Why less really is more

The idea of simply doing and buying less can be fulfilling and less stressful, and good for the planet, writes Samantha Cooper.

In various areas of our lives, the idea of reduction can be fulfilling and inspiring, as well as environmentally beneficial.

Having had a hectic, quick-fix life in the city, I have found the alternatives to mainstream consumption have been genuinely life enhancing (and money saving). The swell of interest in bread baking, wild swimming, and growing our own fruit and veg shows there is a broader shift in how we are finding fulfilment.

This isn’t just for the mid-lifers either; it’s great to see teenagers using their dads’ old shirts to make the latest fashions rather than heading to the high street. The idea of doing less, buying less, travelling less, reducing our actions, is becoming more and more resonant as one of the solutions to the climate crisis.

This concept has a name, ‘degrowth’, and it calls for limiting activities that are harmful while expanding sectors and actions important and necessary in tackling the current climate, ecological, and social breakdown.

The good news is that this isn’t about austerity, unemployment, or recession. Degrowth is concerned with shining a light on the consumerism trap and discovering a more positive approach. It is a culture shift from the ingrained doctrine that we need more and more stuff to be happy.

I-haven't-a-bean-3.alt
Studies show happiness is not linked to consumerism. Credit Stuart Everitt

This manufactured feeling of scarcity, the marketing that pushes us into an unnecessary phone upgrade or trying to grab the latest limited edition trainers, can be replaced with a more lasting sense of our own resilience and self worth. This has, at least, been my experience over the last five years.

Growth is used politically as the overriding measure of the country’s success, through GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – with the premise that as the country grows, people get wealthier and therefore happier.

The problem with this is that this measure of growth is indiscriminate; activities such as cutting down trees, or increasing the amount of private jet flights, have the same merit as building a hospital or nature reserve.

Also, the wealth created does not trickle down from the top earners, so an increase in GDP does not in fact reach those that need it the most.

Perhaps most importantly, as we have seen especially in our response to Covid, activities such as caring for neighbours or relatives, or volunteering, are not counted in GDP, so there is no consideration of wellbeing or the vital role of community and our support networks.

The degrowth movement calls for a broad change to our current system – creating one which doesn’t only take into account monetary value, but balances the needs of people, planet, and profit.

This is very much in line with Kate Raworth’s concept of Doughnut Economics, where every person has the resources they need to meet their human rights, while collectively we live within the ecological means of this one planet.

Degrowth does not imply that growth is bad per se. The key is that growth at all costs, and as the primary objective of our political and economic system, is not good because it is inevitably linked to human exploitation and environmental destruction.

Rather than creating net unemployment, jobs could shift from industries that need to shrink into those that tackle the current crisis and inequality. Four-day weeks and Universal Basic Income could also be considered for better work-life balance.

A reduction in overall consumption really doesn’t have to result in us being worse off financially or emotionally – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are many studies which show that happiness, after a certain point, is not linked to economic growth or wealth.

At the heart of degrowth is the development of a wellbeing economy; an economy which is in service of improving the quality of our lives and the health of the planet.

This piece was originally published in the autumn-winter print edition of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu.

8 Comments

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  1. Excellent piece, I have been really embracing this idea I’ve the last year/18 months. Starting with simple things like using the library and buying most things second hand, if and when I need things.

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  2. Fortunately some of us have always bought 2nd hand and ignored the latest fashions, mainly because of the lack of funds to do so! I wholeheartedly agree with all of this article; the more you have, the more you want is a well-known and apt phrase here. A revisit to the “liveable” wage wouldn’t go amiss either with the cost of accommodation spiralling out of control at the moment….

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  3. I volunteer in an animal charity shop and am comforted by the large number of customers who are involved in recycling and buying secondhand. Not just us oldies but more and more of the younger generation.

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    1. That second video is so spot on. Among, degrowth, doughnut economics, gross domestic happiness, and happy planet index, it’s an idea that is building momentum and if implemented it could be a real lever for change. How do we get it onto the agenda?

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    2. I suspect that some universties are to blame for churning out eceonomists who only know the disfunctional type of economics that we are suffering at the moment. Many of these economists goon to become politicians or to advise politicians or to help big corporations take advantage of the system. It’s time for them to come up with a fairer, more sustainable form of economic system (or more) and make sure thier students know the pros and cons. Careers advisers should tell students that many careers using trickle down economics are bad for the environment and bad for the country. Students who want to learn more might try the Regenerative economics course at Schumacher college. https://campus.dartington.org/regenerative-economics/

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    3. V true – I reckon the civil service structure and training is responsible for moulding young intelligent minds in conservative economic theory. Very much a system in action that enforces these attitudes.

      What do you think regenerative economics would look like?

      Jack

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    4. I’m no economist, but the first thing is to stop making profits a priority and stop rewarding greed. And every business should be forced to pay for all its waste – no polluting the land or atmosphere and leaving others to bear the cost. No letting anyone become so rich that they can influence politics to perpetuate the system that made them rich (of course you could outlaw bribery, instead of welcoming it as America has, but that won’t stop them, just drive them underground). And no passing on so much wealth to your children that they can do the same. Inequality is a killer and very harmful to society – see http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk.

      I certainly would not want the profit motive involved in businesses that have monopolies or near monopolies in essentials such as drugs. We fund the scientists who design the drugs, we should retain control of the patents and let companies compete for contracts to manufacture them. It will probably be necessary for the government to manufacture orphan drugs itself. The price gouging for insulin is an international disgrace, for example. Anti trust laws should be used to prevent monopolies wherever possible. Food staples should not be the subject of speculation on the stock market. Countries should be able to provide enough food for their citizens without big corporations exporting it all.

      Businesses should be as small and local as possible (obviously some things are only practical on a large scale). The higher costs through eschewing economy of scale would be compensated for by more jobs, more vibrant local economies and more control by communities of their own environment. Government should be as local as practical too. And if everything is distributed rather than centralized, we would be at far less risk of massive breakdowns (eg big power cuts) and less vulnerable to supply chain problems and less vulnerable to attack in the case of war.

      We’d save money and the risk of war by not having to protect oil pipelines and shipping far from home. Currently our home produced gas goes to the highest bidder abroad. I’d get off fossil fuels and nuclear, though. We are fortunate that nobody could interrupt our supplies of sun, wind and water so renewables would make us self-sufficient most, if not all of the time. We could then just trade the surplus or buy in electricity only during extreme times of supply or demand. Again, it would be safer if we had as many solar panels on roofs rather than in huge farms, and local wind farms rather than great big vulnerable offshore ones. People are more likely to accept wind turbines on land if the community owns them and can decide where they go and reaps the profit.

      We’d need less travel and fewer families would be spread around the world which would reduce greenhouse gases from flights and mean less pain of separation in the case of another pandemic. That would not stop people being able to travel, though. We’ve been travelling – and trading for what we could not produce – since the days of Stonehenge if not before.

      Co-ops seem to be a fairer way of working, rather than the monarchical, hierarchical, autocratic businesses of today, but I have never worked in one so I don’t really know the pros and cons.

      Needless to say, none of this was what the Tories had in mind when the Tories decided to go for Brexit.

      Just a few thoughts. 🙂

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