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The Growth Trap: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Degrowth Movement

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

by Frank Suffert

©2023 Frank Suffert for

It started with a hike through an old-growth forest in Northern California last spring. As I made my way through the dense woods, my phone lost service for the first time in years. With no emails or alerts to check, my mind slowed. I noticed things I hadn't before - the way the sunlight dappled the moss, the sound of a woodpecker tapping in the distance, the smell of decaying leaves. Something long dormant awoke in me. A sense of wonder at the beauty and complexity of the living world. But also a realization of how disconnected I had become. How did I end up here, I wondered - stressed, overworked, and unaware of the turning of the seasons?

The answer, I learned, lies in the economic system I have blindly bought into. One built on constant acceleration, expansion, and material growth. As a journalist, media creator, and lecturer, I have long understood the virtues of increasing GDP and productivity. But on that hike, I saw for the first time the flaws in that logic. Infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. Our obsession with it is depleting the natural world and failing to make us happier or more fulfilled. What we need is not eco-efficiency or sustainable growth, but a new system altogether - one that values regeneration, community, and well-being over accumulation.

The "degrowth" movement proposes just that. Not a decline in GDP but a shift to different metrics of progress - like time prosperity, happiness, and carbon footprint. Policies could include a shorter workweek, job guarantees, basic income, and green investments. It sounds radical but makes intuitive sense. Studies show longer work hours don't make us more productive or happier after a certain point. And green policies like renewable energy and reforestation programs create more jobs than the fossil fuel industry.

One year after that hike, I have made changes in my own life. I work less than 30 hours a week, spend more time with loved ones, and find ways to reduce my environmental footprint. It's a work in progress, but I feel more present and at peace. I see now that real change starts small but can spread. As more people wake up to the growth trap, policymakers and businesses will follow. The future is degrowth, whether we like it or not. Our planet's health depends on it. But if we embrace it proactively, the transition can be exciting rather than painful.

We have the opportunity to redesign society around what really matters. To push back against the forces of overwork, hyper-consumption, and waste. To reclaim life's simple pleasures and rediscover the natural world. This vision is within our grasp. The technology and policy tools already exist to make it a reality. All that's missing is the will and imagination to change.

While I never held a high-profile position that I needed to quit and haven't completely detached from modern conveniences, my friends are often surprised by my choice to simplify my life. Yet, they admire the moments I've carved out for my kids, the homemade meals I prepare, and my active role in the community. The reality is, there's so much to gain from embracing a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle. It's just that the whirlwind of today's world and the chase for constant growth often cloud that realization.

The degrowth movement reminds us another world is possible. One where we earn less, work less, accumulate less, yet live more fully and purposefully. Where relationships, health, and experiences are prioritized over status and material excess. This world may be slower, smaller, and more localized, but it can also be fairer, greener, and happier.

That vision I glimpsed on a hike in the woods is available to us all if we have the courage to claim it. The growth trap is a choice, not a destiny. It's time now to choose a different path - one that leads us back to what really matters and onward to a future we can all thrive in. The era of "more" is ending. The age of "enough" awaits, if we take the first steps to welcome it. Our planet desperately needs us to make that choice. And so do we.

The steps to get there are clear. As individuals, we can make changes in our own lives to reduce excess consumption and reconnect with community. But to truly transition society, policy interventions are also needed. Here are a few proposals the degrowth movement advocates:

  • A shorter workweek. Reducing the standard workweek to 30 hours or less with no reduction in pay. This would free up time for leisure, socializing, and retraining for new green jobs. Several studies show productivity does not actually decline much when hours are cut. Workers find ways to get the same work done and feel less stressed.

  • A universal basic income. Providing every citizen with a financial floor would allow people to meet basic needs without overworking or overconsuming. It could replace existing welfare programs and be funded by new taxes on pollution, wealth, and financial transactions.

  • Green investments. Government funds should be redirected from fossil fuels and road infrastructure to green energy, public transit, and ecosystem regeneration. This could drive job growth in new sectors that meet human needs sustainably.

  • Limits on advertising and consumerism. Curbing the forces that drive hyper-consumption is key. Options include banning ads for high-emissions products, taxing ads, and limiting packaging and plastics.

  • Localization. Globalization has made the economy fragile and increased carbon emissions from transporting goods long distances. Strengthening local and regional supply chains will make communities more self-sufficient and resilient.

These proposals are controversial but necessary to avoid climate breakdown and build a livable future for all. They represent a new social contract that benefits both present and future generations. One that values life over growth and community over pure self-interest.

The path to a post-growth world will not be easy. But it leads to a better place than where we're headed now. One where we live more lightly upon the Earth and rediscover what it means to be human in the 21st century. The era of "more" may be ending, but the age of "enough" promises to be one of humanity's finest. If we find the courage, together, to claim it.

The time for half measures is over. We need deep, systemic changes to overcome the challenges ahead - a warming planet, increasing inequality, and social unrest. The degrowth movement provides a vision for how to build a fairer, greener future that works for everyone. One based not on eternal acceleration but on well-being, community, and balance.

This vision is radical but realistic. It requires sacrifice and adaptation but also offers many benefits. A chance to slow down, connect more deeply, and do work that truly matters. By shifting to new metrics of progress and policies that incentivize sustainability, degrowth could help curb emissions and waste while improving lives.

The transition will take time but the destination is worth it. A world our children and grandchildren will want to inherit. One where we earn and own less yet live more fully. Where relationships and health are prioritized over status. This world may be slower and smaller but also fairer and greener. More localized but connected in new ways.

Changing society's direction will not be easy but is necessary for our survival. The growth trap is a choice. It's time now to choose a path that leads to a future we all want and need. One of "enough" instead of "more." This choice is still before us but the window to make it is closing fast.

We have the tools and knowledge required to thrive within our planet's limits. What's missing is the will to act and a vision bold enough to inspire change. The degrowth movement provides that vision. It sees a world transformed and shows the way to get there. A world that works for the well-being of all, including generations to come. The path is clear. The time has come. Degrowth is our future, whether we choose it or not. But if we embrace it, the transition could be exciting rather than painful. This is humanity's next great adventure. The chance to build a society that values life over growth and community over pure self-interest. Our moment of truth has arrived. The age of "enough" is here, if we take the first steps to welcome it. Our planet desperately needs us to make that choice. And so do we. The time is now. The future is ours to shape.


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