Wellbeing uncoupled from economic growth

In the West, the chain of logic goes something like this: economic growth is needed to fund wellbeing. Degrowth presents another approach. It is based on the idea that wellbeing can increase even when the economy contracts.

The degrowth movement aims to boost wellbeing through means other than consumption. This can be achieved with the sharing of work, decreased consumption, focusing on the essential and spending more time on cultural pursuits, our loved ones and community as well as through the harnessing of our own individual abilities. “Degrowth promotes social and ecological wellbeing that has been unshackled from economics. We challenge people to think about the sustainable wellbeing of the environment, society and the individual,” research manager Timo Järvensivu and researcher Paavo Järvensivu say.

Both Järvensivu brothers hold a PhD in economics and are degrowth researchers. Timo is employed by the Academy of Finland, where he researches the production of services for the elderly from the perspective of network management, and Paavo studies non-growth-based alternative market practices. They wound up researching the degrowth approach partly through chance. “After graduating from the School of Economics I started to question what we had been taught. Maximising productivity and economic growth felt like hollow objectives. My own ideas found traction with the degrowth model. The discussions and debates I have engaged in within the movement have been extremely inspiring,” Timo Järvensivu says.

Debate and discussion are, in fact, precisely what forms the core of the movement. Instead of supplying pre-formulated answers, it encourages critical thinking with respect to our perception of wellbeing. The movement reckons that the welfare state in its current form has come to the end of the road: in order to increase social wellbeing, it causes such a strain on our ecosystem that the end result must be an environmental catastrophe. Decision-makers should focus on sustainable wellbeing.

“We are not opposed to economic growth and we do not hope for a slump. Growth is a good thing, as long as it does not come at the price of weaker human and ecological wellbeing in the future. Economic decline is not, in other words, a goal per se, but it may well be an inescapable consequence of the effort to ward off an eco-catastrophe,” the brothers point out.

“Nor is recession a desirable form of degrowth. A society that is in recession has only failed in its objective to achieve economic growth, although it is still observing the logic associated with this objective.”

From master to servant

The researchers propose that wellbeing would increase if we dismantled the consumption- and economics-oriented approach that we now associate with it. Economic thinking pervades all aspects of modern life. Our everyday language reveals the might of economics: education equates into mental capital and growth is always considered a positive occurrence in meaning. We speak of developing countries that should grow to resemble the developed world. The aim of education is to raise productive citizens. The financial crisis is rocking Europe and is almost the only item worthy of news coverage. Economics is the master of our times.

“Degrowth is critical of the dominance of economics. The economy is like a small sandbox that we play in. Our movement challenges people to think outside this sandbox. Economic worth is not the only value there is,” Timo Järvensivu says.

Debt to nature and off-balance-sheet numbers

The call to dismantle our allegiance to the concept of growth is a tough order. The logic under which society operates would need to be realigned. Nor is degrowth easy for the individual, who is required to take greater societal, social and ecological responsibility, and must abstain from excessive consumption for the sake of the wellbeing of future generations.

It must be asked what the chances of this happening are. The researchers respond by asking how realistic it is that we can continue with our existing practices.

At present, the world economy is consuming 40% more ecological resources than is sustainable. Our debt to nature is soaring. Gigantic liabilities  – environmental pollution, human misery – are constantly being recorded off balance sheet.

In spite of the discouraging figures, the Järvensivu brothers have no intention of giving up. “Active efforts and critical thinking promote the common good. This is something that the market will not do for us, it is a task we all have responsibility for,” Paavo Järvensivu sums up.

The degrowth movement

  • is a diverse network of actors that calls the supremacy of economics into question. They think that economic growth cannot be a more important goal than ecological or social wellbeing. Ecological sustainability may lead to an economic contraction, but this is not in itself the movement’s objective.
  • in the 2000s, it has gained a foothold especially in France, Spain, Italy and England. Two international research conferences have been organised up to date, in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
  • Finnish degrowth network established at the beginning of 2010.
  • some related ideas have been debates for decades or even centuries. The related term décroissance appeared for the first time in the 1970s in various French publications.
  • coming challenges are the highlighting of the critique’s positive objectives and the presenting of concrete alternatives.
  • degrowth is a subject of interest especially for the Aalto University School of Economics Corporate Environmental and Social Responsibility research group.

Sources: Timo and Paavo Järvensivu as well as degrowth.fi, degrowth.org

The original article is published in Finnish in the Aalto University Magazine 02. Text by Lotta Knuutinen. Edited in English by Ned Coogan.