“We live in an era of stagnation, rapid impoverishment, rising inequalities and socio-ecological disasters. In the dominant discourse, these are effects of economic crisis, lack of growth or underdevelopment. […] [But economic] growth is the cause of these problems and […] it has become uneconomic, ecologically unsustainable and intrinsically unjust.”
– D’Alisa et al. 2014
On September 2nd 2014, no less than 3000 scientists, activists and artists met in Leipzig, Germany, for the 4th International Degrowth Conference. Seemingly, “degrowth” has gained momentum – a development that grabs the attention of decision-makers throughout politics and economic actors. This may seem counterintuitive as, at the core of it, degrowth questions the most fundamental narrative of last 40 years’ political economy: economic growth as the guarantee for prosperity, wealth, progress and human rights. It is hence worth to take a closer look at what degrowth is all about.
This article aims to provide a general overview of the current degrowth-discourse in all its different facets; it hereby hopes to increase the understanding of degrowth as a diverse field of different, but not contradictory ideas. Above all, the goal is to show that the current degrowth-discourse is far more complex than a simple “less economic growth” and may very well be a starting point for considerable changes in the political economy of the coming decades. These changes will, according to the degrowth-consensus, happen with or without current policy- and decision-makers; making knowledge about degrowth desirable especially for them.
What is degrowth?
„Degrowth signifies a critique of the growth economy. It calls for the decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and for the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective. Degrowth signifies also a desired direction, in which societies use less natural resources and organize and live differently than today.“
Ideology? Economic concept? Framework? Paradigm? Social movement? The degrowth scholars – many of them based at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, the current center of the academic debate – deliberately avoid to settle this. As a superordinate term, the conceptual openness of degrowth is also used as a unifying strategy. With its specific history and political approach, degrowth is furthermore strongly connected to the Global North (discussion of the term in Myers/Kent 2004) and there is an on-going discussion whether the concept of degrowth also inherits potential for scholars, politicians and activists from the Global South. Keeping this in mind, we will now take a closer look at the variety of degrowth concepts, starting out with a short historical review.
(1) Historical background
First to be mentioned is the French term décroissance that was initially used by André Gorz in the 1970s (Gorz 1975, 1977). Back then, the emphasis of degrowth was put on the limits to economic growth due to limited natural resources. This specific focus was not by chance: “The Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al. 1972), a study performed by the Club of Rome in 1972, raised the global awareness of declining natural resources and the necessity for a social change in resource use. The findings and radical hypotheses of this study (together with other events like the first global oil crisis) triggered a worldwide socio-ecological movement and found expression in a variety of scientific literature, new social and political movements as well as new international institutions.
Later, in the 1980s, the scope of the term degrowth extended to the critique of utilitarianism, and eventually, in the early 2000s, added elements of a critique of “sustainable development”. Today the term degrowth gets more and more established: at international conferences, in research programs and scientific articles. The central concern however remains conceptualization and creation of alternative societies (D’Alisa et al. 2014).
(2) The idea of degrowth
To illustrate this, there a pretty and concise image: Three elephants and a snail. The first elephant stretches upwards and hence represents the idea of economic growth: more of the same. The second elephant stands motionless and thereby represents the concept of stagnation: ever the same. The third elephant finally lays flat on the ground, representing what recession means: less of the same.
All three elephants typify different paths of development within the same, growth-oriented, paradigm. Each of them strives to maximize, keep or reduce the same: material wealth, employment, resource use and so on. This illustration demonstrates the current landscape of public, political and economical discourses about economic growth and ecology, using terms like green economy, sustainable development, green new deal, steady state economy and many more.
Right next to the three elephants, a snail symbolizes what degrowth means in comparison: something completely different. The emphasis on slowness here reflects degrowth discourses about a “deceleration” of the every day life as well as about an affluence of time as elements of a degrowth society (cf. Rosa 2004, 2005, 2010). The small size of the snail compared to the elephants illustrates discourses about the quality of life, which weights more than the plain quantity of today’s material affluence (cf. Schumacher 1973 , Fatheuer 2011, Welzer 2011) and relates to the necessity of a general change of societal valuing systems (Fromm 1976 , Illich 1973 ). The snail is hence the symbol and leitmotiv of the degrowth movement.
(3) Analytical overview over the themes of the degrowth discourse
Within the degrowth discourse, we can localize five main motives which partly overlap and are inspired by different (academic) backgrounds: (3.1) The limits to growth, (3.2) degrowth as autonomy, (3.3) degrowth as re-politicization, (3.4) degrowth as critique of capitalism and (3.5) degrowth as societal transformation. In the following, we will have a closer look at each of them in order to give a better understanding of what degrowth means to the different degrowth scholars. Such broad understanding is the precondition for any policy maker who wants to talk about degrowth or criticize it.
(3.1) The limits to growth
As stated before, the discussion about the limits to growth is closely connected to the rise of the degrowth-discourse itself. Hence, this issue represents the broadest and most controversial field within the debate and is occupied by at least five different perceptions of “limits”.
- A) Among degrowth-economists, we find the conviction that the traditional growth economy is inefficient, since the costs rise faster than the achieved prosperity. In return, inequality and the concentration of wealth increase. (Piketty 2014) Apart from that, it appears to be obvious that resource-based economic growth cannot sustain itself endlessly in a world of limited natural resources. (Jackson 2011)
- B) Feminist scholars argue that economic growth is limited because it is inevitably based on the unfair exploitation of reproductive labour, for example the unpaid care-work of women for children and relatives (Duden 2011, Federici 2012). Additionally, a growth-economy establishes unequal access to resources and their distribution (Mies/Shiva 1993). Moreover, the increasing financialization of life undermines the social cohesion and does not contribute a better quality of life (Fraser 2012).
- C) Ecologists argue that economic growth is limited because it is unsustainable, which the strong causal relation between GDP and CO2 emissions confirms. Furthermore, the modus of growth does not allow a necessary dematerialization of society; therefore, the resource access is unlimited – impossible in a world of limited resources (Brand 2012). In a nutshell, this conviction refers to the critique of a topical idea among policy-makers: the decoupling of economic growth from resource use. From an ecologists’ point of view this is a dangerous illusion, because economic growth rests on consumption, which requires (material) products, transport and a production process. A closed recycling cycle as the basis of a decoupled economy would be the first successful perpetuum mobile. Thus, the ecological limits of growth cannot be evaded within the growth paradigm – decoupling does not lead to dematerialization.
- D) Besides this, economic growth is necessarily finite due to rebound-effects. This means that technical innovations can not achieve their aims to reduce resource-use, because the increased efficiency of technology also increases the total use of it and thus the total consumption of resources. If airplanes for example use fuel more efficiently, flights become cheaper and people can afford to fly more often – this causes the total amount of flights to increase and foils efficiency savings. This also accounts for other forms of resource efficiency like energy efficiency. Additionally, with the diminishing marginal utility of new goods comes the difficulty to create new markets for the ever growing economy (Altvater/Mahnkopf 2007).
- E) Finally, natural scientists broadly argue that economic growth is limited due to strict natural boundaries (Meadows et al. 1972, Altvater 1991, Rockström et al. 2009). Not only will Climate Change restrict growth – agricultural goods become much harder to produce in context of extreme weather effects – additionally peak oil, peak phosphorus, peak sand and many more will limit unrestricted economic development.
These perspectives do of course not all coexist peacefully. Even though they complement each other and often refer to one another, there is serious reciprocal critique. To give just one example, feminist scholars often criticize that the catastrophic “fife-minutes-to-midnight” atmosphere, created by natural scientists, blindly reproduces the specific gender and power relations which led to the current socio-ecological crises (Bauhardt 2009, Beck 2010). Furthermore, it is to be taken into account that not all authors perceive themselves as part of degrowth discourse, even though they might be adopted intensively by it (e.g. Rockström et al. 2009); this applies specifically to natural scientific approaches.
(3.2) degrowth as autonomy
Autonomy is issued particularly by authors like Ivan Illich (1973 ), André Gorz (1983) and Cornelius Castoriadis (1990), which are today still vividly discussed by degrowth scholars. Their argument does, in contrast to many limits-to-growth-scholars, not assume that strict external, ‘natural’ boundaries of human development exist. Limits are here understood as the results of a collective social agreement for which the ‘natural’ boundaries (e.g. CO2 level of the atmosphere, pH value of the oceans) do not offer helpful orientation. Thus, according to these authors, there is a need for a new collective self-limitation to regain autonomy over the means of adjustment to the external conditions (cf. Illich 1973 ), otherwise practical constrains will reproduce authoritarian power relations. In this analysis they conform to feminist scholars and anti-capitalist approaches.
(3.3) degrowth as re-politicization
The concern of this theme in the degrowth discourse is to use degrowth as a “missile word” in both the academic and the political context, to challenge the pseudo-consensus of sustainable development (Demaria 2014b). This attack comes from the term “sustainable development” that today advocates a priority of economic interests over ecology or social equality. Already in 1992, sustainability of economic growth meant continuous and stabile growth instead of ecological economics (Brand 2012: 28). This trend was reinforced in the past 20 years, producing concepts like green economy and green growth (critical: Wissen 2012).
Scientists and activists who want to use degrowth as a means of re-politicization therefore also call for a politicization of science, which ought to get involved against technocratic and growth-oriented politics. At this point, theoretical and practical aspects of the degrowth-discourse overlap.
(3.4) degrowth as critique of capitalism
Anti-capitalist scholars conceptualize economic growth as a capitalist imperative, used to solve social struggles over inequality with increased material wealth for everyone. From a politic-economical perspective it appears that internal economic drivers, like the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (Marx 1894 : 221), cause the necessity for unlimited economic growth. Consequently, anti-capitalist scholars understand degrowth as a sketch of another, non-capitalistic society.
Modern political economists use Marx’ works as well as the works of later Marxists in a contemporary context and find these thoughts relevant for current ecologic and economic issues. To give an example, Brand and Görg (2003) investigate the financialization of nature through patents on genetic information, which are being established with the regulations of the Convention on Biological Diversity. They conclude that such instruments – the accumulation of nature as capital in form of patents – are effects of a capitalism, that, driven by crises in the centre (e.g. collapsing real estate markets), expands into its periphery; geographical as well as economical. In doing so, new practices of capital accumulation (e.g. annuities from patents) are being implemented by new state-alike actors (e.g. TRIPS) and lead to an increased deprivation of rights of indigenous people, women and local population as well as to intensified exploitation of natural resources (Brand/Görg 2003: 72ff., 215ff.).
(3.5) degrowth as societal transformation
Finally, we can identify scientists and activists in favour of societal transition or transformation projects as part of the degrowth discourse. This understanding of degrowth is far closer to (local) social movements than to academic institutions and aims to realize concrete utopias on smaller scales, e.g. transition towns, urban gardening, foodsharing. The goal of these local initiatives is to contribute to a more “humane” society, which leads a deliberately simple life in communities without material abundance.
Such communities produce goods with a high use-value instead of high profits, they are social inclusive, participatory, they try to reduce the amount of wage work and counterbalance the lower financial income by pursuing principles of sharing, local goods exchange and communal use of goods. In doing so, the production of goods becomes decentralized, the need for new goods decreases and the consumers regain sovereignty over the means of production. Local money, basic income or maximal wages can often be found as elements of such societies which ensure fairness as well as societal participation. Thereby, the transition projects are generally formed by grassroots initiatives of local communities and thus do not depend on official legitimation or the establishment of legal frameworks. These “nowtopias” perceive themselves as a vivid exemplification of another society, as nucleoids of the future which already exist today.
Why is degrowth relevant to policy makers?
The diversity of the discussion sketched above shows that the idea of degrowth unites both natural and social scientists with – among others – economists, artists, social movements and feminist activists. Given the huge participation in the 4th International Degrowth Conference in autumn 2014, as well as the growing institutional and scientific relevance, it has become clear that degrowth is no longer a political niche phenomenon. Economic as well as ecological circumstances indicate that policy-making of the next decades will have to face ‘the growth issue’. Either activists or scientists or the plain confrontation with economical and ecological limits will put degrowth on the policy-makers’ agenda.
Apart from this, the degrowth-idea also offers considerable new opportunities for aspiring policy-makers. Being not yet established in conventional politics, it needs to be adapted to and implemented in the current policy discourses. Talking about implementation, we also have to consider that there is a significant lack of critique on degrowth, both from sciences and politics. But such critique is needed in order to harmonize the concept, which is inherently connected to the Global North with its affluent consumer societies, with the needs and concerns of people from the Global South. Additionally, many of the scholarly degrowth ideas need to be critically transmitted into political practise – a task which calls for experienced policy makers.
Here, one feature of degrowth needs to be highlighted: it is one of the few truly trans-disciplinary fields and implicates far more than just “less economic growth”. Trans-disciplinary means that the concept bridges the traditional boundaries between and within science, economy, social movements and politics. This is because degrowth is about other forms of social life, about different relationships with nature and one-another – in short: it is about moving towards a different society.
The uniting element here is the conviction that the current ways of living in the Global North need to be dematerialized. The current growth economies will in all likelihood drift into stagnation sooner rather than later, with consequences for the democratic autonomy, individual wellbeing and social peace. In this context, turning away from growth paradigms can open up new spaces of societal participation and can thus revive democracy – and what could be more fascinating than engaging in a process that shapes our common future
Daniel Buschmann graduated in Political Science and Philosophy which he studied at Leipzig University and Mykolas Romeris University, Vilnius. His main areas of interests are critical social theory, political ecology and socio-ecological transformations. Currently, he is writing his Master’s thesis in political science on “Characteristics of Hegemonic Discourses in Socio-Ecological Transformation” at the University of Vienna.
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Cover Picture: Logo of the Degrowth conference, Leipzig 2014, available here
Picture 2: by author, with reference to Frederico Demaria’s opening session of the Degrowth conference, Leipzig 2014, available here