What Degrowth Means in America

5 things to remember about the U.S. context as the degrowth movement takes hold here.

Anna Mercury


Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Degrowth is slowly (one might say, at a snail’s pace) catching on. Last year’s IPCC report made reference to the term some 27 times. Scholars around the world are exploring and debating the topic. Academics are churning out titles like The Future Is Degrowth and Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World.

There’s good reason for the lofty titles, too. Despite its (many) detractors, degrowth offers a real vision for the future of human civilization, one that is neither stuck in the same unsustainable thinking as ideas of simply “greening” our existing economic systems, as though this were possible, nor giving into apocalyptic fantasies of civilizational collapse. Degrowth offers a middle path: a means of accepting the realities of our planet’s needs and adapting our lifestyles to fit within them, in a way that could radically benefit us humans, too.

If you’re unfamiliar with degrowth, it’s a macroeconomic framework that views endless economic growth not only as a bad barometer of economic health, but as fundamentally incompatible with the continued survival of our species. Degrowth argues that we can (and should) reduce production and consumption in the economy and reshape the way we distribute power and resources to ensure everyone’s needs can be met within the carrying capacity of the biosphere.

Whereas traditional economic models make space only for “growth” and “recession,” degrowth advocates for something qualitatively different: downscaling economic production while simultaneously prioritizing good living, especially the aspects of our well-being that capitalism forgets (community, free time, doing tasks for enjoyment rather than profit, and, of course, living in a healthy ecosystem).

The degrowth movement emerged in France in the 1970s (the original term was décroissance, which refers to a river returning to its normal size after a flood) and rapidly spread across Western Europe. Until recently, the movement was largely unknown in the United States, but that is swiftly changing. In 2018, DegrowUS (an organization, admittedly, that I co-founded) launched with our first degrowth conference in Chicago, bringing together…