The “selling” of degrowth

Can those who advocate hitting the brakes on economic growth get their message across before it's too late?

SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

Over the last three decades, a growing number of scientists and ecologists have argued that economic growth has long outstripped the capacity of the planetary ecosystem. They have developed numerous sophisticated models to demonstrate their point. They have boiled down the technical information—about the availability of mineral resources, the limits of energy generation, the constraints of food production, the effects of biodiversity loss, and of course the impact of climate change—into accessible texts. They have lobbied governments, and they have crafted soundbites for the media.

Despite these efforts, economic growth remains at the heart of virtually every government’s national policy. Even the various Green New Deals that have been put forward around the world are wedded to notions of economic expansion. At the heart of these more recent attempts to bring carbon emissions under control is the concept of “green growth,” which has become the current mantra. So, inevitably, advocates of degrowth have addressed this new version of “sustainable” economic expansion.

“We have to continue to pound away with articles and social media to dispel that fuzzy and oxymoronic notion of ‘green growth,’ that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment,” observes Brian Czech, the founder of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) in Washington, DC.

The evidence that economic growth is associated not only with climate change but all the other ills of resource depletion is overwhelming. But evidence is not enough. “When we look at the discourses at the international and even at the national level, the recourse to the evidence is not what is necessarily moving the argument,” points out ecological economist Katharine Farrell of the Universidad del Rosario in Colombia. “We need to reflect on why the evidence that exists is not being taken into account.”

There are several reasons why the evidence in favor of degrowth has not been persuasive to policymakers and the public. One challenge has been non-rational fears of a world no longer governed by economic expansion. “Maybe we have to sit with people and ask them what they are afraid of if there’s no technological solution, if there is no growth. What are their fears?” suggests Marga Mediavilla, a systems engineer at the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain.

It is also difficult to push against a prevailing consensus, particularly given the risks of exclusion. “The very thought of being rejected will convince us to self-censor,” notes Simon Michaux, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Finland. “We will not look at certain ideas and thought patterns. We will censor what we say based on what we think the rest of the group thinks so that we don’t get pushed into an outside group.”

The complexity of the problem poses certain challenges as well. “We tend to be reductionist in our thinking,” argues William Rees, a bio-ecologist at the University of British Columbia. “We tend to choose one issue at a time to focus on and we lost sight of the overall picture. You can hardly get people to connect the dots, to see climate change, biodiversity loss, the pandemic, ocean pollution, and climate change as all symptoms of overshoot.”

And then there’s the flood of messaging that supports economic growth coming from all sides: governments, media, even the entertainment industry. “There’s a huge fire hydrant blasting people,” says Joshua Farley, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont. “We are an eyedropper trying to give them an alternative.”

Nevertheless, proponents of degrowth have been developing more sophisticated communication strategies to “sell” their ideas. And they have been translating those ideas into specific policy recommendations and platforms that are gaining greater traction in the public sphere. The question is whether they can overcome the aforementioned challenges to change public opinion and public policy in time to avert catastrophe.

The Question of Rationality

Human beings behave rationally—some of the time. We analyze the situation, make calculations based on carefully considered evidence, and then act accordingly—on some occasions. The rest of the time, we fly blind, guided by instinct, emotion, and other non-rational factors.

“According to social psychologists, human beings don’t behave rationally,” points out Katharine Farrell. “It’s necessary to communicate with people whose priorities are very different from ours and who are not necessarily paying much attention to the arguments.”

According to neuroscientists, the brain has evolved over time by adding functions. The older parts of the brain, often referred to as “reptilian” or “limbic,” now coexist with the regions of higher functioning in the neocortex. “We live in our cerebral neocortex as rational individuals and we think that that’s where the action takes place,” observes William Rees. “But all of our actions are filtered through the limbic. The bottom line is this: the rational component is often overridden by emotion and instinct. This happens unconsciously. We can think that we’re acting rationally, particularly in relation to other people, when in fact we’re acting out of self-defense mechanisms that arise when our social status or political opinions or other aspects of our identity are threatened. This was highly adaptive as little as 10,000 years ago when things didn’t change much, but it’s maladaptive today when we have to respond to a rapidly changing context.”

It’s not all in the mind either, Katharine Farrell adds. “There’s been a lot of work in brain science that has brought in the stomach and the body, which brings us back to the holistic nature of human existence,” she relates. “For instance, in English, we say it’s a ‘gut decision.’

The challenge, Marga Mediavilla clarifies, is not with emotions or instincts per se. “The problem is that rationally we are seeing a problem that the instincts don’t want to see. What we need is coherence among the three levels, with feelings, instincts, and rationality all working together.”

William Rees agrees. “I was not suggesting that there is anything wrong with emotions or instinct,” he adds. “But often they are in conflict with what our rational analyses tell us. If you believe a certain thing emotionally and are confronted with contrary information, it can be very difficult to accept alternative information.”

The Persistence of Group Think

It’s one thing when individuals are struggling in their own minds—and indeed throughout their entire bodies—to reconcile emotionally felt convictions with a set of fact-based assertions. This struggle becomes considerably more complex when it intersects with group dynamics.

For instance, an individual might conclude, based on available evidence, that the sky is about to fall. But the community where the individual lives dismisses this conclusion for no other reason than that it goes against received notions. Should the individual go public with the evidence based on rational observation and data collection? Or should the whistleblower keep quiet out of a fear of ridicule?

“Humans are entirely social,” Joshua Farley points out. “We can’t survive apart from the group. So, being part of the group is the most rational thing to do, from an evolutionary point of view. To signify that you’re part of the group is often to believe in crazy shit. Believing in crazy shit helps you stay alive. Rational science is good for the next 50 years, but if you’re not part of a group you’re dead in a few weeks in evolutionary terms.”

This group mentality applies to everyone, from scientists to those who belong to anti-vaccination groups. It has been shaped by our evolved neurobiology, William Rees points out, and it forms our identity from an early age. “Every group has ingrained but socially constructed beliefs that distinguish the ingroup from the outgroup,” he notes. “This is absolutely the case for scientists as well those who are religious and those who oppose everything we support. We are part of our tribes, and we seek out people and experiences that reinforce the way we think.”

Simon Michaux provides an example of the challenges of groupthink from his involvement in a meeting on sustainable development within the European Commission in Brussels. “There were CEOS, ministers, lots of bigwigs impressed with their own opinions,” he recalls. “They were getting up and saying that they want to take the world to a more sustainable place. I stood up and made two observations. First, I said that all industrial products in Europe depend on raw materials mined from the Global South, that the components are manufactured in China or Southeast Asia. All their sustainability rhetoric was lovely and what we should be going toward, but they were ignoring where the stuff was coming from. They were saying that ‘we don’t mine, it’s a dirty business,’ but they were still buying stuff from China.”

Michaux continues, “The second thing I said was that everything on the list they wanted to achieve was achieved by aboriginal culture thousands of years ago, an outcome that was stabilized for thousands of years. Then European colonialists turned up and destroyed that culture. ‘Can anyone refute those two points?’ I asked. And the room went silent. At a chemical level, humans are terrified of being rejected and getting pushed into an outside group.”

It is one thing to convince individuals to change their minds. It’s no easy task to alter the thought patterns of a group. Marga Mediavilla suggests borrowing techniques from social psychology. “To get out of this automatic mind, according to psychologists, is to make the unconscious conscious,” she points out. “Once it is conscious, then we can change the behavior. We don’t know that we believe in these unconscious beliefs that are causing us problems. It’s probably because we are experiencing some kind of trauma. We don’t want to look at the scarcity of minerals or planetary limits. We are worried that we might have to go back to a lifestyle that is not as comfortable as today. But our beliefs are preventing us from having a better relationship with nature.”

Katharine Farrell notes that colonialism is another trauma that affects groupthink. When someone calls that colonial narrative into question, as Simon Michaux did in Brussels, “the audience becomes uncomfortable,” she observes. “If they can ignore you, they will.” She also offers a powerful reminder that the group identity of humans derives from different sources. “Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos: these are the primates closest to us,” she relates. “Bonobos manage all of their relations through sex, compassion, and love. They’re generally quite timid and form a small and isolated population. Gorillas and chimps, on the other hand, are among the most violent animals on the planet—and we are more violent than they are.”

One way of overcoming groupthink based on faulty information or deeply held erroneous beliefs is to patiently establish new patterns of thinking through social learning—by way of educational systems, government programs, advocacy campaigns, and the like.

The second path is through a shock to the system. “People will remain in climate denial until they are up to their knees in water,” William Rees notes. “Here in Canada, we experienced a record heat wave this summer, registering the second highest temperature in the world. It was the worst wildfire season on record, and now we’re having the wettest November in the history of the country. In the last two weeks, the water has pushed 17,000 people off their farms and killed so many farm animals. It’s been an absolute catastrophe. A lot of people said that they didn’t believe in climate change until now. They didn’t believe in it until it’s right in their face.”

He adds that these catastrophes are straining the budgets of governments, “which are already stretched to the limit bailing us out of pandemic. It won’t be long before all the money in the economy will be devoted to repairing the damage done because of overshoot.”

The Challenge of Complexity

Absent a shock to the system, it can be difficult to persuade others of the perils of resource depletion and ecological overshoot because of the sheer complexity of the issue.

“Climate change is only one aspect of unsustainability,” Marga Mediavilla points out. “The world is now focused on climate change, but we face other problems like the depletion of resources. When you put them together it’s possible to see the whole picture of unsustainability.”

“Last year, it was the pandemic,” William Rees agrees. “Before that it was climate change and before that it was the economy. The human brain evolved in very simple times when you only had a few people to deal with and you lived in a relatively small space that you couldn’t influence that much. There’s been no natural selection to think in systems terms. Humans cannot anticipate the nature of behavior of most complex systems. We don’t know about thresholds and tipping points until they occur. The COP negotiators, who were policy wonks, economists, and politicians not climate scientists, had no real understanding of the complexity of interacting climate, economic and ecosphere systems—or else they wouldn’t have come to the conclusions they came to.”

“Most people don’t even know what steady state means,” adds Simon Michaux. “When they talk about the circular economy, it’s all about using things better. They talk about the value chain—manufacture, consumption, waste management, recycling, and back to manufacture. Then they say, ‘Hurrah, we’ve done our job and now we can have a nice lie-down.’ They don’t touch the inner ring of money, energy, and information systems. They think that world resources are infinite, that the ecosystem is fine and it’s just an economic problem. They have an attention span of 30 seconds. You have to convince them in 30 seconds before they move on to the next challenge.”

Complexity at an individual level is certainly a challenge, agrees Katharine Farrell. “The basic neurological functioning of a human being, which developed in stages, requires a certain amount of maturity to handle contradictions, which is the beginning of complexity.” But complexity is a different matter at a communal level. “The culture of consumption is just one culture,” she continues. “Analysis, the breaking into parts, is a trick of modern industrialized science and technology whereby we’re able to isolate certain aspects of physics and subject them to our will—and in the process of getting so obsessed with the toys, lose sight of the operator of the toys.” But other cultures “deal with cyclical knowledge and complex dynamics. And it’s incomplete to assume that complexity is the opposite of oversimplifying things. The complexity of a haiku is phenomenal.”

Communication Strategies

Understanding the limits of human cognition—the influence of non-rational factors, the persistence of groupthink, and the challenges of complexity—can help in developing more effective communication strategies. As with any effective communication, however, it’s important to know your audience.

“Everything has to be couched in the professional terms of the people we’re trying to reach,” Simon Michaux recommends. “If you don’t communicate in the language of the people you’re talking to, they’ll see you as threatening and the fight-or-flight instinct will kick in. Finance ministers want the language of accounting. They don’t care about technical details; they want numbers, preferably in graphs with shiny colors. Engineers and scientists want details and data, and if you’re not precise they’ll go after you. Investment people, the millionaires and billionaires, they also have a language. They also have counter-languages that they use as defensive postures to weed out troublemakers.”

“Occupying frontiers is not something everyone can do,” Katharine Farrell adds in an aside. “I’ve been in ecological economics my whole career. You get beat up when you occupy frontiers like that.”

Another key element of effective communication is a unified message. “We really need to unite around common rhetoric, phraseology, and terminology,” Brian Czech suggests. “There is a notion out there that it doesn’t matter what we call our alternative, as long as we are all after the same thing. But if you assess successful policy strategy over the past decades, you realize the importance of name recognition, which applies to individual candidates in electoral politics as well as to policy advocacy. When people say, ‘if you’re against economic growth, what are you for?’ we have to know right away what to say, and be united on that front. If we’re not for a steady-state economy, at a stabilized size that’s sustainable, then I don’t know what we’re for. Because we’re decades beyond a sustainable economy, we at CASSE have adopted ‘degrowth toward a steady-state economy.’ We have to bring the $133 trillion pre-COVID global economy down to a sustainable level.”

William Rees agrees on this last point: “If you look at the ecology, the global economy has to be a third the size or less of what we have now.”

A unified message can have an impact—as long as it has a fair chance of reaching an audience. “To have a community, you need good information,” argues Marga Mediavilla. “The information that comes to the public in Spain is crazy: 99 percent of the information comes from one side while only one percent makes sense and provides technically solid and sensible ways of getting out of the current climate crisis. People are overwhelmed by information, and it is of very low quality. People have no time to think. How do we build communities without a nervous system? We have to behave as an intelligent system but our system doesn’t have any nerves.”

Joshua Farley agrees that the average person is inundated with information, almost all of it supporting economic growth in both direct and indirect ways. “The amount of money spent on advertising, convincing us that the path to a better life is through consumption, is equal to the GDP of Canada, and it’s probably even more now. The biggest corporations are based on consumerism—Facebook, Amazon Google—all getting us to look at ads or buy things directly. We’ve given our airwaves over to the private sector, which sends the message that your life sucks unless you buy more things.”

Advertising is part of a larger economic system built around a messaging system of “market signals” that is devoted to the inflation of needs. “The problem is that we don’t produce for our needs but are artificially inflating our needs,” Marga Mediavilla points out. “This is because of two mechanisms. First, corporations are trying to inflate our needs so that we consume more than we need and so that they can get more profit. Second, people need jobs, and jobs depend on production. Working-class people think that they need growth in order to keep their jobs. These two mechanisms create a vicious circle.”

The larger goal, she continues, is for humans to decide human needs: “to make jobs and corporate profit a satisfaction of human needs rather than of production.” To do that requires delinking salaries from production. She describes an electricity cooperative where the owners, who are also the users, produce only as much as they need—and the compensation of the employees is not linked to the amount of electricity generated or distributed.

On top of all the challenges in communicating the degrowth message, Mediavilla concludes that “we are shy in presenting alternatives. If we don’t picture how life could be, people won’t see it.”

Developing Specific Asks

When he gives talks on ecological overshoot, William Rees includes a slide that lists what he considers to be the necessary requirements to exit the current crisis.

On the energy side of equation, the to-do list includes the phase-out of all frivolous use of fossil fuels. Among other things, this includes the elimination of all cars, including electric vehicles, and the cessation of all non-essential air travel. The remaining fossil fuel use that can be burned without exceeding the global carbon budget would go only to essential functions such as agriculture, industry serving basic needs, public transportation, and the heating of space and water. Manufacturing and agriculture would be re-localized to eliminate the carbon emissions associated with global supply chains.

Houses would be made more energy-efficient and considerably downsized. “In 1950-60, the average house in North America was 1,000 square feet and was inhabited by 3.8 people,” Rees notes. “Today, the average house is 2,500 square feet and is inhabited by 2.6 people. So, one person today gets the same square footage as an entire house from 60 years ago.” To cut down on transportation and remove the need for cars, most people would live in urban bioregions.

At the macroeconomic level, carbon taxes would discourage the use of fossil fuel while a fair income tax would distribute the economic burden. Money would be allocated to restore ecosystems. And to reduce the size of the future population, governments would deploy “non-coercive family planning programs, starting with better education and economic independence for women.”

In the United States, Brian Czech and CASSE have been focusing on revising the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (FEBGA) of 1978, otherwise known as the Humphrey-Hawkins bill. “This is the central economic policy of the United States, which puts the country on the GDP-growth path,” Czech says. “Those were amendments to the original 1946 employment act. A new set of amendments is way overdue. As part of the low-hanging fruit for amendment, we want the economic report to the president to include an ecological footprint analysis based on the prior five years and looking at the upcoming five years too.” The reporting would also look at indicators like GDP, which Czech doesn’t want to discard because it would continue to serve as a useful measure, just as a scale remains helpful for someone trying to lose weight. He also recommends renaming the act by taking out “balanced growth” and calling it simply the Full and Sustainable Employment Act.

Czech sees the passage of such an act as the kick-off to “what we call steady statesmanship: international diplomacy toward a contraction and convergence of the wealthier and the poorer countries.” For Marga Mediavilla, an essential element of remaking the global economy is reducing economic competition among countries, which creates an international version of what Barbara Ehrenreich called the “fear of falling” that has so paralyzed the American middle class. Another item on the wish list for many is Universal Basic Income, though Joshua Farley prefers that such a universal payment be tied to needs.

“When people ask me what we should do,” Katharine Farrell says, “I always say ‘buy local and get to know your neighbors. It’s a very simplistic way of addressing long global supply chains that generate information gaps that lead to cycles of overconsumption and the possibility of exploiting people without knowing it.”

Joshua Farley agrees that it’s important to buy local and get to know one’s neighbors. But he also points out that the “people in small communities who are already buying local and who know all of their neighbors are being hammered by biodiversity loss and by climate change, so it’s not enough.” William Rees adds that “buying locally is very difficult if everything is built somewhere else. All you’re doing is feeding the commercial machine without building up local artisanal capacity. We need greater economic diversity before buying locally can really mean anything.” Finally, Brian Czech notes that buying local is great “but if you have the bulldozer of fiscal and monetary macropolicy set to 3 percent growth, you’ll be plowed under.”

“I’m not sure that my predilection to buy local and know one’s neighbors is the leading edge,” Farrell concedes. “But it’s part of looking for the strange attractors that point in the right direction. It’s important not to waste time fighting decaying structures that will fall on you if you don’t get out of the way in time. Transformative change doesn’t take place inside the deteriorating extant structure. It takes place on the frontiers of transformative regeneration in the newly emerging structure.”

Despite all the pessimism about the current trajectory of the world and the challenges that face advocates of degrowth, Brian Czech remains cautiously optimistic. “We have two major allies: sound science and common sense,” he concludes. “We’re going to win at some point. There will be major catastrophes first, but it’s crucial that we have the leading explanations so that the pieces can be picked up correctly afterwards.”


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