Degrowth could be the answer to the climate crisis: five takeaways from our climate justice conference

“We need to challenge the development paradigm that growth equals poverty reduction”

It is almost stated as an unquestionable fact: increasing GDP improves lives by lifting people out of poverty. However, it’s clear to see that economic growth does not necessarily reduce poverty. Rising country GDP more often than not goes hand in hand with unequal income distribution; it’s simply the accumulation of wealth for the richest 1%, while the number of people living in poverty are unaffected.

This pursuit of infinite economic growth has resulted in an unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels. There is no denying that fossil fuels have provided us with great improvements to the way we live. But the impending climate change disaster, caused by human emissions, threatens the future of our whole society. We need to act fast to explore alternatives to the current system.

So how do we improve equality and living conditions, while also preventing a climate catastrophe?

Over 250 people turned up to discuss this at our ‘Growth, degrowth and climate justice’ conference on Saturday. Speakers included Jason Hickel (author of The Divide: a brief guide to global inequality and its solutions) and Ann Pettifor (prizewinning economist and author of The Production of Money).

If the sheer numbers of people who turned up were not an indicator, the passion for change was evident from the lively discussions being started by the audience. The space provided an area to discuss topics in smaller workshop groups covering ‘what would degrowth mean to the global south?’, ‘barriers to post-growth prosperity’ and alternatives to the current system in ‘co-ops, the commons and the solidarity economy’.

If you missed it, here are five main takeaways from the ‘Growth, degrowth and climate justice’ conference:

1. We need to stop using GDP as an indicator

This widely used indicator is commonly referred to by politicians as proof of their good governance. Evidence that society has clearly progressed. But what does this actually tell us? Does it show that inequality has decreased? That marginalised voices are being empowered and represented? That happiness, health, or wellbeing has improved? It fails to do any of those things. It is merely an indicator that capitalism is in progress.

It was originally thought that poverty reduction is just an automatic by-product of economic growth. This simply isn’t true. What reduces poverty and injustice is changing the power relationships and institutions that have been keeping people in poverty traps. A more fair and equal society is what we need. Capitalism and inequality go hand in hand. The poorest in our society, for example, end up paying the most per unit for electricity and housing. This is an injustice that needs addressing.

2. Our economy is based on the idea that people create money from exploiting the natural environment

Ann Pettifor explained how irresponsible lending has caused global debt to spiral out of control. Planetary boundaries restrict how much we can continuously take from nature. The financial sector appears to have forgotten this fact. We would need a few more planets to exploit to ever be able to pay all the debt back. Another financial crash is inevitable. Next time round will be an opportunity to question why we are pursuing an unsustainable system. How can we have exponential growth on a planet with a finite number of resources?

3. Degrowth could improve our wellbeing

A common initial feeling was fear. The idea of decreasing anything seems to go against our natural instincts for progress; the narrative that ‘more is better’ has been pushed on us since birth by our capitalist system. Questioning the status-quo is always going to cause uneasiness. Surely degrowth would equal reduced living standards and unemployment?

On the contrary, by focusing on something other than GDP we can improve wellbeing – rather than job losses, the current amount of work could be reduced, and workload shared. A reduced working week would improve wellbeing and give people the time to enjoy leisure activities, focus on relationships and cook healthy meals. Our economy will need to shift to more caring roles and arts in order to stop exploiting the environment. Better societal appreciation for the normally unpaid labour that women do sounds like the right direction for me.

4. Shifting focus away from growth will decrease consumption, and therefore greenhouse gas emissions

By focusing less on growth, we can create a more circular economy. The quest for growth means companies use aggressive advertising to constantly tell us to buy more stuff. Buying endless stuff makes shareholders happy, not the consumer. Instead of buying single use items people can focus on products that last. Planned obsolesce needs to be addressed. These short-term gains are coming at the cost of future environmental collapse. Producing new materials is energy intensive. Transferring the focus away from consumption will create fewer emissions.

5. Climate consciousness is rising, but there is still more to be done

More than 250 people decided it was important enough to spend their Saturday at our event (200 more than we first expected!) Climate activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strike 4 Climate movement are increasing in popularity. The number of people who are willing to take direct action to tackle climate change is growing rapidly. People are getting tired of our government being complacent. We need radical change.

One of the biggest threats to the idea of degrowth is the lack of political will. History shows that political will changes - when public opinion changes. If we want to influence government policy, we have to share this information with our friends and neighbours. This is our future at stake. Perhaps degrowth could finally be the solution.

Here are three ways to take action:

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