Transcending the Growth Degrowth Debate: Embracing well-becoming
Should the world de-grow to delay hitting the limits of growth? There is a growing outcry that the relentless push for GDP growth is causing social inequity and irredeemable planetary damage.
We cannot arrive at a consensus, because many mainstream economists have a fetish that only growth can deliver fresh resources to deal with social inequalities. But limitless growth with limited resources is unsustainable. This is a collective action trap. Can we move forward realistically given this complex interplay between growth and degrowth?
Green growth advocates think that we can move forward on the green economy by using technology to solve climate and social challenges. On the other hand, degrowth proponents argue that growth is itself problematic, given planetary boundaries and the limited capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate itself. Consequently, we must de-grow our physical needs on the planet, suggesting that a steady-state or shrinking economy is the solution to environmental limits and social problems.
While both approaches carry elements of truth, the planetary whole is too complex at many levels. The specific context of each region and community must be considered, which means that growth and degrowth strategies are not endpoints in themselves but rather transitions on the path to a greater collective goal: wellbeing. This overarching objective demands adaptability and flexibility in execution, allowing different strategies to evolve in response to changing times and contexts—a dynamic, artful dance of well-becoming.
Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, implied that all human decisions, including rational choices based on "utility," carry significant moral implications. For instance, war inflicts damage on the winning nation as much as on the losing side, causing immeasurable harm to the natural environment. Giving can bring pleasure to the giver, just as much as the recipient obtains vital assistance. Giving to a serial consumer is not sustainable. On the other hand, giving to someone who uses that scarce resource to regenerate soil, which improves their well-being and food needs, is a circular behavior that is not zero-sum. Our happiness should not be achieved through the suffering of others.
In essence, every action or decision in the interconnected tapestry of humanity and nature poses a profound moral dilemma or trade-off. As each individual, community, and region possesses a unique set of characteristics and priority problems, there are different growth or de-growth strategies and measures involved.
Thus, who shall grow or de-grow becomes a moral choice—one that demands introspection, empathy, and collective responsibility. But should such choice be voluntary, breathing life into the spirit of democracy, or enforced by the majority upon the minority?
Few would want to have a Climate Dictator to decide on who should grow or de-grow. The challenge is that it takes time to have Climate Democracy because different countries and communities cannot agree on a common solution.
The Gaia hypothesis suggests that the planetary system if left to itself, self-regulates in a manner that benefits the entire ecosystem. In nature, growth has limits; life cycles dictate balance, as the demise of one organism nurtures the growth of others through the release of energy. Similarly, for most human societies, the responsibility of fully grown adults is to nurture the young with wisdom and virtues gained from experience, enabling them to grow physically and thrive mentally, thus perpetuating the continuity of family and society. The Japanese film Ballad of Narayama beautifully exemplifies the moral complexities of this tradition, illuminating the sacrifices made by the elderly for the greater good of the next generation.
Similarly, developed nations with ageing populations have the wealth and wisdom as well as the capacity to de-grow or maintain a steady level of physical wealth. As they age, they can focus on mental and social well-being, which makes life fulfilling through emotional consciousness, artistic expression and spiritual development. By redirecting wealth beyond personal needs, and donating wealth, know-how and experience to the young and less privileged, the whole will grow in well-being without suffering a loss in natural capital.
Within the developing nations, those who are more affluent individuals can voluntarily adopt de-growth principles while the less privileged continue their physical growth until maturity. Any extra “savings” can be given to those who need that growth. The act of donation, the liberating spirit of voluntary giving provides wealth its true purpose—a cyclicality that restores the imbalance of wealth for the well-being of all. Taxation is an imposed burden, but donation holds the transformative power of selfless contribution.
If rich countries refuse to de-grow, then developing countries with younger demographics must learn from the mistakes made by developed nations. They must holistically use their own savings to pursue growth in a prudent manner, cherishing community values and virtues, and respecting planetary and social boundaries.
To allow sharing and caring, we must demand more of ourselves to do more, and be the moral example of self-sacrifice, rather than blaming others. Many developing countries inherited colonial institutions, bureaucracies and mindsets, which still work on top-down domination of man and nature, including the narrow measure of GDP. Shifting the mindset to stewardship of humanity and nature for future generations means that material physical growth is only a narrow path towards the multi-dimensional goal of a fulfilling life and holistic well-becoming.
In this multi-dimensional vision of progress, there is no one-size-fits-all universal method or process to capitalist utopia. Realistically, each part of the eco-system based on their context will seek different paths of well-becoming, with different policies and strategies. But recognizing our interdependence and entanglement, we could try for globally coordinated local strategies to provide coherent, united policy advice to individuals, governments, markets, and civil society organizations. Breaking out of silos and engaging diverse thoughts and opinions from the bottom up using an evidence-based One Earth Balance Sheet can be a systems thinking framework that aid the process towards a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
In conclusion, transcending the growth degrowth debate requires seeking balance from diversity, noting that we ultimately live in a singular interdependent ecosystem. As we align self-interest with the greater good, we unearth the cornerstone of progress—a revolution of thought, a paradigm shift that redefines our pursuit of holistic well-becoming—a journey that extends far beyond the confines of material growth.
Andrew Sheng is Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, and Chief Adviser to the China Banking Regulatory Commission.
Sneha Poddar is a Research Fellow at Georgetown Institute of Open and Advanced Studies, an associate of the Global Soil Health Programme, and an adjunct faculty member at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh.