Blog post: Degrowth and the transformative potential of the COVID- 19

Closed shop front. Photo.
Pandemic shows the unsustainability and fragility of our current systems and lifestyles.

After observing the decrease in economic activities, air pollution and carbon emissions as a result of the lockdown measures during the COVID-19, some academics argue that such down-scaling can be considered as degrowth. Although the sudden, unplanned and chaotic downscaling of social and economic activities due to Covid-19 has some similarities with degrowth, this is not what degrowth advocates for, argues LUCSUS researcher Mine Islar.

Political responses to the coronavirus pandemic have already led to restriction of collective action as well as the social and economic loss for the most vulnerable group of the society. As Cynthia Enloe says in a critical talk she gave about dangers of using a war metaphor in the fight against COVID-19, “We aren’t all in this together. We’re in the same rough seas, but we’re in very different boats. And some of those boats are very leaky. And some of those boats were never given oars. And some of those boats have high-powered motors on them. We are not all in the same boat.”

Degrowth conceptually differs from this situation in two ways:

First, the systemic transformation proposed by degrowth is based on a voluntary and democratic down-scaling of capitalist economic activities. Justice and systematic equality should be at the core of this transformation. However, involuntary downsizing during the Covid-19 has already affected different segments of society disproportionately. For example, workers who do not have the option to work remotely, are both left with the risk of getting infected at the workplace and living in fear of losing their jobs when they get ill. In countries with no free public health care, the virus is more prevalent among the low-income people. Globally, some of the most vulnerable groups are refugees who are stuck in inadequate facilities with no health measures. Structural inequalities based on gender, race, class, ability, age, and place, are revealed through access to healthcare and safe home during the COVID-19 crisis. In many European countries, the overrepresentation of the elderly and immigrant communities in the death tolls as well as increased domestic violence are results of these structural inequalities.

Secondly, degrowth requires a long-term commitment to a reorganization of a just society. The extraordinary downsizing situation during  Covid-19 is a result of short-term policy changes which are full of uncertainties in the long run. This uncertainty can be seen as an opportunity for the right-wing, populist and neoliberal governments for reorganizing the political space, as we have seen in previous crises. At this stage, we don’t know if governments will issue bail-out policies for airline companies like they have done for the banking sector in 2008 crisis. Governments may normalize special regulations that allow precarious contracts to secure short-term employment to “save” their people from unemployment.

Transformation that degrowth movement advocates is two-fold. On the one hand, global economy needs to downscale in its production and consumption in order to operate within planetary boundaries . On the other hand, the capacity of the public services and care infrastructure of our societies need to be upscaled.

In the aftermath of this pandemic, it is very important to invest in policies that center around the local economy, (re)production of life and the commoning of care. 

A group of activists and scholars from the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDA)[1] calls for the provision of community, domestic, and environmental care that goes beyond the market logic on profit maximization, competition, or efficiency. They call for the socialization of all universal health care, the socialization of utilities, the decommodification of food, housing, medicines, education, and other basic services.  The Universal Care Income is also being suggested as a necessary measure for post-COVID transformation. It emphasizes a social recognition of unpaid and gendered care work that is central for sustaining the life and wellbeing of households and communities.

This pandemic makes us think why a movement like degrowth is necessary. Pandemic shows the unsustainability and fragility of our current systems and lifestyles. Some policies mobilized in a short time to combat Covid-19 have shown that change is actually possible if desired. At least now we know that governments have the ability to significantly change the ‘business as usual’. For industrialized societies, this change can be used as an opportunity for building a sustainable future with long-term politics promoting wealth redistribution, protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, and decarbonization of the economy.


FADA is an inclusive network of academics and activists that aims to foster a dialogue among feminists and degrowth proponents, and to make feminist reasoning an integral part of degrowth activism and scholarship