Degrowth Presentation to the NZ Green Party Caucus

The Overton window is shifting. On 14 March 2023, the following presentation was made by Piers Locke, Hugh Ferguson and Tāne Feary, representing the Degrowth Greens Network, to the caucus of The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. On 8 March, globally renowned degrowth scholar Jason Hickel made an historic step forward in bringing degrowth strategy into parliamentary discourse when he spoke to the Dutch Parliament's Economic and Climate Affairs Committee. In Spain, already, the United Left Party, with a seat in cabinet, has endorsed degrowth as its official policy position. Degrowth is a movement to use democratic means to build new economic structures that overcome inequality and operate within planetary boundaries as priorities, so that growth is neither an economic goal nor a precondition for stability.

“Many thanks for sparing your time for us today. We appreciate the hard work you do representing the party, passing legislation, and arguing for the causes that we all care about. Our role, of course, is to support you in that. Specifically though, we’re here today to request a commitment to thinking further about Degrowth. We would like to alert you to the fact that the current approach to the climate crisis and the goal of a sustainable society, that of Green Growth, is not scientifically viable. We would also like to alert you to the growing political and business interest in the alternative transition pathway of Degrowth, and we would also like to suggest some ideas and initiatives to put us on that path.

We understand that Degrowth is not yet sufficiently understood to be an electorally viable issue, but as the Green Growth approach unravels, we are confident that it will become not just socially necessary, but also politically viable – so now is the time to ramp up thinking on Degrowth.

The Unravelling of Green Growth

The imperative for perpetual growth that structures our economies has us trapped in forms of production and consumption that prevent us achieving desirable social and ecological goals – SUVs instead of public transit, advertising instead of affordable housing, fast fashion instead of nutritious food, and consumer goods designed to break down to increase turnover. This is driving us toward ecological breakdown- overusing energy and resources while still failing to meet human needs.

The solution we have been told, is Green Growth, which will supposedly enable us to carry on with business as usual by decoupling our economic activity from its environmental impacts. Unfortunately, only limited and inconsistent relative decoupling has ever been achieved, due to one-offs like fuel-switching, off-shoring, or service-industry growth. If we just focus on climate, let’s remind ourselves that no country is on track to meet the Paris Agreement Goals, and the challenge of decarbonisation is only made harder, because economic growth requires more energy and more materials. Right now, we’re a 19 terrawatt civilization with a material throughput in excess of 80 gigatonnes a year! That is ecologically unaffordable.

Scientists tell us that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will not be possible unless we reduce energy, production, and consumption- in other words, give up on growth in favour of meeting human needs within planetary boundaries. We have the science on this! I’m also inclined to mention that Nobel-winning Green Growth economists have now conceded that the methodology for Net Zero plans are fatally flawed. We have the sources! The need for system change is evident.

With so many numbers that simply don’t add up, and with climate breakdown and ecological
collapse at stake, it’s no wonder we have seen a rise in the debate pitting Green Growth against Degrowth, and Green Growth has been losing. I should also emphasise that Degrowth is not the resort of collapsological doom-mongers, but actually represents a pathway for a future that could not only be existentially viable, but also socially just and personally rewarding.

Corporate, Political, and Civic Interest in Degrowth

For those of us concerned that the global ecological crisis demands a transformative rather than merely incremental response, it is heartening then to see shifts occurring in corporate, civic, and political thought spaces. In its latest report, the IPCC recognises Degrowth as; a critique of the decoupling claims so integral to Green Growth, as an alternative perspective on development, and as a strategy for sustainability. Post-growth transition has also been discussed in the UN panel on Biodiversity (IBPES) and the European Environment Agency.

In Spain, the United Left Party, with a seat in cabinet, has endorsed Degrowth as its official policy position.

Last week, on March 8, anthropologist Jason Hickel, author of ‘Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World’, addressed the Dutch parliament in a special hearing initiated by MPs from multiple parties and spearheaded by the Greens. The Dutch parliament is now setting up a working group on Degrowth for MPs. His work and his presentation have inspired ours.

In May, the Research and Degrowth association is partnering the ‘Beyond Growth’ conference in Brussels. Degrowthers Jason Hickel, Giorgos Kallis and others will be giving plenary addresses and discussing where we go from here with top level policy makers including Ursula von der Leyen. And last year the EU awarded them a 6 year, 10 million Euro, Synergy Grant titled ‘Pathways Toward Postgrowth Deals’, which is concerned with escaping the growth economy, and ensuring social welfare and planetary sustainability.

Here in New Zealand, it has been heartening to see the business consulting firm Grant Thornton engage with Degrowth. Caucus is probably aware that at an event Grant Thornton sponsored last year, James [James Shaw, Green Party Co-Leader and Climate Change Minister] said “New Zealand needs to have a critical discussion about Degrowth”. We couldn’t agree more! The Degrowth Greens Network (DGN) and Degrowth Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ) are committed to promoting that discussion. Our membership is flourishing, our members are writing about Degrowth in the New Zealand news media, and international groups are seeking us out.

In other spaces, thought leaders in corporate sustainability consulting are now daring to utter the word Degrowth, declaring that business must play a proportionate role in radical, immediate, and globally implemented system change.

I mention all this to indicate that Degrowth is an idea that is gaining traction in business, in politics, and in society, and is on the cusp of informing the policy and practice we need for a viable future.

Steps toward Degrowth

So, if we concede that the present direction of civilisation is untenable and the Green Growth solutions proposed inadequate, then what might we do to steer society toward a different path? Here are a few ideas. Firstly, we suggest the party establishes something like a Post-Growth PASC in order to develop the policy vision for organising the economy around human wellbeing and ecological viability, with the core values of equality, sufficiency, and economic democracy. It could be assisted in this by allies in the civic sector such as DANZ, which is establishing itself as a think tank for a Degrowth future.

This would likely involve considering how to decommodify, expand, and improve essential public services including healthcare, education, housing, public transit, clean energy, water, internet, and nutritious food. It might also involve a climate job guarantee with workplace democracy and living wages, empowering people to participate in the most important collective project of our generation. This would represent New Zealand acting effectively on the climate crisis and enacting the ideal of a wellbeing economy.

And all this would be intended to reduce energy use, to facilitate a faster transition to judiciously deployed renewables, and with less aggregate production and more evenly shared necessary labour; a shortened working week, improved physical and mental health, and improved gender equality. It’s worth appreciating that citizen assemblies in France and Spain have called for just this kind of transition, and that the majority of these policy ideas have proven popular in public polling in Europe.

While the suggestion of something like a Post-Growth PASC would help us develop a Degrowth vision, we also have a legislative idea to steer political decision-making toward the goal of wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries. And that idea is a Future Generations Act. Here, we’re taking inspiration from Wales, which passed such an act in 2015, and whose outgoing Future Generations Commissioner will be visiting New Zealand soon. Such an act would confound the problem of short-term decision-making for the electoral cycle by making the commitment to our mokopuna a legal obligation. The Welsh version enshrines the values of prosperity, resilience, health, equality, cohesion, and global responsibility as legal obligations. In so doing, it has enabled the Welsh parliament to challenge proposals that in serving the growth economy would contravene these values, as happened with new road building proposals, which were prevented on the grounds of negative impacts on climate action and human health. And I think that resonates in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle as we
consider the need to redesign rather than merely rebuild.

Another idea, and admittedly a bold one that our colleagues and us have barely begun work on, is a Post-Growth Commission. Compared to a Post-Growth PASC, this would have the advantage of being bipartisan and constitutionally obligated. It would also command the resources needed to investigate, develop, and recommend policy actions and legal reforms.

We appreciate that Green Party leadership has played a major role putting New Zealand on the path of climate action, but with the realities of climate breakdown so painfully palpable, it’s now time to go further and put us on the path to wellbeing within planetary boundaries.

Finally then, we would like to extend an invitation, pose a question, and make a request. Our invitation is for you to reach out and engage with Degrowth thinkers like ourselves and our colleagues. Perhaps there might be a particular MP interested in acting as liaison on Degrowth matters? Our question to you is; what would it take for the Green Party to embrace Degrowth as a scientifically viable and socially reasonable pathway for averting collapse and securing a decent future? And our request, is for a special meeting to explore this further.”

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