By Geneviève Azam
The economic growth paradigm is central to the representations of the world and the economic policies that have emerged since 1945. However, the notion of economic growth as a regular, ongoing, self-sustained process – which reached its peak during the so-called “Glorious Thirty” years – has fallen apart. This post-World War II period, in which growth became a necessary condition for social progress and development, no longer holds up to critical analysis. This growth occurred, in fact, in “developed” industrialised countries, involved a minority of the world population and was built on the senseless waste and pillaging of limited natural resources, access to cheap fossil fuels, dependency on killer technologies and the manufacturing of global inequalities and imbalances that would prove to be unbearable and unsustainable.
The goal of “development” sustained this process by creating the illusion that “underdeveloped” or “developing” countries could “catch up.” Development, and the growth that underlies it, became the global norm for all models, whether they were socialist or capitalist. Growth engenders a series of disparities that make new growth necessary.
When it became evident that geophysical limits could bring the process to a halt, the concepts of durable or sustainable development were proposed. The 1987 Brundtland Report entitled Our Common Future advocated for “clean” growth that guarantees ecological sustainability, development and social justice all at the same time. This proposal became the backbone of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. However, the explosion of inequalities and the fact that we have gone beyond the ecological limits of the planet have rendered hopes for sustainable development obsolete.
Imposed around the world, neoliberal policies buried earlier development policies that were heavily marked by State intervention. With economic and financial globalisation, the integration of the world markets is said to be what will achieve development, which often involves countries resorting to assuming massive debts and increasing payments to service them. These, in turn, drive forced growth to guarantee repayment. It is thus no longer about balancing the three pillars of sustainable development – growth, social justice and the sustainability of the planet – but rather entrusting the task of caring for society and the Earth to the economy and the market. The green economy and green growth replaced the sustainable development goals. The “green economy” seeks to optimise resource management and incorporate nature into the large cycle of production, manufacturing and market valuation.
Despite all of this, economic growth has not been achieved. For the old industrialised countries, growth must be stimulated by demand from emerging countries, which did, in fact, experience astronomical growth rates in the 2000s. Having adopted the same economic models as their elders, which are based on unbridled productivism and the acceleration of industrial production to unprecedented levels, they are now the ones being violently confronted by the limits of growth. The case of Brazil is emblematic: after having experienced a staggering increase in economic activity and having promoted social policies based on growth, the process came to a sudden halt and the country was plunged into a serious social and political crisis. Once again, growth generates the need for more growth in order to ease the frustrations caused by promises that are difficult or impossible to keep.
In growth-based societies, the cessation of growth means prolonged economic recessions, an explosion in poverty, an intensification of productivist or extractivist activities and setbacks in democracy. Critical approaches to growth show that social progress, prosperity and living well are possible without economic growth and, to be effective, require a shift towards post-growth or degrowth societies.
The origins of the debate on growth
The public debate on growth began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One can mention, among others, the Meadows Report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the Club of Rome in 1972 (Meadows, 1972). This report led to the questioning of the foundations of industrial society in light of the biophysical limits of the Earth and exponential population growth. The report concluded by proposing zero growth. For methodological and political reasons, this report was the subject of much debate among right-wing, left-wing and Third World scholars. The latter perceived it as having been produced by rich countries with the goal of crystallising inequalities so as to maintain their access to resources or as a resurgence of Malthusian theories.
The merit of this report is having reminded all that growth reposes on the extraction of non-renewable raw materials. After updating the report in 1992 and 2004, Dennis Meadows wrote in 2012 – forty years after the first version – that it was no longer possible to slow the system to zero growth because its carrying capacity or the ecologic footprint had increased beyond sustainable levels. According to him, that is why it is now necessary to decrease growth.
During the same period, while dreams of colonising new planets were flourishing, the United Nations Conference in Stockholm in 1972 launched the “Only One Earth” slogan. Sicco Mansholt, the vice-president of the European Commission at the time, publicly called for an end to growth at a time when economic growth still appeared to be infinite.
Also around that time, the works of Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen showed how thermodynamics and the laws of living beings are inseparable from the economy and society (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971 and Georgescu-Roegen, 2006). Infinite material growth is unsustainable due to the irreversibility of the transformation of energy into matter. The economy is a system embedded in the biosphere: a bioeconomy. Even with recycling, no technical process will be able to totally eliminate the entropic aspects of the extraction and transformation of resources, as industrial societies absorb gigantic injections of polluting and non-renewable energy.
Georgescu-Roegen’s work remained marginal in the world of economic thought. His best-known disciple and the founder of ecological economics, Herman Daly, defended a steady-state economy. Georgescu-Roegen rejected this proposal and affirmed that the economy must contract to return to the situation that existed prior to the point where the planet’s bio-capacity is exceeded (Daly, 1997).
Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomics approach, which subordinates the economy to the geophysical limits of the Earth and the fair distribution of resources, involves profound changes to economic systems and their underlying values. His proposal has little to do with the “bioeconomy” international institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission are now promoting. This bioeconomy is an avatar of sustainable development. Its new concepts of efficiency, decoupling and circular economy are part of a new fiction story on a model for clean growth that recycles all its waste and optimises the production and consumption of energy.
Another source of inspiration for degrowth was the critique of the concept of “development aid” theorised by Truman in 1949 and of development as a “Western belief” (Rist, 1997), or, in the words of Serge Latouche (2006), the “Westernisation of the world.” These reflections were inspired by the works of Ivan Illich and, a little later, by André Gorz and Cornelius Castoriadis. They led to the questioning of the heteronomy of industrial societies, which gave machines a central role and reject consumerism and the basis of its imagery.
The debate has been taken up again in the past decade due to the impacts of globalisation and the acceleration of the ecological disaster. The abundance, prosperity and peace promised by globalisation and growth are becoming a nightmare: persistent and growing poverty and inequality, resource depletion, climate change, loss of biodiversity, reduced sense of well-being and the occurrence of environmental disasters and industrial accidents at an accelerated rate. The ideology of growth is beginning to crack under the ever more present signs that make its promises seem more remote and threats feel more imminent. Global warming caused by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions linked to the increase in production thanks to the use of fossil fuels provides clear evidence of this failure.
The term “degrowth” is provocative and almost blasphemous in nature. It is a watchword that prods people’s consciences in a world dominated by the cult of growth for the sake of growth – or, in other words, the pursuit of profit for the sake of profit. One of its limitations is that it is often narrowly understood as promoting “negative growth” and as a result, it may obscure the issues of civilisation at stake. This is why some critics of growth prefer to use the terms “post-growth,” “a-growth,” “anti-growth,” or, as Ivan Illich put it, “breaking the addiction to growth.”
Degrowth is not, in fact, the opposite of growth or negative growth, nor is it an economic concept, even though it refers to and originated in studies in economics. It means:
Reducing consumption of natural resources and energy in accordance with the biophysical constraints and the renewal of the capacity of ecosystems. This involves exiting the productivist cycle of production and consumption;
Inventing a new political and social vision opposite to the one that underlies the ideology of growth and development;
Building a pluralistic and diverse social movement in which various currents of thought, experiences and strategies that aim to build autonomous and frugal societies converge. 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 in terms of the gross domestic product (GDP). In other words, growth is the process of accumulating capital and wealth. In the history of capitalism, this process is ongoing, with variations depending on the period and geographical location. Growth may be slow, as was the case during the 19th century and in the old industrial nations since the 1980s. The “Glorious Thirty” (which actually only lasted twenty years) in industrialized countries after World War II, has often been taken as a model for strong and balanced growth that is conducive to social progress. Far from being a model, this period is actually an exception in the history of capitalism. It was only possible due to easy access to cheap natural resources in the Global South, severe pressure on the environment and the massive de-skilling 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” was adopted as an economic and social model and social conflicts were seemingly reduced to the issue of distributing the wealth produced. It was assimilated into a type of Keynesian compromise. However, Keynes himself, in his superb 1930 essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” wrote that the time will come for humanity to learn to “devote our further energies to non-economic purposes” and when “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.”
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 affirmations of neoclassical economic models that reduce nature to capital that can be replaced. Therefore, the capitalist process of production-consumption feeds on the expropriation and destruction of livelihoods and forms of life that escape market valuation. Since the 1980s, economic and financial globalisation has accelerated the commodification of natural resources and living organisms, as well as the extraction of natural resources. However, the capitalist economy cannot grow indefinitely, or more precisely, it can only grow by escalating irreversible socio-environmental destruction and concentrating the wealth produced in the hands of a minority.
This issue of the external limits of our economic models is not only related to capitalism: all systems of production and consumption are subsystems of the biosphere.
This is why degrowth is not the same as negative growth, or zero growth, or a stationary state: degrowth is not a shift towards downward economic fluctuations, nor a recession. It is a political choice that leads to a voluntary and planned reduction in the use of energy and resources, to redefining our needs and choosing “frugal abundance.” “Sustainable degrowth” anticipates the forced recession that, in a growth-based society, leads to social and political disaster.
In capitalism, it is claimed that reducing pressure on resources can be achieved at the micro-economic and micro-sectoral level through the use of new, green technologies that improve technical and economic efficiency. But at the global macroeconomic level, as long as the principles of growth and accumulation are not called into question, an increase in efficiency in a sector and on the units produced and consumed will be absorbed 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 the overall volume of production. This is called the “rebound effect,” which was highlighted by economist S. Jevons as early as the 19th 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.
This is the illusion that gave rise to the hope of “decoupling” economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions. It is argued that due to energy efficiency gains made possible by growth, emissions should eventually decrease, according to economic models based on the Kuznets curve and applied to the environment. International institutions tell us that growth is the solution. But this does not take into account the increase in the production volume obtained by gains in efficiency and productivity. Growth is the problem.
The same can be said of the so-called “immaterial” growth that is based on services and a “knowledge economy,” or cognitive capitalism. To expect a dematerialized growth economy to emerge 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 uses raw materials, energy and large amounts of water.
Lastly, in industrialised countries, the strong, accelerated growth of the “Glorious Thirty” was only possible thanks to the extraction of cheap resources in colonized countries dominated by the North. The countries of the Global South, some of which are currently experiencing strong growth, will see this growth dry up much faster than it did in industrialised countries: they will be confronted with an explosion in the demand for natural resources and most will be forced to extract these resources in their own countries. They could always attempt to grab these resources in other countries, but there, they would have to wade into war to control these natural resources.
In the field of economics, the theme of degrowth stems from the work of Romanian mathematician and economist Georgescu-Roegen. Georgescu-Roegen re-integrated the economy into the biosphere and incorporated the law of entropy (the principle of the dissipation and disorganisation of energy and materials in the economic process) into economic analysis. Herman Daly (1997), Tim Jackson (2011), and many others are developing new theories on macroeconomics and prosperity without growth. However, degrowth is also 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 related only to the economy. It is a vision of society that makes “progress” a historical norm for all human societies. In capitalism, this norm is economic growth measured in terms of GDP. Thus, growth has become a political goal, a compulsory civic virtue, the only way to achieve a free and just society and the road to democracy. This ideology reduces society to a people of workers and consumers that is deprived of any political dimension. Social conflicts are reduced to mere tensions around the distribution of wealth, regardless of the nature of this “wealth” and how it was obtained.
Neoliberalism has accelerated this process at the global level. The neoliberal policies of the 1980s can be understood as a reaction to the slowdown of growth in industrialised countries, which occurred in the 1970s. Free trade and the increased financialisation of corporations have been the driving forces behind a desperate search for new sources of growth.
In the social-democratic tradition (of all stripes), growth is seen as a necessary condition for social justice. It is a question of making the pie bigger so that everyone gets a bigger piece, without worrying about what recipe and ingredients are used. This stance has reduced politics to a management issue. Yet, social justice cannot be reduced to the redistribution of the results of growth: it is about recognising the equal dignity of all humans and it is inseparable from the preservation of the material conditions that are required to guarantee this dignity. It was precisely the illusion that free trade agreements and competition can restore growth that has led large numbers of social-democratic politicians to convert to neoliberal 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 and its imposition on the entire planet. Degrowth is based on the relocation of activities, the redistribution of wealth, recovering the meaning of work, convivial and soft technologies, slowing down and giving power back to grassroots communities.
Degrowth is the expression of several currents of critical thought: the critique of the market and globalisation; of technology and techno-science; of anthropocentrism and instrumental rationality; of homo economicus and utilitarianism and the critique of excess.
Degrowth is embodied by the social movements that reject acceleration, economic and financial globalisation, the massive extraction of natural resources, the blind headlong rush on energy issues, advertising and consumerism, and social and environmental injustice.
Several international conferences held since 2008 have contributed to the expansion of the degrowth movement. More than 3,000 participants attended the one held in Leipzig in 2014. The most recent conference was held in Budapest.
Degrowth and development ideology
Development has always been intrinsically linked to economic growth. It was to be both quantitative and qualitative growth – that is, “good” growth.
Early criticisms of the Western notion of development appeared in the 1980s, mainly in the works of Escobar (1995), Wolfgang Sachs (1992), Latouche (1986), G. Rist and also André Gorz and Majid Rahmena, who were all influenced by the theories of Ivan Illich. Sustainable development was later classified as an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms. Post-developmentalist theories also served as the inspiration of various lines of thought on degrowth.
Degrowth theories clashed with developmentalist theories, mainly in the Global South. In line with Marxist tradition, “progressive” forces defended developmentalism, as they saw the development of productive forces as the way to build the foundations necessary for their emancipation. This is why early warnings about growth in the 1970s were strongly criticized.
However, faith in a universal kind of growth is also being shaken in societies of the Global South. Critical views on growth and progress remained limited to Western societies for a long time and began to appear well before the post-war boom and the current “crisis”, in the works of W. Benjamin, H. Arendt, G. Anders, J. Ellul and the Frankfurt School, among others. They are now gaining ground in the Global South, whose populations are still widely considered candidates in need of growth. This is why critics of growth, particularly those in left-wing circles, are often portrayed as denying the humanity of the peoples of the South. This amounts to saying that growth is founded in nature, a condition for moral life and constitutes the only way humans can free themselves from a sub-human condition. The dehumanization and de-civilization of Western societies expose, in part, the fallacy of such arguments.
Criticising growth in the Global South involves criticising development and building on aspirations for a “post-development” era. This is the objective of the work of Latin American researchers and activists such as the Ecuadorian Alberto Acosta, Eduardo Gudynas from Uruguay, Maristella Svampa from Argentina, Edgardo Lander from Venezuela and others who have joined forces in a working group called “Beyond development”. As for the other continents, for several decades now, Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy in India, Emmanuel N’Dionne in Senegal and many others have been developing a critique of the Westernization of the world and development.
However, the call for degrowth will only make sense and influence public policies in the Global South if the process that has been initiated in industrialised countries, is accompanied by the redistribution of wealth and outlines what a desirable future looks like. Only then will Gandhi’s saying, “Live simply so others may simply live,” take on its full meaning.
Degrowth is a debatable option for societies of the Global South. They are not or not yet growth-based societies, their ecological footprint is low and the basic needs of the population have not yet been met. However, degrowth can be taken as a call not to enter a growth-based society, to break free from the economic and cultural domination of the Global North and to regain a sense of self-restraint and moderation that is often already present in their traditional cultures.
Degrowth and social movements
The ideology of growth was built over several centuries and its deconstruction will necessarily take a long time. It requires adopting social practices and making political choices that allow us to both deal with the pressing challenges of our time and lay the foundations for new ways to live together and inhabit the Earth.
Several social movements are part of the degrowth matrix, even though they do not necessarily claim the notion as theirs: the ones focusing on North-South relations and the pillaging of resources; farmers movements that reject productivism and promote “peasant agriculture”; movements fighting to cancel the debt that forces countries to export excessive amounts of raw materials at the expense of ecosystems; movements to reclaim land; the commons movement; movements for access to water; environmental justice movements; resistance to unnecessary large-scale projects (megadams, airports, highways, high speed trains, giant shopping centres); movements to decentralise energy and in favour of transition towns, Slow Food, Slow Science, Slow Cities, low tech instead of high tech, local food, deglobalisation and the re-localisation of activities.
In general, it is a question of the concrete realization of the principle of “counter-productivity” developed by Ivan Illich. Beyond a certain point, productivist policies are no longer effective. Instead of feeding people, industrial agriculture begins to poison or sicken 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 ends up increasing distances and the time spent in transit. “Growth” kills jobs or makes them more precarious.
These resistance struggles and experiences are already tracing the path to other possible worlds. They are initiating a kind of “change from below” without which no social and political transformation is even thinkable. Is that enough? Where can we find leverage for broader transformations? While it is relatively simple to understand and agree on the need to change our vision, it is difficult to imagine what the transition towards a post-growth society looks like. This raises numerous questions. Degrowth of what, where and how? What kind of diversified policies and on what scale? How do we envisage solidarity and justice without economic growth? What are the milestones? What steps should we take? How can we organize industrial reconversion?
The alternatives to growth and productivism must be complementary 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:
Capitalism and productivism were invented in countries of the Global North, as was productivist “socialism.”
This model was then exported from the Global North, as it found allies in the South.
This is where the illusion that unlimited growth of wealth is the necessary condition of happiness and justice is most deeply rooted.
In the countries of the Global North, the deterioration of ecosystems hits the poorest (food, health, housing, leisure) and economic and financial globalisation destroys jobs, labour and nature.
In the Global South, many resistance movements and concrete experiences are seeking to redefine the relationship between societies and the environment while challenging neoliberalism and productivism. These movements are generally long-standing and they are linked to what Juan Martínez Alier calls an “environmentalism of the poor” (Martínez Alier, 2002). They help to silence the pseudo-compassionate discourse on the countries in the Global South and the “woes” of the planet and those that claim that environmental concerns are only a luxury of rich countries and of the richest of the rich.
This reflection cannot be left in the hands of an enlightened elite composed of distinguished individuals and experts. We know that such a vision would only bring new forms of totalitarianism, albeit ecological ones. Concrete social relationships and experiences must be the basis for our reflections.
The sources are numerous and one of our tasks is to revisit them. To those who have already been mentioned, we can add the works of Cornelius Castoriadis who went against the dominant trend of the 1980s to maintain his critique of the economic imagery of development and productivism (Castoriadis, 1998). He linked his critique to that of capitalism and “state capitalism” and eventually propose the notion of a “necessary frugality.” His political thought makes a frugal society the very condition for a democratic society – a society that rediscovers that it is possible to make collective choices within limits that are also collectively defined. Castoriadis puts social relations, social movements and politics at the centre of his analysis. Frugality, as he defines it, allows us to free ourselves from the heteronomy imposed by techno-scientific domination and neoliberalism.
To go beyond growth-based societies, we must challenge capitalism, which is founded on the continuous and unlimited accumulation of wealth and capital. But challenging capitalism does not necessarily mean questioning growth. Productivism is a common feature of both capitalism and socialism, and the political right and left.
Degrowth questions not only capitalism, but also a civilization that conceives freedom and emancipation as something achieved by tearing oneself away from and dominating nature, and that 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 to establish rational control over the world, humanity and nature is now collapsing.
Degrowth – or, better said, post-growth or “breaking the addiction to growth” – outlines the paths to meet the aspirations of Buen Vivir, the movements that fight for the rights of Mother Earth, reject extractivism, deglobalisation, and all broader struggles for true democracy.
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 “Les Trente Glorieuses” was the thirty-year period that went from the boom of the post-World War II period to the 1973 oil crisis.
 In an interview in the June 12-18, 1972 edition of the Nouvel Observateur, he declared, “Let’s be blunt: we must reduce our economic growth to replace it with the notion of another culture, happiness and well-being”, quoted in L’Écologiste, October 2002, p. 67.
 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 (préface Herman Daly), 2013, Enough is Enough, Routledge.