inevitable that the planet will be imperiled. The question no longer is “if” but “by when.”
Assadourian admits that degrowth is a “political non-starter”. It’s a great idea, but one that needs more analysis, practice and debate. But the way that Assadourian has framed it as a way for people to step out of the “rat race” is smart and an angle that no other environmental trend has fully promoted. As the world becomes increasingly competitive due to the economic imbalance, degrowth may lead the way to more sustainable prosperity.