Can we degrow for greater well-being?

Earlier this month I attended and gave a talk at the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth. With over 600 speakers and around 3000 participants from both scientific and activist communities there was an incredible energy for the idea of “degrowth”. I’ve been somewhat familiar with the degrowth movement for some time and in many ways I live what some would regard as a degrowth lifestyle – living extremely convivially – but this was going to be my first conference on degrowth. I thought it would be a great way to learn more about the movement and also have an opportunity to understand how degrowth relates to my research interests in the area of happiness and well-being.degrowth leipzigBut first, since many people are perhaps not familiar with degrowth as a concept, what is meant by degrowth? Degrowth in its simplest form, as stated by the organisers of the conference, represents:

“a downscaling of production and consumption in the industrialized states that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet.”

From this some might conclude that degrowth is simply about being in an economy with negative growth. We know that recessions can be bad for well-being e.g., particularly due to higher unemployment, and greater uncertainty for those lucky enough to have jobs. However, a degrowth society is much more than this, and reflects:

 “ a society in which humans live within their ecological limits, with open, connected and localized economies. A society in which resources are more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions. Such societies will no longer have to “grow or die”. Material accumulation will no longer hold a prime position in the population’s cultural imaginary. The primacy of efficiency will be substituted by a focus on sufficiency. Innovation will no longer focus on technology for technology’s sake but will concentrate on new social and technical arrangements that will enable convivial ways of life. Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of the Gross Domestic Product as an overarching policy objective, but proposes ways for a radical change of our economic system, to create more space for human cooperation and resilient ecosystems.” 

(here you can view the introductory lecture given on degrowth in Leipzig)

Thus at its very essence degrowth is not just about doing less of the same of what we’re currently doing but about doing things differently, perhaps very differently – as the degrowth saying goes ‘your recession is not our degrowth’. Degrowth offers a counterbalance to the perpetual growth paradigm – the idea that our economies need to grow and grow regardless of ecological limits or externalities that may harm our well-being both now and in the future. The movement for degrowth therefore parallels debates and movements that others may be more familiar with, for example, “Beyond GDP”, “Post-growth societies” and “Well-Being Policy“, which generally take the position, to greater or lesser extremes, that having economies based around growth is not only largely unsatisfying and unfulfilling for huge swathes of the population but also won’t last forever.

dishesdegrowth travel


lecture leipzig


Thus the degrowth movement feeds directly into well-being research and policy. Well-being researchers have known for decades that individual and societal income growth generates very little, if any, well-being increases. So if growth isn’t generating greater well-being could degrowth? Often movements towards ecological sustainability are viewed as requiring some elements of self-sacrifice. However, moving toward sustainability is about creating a better world for ourselves and raising our well-being now and in the future. We need to not only talk about doing something different but we also need to act, as individuals, as societies, and at the degrowth conference people weren’t just talking about degrowth but really engaging with it – being progressive, leading the way. Session topics both ranged from sufficiency and social reformism to anti-capitalist and feminist perspectives on degrowth, as well as many practical workshops on how we as individuals can embrace degrowth in ourown lives. The conference itself was authentic in so many senses – an impressive completely vegan menu, non-commercial accommodation options (e.g., camping, couch-surfing), and people travelling to Leipzig by ecological means (personally I hitch-hiked). It is important to act as well as talk.

My own talk, which was in a special session on “well-being, social capital, and income changes”, assessed how income losses might relate to well-being. Last year we published a paper showing that income losses have a greater effect on well-being than equivalent gains and this paper suggests that degrowth would potentially be destructive. Our work rather recommends economic stability over degrowth but importantly offers a warning over having growth rates that are unsustainable in the long-run. However, the paper I presented at the conference was an extension of our published work and in my talk I highlighted that this effect is not likely to be the same for everyone and, whilst some individuals with certain personality traits may find it difficult to cope with income losses, others may be better prepared for a degrowth economy.

From a well-being perspective an important issue seems to me whether the movement toward degrowth is taken voluntarily or involuntarily. This is particularly relevant if we reach a point where we have been unsustainable for too long and degrowth becomes inevitable with economic hardships are forced upon us. However, were a voluntarily path to degrowth taken the psychological consequences may be more likely to be more controlled, if not beneficial. Those, which includes me, who pursue a path conducive towards degrowth will be aware of the benefits of having a better work-life balance, focusing away from material possessions, and sharing with others. This embodies a key idea within the degrowth movement of needing to do things differently – the social imaginary needs to change and we need to move away from an economy centred around producing and consuming more “stuff”. We need to move towards a world where we have a better work-life balance and away from a world where a large proportion of the population are left without jobs, yet others are working more than they would perhaps like. We need to rebuild trust within our local communities.  We need to look after ourselves both physically and mentally.

So can we really degrow to greater well-being? It is far from clear what a degrowth society will actually look like in precise terms but it seems to me that it will closely resemble one that aims at promoting individuals and societal well-being – both present and future. This seems like a sensible step for humankind, and one we should take together sooner rather than later. In the meantime we can all act as individuals to improve the quality of our own lives, and thankfully we can start this process immediately and simply “be the change”.

typical person saw

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