Transitioning to Degrowth: The Wellbeing Challenge
There are strong empirical and ethical arguments for degrowth – understood as a voluntary, democratically negotiated, equitable downscaling of societies’ physical throughput until it reaches a sustainable steady-state. Since economic growth is one of the main drivers for rising emissions (and increasing depletion of non-renewable resources), it seems evident that a transition to degrowth would make an important contribution to climate change mitigation, and hence to our moral obligation to preserve future generations’ rights to basic needs fulfilment. However, even though the academic and activist degrowth movement has expanded over the last few years, the degrowth idea remains marginalised within the political mainstream and wider public debates and has not yet sparked a “repoliticisation” of the broader public.
In our joint recent work (Buchs and Koch 2017 and 2018), we contribute to broadening degrowth thinking by highlighting the need for better understanding the social and cultural barriers behind the lack of broader social and political support for degrowth. The answer to the question of whether or not the comparatively high levels of objective and subjective wellbeing that Western countries presently enjoy can be maintained during degrowth is therefore of utmost importance if the degrowth movement is to gain the required momentum to turn its concepts and ideas into practice. Even more fundamentally, a change in collective meanings and understandings of wellbeing and needs can play an important role for ‘decoupling’ current dynamics between growth and wellbeing.
How then, is wellbeing conceptualised in the degrowth debate so far? The absence of subjective wellbeing improvements even when GDP rises, is often used to argue that subjective wellbeing is independent from GDP. In our view, degrowth accounts that focus on subjective wellbeing outcomes are problematic for a couple of reasons. This absence is at least partially due to methodological issues: subjective wellbeing is measured with bounded scale survey questions (eg: 1-10), while GDP can, in principle, increase infinitely. Moreover, preferences adapt and change as income and GDP change (both up and down). Some evidence suggests that downward adaptation is difficult in the short term due to loss aversion. If preferences adapts downward in the long term, there is the danger that it masks reductions of living standards below levels necessary for needs satisfaction.
Therefore, objective and eudaemonic (happiness) wellbeing concepts and measures are better suited to discuss relations between degrowth and wellbeing. This requires distinguishing between wants and needs. In contrast to wants, needs are non-substitutable, which means increased income cannot compensate for insufficient needs satisfaction in other areas. This shifts the perspective away from income, and towards creating appropriate institutions that can satisfy different types of needs. In other words, needs such as meaningful relationships and work, identity, opportunities to shape community life and politics, can be achieved with relatively low resource inputs. The universal needs perspective also strengthens the moral argument for degrowth as it emphasises the responsibility of current generations to ensure the ability of future generations to fulfil their basic needs. However, while basic human needs are few and satiable, needs satisfiers vary historically and culturally. Satisfiers compatible with planetary boundaries are crucial to understand the links between needs satisfaction and the growth paradigm.
However, to transition away from a growth-based system involves much more than re-focusing the debate towards eudaemonic wellbeing and the fulfilment of basic needs. A sociological perspective helps to highlight how very deeply rooted the growth principle has become not only for the economic system, but also for a host of other systems that have co-evolved around growth-based capitalism. This includes the nation state, democracy, the legal, financial, welfare and associated cultural systems. The challenge for the degrowth transition, therefore, is that these co-evolved systems need to transform in tandem if wellbeing is to be maintained. How to do this whilst maintaining wellbeing is not well understood. The social practices perspective highlights that the coupling of these systems around growth-based capitalism is not just a ‘macro’ phenomenon which could be changed through policy making, but also a ‘micro’ phenomenon, embedded in and reproduced by people’s minds and bodies through their daily practices. It is this cultural layer of growth ‘lock in’ that is difficult to change through political means.
Degrowth societies would be societies that are organised according to cultural, social, economic, political and technological principles that are fundamentally different from the currently dominant ones organised around the growth ideology. To emphasise this does not mean to say these current principles and ways in which current institutions are organised around them cannot change. But it helps to increase our sensitivity regarding the monumental extent of change that lies ahead and the likely challenges that this will bring to satisfy people’s (eudaemonic) wellbeing and needs.
The Fundamental Challenge
The fundamental challenge is to figure out how to transition without wellbeing losses, given the need for radical change in underlying cultural values. Regular deliberative forums that discuss universal needs satisfaction could be one (small and first) step to address and support this. This could be organised according to a “dual strategy”, combining input to consensual decision-making by experts and citizens. However, it would be important to add two other ‘dual’ elements.
First, these forums would need to establish a dialogue between people from rich and poor countries. The dialogue between rich and poor people globally is necessary because of their different relations to degrowth – the incomes and material living standards of groups across the world whose basic needs are not currently being met would need to be allowed to rise in the future until their basic needs are met whilst those of the rich will need to decline rapidly.
Second, these forums would also need to establish a dialogue between current and future generations as it is the latter’s basic needs satisfaction that is at stake and that motivates the call for degrowth in the first place. Whilst future generations of course do not yet exist, the organisation of these forums, and their legitimacy, can be informed by deliberative democracy processes. This discussion inevitably would need to address the cultural principles that underpin current social, economic, political and technological systems, and ways in which they would need to change to address the degrowth challenge.
By Milena Buchs and Max Koch. Milena is Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low-Carbon Transitions at Leeds University in the UK; Max is Professor at the School of Social Work at Lund University in Sweden.
- Büchs, M., & Koch, M. (2018). Challenges for the degrowth transition: The debate about wellbeing. Futures. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2018.09.002
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