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Can we live within environmental limits and still reduce poverty? Degrowth or decoupling?

Written by Simon Maxwell, Steve Wiggins

‘Degrowth’ involves reducing the production of material goods, and tackling the inter-locking crises of environmental degradation, climate change, poverty and inequality. In this, it aims to usher in a new era of what Jason Hickel calls ‘radical abundance’.

To understand the concept and engage with its core precepts, Development Policy Review presents a debate on degrowth and decoupling, curated by one of us (Simon) and overseen by the other (Steve). The protagonists in the debate are Jason Hickel, from LSE and the University of Barcelona, whose book Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World has become an essential reference; and Stéphane Hallegatte, an authority on green growth and lead economist in the Climate Change Group at the World Bank, who has co-led Bank reports, Inclusive green growth: The pathway to sustainable development (2012) and Decarbonising development (2015).

Degrowth or decoupling: five key issues

Five key issues run through the debate.

First, is there agreement on what ‘degrowth’ really means? Jason Hickel describes it as ‘well-defined in the literature and clear about what needs to be accomplished’. Stéphane Hallegatte demurs, arguing that there is ambiguity about whether de-growth means less growth, or simply less use of materials.

Second, is it possible to live within environmental limits and still increase GDP? Jason, while advocating environmental policies and recognising the potential of new technology, is ultimately sceptical. Stéphane is more optimistic, charting routes to decoupling growth from environmental impact. Richer countries, he argues, can implement better environmental policy and also have the tax revenues to invest in a greener economy.

Third, does a focus on GDP help or hinder transition? Stéphane argues for better valuation of environmental goods in estimates of GDP, and thus sees continuing value in the measure, alongside other indicators like unemployment or geographical inequalities. Jason Hickel proposes a more radical approach, abandoning GDP altogether in favour of social wellbeing and environmental indicators.

Fourth, where does the power lie to make the change? Jason is clear that ‘growthism’ is inextricably linked to capitalist value extraction, including through a long history of colonialism. He sees a need for:

"grassroot movements capable of challenging the powerful class factions that benefit so prodigiously from the status quo."

Stéphane recognises that change may be difficult, but focuses first on policies that are ‘efficient, fair, and politically feasible’.

‘We do not need to know all the answers to start acting, because we have in front of us many opportunities to reduce the environmental footprint. We can start there.’

Fifth, what does this imply for low-income countries? Jason and Stéphane agree that poor people need more material goods, as well as services such as education and health, to reach minimum standards of well-being. Reducing global inequality, they agree, would reduce both poverty and environmental impact. What might this imply for the Global South (a point not covered in the debate)? If rich countries cease to increase their material consumption, what does that mean for export-oriented routes to development? And what impact would forceful environmental policies in the North have on the Global South?

Jason and Stéphane agree on a great deal. As engaged researchers, appalled by the state of the world, by poverty, inequality and environmental collapse, they agree we need better environmental policies. Technical solutions, like the roll-out of renewable energy, must be accelerated. However, there should be no mistaking the difference in their two world views. Degrowth, as brilliantly summarised here by Jason, is a challenge to the entire economic system. Stéphane eloquently and admirably makes the case for an alternative approach. Who is right?

We hope readers will give the arguments the attention they deserve. The outcome of this debate is central to our common future. Please join the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #DPRdegrowth.