Degrowth, trust and the working class.

Emma River-Roberts
July 10, 2023
5 min read
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The global working class have always borne the brunt of capitalism. We always have and we always will.

With growth-based economies sitting at the heart of the climate crisis, it is clear to see something needs to change. The United Nations reported that even with adherence to new national pledges and other mitigation measures,the earth is on track to reach 2.7°C by the end of the century. Continued economic growth is pushing us further down this road at alarming rates. Endless growth has gotten us into this mess, and no amount of growth can get us out of it. We need degrowth.

Degrowth is a planned reduction of destructive and less necessary forms of production and consumption (such as fossil fuels, fast fashion and advertising). Doing so would reduce the energy and materials used by economies, allowing for a rapid transition to low-carbon economies at a rate quick enough to stop ecological breakdown. Yet some countries do still need to grow. So where we would see this reduction in production and consumption from rich countries, poorer countries would continue to increase theirs for development purposes – to ensure that respective populations can meet their needs whilst avoiding less necessary and destructive sectors.

In part, increasing wellbeing would be achieved by shifting away from a hyper-consumerist society. We’re not advocating for people to consume nothing at all, nor are we shifting the blame onto people for the climate crisis by any means. Rather, we encourage those who consume vastly more than what they need to reign it in (does any single person need a fleet of cars?). Consumption for competitive purposes – indicating your self-worth and success through what you have in the material sense, doesn’t bring true happiness. And no, we’re not suggesting that people without the means to overconsume should consume even less like some seem to think. That would be stupid.

Degrowth’s policies include the implementation of a Universal Basic Income. Public services would be decommodified and expanded, enabling people to access affordable amenities such as healthy food, public transport, water and housing. A green jobs guarantee would be introduced to ensure that the winding down of certain sectors such as the fossil fuel and fast fashion industries doesn’t negatively impact those employed in these areas. This would employ and train people around important ecological and social goals, such as installing renewables and insulating buildings.

Rather than using GDP as a country’s prosperity metric, wellbeing indicators would be used instead. This is a much more sensible way to assess how well a given population is faring: GDP growth does not correlate with people’s wellbeing and doesn’t differentiate between the good and bad things that can cause an economy to grow – wars and oil spills, for example, can cause GDP to rise.

In recent years, the idea of moving away from growth-based economies has been gaining momentum in mainstream politics. In 2016, the cross-party All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth was established in the UK. The European Parliament played host to the 2018 and 2023 Beyond Growth conferences. In 2022 one of Spain’s governing parties adopted degrowth. Earlier this year, the Dutch parliament were addressed on degrowth. However, despite their best efforts, even by the degrowth movement’s own admission, they have struggled to attract a working-class presence.

Undoing this is far more complex than holding a talk, webinar, festival or other such gathering and waiting for people to turn up. It’s far more complicated than explaining the economics of degrowth and far more complex than handing someone a book to go away and read. The complexity lies in the challenge of earning the trust of the working class people who have been let down and lied to over generations by others who have claimed to be acting in their best interests but, for the most part, never have. We working-class folk have lived through the depletion of our living standards and dignity with every failed promise delivered through seemingly progressive policies that have transpired to be anything but. False promises are all we’ve ever known.

At its most obvious, there’s a need to trust that the economics adds up and that the dominant alternative green growth doesn’t. But there’s also a need to assure the working class that these economic principles would fundamentally improve their lives. This won’t be achieved by simply pummelling them with a never-increasing amount of empirical and somewhat abstract data. Of course, these have their place. To accept and support progressive economics that deviates from the mainstream, there must be an acceptance that the people behind the economics hold truly compassionate intentions.

Degrowth advocates posit it as ‘common sense’ – of course degrowth makes sense! Capitalism is undemocratic by design, and economies cannot grow infinitely on a planet with finite resources. But as I’ve written elsewhere, as far as the working class is concerned, degrowth will never be a ‘build it and they will come’ movement. It may be common sense, but how can the working class believe that this time things will be different when everyone from the mainstream has said the very same thing in the past, and the only difference that it has made to us is that life has gotten infinitely shitter.

As a working-class woman in the degrowth movement, I can attest to people’s genuine intentions. But realistically, how many people will place their trust in degrowth because ‘Emma’s article told me so?’ - although it would be cool if you did! Answering the question as to how trust can be built and maintained can only come from other working-class people – for them to tell us what would allow them to feel secure, respected and listened to.

At the very least, a good starting point would be engaging with communities in their locales and on their terms: research into working-class attitudes towards the Green New Deal highlighted that inviting local, respected speakers and explaining the importance of listening to local people and what they wanted to do, rather than trying to persuade them what was needed, was hugely successful.

For those who have always acted this way – treating others with the respect they deserve, explicitly stating to working-class people that their voices are and always will be valued may never even cross their minds, but in everyday life, this is something we rarely experience. So by assuring that dignity and respect sit at the very heart of degrowth’s imaginings for a new and better society, an unambiguous message is sent to working-class folk that the pursuit of degrowth really is worth it. Furthermore, inviting local, known and trusted speakers is key – for there is an existing relationship in the community grounded in mutual trust and respect.

Talking about the economics of degrowth then becomes more than just talking about economics. It’s talking to gain trust amongst a group with every reason to distrust any new vision of a better and just society. In mainstream society, striving for better has always been at the cost of our welfare and livelihoods. In contrast, the pursuit of a degrowth society offers a tangible route to a more equitable life for all. A better life is very much ours for the taking.


Emma River-Roberts is a working class environmental activist. She is studying for a masters degree in degrowth, ecology, economics and policy at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) and has a social anthropology masters from Sussex University. She works at the Post Growth Institute. 

Emma also runs a the blog Class and Degrowth

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