Degrowth never did catch on in the twentieth century. Rather, the prevailing ideas were “sustainable development” and, later, “green growth.” The main premise behind these two ideas is that economic growth can continue indefinitely while, at the same time, we can protect the natural world by reducing carbon emissions through environmentally friendly technologies. Green growth is often seen as an appealing vision and is the basis for most national greenhouse gas–reduction plans today, including Canada’s. But, for Peter Victor, a professor emeritus at York University and one of the world’s leading ecological economists, the numbers don’t jibe.
Over the past century, Victor says, global greenhouse gas emissions and gross domestic product have both risen dramatically. For green growth to work, economic prosperity and emissions would need to diverge, or “decouple.” But the decoupling hasn’t been happening fast enough. The technological changes that green growth relies on—which include shifts away from oil and toward renewable energies such as solar and wind—are not on track to meet global climate targets, Victor says. And, as our economy continues to grow, requiring more energy all the time, the carbon-cutting challenge will become even more daunting.
In 2019’s Managing without Growth, Victor modelled Canadian carbon emissions under three different economic scenarios. Under the business-as-usual growth scenario, emissions continued to rise dramatically. For the carbon-reduction scenario—which resembled green growth and involved the implementation of a high carbon tax that increased over time—carbon emissions declined 75 percent by 2067. In the sustainable-prosperity scenario, which included such degrowth principles as a reduction of the average hours worked per person and a guaranteed income, emissions dropped 86 percent by that same year. Poverty levels and income inequality also declined.
Victor says that a sustainable economy and planet are possible if we’re willing to get creative. One of the best ways to promote well-being and to live within our means is by changing our work-life balance. A shorter work week, Victor explains, could translate to fewer resources extracted and fewer emissions caused by the production, transportation, and consumption of goods. Countries like Germany, where people work, on average, over 300 fewer hours per year than Canadians do, show that it’s possible. “There are different futures out there,” Victor says. “We just need to be open to thinking about them and talking about them.”
For degrowth advocates, however, climate change is just one of many environmental problems that economic growth is causing. Peter Victor points to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which warns that more than 1 million species of animals and plants are likely to disappear this century. Some scientists have predicted that our planet has entered its sixth mass extinction event. “Even if we manage to ‘technology’ our way out of climate change,” Victor says, “there are other impacts of growth.”