Corinna Dengler and Birte Strunk
Is it possible to reconcile sustainable development, a fair distribution of both paid and unpaid work among genders, and an economic strategy based on growth? In their theoretical contribution, Corinna Dengler and Birte Strunk argue that the current growth paradigm perpetuates existing gender and environmental injustices and offer degrowth as a potential candidate for a feminist ecological economics perspective that could pave the way toward a caring economy.
The conceptual framework. Dengler and Strunk’s argument builds upon the triangle-shaped ICE model developed by Maren Jochimsen and Ulrike Knobloch in 1997. The model divides the economy into the maintenance economy – consisting of caring activities and ecological processes – and the formal monetized economy. While the former is necessary for the latter to exist, the monetized economy tends to ignore, devalue and destroy the maintenance economy. Dengler and Strunk argue alongside other feminist scholars that the boundary between these two spheres needs to be overcome in order to achieve environmental and gender justice.
The feminist critique: Gender equality in a growth paradigm? In a growth paradigm, the boundary between visible wage labor and invisible unpaid labor remains intact. Dengler and Strunk argue that trying to overcome the boundary by simply including women into the unchallenged category of work often leads to a double burden for women. If, instead, care work is outsourced to care providers, the boundary might no longer be strictly dividing (white, middle-class) women and men, but nonetheless persists between the vulnerable and the profiting. Thus, a narrative change that encourages a fair division of work in paid and unpaid sectors is necessary. Dengler and Strunk illustrate that this narrative change is difficult to achieve within a growth paradigm, where the focus on gross domestic product (GDP) increase only captures what is quantifiable.
The ecological critique: Sustainability in a growth paradigm? The concept of sustainable development is frequently regarded as a means to address environmental injustices in a growth paradigm. A “green economy” is meant to reconcile the three corners of the ICE model and is proposed as a panacea for environmental challenges. However, empirical evidence shows that, until today, decoupling production from negative environmental consequences happens only in relative (per unit) but not in absolute terms. Dengler and Strunk illustrate how an unchallenged acceptance of economic growth as an indicator of development contributes to a perpetuation of the boundary on the ecological as well as on the gender side of the triangle.
Degrowth: A way forward? Dengler and Strunk thus use parallel critiques of feminist and ecological perspectives to show that both approaches recognize the difficulty of overcoming the boundary between the monetized and the maintaining in a growth paradigm. Degrowth, a relatively young, growing academic discourse and activist movement, is proposed as a way forward, since it calls for a reevaluation of the formerly unchallenged categories of work and growth. By challenging core tenets of the monetized economy, primarily the reliance on GDP growth as an indicator of societal well-being, degrowth offers ground for structurally revaluing care and the environment.
Implications: How can degrowth concretely inform policymaking? Dengler and Strunk demonstrate this with the case of work-sharing, a degrowth proposal for reducing working hours. Using a feminist-ecological lens to analyze different work-sharing proposals, the authors argue that work-time-reduction (WTR) schemes should focus on the workday (that is, reducing working hours per day) rather than on the workweek (that is, working fewer days per week). While ecological benefits would be present in both, the feminist call for dividing paid and unpaid work more equally among the genders is better supported by a work-sharing proposal focused on the day, due to the daily nature of most caring activities.