What is Degrowth?

version française

Geneviève Azam

The public debate on growth was initiated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One can mention, among others, the Meadows report for the Club of Rome in 1972[1], the United Nations Conference in Stockholm in 1972 and the stance taken by Sicco Manscholt (then vice-president of the European Commission) in the same year[2] and the publication in 1971 of Georgescu Roegen’s book[3], The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Whatever one may think of these initiatives and of the terms in which the debate was instigated, they reflect an emerging consciousness. However, no doubt partly because there was still hope for an overall ‘improvement’, these voices were then forgotten in the 1980s and 1990s.

The debate has re-emerged in the past decade due to cumulated crises and accelerating ecological disaster. The promises of abundance, prosperity and peace, the claimed outcomes of globalization and growth, are turning into a nightmare: a persistence or worsening of poverty and inequality, resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, reduced sense of well-being and the accelerated succession of environmental disasters and industrial accidents.

Degrowth is part of a renewed criticism of ‘growth’ and ‘development’, at a time when our productivist model is leading to increased social, ecological, cultural disasters due to a loss in democratic choice.

The ideology of growth is beginning to crack under the signs, ever more present and ever more acutely felt, which make its promises seem more remote and the threats feel imminent. Global warming, caused by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases due to increased production, demanding increased use of fossil fuels, is clear evidence of this failure.

One of the merits of the term ‘degrowth’ is its provocative, almost blasphemous character. It is a watchword that challenges people’s consciences in a world dominated by the cult of growth for the sake of growth, i.e., by the pursuit of profit for the sake of profit. The watchword, often narrowly understood as promoting ‘negative growth’, is sometimes seen as a limitation for the wider popularization of the ideas and values it conveys. This is why some critics of growth prefer the terms ‘post-growth’, ‘a-growth’, ‘anti-growth’, or as Ivan Illich would have it, ‘breaking the addiction to growth’.

Degrowth is not in fact the opposite of growth or negative growth. It is not an economic concept, even if it refers to economic studies. It represents:

  • Reducing our consumption of natural resources and energy to deal with biophysical constraints and the renewal capacity of ecosystems; which involves getting out of the productivist production/consumption cycle;
  • Inventing a new political and social imagination, opposite to that which underlies the ideology of growth and development;
  • A pluralistic and diverse social movement which encompasses various currents, experiences and strategies, all aiming to build autonomous and frugal societies; degrowth is not an alternative, but a matrix for alternatives;
  • Diverse ways to move beyond growth and reject immoderation;
  • A movement that raises, once again, the political and democratic question: ‘How can we live together and together with nature?’ instead of ‘how can we grow?’

Degrowth and the way out of a growth economy

What economists call growth is the evolution of the quantitative measure of output, expressed by the GDP. In other words, growth is the process of accumulation of capital and wealth. In the history of capitalism, this accumulation is ongoing, with variations depending on the period and on geographic location. Growth may be slow, as was the case during the nineteenth century and as has been the case in the old industrial nations since the 1980s. The ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ (Trente Glorieuses) (which actually lasted barely twenty years), which took place in industrialized countries after the Second World War, has often been used as a model for strong and balanced growth conducive to social progress. This period, far from being a model, is actually an exception in the history of capitalism. Furthermore, it was only possible due to easy access to cheap natural resources in the global South, severe pressure on the environment and a massive deskilling and rationalisation of labour. In return, and to deal with the communist bloc and social protest, social and economic rights were granted to the population.

This ‘Fordist compromise’ has been promoted as an economic and social model, with social conflicts seemingly reduced to the resulting distribution of the wealth. An important work of deconstruction in what has been called the ‘Keynesian compromise’ was conducted by certain researchers, who speak of the ‘Thirty Devastating Years’[4]. Keynes himself, in his superb 1930 essay entitled ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, wrote for the grandchildren of his generation: It will be time for humanity to learn to ‘devote our further energies to non-economic purposes’ and ‘the love of money as a possession (…) will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease’.

Contrary to the teachings of most economists, global growth does not only draw on labour and capital; it also requires energy and natural resources. These resources are limited and cannot be replaced by technical capital, contrary to the assumptions of neoclassical economic models. Therefore, the capitalist process of production-consumption has fed on the expropriation and destruction of the livelihoods and forms of life that escaped market valuation. Since the 1980s, economic and financial globalization has accelerated the commodification of natural resources and of living organisms, as well as the extraction of natural resources. However, the capitalist economy cannot grow indefinitely, or more precisely, it can only grow through escalating and irreversible socio-environmental destruction, and by reserving the wealth produced to a minority.

This question of the external limits of our economic models is not only a question related to capitalism: any system of production and consumption is a subsystem of the biosphere, which fuels it through matter and energy.

This is why degrowth is not the same as negative growth, or zero growth, or a stationary state: degrowth does not represent a shift towards downward economic fluctuations; it is not a recession. It is a political choice that leads to a voluntary and anticipatory reduction in the use of energy and materials, to a redefinition of our needs, and to the choice of ‘frugal abundance’. It is an anticipation of the forced recession that, in a growth-based society, leads to social and political disaster.

With capitalism, reducing the pressure on resources can be achieved at the micro-economic and micro-sectorial level through the use of new, green technologies that improve technical and economic efficiency. But at a global and macro level, as long as the principles of growth and accumulation are not called into question, an increase in efficiency in a given sector per unit produced and consumed will be offset by an increase in the volume of production: past improvements in the energy efficiency of cars, for instance, were offset by an increase of average car power and of the overall volume of production. This is called the ‘rebound effect’, which was highlighted by economist S. Jevons as early as the nineteenth century.

This is why green growth is not a solution to coping with the limits of natural resources: it is a means of perpetuating growth and capital accumulation.

It is the same illusion that gave rise to the hope of ‘decoupling’ economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions: it is claimed that due to energy efficiency gains enabled by growth, emissions should eventually decrease, according to economic models based on the Kuznets curve and applied to the environment. Growth is the solution, international institutions maintain. But this does not account for the increased production volume permitted by efficiency and productivity gains. Growth is the problem.

It is the same with so-called ‘immaterial’ growth, growth that would be based on services and on a ‘knowledge economy’, or cognitive capitalism. To expect the emergence of a dematerialized growth economy is to ignore the very material basis of many services. A software may be essentially made of ‘grey matter’ – but the production of hardware and computer chips requires raw materials, energy, and large amounts of water.

Lastly, in industrialised countries, the strong, accelerated growth of the ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ was only possible due to the extraction of cheap resources in dominated and colonized countries. The countries of the global South, some of which are currently experiencing strong growth, will see this growth path run dry much faster than in industrialised countries: they are confronted with an explosion in the demand for natural resources, and most are forced to extract these resources in their own countries. The case of Brazil is symptomatic: its economic growth is the result of the relentless exploitation of national natural resources. They could always try to corner resources in foreign countries, but there they would be faced with strong competition for the control of these natural resources, which the old industrial countries are unfamiliar with.

In terms of economic scholarship, the theme of degrowth stems from the work of Romanian mathematician and economist Georgescu Roegen[5]. Georgescu Roegen re-integrated the economic realm into the biosphere, and incorporated the law of entropy i.e., the principle of the dissipation and disorganisation of energy and materials in the economic process into economic analysis. Herman Daly[6], Tim Jackson[7], and many others[8] are developing a new, growthless macroeconomics, prosperity without growth. However, degrowth also involves a strong critique of ‘economism’ and it is inconceivable without a ‘degrowth society’.

Degrowth and the way out of a growth-based society

Growth is not just a matter of economy. It is a vision of society, a representation, which makes ‘progress’ – in other words, economic growth – the historical norm for all human societies. Thus growth has become a political goal, a compulsory civic virtue, the only way to achieve a free and just society, the road to democracy. This ideology reduces society to a people of workers and consumers, depriving them of the political dimension. Social conflicts are reduced to mere tensions around the distribution of wealth, regardless of the nature of this ‘wealth’ and the ways in which it was obtained.

Neoliberalism has accelerated this process at global scale. The neoliberal policies of the 1980s can be understood as a reaction to the slowdown of growth in industrial countries, which occurred in the 1970s. Free trade and the increased financialisation of corporations have been the vehicles of a desperate search for new sources of growth.

In the social-democratic tradition (of whatever stripes), growth is seen as a condition for social justice: the point is to make a bigger cake so that everyone gets a better share, without worrying about its recipe and its ingredients. This stance has reduced politics to a management issue. But social justice cannot be reduced to the distribution of growth gains: it is about recognising the equal dignity of all humans, and it is inseparable from preserving the physical conditions of this dignity. It is precisely the illusion of a growth restored through free trade agreements and competition, which has led to the conversion of large numbers of social-democratic politicians to neo-liberal policies since the 1980s.

This is why degrowth is not an economic concept: it involves the whole of society, its representations and values. It questions the Western norm of progress, which has been imposed on the whole planet. It involves a relocation of activities, a redistribution of wealth, a newfound sense of work, convivial and soft technologies, slowing down and giving power back to grassroots communities.

Degrowth is the expression of several currents of critical thinking: criticism of the market and of globalization, criticism of technology and techno-science, criticism of anthropocentrism and instrumental rationality, criticism of homo economicus and utilitarianism, criticism of immoderation.

Degrowth materialises in social movements that reject acceleration, economic and financial globalization, the massive extraction of natural resources, advertising, consumerism, social and environmental injustice and the blind headlong rush in energy issues.

Several international conferences held since 2008 have contributed to the expansion of the degrowth movement. More than 3,000 participants attended the latest of these conferences, held in Leipzig in 2014.

Degrowth and the development ideology

Development has always been intrinsically linked to economic growth. It was to be a growth that would be both quantitative and qualitative, a ‘good’ growth.

Early criticism directed at the Western notion of development began in the 1980s, in the writings of A. Escobar[9], Wolfgang Sachs[10], S. Latouche[11], G. Rist[12], as well as André Gorz and Majid Rahmena – all of them influenced by the theories of Ivan Illich.

Similarly, ‘sustainable development’ is also based on economic growth, as indicated by the Brundtland report. Criticism of sustainable development as an oxymoron, a self-contradicting expression, and the emergence of post-development theories have fuelled various currents of the degrowth movement.

The development theories in the global South were also upheld by ‘progressive’ forces, which, in line with the Marxist tradition, saw the development of productive forces as building the foundations for emancipation. In this light, early warnings about growth in the 1970s, for instance those of the Meadows report and those expressed during the first Earth Summit held in Stockholm in 1972, have been strongly criticized.

Degrowth is a debatable option for societies of the global South, which are not or not yet growth-based societies, whose ecological footprint is low, and where the basic needs of the population are not met. However, degrowth can be understood as a call not to enter a growth-based society, a call to break free from the economic and cultural domination of the global North, to regain a sense of self-restraint and moderation which is often already to be found in their traditional cultures.

The mystique of universalistic growth is also being challenged in the global South. While criticism of growth and progress has long remained restricted to the limits of Western culture, and while it began well before the post-war boom and before the present ‘crisis’ (W. Benjamin, H. Arendt, G. Anders, J. Ellul, Frankfurt School, etc.), it is now also being expressed and gaining momentum in the global South, whose populations are still widely considered as needy candidates to growth. This is why, particularly in left-wing circles, critics of growth are often portrayed as denying the humanity of the peoples of the global South. Which amounts to saying that growth is founded in nature, that it is a condition of moral life, and constitutes the only way humans can overcome a sub-human condition. The dehumanization and de-civilization of Western societies exposes the fallacy of such arguments.

Criticising growth in the global South involves criticising development, building on the aspiration for a ‘post-development’ era. This is the purpose of the works of Latin American researchers and activists such as the Ecuadorian A. Acosta, the Uruguayan Eduardo Gudynas, Argentinean Maristella Svampa, Venezuelan Edgardo Lander and others, who have joined forces in a work group called ‘Beyond development’[13]. As regards other continents, Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy in India, Emmanuel N’Dionne in Senegal, and many others, have for several decades developed a global critique of the westernization of the world and development.

However, the call for degrowth will not really make sense and influence public policies in the global South unless the process is actually initiated in industrialized countries, unless it proceeds hand in hand with a redistribution of wealth and outlines a desirable future. Only then will Gandhi’s maxim take on its full meaning: ‘Live simply so others may simply live’.

Degrowth and social movements

The ideology of growth has been established over several centuries, and its deconstruction will similarly involve a sustained effort over the long term. It will require social practices and political choices that allow us to both deal with the pressing challenges of our time and to lay the foundations for new ways to live together and inhabit the earth.

These objectives are pursued by social movements which are part of the matrix of degrowth, without necessarily claiming the notion as theirs: North-South relations and the looting of natural resources; farmers movements that refuse productivism and promote ‘peasant agriculture’; movements for the abolition of debt that forces countries to export excessive amounts of raw materials and jeopardise ecosystems; movements for the recovery of land; commons movement; movements for access to water, environmental justice; resistance to inflicted, unnecessary large-scale projects (giant dams, airports, highways, high speed trains, giant shopping centres); movement for energy decentralization, transition towns, slow food, slow science, slow cities, low tech instead of high tech, local food, deglobalisation and re-localisation of activities.

What is at stake more generally in these movements is a practical realization of the principle of ‘counter-productivity’ developed by Ivan Illich. Beyond a certain point, productivist policies are no longer effective. Agriculture, instead of feeding people, poisons or sickens them, and destroys its own future by exhausting soils; the surge in health expenditures feeds the profits of pharmaceutical companies without improving the health of most people; the increase in car traffic eventually extends distances and increases the time spent in transportation; ‘growth’ kills jobs or makes them more precarious.

These experiences and these resistances give expression to new possible worlds. They initiate the kind of ‘change from below’ without which no social and political transformation is even thinkable. Is that enough? Where is there leverage for broader transformations? While it is relatively simple to understand and agree on the need to change our growth imagination, it is difficult to imagine the transition to a post-growth society. This triggers innumerable questions. Degrowth of what, where, how? What sort of diversified policies and on what scale? How can we envisage solidarity and justice without economic growth? What are the milestones? What steps should we take? How can we organize industrial reconversion?

Questions around alternatives to growth and productivism must be confronted simultaneously at all levels: individual, local, national and global.

To move forward, it will be essential to achieve breakthroughs in the global North, for several reasons:

  • It is in the global North that capitalism and productivism were invented, as well as productivist ‘socialism’.
  • It is from the global North that this model was then exported, even if it found local allies.
  • It is where the fantasy of unlimited growth of wealth as the condition of happiness and justice is most deeply rooted.
  • In the global North, environmental degradation hits the poorest (food, health, housing, leisure) and economic and financial globalization destroys jobs, labour and nature.

But there are also many resistance movements in the global South, many concrete experiences that are in line with this redefinition of the relationship between societies and their natural environment, challenging neo-liberalism and productivism. These movements are often long-standing, and they express, what Juan Martinez Allier calls an ‘ecology of the poor’. The existence of such movements is a healthy counterweight to all the compassionate, philanthropic and humanitarian talk about the world, the global South and the ‘woes’ of the planet. It should also silence those who claim that environmental concerns are a luxury reserved for rich countries and for the richest of the rich.

Our reflection can not progress through an enlightened elite, composed of distinguished individuals and experts, nor on the basis of the well-known maxim, ‘let’s make a clean slate of the past’, which would mean building a ‘new man’, an abstract homo œcologicus. We know that such a vision would only bring new forms of totalitarianism, albeit ecological. It is on the basis of concrete social relationships and experiences that we have to develop our thinking.

Sources are already numerous and, certainly, one of our tasks is to revisit them. To those who have already been mentioned, we can add the works of Cornelius Castoriadis, who, against the dominant trend, continued his criticism of the economic imagination, of development and of productivism throughout the 1980s[14]. He linked this criticism to that of capitalism and ‘state capitalism’, and ultimately raised the notion of a ‘necessary frugality’. His political thought makes a frugal society the very condition for a democratic society: a society that rediscovers the possibility of collective choices, within limits that are also collectively determined. Castoriadis puts social relations, social movements, and politics at the centre of his analysis. Frugality, as he defines it, takes us out of the heteronomy imposed by techno-scientific domination and neo-liberalism.

Degrowth and capitalism

Challenging our growth-based societies means challenging capitalism, which is based on the continuous and unlimited accumulation of wealth. But challenging capitalism does not necessarily mean challenging growth. Productivism is a common feature of both capitalism and socialism, as it is still to a large extent a common feature of the political right and left.

Beyond capitalism, degrowth also challenges a civilization which has conceived freedom and emancipation as wrenching oneself away from nature, as dominating nature, and which has sacrificed individual and collective autonomy on the altar of unlimited production and consumption of material wealth. Capitalism has brought further ills such as the expropriation of livelihoods, the submission of labour to the capitalist order and the commodification of nature. This project of rational control over the world, humanity and nature is now collapsing.

Degrowth, post-growth, or ‘breaking the addiction to growth’ outlines a way out of capitalism that meets the aspirations of ‘living well’ (buen vivir), the movement for the rights of the Earth, the de-globalization movement, and more generally, all struggles for a democracy that is increasingly crushed by the collision course of productivism.

[1] Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows and J. Randers, 1972, Limits to Growth. Universe books.

[2] In an interview with French magazine Nouvel Observateur, 12-18 June 1972, he declared: ‘Let’s be blunt: we have to reduce our economic growth, and replace it with the notion of another culture, of happiness, of well-being’. Cited in L’écologiste, October 2002, p.67.

[3] Georgescu-Roegen N., 1971, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Georgescu-Roegen N., 1979, Demain la décroissance : entropie-écologie-économie, preface and translation by Ivo Rens and Jacques Grinevald. Lausanne: Pierre- Marcel Favre.

[4] Céline Pessis, Sezin Topçu, Christophe Bonneuil (eds.), 2013, Une autre histoire des Trente Glorieuses. Modernisation, contestations et pollutions dans la France d’après-guerre, La Découverte, Paris.

[5] Georgescu-Roegen N., 1971, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Georgescu-Roegen N., 1979, Demain la décroissance : entropie-écologie-économie, preface and translation by Ivo Rens and Jacques Grinevald. Lausanne: Pierre- Marcel Favre.

[6] Herman Daly, 1997, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, Beacon Press, Boston; http://steadystate.org/eight-fallacies-about-growth/

[7] Jackson, T., 2011, Prosperity without Growth. Economics for a Finite Planet. London: Earthscan. Tim Jackson, 2010, Prospérité sans croissance. La transition vers une économie durable, De boeck, Bruxelles.

[8] Jean Gadrey, 2010, Adieu à la croissance. Bien vivre dans un monde solidaire, Les Petits matins, Paris; Richard Heinberg, 2011, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New economic reality, New Society Publishers. Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill (preface by Herman Daly), 2013, Enough is Enough, Routledge.

[9] Arturio Escobar, 1995, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[10] Sachs, Wolfgang (ed.); The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power – London [u.a.]: Zed Books [u.a.], 1992, Available editions and translations: Spanish, South African, Indonesian, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, Persian, Brazilian, Mexican, Serbian, French.

[11] Serge Latouche, 1986, Faut-il refuser le développement, PUF, Paris; 1989, L’occidentalisation du monde. Essai sur la signification, la portée et les limites de l’uniformisation planétaire, La Découverte, Paris.

[12] Rist, G., 2003, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, Expanded Edition, London: Zed Books.

[13] http://rio20.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/mas-alla-del-desarrollo_30.pdf

[14] Castoriadis, C., 1998, The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge: MIT Press.