Environmental degradation and social injustice are deeply enmeshed with the growth economy. Applying green and inclusive lubricants to its mechanisms is not the solution. We must abandon growth itself.
It was a pleasure to contribute to the live-cast at Pakhuis de Zwijger on degrowth with Egbert Dommerholt, Arne Hendriks, Melanie Rieback and Cecile van Oppen. There was so much more I would have liked to add, e.g., about the difference between degrowth economics and the circular economy, about the systemic challenges of (neoliberal) capitalism working against ‘post-growth entrepreneurship’, about degrowth practices beyond the private sector, or about the Marxist, Feminist and Anarchist traditions in degrowth. But time was up! I hope this session provided a bit of a glimpse into a rich, broad and promising movement.
This brief study estimates the relative strengths of population and economic growth as two key drivers of total environmental pressure. In the imagined absence of planetary limits to growth, aggregate consumption in the global South catches up with consumption in the global North by 2073—adding up to almost 29 times today’s environmental pressure. However, this pressure is primarily driven by economic growth per capita, which exceeds by a factor 4.6 the effect of population growth.
Since ‘The Population Bomb’ (Ehrlich, 1968), many continue to blame environmental scarcity on overpopulation. Since ‘The Limits of Growth’ (Meadows et al., 1972), many have added that the culprit is not just overpopulation, but also ‘its terrible twin – overconsumption’ (Kopnina and Washington, 2016: 140; Bradshaw et al., 2021; Czech, 2021). The current environmental crisis supposedly escalates as a result of the impact of a growing number of poor taking on the same habits of resource exploitation as the rich. Growing levels of biophysical throughput, especially in highly populated low and lower-middle income (LLMI) countries are regarded as a writing on the wall. For example, looking at the total Ecological Footprint (EF) per national income band, LLMI countries were responsible for 33% of the total EF in 2017, compared to 29% for high income (HI) countries. LLMI countries have also increased their EF by 345% compared to 116% for HI countries (Table 1).
National income bands (based on World Bank categories)
Ecological Footprint of Consumption (global hectares) in 2017
Ecological Footprint of Consumption (as % of total) in 2017
Change in Ecological Footprint of Consumption (as % increase) from 1961 to 2017
Population in 2017
Ecological Footprint of Consumption (global hectares per person) in 2017
Upper middle income
Low & lower-middle income
Table 1. Ecological Footprint (EF) per national income band (based on GFN, 2021 and WB, 2021).[i]
The argument suffers from several flaws and limitations. First, with differences in population size, the per capita EF is higher in HI countries with 6.0 global hectares per person compared to 2.4 global hectares per person in LLMI countries. Second, the rising throughput in LLMI results largely from industrial and agricultural production to supply a disproportionate amount of goods to HI countries—and to high-income areas within both HI and LLMI countries. ‘[C]onsumption of affluent households worldwide is by far the strongest determinant and the strongest accelerator of increases of global environmental and social impacts’ (Wiedmann et al., 2020: 1). This leads to an outsourcing of ecological impacts into LLMI countries and their own peripheries (Akizu-Gardoki et al., 2020; Rammelt and Gupta, 2021). EF data such as in Table 1 goes a long way but fails to account for the full range of those externalities (Van den Bergh and Grazi, 2014) which means that the allocation of resources, risks and responsibilities is likely to be even more unequal. Finally, the argument conflates the processes of population and economic growth (Hartmann 1998). The present paper therefore aims to provide a straightforward estimate of the relative strength of these drivers of the environmental crisis.
The drivers of population and consumption
The average population growth rate in the LLMI countries was 1.79% (over the period 2002-2017), which is higher than the average 0.63% rate in the HI countries (Table 2). In 2017, LLMI countries also accounted for 46% of the global population; HI countries for only 16%. Not only is population relatively greater in LLMI, so is the population growth rate.
Consumption will be measured as Gross National Income (GNI) in constant 2010$, which accounts for total income regardless of citizens and businesses are located, and for inflation to express growth in ‘real’ terms. The average economic growth rate (GNI per capita) in LLMI countries was 3.97% (2002-2017), which is also higher than the average 1.22% rate in HI countries. However, the absolute levels of consumption reveal something different. In 2017, LLMI countries accounted for only 8% of total consumption; HI countries for 65%.
We therefore see an inverse relationship between population and consumption levels for these two income bands. In 2017, an average ‘rich’ person claimed 24 times more than an average ‘poor’ person [=(65/16)/(8/46)].
National income bands (based on World Bank categories)
Average % growth population 2002-2017
Total population in 2017
% of total population in 2017
Average % growth GNI per capita 2002-2017
GNI (constant 2010 US$) in 2017
GNI (% of total) in 2017
Upper middle income
Low & lower-middle income
Table 2. Changes and levels of population and consumption (based on WB, 2021).
Comparing the drivers’ relative strengths
We see that population and economic growth rates in LLMI exceed those in HI countries. At some point, and in the imagined absence of planetary limits to growth, aggregate LLMI consumption therefore catches up with aggregate HI consumption. A relatively simple back-of-the-envelope calculation gives us the year when this happens. I assume a continuation of past population and economic growth rates from Table 2. I use these rates to extrapolate the growth of total population and average consumption for all three income bands. For each year after 2017, GNI per capita is multiplied by population size to get the projected consumption level. I find that aggregate consumption by LLMI countries catches up with consumption by HI countries by 2073 (Figure 1).
So, which one is the main driver: population or economic growth? Both are contributing to LLMI catching up with HI by 2073, but not with an equal weight. Since LLMI comprise almost half of the world population and its population growth rate is almost three times that of HI, one might assume that population is the culprit. This would be incorrect.
The population factor therefore contributes to aggregate consumption growth by 170.01% (= 270.01%-100%). On the other hand, the average consumption factor contributes by 784.81% (= 884.81%-100%)—4.6 times the contribution from population growth. To this conclusion, I should immediately add that GNI per capita levels hide further inequalities within the income bands, between countries and between individuals (UNU-WIDER, 2021). For example, from the early 1990s to the late 2000s, household income inequality as measured by the population-weighted average level of the Gini index increased by 9% for HI countries and by 11% for LLMI countries (UNDP, 2013). This further undermines attributions of the environmental crisis to the consumption of a large and growing number of ‘poor’ people. Of course, the proposed calculation does not account for the actual biophysical claims and impacts of consumption, which I have measured using the monetary index of GNI. However, throughput and GNI are strongly correlated (Rammelt and Gupta, 2021). Based on Ecological Footprints (EF) rather than GNI, others have also concluded that consumption is the main driver, not population (Galli et al., 2012; Toth and Szigeti, 2016).
Finally, let me propose the following thought-experiment as another way to approach this: say average consumption magically stopped growing from now on (i.e., the GNI per capita growth rate drops to zero after 2017, and stays at that level), aggregate consumption by a relatively faster growing population in LLMI countries would catch up with HI consumption only by 2198. Relative differences in the population growth rates of the two income bands are therefore virtually irrelevant for the ecological crisis in the coming decades. The projected cut-off point would probably occur even later with a more realistic slowing down of population growth rates (Vollset et al., 2020). Similarly, if populations stopped growing from now on (zero growth rate), LLMI consumption would still catch up with HI consumption by 2093 (20 years later than with population growth). Again, per capita consumption growth drives the crisis.
Through a relatively straightforward analysis, this study supports the finding that the main driver for environmental disruption is not population growth, but average consumption growth—especially in HI countries, and to a lesser extent in LLMI countries (and to an even lesser extent by the peripheries in those countries). Commentators often refer to overpopulation as the ‘elephant in the room’ that scholars tend to ignore, or cannot see (Kopnina and Washington, 2016; Czech, 2021). However, as far as global environmental impacts are concerned, it seems we are not dealing with an elephant but with something smaller. Moreover, a focus on overpopulation, or even on the conflated forces of overpopulation plus overconsumption, brings about a not-so-subtle shift of responsibility for environmental problems to the global South (Norton, 2000; Rammelt and Boes, 2013; Fletcher et al., 2014). Resources are not primarily consumed by a fast-growing population in the global South for the satisfaction of basic needs, but by a slow-growing population in the global North for the satisfaction of boundless demands: ‘Instead of a Population Bomb we should speak about an Over-Consumption Detonator of environmental disaster’ (Toth and Szigeti, 2016: 290).
Akizu-Gardoki O, Wakiyama T, Wiedmann T, Bueno G, Arto I, Lenzen M et al. (2020) Hidden energy flow indicator to reflect the outsourced energy requirements of countries. Journal of Cleaner Production 278: 123827.
Bradshaw CJA, Ehrlich PR, Beattie A, Ceballos G, Crist E, Diamond J. et al. (2021) Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Frontiers in Conservation Science 1(615419): 1-9.
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Have you ever wondered about whether eternal growth is the way to go? In our very first podcast, we are interviewing Crelis Rammelt, assistant professor of environmental geography and international development studies at the University of Amsterdam, and cofounder of ‘Ontgroei’, a Dutch degrowth platform. Degrowth is a different approach to societal progress, that focuses on well-being rather than economic growth. In our interview, we are exploring degrowth within the context of Dutch social movements, while also discussing degrowth in general.
One of the most urgent questions of our times is whether economic growth will deliver well-being for all while staying within the ecological limits of our planet. A rising number of scientists and citizens think that this will not be possible, and that ‘prosperity’ or ‘quality of life’ must be rethought, and separated from GDP growth.
The Cities for Change event “A good life for all beyond growth?” presents the research being done in Amsterdam on current ‘post-growth initiatives’. A consortium of scholars across the social sciences and humanities from UvA, HvA, VU, ISS and PThU will be exploring the factors and conditions that influence sustainable urban transformations towards a high quality of life beyond growth-centric economies. It pays special attention to the frictions and contradictions between the conventional growth-centric model of urban development and a number of emerging policy and grassroots initiatives which prioritize a higher quality of life based on a holistic understanding of human and nonhuman needs instead of growth. This includes the city’s initiatives around municipalism and ‘Doughnut economics’ and will be investigated along three key dimensions of urban life: housing commons, food practices, and community health.
11:00 – Welcome
11:05 – Introduction into the consortium (Julien-François Gerber)
[Diving deeper into different parts of the project]
Toen ik klein was, gaven mijn ouders me een kleine schildpad. Na enige tijd ontdekte ik dat het was gestopt met groeien voordat het te groot werd voor het aquarium. We besloten toch om een groter aquarium te kopen en de schildpad hervatte zijn groei. Maar nogmaals, het stopte voordat het de ruimte om hem heen uitgroeide. Hoewel het stopte in omvang en gewicht, bleef het niet stoppen met het veranderen van zijn verhoudingen, kleuren, gedrag en andere kwaliteiten. Ter vergelijking: de wereldeconomie van vandaag lijkt op een gigantisch beest dat op planetaire schaal hulpbronnen vergaart en verslindt, bergen afval terug in zijn habitat loost en de ecologische verwoesting niet tegengaat door zijn eigen vraatzuchtige impulsen te beteugelen. Er is een evolutionaire transformatie nodig voordat de economie haar groei opzettelijk kan vertragen – laat staan terugbrengen naar duurzame niveaus.
In dit 8 minuten mini-lezing voor de Universiteit van Amsterdam, leg ik de basisprincipes en ideeën achter degrowth uit.
During the 8th international degrowth conference in The Hague next summer we will pay attention to the potential for a degrowth movement in the Netherlands. In this Key Conversation we will seek to facilitate a space for exchange between initiatives (on food, housing, energy, mobility and money) that are aligned with degrowth principles, to generate momentum for degrowth thinking, practice and political mobilisation in The Netherlands. Here’s a short video message about our aims for this Key Conversation. For more details, please see below.
The emphasis for this Key Conversation is on networking and generating momentum for degrowth thinking and practice in The Netherlands. We plan to approach and invite existing initiatives and networks (local, provincial, national, and in different sectors) that possibly share and (implicitly) pursue degrowth principles, such as redistributing, caring, de-commodifying and commoning. We will seek these potential alliances in different sectors or spheres of work (food, energy, mobility, housing, money, etc.). Initiatives and networks would be invited to (1) discuss if and how they adopt/pursue these principles, in order to generate common ground, and (2) explore shared experiences of the challenges of a transition away from current growth-based social, cultural and economic forces. Our observation is that there is a myriad of relevant initiatives, but that these initiatives are not always able to find each other or work within their respective silos. We think that by opening a space for these initiatives to meet and connect under the umbrella of degrowth, we can foster exchange, learning and collaboration between them to acknowledge their common struggles, consider alternatives solutions and increase their collective power and impact. To contribute to these endeavors, we have come up with a range of possible activities, for which we will collaborate with the Dutch Degrowth platform Ontgroei. Activities could include:
Constructing a simple overview of degrowth objectives, principles and policies to help interested initiatives to recognize degrowth in their activities .
Building a database of initiatives and networks in the Netherlands that could potentially participate and/or help organise the conference, as well as in long-term alliances within a wider degrowth movement.
Further recurring and informal networking opportunities throughout the conference rather than one single event, e.g., through ‘Dialogue Walks’ to discuss shared visions and challenges (experiences would be gathered through video/audio fragments), and/or through local/decentral meeting places outside of The Hague.
Thematic sessions around different degrowth principles, and then scalar or sectoral break-out sessions . Initiatives would be encouraged to contribute around relevant themes, not just to participate.
Create a collaborative map of the initiatives and networks.
Keynote, e.g., in the form of a carousel-type event (5 or 6 ‘portraits’ of initiatives in a sequence of short dialogues, facilitated by a moderator).
We see these activities as stepping stones towards building a degrowth movement in the Netherlands. Post-conference follow-ups include:
Create a community of practice page on ontgroei.nl, with quotes from the initiatives on “degrowth”, or as signatories to a degrowth manifest.
Digitalise and share the collaborative map (see above).
And much more… Stay tuned via Ontgroei, the Dutch degrowth platform.
How is economic growth entwined with the social, environmental and financial turmoil of the past few decades? How can we have a stable and prosperous economy that does not grow—let alone one that shrinks to a sustainable level relative to existing planetary boundaries?
The degrowth movement offers a radical critique and an alternative vision that draws from a range of unorthodox intellectual and philosophical traditions, including political ecology, ecological economics and post-development. It confronts us with our own biases concerning growth, limits, money, well-being and so on.
Degrowth and Social equality In this first session the increasing marketization of our daily life will be critically evaluated, and the extent to which it stimulates social inequality.
WITH Jordy Willems (UvA/Iss * Future Planet Studies) Crelis Rammelt (UvA * Environmental geography and development)
MODERATED BY Richard Engelfriet
IN COOPERATION WITH UvA-IIS (Institute for interdisciplinary Studies), Studium Generale Saxion, Minor Algemene Ontwikkeling, Minor Liberal Arts & Sciences, Minor Conscious Business & minor Circulaire Economie
Through a degrowth-course at the University of Amsterdam and meetings with like-minded people, the Dutch degrowth-platform Ontgroei was established. Co-founder Crelis Rammelt reports about the state of degrowth thinking and its movement in the Netherlands.
“Just act normal, as that’s insane enough as it is,” we tell each other here in the Netherlands. We are quick to judge those who do not follow normal behaviour. But when normalcy has led us to social injustice and environmental destruction, it would be insane not to act abnormal!“ To understand the state of de-/post-growth thinking and its movement in the Netherlands, we need a bit of context. Our dominant social imaginary has long been firmly rooted in socially unjust and ecologically destructive growth fetishism. Read more…
Perpetual economic growth is incompatible with a finite planet. To some extent, innovation can reduce throughput, thus ‘decoupling’ economic growth from environmental impacts. However, the level of decoupling has been ‘relative’, which means that impacts still grow, just not as fast as the Gross World Product (GWP) (Figure 1).
An indication of a strong coupling between economic growth and environmental impacts is suggested by a strong long-term correlation between the two (Figure 2). The GWP growth rate is strongly correlated with both world primary energy consumption growth (Pearson correlation coefficient: 0,88) and world consumption emissions growth (0,75).
British Petroleum (BP) (2020). Statistical Review of World Energy. Retrieved 21 Aug, 2020, from https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html.
Global Carbon Atlas (GCA) (2020). CO2 Emissions. Retrieved 21 Aug, 2020, from http://www.globalcarbonatlas.org/en/CO2-emissions.
World Bank (WB) (2020). World Development Indicators. Retrieved 19 Aug, 2020, from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD.