Degrowth economy: The pathway to human survival

Degrowth economy: The pathway to human survival - Image Description - Jenga game about to collapse

Why do we need to transform government?

We need to transform government because neither the needs of people, nor the needs of the planet are being met under this current government. The ‘people crisis’ can be summed up by the following statistics:

  • 13.6% of Australians (including 17.7% of children) live in poverty.
  • Wages have been stagnant for 20 years.
  • Welfare payments are falling further and further below the poverty line.
  • Wealth inequality is at an all-time high – the wealthiest 20% have 90 times the wealth of the poorest 20%.
  • The cost of living is increasing as the cost of healthcare, housing, electricity, fuel and education skyrocket.
  • Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of oligarchs, who influence election outcomes in line with their owner’s political ideologies.
  • Corporate donations to political parties are influencing policy outcomes to their favour, at the expense of the citizens of Australia.

The ‘planetary crisis’ is clearly visible in Australia, where in the last several years we have endured catastrophic fires, flooding and our coral reefs are experiencing bleaching from warming waters. Yet our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets for 2030 – the only timeframe that counts – are far too low from either the Liberal Party (-26 to -28%) or the Labor Party (-43%). The scientists are saying we need to be reducing our emissions by 75% by 2030 if we are to abide by the ‘equity’ clause in the Paris Agreement, a clause which has been included in recognition of our historically high emissions and ‘development’ because of fossil fuel use.

If we do not take heed of the climate scientists’ warnings and dramatically reduce our emissions this decade, we risk activating global tipping points that will see the natural world contribute to warming in a way that will dwarf anthropogenic impacts. Once we set that wheel in motion, there is no way to stop it. Prevention is our only option, and we have preciously little time left, having activated 9 of the 15 tipping points already, including the albedo effect in the Arctic. The Amazon rainforest is on the verge of collapse, it could happen in as little as five years. Furthermore, scientists have identified 9 planetary boundaries and climate change is just one of 7 [1] planetary boundaries we are already breaching. The other six planetary boundaries we are transgressing are freshwater use, ocean acidification, land system change (deforestation), novel entities (plastic pollution), biodiversity and nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans.

Both the people crisis and the planetary crisis are a result of decades long focus on “economic growth” (or gross domestic product: ‘GDP’) as a proxy for human wellbeing. For a while GDP was a reliable metric of wellbeing in wealthy nations, however, the two have been decoupled for many decades; more “stuff” doesn’t make us happier. In fact, the additional pressures of increasing cost of healthcare, education, transport and housing is making us more stressed, and on balance, not increasing our feelings of happiness. The current economic model has many of us on a “rat wheel” where we are busy constantly trying to stay ahead, with no time or mental or emotional capacity to devote to other areas of our lives beyond work and home. Our goals are primarily materialistic, working more to spend more, lest we start falling behind the proverbial Jonses, rarely seeking to attain higher ideals beyond the things we own and the places we go. Robert F Kennedy eloquently summed up the inadequacies of the GDP metric, as well as the “poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity” that, collectively, we seem to be experiencing, in a speech he gave in Kansas in 1968:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Not only is GDP a terrible metric of anything useful, but it’s also closely correlated with material footprint (see chart 1). The higher GDP is, the greater the damage we have inflicted on the natural environment. Exponentially growing our economy can only lead to one thing: ecological and societal collapse. We must act with urgency to focus our economy on the things that really matter, people and the planet. This will mean a period of “degrowing” our economy until we reach a material usage within planetary boundaries that we maintain at a “steady-state”.

Degrowth economy - pathway to human survival - green agenda
Chart 1: global GDP and global raw material consumption

Globally, economic growth is the reason why GHG emissions are 60% higher today than they were in 1990, the year in which the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released. We’ve now put more GHG emissions into the atmosphere since the release of this report than in all human history prior. In 2021 emissions reached an all-time high: despite 26 COPs we are yet to see any meaningful action to reduce emissions in line with the science and our international agreements.

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What can we do next?

If we are to achieve the science-based climate targets we must actively scale down our fossil fuel usage using legally binding annual targets until we reduce emissions by 75% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2035. It’s highly unlikely that we will be able to achieve economic growth targets while we do this, so we must move away from the commonly held perception that economic growth is the only path to achieving prosperity. A planned reduction in fossil fuel usage will allow us to attempt to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. We will not have that opportunity in a collapse scenario, which will become increasingly likely as we get closer to activating tipping points.

How can the Greens transform government?

If the Greens wish to truly transform government, they must acknowledge its current shortcomings and propose solutions to them. Those shortcomings include:

  • Capitalism is in direct contrast to ecological health. The concept of ‘green-growth’ has long been debunked. Infinite growth on a finite planet will lead to ecological and societal collapse.
  • A focus on the deficit as an excuse not to funds things we need. The deficit is a myth and the Greens should be calling it out as such. Under Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) money is not a finite resource, but the resources of the planet certainly are. We need to stop anchoring to LNP and Labor vocabulary and economic mindset and communicate this message to the electorate.
  • A lack of acknowledgement that the planetary boundaries exist, and that globally we are transgressing 7 of the 9 boundaries already. There is also a lack of acknowledgement of Australia’s huge contribution to these planetary boundaries on a per capita level – if the whole world lived like Australian’s we would need more than 4 planet earths.

While it’s tempting to try and ‘woo’ voters from the incumbent government by ‘speaking the same language’, it’s important that the Greens offer a genuine alternative to the status quo. Otherwise, we risk compromising our values and not differentiating ourselves from the other parties. We need to provide genuine solutions – not just those solutions we think people want to hear – or we will not influence the changes we need to make most.

The Greens can change government by decoupling economic growth and jobs via a federal Jobs guarantee, paying people a socially inclusive wage to:

  • Build renewable energy infrastructure
  • Build public and active transport infrastructure
  • Insulate homes
  • Electrify buildings
  • Convert existing buildings into social housing
  • Rewild and restore terrestrial and oceanic habitats
  • Any other work needed to achieve the science-based climate targets and to help Australia become a nation that only requires our fair shares of earth’s resources

A federal jobs guarantee will mean that meaningful, necessary work is available for anyone who wants it, effectively making the unemployment rate zero, a huge step forward from the current method of using unemployment to control inflation – a cruel, harmful and unnecessary policy measure.

Many of the changes we need to make under a degrowth scenario are in The Greens’ policies already, such as higher tax on billionaires (although we don’t need to tax billionaires to pay for things as the Australian government is not a household and issues its own currency – we need to tax them because such huge wealth disparity is corrosive to a healthy society), changing the laws around political donations so that wealth doesn’t have disproportionate influence and putting in place measures to improve the levels of integrity in government. We can go further though, introducing maximum incomes and changing corporate ownership structures so that profits can’t be funnelled to individuals (not-for-profit organisational structures, where any surplus from sales needs to be reinvested into the organisation or the community), which is the cause of the huge wealth inequality we are currently seeing and a key driver of climate change (the wealthiest 10% are responsible for 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions). It also removes the “profit motive” whereby profit is prioritised ahead of people and the planet. This will also require abolishing superannuation and instead providing government issued pensions at socially inclusive levels so that every citizen is no longer dependent on savings and the performance of public companies to survive. To be able to achieve the above the laws around corporate ‘personhood’, political donations (including the promise of work to MPs after their term in government) and media ownership will need to change so that the disproportionate influence of profit driven enterprises over political discourse is removed.

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The Greens can further transform government by upholding the principles of Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, educating the public on the science of climate change and the predicted impacts. We must highlight that solutions exist on both the “supply-side” (source of energy) and the “demand-side” (use of energy), acknowledging that technology alone won’t be enough to achieve net-zero: we will need to reduce our energy requirements. We should put in place binding annual targets to wind-down fossil fuel use to achieve the science-based targets (net-zero by 2035) – as per this excellent article by Economic Anthropologist, Jason Hickel. This will mean scaling back harmful industries like coal, oil, gas, aviation, private jets, red-meat, fast fashion, advertising, too-large and too-inefficient houses, financial services etcetera, ending planned obsolescence and food waste, moving from ownership to usership and introducing a 4-day work week to share the remaining jobs. We would ensure that the needs of all are met as we scale back fossil fuels, providing high quality healthcare (including mental health and dental care), high quality education (no more public funds to private schools), and high quality, extensive public and active transport infrastructure and quotas of electricity, water and internet. Simultaneously we will need to cancel debt, especially to developing nations, and change the way money enters circulation, from banks lending it into existence, to governments spending it into existence.

How do the Greens risk being changed by Government?

The Greens risk being changed by government if they ‘anchor’ to the current economic model, presenting only incremental changes and pursuing policies well inside the ‘Overton window’ of politically safe discourse. If the Greens do this, they will not differentiate themselves from other political parties and reinforce the current economic system as ‘the only way’. If this is the case the Greens will also miss an opportunity to address the concerns of people who are struggling under the current system but end up voting against their own interests because they perceive that there are no real alternatives.

If the Greens speak the same economic language as the major political parties, the Greens risk entrenching that language, rather than calling out its inaccuracies and shortcomings. Modern Monetary Theory states that we have no financial restrictions – that the deficit is a myth – but we do have real resource restrictions, for example, how quickly can we roll-out renewable energy and can do it without blowing the remaining carbon budget? If not, how do we best distribute the energy we have access to whilst achieving the science-based GHG emission reduction targets?

Such economic language includes using metrics like GDP as a measure of prosperity. This language, and the economic models on which it is based, is deeply rooted in conservative ideology, and by perpetuating it we legitimise it. The Greens should develop their own metrics that include the planetary boundaries and social factors such as poverty levels, income and wealth inequality and wellbeing and happiness markers, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, consistently highlighting how current governments are performing against these metrics, regardless of GDP.

Furthermore, if we perpetuate the narrative that we can escape the climate crisis by simply deploying renewable energy and switching to electric vehicles we underplay the seriousness with which we must act. We must change all of society, moving away from economic growth, reducing our working hours and our energy needs, using more active and public transport rather than private cars, growing food locally and eating more plants. We must build strong communities and shop locally, and we must learn to respect and cherish nature rather than “othering” it in order to exploit it. We must be honest about the changes we need to make.


There is a really powerful story the Greens could be telling about how much less stressed people would be and how much happier they would feel if they worked a 4-day week, if they knew they would be looked after in retirement without needing to contribute to superannuation, that high quality schooling, healthcare and public transport was publicly provided. If there was no anxiety about house prices being unsustainable and out of reach of anyone not already in the market. If they didn’t feel pressure to create and chase growth at their workplaces working in bullshit jobs because the system demands it. If they felt like their work was meaningful and not contributing to damaging the future. If they had time to enjoy non-work pursuits and the company of those they love. If they were no longer experiencing a “poverty of satisfaction, purpose and dignity” but were a part of a system that enabled them to pursue a meaningful life.

As climate scientist Kevin Anderson says “winning slowly is really the same as losing outright”: we no longer have the luxury of time. If we are genuine with the urgency we demand and we show it in the plan we present, with the explicit objective of meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet, we may just win hearts and minds. At the very least, we’ll plant some seeds that will be watered as climate change continues to wreak havoc on the lives of everyday Australians, leaving little doubt that change is not only necessary but urgent. The Greens can demonstrate that this change is also eminently possible.

[1] From the Paris Agreement to the Anthropocene and Planetary Boundaries Framework: an interview with Will Steffe highlights two further planetary boundaries that are currently being peer reviewed.

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