Welcome to a bonus issue of Cradle, the newsletter that focuses on innovation in social and environmental justice as solutions in the nature and climate crisis. Today we have a big topic for you: degrowth. Whether that strikes terror in your heart, leaves you cold, mildly interested, dancing with excitement or somewhere in between, it’s a good time to revisit the concept of degrowth. At our heart we must ask ourselves where the unfettered pursuit of growth, in our own industry and beyond, is getting us. The answer is nowhere fast. Infinite growth is a scientific and statistical nonsense on a planet with finite resources. Meanwhile the climate and nature crisis intensifies and the pursuit of growth at all costs creates more problems than it can ever solve.
Degrowth, also sometimes referred to as Post Growth, flips the script. It allows us to respect planetary boundaries and biosphere realities and to design our lives, and those of future generations, accordingly. Degrowth does not mean shuffling back to a cave in pantomime austerity (a ruse to appease the international money markets). Instead, it is a real programme of courageous and equitable, economic design based on real science that allows democratic societies to trust citizens (we are NOT consumers) to direct energy and materials into important systems, and away from the continuous churn of mass market consumer goods that squanders our global ecological health. It is a grown up, vital plan for the future. Unfortunately, it remains theoretical; you may have noticed that some of our democracies are not behaving in grown up ways.
Will it ever happen? I believe, yes. The degrowth agenda and the rising global movement of degrowth champions gives me huge hope. I read about degrowth as much as I can, and that’s how I came across a piece by Sanni Kunnas, interviewed here by Lucy Siegle for Cradle. Sanni was nervous to be interviewed as although she is now in academia, she is not a degrowth specialist and was at pains to point that out. But I enjoyed reading about her so much and I respected her lived experience – feeling disempowered and trapped in an industrial system of pursuing growth, she elected to send herself back to education. It’s not easy, but she lives her life alongside degrowth values. I really respect this, alongside Sanni’s central message: if we are to transition to a degrowth society instead of one that prioritises growth in a death spiral, every person will need to find the courage to stare down today’s system. I’m so glad we persuaded Sanni to share her thoughts here and I love that she reminds us that we do have agency, we are not passive consumers and now is the time to use it.
We hope you enjoy this issue of Cradle and look forward to hearing your responses.
Sanni Kunas in conversation with Lucy Siegle
Sanni Kunnas is from Finland and has a background in social sciences. She worked for six years in the chemical industry in Brussels, before deciding to study for an interdisciplinary Masters of Science at the University of Geneva. While she is not researching the topic of degrowth formally, it is a theory that now frames her thinking. She caught up with Cradle editor, Lucy Siegle to explain why degrowth is the only game in town…
LUCY SIEGLE: What attracts you to degrowth as a concept. Is it fair to say that many people find it too theoretical?
SANNI KUNNAS: Yes, it is. Firstly, I think it’s good to acknowledge that degrowth really is a topic that provokes a lot of feelings! It is also a topic with much potential, but which is still mainly taking place in the academic and theoretical space. So, it is a great topic to dive deeper into and be free to have a lot of theoretical thoughts about because obviously, we do not see this yet in practice. And there’s a big, big question: Will we ever see voluntary degrowth in practice, because it somehow goes so fundamentally against our human culture? You have to use quite a lot of imagination in this concept. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I’m drawn towards degrowth as a topic. It’s one of the few things that still gives me hope today, to keep on reading and discussing climate, the climate crisis and renewable energy, because it is really has so much potential, but it’s of course, mainly just taking place in the academic and theoretical world.
LS: How do you define degrowth?
SK: There are a lot of different definitions of degrowth. The way I have approached it is to say that the basic unit of degrowth basically means an absolute reduction of something. That absolute reduction of something can be energy or clothes, textiles, materials or whatever. So it’s really that you shrink a physical good in amounts of tonnes, or kilos, or whatever measurement is appropriate. That is a basic definition.
A more elaborate definition is that we have to differentiate between what we do grow and what we don’t grow, determining this based on quality. So certain systems will definitely have to do grow because they’re there and there are biophysical constraints. For example, you have a finite amount of fossil fuels, you have a finite amount of biomass on this earth, a finite amount of metals in the ground. So, at some point, sooner or later, whether we want it or not, there is going to be an end to this eternal growth, because there are no physical materials left. But on the other hand, there are systems in our societies that we definitely should grow, because those will be necessary for our future needs. These include sectors such as renewable energy, some sort of construction, agriculture, health care – all things needed for the future. Degrowth means a reduction in the metabolism of our world. We need to go on a diet. We need to shrink. But within this shrinking, there can be systems that still are allowed to grow because those really cover basic needs. This brings us to the third very important definition for degrowth and that is that we really need to start redistributing the finite resources we have, to meet the needs that are basic and really important for humanity.
LS: How on earth could such a huge change in mindset be achieved?
SK: It must be done in a democratic way with the democratic institutions on board. Especially when we get to the third layer of degrowth – redistribution – that must happen with democratic institutions behind it. It’s a very deliberate decision that we take together, just like any other policy.
LS: What’s the biggest misunderstanding of the concept of degrowth do you think?
SK: That people think it’s an economic recession when no politician has ever voluntarily opted for an economic recession. The way I define degrowth is that it is a policy that we together decide in order to redistribute resources in a way that makes more sense, that is more equal, more inclusive, and that actually cares for the needs of future generations.
When I speak about my view of degrowth, it’s not that of a political ideology. Nor am I describing an economic system. It’s actually more of a physical reality. Degrowth is much more anchored in natural laws like thermodynamics, than a political ideology such as Marxism. It’s true we cannot have infinite growth with finite resources. That is actually a physical law. It’s not economics, it’s not politics. It’s a harsh physical reality that we have somehow managed to collectively ignore and forget, for the past 700 years that capitalism has been the dominating economic system.
LS: So, what does history tell us about degrowth?
SK: Well, it’s so interesting if you go back and study the history of political economy and review how the first economic models were structured around GDP in the 1940s and 1950s. They designed the economy as a closed system. So it’s just like household industry capital, and you have this flow, and external inputs that actually come from nature and that come from Planet Earth. But materials and energy were completely designed out from these first economic models. And that has shaped our view of how the economy works to an incredible degree.
That means we have economic growth as an input factor for our economy, rather than an output factor. So, we say, okay, I want 3% economic growth each year and we assume we’ll magically have the resources to accomplish that. We don’t think, okay, that means I will require a certain amount of material and energy. Do I have that? We don’t think like that. And this is also something that is constantly used in all economic models for climate policy for energy policy.
LS: Degrowth is sometimes seen as anti-growth is that true?
SK: When you speak of degrowth people think that you are anti-technology, or you’re anti-innovation. But that is really not true. It’s more about pointing out the limits of certain innovations and technologies that will fall short in the end. For me, the circular economy billed as an engine of growth is one of those things. Because real recycling and circularity means we would not use any more virgin materials. That means not putting new stuff into the metabolism. The metabolism keeps functioning with recycling, but strictly speaking it does not grow, it maintains. We speak so much about recycling, but nobody ever speaks about the fact that recycling is not compatible with economic growth. On the subject of recycling, many of the funding models to enable recycling are intensely capitalist and privatised in many, many areas.
LS: Could we or should we change the language around degrowth to make it more attractive to people?
SK: If we decide to have degrowth, and call it post growth or even the Doughnut economy (see Sanni’s reading list), I mean, sure, let’s go for whichever name! But I think at some point we have to stop arguing that it’s not appealing enough. We need to step away from greenwashing and that’s where that can lead. It’s as if we’re too fragile to actually meet and face the truth. So, in a sense I want to say degrowth means degrowth! After all it’s all about being honest and upfront because it’s a biophysical necessity that means society must shrink. So, shouldn’t we just stand up to that? I don’t think that another generation of greenwashing and putting stuff in fancy terms so that ideas seem less radical will cut it. In the end when you do that, things will be more disappointing and more difficult to implement. Does it also belittle normal people? Because it suggests they are incapable of understanding what degrowth means. Let’s not hide. We got ourselves into this mess. We gotta get ourselves out of this mess!
LS: It’s complex, isn’t it?
SK: One of my favourite examples of degrowth also highlights the complexity of the subject. You’ll like this because it’s from the fashion industry! [Fittingly for Cradle]. I’m sure you remember that some years ago Patagonia took out advertising on Black Friday in major publications. But the strange thing was, the adverts said, ‘please do not buy this jacket’. One of the most obvious critiques was that by saying ‘don’t buy our jacket’ Patagonia wanted you to buy their jacket. There was a sense from some that they just didn’t want you to buy other people’s jackets. So, on a global level, the absolute amount of jackets will not decrease, but people will buy more Patagonia jackets, so the company will still grow in respect to competitors. So, if everybody thinks like that, in the capitalist system, we will still end up with probably more jackets. So, while it actually takes a courage for a company to communicate that we have to consume less, the company still aims for economic growth, which will always be tough. It still leads to more material and energy consumption because we do not see an absolute decoupling between these two indicators.
LS: Were you more persuaded when Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) announced that he was channelling his fortune into environmental causes, saying we only have one shareholder, Planet Earth?
SK: Absolutely. I don’t want to question this individual’s intentions. The fact that he gives away his fortune is really quite remarkable, especially in this world. So, I don’t want to discredit that action. But whether it in factual and economic terms leads to degrowth is, of course, something that would have to be studied with completely different measures. But as a consumer or as a person, I would say that when I saw that piece of news, it definitely did give much more credibility to the sustainability agenda of Patagonia. Because essentially Patagonia is still functioning like a classic, like a typical company. They need a certain amount of profit; they always need to accumulate capital to keep on growing, that is still somehow in their DNA because they are in the capitalist system. But of course, you can see that there is a certain change in the corporate culture.
LS: How do you implement degrowth into your own life, how does it govern the choices you make?
SK: Degrowth is still very much limited to an individual level because we don’t see many examples in society. It can be tough therefore to find examples, but if I think personally, I’ll take the example of social media. I’ve really limited my social media presence. I will not join platforms such as Instagram or TikTok because they just consume too much! They take but don’t give me anything else. So, I’ve made a deliberate choice not to be part of them. This links to a second related topic for me: Have you noticed how passive people have become? I see that passivity as an objective of the economy. The economy wants us to be passive consumers, they don’t want us to be active citizens, right? To push consumer goods and entertainment to keep the masses calm is a very old political strategy. I mean, we go back to the Romans, right? Who organised the gladiator games and wine and bread for the people just to keep the masses calm.
LS: So presumably in a society that embraces degrowth, we will be more active?
SK: Yes, one important step for degrowth will be civil disobedience because it will involve individuals saying ‘you know what, I’ve had it with the system. I don’t want to live in this system anymore.’ First you rebel against it on your own individual level (perhaps where I am, given my example of social media) and then influencing others.
I can at least say that as an individual, I’m not going to contribute to the status quo. I can say, I’m the master of my own action. OK, so I cannot decide for all the banks and government departments. But if we would apply this kind of democratic thinking a little bit more consistently in our lives to say that small change can contribute to a larger change, just like we hold democratic elections then we can start to drive forward. One vote is not going to change the end result, but we still go vote, most of us. If we just consistently apply that to all other areas of life, I really think we could have such a bigger effect on the world, but we’re yet to empower ourselves enough to realise it. That time is now. And that gives me hope.
Thanks to Sanni for such a thought-provoking interview. Ever keen to learn more, we asked Sanni for her recommendations of great resources to find out more. Here are Sanni’s top three:
1. Book: “Less is More: How degrowth will save the world” (2021) by Jason Hickel
Great and easy to read piece on degrowth by an anthropologist; talks a lot about the philosophical and political history of the current economic system (GDP, growth, dualism) and why degrowth is not just a way to prevent the otherwise inevitable ecological disaster, but also a way to improve our social well-being and improve justice and equality.
2. Video: “A healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow” (2018), TED-Talk by Kate Raworth
One of my favourite books and authors on degrowth; brilliantly explains how the 21st economy is failing in meeting basic human needs and why a regenerative, redistributive design is necessary; based on her book “The Doughnut Economy” which really tackles how we have been brainwashed by GDP and economic growth.
3. Scientific report: “Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability” (2019) by the European Environmental Bureau