The Business Times

TLDR: Can Singapore give up on growth to save the environment?

In this week’s Brunch, BT’s Sharon See explores the argument for economic “degrowth”, put forward by a small but growing group of economists as a way to tackle climate change caused by developed nations like ours.

Jeanette Tan
Published Tue, Nov 1, 2022 · 05:50 AM

What is degrowth?

As the name suggests, this is the radical idea of slowing down economic growth to reduce environmental damage.

Instead of “pursuing growth for its own sake and hoping that it will magically improve people’s lives”, the idea is to organise the economy around human and ecological needs, says economic anthropologist Jason Hickel in his 2020 book Less is More.

Proponents of degrowth argue that high GDP does not guarantee a high rate of human development, and that economic growth – or the capitalist pursuit of it – has caused an exacerbation of the rich-poor divide, among other negative social outcomes.

On the climate front, looking for alternative sources of energy is not enough. The energy transition itself requires massive amounts of resources, thus adding to the crisis, and fails to address the argument that exponential growth is unsustainable.

Degrowth aims to differentiate between economic activities that are harmful and helpful to people and the environment.

How does a country “de-grow”?

Economists who have written about degrowth say that it requires a complete overhaul in how we think about and pursue development.

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The focus is on improving people’s lives first and foremost, while striking a balance with the needs of the environment. Ecological economist Timothee Parrique phrases it as “putting the economy on a diet”.

In short:

  • Ensure that the affluent produce and consume less, but allow the developing world to grow to achieve human development goals;

  • Scale down industries like fossil fuel, beef and single-use plastics, and redirect labour to industries that benefit the environment;

  • Curb consumerist behaviour, end planned obsolescence – that is, make products and appliances last longer than two to six years – and create opportunities for the sharing of infrequently-used equipment;

  • Slash production and reduce work hours with the help of artificial intelligence and automation, as well as government and corporate policies.

How does this apply to Singapore?

To consider degrowth would definitely be challenging, local economists tell BT, with one factor being how Singapore’s competitiveness is measured.

In Singapore, growth has been seen as an existential imperative. Says Singapore University of Social Sciences economist Walter Theseira: “The government might say, ‘Of course there are many things about having a good quality of life which don’t entail just maximising economic growth – but if I don’t maximise economic growth, how is Singapore going to compete?’”

But if investors, multinationals and others who want to do business with us can look beyond topline growth as an indicator of competitiveness, perhaps it would suffice for them to see Singapore as a premier destination in which to work and live, he adds.

It might come down to changing the narrative of what it means to be well-off – having a sustainable lifestyle, perhaps, instead of dining on wagyu beef flown in from Japan and driving a flashy car (or five).

Read more about the global – and local – discussion of degrowth and how it might work for us in this week’s Brunch.

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