The Revolution Will Be Relaxing: Towards A Wellbeing-based Economy

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Art by Jasmine Co

Rest. It’s normal, it’s radical, and… it’s so much more.

Imagine a world with 4-day work weeks. Or maybe even as little as 20-hr work weeks. Now liberated from the oppressive grind, general mental health and social wellbeing has improved. You and your fellow human beings not only have more time for leisure, but also for things like laundry, creativity, political engagement, planet-care, relationship-care, self-care, and self-realization. Reduced working hours also means less commuting, less production, and less consumption — and that equals less pollution, less extraction, and less greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, it’s true — taking more naps can actually be part of the solution to some of humanity’s biggest challenges. Reduced work weeks and producing less are key proposals of a social movement and political economic theory called ‘degrowth’, which honors human wellbeing and Earth’s ecological limits over profit and material accumulation. It is a direct counter to our outdated neoliberal capitalist economy centered on a growth-at-all-costs ideology which drives climate change, biodiversity loss, and social inequality. The rat race hustle culture no longer serves anyone. Reimagining a more sustainable world requires recognizing the power in simplicity, slowness, and ease. It’s about asking ourselves what it means to move at a pace that is intentional, and that doesn’t destroy the natural world in which all life depends on.

WHAT IS DEGROWTH?

Degrowth can be defined as a planned, voluntary, and equitable downscaling of an economy’s production and consumption that increases social and ecological wellbeing [1]. It has its roots in France, emerging in the early 1970’s — the same time “The Limits to Growth” was published. In this influential book, a team of MIT researchers used computer modeling scenarios to show that if we continue on our trajectory of growth and development, we will most definitely overshoot Earth’s physical limits to provide natural resources and absorb excess emissions within the next century or sooner. Time has only confirmed this projection and unchecked economic growth has already led to humanity overshooting multiple critical planetary boundaries while extreme income inequalities continue to persist. Degrowth recognizes the need to shift away from a fixation on ever-increasing GDP as the primary measure of society’s progress and move towards an economy that serves the needs of all people while maintaining the health and integrity of the planet.

On the other side, there’s something called “green growth.” Those in this camp (the majority of politicians and institutions) believe that it’s possible to separate, or ‘decouple’, economic growth from environmental damage, relying on technology and resource efficiency improvements. This is great because it means we get to continue business-as-usual, which is especially attractive to those that are benefiting from business-as-usual. However, while some relative decoupling is possible and does exist, a decoupling of growth from greenhouse gas emissions has yet to be realized in absolute terms [2] — which is what’s needed. There is no evidence that proves absolute decoupling can happen at a scale large enough and fast enough to avoid the most catastrophic global warming scenarios [3]. So, if green growth doesn’t work, then the end of growth is inevitable. The real question then becomes: will it occur by disaster or by design? This is where the concepts of degrowth, or post-growth, or wellbeing economics, or ecological economics, or doughnut economics, or other alternatives to endless economic expansion, come in.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the direct link between economic slowdown and environmental health unfold. Emissions dropped sharply for the first time after decades of steady escalation, and cities in several countries experienced significant improvements in air quality [4]. But unlike the vision of degrowth, this halt to economic activity was of course unintentional and reactive, and resulted in negative impacts mostly on already vulnerable and low-income populations. Degrowth is an attempt at a smooth adaptation rather than an unplanned collapse. It’s not about depriving the Global South of the opportunity for developing a higher quality of life as countries in the Global North have had the privilege of doing so for a very long time. It’s also not about a blanket contraction of all economic activity across the board. Nor does it mean the absence of technological advancement or human progress.

“THE TRANSITION TO A POST-GROWTH WORLD IS ONE THAT IS SOCIALLY JUST, DEMOCRATICALLY SHAPED, AND VOLUNTARY”

To avoid misconceptions, it’s important to emphasize that the transition to a post-growth world is one that is socially just, democratically shaped, and voluntary. It is the equitable growth of impoverished regions onto a climate resilient path, as well as the selective and sustainable growth of certain sectors like renewable energies. Growth is not inherently bad, but becomes a danger when it leads to an overshoot of Earth’s capacity to provide or when it produces deep social injustices. The times now call for a conscious effort to reduce society’s demands on the planet in order to secure a livable world for future generations. At its heart, degrowth advocates for a redefinition of prosperity and wellbeing, dissolving the myth that those things can only be achieved from increasing GDP and material output.

A MEANINGFUL LIFE | BUEN VIVIR

There are many policy proposals in degrowth literature. One of my favorites is reduced working hours. No more toiling away for 35–40+ hours a week. Let’s welcome in more time for rest, play, and tending to our relationships — all while reducing pressures on the environment. A win-win. Work time reductions acts as a way to begin to intervene in the vicious pattern of extraction, production, consumption, and waste. It’s about rejecting a high-production, high-consumption lifestyle and adopting simplicity as a way of living. And simplicity does not have to equate to a lower quality of life. What I’m talking about here is generating real wealth, sustainable wealth. The omnipresent influence of markets can “crowd out” our capacity to reflect what constitutes as a more meaningful way of being. Instead of viewing everything through the market lens of what can be bought or sold, we might consider different ways of valuing one another and nature.

Buen Vivir, a perspective originating from Andean cultures, translates to “living well.” Like degrowth, it challenges the mainstream concept of development familiar to western culture. It seeks to find ecological harmony and balance, including a life of wellbeing rooted in community rather than individualism. In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation to include in their constitution the recognition of the rights of nature, stating: “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes [5].” Buen vivir means living and working at an authentic pace that does not lead to burn-out and dis-ease. This can be difficult in a time of acceleration, information overload, and of course, capitalism. One example is the constant pressure to produce more and more social media content in order to compete for limited attention. But a radical economy based on wellbeing is about quality over quantity. Process over production. Regeneration over extraction and exploitation. It is indeed a cultural shift from more to better. There is power in taking a deep breath and going slow. Good things take time anyway.

Building a totally new economic system is going to require a considerable reformation of our current structures and institutions, as well as a shift in the way we perceive ourselves and our relationship to the world. As we continue to hurl towards unprecedented change and uncertainty, the post-growth movement is redefining work and progress. Its boldness in challenging the status quo may potentially be just what we need. And hey, if it means we get to enjoy more rest and relaxation, then count me in.

REFERENCES

[1] Schneider, F., Kallis, G., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2010). Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue. Journal of cleaner production, 18(6), 511–518.

[2] Jackson, T. (2009). The myth of decoupling. Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. Routledge.

[3] Hickel, J., & Kallis, G. (2020). Is green growth possible?. New political economy, 25(4), 469–486.

[4] Venter, Z. S., Aunan, K., Chowdhury, S., & Lelieveld, J. (2020). COVID-19 lockdowns cause global air pollution declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(32), 18984–18990.

[5] Sólon, P. (2018). The rights of mother earth. The climate crisis. South African and global democratic eco-socialist alternatives, 107–130.