[Student IDEAS] by Rinalyn Pagao - MSc in Sustainability Transformation at ESSEC Business School
The intersection of degrowth and technological advancement presents a complex and nuanced picture for our future. This article explores whether it could coexists and complement each other to some extent.
Do you ever feel like the pursuit of economic growth has taken us down a dangerous path, where the health of the planet and its inhabitants are sacrificed for the sake of financial gain? If you are nodding your head in agreement, then continue reading because we are about to dive into a fascinating topic: degrowth.
In our current global society, the growth-based economic model has dominated for too long, leading to environmental degradation and social inequality.1 Fortunately, an alternative concept of degrowth has emerged, promoting a supposedly sustainable and more equitable way of life. However it does not surprise us that regardless, technological advancement and digitalization continue to shape and transform our world in profound ways that could seem inevitable.
In this article, we will explore the intersection of degrowth and technological advancement, and critically analyze their intertwined potential implications in a global context.
Degrowth is a concept that challenges the idea that economic growth is necessary for human development and wellbeing. It is based on the principles of sufficiency, resilience, and equity, and calls for a reduction in production and consumption levels to achieve a sustainable and equitable society.2 While the concept of degrowth has its roots in the 1970s, it has gained more attention in recent years as a response to the current ecological and social crises, however it also raises some criticisms as such that degrowth is too radical and impractical, while others claim that it overlooks the needs of those in poverty.3
Technological Advancement and Its Impacts
Technological advancement has undoubtedly brought about many positive changes to our world, from medical advancements to increased connectivity and access to information. However, it has also been associated with negative impacts such as environmental degradation, social inequality, and job displacement. The debate around technological determinism, the idea that technology shapes society, versus social constructivism, the idea that society shapes technology, is still ongoing.4 Both views have their merits, and the truth likely lies somewhere in between as per what the scholars suggest. While this debate is not the focus of this article it is still important for us to consider both perspectives when thinking about the relationship between technology and society, as this will help us to develop a more nuanced understanding of this complex issue.
Exploring the Intersection: Is Technological Innovation and Degrowth Possible?
Technological advancements per se in the sustainability sector are the renewable energy, clean transportation, energy efficiencies, and carbon capture and utilisation storage (CCUS) - can these potentially be a powerful tool to degrowth our economy?
The latest report done by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on its Clean Innovation Report: Global status of clean energy innovation in 20205 acknowledged that technological innovation is crucial for addressing climate change and achieving the goals of energy policy, such as expanding access to energy and lowering air pollution. However, it might be hard to monitor innovation progress, specifically the major challenge to be able to quantify or allocate inputs to policy goals like more affordable technology, industrial change, and economic growth. Nevertheless, a number of measures, including (1) funding and (2) patenting, might provide insight into clean energy innovation on a worldwide scale. More comprehensive sets of measurements are being created by some governments in order to find and share best practices.
This trend tells us that the government funding on energy research and development increased by 3% in 2019 to USD 30 billion globally, with over 80% of that money going toward low-carbon energy technology. Specifically in China, the low-carbon component of energy research and development increased by 10% in 2019, with significant increases in research and development for energy efficiency and hydrogen in particular. Spending on public energy R&D increased by 7% in both Europe and the United States, exceeding the previous year's trend.
On the other hand, in terms of patenting since 2011, the quantity of patents submitted for low-carbon energy technologies has sharply decreased after a decade of rapid increase. Patents capture part of the intermediate R&D outputs, a percentage of which will be converted into commercial products, and so offer a window into the research operations that are producing new information with a view toward its perceived commercial value. However, general patenting trends offer us some insightful data on the scope and direction of clean energy innovation.
The drop in renewable energy patenting activity from roughly 2011 may be due to the maturity of some technologies. The dominance of existing solar PV, bioethanol, and wind technologies may discourage researchers from striving to improve them and enter the markets in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Moreover, renewable energy patenting continues to be more active than it was before approximately 2007, and Li-ion battery patenting, in particular, is expanding (EPO and IEA, 2020).
Now that we have built a solid foundation on what constitutes a green technological innovation, what begs a question here is that how could it intersect with the degrowth principle? In the publication done by Hickel and Kallis (2019) they investigated and tried to answer: is green growth possible?6 According to the green growth theory, sustained economic expansion is consistent with our planet's ecology because technology change and substitution will allow us to completely disconnect GDP growth from resource use and carbon emissions. This claim is increasingly assumed in national and international policy, including the Sustainable Development Goals. Green growth has developed as a major policy response to climate change and ecological disintegration. However, empirical evidence on resource utilization and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory. After reviewing relevant papers on historical trends and model-based projections, this research study conducted reveals that:
“(1) there is no empirical evidence that absolute decoupling from resource use can be achieved on a global scale against a background of continued economic growth, and
(2) absolute decoupling from carbon emissions is highly unlikely to be achieved at a rate rapid enough to prevent global warming over 1.5°C or 2°C, even under optimistic policy conditions. We conclude that green growth is likely to be a misguided objective, and that policymakers need to look toward alternative strategies.”
Hence, even looking at the intersection between the myriad of technological innovations we have reached today, especially the energy transition needed to net zero emissions by 2050 commitment, the promise of a sustainable future for our current and for the next generation is still not guaranteed.
Paradoxes of Technological Advancement and the Degrowth
In this section, let’s dig deeper on the four main paradoxes that hinders technological advancement toward sustainability and degrowth: (1) decoupling growth from resource consumption, (2) e-waste generation, (3) conflicting power and politics, and (4) cultural and social implications.
1. Decoupling Growth from Resource Consumption
Degrowth advocates for a reduction in production and consumption levels to achieve a sustainable and equitable society.7 However, this poses a challenge in a world where economic growth is closely tied to resource consumption. This means that if we want to reduce production and consumption levels, we will also need to reduce economic growth. This is a challenge because economic growth is seen as essential for prosperity by many people. There are a number of ways to address this challenge. One way is to change the way we measure economic growth. We could focus on measures of well-being, such as life expectancy, happiness, and environmental quality, instead of GDP. Another way is to decouple economic growth from resource consumption. This means finding ways to grow the economy without increasing resource consumption.
While technological advancements can facilitate the transition towards renewable energy and more efficient production processes, it is unclear whether they can enable a complete decoupling of growth from resource consumption. According to the Global Footprint Network, achieving sustainable resource use would require a reduction in resource consumption by roughly 75% in high-income countries and 90% in middle-income countries.8 This would be challenging to achieve through technological advancements alone. In addition, the findings in the recent study stated that while energy and material efficiency improvements have reduced the amount of resources required for each unit of GDP, the overall consumption of resources has increased due to economic growth.
2. E-waste Generation
According to the United Nations The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, in 2019 there was a record high of 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste generated globally, which is an increase of 21% in just five years.9 E-waste is a term used to describe discarded electronic devices and equipment such as discarded electronic devices and equipment, such as computers, mobile phones, televisions, refrigerators, and air conditioners. It may contain harmful substances, and can pose significant risks to the environment and human health if not managed appropriately.
The production of e-waste is increasing quickly due to advances in technology and the popularity of electronic devices among consumers.10 As a consequence, it imposes potential conflicts between degrowth and technological advancement. The increasing levels of e-waste, low collection rates, and non-environmentally sound disposal and treatment of this waste stream pose significant risks to the environment and human health. Also, as technology advances, older devices become obsolete and are often discarded, leading to a significant environmental impact.11 Hence, degrowth principles call for a reduction in consumption levels, while the technology industry relies on continuous consumption and disposal of new products.
3. Conflicting Power and Politics
The implementation of both degrowth and technological advancement requires significant changes to the current global economic and political systems, which is a very challenging task. The dominant economic and political actors may not be willing to relinquish their power and privilege to facilitate such changes. It can be seen in the reluctance of many governments to adopt policies that would limit economic growth or reduce resource consumption.
Furthermore, this is exemplified by the failure of the COP26 climate summit where we all witnessed countries failing to agree on crucial measures to limit global warming.12 The International Energy Agency has also warned the public that current climate policies fall short of what is required to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and rapid action is needed to avert a climate catastrophe. In addition, there are questions around who benefits from technological advancements and whether the benefits are distributed equitably. Finally, a study by Oxfam International found that the world's wealthiest 1 percent emit more than double the carbon emissions of the poorest 50 percent.13 This highlights the need for degrowth principles to reconsider and move away from the mentality that growth is good for the economy, instead prioritizing sustainability, equity, and well-being of the public over endless growth and consumption.
4. Cultural and Social Implications
Finally, a report by the World Economic Forum found that the gender gap in the technology sector is widening, with women underrepresented in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.14 Additionally, the reliance on technology can also lead to social isolation and a disconnection from the world behind the screens of one's smartphones. This illustrates that the development of new technologies can reinforce existing power structures and exacerbate social inequalities. In the article published by UNICEF, it is found that social media use was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression among teens’ mental health.15 The findings reveal that social media use may contribute to anxiety and depression by increasing social comparison, leading to feelings of inadequacy, and providing a platform for cyberbullying. However, it is important to note that correlation does not equal causation, and more research is needed for us to understand the complex relationship between social media use and mental health.
Throughout this article we have seen that the intersection of degrowth and technological advancement presents us with a complex and nuanced picture for our future. Technological advancement is the development of new technologies that can improve our lives in a variety of ways. On the other hand, degrowth is a socio-economic paradigm that advocates for a reduction in production and consumption levels to achieve a sustainable and equitable society. While both concepts offer potential solutions to the ecological and social challenges we face, we must recognize their limitations and critically evaluate their implications. Degrowth, for example, could lead to a loss of jobs and economic growth. Technological advancement hence could have negative environmental impacts, such as increased pollution and resource depletion.
The cultural and social dimensions of technological advancements must also be considered. For example, some technologies, such as social media, can have negative impacts on mental health. We must work towards a more equitable and sustainable global society, where everyone has access to the benefits of technological advancement, and where the negative impacts are minimized. Ultimately, our goal is to find a balance between sustainability and progress, and to ensure everyone can enjoy the benefits of technology without harming the planet or ourselves.
Main Key Takeaways:
1. Technology is a tool, not a solution. It can help us address environmental challenges, but it cannot solve them on its own. We need to use technology in combination with other approaches, such as degrowth and social change.
2. Achieving both degrowth and technological advancement would require significant global changes. These changes would be difficult to achieve due to political and economic complexities.
3. In our current economic system, which is driven by growth, it can be challenging to reduce production and consumption levels. This would require a fundamental shift in the way society and the economy operate.
4. Technology has both benefits and limitations. It can improve our lives, but it can also create new problems and exacerbate existing ones.
5. To achieve just sustainable economic transition, we need to recognize the complex and interconnected nature of our environmental, social, and economic challenges. Developing solutions that address all of these challenges is needed simultaneously.
 Hickel, J. (2020). Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. Penguin Random House.
 Degrowth Movement. (2023). Degrowth. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from https://degrowth.info/degrowth
 Victor, P. A. (2019). Growth, degrowth, and climate change: A scenario analysis. Ecological Economics. Retrieved from https://www.ledevoir.com/documents/pdf/victor_growth.pdf
 Jonas Hallstrom (2020). Embodying the past, designing the future: technological determinism reconsidered in technology education. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10798-020-09600-2
 IEA (2020), Clean Energy Innovation, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/clean-energy-innovation, License: CC BY 4.0
 Hickel, J. and Kallis, G., 2019, 'Is Green Growth Possible?,' New Political Economy, DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964
 Kallis, G. (2011). Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era. London: Routledge.
 Global Footprint Network. (2019). Ecological Footprint and biocapacity of 209 countries and territories, 1961-2016. Retrieved from https://www.footprintnetwork.org/content/documents/2019_Country_Fact_Sheets.pdf
 International Telecommunication Union. (2020). The Global E-waste Monitor 2020. Retrieved from https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Environment/Documents/Reports/GEM_2020_report.pdf
 World Health Organization. (2018). E-waste and children’s health. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/ceh/publications/e-waste-childrens-health/en/
 United Nations Environment Programme. (2019). Global E-waste Monitor 2019.
 United Nations. (2023). COP26: Together for our planet. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/cop26
 Oxfam International. (2022, November 8). Billionaire emits a million times more greenhouse gases than average person. Retrieved from https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/billionaire-emits-million-times-more-greenhouse-gases-average-person
 World Economic Forum. (2020). The Global Risks Report 2020. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2020
 UNICEF. (2018). Is social media bad for teens’ mental health?, Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/stories/social-media-bad-teens-mental-health