- From record low levels of pollution to cleaner rivers, the unprecedented scale of lockdown to address the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has resulted in many welcomed changes in our immediate environment.
- While many are hailing this time of degrowth what needs to be understood is that no change has happened at the systemic level to ensure the sustainability of such a shift.
- Once the pandemic is managed the usual growth model is waiting to bounce back, and, as observed in the post-world war II economic boom, the economy is likely to reach a higher throughput than the initial.
- To ensure a sustained change in the economic system, consumers need to start valuing things that the current system cannot simply offer and seek to reconstruct a ‘different economy’.
In the midst of COVID-19 lockdown, a tweet highlights that the economy is about to collapse because we are now consuming only what we ‘need’. This post does not surprise me, as due to my research on drivers of consumerism in India, I am aware that economic capitalism relies solely on the increased levels of consumption driven by desires than needs. The unprecedented scale of lockdown to address COVID-19 results in various welcomed changes in the environment.
We have witnessed low levels of pollution in cities, the rivers across the globe are observed to be cleaner and wildlife is more visible in public spaces. By transcending the widespread agony and uncertainty of this time, many of us have seen the silver lining in terms of how the current state of the environment and society resembles a degrowth state. Are we, however, drawing the right connection?
Degrowth: what and why
Ecological economics, based on the argument ‘one cannot have infinite growth in a finite planet’, advocates for a better conceptual understanding of the economy as not being independent of the ecological system, but entirely embedded in it. This conceptual understanding critiques the current growth-obsessed economic system, which sees the insatiable consumer desires as the driving force propelling its supposedly perpetual growth.
This critique gives rise to the concept of degrowth where we as a society collectively acknowledge this fundamental flaw at the heart of the system and choose a conscious path of degrowth to reach a state of lower economic throughput but a more stable and sustainable one. The concept of degrowth holds the need for a better system of redistribution of the already existing wealth at its very core. So, by systematically excluding parts of a society, a particular section cannot reach a state of degrowth.
COVID-19 economic pause: Can we equate with degrowth?
Many scholars are comparing the current state of the economy with the state of degrowth. However, I argue this comparison is not only conceptually incorrect but also simplistic. At first, we need to acknowledge that the pandemic is an external, independent factor that is inducing such a drastic downshift in the economy. There is no change happening at the systemic level to ensure the sustainability of such a shift.
Such a pandemic is denoted as an upshot of climate crisis and disruption in the ecological balance. In the coming future, with resorting to business as usual, such external events are likely to be frequent and intense. However, once we manage to find our way around such an external factor, even if temporarily, the economy is waiting to bounce back to its normal. Moreover, as observed in the post-world war II economic boom, the economy is likely to reach a higher throughput than the initial after the lockdown.
To sustain the drastic downshift of the economy that resembles degrowth, consumers have a major role to play in the realisation of such a massive economic shift as the current capitalist economy is entirely fueled by consumer desires. In our lives, we consciously or at times unconsciously uphold a notion of a good life. This amicable notion guides us continuously in making decisions, be it life-changing ones or concerning everyday affairs.
My research, as well as several anthropological studies, show how the prevailing notions of the good life have slowly turned into being materialistic. It means now we use material goods to earn status, construct identities, and mark success and value them over intangible things like relationships.
Our life stories are now stitched around material possessions that we carefully choose. These notions are socio-culturally constructed. One’s social upbringing and conditioning enable the seeping of certain notions of good life over others. These socio-culturally construed notions are influenced by the economic climate to give rise to insatiable desires or false needs among consumers.
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Upshots of COVID-19- a welcome push towards practising degrowth
To achieve a sustained state of degrowth, we as consumers need to realize the intricate interconnection between our constructed notions of a good life and our consumption decision. A realisation of how we as consumers are turned into this driving force, that is running the entire economic juggernaut by discounting ecological balance and a consequent conscious decision to move away from it, would be the first step to degrowth.
As the second step, we need to ensure that the wealth produced in degrowth or controlled growth of the economy should entirely be diverted to ensuring a good life for the socio-economically underprivileged ones, which requires a certain amount of sacrifice from the privileged sections of the society. However, this would not appear as a sacrifice if we can adopt alternative notions of a good life that value the current state of the environment and social justice over a world obsessed with material possessions and growth.
A sustained change in the economic system can only come if the main internal driving force of the system – consumers – starts valuing things that the current system cannot simply offer. It is going to be a slow socio-cultural shift, but that seems to be the only way to realise a sustained change.
One might ask how far individual action can stop this economic juggernaut, do we have any agency? The current COVID-19 crisis shows us how impactful every action of each individual is in the larger scheme of things. It can motivate us to believe that even a group of us upholding alternative conceptions of good life could set in a self-inducing process of reforms in socio-culturally held notions of a good life – eventually leading to a lasting impact.
It is high time when we take this unwarranted pause seriously, and as most of us now cannot go outside, we should focus on going inside to deeply reflect on our notions of a good life. Let us rise collectively and join forces to, as UN appeals, fundamentally reconstruct a ‘different economy’.
[The author is final stage PhD scholar from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and a research fellow at LEAD at Krea University, formerly known as IFMR LEAD].
Banner image: Due to the coronavirus lockdown, many cities across India wear a deserted look and industrial activities have come to a near halt. Photo by Vijay Barot/Wikimedia Commons.