The Degrowth Movement Challenges the Conventional Wisdom on Economic Health

By Juliette Legendre
Institute for Policy Studies

Growth is the “beating heart of a free economy,” U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan toldthe Economic Club of Washington D.C, earlier this year. In his speech, Ryan repeated the common narrative that without steady economic growth, we’re all doomed.

Degrowthers – members of a flourishing movement of academics and activists pushing to equitably and sustainably downscale the economy – think otherwise. 

Growth is not a solution, but a part of the problem, degrowthers argue, and cannot be endless in a world with finite resources. It perpetuates a cycle of consumption and production, putting the planet and our well-being at great risk. But, despite all the costs, economic growth continues to be the raison d’etre in politics and the business sector. 

The GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, measures the value added of goods and services produced in a country during a given period. It’s widely considered the king of all popular indicators for tracking economic growth, often used to score political points. U.S. President Donald Trump cheered the 4.1 percent GDP growth in the second quarter of 2018 – the highest rate since 2014 – calling it “amazing” during an impromptu press conference in July. 

But what Trump failed to mention is that a bigger economic pie does not necessarily translate into higher living standards for everyone. That’s especially true in a deeply unequal society like the United States, where the benefits of economic growth are increasingly captured by the 1 percent.

In an interview with The Washington Post, David Pilling, the journalist and author of The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations, says GDP measures economic “quantity not quality” and should not be conflated with well-being, especially in richer countries. In some instances, GDP growth could even mean the opposite. 

GDP has long been widely criticized for counting defense spending, financial speculation, and even theft as positive contributions to growth, while excluding non-monetized trade and ignoring environmental and social costs. “If I steal your car and sell it, that counts toward growth,” Pilling explains, “but if I look after an aged relative or bring up three well-adjusted children, that does not.”

Pilling recommends complementing GDP with more inclusive data and measurements. But the leaders of the degrowth movement don’t just challenge growth indicators. They’re taking on the dogma of economic growth. 

Degrowth “does not call for doing less of the same,” as the editors of the first comprehensive book on the movement make clear. “The objective is not to make an elephant leaner, but to turn an elephant into a snail.” They call for a radically different political-economic system needed to preserve the environment and improve well-being.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Human Service Workers at Persad Center Vote to Join the USW

From the USW

Workers at Persad Center, a human service organization that serves the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS communities of the Pittsburgh area, voted last week to join the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

The unit of 24 workers, ranging from therapists and program coordinators to case managers and administrative staff, announced their union campaign as the Persad Staff Union last month and filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“We care about our work and the communities we serve,” said Johanna Smith, Persad’s Development, Communications, and Events Associate. “We strongly believe this work and our connections to our clients will only improve now that we will be represented by a union.”

The Persad workers join the growing number of white-collar professionals organizing with the USW, especially in the Pittsburgh region. Their membership is also in line with the recent work the Steelworkers have been doing to engage LGBTQ+ members and improve contract language regarding issues that affect their lives.

“Workplaces are changing and evolving, and the labor movement is changing and evolving along with that,” said USW Vice President Fred Redmond, who oversees the union’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee as well as the USW Health Care Workers Council. “This campaign gives us an opportunity to diversify our great union while uplifting and empowering a group of workers who give their all for others.”

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