Degrowth: A Snail’s Eye View of Social Transformation and Ecological Preservation

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In 1973 economist E.F. Schumacher observed that “infinite growth in a finite environment is an obvious impossibility.”1 Degrowth proceeds from that premise of a collision course between relentless economic growth and the biophysical limits of planet Earth. It rests on an acceptance of the basic assumptions of the Limits to Growth thesis advanced in the 1972 report by a group of MIT scientists to the Club of Rome (with some adjustments in the timetable) and of Georgescu-Roegen’s arguments about economics and entropy, namely that economic processes of production and consumption result in the irreversible degradation of natural resources. Those storm warnings have been given additional impetus in recent decades by the unfolding climate crisis. Accordingly degrowth calls for a socially equitable downscaling of production and consumption most urgently in the countries of the global North which, in their unsustainable demand on ecological resources and services, are largely responsible for overtaxing the earth’s carrying capacity for human beings.

Not a philosophical system or a unified school of thought or even a structured social movement, degrowth is a watchword for an evolving set of ideas and practices growing out of a confluence of currents.

Questioning the fetish of development

The word itself is a graceless translation of the more euphonious French décroissance, but the sources of the constellation of ideas that go under the rubric are plural: they include the critique of development advanced in the 1960s and 70s by a number of thinkers such as the Swiss scholar Gilbert Rist and Francois Partant, a French banker who became a scathing critic of development, as well as the French economic anthropologist Serge Latouche, who is currently the best known proponent of degrowth in the francophone world,2 but also by the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich and the German scholar Wolfgang Sachs. The myth of development made of western capitalist industrialism a model to be followed by the rest of the world, which was accordingly cast as the “underdeveloped” or “developing” countries. But as Sachs remarked in the introduction to The Development Dictionary: “…with the fruits of industrialism still scarcely distributed , we now consume in one year what it took the earth a million years to store up. … If all countries ‘successfully’ followed the industrial example, five or six planets would be needed to serve as mines and waste dumps. It is thus obvious that the ‘advanced’ societies are no model. Rather they are most likely to be seen in the end as an aberration in the course of history.”3

Socialist sources

The socialist contribution to degrowth originates with some of that tradition’s more heterodox representatives, in particular William Morris and André Gorz who eschewed the Prometheanism and productivism of much classical socialist thought and promoted ideas of sufficiency and the self-limitation of needs. In Ecology as Politics, Gorz analyzed the implacable logic of capitalism that is driven by its quest for profit to stimulate a proliferation of needs and meet them with an ever-increasing volume of merchandise and marketable services produced by maximizing the use of energy and resources. The crises of capitalist overproduction, he argued, could not be surmounted “except by a new mode of production which, breaking with economic rationality, is based on the careful stewardship of renewable resources and the decreasing consumption of energy and raw materials.”4

The Anglo-American connection

A relatively marginal strain in the tradition of liberal political economy also proved a major force in the constellation of ideas that goes under the rubric of degrowth. This Anglo-American track dates back to John Stuart Mill, who eschewed pessimistic reading of the Malthusian assumptions of much contemporary political economy to the effect that economic growth would inevitably founder catastrophically on the reef of overpopulation and soil depletion. Rather than anticipating a grim end to growth, Mill looked forward to a green and pleasant “stationary state.” In his Principles of Political Economy, Mill contrasted the prospect of a society in which economic growth yielded to improvement in intellectual development and “the Art of Living” with a world rendered barren by the subjugation of nature to human need and industry: “with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out…”5 Mill here anticipates several ideas central to a degrowth perspective, and not least of which is the recognition of the intrinsic rather than solely instrumental value of ecosystems.

Mill’s stationary state finds echoes in the work of the pioneer of ecological economics in the United States, one time chief economist of the World Bank Herman Daly, whose vision of a steady-state economy has influenced leading degrowth thinkers in the Anglo-American world including environmental lawyer James Gustave Speth in the US, as well as ecological economists Peter Victor in Canada and Tim Jackson in the UK. A student of Georgescu-Roegen, Daly’s conception of the steady- state economy revolves around ensuring the lowest possible “rate of flow of matter and energy through the economy (from the environment as raw material and back to the environment as waste),”6 which he calls “throughput.”

(As Robin Hahnel has pointed out, throughput is the key to understanding what it is that is slated to be scaled back in a degrowth scenario, although some degrowth advocates do refer somewhat misleadingly to the reduction of GDP, the standard measure of growth in mainstream economics, as a goal.7 GDP is the value of goods and services exchanged in the market and, as Hahnel observes, it is measured in dollars. Degrowth aims to curb the growth of throughput although in practice within the framework of the existing economic system that would entail a reduction in GDP.)

From Barcelona to buen vivir

Returning to the European continent we find another cradle of degrowth thought in Barcelona in the work of Catalan ecological economist Joan Martinez-Alier who has been especially important in expounding the relationship of degrowth and social justice for the global South, as laid out in his 2012 article “Environmental Justice and Economic Degrowth: An Alliance between Two Movements”.8 Martinez-Alier works closely with a number of scholars in the Barcelona Research & Degrowth group including Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis.

Identifying all the landmarks in the degrowth constellation is well beyond the scope of this brief introduction; just limiting myself to the contemporary period I should include the German post-growth (Postwachstum) current spearheaded by economist Niko Paech and, most importantly, the concept of buen vivir, an evolving philosophy based, according to scholar Eduardo Gudynas, on the worldviews of a number Indigenous peoples in the global South in dynamic interaction with western critiques of capitalism.
Suffice it to say that degrowth has a rich and diverse genealogy. It is an international and ecumenical affair: “an intellectual and experiential rupture from the current limited categories of Left and Right,” as Richard Swift aptly puts it in his recent book S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism.9

The smokescreen of sustainable development

Degrowth positions itself as a challenge to notions like sustainable development and green growth, which stop far short of confronting the gospel of growth and have too often revealed themselves as little more than exercises in greenwashing the ongoing unsustainable exploitation of the natural world. In a February 2015 essay on “The Degrowth Alternative,“ Giorgos Kallis writes that degrowth was intended precisely to attack the “oxymoron of sustainable development”10 which served to depoliticize the environmental movement. He goes on to make the claim (one that that admittedly sits more comfortably with European expressions of degrowth than Anglo-American) that, contrary to sustainable development, degrowth is ultimately an appeal to “exit from the economy” and build alternatives to capitalism.

In virtually all its guises, degrowth represents, explicitly or implicitly, a fundamental challenge to the major philosophical premise of mainstream economics: the figure of homo economicus. As Federico Demaria, François Schneider, Filka Sekulova and Joan Martinez-Alier affirm in “What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement”:“ The conception of human beings as economic agents driven by self-interest and utility maximisation is one representation of the world, or one historic social construct which has been meticulously nested in the minds of many generations of economics students. Degrowth in that sense calls for more ample visions giving importance to economic relations based on sharing, gifts and reciprocity, where social relations and conviviality are central.”11

The mirage of technological salvation

One of the perspectives that unites degrowth advocates is a healthy skepticism regarding the promise of technological salvation. The Promethean spirit finds its apotheosis in today’s technological quest to deploy humankind’s vast but necessarily incomplete scientific understanding to circumvent all biological and physical limits. While transhumanism looks forward enthusiastically to a post human future in which we will be fused with our machines as cyborgs finally transgressing the ultimate frontier of mortality, other techno-fantasies count on colonizing other planets before we render our own uninhabitable. Social, ethical and economic problems are thus reduced to technical challenges.

Geo-engineering is a good example of this type of reductionist thinking. To deal with climate change a group of scientists and entrepreneurs are working on techno-fixes — from “fertilizing the ocean” with iron to spraying millions of tons of sulphur into the atmosphere — designed to avert the need to question a way of life based on the continued reliance on fossil fuels.

As Serge Latouche among others has countered, technical solutions are rarely without unintended consequences, which in turn call for further technical intervention in an endless game of catch-up.

And even if we could find a viable technological solution to climate change, it would not reverse the massive loss of a biodiversity associated with habitat destruction; it would not impede the slow death of the oceans due to overfishing, among other causes; it will not prevent the staggering accumulation of waste inherent to the growth model. At best it will buy a little time. There is no technological solution for a problem that is inexorably bound up with the dominant mode of production and consumption. As degrowth advocate Charles Eisenstein explains: “Today, the impasse in our ability to convert nature into commodities and relationships into services is not temporary. There is little more we can convert. Technological progress and refinements to industrial methods will not help us take more fish from the seas — the fish are mostly gone. It will not help us increase the timber harvest — the forests are already stressed to capacity. It will not allow us to pump more oil — the reserves are drying up. We cannot expand the service sector — there are hardly any things we do for each other that we do not pay for already. There is no more room for economic growth as we have known it; that is, no more room for the conversion of life and the world into money.”12

Too many people?

Degrowth advocates are divided on the demographic question; some dispute the relevance of the issue altogether, dismissing concerns about overpopulation as a neo-Malthusian diversion distracting from the core problem of overconsumption in the global North. To quote Eisenstein again, “If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of a traditional Indian villager, it is arguable that even 12 billion would be a sustainable world population. If everyone lives like an upper-middle-class North American … then even two billion is unsustainable.”13 Nevertheless, unchecked population growth inevitably places pressure on habitat for other animal and plant species, thus threatening biodiversity in ways that ultimately also undermine human flourishing. The demographic factor is taken seriously by Joan Martinez-Alier who distinguishes between reactionary Malthusian responses, such as Garrett Hardin’s odious “lifeboat ethics” that called for rich countries to end immigration and foreign aid, and an alternate tradition that Martinez-Alier has helped bring to light of radical feminist neo-Malthusianism in early 20th century Europe and the US which advocated voluntary limitation of births through contraception in the name of women’s freedom, for environmental reasons, and to counter the downward pressure on wages associated with an increasing supply of labour.14

A civilizational sea change

Degrowth does not have a coherent program, and there are evident contradictions among the wide range of thinkers and activists who identify with the label, but there is an emerging loose consensus around a series of structural reforms supported by many of the key contributors to the conversation around degrowth. These are reforms aimed at laying the groundwork for a human-scale society in which for example, fossil fuel dependency has greatly diminished and people spend far less time working for wages and producing and consuming commodities and far more time producing for their own needs; it is a society in which the market’s role is, at the very least, highly circumscribed, in which circuits of production and distribution are shorter and in which at least some activities once commercialized are reclaimed. Collective forms of property and “commoning” (shared stewardship of things we use collectively, whether natural endowments or collectively produced resources ) are favoured by policy as is collective self-management. GDP has been scrapped as a measure of economic well being in favour of qualitative indices. Industrial agriculture is being superseded by organic farming, urban gardening and permaculture. Social equity is a priority and democracy is participatory. This year the Research & Degrowth association in Barcelona put forward a series of 10 policy proposals and presented them to various left political groups and parties such as Podemos in Spain. The proposals include: a citizen debt audit; work sharing; basic and maximum income; green tax reform; discontinuing support for highly polluting projects by stopping investments and subsidies; increasing support for the non-profit sector; optimal use of buildings; restrictions on advertising; caps on CO2 emissions; and scrapping the GDP as the main indicator of economic health. Giorgos Kallis offers brief descriptions of each reform in his article “Yes, We Can Prosper without Growth.”16

Whether degrowth is an anti-capitalist project is also a matter of debate and depends on which currents one considers. Many French (including Quebec) and Spanish degrowth advocates are explicit in their rejection of capitalism as a grow-or-die system that by its very nature is ecologically unsustainable. Because growth is a necessary condition of capitalism you cannot hope to achieve degrowth within the framework of the system. Some of the leading Anglo-American proponents of degrowth have been less categorical but, taken together, the reforms they prescribe, from rigorous environmental regulations, including severe restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, to measures aimed at reducing consumption and combating inequality, lead ineluctably to a mode of production and consumption bearing little resemblance to contemporary capitalism. Responding to a critique of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Peter Victor points out how capitalism has failed utterly to combat climate change, and concludes that Klein understands correctly that “Questioning the longevity of economic growth entails questioning the structure of capitalism.”17

To bring about fundamental changes in the direction of degrowth requires a massive social movement. Barring that degrowth will occur in a brutal and violent manner as climate change advances, desertification spreads, fresh water grows scarcer, extinction rates accelerate and life for ever greater numbers of humans and most other species becomes nastier and harder to sustain. This is why the qualifier “sustainable” or “convivial” is often added to the term to refer to indicate a degrowth process that is deliberate, equitable and collectively and democratically chosen and controlled. Whether a movement of the magnitude required to “decolonize the imaginary” (Serge Latouche) and implement sustainable degrowth will emerge is very much an open question.

Activism

There are various forms of political and social experimentation which are sometimes understood as concrete manifestations of a degrowth vision. Perhaps the most well known of these is the Transition Towns movement, launched by Rob Hopkins in 2005, a global grassroots movement of communities aiming to combat climate change by weaning themselves from fossil fuel dependency and promoting resilience, understood as a community’s capacity to withstand and adapt to anticipated ecoshocks. The Transition Town movement does not hoist the banner of degrowth and has been criticized, like many other environmentalist initiatives in the global North, as failing to extend its reach beyond the bounds of a white middle-class movement”18 but it is seen to share a number of precepts and goals with degrowth advocates. Joan Martinez-Alier describes the European degrowth movement as “a small social movement born from experiences of co-housing, squatting, neo-ruralism, reclaiming the streets, alternative energies, waste prevention, and recycling.”19 His colleagues Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria and Claudio Cattaneo likewise claim for degrowth myriad forms of activism, from local campaigns to block airports and highways to Spain’s Indignado movement that are not necessarily explicitly associated with a degrowth perspective but are in harmony with its basic assumptions and aims.20 The degrowth movement also organizes international conferences, such as the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity that took place in Leipzig in September 2014, and has even given rise to a few (ephemeral) political parties

Degrowth has yet to gain a toehold in the labour movement although its fairly unanimous agreement on the objective of significantly reducing working time and introducing some form of citizen’s income offers a fertile ground for alliance. On the other hand at a time when labour and progressive movements generally are fighting the unjust imposition of punishing austerity measures throughout the global North, it will be particularly important to make clear that its vision of a an ecologically viable social system shares nothing with hypocritical capitalist state demands for belt-tightening and sacrifice.

Both in theory and practice degrowth is still in the early stages of its evolution and it is difficult to say what direction it will take and what its prospects are for attracting a critical mass of supporters and activists. Nevertheless, the weight of scientific evidence on the ecological crisis humankind has wrought, essentially as a result of a profit-driven, growth-dependent system in which people, animals and ecosystems are just so many “resources” to be exploited, falls squarely on the side of jettisoning the growth paradigm. In one form or another, degrowth is the future.

Andrea Levy has a Ph.D. in History from Concordia University. She is an independent scholar, journalist and editor who writes and lectures on a variety of topics including political ecology.

Endnotes

  1. Small Is Beautiful) (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 46.
  2. For a brief introduction see his article “Would the West actually be happier with less? The world downscaled” in the English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2003, available online at
    www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/27/081.html
  3. The Development Dictionary (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1992), p. 2.Ecology as Politics, trans. Jonathan Cloud and Patsy Vigderman (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), p. 40.
  4. Ecology as Politics, trans. Jonathan Cloud and Patsy Vigderman (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), p. 40.
  5. Principles of Political Economy, Book 4, Chap.6 (London: Longmans Green & Co, 1909), available online at www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlP61.html.
  6. Herman Daly, “The Economic Growth Debate,” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, no. 14, 1987, p. 323
  7. Green Economics (New York: Routledge, 2015), p 76.
  8. Capitalism Nature Socialism (Vol. 23, No. 1, March 2012): 51-73, available online at degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/jma-degrowth-and-ej.pdf.
  9. S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2014), p.147.
  10. “The Degrowth Alternative,” Great Transition Initiative, February 2015, www.greattransition.org/publication/the-degrowth-alternative.
  11. “What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement,” Environmental Values 22 (2013), p. 197.
  12. Sacred Economics, Evolver Books, 2011, available online at sacred-economics.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/sacred-economics-book-text.pdf.
  13. Ibid.
  14. See for example his entry “Neo-Malthusians” in Degrowth: a Vocabulary for a New Era, ed., Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 125-128.
  15. Silke Helfrich and David Bollier, “Commons” in Degrowth: a Vocabulary for a New Era, ed., Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 75-78.
  16. “Yes, We Can Prosper without Growth,” Common Dreams, January 28, 2015, available online at www.commondreams.org/views/2015/01/28/yes-we-can-prosper-without-growth-10-policy-proposals-new-left.
  17. “Four Reasons Why Naomi Klein Is Right,” This Changes Everything website, October 20, 2014, thischangeseverything.org/four-reasons-why-naomi-klein-is-right
  18. See for example Esther Alloun and Samuel Alexander, “The Transition Movement” Questions of Diversity, Power and Affluence, Simplicity Institute Report, 2014, available online at simplicityinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/TransitionMovement.pdf
  19. “Environmental Justice and Economic Degrowth,” p. 62.
  20. “Civil and Uncivil Actors for a Degrowth Society,” Journal of Civil Society (Vol. 9, no. 2, 2013): 212-224.

Comments

  1. Joan Martinez Alier

    We have read with great pleasure this brief competent survey of Degrowth (Décroissance) thinking, including the contributions from Barcelona.

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