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The Radical Plan to Save the Planet by Working Less

The Radical Plan to Save the Planet by Working Less

The degrowth movement wants to intentionally shrink the economy to address climate change, and create lives with less stuff, less work, and better well-being. But is it a utopian fantasy?

In 1972, a team at MIT published The Limits to Growth, a report that predicted what would happen to human civilization as the economy and population continued to grow. What their computer simulation found was pretty straightforward: On a planet of finite resources, infinite exponential growth isn’t possible. Eventually, non-renewable resources, like oil, would run out.

Historically, we have considered growth a positive thing, synonymous with job security and prosperity. Since World War II, the gross domestic product (GDP) measure has been used as “the ultimate measure of a country’s overall welfare.” One of John F. Kennedy’s staff economists, Arthur Okun, theorized that for every 3-point rise in GDP, unemployment would fall a percentage point—one reason why presidential campaigns fixate on the measure.

But growth has led to other problems, such as the warming of the planet due to carbon emissions, and the extreme weather and loss of biodiversityand agriculture that comes along with that. Consequently some activists, researchers, and policy makers are questioning the dogma of growth as good. This skepticism has led to the degrowth movement, which says the growth of the economy is inextricably tied to an increase in carbon emissions. It calls for a dramatic reduction in energy and material use, which would inevitably shrink GDP. 

The Green New Deal, popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seeks to decrease carbon by growing the renewable energy industry. But the degrowth movement believes we need to take this further, by designing a social upheaval that disentangles the idea of progress and economic growth once and for all.

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