Session 3: The (De)Growth Debate

You can watch the recording of the session here.

In Session 2 we talked about how neoliberalism replaced Keynesianism as the prevailing capitalist ideology starting in the late 70s/early 1980s. Both are capitalist growth based economic paradigms, but Keynesianism is capitalism with a social role to be played by government. Neoliberalism sees the only role for government is to ensure that markets function properly.

In Session 3, Professor Bill Rees provided an analysis of the ecological crisis that is unfolding and talked about some potential solutions.

Professor Rees framed his comments by saying that we cannot solve our problems if we don’t understand them; and, we can’t solve our problems when we are living out narratives that aren’t real. He referenced the 1971 Powell Memorandum, which was prepared for President Richard Nixon and set out a blueprint for changing the conversation and implementing neoliberalism. The plan was to ensure that the narrative was heard by everyone and that alternative paradigms were neutralised. 

He presented five slides to ground his comments.

He noted that:

  • Neoliberal models (and constructs such as GDP), contain no information about the biophysical planet; 
  • Modern urbanization is a product of fossil fuels;
  • Growth is an anomaly that only started in the 17th century;
  • Fossil fuel use and population growth has been in lock step;
  • Fossil fuels currently supply about 80% of the world’s energy and renewable energy sources make up a very small percentage of the global energy supply.
  • We are in overshoot, and that the carrying capacity of the planet is falling as overshoot continues
  • Climate change is a symptom of overshoot
  • Globalization has allowed us to exceed the world’s carrying capacity and enabled the very wealthy to appropriate resources

According to Professor Rees there are two factors that drive overshoot: material throughput and population growth. He noted that if economic growth is spread over a growing population then people are not necessarily better off; and that if everyone consumed at western standards we would need an additional 3 to 4 planets. He also cautioned that people immigrating to Canada from countries with lower levels of consumption would expect to live the same lifestyles as the rest of the population, and that this could increase overshoot.

Professor Rees talked about his narrative, and he started by describing the current situation: the economy is seen as separate from the natural world, We have decoupled from nature. Human ingenuity is considered to be the major resource. The separation of the economy and environment enables the illusion that perpetual growth is possible.

In ecological economics the human enterprise is a part of the ecosystem, and we need to recognise that we are integral parts of ecosystems and dependent on them. 

He noted that degrowth is a political philosophy that recognises that we have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet and have to reduce consumption and redistribute from rich to poor. It recognises the limits to growth and that the economy must contract. It was observed that the term “degrowth” is controversial and that many would be concerned about losing their jobs under s degrowth scenario. 

A distinction was made between growth, meaning bigger and development meaning better. That growth has not necessarily made people better off, and in fact, population health in North America is declining. There has been a loss of happiness in democracies since the 1960s and that the US is at the bottom of social indicators. According to The Spirit Level poorer people in more equal societies are happier than richer people in more unequal societies.

Most people are not well informed about this. We educate people in silos when we need a transdisciplinary approach to understand what is happening. We need to be well informed and it is important to check sources because there is a lot of misinformation about.

Democracy has been corrupted by the need for money to get elected, especially in the US. There will not be change until people demand change. People need to be politically engaged.

Professor Rees called for more “localization” and “deglobalization. He also noted that we waste 50% of energy in Canada through careless use, and that would be a good place to start.


  • Max Roser, What is Economic Growth? and Why is it so Important?  2021. Our World in Data.
  • Ecosocialism is the Horizon, Degrowth is the Way Resilience - A Program of the Post Carbon Institute.
  • Jason Hickel, Less is More - How Degrowth will Save the World.  2021
  • Edited by Giacomo D’Alisa, Frederico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis, Degrowth - A Vocabulary For a New Era. 2015
  • Herman Daly, Steady State Economics  1977
  • Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics - 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist  2017
  • Dan O’Neill, “Herman Daly Obituary” . Nature Sustainability. 29 December, 2022
  • From an Empty World to a Full World: Economics for Rebels podcast (the podcast of the European Society for Ecological Economics)
  • Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. 2009
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future. 2020

The “Take-Aways” - a summary of key points from breakout groups and chat:

“Degrowth” must happen but is a tough sell

  • Degrowth is inevitable. We are in overshoot and will be forced to cut back one way or another.
  • The term “degrowth” is challenging and creates fears for people’s jobs and way of life.
  • People are more concerned about what they will lose than what they may gain.
  • Need to express degrowth in a way that is palatable. Need a positive narrative that communicates “degrowth” without using the word.

We need to have a simple and positive message

  • Need to focus on the benefits of consuming less. 
  • Need a narrative to counter Keynes’ post-depression prescription to maximise  consumption.
  • Need to be able to include the concept of degrowth in policy, and be able to talk about it publicly in 30 seconds.
  • Need a positive frame for the conversation in order to mobilise voters and elect more Green MLAs.
  • The language we use in our messaging is very important

We need to change our mindset

  • Need cultural change where people value more personal time and a better quality of life.
  • Need to educate people about doing well with less
  • People in societies with much less than us are happier.  
  • We can have a better quality of life if we are not focused on accumulation of goods and working so many hours.
  • End the extraction mindset
  • Need to focus on values

We can present an alternative story that is appealing

  • The “doughnut” gives a viable alternative
  • The types of jobs may change, but there will still be jobs.
  • We can invest in capital projects with a good environmental return, e.g. passenger rail or public transit.
  • Or capital projects that change our way of living on the land.
  • Build in resilience
  • Micro grids
  • Circular economy
  • We need to be able to demonstrate how we are maintaining the quality of life while reducing consumption
  • Need to address insecurity - Russians missed the sense of security after the fall of communism.

Change needs to recognise inequities in society

  • Need for redistribution
  • End to colonisation
  • Need to recognise the indigenous perspective.

What we measure is important 

  • Bigger is not necessarily better 
  • Quality of life
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Ecosystem health
  • Happiness 

Quotes from the Chat:

On Ecological Footprint:

1.63 global hectares per capita is our fair share. (That decreases as population increases) 

  • China has an ecological footprint of 3.71 hectares per capita 
  • USA has an ecological footprint per capita of 8.04 hectares
  • India’s ecological footprint per capita is 1.19
  • Canada’s is 8.17


On GHG emissions:

The United States has emitted more CO2 than any other country to date: at around 400 billion tonnes since 1751, it is responsible for 25% of historical emissions;

  • this is twice more than China – the world’s second largest national contributor; 
  • the 28 countries of the European Union (EU-28) – which are grouped together here as they typically negotiate and set targets on a collaborative basis – is also a large historical contributor at 22%;
  • many of the large annual emitters today – such as India and Brazil – are not large contributors in a historical context;
  • Africa’s regional contribution – relative to its population size – has been very small. This is the result of very low per capita emissions – both historically and currently.


On Culture:

Focus on updating our cultural framework which is woefully out of date: "It is culture that holds civilizations together. But it’s also culture that traps us in outdated thinking and isolates us into our protective bubbles. Culture can reinforce our habits, make us feel safe inside our prejudice and validate our behaviour."

"Culture is not just music and dance, art and entertainment. Culture is what we use to weave and reinforce the fabric of our society. It provides the basis for our moral compass. It guides our decisions and strongly influences how we see the world. It determines how we treat each other and the ecosystems we depend on."

On Values:

If covid taught us anything, it is that The People do not change their behaviour based on obtaining more information. Most people act based on their values, not their information, so educating people is important but mostly ineffective. We need to appeal to voters’ values.


  • Doug Saunders, Maximum Canada: Towards a Country of 100 Million. 2017
  • The Century Initiative
  • Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich 1981
  • Nathaniel Rich, Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade. 2021
  • Guy Dauncey, Journey to the future: A Better World is Possible. 2016
  • Muhammad Yunus, A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions. 2017
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