Arguing for Degrowth – What’s the Evidence?

Michael Jacobs and Jason Hickel in conversation about the need for degrowth in the global North and the movement’s potential as a political agenda.







The question of growth versus degrowth is a divisive one. Although most leading thinkers today agree that growth in and of itself is not a goal worth pursuing, the question whether decoupling is possible, and hence growth on an aggregate level should be allowed at all, is still lacking a consensus. On the occasion of our Limits to Growth Symposium, Jason Hickel, one of degrowth’s most famous proponents, had a conversation with Michael Jacobs about the evidence behind degrowth’s call for a reduced material throughput in the global North and the suitability of the movement’s proposals as a political agenda.

Jason Hickel started by acknowledging the pressure among policymakers to maintain growth. At the same time, he argued, evidence on the connection between material use, energy consumption and environmental devastation is very clear. The reason degrowth does not take on an agnostic position in the face of the question whether growth is good or bad, according to Hickel, is that the challenge of decoupling and decarbonizing the economy becomes more overwhelming the larger the economy grows. Crucially, the crisis is caused not by the world as a whole but driven forward mostly by the overconsumption of a number of rich countries in the global North. As Hickel sees it, these countries are therefore under a special responsibility to degrow their excessive material and energy use. Importantly, degrowth’s agenda is not about degrowing each sector of the economy but about distinguishing very precisely which sectors should degrow (destructive industries, production of luxury goods etc.), and which areas should in fact be allowed to grow (investments in healthcare, renewable energy etc.).

“The recent IPCC report is very clear on that, that we need growth in certain sectors, but we need to scale down others.”

As another pillar of degrowth’s agenda, Hickel named the provision of universal basic services and reforms of the labor market towards job sharing, job guarantees, and other means of improving social outcomes.

In terms of open questions pertaining to the degrowth agenda, Michael Jacobs emphasized the unclear relationship of the movement with technology and the process of innovation. In growth-friendly circles, typically the idea that the economy will realize efficiency improvements and bring forth new technologies speaks in favor of its ability to address the environmental crisis while continuing to grow. Hickel argued that degrowth is not in fact anti-technological, but focuses on developing policy recommendations from the status quo, rather than placing hope on technological solutions and reforms that have not yet been implemented, or even been conceived of.

“It is a very risky gamble to rely on something that has not been created.”

Michael Jacobs also challenged Jason Hickel regarding degrowth’s impact on income and social outcomes more broadly, given that a lot of welfare generating processes currently rely on growth. According to Hickel, rather than focusing on GDP as a measure of wellbeing and welfare, it would be much more coherent to focus on the provision of essential goods and services and distribution of the existing wealth, which currently benefits the few and not the many.

Finally, the debate moved onto the question of degrowth’s potential as a political agenda. Michael Jacobs declared himself skeptical of the possibility that degrowth could in fact be picked up as a government program. More than a political agenda, degrowth should be considered a cultural movement. Jason Hickel disagreed and emphasized that while political parties may not be inclined to use the term, the need to secure human livelihoods and ecological destruction, and degrowths’ policy proposals for achieving this objective, may well be powerful enough to win elections.

The discussion as re-live



Do we need a whole new understanding of economic growth? What would be a real alternative? How viable are alternatives to GDP when it comes to measuring prosperity? These and other more fundamental challenges are what this section is about.