The post-growth paradigm and its ambition represent a transformative shift in economic thinking, diverging sharply from traditional and contemporary environmental approaches.
In the early 2020s, the concept of post-growth moved beyond academic circles and activist groups, capturing the attention of mainstream media and political discourse.
What critical conditions need to be fulfilled and what challenges need to be overcome in the domains of culture, technology and geopolitics to realize its policy agenda?

Post-growth: the dawn of a new era

March 6, 2024

In an era where the relentless pursuit of economic growth collides with the imperative need for environmental sustainability, the paradigm of ‘post-growth’ emerges as a radical yet essential policy agenda. Post-growth is a transformative economic theory that advocates for a deliberate reduction in economic output and throughput to create a sustainable and equitable society. When trying to draft a comprehensive post-growth policy agenda, one that transcends traditional economic metrics like GDP growth and aligns more closely with holistic well-being goals, we need first to understand what post-growth is and what its policy agenda consist of. In this long-read, the first part of this series on post-growth, we will try to understand what post-growth is and what its policy agenda consist of, and in subsequent long-reads we look at critical conditions that need to be fulfilled and challenges to be overcome in the domain of culture, technology and geopolitics to realize post-growth’s policy agenda. As such, this first piece is the introduction in the conception of post-growth, while in later pieces we will conduct a transdisciplinary analysis of the post-growth paradigm and evaluate the progressiveness, feasibility and philosophical and cultural presuppositions that remain hidden in a first reading.

What is post-growth?

The core aim of the post-growth philosophy is that we are currently transcending the ecological and natural boundaries with our growth trajectory, and that a sustainable economy can be reached by reducing economic output while still satisfying basic human needs. That will first of all require reduction of economic output and throughput. For example, in energy and emissions, or in intermediate goods such as resources and materials. This will have to result in – whether voluntary or forced – cuts or declines in certain categories of consumption and production. In order to make this transition a ‘just transition’, societies will also have to redistribute wealth in order to satisfy everyone’s basic human needs. As such, post-growth aims to achieve sustainability and well-being instead of economic output and welfare, and the equalization of economic throughput, advocating that rich countries need to reduce their economic activity while guaranteeing everyone a basic level of consumption. Therefore, post-growth advocates not only for redistribution within societies but also between countries.

In order to do so, post-growth maintains that GDP growth should be discarded as an economic goal, as it is argued to be hardly decouplable from environmental damage, such as CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss, contrary to what is argued by green growth. Instead, the focus should be put on well-being targets, like health provision. As such, post-growth challenges the core of current economic paradigms by redefining what true prosperity means in a finite world, emphasizing community, ecological health, and a shift away from material wealth as the primary measure of success. 

The concept of post-growth, gaining traction in recent years, has its roots in the seminal work "Limits to Growth" published in 1972. This groundbreaking report, commissioned by the Club of Rome, warned of the dire consequences if the then-current patterns of global growth continued unabated. It posited that within the next century, the planet would reach its growth limits, leading to an unsustainable future. The report was a clarion call, highlighting the necessity of establishing a state of ecological and economic stability that could endure far into the future. It envisioned a world where every individual's basic material needs are met, and equal opportunities are provided for the realization of human potential. The message was clear: the sooner the global community began striving for this equilibrium, the higher the likelihood of achieving it.

Fast forward to the present day, the urgency of environmental and economic problems has opened doors for more radical ideas, among which post-growth stands prominent. Since the early 2000s, post-growth has been increasingly discussed among activists and academics, who see it as a viable solution to the impending crises of resource depletion and environmental degradation. These discussions have been driven by the realization that traditional growth-centric models are incompatible with the finite nature of our planet.

In the 2020s, the concept of post-growth has moved beyond academic circles and activist groups, capturing the attention of mainstream media and political discourse. This shift reflects a growing acknowledgment of the urgent need to rethink our economic systems and priorities. For example, the European Parliament hold a conference on Beyond Growth, in which the idea of post-growth was prominent. In the Netherlands, post-growth proponent James Hickel joined the Dutch parliament for a discussion on the topic. As such, the idea of post-growth is no longer a fringe theory but is increasingly considered a necessary approach to address the global ecological crisis.

Setting post-growth apart

Post-growth generally aims for a democratic and voluntary shift to a different and sustainable economic system by reducing economic throughput. There are various views of what post-growth would entail in terms of specific policies. For instance, different proponents have distinct views regarding the use of markets to preserve nature, with some exponents being starkly against capitalism and opposing the capitalist framework altogether. Post-growth can be more or less socialist depending on how it is envisioned.

Post-growth can be distinguished from two other sustainable and environmental schools of economics:

  1. Green growth: Green growth is the main ‘rival’ with the set of sustainable and environmental schools of economics, as green growth still holds that economies can and should grow to increase welfare and wellbeing. To do so sustainably, green growth holds the highest hopes in the potential of technological innovation to reduce the ecological footprint of additional units of growth, and thus of wellbeing and welfare. This concept of ‘relative decoupling’, which refers to achieving economic growth with a slower rate of environmental degradation, does not prohibit further economic growth and has a strong ‘techno-fix’ approach and mindset. As such, relative decoupling in green growth acknowledges that some environmental impact may still increase but at a lesser rate compared to economic growth, unlike absolute decoupling where economic growth and environmental impact are completely separated.
  2. Growth agnosticism: Growth agnosticism can be considered as an umbrella term for most sustainability approaches to economics. The idea is that the old/standard economic framework should be challenged and that economies should not focus solely on growth. The consideration is that well-being and environmental parameters should be targeted while remaining agnostic to what happens to growth. Although the general idea that economic policy should not be only about GDP growth, the economy is still often allowed to grow although keeping checks with a finite world, given the lack of evidence of decoupling with green growth. One famous exponent of growth agnosticism is Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics. Conceptually, in the hole of the doughnut society is not meeting the social foundations while outside of the doughnut society is overshooting planetary boundaries. The doughnut economics is often referred to as growth agnostic, as it only aims to maintain within the ‘doughnut’. It only gives advice on a certain approach to growth or post-growth depending on the state of that county. In certain societies such as the Netherlands, it would be recommended to degrow in order to reenter the doughnut. In countries that do not meet the social foundations it could recommend to grow.

So post-growth stands out because of its more radical approach to reducing economic throughput and combining this with a broader cultural, societal and political agenda as we will see.

The post-growth policy agenda

“Degrowth speaks to the primary contradictions of our time: ecological overshoot, social shortfall, capital accumulation” (Fitzpatrick, Parrique, and Cosme (2022)). In order to do so, post-growth has a transformative and radical policy agenda. Central to the post-growth policy agenda is the concept of financial democracy, which advocates for a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. This involves moving away from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the primary measure of economic success, recognizing that GDP growth often does not equate to improvements in societal well-being. Another cornerstone of the post-growth agenda is the implementation of an extremely progressive taxation system on income, wealth, and inheritance. This system is designed to reduce income inequality significantly and redistribute wealth more fairly across society. Complementing this is the introduction of a universal basic income and job guarantees, ensuring that all individuals have access to a basic standard of living and employment opportunities.

Another critical aspect is the reduction of working hours which aims to improve work-life balance and reduce consumption. This is coupled with a revaluation of crucial professions, ensuring that jobs essential to societal functioning are adequately valued and compensated. The post-growth agenda also emphasizes the localization of production to reduce the environmental impact of long supply chains and promote local economies. It proposes quotas and progressive taxes on 'overconsumption' items such as SUVs, air travel, and meat consumption, aiming to discourage environmentally harmful practices.

Advertising limitations are also proposed to reduce the constant push towards consumerism. The agenda calls for democratic control over innovation and technology, ensuring that advancements like social media are aligned with societal needs and values rather than purely profit-driven motives. Restrictions on tourism, particularly air travel, are suggested to reduce the environmental impact of this industry. The agenda also includes the concept of "Just mobility," advocating for clean and accessible public transportation systems. Finally, the post-growth policy agenda promotes fair trade agreements and land reforms, including restrictions on real estate ownership and speculation, to ensure equitable access to resources and prevent exploitative practices. This comprehensive approach aims to create a more sustainable, equitable, and balanced world, where economic activities are aligned with environmental limits and social needs. 

Source: 'Exploring degrowth policy proposals: A systematic mapping with thematic synthesis', Fitzpatrick, Parrique, Cosme, 2022

So, the post-growth paradigm and its ambition represents a transformative shift in economic thinking, diverging sharply from traditional and contemporary environmental approaches. At its core, post-growth challenges the perpetual pursuit of economic expansion, advocating instead for a deliberate downscaling of production and consumption. So unlike models that seek to align growth with environmental goals (e.g. green growth), post-growth emphasizes the reduction of material throughput, energy use, and waste generation, not as a byproduct of efficiency but as a primary objective. It advocates for a societal transformation where well-being and ecological sustainability take precedence over economic indicators like GDP. This includes radical policy proposals such as a highly progressive taxation system, reduction of working hours, and strict limitations on resource-intensive and environmentally damaging activities. This approach is grounded in the belief that endless growth is unsustainable on a finite planet and that true sustainability requires a fundamental reevaluation of our economic priorities. Post-growth, therefore, also represents a distinct departure from paradigms that have no specific claims on what to do with economic growth. It calls for a profound cultural and economic shift towards living within our planetary boundaries, prioritizing equity, and redefining what constitutes progress and quality of life. As such, the policy agenda of the post-growth paradigms aligns well with the guiding principles that we set out in our Deep Transitions Framework.

The future of post-growth

As the post-growth movement gains momentum, it is poised to bring about profound changes in various aspects of our lives, and in a post-growth future we will see a heightened scrutiny of current dominant industries and consumer practices that are deemed environmentally unsustainable or socially inequitable. For instance, the use of private jets and SUVs, symbols of excessive consumption and carbon footprint, could face increasing social and regulatory disapproval. Similarly, factory farming, often criticized for its environmental impact and ethical concerns, might undergo radical reforms or downsizing. To curb overconsumption and redistribute resources more equitably, progressive taxation on luxury goods and carbon-intensive products could become widespread. Consumption quotas, particularly on high-impact goods like meat from intensive farming, could be implemented to reduce environmental strain. This shift would not only encourage more sustainable consumption patterns but also generate revenue for social welfare programs.

The concept of ‘limitarism’, which proposes limits to the accumulation of personal wealth, could gain traction. This approach would involve capping income and wealth at certain levels, redistributing excess wealth to fund public services and support the less affluent. Such measures would aim to reduce income inequality drastically and ensure a more balanced economic landscape.

In a post-growth society, there would likely be a renewed appreciation for public services and essential professions. Jobs in healthcare, education, and public transportation, often undervalued in a growth-centric economy, could see increased investment, better wages, and greater societal respect. This shift would recognize the intrinsic value of these roles in maintaining a healthy, educated, and well-functioning society. The energy and healthcare sectors might witness a move towards partial or full nationalization. This change would be driven by the need to prioritize public interest and sustainability over profit. In energy, this could mean a greater focus on renewable sources and equitable distribution of energy resources. In healthcare, nationalization could ensure universal access to quality care, irrespective of an individual's economic status.

As post-growth principles permeate society, cultural values are likely to shift towards sustainability, community, and well-being over material wealth and individual success. This could manifest in reduced consumerism, greater emphasis on local and sustainable products, and a culture that values leisure and social bonds over work and consumption. There could be a resurgence of local communities and economies, with people taking a more active role in local governance, production, and consumption. This localism would foster stronger community ties and a sense of collective responsibility for environmental and social well-being. Contrary to the belief that post-growth stifles innovation, it could actually spur creativity and technological advancement within the boundaries of sustainability. Innovations in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and circular economy models could flourish in a post-growth-oriented world.

Last but not least, the political climate in recent months and years has in a sense moved away from post-growth, with rising populism and rising support for agricultural parties. Cases in point are the Netherlands, which have seen large protests in response to the unfolding nitrogen crisis, a strong focus in the public debate on the issue ‘bestaanszekerheid’ in terms of welfare, as well as electing a populist, right-wing government that vows to restore the Dutch industries that sustain the traditional worker rights and consumption patterns. In our geopolitical piece, we look at the broader geopolitical and geo-economic consequences concerning post-growth.

In conclusion, the future of post-growth points towards a radical transformation of our economic systems, societal structures, and cultural values. While it presents challenges and requires a significant shift in mindset and practices, it also offers a vision of a more equitable, sustainable, and fulfilling way of life. This speculative exploration, based on the elements provided, envisions the potential impacts of post-growth on our economy, society, and culture. At FreedomLab, we have done a scenario session on this post-growth future, to think through and imagine the practicalities and implications of a post-growth society. Through this exercise, we aimed to understand the multifaceted challenges and opportunities that such a transformative shift entails. The session brought to light various aspects of post-growth, including its impact on technology, geopolitics, culture, and the global economy. These we will describe in the subsequent long-reads of this series that will focus on these domains and how to realize the post-growth policy agenda. In the last long-read of this series we will also come back to our scenario session to discuss practical next steps to realize post-growth’s policy agenda.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
Read the article
2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article
3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
Read the article
4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
Read the article
5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
Read the article
6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
Read the article

About the author(s)

Researcher Pim Korsten has a background in continental philosophy and macroeconomics. At the thinktank, he primarily focuses on research, consultancy projects, and writing articles related to technology, politics, and the economy. He has a keen interest in the philosophy of history and economics, metamodernism, and cultural anthropology.
FreedomLab Fellow Federica Rito interned at our thinktank to research degrowth economics, an academic movement that challenges traditional economic growth models and explores alternative pathways to sustainability. She is currently pursuing two Master's degrees at Erasmus University Rotterdam, one in Philosophy and Economics and one in Economics and Sustainability.

You may also like