The economic concept behind living sustainably

The idea behind de-influencing dates back more than 50 years

early human walking with spears and shopping bags from blighted landscape to healthy landscape

Money makes the world go round, the saying goes. But as we watch the climate heat up, ecosystems collapse, financial crises emerge, and conflicts explode, it’s reasonable to wonder: If we stopped spending, would the world stop spinning? 

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Enter the concept of degrowth, an economic idea that has picked up steam over the past few years. It’s particularly cropped up a lot this year as more ordinary people on social media and elsewhere connect the dots between economies that prioritize gross domestic product (GDP) growth and the impacts of those economies on the Global South and working-class communities. Here’s what you need to know about degrowth, why it’s ruffled some feathers, and how it can take root in your community. 

What is degrowth?

Though ideas centering on degrowth are in fresh conversations now, the concept dates back to the 1970s. At its simplest, degrowth is about recentering societies around well-being as opposed to economic growth. 

Post-industrialization, the global economy has focused on making stuff for people to buy, which requires resources like raw materials and human capital. But the problem we face now is that we’ve seriously diminished so many of our resources—from forests to clean water—that we’ve altered the planet to make it less livable. At the same time, we live in a dichotomy in which part of the world has so much stuff that we literally don’t know what to do with it (e.g., we ship our leftover textiles abroad), whereas other parts of the world struggle to access even the most basic necessities

Degrowth pushes for reducing levels of production and consumption to adhere to responsible limits that safeguard both natural resources and human beings.

Degrowth challenges the idea that growing the economy at any cost is the way to go. Instead, it pushes for reducing levels of production and consumption to adhere to responsible limits that safeguard both natural resources and human beings. It’s not necessarily pushing development into stagnation, but instead slowing the roll of consumerism in the Global North in order to help countries and societies that have been on the raw end of the deal recover. “It’s about having a basic level of material satisfaction that ensures you have the autonomy to do what is meaningful for you and for society,” says Ekaterina Chertkovskaya, a researcher of environmental and energy systems studies at Lund University in Sweden. 

In practice, we could see this looking like reworking our food system so that there isn’t such a vast quantity of waste while hundreds of millions of people go hungry, Chertkovskaya adds. It could also mean dialing down luxury markets that cause an outsized amount of pollution while only accommodating a privileged few (we’re looking at you, private jets). 

What’s the controversy?

There are a couple answers here. First the obvious one: In a world focused on degrowth, companies wouldn’t be able to sell people as much stuff, a punch in the paycheck for some of the world’s wealthiest. 

The more complicated answer stems from proponents of a school of thought known as green growth. This concept argues that we need a stimulated economy in order to develop lifesaving, world-changing technologies. To that, Chertkovskaya says we should take a look at what green growth really means for even the greenest inventions. She’s done extensive research into the plastic pollution crisis, and gives the example of plastic alternatives, like ones made with seaweed or fish waste. This stuff can be awesome on paper, but when pushed to scale up bigger and bigger and bigger, the sustainability benefits diminish as the focus becomes creating more products instead of, well, simply using less plastic. “There’s this sort of idea that you need to conquer the world with your idea,” Chertkovskaya says.

It’s important to understand, though, that degrowth should not mean halting innovation—especially when it comes to building efficient and resilient infrastructure, renewable energy, and electrified transportation. Degrowth just means prioritizing innovation that centers social progress and well-being and respects the boundaries of our natural resources. So maybe more solar panels and fewer fancy doomsday SUVs.  

What’s that got to do with me? 

The concept of degrowth is absolutely applicable to how we, as consumers, interact with the marketplace. Essentially, it calls for a shift in the definition as to what makes a “good life” for many living in consumption-focused societies. Scientists have posited that ecological overshoot—when we demand more from the planet and its resources than is sustainable—ties back to a behavioral crisis spurred on by economic growth and really good marketing. 

But, as we’ve said so many times in so many ways here at one5c, the most sustainable thing anyone can do most of the time is simply do less. Instead of buying new shoes made of old water bottles, we could wear the ones in our closets into the ground. 

Why now?

Right now, people all across the globe are experiencing climate impacts like extreme weather events while prices for essentials like food and rent are soaring. Combine that with record numbers of people resigning from the traditional workforce and backlash against an ecommerce explosion, and you’ve got a community looking for change. “We have people saying ‘I want to do something else that brings meaning to myself and the environment around me,’” Chertkovskaya says. “That’s something where we can say that is what degrowth is about.” In essence, the trend of “de-influencing” is degrowth by another name. 

Beyond dialing back our shopping habits, there are grassroots degrowth groups in the U.S.  pretty much anyone can get involved in. The advocacy group DegrowthUS maintains a list of organizations working on initiatives at local and national scales. Chertkovskaya also emphasizes that starting a movement in your own community is an option. Doing so involves pushing for policies like fair living wages, waste circularity, support for local businesses and farms, and improved public services in our own neighborhoods.