Voices September 29, 2020
‘Degrowth’ – the answer to Pope’s call for economic justice
On Sept. 25, the fifth anniversary of his first address to the United Nations, Pope Francis spoke again to the General Assembly.
Because of COVID-19, the form of the address was different this time – a pre-recorded video message.
But its content was no less dramatic. Again the Pope spoke of what ails our planet. Again he called for mindful action to remedy our dire situation.
He asked boldly that we rethink our social and economic systems, which have led to “an unjust distribution of resources” by making the rich richer and everybody else poorer.
The pandemic tempts us either to retreat defensively into more individualism (a widespread refusal to act in service to the common good) or more elitism (the seizure of power and wealth by a select few).
Both of these retreats are delusional because they remove us from “global co-responsibility, a solidarity grounded in justice, and the attainment of peace and unity within the human family, which is God’s plan for our world,” he said.
It seems clear enough to me why the oligarchic and kleptocratic trends in the world today are happening. The individualism and selfishness expressed in populist movements, which are founded on a divisive mentality, ends up empowering authoritarian governments.
Yet delusional populism infects so much of our media experiences. At its root, it denies our moral duty of solidarity with other human beings. This delusion is incited by elites who use it as a tool to further divide and exploit us.
But the elites also suffer from a variation on the same mentality. The delusion that we don’t need others, or that we are justified in dominating others, is the same mindset behind the trends we witness towards “self-sufficiency, nationalism, protectionism, individualism and isolation”: the trends which, the Pope said, “must not prevail.”
For example, Francis at the outset of his speech said that basic medical care is a fundamental human right. Yet the poorest and most vulnerable suffer the most from denial of this right. Therefore, their treatment during the pandemic should be prioritized.
The Pope explained how our “throwaway culture” denies human dignity, and instead promotes “a craving for absolute power and control.”
He illustrated how this “attack against humanity itself” is manifested in today’s world: religious persecution; genocide; forced migration and displacement; refugees held in detention camps; promotion of abortion and violence against children; human trafficking, sexual slavery, and forced labour.
Further, technological progress has unnecessarily accelerated the widening gap between the super-rich and the poorest of the poor. On this point, the Pope articulated what is to my mind a very important principle:
“In order to ensure dignified employment, there must be a change in the prevailing economic paradigm, which seeks only to expand companies’ profits,” he said.
The worsening environmental crisis, the increasing numbers of displaced people, the ongoing pandemic, and the looming threat of future pandemics caused by our continued abuse of the environment, all point to the need to rethink the world’s dominant economic paradigm.
As the Pope emphasized, this requires nothing less than rethinking “the future of our common home and our common project.”
To my mind, a key part of this rethinking must begin with the economic paradigm that has prioritized corporate profits over the welfare of people and the planet.
One concrete proposal for reconceiving our planetary future, known as “degrowth,” is a proposal that urgently needs to be considered.
The link between economic growth and ecological breakdown is empirically well established. Hence the most effective solution to all the problems named by Pope Francis seems to be “degrowth”: i.e., to reduce economic throughput of energy and resources.
The economy needs to be brought into balance with the natural world in a way that reduces human inequality and improves everyone’s well-being. This can in fact be done by reducing throughput.
Jason Hickel, the author of Less is More, has argued (especially in his important paper, “What Does Degrowth Mean?”) that degrowth doesn’t mean a reduction of GDP. It doesn't mean we need to destroy economic well-being and bring on a depression in order to save the environment.
The dominant economic paradigm, which focuses on unending extraction of profit from people and the planet, is leading to the immoral consequences that Francis speaks about. The mindset of throwaway culture is powered by a root concern for profit growth.
Hence Hickel’s call for degrowth, which really means a reversal of the singular economic emphasis on profit growth.
In a targeted way, our economic rethinking needs to scale down ecologically destructive production. We can replace it with a focus on socially more important things like “health care, education, care and conviviality,” argues Hickel.
As Francis explained in his address, either we will do this mindfully with concerted action, or the crises brought upon us by our throwaway culture will prevail.