- 1 Definition
- 2 Characteristics
- 2.1 The four basic principles of degrowth
- 2.2 Twelve lines of flight for just degrowth
- 2.2.1 1.) Our goal: Social rights – global and concrete
- 2.2.2 2.) Nature is limited and resistant
- 2.2.3 3.) Decoupling is not possible
- 2.2.4 4.) „Leur récession n’est pas notre décroissance!“
- 2.2.5 5.) …and your austerity is not our degrowth!
- 2.2.6 6.) There is no good growth, only a good life!
- 2.2.7 7.) Goodbye, Keynes – good morning Keynes and beyond…
- 2.2.8 8.) Reduce production, shorten working hours, redistribute wealth, regulate investment
- 2.2.9 9.) Beyond capitalism
- 2.2.10 10.) Buen vivir beyond tradition and modernity
- 2.2.11 11.) Trans-communalism instead of post-democracy
- 2.2.12 12.) The horizon of degrowth
- 3 Typology
- 4 Discussion 1
- 5 Discussion 2: Critiques of Degrowth
- 5.1 Replacing Degrowth with Altergrowth
- 5.2 Degrowth vs. Peer-based abundance
- 5.3 The Five Argumentative Fallacies of Degrowth
- 5.4 Problems with degrowth (New Left Review)
- 5.5 Kate Raworth's Critique
- 6 More Information
"Degrowth is a call for a radical break from traditional growth-based models of society, no matter if these models are "left" or "right", to invent new ways of living together in a true democracy, respectful of the values of equality and freedom, based on sharing and cooperation, and with sufficiently moderate consumption so as to be sustainable."
"Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions. Such societies will no longer have to “grow or die.” Material accumulation will no longer hold a prime position in the population’s cultural imaginary. The primacy of efficiency will be substituted by a focus on sufficiency, and innovation will no longer focus on technology for technology’s sake but will concentrate on new social and technical arrangements that will enable us to live convivially and frugally. Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of GDP as an overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption, a shrinking of the economic system to leave more space for human cooperation and ecosystems."
"Degrowth is frequently misunderstood, so it is worth reviewing a short piece that Yves-Marie Abraham wrote to clarify the meaning of degrowth as a economic vision." 
- This [degrowth] is not an economic depression, nor a recession, but a decline in the importance of the economy itself in our lives and our societies.
- This is not the decline of GDP, but the end of GDP and all other quantitative measures used as indicators of well being.
- This is not a decline in population size, but a questioning of humanity's self-destructive lifestyle.
- This is not a step backwards, but an invitation to step aside, out of the race in pursuit of excessiveness.
- This is not nostalgia for some golden age, but an unprecedented project to invent creative ways of living together.
- This is not degrowth imposed by the depletion of the biosphere's resources, but a voluntary degrowth, to live better here and now, preserving the conditions necessary for the long-term survival of humanity.
- This is not an end in itself, but a necessary step in the search for models depicting free societies, liberated from the dogma of growth.
- This is not a project of voluntary deprivation and impoverishment, but an attempt to find a “better life,” based on simplicity, restraint, and sharing.
- This is not “sustainable development,” but a rejection of capitalism, no matter if it is “green” or “socially just,” and no matter if it has State-run or private enterprises.
- This is not ecofascism, but a call for a democratic revolution to end our productivist-consumerist model of society.
- This is not voluntary simplicity, but a revolutionary political project that implies the adoption of the principles of voluntary simplicity on the individual level.
- This is not is not an "anti-modern" movement, but a "neo-modern" movement, based on respect for the values of freedom and equality."
The four basic principles of degrowth
Vincent Liegey & Anitra Nelson:
"But what is degrowth? Fundamentally it is a movement of activists riding on the ideas of theorists such as André Gorz, Ivan Illich, Serge Latouche, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin — a movement committed to forging a world in which we respect Earth’s limits and become more fully human. In this article, we introduce degrowth by unpacking four key terms developed and used within the movement: ‘frugal abundance’, ‘decolonising of the (growth) imaginary’, ‘conviviality’ and ‘open relocalisation’.
Vincent Liegey & Anitra Nelson:
"The Covid-19 pandemic is already introducing people to the notion and practice of ‘frugal abundance’. Across the world, people and governments are asking: ‘what is really essential?’, ‘what really matters?’ and ‘how might we most easily satisfy our basic needs?’ This pandemic has highlighted the failures and weaknesses of capitalist economies harnessed to profit and growth, where production via long supply chains rupture, leading to unmet demand and widespread uncertainty and anxiety.
In contrast, ‘frugal abundance’ is a key goal and characteristic of degrowth economies specifically oriented to ensuring that all basic needs — food, clothing, housing and health —are securely met. The only abundance for degrowth activists is frugal, reversing the overconsumption and poverty of capitalist growth economies. Through economies of solidarity oriented around collective sufficiency in localised production and exchange, degrowth economies aim to meet every single person’s basic needs. This means that the first principle of degrowth reduction is a reduction in inequality." (https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/the-four-principles-of-degrowth/?)
Decolonising of the (growth) imaginary
Degrowth is a provocation that questions growth economies’ contradictory focus on quantity and scarcity to orient our economies, instead, to enhance our quality of life. Degrowth practices focus on achieving the real abundance that results from solidarity and working with nature. This is achieved through respecting Earth’s limits and engaging in its regeneration. Degrowth culture seeks a personal and society-wide ‘decolonisation’ of the omnipotent and multi-pronged growth ‘imaginary’.
In contrast to the false security sought through ‘bigger, better and faster’, degrowth nurtures a transformative culture of minimalism, of slowing down and valuing diverse human and ecological qualities and the perpetually cyclical dynamics of life. That is why the snail is a symbol of degrowth. In the process imperial, expansive and exploitative managerial and hierarchical drives wither under horizontalist approaches applied to collective governance, collective reliance and collective autonomy.
Vincent Liegey & Anitra Nelson:
"The term ‘conviviality’ has a broad and deep connotation in degrowth. It functions in both social and technical dimensions. In Tools for Conviviality (1973), Ivan Illich applies a cooperative, mutual and sociable approach in the technical sphere to refer to societies where citizens are not just experts and technocrats. Instead, he evaluates technologies for development on the basis of serving the common good.
Illich showed how capitalist technologies can be inefficient by breaching a ‘counter-productivity threshold’. In Exploring Degrowth we discuss his holistic cost-benefit calculations of the average ‘speed’ of a car. Taking a step back from the normal calculations of how long it takes to walk, cycle or drive between two points, Illich took into account the number of hours one might need to work to purchase and operate a car, the costs of the public infrastructure required for driving a car, and the ecological and social costs of dealing with the waste of ‘dead’ cars as well as injuries and deaths caused by car accidents.
This sophisticated approach to assessing the time that a car ‘saves’ showed it falling far short of a seemingly powerful device that travels 100 kph, to a device that actually achieves an average speed of 5 kph. In short, Illich’s calculations indicated that it is as quick to go on foot and even quicker to cycle. Therefore the conviviality of degrowth not only refers to enjoying other people’s company in deep and holistic ways but also applies the same approach to tools, so we surround ourselves with convivial tools rather than with the relatively useless devices that pour out of factories to be advertised and sold as commodities." (https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/the-four-principles-of-degrowth/?)
Vincent Liegey & Anitra Nelson:
"The degrowth approach to the economy is also characterised by ‘open relocalisation’, which is a three-pronged — economic, political and cultural — strategy. Beyond localising production and distributing the collective product, and sharing the knowledge and skills required for low-tech and ethical local decision-making within a polity of direct democracy, open relocalisation calls for ‘glocalisation’.
In short, glocalisation is the reverse of globalisation, as it favours celebrating diverse cultures and environments to enrich life and biodiversity. In doing so, open relocalisation acts as a strong countervailing force against the reactionary protectionism of capitalism’s closed borders and cultural suspicion." (https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/the-four-principles-of-degrowth/?)
Twelve lines of flight for just degrowth
From Attac Germany :
1.) Our goal: Social rights – global and concrete
What is our goal in criticising growth, and why do we think it necessary in principle to sketch lines of flight for a degrowth economy at this juncture? Our goal is to establish social rights globally, such that a good life is possible for everybody. Our alternative of a just degrowth economy is not simply focused on an abstract “survival of humanity” or “saving nature,” as are many varieties of growth criticism. This kind of perspective is in danger of obscuring the concrete social rights of individuals and groups. Instead, it aims at meeting the demand for social justice and equality in the here and now, and in the future. Just as in the past when the English farmers were driven from the commons by the landed aristocracy, the social question cannot be considered separately from the ecological – despite the fact that this has been done frequently in the past. After a period in which transnational corporations have seized more and more natural resources, and in view of the worldwide escalation of the biocrisis (that is: the climate crisis, peak oil, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, etc.), which dramatically threatens the survival of hundreds of millions of people, (global) justice can only mean socio-ecological justice. A central coordinate pointing in that direction is the just degrowth economy.
2.) Nature is limited and resistant
Unlimited growth on a finite planet is impossible. Neoclassical economists block out the existence of nature and its resistance. Matter, space and time, as dimensions of what we call reality, do not appear in their textbooks. Nature appears only in the form of resources, which when scarce can be substituted for by the increased investment of capital. Yet production and reproduction are fundamentally based on nature: the planet provides services (clean air, farmland, etc.), and raw materials are extracted from it and transformed. Nature has limits, and they can only be insufficiently compensated for by capital. Of course, it would be possible to calculate the costs of using artificial pollination machines for an orchard in California, but when there are no more bees, then we are in serious trouble.
The global biocrisis, above all the climate crisis, and the fact that the production peak of petroleum (Peak Oil) will soon be reached, place external limits on growth. The connection between the exploitation of highly concentrated fossil energy sources and the capitalist system of growth makes Peak Oil (prognoses range from 2005 to 2020) an especially critical phenomenon – the question is simply how to respond: chaotically and violently, or with democratic planning and cooperation. Deadly weather extremes and resource wars cast longs shadows ahead. This will not improve conditions for social struggles worldwide.
3.) Decoupling is not possible
The past few years have seen a renaissance in concepts of “sustainable” or “green” growth, a Green New Deal and other variations of “green” capitalism. Think tanks develop new concepts, with which politicians try to create new majorities. Common to all of these programmatic approaches is the notion that a comprehensive decoupling of economic growth from resource use and environmental destruction is possible. Technological innovations, renewable energies, increases in resource-use efficiency and the “green” service sector society – the proclaimed goals of dematerialized growth – would make it possible for the gross domestic product to continue to grow, while at the same time less and less fossil energy and other limited resources are used. This kind of decoupling – to the absolute degree that would be necessary – is an illusion. The necessity for reducing CO2 emissions in the advanced industrial countries of the North, while simultaneously maintaining their economic growth, necessitates increases in resource efficiency and technological developments that are beyond what is technically and politically possible. This is true also in view of the manner in which our economy functions, the historical evidence of the falling rate of innovation and the failure of decoupling strategies up until now. Hence, growing out of the biocrisis is not a viable option. Moreover, shrinking the economy to a healthy level in the North is also necessary because the poorer regions in the South must be given options for development and growth in the mid-term future.
4.) „Leur récession n’est pas notre décroissance!“
…was a slogan during the protests against the crisis in 2009 in France (“Their recession is not our degrowth!”). Because one thing is clear: Our idea of a degrowth economy is not to shrink the economies within the existing economic and social structures and distributory relations – this would lead to massive social cutbacks, poverty and other symptoms of capitalist crisis, such as we are currently experiencing. Within the existing growth-dependent structures, shrinking the economy means that increases in productivity cannot be compensated for by growth, and consequently unemployment increases rapidly. Demand decreases, the crisis intensifies, the recession is accompanied by deflation. At the same time publicly administered tax revenues decrease, social security systems come under pressure, and debt explodes. Both lead to a dangerous spiral of recession and pauperisation. In growth-dependent capitalism the following holds: shrinkage = recession = social crisis.
5.) …and your austerity is not our degrowth!
The transformation to a just degrowth economy demands struggling for a new economic grammar, one that would make social justice and a good life for people all over the world possible in the first place. It would lead consequently to a reduction of the GDP. However, focusing solely on the imperative to shrink is reductionist and dangerous. This is made evident by neo-liberal and conservative or neo-feudalistic varieties of growth criticism, especially in the Federal Republic of Germany, which, with their ecologically motivated arguments join the reactionary chorus of: “We have lived beyond our means,” or: “We have to tighten our belts,” and turn criticism of growth into a lever for justifying austerity and cuts in social services. In opposition to this, the concept of a solidarity-based degrowth economy of décroissance aims at a democratically negotiated reduction of production and consumption in order to enable social rights for everyone, globally, now and in the future.
6.) There is no good growth, only a good life!
Degrowth is not aimed at abstract and utopian speculation about a society that emerges after capitalism, rather it aims at recognizing often unseen socio-economic and ecological dynamics, and the corresponding reorientation of emancipatory strategies. Governments and transnational corporations are opposed to this. Yet the same is true of those who agitate against the current crisis with the slogan “No cuts, more growth”, like the bureaucrats of the European Federation of Trade Unions. Despite the necessity for pushing back against social cuts, they fall into the illusion that social problems can be solved by more growth. For decades the growth rates of the industrial countries have been declining, a process which has its causes not only in the limits to growth (increasing cost of resources, destruction of the climate, etc.), but also in the internal barriers of capitalistic development (relative saturation of demand). Growth alone has not been enough to alleviate structural unemployment effectively (jobless growth) for a long time; nor does growth increase public welfare; and the rising tide does not lift all boats. Peak Oil is also a serious challenge to the growth strategies of the traditional left. Wars fought to secure raw materials, catastrophic deep-sea drilling and millions of refugees are an integral part of the fossilistic growth model. Growth is opposed to the goal of global social rights. Because what grows are abstract exchange values and accumulation opportunities for the few, which make a good life for everyone impossible.
7.) Goodbye, Keynes – good morning Keynes and beyond…
Keynesian policy-making failed in the 1970/80s when it was no longer able to satisfy the requirements for returns on capital. In short: the Keynesian growth model reached its limits. The answer was the neo-liberal counter-revolution, as Milton Friedman, its mastermind, called it. In the meantime, the neo-liberal growth model of finance capitalism is also in a crisis. In view of the failure of Keynesianism – above all in the global context – and the apparent ecological limits, hopes for a new Keynesian phase, an eco-Keynesian growth program beyond neo-liberal finance-market capitalism, miss the mark. Many concepts discussed by the emancipatory Left – even Keynesian – are still important, especially those aimed at reducing social injustice and exploitation: radical redistribution, shortening of working hours, economic democracy and control of capital and investment. It is necessary to re-conceptualize these in connection with ideas that go further, such as (re)appropriating common goods, deglobalisation, new forms of work, food sovereignty and energy democracy, under the guiding principles of an economy that does not grow, but shrinks to a point of stabilisation. So it is necessary to discover the hidden Keynes, the theoretician of stagnation, who sketched a society freed from the compulsion to work and the profit motive. In the end we have to pass through and go beyond Keynes, in order to arrive at our just degrowth economy.
8.) Reduce production, shorten working hours, redistribute wealth, regulate investment
Degrowth means a break with the superficial, positive-sum game logic of distributory policy making and the illusion of an economy based on scarcity, one in which there is only redistribution when the economy grows. Not only has “trickle-down” failed radically; growth actually contributes to the production of underdevelopment and the increasing inequality of distribution. Yet there is enough for all. Wealth must be distributed equitably, and not grow further. For this to happen, we not only need a minimum income, but also a maximum income, as the French décroissance movement demands.
Degrowth also says goodbye to the illusion of a growth-based full-employment society. For a long time, the real rates of growth have not been sufficient to integrate the work force, set free by increases in productivity and commoditisation, back into the labour market. The alternative to making large sections of society poorer and “obsolete” is to shorten the working hours for everyone. In addition, reducing the absolute number of hours performed in wage-labour is actually necessary for a long-term reduction of the GNP. 20 hours are enough – for a start! And don’t forget: there is a life beyond working for wages, in which – as feminist economists always stress – much of the necessary work (re)producing society is performed. And this also has to be distributed – to everyone.
The reduction of working hours is sand in the gears of the growth economy and it creates necessary strategic latitude, but that alone is not enough. In the end, additional massive “rationalisation” would be the answer of corporations, and their imperative to make profits, to grow, would not be dislodged. New forms of demonetised transaction, a just solidarity-economy and the cultivation/management of commons are crucial. At the same time it is necessary to intervene in the actually existing finance capitalism, to control investment democratically and turn it around – away from fossil high-growth sectors to the “care economy”, use-value oriented grass-roots services and social-ecological reorganisation. And instead of servicing (public) debt, we struggle for debt cancellation. Drop the debt! 
9.) Beyond capitalism
All those who seriously attempt to go beyond a criticism of growth and strive for degrowing the economy face enormous challenges, because it is a matter of fundamental social transformation, one which takes hold at the roots. Plausible technocratic concepts for a degrowth economy, as well as exemplary islands of projects of a solidarity-based economy are essential – but they are not enough if the accumulation process of capitalism continues. Growth is driven by the blind self-realisation of capital: Money is invested in production in order to earn more money, which requires an increase in the production of value. So degrowth means that the self-valorisation opportunities of capital decrease and the fictitious asset claims, inflated by the financial markets, cannot be realised. In addition, in order to arrive at a just and ecological economy, many production facilities – above all in the fossil sectors – must be shut down in the course of a transformation to a degrowth economy (disinvestment). Both mean the destruction of capital. There is no way around this central core of political economy if global social rights are to be realised, and thus no way around the question of power. The problem: the neo-liberal project of globalisation, with its liberalisation of markets (WTO, IMF), privatisation, de-regulation and attacks on collective social agents, has increased the power of transnationally active capital enormously. FAQ: what constellation of social agents, with what interests, means and strategies has the will and ability to establish a just degrowth economy and the necessary de-commodification and de-monetisation of the (re)production sectors?
10.) Buen vivir beyond tradition and modernity
The idea of eternal growth, tied to the idea of homo economicus, is an integral component of the concept of modernity. It is time to abandon this notion here and now. But the good news is: “We never were modern!”, as Bruno Latour discovered and Donna Haraway confirmed. Nor are we the “dromomaniacs” (speed fanatics) as we have been called by the French urbanist Paul Virilio. But even if we abandon growth – farewell, farewell! – we will continue to claim the modern concepts of human rights and democracy, which have been the fruits of struggles for emancipation. Degrowth does not mean abandoning the idea of the possibility for progress – instead it means liberating the idea of progress from the belief in piling up goods and economic growth. Thus, degrowth does not mean returning to tradition, to the stone age, or giving in to an anything-goes post-modernism. Degrowth takes seriously the post-colonial situation and the multi-polar constellation caused by the ascendancy of newly industrialising countries – and thus the question of global justice and equality. The concrete utopia of the good life (buen vivir) in an egalitarian society without growth constitutes a new point of orientation beyond tradition and modernity. The idea of a just degrowth economy reopens the horizon of opportunity beyond the dominance of ruling economic conceptions and imperatives. It is a matter of de-colonizing the imagination, of the de-mystification of fetishised conceptions such as economic growth, progress, wage labour, efficiency and GNP. Preguntando caminamos…
11.) Trans-communalism instead of post-democracy
Democracy has been suffering severe attacks through the neo-liberal rollbacks since the 1970/80s. At the latest with the emergency conditions of the world economic crisis and the massive bailout packages put together overnight for the banks we have arrived at a post-democracy. The social impact of the crisis and the social consequences of the biocrisis increase the pressure on democratic structures. Therefore, a just degrowth economy requires new democratic institutions, a reconstitution of local and national democracy. European democracy and a global democracy are still a long way off. Therefore the restructuring of production aims for deglobalisation, a new articulation of the local level with the national and global on the basis of new democratic procedures. Among these are the control of financial markets, and especially investments. We will not fall into the trap of shortsighted localism. Nor that of racist chauvinism in view of the streams of migrants and the projected nine billion people living on this planet. Instead, it is necessary to invent democratic trans-communal strategies.
12.) The horizon of degrowth
Defensive battles against the politics of austerity will impact the second phase of the crisis, which began in the Euro zone. These struggles against social cuts are and will continue to be defensive. An offensive project that actually points beyond (neo-liberal, finance-market driven) capitalism is not yet evident. But we need a new horizon in order to focus our energies. One of the guiding points (directions) which mark this new horizon is the (solidarity-based) degrowth economy.
The altermondialiste or “global justice” movements (comprising trade unions, political groups, networks and organisations) with their anti-neo-liberal position played an important part in reconstituting the social question after the long years of the neo-liberal “pensé unique” of the 90s. Around 2007/08 – symbolized by the founding of Climate Justice Now! at the climate summit in Bali, the first degrowth conference in Paris, and most of all by the indigenous movements at the World Social Forum in Belem, etc. – the reconstitution of the field of critical political ecology, environmental and climate justice began.
It appears imperative to us that ecological justice becomes an integral component of a potential second cycle of the “global justice” movement. The degrowth horizon links the social and ecological questions (of distribution), it connects micro-practices with macro-economic concepts and joins trans-communally the local with the national and the global level. The just degrowth economy is a perspective for an offensive movement that connects the old and the completely new in a coming horizon."
The Spectrum of Degrowth Perspectives
"This does not mean that absolutely all “post growth” or “degrowth” thinkers share the same values and understandings of what needs to be done. There is a spectrum that spans from the political right across to the left and includes feminist economic thinkers. Matthias Schmeltzer, an economic and political historian at the University of Geneva, and one of the organisers of the September 2014 Leipzig Degrowth Conference, describes 5 different schools of thought to be found among Degrowth thinkers in the German speaking world.
(Reference. Schmeltzer, Matthias 2014 “Gutes Leben statt Wachstum” Atlas der Globalisierung/ Le Monde Diplomatique Supplement: Der Postwachstumsatlas pp 16-21)
One of the trends is politically and socially conservative. The thinkers in this group acknowledges that growth is coming up against natural and social limits and diagnose the problem as citizens and states living beyond their means – driven by consumption, the expenditures of the welfare state, debt, greed and decadence. For these thinkers contraction is unavoidable and will need to be brought about by a change in personal values in the form of more personal responsibility, a strengthening of the patriarchal family to take on more responsibilities, self denial and a reduction in what they see as the burden being carried by the welfare state.
Over and against this is a feminist economic perspective. It has not been explicitly developed as a contribution to the degrowth debate but has become an important source of inspiration. For the feminist thinkers the growth economy exploits and impoverishes the “subsistence activities” of the household, the societies of the global south and nature. This endangers future reproduction – in favour of growing production. The future of humanity and nature presupposes and requires reproduction yet the capital accumulation process, the separation of paid and unpaid work, has come to devalue the reproductive activities mostly carried out by women. The solution to this is a process of de-commercialisation, re-developing commons based shared activities and resources and the development of non hierarchical local structures. It is a perspective and strategy that matches well the redevelopment of local cultivation and food sources, the redevelopment of the local economy and particularly non monetised activities.
Other approaches to Degrowth include social reformist; sufficiency orientated; and anti capitalist approaches.
What Schmeltzer characterises as the Social Reformist School diagnoses the problems as arising because politics is fixated on growth - driven by economic sectors, institutions and structures that have become dependent on it. Actually it would be better to describe some of the people in this group, not as advocates of “Degrowth” but as proponents of “A-Growth” . This term is intended to mean a style of politics that is indifference to growth, a kind of “Growth Atheism” since GDP per capita is in any case a useless measure of social welfare.
(Reference: van den Bergh, Jeroen CJM – “Environment versus growth – A criticism of “Degrowth” and a plea for “A-Growth”, Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 5, 15th March 2011, pages 881-890
Politicians and actors from civil society must bring about the end of the growth dogma and disentangle economic and institutional structures (like the social security system) from growth in the direction of sustainable kind of liberalism. It will be achieved by ecological taxation, policies to promote sufficiency, civic insurance systems, sustainable consumption and the development of alternative welfare indicators.
The Sufficiency School of Degrowth goes further. For the Sufficiency School it is impossible to adequately decouple resource use from growth. One consequence is that that overconsumption in the global north is taking place at the cost of the global south from which a large proportion of the material resources are extracted. The problem of growth and resource use is driven by the need to have a rising income in order pay interest on loans. It is further attributable to the volume of resources needed to sustain long distance large scale production chains. This Sufficiency School thus not only proposes a sufficiency rather than a consumerist approach in life, it also argues for the need to re-develop more local and small scale forms of self production. People must become “pro-sumers” – i.e. producers of what they themselves consume. To make this possible there is a need for land and financial reform, reform of work time and the extension of subsistence and regional economies.
The sufficiency approach has many similarities to that of the “Transition Movement” – an international network of groups that has come together to try to prepare local communities with information and practical projects for a future of “energy descent”. The movement tends to avoid explicit political engagement and favours communities making their own initiatives like community gardens without waiting for politicians to wake up to the gravity of the crisis.
(Reference: "What does Transition Network do?" Website:
Finally there is the Degrowth of Capitalist Critics. Their argument is that capitalist growth causes multiple crises and that the “imperial lifestyle” in the global north is at the cost of the global south (for example the climate change impacts). To the critics of capitalism the drivers of growth are to be found in the property and power relationships including the processes of privatisation. The necessary counter politics involves the promotion of the commons, the promotion of the solidarity economy, climate justice and more democracy in economy and state.
Rather than advocating a top-down centralised form of socialist planned economy people with this perspective tend to promote networked bottom-upwards forms of development. They see a place for exemplary projects at the same time as advocating political and trade union strategies for more economic democracy, state regulation and guided investment, reduction in working time, proposals for a basic citizens income on the one hand and maximum income limits on the other.
In summary new styles and understandings of politics and economics are emerging. There is variety and difference but, over a wide spectrum, the differences are best thought of as a healthy diversity. The diversity between the left and the greens can give rise to complementary relationships rather than being sources of deep division and antagonism."
"Shaping New Utopias – or making the best in a difficult and highly uncertain time?
For all of that it seems to me that an important issue hangs over this movement – how much are we in the business of designing and shaping the future, using the current crisis to re-envisage new kinds of “concrete Utopias” – and how much are we in the business of preparing to cope with a very difficult and chaotic time where involuntary Degrowth happens anyway, opening up a Pandora’s Box of problems so that we need practical and political tools to get through them. Are we in the business of advocating a voluntary process of degrowth by design – or are we developing the ideas for surviving an involuntary and very challenging process that will happen anyway – and containing quite a few unpleasant surprises?
There is, as yet, too much that is unknown and that we cannot know. The current world economic situation is above all characterised by “strong uncertainty”. A highly complex society can disintegrate in many different ways that are unpredictable. I can, for example, write a book to attempt to describe a host of problems only to witness a type of disintegration not so far described in this book at all – for example brought about by an unstoppable Ebola epidemic which paralyses physical and financial infrastructures and global trade. Or perhaps we will witness chaos brought about by political turmoil and war caused by the miscalculations of politicians in a horrific future that is completely unexpected. That happened before – in 1914. I can advocate an open source society based on knowledge commons only to witness a disintegration of the internet because of a shortage of essential materials – or see the internet make possible a host of marvellous products for countries in the global south and then witness this internet using so much carbon energy that it helps tip humanity into runaway climate change.
Just as hottest months are after mid-summer because warmth accumulates and there is a lag so, perhaps, techno-optimism is at its height when decline has already started. At a time like this it is possible to see the problems ahead but they are still seen in the rosy glow, with a bright confidence that they can be fixed. It is even possible to imagine that these problems are a new opportunity to re-launch the utopian visions whose earlier versions failed.
Yet we should always take into account that our visions of the future are bound to be flawed by the limitations of what we know. All that we know, even if we go to university and think we know a great deal, is very limited indeed and the world in a short time will seem very different from what we expected it to be. The greatest challenge for all political and economic visionaries is that the world will inevitably evolve differently from what we expect because of processes and issues that we could not know about in advance. This is true even though we are obliged to try to anticipate the problems of the future in order, if possible, to forestall them, and, if not, to cope and do as best we can with them."
(email, october 2014)
The Emergence of the Degrowth Movement
John Bellamy Foster:
"Almost four decades after the Club of Rome raised the issue of ‘the limits to growth’, the economic growth idol of modern society is again facing a formidable challenge. What is known as ‘degrowth economics’, associated with the work of Serge Latouche in particular, emerged as a major European intellectual movement with the historic conference on ‘economic de-growth for ecological sustainability and social equity’ in Paris in 2008, and has since inspired a revival of radical green thought, as epitomised by the ‘Degrowth Declaration’ in Barcelona in 2010.
Ironically, the meteoric rise of degrowth (décroissance in French) as a concept has coincided over the last three years with the reappearance of economic crisis and stagnation on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The degrowth concept therefore forces us to confront the question of whether degrowth is feasible in a capitalist grow-or-die society – and if not, what it says about the transition to a new society.
According to the website of the European degrowth project (www.degrowth.eu), ‘Degrowth carries the idea of a voluntary reduction of the size of the economic system, which implies a reduction of the GDP.’ ‘Voluntary’ here points to the emphasis on voluntaristic solutions – though not as individualistic and unplanned in the European conception as the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement in the US, where individuals (usually well-to-do) simply choose to opt out of the high-consumption market model. For Latouche the concept of degrowth signifies a major social change: a radical shift from growth as the main objective of the modern economy, towards its opposite (contraction, downshifting).
Degrowth as such is not viewed, even by its proponents, as a stable solution, but one aimed at reducing the size of the economy to a level of output that can be maintained at a steady-state perpetually. This might mean shrinking the rich economies by as much a third from today’s levels by a process that would amount to negative investment (since not only would net investment cease but also not all worn-out capital stock would be replaced).
A steady-state economy, in contrast, would carry out replacement investment but would stop short of new net investment. As Daly defines it ‘a steady-state economy’ is ‘an economy with constant stocks of people and artefacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance “throughput” – that, is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy’."
Degrowth and Capitalism
John Bellamy Foster:
"What is known as “degrowth economics,” associated with the work of Serge Latouche in particular, emerged as a major European intellectual movement in 2008 with the historic conference in Paris on “Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity,” and has since inspired a revival of radical Green thought, as epitomized by the 2010 “Degrowth Declaration” in Barcelona.
Ironically, the meteoric rise of degrowth (décroissance in French) as a concept has coincided over the last three years with the reappearance of economic crisis and stagnation on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The degrowth concept therefore forces us to confront the questions: Is degrowth feasible in a capitalist grow-or-die society—and if not, what does this say about the transition to a new society?
According to the Web site of the European degrowth project, “degrowth carries the idea of a voluntary reduction of the size of the economic system which implies a reduction of the GDP.”4 “Voluntary” here points to the emphasis on voluntaristic solutions—though not as individualistic and unplanned in the European conception as the “voluntary simplicity” movement in the United States, where individuals (usually well-to-do) simply choose to opt out of the high-consumption market model. For Latouche, the concept of “degrowth” signifies a major social change: a radical shift from growth as the main objective of the modern economy, toward its opposite (contraction, downshifting).
An underlying premise of this movement is that, in the face of a planetary ecological emergency, the promise of green technology has proven false. This can be attributed to the Jevons Paradox, according to which greater efficiency in the use of energy and resources leads not to conservation but to greater economic growth, and hence more pressure on the environment.5 The unavoidable conclusion—associated with a wide variety of political-economic and environmental thinkers, not just those connected directly to the European degrowth project—is that there needs to be a drastic alteration in the economic trends operative since the Industrial Revolution. As Marxist economist Paul Sweezy put it more than two decades ago: “Since there is no way to increase the capacity of the environment to bear the [economic and population] burdens placed on it, it follows that the adjustment must come entirely from the other side of the equation. And since the disequilibrium has already reached dangerous proportions, it also follows that what is essential for success is a reversal, not merely a slowing down, of the underlying trends of the last few centuries.”6
Given that wealthy countries are already characterized by ecological overshoot, it is becoming more and more apparent that there is indeed no alternative, as Sweezy emphasized, but a reversal in the demands placed on the environment by the economy. This is consistent with the argument of ecological economist Herman Daly, who has long insisted on the need for a steady-state economy. Daly traces this perspective to John Stuart Mill’s famous discussion of the “stationary state” in his Principles of Political Economy, which argued that if economic expansion was to level off (as the classical economists expected), the economic goal of society could then shift to the qualitative aspects of existence, rather than mere quantitative expansion.
A century after Mill, Lewis Mumford insisted in his Condition of Man, first published in 1944, that not only was a stationary state in Mill’s sense ecologically necessary, but that it should also be linked to a concept of “basic communism…[that] applies to the whole community the standards of the household,” distributing “benefits according to need” (a view that drew upon Marx).
Today this recognition of the need to bring economic growth in overdeveloped economies to a halt, and even to shrink these economies, is seen as rooted theoretically in Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, which established the basis of modern ecological economics.7
Degrowth as such is not viewed, even by its proponents, as a stable solution, but one aimed at reducing the size of the economy to a level of output that can be maintained perpetually at a steady-state. This might mean shrinking the rich economies by as much as a third from today’s levels by a process that would amount to negative investment (since not only would new net investment cease but also only some, not all, worn-out capital stock would be replaced). A steady-state economy, in contrast, would carry out replacement investment but would stop short of new net investment. As Daly defines it, “a steady-state economy” is “an economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance ‘throughput,’ that is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy.”8
Needless to say, none of this would come easily, given today’s capitalist economy. In particular, Latouche’s work, which can be viewed as exemplary of the European degrowth project, is beset with contradictions, resulting not from the concept of degrowth per se, but from his attempt to skirt the question of capitalism."
"Latouche tries to draw a distinction between the degrowth project and the socialist critique of capitalism by: (1) declaring that “eco-compatible capitalism is conceivable” at least in theory; (2) suggesting that Keynesian and so-called “Fordist” approaches to regulation, associated with social democracy, could—if still feasible—tame capitalism, pushing it down “the virtuous path of eco-capitalism”; and (3) insisting that degrowth is not aimed at breaking the dialectic of capital-wage labor or interfering with private ownership of the means of production. In other writings, Latouche makes it clear that he sees the degrowth project as compatible with continued valorization (i.e., augmentation of capitalist value relations) and that anything approaching substantive equality is considered beyond reach.
What Latouche advocates most explicitly in relation to the environmental problem is the adoption of what he refers to as “reformist measures, whose principles [of welfare economics] were outlined in the early 20th century by the liberal economist Arthur Cecil Pigou [and] would bring about a revolution” by internalizing the environmental externalities of the capitalist economy.11 Ironically, this stance is identical with that of neoclassical environmental economics—while distinguished from the more radical critique often promoted by ecological economics, where the notion that environmental costs can simply be internalized within the present-day capitalist economy is sharply attacked."
"The notion that degrowth as a concept can be applied in essentially the same way both to the wealthy countries of the center and the poor countries of the periphery represents a category mistake resulting from the crude imposition of an abstraction (degrowth) on a context in which it is essentially meaningless, e.g., Haiti, Mali, or even, in many ways, India. The real problem in the global periphery is overcoming imperial linkages, transforming the existing mode of production, and creating sustainable-egalitarian productive possibilities. It is clear that many countries in the South with very low per capita incomes cannot afford degrowth but could use a kind of sustainable development, directed at real needs such as access to water, food, health care, education, etc. This requires a radical shift in social structure away from the relations of production of capitalism/imperialism. It is telling that in Latouche’s widely circulated articles there is virtually no mention of those countries, such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, where concrete struggles are being waged to shift social priorities from profit to social needs. Cuba, as the Living Planet Report has indicated, is the only country on Earth with high human development and a sustainable ecological footprint.20
It is undeniable today that economic growth is the main driver of planetary ecological degradation. But to pin one’s whole analysis on overturning an abstract “growth society” is to lose all historical perspective and discard centuries of social science. As valuable as the degrowth concept is in an ecological sense, it can only take on genuine meaning as part of a critique of capital accumulation and part of the transition to a sustainable, egalitarian, communal order; one in which the associated producers govern the metabolic relation between nature and society in the interest of successive generations and the earth itself (socialism/communism as Marx defined it).21 What is needed is a “co-revolutionary movement,” to adopt David Harvey’s pregnant term, that will bring together the traditional working-class critique of capital, the critique of imperialism, the critiques of patriarchy and racism, and the critique of ecologically destructive growth (along with their respective mass movements).
In the generalized crisis of our times, such an overarching, co-revolutionary movement is conceivable. Here, the object would be the creation of a new order in which the valorization of capital would no longer govern society. “Socialism is useful,” E.F. Schumacher wrote in Small is Beautiful, precisely because of “the possibility it creates for the overcoming of the religion of economics,” that is, “the modern trend towards total quantification at the expense of the appreciation of qualitative differences.”
In a sustainable order, people in the wealthier economies (especially those in the upper income strata) would have to learn to live on “less” in commodity terms in order to lower per capita demands on the environment. At the same time, the satisfaction of genuine human needs and the requirements of ecological sustainability could become the constitutive principles of a new, more communal order aimed at human reciprocity, allowing for qualitative improvement, even plenitude.24 Such a strategy—not dominated by blind productivism—is consistent with providing people with worthwhile work. The ecological struggle, understood in these terms, must aim not merely for degrowth in the abstract but more concretely for deaccumulation—a transition away from a system geared to the accumulation of capital without end. In its place we need to construct a new co-revolutionary society, dedicated to the common needs of humanity and the earth."
( http://monthlyreview.org/110101foster.php )
John Bellamy Foster:
"Given that wealthy countries are already characterised by ecological overshoot, it is becoming more and more apparent there is indeed no alternative, as Sweezy emphasised, to a reversal in the demands placed on the environment by the economy. This is consistent with the argument of ecological economist Herman Daly, who has long insisted on the need for a steady-state economy. Daly traces this perspective to John Stuart Mill’s famous discussion of the ‘stationary state’ in his Principles of Political Economy, which argued that if economic expansion was to level off (as the classical economists expected), the economic goal of society could then be shifted to the qualitative aspects of existence, rather than mere quantitative expansion.
A century after Mill, Lewis Mumford insisted in his Condition of Man, first published in 1944, that not only was a stationary state in Mill’s sense ecologically necessary, but that it should be linked to a concept of ‘basic communism . . . applying to the whole community the standards of the household’ and distributing ‘benefits according to need’ (a view that drew upon Marx).
Today this recognition of the need to bring economic growth in the overdeveloped economies to a halt, and even to shrink these economies, is seen as rooted theoretically in Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, which established the basis of modern ecological economics.
What is known as ‘degrowth economics’, associated with the work of Serge Latouche in particular, emerged as a major European intellectual movement with the historic conference on ‘economic de-growth for ecological sustainability and social equity’ in Paris in 2008, and has since inspired a revival of radical green thought, as epitomised by the ‘Degrowth Declaration’ in Barcelona in 2010."
Discussion 2: Critiques of Degrowth
Replacing Degrowth with Altergrowth
"t I was thinking a bit about degrowth and what it implies. This might have been discussed to death other places, or on this list before I joined it, but I'll post it anyway. This isn't a deep analysis, it's just some random thougths I got after reading this list and related things. While it seems rather clear that it is impossible to do anything about climate change or resource depletion without a degrowth strategy, degrowth doesn't sound like the recipe you'd expect in the face of an economic crisis. Saying "you need to consume less" to someone who just lost their job... that's not how you win their hearts and minds, but that's what degrowth sounds like. Wouldn't it be better to talk about a positive counterstrategy. We're taugth to think that "growth is good", arguing against that is difficult. People want "growth", because growth is what puts food one the table (as we do grow food). Also degrowth says a lot about what we're against, but not so much about what we want. It is kind of similar to the semantic discussion about the "anti-globalisation" movement. A global movement against globalisation was kind of counter-intuitive, so we started to talk about "alter-globalisation" instead. So one could change from the anti-growth "degrowth" to the more positive "alter-growth"? Altergrowth implies that the current growth regime isn't working, but that it is possible to develop alternatives. Of course, to some degrowth'ers it might be bad to talk about growth as anything good at all (?), but I think it is difficult to challenge capitalism if we don't plan to transcend it. We can't create any post-capitalist world without changing our whole system of production. A post-capitalist world must be something more than a return to "simpler ways of living" which is what we get with a post-apocalyptic world. Struggles against capitalism must aim for more than destroying the institutions of capitalism, it must create new institutions that are better. If the new institutions aren't better, why replace the ones we have. Communism and socialism was popular in the 20th century because it promised something better than capitalism, capitalism (the West) won against the communists (the East) because it delivered something better. An anti-capitalist strategy must go beyond capitalism on the level of production, not only oppose it with idealism and promises of utopias. New institutions need to grow economically/socially/politically/ecologically if they are to replace capitalism, (i.e. "seeds need to grow") hence altergrowth. While degrowth/altergrowth may imply alot of things, I think that one important aspect of an anti-capitalist strategy is commonism (http://turbulence.org.uk/turbulence-1/commonism/). The commons as an alternative to both markets and state opens the way for actual new institutions of production that go beyond capitalism, in other words altergrowth is common growth. I think talking about common growth opens up some spaces strategically and tactically. At least it allows us to say "we'll manage if we stick together; come on lets build something new" to someone who just lost their job. All slogans and semantics so far, but do anyone have any thoughts about this? Is this reinventing the wheel, or does a semantic change allow for better tactics and strategies?"
Degrowth vs. Peer-based abundance
1. A critique of the degrowth movement from Las Indias' and David de Ugarte:
“The biggest mistake in the catastrophist view is not understanding the role of technology and, above all, the social and productive system that gives it meaning moment to moment. As we saw in a recent post, even if the “end of oil” happened right now, its effect on the current system would be serious but limited (approximately between -0.2% and -2% of GDP in the worst-case scenario).
But above all, it doesn’t understand — or doesn’t want to understand — that an alternative mode of production would have a different relationship with Nature and therefore with energy sources. The world of distributed production is a world of distributed energy based on renewable sources in which peak oil wouldn’t amount to a turning point. Surely aware of this, catastrophist groups have emphasized spreading the idea that renewable energy could not, according to them, support a “consumer society.”
They postulate that productive scale will be maintained and even increased beyond levels that became dysfunctional years ago in all areas, and that technology linked to the P2P mode of production, against all evidence, will not be developed.
An argument based on such narrow postulations indicates argumentative desperation. Surely that’s why degrowth has been softening the the image of catastrophe, to set a new direction and to present degrowth, which is to say, the global reduction of production, not so much as something inevitable in the short term but rather, desirable in moral terms.
And it’s easy to forget, for someone who feels guilty about their superfluous consumption, that almost four billion people live at a critical level of scarcity, that of those, 2.5 billion consume less than their basic food needs, and 1.2 billion don’t even have access to water. What’s more, it can be hard to admit that, in the houses of a good part of the working classes of developed countries, it’s difficult to find much that doesn’t have to with surviving and working, and workers have few luxuries beyond the occasional visit to a restaurant or bar, or the even rarer wedding or baptism, to psychologically deal with the rhythms of work, precariousness, and growing social decomposition.
The function of “the catastrophe” in the degrowth view played no small part. It’s not the same thing to talk about how one adapts to the inevitable (as terrible as it is) as it is to talk about what’s desirable or not in building an alternative social system. What’s more, if we take the dramatic population reduction which catastrophism describes as inevitable out of the argument, the numbers are overwhelming: not even maintaining current global production with an egalitarian distribution of income and wealth would give us a world without poverty. We must produce more, but in another way, and with new priorities. Producing less, even if it were redistributed, would kill more and more people through hunger and other suffering. It’s that simple.
That’s why today’s “P2P thinking” demands abundance, especially those who understood, right from the beginning of the P2P revolution, their connection with the development of distributed technologies and the reduction of optimal scales of production. And in that you can’t help but discover a much older tradition. Because the changes spelled out as possible today can’t wait for the spoiled children of the middle class to feel “guilty” about enjoying economic rents in a world of growing inequality, or to realize once and for all that they’re not the center of the universe and quit pompously asserting that the fate of the species depends on their little acts of consumption. The changes that will make things whole and coherent, which will make a place for everyone, will be driven by those who love life and abundance, those who keep alive the dreams of Fourier and the utopians, of Lafargue’s The Right To Be Lazy and of the multispecialist, reborn and made visible by the Internet."
2. The history of the social struggle between scarcity and abundance:
"Popular utopias have always demanded abundance, and when empowered with technology, have established it in very similar terms to those we use today. Degrowth, on the other hand, only has historical roots in the Church’s reaction to feudal decomposition.
The country of Jauja is a typical example of the popular utopias of the Middle Ages and the beginning of Modernity. It’s a good reflection of the aspirations of the lower tiers of society, which were crushed by hunger and misery. Abundance, which is the end of work forced by need, free [gratis] food, and the end of conflicts and violence due to its scarcity, conjures up the image of a world we deserve to live in.
At the end of the nineteenth century, when the first “modern utopias” appeared as part of the popular cultural flowering that led to the First International, the impulse was rationalized, was argued, was developed didactically by imaginary local societies. But abundance continues to be the inspiration, the engine of hope that connects with the aspirations of millions of people. The first utopias of this time in the Western Latin world, Pensive, by Juan Serrano Oteiza (1876) and New Utopia, by Ricardo Mella (1889), were written when Prodhounian mutualism was still hegemonic in the workers’ movement. Both focused on developing a concept familiar today to readers of Juan Urrutia: the economy of abundance.
The economy of abundance appears in Mella’s book in an economically autonomous village on the Cantabrian coast, which has done away with specialization in favor of multispecialization, whose workshops are cooperatives, where the better part of production is decommodified — in other words, free [gratis] – and in which the market (known as “bazaars,” which might sound familiar) remains only to provide coordination and distribution of the extraordinary and the innovative. The conjunction paints a picture that’s very close to current models of abundance.
Abundance, the possibility of producing and working on what you want, but even more so of consuming as much as you need with no need for an external regulator (market, state, or Public Health Committee), was born in these narratives of productive capacity “liberated” from the mindset of accumulation, and a a way of life liberated from the pressures of the struggle for survival, moved by the pleasure of learning and socializing, and which, therefore, no longer needs consumption to make up for the emptiness of everyday life.
This is not at all an exclusively Iberian phenomenon. It’s the same in all the utopian literature in the world, beginning with the great William Morris, one of the most influential social writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century, dragged into the twentieth century by the academic power of Russian Stalinism. And if we take the primary South American example of this literature, the late “American anarchist city” of Pierre Quiroule (1914) (recently made 3D) the outside road that rings the imaginary city is called “Abundance Avenue.”
When did scarcity become a utopia? Only very recently, when decomposition had already come stalking, has degrowth dared to propose scarcity as a utopia, becoming the new hegemonic thought, proposing to “degrow,” which is to say, socially produce less, even though what’s produced today is not enough for everyone, however equally it may be distributed.
This very interesting and strange phenomenon takes us back to the age of decomposition of the feudal regime, when, faced with the commercial revolution of the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, the Church condemned the artisan merchant and commerce itself, spelling out “theologies of poverty” that rejected misery. This misery was produced by resistance to change on the part of the nobility, which the Church leadership was a part of. The Church would present the Second Coming as the passage to the messianic society where “the wolf will graze with the lamb.” That’s how they kicked the can down the road indefinitely. But fewer and fewer were willing to wait. New groups would try to bring about the arrival of Christ by living in community, raising up the egalitarian society of the Gospel. Soon, the Church lost its grip on the Waldensians, Joachimites, Fraticelli, Beghards, Flagellants…
The interesting thing is that the theological praise of poverty, in the hands of the peasant classes, soon became an indentity and self-recognition (the imagined community of “the poor”). And the self-identification inadvertantly promoted by this ecclesiastical message, in turn, quickly became a rejection of poverty and a violent demand for abundance. The Church soon responded with the creation of the Franciscan Order (providing an internal organizational space for poverty), the promotion of the Dominicans, and the creation of the Inquisition (to suppress “excesses”).
It’s not very different from what we see and will continue to see. Every obselete order, incapable of imagining itself and projecting itself onto the future in a way that’s useful to people, destroys social wealth with its death rattle, as long as it doesn’t change the strutures of power. It’ll promote “voluntary” poverty, which it imposes on the large majority through economic crises, the inefficient waste of resources, war, and the direct appropriation of economic rents and levies. There will be praise for degrowth, spaces created for “aesthetic” poverty, and more and more repression of those who dream of a world without scarcity. Because, in the final analysis, abundance, freedom from forced work, and multispecialization are only the pillars without which the old dream common to all times and all cultures will remain utopian — the dream of freedom."
The Five Argumentative Fallacies of Degrowth
David de Ugarte:
"Even worse are the five conceptual fallacies on which degrowth bases its arguments again and again. It’s really about many fallacies whose origins are varied: erroneous economic arguments from assorted theories that remain in popular memory as common, but false, beliefs… and which are now collected by natural scientists who are getting into making social proclamations without the necessary critical background.
- “Desire is infinte, so there’s no limit to consumption.” (utilitarian fallacy)
- “Population will grow until it bumps up against resource scarcity.” (Malthusian fallacy)
- “More productivity and growth necessarily produce more stress on resources.” (ecological fallacy)
- “Since the world is finite, resources will run out shortly.” (catastrophist fallacy)
- “The development of abundance using the P2P mode of production will face the same environmental problems as capitalism.” (centralist fallacy)
Let’s go step by step.
“Desire is infinte, so there’s no limit to consumption.” (utilitarian fallacy) False: the desire for consumption is limited both by cultural values and by time. Even though the Christian monastic tradition has left our culture the idea that consuming less is “renouncing,” and that therefore, consuming more would be the spontaneous result of our “natural” desires, the truth is that studies on the behavior of lottery winners show that a sudden increase in wealth doesn’t produce a conspicuous change in the quantity of consumption or a general in consumption patterns. Curiously, lottery winners wind up contributing a significant part of their winnings to charitable institutions.
“Population will grow until it bumps up against resource scarcity.” (Malthusian fallacy) False: Reproductive behavior is another cultural variable. What statistics from developed countries show us series is that when a society approaches the end of poverty, its population growth stops.
“More productivity and growth necessarily produce more stress on resources.” (ecological fallacy) Two falsehoods in a single sentence: First, even though the productivity that’s usually showna in statistics is the labor factor (how much value is produced per hour worked on average), productivity also includes resources. Growth in productivity can be oriented towards (and, in fact, manifested as a move towards) greater energy efficiency. Second, the growth of the value of what’s produced doesn’t need to consume more resources: with each free software program, the available social wealth grows (along with consumption, at zero price), but natural resources are not significantly affected; when an empty field in La Mancha is planted with garlic and grapes, for example, more natural resources are used, but it can’t be said that the land suffers stress when cultivation is naturally sustainable.
“Since the world is finite, resources will run out shortly.” (catastrophist fallacy) False: This is surely the most obvious fallacy, but it “works” because it’s based on the difficulties our brains have evalutating probabilities beyond certain scales. Just because resources are finite doesn’t mean that their use is going to lead to their depletion in the short term, but if we add in “bad science” in the form of the Ricardian fallacy (see above), we have a long tradition of alarms that vanished.
“The development of abundance using the P2P mode of production will face the same environmental problems as capitalism.” (centralist fallacy) False: As we have already argued, each mode of production has its own way of relating to its surroundings and resources because:
They provide an incentive for an energy structure, logistics chains, and different productive processes. In contrast to industrial capitalism, in the P2P mode of production average logistics chains are drastically reduced, energy production takes a distributed form that prioritizes renewable self-production and resources. Technologies are developed in a different way, subject to the internal logic of the system: we will move from priotitizing technologies that encourage the recentralization that financial capital needs to maintain its accumulation to distribution and a tendency towards self-sufficiency that needs the P2P mode of production, both in energy and in the choice of raw materials.
Different forms of socialization (ultimately determined by the socially dominant forms of grouping for production) promote different cultural values that modify people’s aspirations and consumption behavior. Social demands will also point in other directions.
In any case, asking the very young P2P mode of production, which is still under the hegemony of the old productive system, how it will develop when it takes off as a widespread social practice, would be like asking Leonardo da Vinci or Erasmus to describe the technology or the political system of the Industrial Revolution. This absurdity only appears to make sense if you incorporate the urgency of an immediate catastrophe into the argument.
The degrowth arguments form a unique fabric of classic, yet socially widespread, fallacies. Together, they form an argumentative fabric as false as it is seductive, which is able to generate the illusion of rationality, propped up on our own vices and intellectual laziness. However, it’s worth making the effort and coming back around to the perspective of abundance: while capitalism is driving us towards a cliff, degrowth leads us to think like lemmings."
Problems with degrowth (New Left Review)
"As I emphasized at the outset, degrowth proponents have made valuable contributions in addressing many of the untenable features of economic growth. But on the specific issue of climate change, degrowth does not provide anything like a viable stabilization framework. Consider some very simple arithmetic. Following the ipcc, we know that global co2 emissions need to fall from their current level of 32 billion tons to 20 billion tons within twenty years. If we assume that, following a degrowth agenda, global gdp contracts by 10 per cent over the next two decades, that would entail a reduction of global gdp four times greater than during the 2007–09 financial crisis and Great Recession. In terms of co2 emissions, the net effect of this 10 per cent gdp contraction, considered on its own, would be to push emissions down by precisely 10 per cent—that is, from 32 to 29 billion tons. It would not come close to bringing emissions down to 20 billion tons by 2040.
Clearly then, even under a degrowth scenario, the overwhelming factor pushing emissions down will not be a contraction of overall gdp but massive growth in energy efficiency and clean renewable-energy investments—which, for accounting purposes, will contribute towards increasing gdp—along with similarly dramatic cuts in fossil-fuel production and consumption, which will register as reducing gdp. Moreover, the immediate effect of any global gdp contraction would be huge job losses and declining living standards for working people and the poor. During the Great Recession, global unemployment rose by over 30 million. I have not seen a convincing argument from a degrowth advocate as to how we could avoid a severe rise in mass unemployment if gdp were to fall by twice as much.
These fundamental problems with degrowth are illustrated by the case of Japan, which has been a slow-growing economy for a generation now, even while maintaining high per capita incomes. Herman Daly himself describes Japan as being ‘halfway to becoming a steady-state economy already, whether they call it that or not.’ Daly is referring to the fact that, between 1996 and 2015, gdp growth in Japan averaged an anemic 0.7 per cent per year. This compares with an average Japanese growth rate of 4.8 per cent per year for the 30-year period 1966 to 1995. Nevertheless, as of 2017, Japan remained in the ranks of the large, upper-income economies, with average gdp per capita at about $40,000. Yet despite the fact that Japan has been close to a no-growth economy for twenty years, its co2 emissions remain among the highest in the world, at 9.5 tons per capita. This is 40 per cent below the figure for the United States, but it is four times higher than the average global level of 2.5 tons per capita that must be achieved if global emissions are to drop by 40 per cent by 2040. Moreover, Japan’s per capita emissions have not fallen at all since the mid-1990s. The reason is straightforward: as of 2015, 92 per cent of Japan’s total energy consumption comes from burning oil, coal and natural gas.
Thus, despite ‘being halfway to becoming a steady-state economy’, Japan has accomplished virtually nothing in advancing a viable climate-stabilization path. The only way it will make progress is to replace its existing, predominantly fossil-fuel energy system with a clean-energy infrastructure. At present, hydro power supplies 5 per cent of Japan’s total energy needs, and other renewable sources only 3 per cent. Overall then, like all large economies—whether they are growing rapidly or not at all—Japan needs to embrace the Green New Deal." (https://newleftreview.org/issues/II112/articles/robert-pollin-de-growth-vs-a-green-new-deal)
Kate Raworth's Critique
"Don’t get me wrong: I think the degrowth movement is addressing the most profound economic questions of our day. I believe that economies geared to pursue unending GDP growth will undermine the planetary life-support systems on which we fundamentally depend. That is why we need to transform the growth-addicted design of government, business and finance at the heart of our economies. From this standpoint, I share much of the degrowth movement’s analysis, and back its core policy recommendations.
It’s not the intellectual position I have a problem with. It’s the name.
Here are five reasons why.
Getting beyond missiles
My degrowth friends tell me that the word was chosen intentionally and provocatively as a ‘missile word’ to create debate. I get that, and agree that shock and dissonance can be valuable advocacy tools. But in my experience of talking about possible economic futures with a wide range of people, the term ‘degrowth’ turns out to be a very particular kind of missile: a smoke bomb. Throw it into a conversation and it causes widespread confusion and mistaken assumptions.
Banksy says: choose your missile wisely
Banksy says: choose your missile wisely
If you are trying to persuade someone that their growth-centric worldview is more than a little out of date, then it takes careful argument. But whenever the word ‘degrowth’ pops up, I find the rest of the conversation is spent clearing up misunderstandings about what it does or doesn’t mean. This is not an effective advocacy strategy for change. If we are serious about overturning the dominance of growth-centric economic thought, the word ‘degrowth’ just ain’t up to the task.
I have to admit I have never quite managed to pin down what the word means. According to degrowth.org, the term means ‘a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet.’ Sounding good, but that’s not clear enough. Are we talking about degrowth of the economy’s material volume – the tonnes of stuff consumed – or degrowth of its monetary value, measured as GDP? That difference really matters, but it is too rarely spelled out.
If we are talking about downscaling material throughput, then even people in the ‘green growth’ camp would agree with that goal too, so degrowth needs to get more specific to mark itself out.
If it is downscaling GDP that we are talking about (and here, green growth and degrowth clearly part company), then does degrowth mean a freeze in GDP, a decrease in GDP, being indifferent about what happens to GDP, or in fact declaring that GDP should not be measured at all? I have heard all of these arguments made under the banner of degrowth, but they are very different, with very different strategic consequences. Without greater clarity, I don’t know how to use the word.
Learn from Lakoff: negative frames don’t win
The cognitive scientist George Lakoff is an authority on the nature and power of frames – the worldviews that we activate (usually without realizing it) through the words and metaphors we choose. As he has documented over many decades, we are unlikely to win a debate if we try to do so while still using our opponent’s frames. The title of his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, makes this very point because it immediately makes you think of a you know what. How does this work in politics? Take debates about taxes, for example. It’s hard to argue against ‘tax relief’ (aka tax cuts for the rich), since the positive frame of ‘relief’ sounds so very desirable: arguing against it just reinforces the frame that tax is a burden. Far wiser is to recast the issue in your own positive terms instead, say, by advocating for ‘tax justice’.
Does degrowth fall into this trap? I had the chance to put this question to George Lakoff himself in a recent webinar. He was criticizing the dominant economic frame of ‘growth’ so I asked him whether ‘degrowth’ was a useful alternative. “No it isn’t”, was his immediate reply, “First of all it’s like ‘Don’t think of an elephant!’ – ‘Don’t think of growth!’ It means we are going to activate the notion of growth. When you negate something you strengthen the concept.”
Just to be clear, I know that the degrowth movement stands for many positive and empowering things. The richly
Lakoff: “When you negate something you strengthen the concept”
Lakoff: “When you negate something you strengthen the concept” nuanced book Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era edited by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis, is packed full of great entries on
Environmental justice, Conviviality, Co-operatives, Simplicity, Autonomy, and Care – every one of them a positive frame. It’s not the contents but the ‘degrowth’ label on the jar that makes me baulk. I’ll adopt the rest of the vocabulary, just not the headline.
It’s time to clear the air
Just for a moment let’s give the word ‘degrowth’ the benefit of the doubt and suppose that the missile has landed and it has worked. The movement is growing and has websites, books and conferences dedicated to furthering its ideas. That’s great. These debates and alternative economic ideas are desperately needed. But there comes a time for the smoke to clear, and for a beacon to guide us all through the haze: something positive to aim for. Not a missile but a lighthouse. And we need to name the lighthouse.
In Latin America they call it buen vivir which literally translates as living well, but means so much more than that too. In Southern Africa they speak of Ubuntu, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Surely the English-speaking world – whose language has more than one million words – can have a crack at finding something equally inspiring. Of course this is not easy, but this is where the work is.
Tim Jackson has suggested prosperity, which literally means ‘things turning out as we hope for’. The new economics foundation – and many others – frame it as wellbeing. Christian Felber suggests Economy for the Common Good. Others (starting with Aristotle) go for human flourishing. I don’t think any of these have completely nailed it yet, but they are certainly heading in the right direction.
There’s too much at stake, and much to discuss
The debates currently being had under the banner of degrowth are among the most important economic debates for the 21st century. But most people don’t realize that because the name puts them off. We urgently need to articulate an alternative, positive vision of an economy in a way that is widely engaging. Here’s the best way I have come up with so far to say it:
We have an economy that needs to grow, whether or not it makes us thrive.
We need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows."
- https://www.degrowth.info is current in 2019
- Fuller Degrowth Bibliography via http://montreal.degrowth.org/about_library.html#bibliography
- Degrowth Publications 2014 update at http://www.degrowth.org/publications
- See also: Proceedings of the Conference on Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, 1, 2
- Fabrice, F., 2008. Conceptual roots of degrowth. 1st international conference on economic de-growth for ecological sustainability and social equity, 18–19 April 2008 Paris.
- System Innovation and a New ‘Great Transformation’: Re-embedding Economic Life in the Context of ‘De-Growth’
- Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future prospects of an emergent paradigm, Joan Martínez-Alier (a), Unai Pascual (b), Franck-Dominique Vivien (c) and Edwin Zaccai (d), Ecological Economics, Volume 69, Issue 9, 15 July 2010, Pages 1741-1747 [Note: This is a good overview, some say even a history, of degrowth thinking - Bob T..]
- Environment versus growth — A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth”, Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh, Ecological Economics, 2010
- In defence of degrowth, Giorgos Kallis, Ecological Economics, 2010
- Questioning economic growth, Peter Victor, Nature, Vol.468 #18 pp. 370-371
- Editorial: Degrowth, Serge Latouche, Journal of Cleaner Production 18 (2010) pp. 519-522
- Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy, Christian Kerschner, Journal of Cleaner Production 18 (2010) pp. 544–551