It might seem odd at a time when politicians and governments are betting their careers and parliamentary majorities on growth to start thinking about the exact opposite – ‘degrowth’. Surely, an expanding economy is always good … isn’t it?
Not necessarily, say degrowth advocates (degrowthers) who think a better strategy is to systematically shrink the economy. They believe a steady-state system which uses less energy and materials is the preferred route to more satisfying, secure, stress-free, and fun lives … permanently.
Our first reaction is probably that doing with less is fine in principle but not realistic in practice. However, given the gravity of the current environmental and financial crises, have we reached a crossroads where more controversial concepts like degrowth need to be considered seriously?
If yes, would degrowth radically change how we live? Almost certainly. Would it be worth it, will it work, and is it likely to happen? These are big questions we may have to answer in the near future.
Opportunity or imposition?
Because of the unprecedented situation we now find ourselves in, I thought it might be useful to look closely at degrowth on three levels.
The first is whether the current international car-crash of extraordinary problems is already pushing us towards some form of degrowth where we will be forced to reduce our huge material and energy use footprints?
If not, my second question is should we be thinking about embracing degrowth voluntarily now? And thirdly, with degrowth described as a step beyond sustainability, can our existing – and continuously evolving – environmental skills and services take us down a future degrowth road?
A possible solution for climate change?
Economic problems aside for a moment, degrowth is seen in some quarters as potentially the world’s best answer to the environmental challenges of global warming, emissions, energy shortfalls, and pollution on a planet where human consumption outstrips resources.
Many degrowthers feel we have now passed the point of no return, arguing that we either adopt the key degrowth principles by choice, or have them forced on us by disaster. Tinkering at the edges is not enough.
The counter view is that technology has always supported population growth with innovations such as cancer treatments, Covid vaccines, insulin, solar cells, wind turbines, and everything else we take for granted. Traditional economists contend that, given a free hand, growth will continue to do this as an engine that simply needs retuning. We should be very careful what we chose to do without.
The arguments become deeply complex and highly politicised. However, a key issue is whether it is possible to decouple economic growth and success – measured in terms of GDP figures and ‘profit’ -sufficiently to save the world from further environmental damage.
An unworkable idea, or one whose time is coming?
Degrowth is rooted in the 1973 oil crisis but gained ground again recently because of new global energy shortages, supply problems, war in Europe, and stagnating commercial activity on top of a booming world population of 7.2 billion consumers all trying to live well on a planet with finite resources. Humans now need some 1.5 ‘Earths’ to sustain the current economic model.
However, there is a clear distinction between the recessions most economists fear, and degrowth as a planned phase of contraction aligned with the Earth’s bio-physical limitations.
The degrowth ethos is that enough is sufficient. More is unnecessary. Richer nations must rein in unbridled growth so poorer countries can catch up. ‘Marketing’ per se is a public enemy.
Degrowthers acknowledge that we can produce ‘stuff’ more efficiently with less waste and energy. Our failure, they say, is using any gains we make to simply manufacture and consume more, so accelerating the very problems we are trying to escape from.
No caves and candles
However, true degrowth does not mean going back to hardships and deprivations of the stone-age either so the argument goes. The real bottom line is that we do not need so much ‘stuff’ when the alternative is a system where ‘enough is plenty’ to live a high-quality life, albeit to different values.
What would that mean in practice? It would almost certainly involve an ‘energy decent’ from the current energy crisis to a low-energy living.
We might also see more gardens watered from rainwater butts – something we already include in sustainable water use solutions, neighbourhoods converted into edible landscapes, and fast-fashion replaced by repairing, exchanging, and ‘upcycling’ that adds value to clothes we already possess.
None of these are outrageous ideas. In fact, many are already swiftly becoming mainstream.
On the thornier question of jobs and incomes, the logic is that high wages will be unnecessary when material expectations are lower … a rather difficult concept to sell at the moment perhaps.
Are we already on the degrowth road?
Clearly, this is not everyone’s immediate cup of tea. However, in the present unusual circumstances it does raise a number of potentially important questions.
My first thought, as already mentioned, is whether the sheer weight of accumulating problems we now face is pushing us towards degrowth whether we want to go in that direction or not?
The energy crisis, for example, is funnelling us towards taking more renewable power from local sources free from volatile market swings. The same applies to materials.
And if we do rely on a narrower energy-base, it makes sense to use less through greater energy-efficiency. The equivalent for materials is the circular economy where next-to-nothing is wasted.
We can perhaps go further and cut the embedded energy around us! It takes energy to manufacture ship, planes, cups and saucers and the many ‘things’ we take for granted. Do we need them all? Are there low-carbon, low-energy and low-material alternatives?
If not, is it now an opportunity?
My next thought is that if we are not moving towards degrowth thinking, perhaps we should be; 2022 has already seen catastrophic global warming impacts – particularly La Niña-driven floods from Florida to Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Venezuela, Nigeria, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand.
Sri Lanka was an example of how quickly commerce can be affected. In October, some 5,000 people had to be evacuated on the island which is a key part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative global network building project. Floods and landslides brought the economy to a rapid standstill.
Does that mean ending economic activity as we know it? Perhaps yes and no. Business as usual is clearly not a future option and degrowthers warn there is zero room for compromise.
However, finding a workable in between solution might test how seriously we take the health of the climate and leads to my third thought.
Are we at least on the right road?
Which is to what extent are we on the A- and B-roads, if not the motorway, to a smaller and more sustainable economy that works well today but also offers a promising future?
The answer to this question splits into two streams.
– Making energy while the sun shines – The first involves taking much-needed innovations through the environmental planning and permitting process quickly?
Enzygo (https://www.enzygo.com) has a good track record here. The successful Velocys waste-to-jet-fuel application – a UK first in north east Lincolnshire – is an example where we were able to gain consent with no requirement for further applications as the project’s technical details continue to evolve. (‘Enzygo secures planning permission for the UK’s first waste-to-jet-fuel facility’ – https://www.enzygo.com/news/enzygo-secures-planning-permission-waste-to-jet-fuel/).
We have also won planning permission for clients on natural gas and battery storage investments with a combined capacity of well over 1GW, and this will continue to be a major growth area.
– Preparing for a rainy day(s) – The second is that should society decide to move swiftly to degrowth, a long pipeline legacy of impacts from past activities will remain to be resolved even if we manage to keep average global surface temperature rises down to 1.50C.
These will include a rise in the extreme flooding and associated drought events mentioned above. In many instances these will be regional or continental, but also break down to local site issue.
Less obvious knock-on impacts we must expect to deal with are sea level rises that threaten communities, coastal erosion which destroy valuable land, storms and winds that jeopardise power systems with power-outages, plus severe consequences for the natural world and biodiversity.
This is where detailed site preparations in the form of mitigation (reducing impacts), adaption (adjusting to impacts) and resilience (bouncing back quickly from impacts) will be increasingly important.
A major reassurance I draw from looking closely at degrowth is that Enzygo has, and will continue to invest in the development of the advanced skills and staff experience needed to tailor individual solutions to complex future challenges.
As such, we recruit and develop multi-disciplined teams of experts who as specialists in specific fields can deliver standard solutions but also identify and resolve deeper more unusual problems.
Our goal is to create integrated, cost-effective, sustainable, solutions designed very carefully to maximise the potential of our clients’ development sites, but that also meet the aims of local planning authorities.
All our work, from major infrastructure projects through to individual site flood and drought preparation plans with important business continuity and recovery programmes, routinely involve state-of-the-art analytical and reporting tools.
This means that Enzygo, as an independent environmental consultancy is able to provide planning practice guidance (https://www.enzygo.com/planning/, plus help with environmental permitting regulations (https://www.enzygo.com/permits/). The following case history illustrates this.
– Solar power to ensure fresh drinking water supplies for London and Essex
In this example, we won full planning permission for the construction, operation, maintenance, and future decommissioning of an 8 MW solar photovoltaic (PV) farm providing renewable energy to the Hanningfield Water Treatment Works (WTW).
This high energy user on semi-rural land near Chelmsford supplies 225 million litres of clean drinking water every day to circa 500,000 homes. A key goal was to help Essex & Suffolk Water reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2027, with the caveat that robust green belt conditions must be met.
Enzygo project managed the application from inception to consent. Our team liaised with planning authority officials from pre-application right through to the full application stage. We also answered requests for information from all consultees to ensure there were no negative impacts on neighbouring residents.
Our on-site work included ground investigations, flood risk assessment, landscape character assessment, transport assessment, and ecological impact assessment, plus a habitat survey, tree survey and tree risk assessment.
The complete project profile, with details of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) environmental risk assessment can be seen at https://www.enzygo.com/projects/installation-of-a-solar-photovoltaic-pv-park-generating-up-to-8-mw-of-electricity/.
Degrowth is still a controversial idea. There is probably a vast difference between learning how to live with low growth when conventional economies go wrong, and working systematically towards a steady-state economy that promises limited collateral damage to the planet.
Pie in the sky? Perhaps. Worth considering? Maybe. An unavoidable part of the future if we continue the way we are? Quite likely. But also a source of stimulating ideas we can perhaps not afford to ignore.
If you would like more background information on the ideas explored above, or to discuss specific implications in more detail, please contact me directly. I’m always happy to help.
Matt Travis, Company Director, Enzygo Ltd
See the LinkedIn article – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/degrowth-small-beautiful-better-us-enzygo-limited/