Economic 'degrowth' no laughing matter

"They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round."

Those are the opening lines from a popular song of the 1930s, written by George and Ira Gershwin. It goes on to mention a series of great inventors who were ridiculed at first.

Setting himself up for inclusion in a modern version of that song is Erik Assadourian, an internationally noted green researcher.

He wants "overdeveloped" countries to intentionally stop growing their economies.

He describes the benefits and opportunities of "proactive economic degrowth" in the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World report.

Worldwatch is an independent research organisation based in Washington that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The report presents a selection of ideas and practices to achieve global environmental sustainability while meeting human needs.

Assadourian would expect to be laughed at, and no doubt is, but he has a valid argument.

He defines degrowth as the intentional contraction of overdeveloped economies and more broadly, the redirection of economies away from the perpetual pursuit of growth.

Unsurprisingly, the United States is squarely in his sights. If everyone lived like the average American, the planet could sustain only 1.7 billion people - a quarter of today's population.

Fixation with economic growth and increasing levels of consumption contributes to debt burdens, long working hours, increased rates of obesity, dependence on pharmaceuticals, social isolation, and other societal ills, Assadourian writes.

He details three reforms he'd like to see:

Change the consumer culture: Governments should promote a move to smaller homes, "walkable" lifestyles and eating less food, particularly less processed food, and communities that have small-scale farming, child and elder care, midwifery and that develop essential skills like repair and carpentry.

Distribute tax burdens more equitably: Tax the rich, polluters, advertisers and financial transactions with the new revenue going into degrowth initiatives such as goods-sharing services or improving public water and transport or green projects.

Share working hours: In Britain, the average work week, including the unemployed, part- timers and those working excessive hours, is 21 hours. Restructuring the work week to better distribute work hours would help reduce unemployment and poverty, while also improving the quality of life.

Cynical laughter was my first reaction. There's a Utopian - meaning unrealistic - sound to these ideas, though I'm sure they would have appealed to the young idealist I'd like to think I once was.

I'm more mature now. I have experience - meaning cynicism - of the real world and know such ideas are doomed to failure.

But are they?

Worldwatch says degrowth has begun to gain traction as an economic strategy in recent years. Italy and France have degrowth political parties and the third biannual International Degrowth Conference recently ended in Venice with more than 700 participants.

It's part of a worldwide call for greater sustainability, which includes Transition Towns and Meatless Mondays, among other things.

At one time it would have been easy in New Zealand to say this shouldn't affect us, that we already live in a green Utopia of our own. But we know that's not true.

Too many people are overweight, our environment is degrading, debt is high and our crime statistics do not make pleasant reading.

If Assadourian is to be believed, these are some of the symptoms of an overdeveloped country.

I don't know if we are in this category. If you use household consumption as one measurement, international statistics show our rate is half that of the US, making us 22nd of the OECD's 33 countries. How many planets would be needed to maintain our consumption worldwide? I don't know.

One thing that is clear is that other countries are working hard to join us.

China and India are lifting their standards of living, competing with the US for oil and metals on world markets.

And you can add food to that. We are delighted that China wants so much of our meat and dairy produce.

But by gearing up to supply China's needs are we sacrificing short-term gain for long-term pain? The environmental harm caused by a rampant dairy industry will be harder to reverse the longer it goes on.

Should we be satisfied with less? Should we "degrow" the economy?

These are heretical thoughts when the economy is struggling, but are worthy of discussion.

Here's another question: What is your vision of the nation you want your grandchildren to inherit? Does it fit with the New Zealand you see today?

The Dominion Post