Discussion of de-growth concepts in times of COVID-19

Higher, faster, further – stop! 2020 hits people worldwide in an unexpected way. Within shortest time, people were forced to stay at home, flights were cancelled, shops closed, economies slowed down. Only a few months ago, hardly anyone would have thought that this might be possible in our dynamic world. People were just recovering from Christmas’ spending spree and planning a trip abroad for the Easter holidays and actually they wanted to… Bang! COVID-19! What now? Surprisingly, people have tended to arrange outstanding well with the new, unknown situation. During March and April, DIY stores were crowded, as people found their passion for gardening or started renovating and repairing things in their homes. Others have found a new hobby in walking or bicycling through the forests. Could COVID-19 be the beginning of something new? Could it herald a change in economy towards de-growth, slowdown and consciousness?

The economic growth, meaning the GDP per year, is the most famous prosperity indicator: the higher the GDP, the higher the wealth – or, at least, the material wealth. At this point it is necessary to distinguish: The material wealth is only one part of wealth and doesn’t necessarily say something about the happiness and satisfaction in general. On the contrary: According to the Easterlin paradox, that has been developed in the 1970th and revived with new studies in 2012, higher incomes might increase happiness for a time. But after some threshold, further income-increases don’t lead to a greater happiness no more (see Stanca/Veenhoven 2015). Following up this point, we can wonder what our added value to the increasing consumption of goods is. We live in a society where we consume much more than we need. We are flooded by consumption and don’t even have the capacities to enjoy each good. In fact, we often buy things, that we don’t use at all because we consume too much and have too less time (see Oberhuber 2016). The feeling after we have purchased a new car, this feeling from which we think it is happiness, only stays until our neighbor buys an improved version of it. Sure, this might be a crude example, but it shows that our consumption behavior is not independent from others (see McCormick 2018).

It’s not only that we don’t need unlimited economic growth to be happy and sacrificed. If we consider the scarcity of resources and the planetary boundaries, we have to change our economic behavior dramatically. To not exceed the planetary boundaries, the carbon emissions per capita and year shouldn’t exceed about 2 tonnes. But in Germany, it is more than 11 tonnes (see Heyen, p. 40)! While the awareness of environmental degradation has increased among the people, the intention to really change something and take actions is still too timid.

But what actions could or should be taken at all to meet the challenges of scarce resources, planetary boundaries and our own well-being? Green-Economy, eco-taxes, degrowth economy, … Diverse concepts dealing with the challenges of economic growth are interdisciplinary discussed. The economist Niko Paech is one of the most famous and perhaps also most radical German representatives of the latter concept: the degrowth economy. Referring to Paech (e.g. 2012), the only way to really reduce environmental consumption is by following two strategies: First of all, we need to reduce our consumption. A strict reduction in consumption, or as Paech puts it “the liberation from the excess” (title of Paech 2012), is not only necessary to preserve our planet, but it also helps us to live a more conscious life, to enjoy and to appreciate the things that we have more. The second strategy is that we need to increase local self-sufficiency, which kind of follows up the point of living a more conscious life: If we increase self-sufficiency and start to produce or repair goods on our own, this helps us to see the real value of things (see Heyen 2019, p. 40; Paech 2012).

Awareness of the consequences of economic growth: check! Theories that provide solutions to the problem: check! Taking actions to solve the problem: well… The field of behavioral economy knows this discrepancy between what people want to do and what they actually do as the so-called value-action gap (see e.g. Flynn/Bellaby/Ricci 2009). Even if people think environmental protection and a more conscious life are desirable, the behavior often deviates and people are hold back for diverse reasons. Sometimes the barriers to leave the comfort zone seem to be just too high. But now, let’s build a bridge towards the beginning of this post: COVID-19 has changed the economic behavior of millions of people a lot. Sure, the behavior might change back over time. But what if we take these experiences as first steps towards a more pro-environmental and modest behavior? Even without intention, many people have already implemented parts of Paech’s two strategies towards a sustainable life: the reduction of excessive consumption, gardening, repairing, just to name a few. Only the future can tell whether the COVID-19 crisis really had effects on environmental behavior. But for now, we can see at least a chance that the experiences from the crisis can help to reduce our value-action gap. To not waste this chance, we should promote discussions about alternatives to our current economy growth model. The degrowth concept of Niko Paech is just one among diverse ideas.

References

Flynn, Rob/Bellaby, Paul/Ricci, Miriam (2009): The ‘value-action gap’ in public attitudes towards sustainable energy. The case of hydrogen energy. In: The Sociological Review, 57(2), p. 159-180.

Heyen, Dirk Arne (2019): Grünes Wirtschafswachstum, Stagnation, Schrumpfung? Hauptsache absolute Reduktion des Umweltverbrauchs! In: Ökologisches Wirtschaften, 34, p. 40-44.

McCormick, Ken (2018): James Duesenberry as a practitioner of behavioral economics. In: Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy, 2(1), p. 13-18.

Oberhuber, Nadine (2016): Unser absurder Konsum. In: Zeit-Online, https://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2016-07/zufriedenheit-konsum-sharing-hartmut-rosa [22.06.2020].

Paech, Niko (2012): Liberation from Excess. The Road to a Post-Growth Economy. Oekom, München.

Stanca, Luca/Veenhoven, Ruut (2015): Consumption and happiness. An introduction. In: International Review of Economics, 62, p. 91-99.

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