Degrowth is a dirty word in growth-centric cultures like the United States. But with humanity using one and a half Earths worth of biocapacity every year, if we want to stabilize the climate and other declining ecosystem services, we’ll have to stop both our populations and the global economy from growing any larger. And some of the most developed—or what I’d call overdeveloped—economies will actually even have to degrow to a significant degree, especially as least developed economies will still need to grow to provide a basic level of well-being for their populations and as the global population is projected to grow by another 2 billion before stabilizing.
Although degrowth is not an idea many are willing to embrace or even grapple with, degrowth is inevitable. The question is only whether we control the process or it takes the form of a rapid collapse—Soviet style or worse. But controlled degrowth, far from being uncomfortable, may actually help to solve many of our current societal problems. Obesity is an obvious one—with two-thirds of Americans now overweight or obese—but so are work stress, high debt levels, social isolation, and pharmaceutical dependence (anti-depressants are the third most prescribed drug in America).
In business terms, degrowth sounds even more disturbing—almost sacrilegious. But let’s not forget that there are ways to profit even from degrowth. Those in the home energy-retrofit industry can attest to that. As can the local bike shops and shared car and shared bike services, which are cropping up in cities around the world. But that is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. While I won’t go into a broader plan on how societies can best degrow here (I do that in my State of the World 2012 chapter “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries”), I will describe some business sectors that will bloom as degrowth is pursued in earnest, in case there are some bold entrepreneurs reading this article.
The recession has led many elderly parents to move in with their children and unemployed adults to move back in with their parents. For many who have grown up in individualistic cultures, this is viewed as unfortunate, even tragic, but in reality this is how human families have lived throughout much of history. As formal sector jobs become scarcer, the security of community is rediscovered, and expensive energy reduces the ease of mobility, the multi-generational home will once again become the norm. Those first adopters that start selling multi-generational housing, like the U.S. housing developer Lennar, or that retrofit houses or properties to make them multi-generational friendly will stand to prosper in this transition.
As the Great Recession took hold, sales of seeds also skyrocketed as more people converted grassy lawns into vegetable gardens. The era of wasting money, time, and water on something as useless as grass will come to a quick end as food prices soar. During this transition, sellers of seeds, shovels and other basic farming implements, and eco-accoutrements like rain barrels and compost containers will thrive.
Although containers of crickets or grasshoppers won’t be sold in U.S. grocery stores anytime soon, consumers have shown that they are quite willing to eat strange things when embedded in a frozen patty—whether soy protein concentrate, the fungus Fusarium venenatum (better known as Quorn), or ground Tenebrio molitor (better known as mealworms). As cultural taboos weaken over time and the price of hamburger skyrockets to $20 per pound, entrepreneurs in the edible-insect industry will stand to do very well. Indeed, the Dutch government recently invested a million Euros to draft legislation that oversees the development of insect farms for human consumption. Such policy will position the Dutch as a leading producer of insect protein, and at the forefront of a burgeoning industry.
Any industry that leads to the extraction of millions of tons of material each year—including 1.6 million tons of concrete and 90,000 tons of steel—only to bury it once again is clearly an ecological mistake, and in the long-run, a failed business model. But some entrepreneurs in the funeral industry are reinventing what constitutes a “normal” burial, burying people in simple shrouds, untoxified with formaldehyde and using the funeral costs to help finance creation of innovative, natural cemeteries—which in turn create new parks, sequester carbon, and become protected biodiversity reserves. With the increasing expense of natural resources combined with an aging and sickly population—thanks to the consumer diet and lifestyle—green burial will surely be a growth industry for years to come.
These are just a few of the sectors that could bloom as we shift to a constrained future where the fast-paced, unhealthy, and unsustainable experiment of consumer-driven globalization winds down. Yes, new sectors might not make up completely for jobs lost in old polluting sectors, but more people will be working fewer hours; living simpler, less stressed lives; and will rediscover that homesteading as part of a connected community is a much more secure way of life than depending on a globalized food system that is regularly disrupted by drought, storm and wildfire. Best of all, seizing these opportunities will take pressure off Earth’s overstressed biocapacity. Let’s just hope that we take control of the degrowth process while we still have that luxury.