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Degrowth: is it time to live with less?

Capitalism is hurting the planet and people, yet we all play a part in driving consumerism. Ger Tew from upcycling collective The ReCreators talks about learning to tread lightly. 

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We live in a hyper-capitalist society that has left us decades behind in seeing effective action in the name of climate responsibility. Consumerism leaves people yearning for “more” in a way that never seems to leave one satisfied for long. With busier work lives than ever, an outrageous cost of living and never-ending new technology, it often feels as though we are rats running faster and faster around a wheel that is about to fall off. Our current measure of success through the monetary lens of GDP, does not measure quality of life or connection to our community and environment. 

Is it time to look at degrowth? 

Degrowth looks to critique the current model of capitalism and address the fact that GDP growth on a planet with finite resources is economically inept. It will enable our society to relearn the old ways of living in balance with Papatūānuku – never extracting more resources than our environment can manage and not polluting more than ecological boundaries can reasonably allow. Degrowth is a way of life that continues to be practised by many indigenous communities around the world.  

The world’s richest 10 per cent have been responsible for more than half our planet’s total carbon emissions since 1990. The richest 1 per cent emit more than double the carbon emissions of the poorest 50 per cent, proving the need for a climate-justice model that redistributes the wealth of the most affluent, who do the most damage. This redistribution of wealth could be enacted through a new tax model that sees those at the top of the financial food chain pay higher taxes (a reasonable request seeing as they hardly pay enough now). 

Embracing a life with less 

Twenty years ago, I was compelled to change my lifestyle for the good of the environment. While the concept of degrowth was far from my mind, I knew I had to change the way I lived my day-to-day life. I noticed the passionate environmentalists around me were focussing on various areas, such as reducing carbon-emitting transport via cycling, changing their eating habits by adopting a plant-based diet, or making significant reductions in general consumption.  

My first two big changes were converting to vegetarianism and quitting the corporate world for a job  
in the public sector. Giving up meat was relatively easy – most restaurants at the time offered at least one vege option and I learnt to just take it. Incorporating a wider range of herbs and spices into cooking made meals more flavoursome without the meat and made me more excited about cooking sustainably. Quitting my corporate job meant I took a reasonable pay cut but I easily adjusted to living with less – I now understand that an increase in salary is a direct correlation to an increase in consumption which eventuates to a rise in landfill.   

I would advise people to pick one habit to change – sticking with it until it’s routine before moving onto the next one, as I’ve found this to be the most effective way of making big lifestyle changes.  

Aiming for a two-tonne lifestyle 

According to Oxfam, the average New Zealander has a carbon footprint of approximately 9.3 tCO2-e per year,  13 times that of the global poorest, which is 0.69 tCO2 per year. The average person from the Pacific has a carbon footprint of 2.2 tCO2 per year – again far lower than the average rate for Kiwis. Ideally, we would not exceed 2 tCO2 per year in order to live a sustainable lifestyle that Earth can reasonably support.  

If you are interested in learning where you sit on the spectrum, there are a bunch of carbon calculators that you can use to figure out where you and your whānau sit. Auckland Council’s Live Lightly team has produced a Future Fit calculator (futurefit.nz), which measures how you move, eat, use power, shop and grow.  

Ways we have reduced our lifestyle 

Growing kai and composting  

Gardening is a fantastic hobby, great for fitness and exposing yourself to microbes that are good for your well-being. With the right skills you can find yourself saving money, and with the skyrocketing cost of living, it is a smart skill to master. If you don’t have room for a garden in your home, there is likely to be a local community garden you can get involved with. 

Eating a more plant-based diet 

Our whānau eat a primarily plant-based diet, I avoid meat and dairy and we get eggs from our chooks at home. My hubby likes a bit of meat, as do a couple of my kids, which is fine in moderation. I have mastered cooking and baking skills to maximize the flavour of nutritious plant-based food, much of which we grow ourselves! 

No new stuff 

I used to be an avid op-shopper. However, I’m now pushing myself to fully embrace degrowth by purging our house of things we don’t need. I’ve found it quite liberating to reduce the amount of stuff we own. Doing this has definitely kept more money in my pocket and given me more time to focus on indulging in my hobbies. 

Travel 

This is probably the hardest area for me to cut back personally, as I’m originally from Ireland and have needed to travel home from time to time. I’ve found this is where the tonnes can really add up. Covid has changed travel in general and I will definitely be scrutinising my long-haul flights to keep them to a minimum.  

If I lived in the city I would invest in an e-bike, but as a rural dweller this is currently an impractical option. My kids are able to cycle to school but beyond that we need a vehicle to get around. Our whānau invested in a small electric car, meaning we barely use our petrol car anymore, and the advent of Covid saw our travel reduced by about 50 percent.  

Travel is a hard area to cut down on but it’s good to try cycling when you can and using public transport where possible. When it comes to vehicles, be mindful of the size of the engine relative to required use, ie not having a massive car. 

Degrowth on a global scale

The concept of GDP as a measure of progress needs to be replaced with a “genuine progress indicator” (GPI) that measures health, education, housing, well-being, equity and happiness. We need to see a global economic shift in line with Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics where our economy is balanced with natural ecosystems, and taxation and shareholding systems are made far more equitable.

Here are some steps we can take to enable degrowth: 

  • End planned obsolescence by changing legislation and designing products to last as long as possible. 
  • Reduce advertising and stop inciting anxiety and creating problems to sell your product as a “solution”. 
  • Shift from “ownership” to “usership” with the creation of makerspaces and shared platforms. 
  • Create “product as a service” business models.  
  • End food waste by producing compost and mitigating waste from the growing stage of plant production.  
  • Scale down ecologically destructive industries including fossil fuels and land-intensive food production like beef farming. 

DIY upcycling

In 2018, I set up the ReCreators, a collective that delivers DIY upcycling classes across the Auckland region. My skills have grown immensely through this collective, and in the last four years I’ve learnt how to use woodworking tools, tech for design and laser cutting, and an array of other crafts.  

With my kids also attending these classes, our home is somewhat riddled with creations so I have not totally decluttered. It has instilled in me a desire to not bring in any more materials, meaning I am truly embracing a lifestyle where I have gone from upcycling to reusing to reducing and now actively avoiding.  

In a world where products and materials were designed to last, businesses would sell less, consumers would buy less, we would all work less and, if we distributed global income equitably, we could live a reasonable life. 

Restraint

This is not a super unfamiliar idea as it’s how humans used to live for centuries. It is clear that degrowth must start with active changes in our behaviour and we must practice restraint when offered something new and shiny. Think past the object and towards being satisfied with who and what you are.


Bonnie Flaws is a journalist who lives in Napier.

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