It was 2005 when Bob Thomson first heard about a man marching across France with his pet donkey, drawing crowds with his fiery speeches about how humanity’s need for constant growth would be our undoing. The man’s name was François Schneider; the donkey was called Jujube.

Thomson, then fifty-nine and working for an NGO in Paris, set out with three colleagues on a road trip to the small central town of Magny-Cours to see Schneider complete the last leg of his journey. “We went down for the weekend and camped out and just listened,” says Thomson, now retired and living in Ottawa. There were about a thousand people there, Thomson recalls, a mix of activists, academics, and curiosity seekers, who walked with Schneider and Jujube before setting up tents in a field near the centre of town.

As Thomson tells it, Schneider, an industrial ecologist by training, described his vision for “décroissance,” or degrowth, over the course of the weekend. Economic growth, he argued, was inextricably linked to environmental degradation and climate change. His message was simple: the more goods we produce and consume, the more damage we inflict on the environment and, inevitably, ourselves.

Schneider told the crowd that the solution to our planetary problem was obvious: we need to embrace living with less. Governments must prioritize social and environmental well-being over economic growth by using tools like stronger environmental regulations, higher taxation on the rich, and a shorter work week. The change must be personal, too, he said. It means making less money and buying fewer things—repairing, sharing, and making do with what’s at hand. But what we lose in spending power, Schneider argued, we would gain in leisure time and social connection.

Thomson, a self-described environmentalist, was immediately hooked on Schneider’s radical degrowth philosophy. The idea just made sense: “You just can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet,” he says. And today, some fifteen years on, an increasing number of environmentalists and scientists seem to agree. Degrowth, the chorus says, is the only way we can prevent climate change–induced calamity.

Economic growth has long been considered a good thing. A booming economy has typically been associated with more jobs, higher wages, and a better standard of living for all. But, in recent years, there has been increasing debate over the benefits and feasibility of perpetual economic growth. In 2018, more than 200 academics published a letter in the Guardian calling on governments to seriously consider degrowth to avoid environmental collapse. Other supporters include prominent environmentalists Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil, who recently told the Guardian: “Growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.” Activist Greta Thunberg made a similar point when speaking at the United Nations last fall: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Now, with the arrival of COVID-19, degrowth has gone from a hypothetical idea to our reality almost overnight. Planes have been grounded, factories have shut down, and retail sales have plummeted. The current slowdown differs from the one envisioned by Schneider and others in a few important ways: it’s been reactive, unplanned, and it’s harming lower-income people most severely. But it has also illuminated the direct tie between economic activity and the environment. The abysmal air quality in Wuhan, China, for example, has improved dramatically in recent months. Wildlife has crept back into now quiet city streets. Carbon emissions have declined for the first time in years.

For degrowth supporters, COVID-19 has shown that radical societal change is possible in the face of a crisis. Climate change, they argue, poses a much graver threat for humanity than the virus—and, if we return to unbridled economic growth as soon as we can, the problem will only get worse.

The economy has been expanding, in fits and starts, ever since the Industrial Revolution. But the political imperative for growth is relatively new. According to Economic Research: Retrospect and Prospect, prior to the Second World War, federal economic policies were largely about maintaining equilibrium and riding out shocks, like stock market crashes. After the war, however, GDP growth became a widely adopted goal. In the words of former US president Harry S. Truman: “Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace.” Through the 1950s and ’60s, Canada’s GDP increased by upward of 3 percent a year (more than double the rate of this past decade). Middle class Canadian families generally prospered during this time, with the average household income nearly doubling, and access to health care, education, and other public services improving.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that questions began to arise around how much growth our planet could sustain and for how long. To answer those questions, a team of researchers at MIT developed a computer model known as World3. The model used inputs like the rate of population growth, agricultural production, and resource consumption to generate long-term projections for our species’ survival, which it spat out as graphs. The results were grim.

In World3’s business-as-usual scenario, population and resource consumption increased exponentially until around 2020, at which point things began to unravel. Nonrenewable resources, like oil, reached low levels. Food production required more land and resources but lagged behind population growth. Meanwhile, pollution worsened, causing widespread health issues. By about 2050, the graphs seem dystopian, with the global population dropping by about half a billion people per decade.

The MIT study was published as the book The Limits to Growth, which, with approximately 30 million copies sold, makes it the bestselling environmental book of all time. But The Limits to Growth was also met with heavy backlash, especially from economists. Critics argued that it was overly simplistic. Technological advances to improve the rate of agricultural productivity, for example, weren’t factored into the model’s future scenarios. A review in the New York Times, written by three economists from Harvard and Columbia Universities, dismissed the book as “less than pseudoscience and little more than polemical fiction.”

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.”

Robert Pollin, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of Greening the Global Economy, is what might be described as a progressive economist. He agrees with much of what the degrowth movement is trying to achieve, including tackling climate change and improving social equity. But he thinks the idea itself is fundamentally misguided.

Pollin uses an example to illustrate: If Canada’s economy were cut by 10 percent—roughly four times the Great Recession of 2009—the resulting reduction in emissions would be precisely 10 percent. That’s not nearly enough to hit Canada’s climate target of cutting emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But the societal impacts of cutting just that 10 percent, he says, would be massive, including widespread unemployment, income losses, and bankruptcies.

The data from the COVID-19 shutdown seems to bear this out. According to the Guardian, researchers are projecting a drop in global carbon emissions for 2020 of roughly 2.5 billion tonnes, making it the biggest year-over-year decline on record. But this still amounts to a reduction of only approximately 5 percent, nowhere near the cut required to avoid the two degrees of warming that scientists predict could be catastrophic. And this reduction has come at a steep societal cost: in Canada alone, approximately 2 million people have lost their jobs. What’s more, declines in carbon emissions during previous recessions were quickly undone when the economy bounced back.

Instead of focusing on degrowth, Pollin is a proponent of the Green New Deal, a US policy proposal that calls for launching large-scale renewable-energy projects as a way of tackling climate change and growing industries. It’s an idea that many environmentalists are pushing for as a way to stimulate the economy and restore jobs. By Pollin’s rough calculation, transitioning completely to renewable energy over the next few decades will require an investment of roughly 2 percent of the US’s GDP. For Canada, a similar calculation puts the price at about $30 billion a year. Not exactly small change, Pollin concedes, but he believes the shift would help create a robust economy. “To get to zero emissions in thirty years will require a massive expansion in renewable energy,” he says. “The idea that we somehow need to get smaller is misleading.”

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.”

In the years since World3 and François Schneider’s mule-supported march across France, there have been modest signs that degrowth might be gaining traction. Last year, New Zealand ditched the GDP as its guiding indicator for economic policy. Earlier this year, Finland’s prime minister floated the idea of a four-day work week. The media response was decidedly mixed, but for degrowth supporters, it was encouraging news.

In cities around the world, lending libraries, repair cafés, and clothing swaps have become popular. A similar shift can be found in the proliferation of car- and bicycle-sharing programs. For degrowth supporter Bob Thomson, these are all positive trends. Since returning to Canada from France, Thomson says, he has tried to live a “degrowth lifestyle” by forgoing car ownership and avoiding frivolous purchases.

Still, Thomson is pragmatic about the likelihood of an immediate societal shift. Now seventy-four, he concedes that the change to sustainable living may not happen in his lifetime. But, as he says, degrowth is inevitable for our species, whether we want it or not.

Brad Badelt
Brad Badelt is a freelance print and radio journalist based in Vancouver.
Natalie Vineberg
Natalie Vineberg is a designer at the Washington Post and a former designer for The Walrus.