The degrowth camp say ‘yes’. They argue that the only way to reduce consumption is to have less cash: they welcome a four-day week, but only as the ‘sweetener’ for a four-day salary.
Degrowth is a radical, even heretical, economic argument. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has held sway since the 1930s as our means of measuring economic success. However, on a planet with finite resource, endless growth was always an error in the code. In 1972, a report on a computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth, Limits to Growth, commissioned by futurist organisation Club of Rome, became an unlikely international bestseller. The authors found that resource depletion would max out by 2072, leading to "sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity".
However, mainstream politics maintained its course. The material consumption of combined OECD nations increased by almost 50% between 1990 and 2008 – and lo and behold, every 10% rise in GDP saw a 6% increase in material footprint. The modern degrowth movement – reborn in Europe, following the inaugural International Degrowth Conference in Paris in 2008 – therefore argues that we must begin a managed contraction of our economies, starting with a sharp reduction in working hours.
This isn’t the same as welcoming a ‘recession’ and the job losses that come with it. Leading degrowth economist Serge Latouche has explained; “Degrowth does not mean decay or suffering… Instead, degrowth can be compared to a healthy diet voluntarily undertaken.” It results, he says, in “a self-sufficient and materially responsible society”. But it is still a diet. We cannot have our green growth cake and eat it.
Milena Buchs, associate professor in sustainability, economics and low-carbon transitions, University of Leeds – and self-confessed degrowther – says that “if leisure consumption increases” due to a shorter working week “and it is carbon-intensive consumption like travel and goods that create more waste, that is exactly why working-time reduction would also require a reduction in income”. A Global Environmental Change paper also questions whether more people working fewer hours would result in an overall increase in commuting traffic: “if shorter hours are to increase productivity and wages… consumption and emissions could [go up].”
How universal basic income could help
It’s the top earners who cause the most emissions, however, not the average worker. According to Oxfam, the world's richest 10% produce half of all global carbon emissions, whereas the poorest half of the population cause just 10% of emissions. On this point, Buchs argues that any degrowth scenario would require a means of redistributing wealth “from the rich to the poor”. And the leading proposal to do so is a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
With UBI, instead of being a complex web of welfare benefits, it simply pays everyone in society the same fixed state pay-out, perhaps as much as $12,000 (£10,000) a year. It is often associated with the ‘jobpocalypse’ argument: if robots take our jobs, how will we have money to live? But it’s equally central to degrowth: if we all work less and consume less, how do we protect those already on low wages?
“Like working time reduction, UBI is one of the key proposals to degrowth”, says Buchs. “The idea is to say yes, everyone should have some sort of minimum income so that your basic needs are satisfied." Another way of slicing the same pie could be Universal Basic Services, says Buchs: no free salary, but free public services instead, from universal health care right through to college education.