what is degrowth?
This is the definition of degrowth according to degrowth & research, the academic association dedicated to degrowth:
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.
Where’s the problem? The market-capitalist mode of production and consumption is caught in a double bind: its expansion disrupts natural systems and fails to curb growing inequalities, while slowdown destabilises the inner workings of economic system itself. Some conveniently put population growth forward as the core of the problem, but this merely distracts us from the more uncomfortable necessity of examining our economic system. Others continue to hope against hope that economic growth can and will be decoupled from its ecological impact and will bring wealth to all. However, their solutions are often merely symptomatic and obfuscate the fundamental contradictions between the goals of economic profitability, environmental sustainability and poverty alleviation. To persist in denying these contradictions will result in a process of involuntary and uncontrolled economic decline or collapse, with serious social and ecological costs. We assert that the current way of life based on on-going economic growth is utopian.
Where are the alternatives? Rather than being fatalistic about the situation, it opens up extraordinary space for imagination and experimentation. A wealth of new conceptual and practical proposals has already evolved under the umbrella of degrowth. These include alternative currencies, not-for-profit cooperative firms, transition towns, solidarity economies, permaculture, food sovereignty, and so no. To be viable, alternatives will have to face up to the biophysical limits imposed on our economic activities and to a just distribution of the resources required for those activities—within and between generations. At the same time, economic activity is not only the outcome of a complex network of relationships and constraints at the biophysical level. Alternatives will also have to face deeply-rooted social, political and cultural challenges.
frequently asked questions
1) Is degrowth equivalent to negative GDP?
No, degrowth is not just about reversing GDP growth rates. This phenomenon has already a name and it is called a recession. The point of degrowth is not to have ‘less of the same’, but to organize appropriation, extraction, production, distribution, consumption and waste differently.
2) Is degrowth like general austerity?
No, degrowth is not about indiscriminately shrinking ‘everything’ and impose ‘austerity’ everywhere. Some items, like local products, will surely be consumed and produced much more in a degrowth society, and many productive activities will increase in such a society – like urban garden, commons, community work, the care economy, craft, etc.
3) Is degrowth against modern technology?
No, degrowth is not anti-technology. After almost two centuries of extraordinary technological progress (and also disruptions), degrowthers simply advocate for the right to choose what to take and what to leave behind.
4) Is degrowth about local autarky?
No, degrowth is not just about generalizing ‘localism’ at any cost. Small can be beautiful, but not always. Some activities have to be organized at higher levels.
5) Is degrowth anti-capitalist?
There are different currents within post-growth (e.g. steady state economics, agrowth, etc.) and not all of them are anti-capitalist. But among them, degrowth is clearly post-capitalist.
6) Can degrowth apply to the global South?
First of all, the critique of growth has also been developed in the global South. J.C. Kumarappa, for example, was a famous Indian economist who criticized industrial growth and inspired the forefathers of degrowth from the global North, like Ivan Illich or Ernst Schumacher. There are many philosophies from the global South that articulate what constitutes a ‘good life’ – like the Andean Buen vivir – and their vision of the ‘good life’ is rarely closely associated with GDP growth. The Bhutanese Gross National Happiness index, for example, seeks to replace GDP in guiding the country’s policies and to measure other things, not just market exchanges as GDP does. Some activities will increase in a hypothetical post-growth society of the global South (like health facilities) while other will decrease (like the current focus on export monocultures and extractivism). But if degrowth is so needed in the global North, it is also in order to prevent industrialized countries from trying to dominate the world economy according to their own interests. Degrowth in the global North implies that economically and ecologically unequal exchange is stopped, as well as the ecological debt that industrialized nations owe to the rest of the world.
what is wrong with growth?
The critique of economic growth has been manifold – environmental, social, ethical, existential.
On the environmental front, the publication in 1972 of The Limits to Growth remains a global milestone. It gave a pioneering and clear warning about the illusions of endless growth. But it was not an isolated critique. The problem of economic growth was being put forward by a variety of heterodox economists.
Karl William Kapp – arguably the first modern ecological economist – had emphasized the social and environmental costs of capitalist growth as early as 1950; Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen had done foundational work on the entropic nature of economic processes; and Herman Daly, his student, developed a new field of no-growth economics. Yet all this highly promising critique became side-lined after the neoliberal turn of the 1980s and, paradoxically, after the popularisation of ‘sustainable development’.
Fortunately, the idea of the ‘limits to growth’ has regained momentum with the notion of ‘planetary boundaries’. These limits are observable at the input stage of economic processes as well as at the output stage. The diminishing sources of low-cost fossil fuels on which growth continues to be heavily dependent are the classic illustration of input limits. The output constraints can be exemplified by the shrinking absorption capacities of ecosystems at different levels, as in climate change and ocean acidification, leading to major disruptions of global biogeochemical cycles.
Against this background, it is often said that economic growth can ‘dematerialize’ – and hence become ‘sustainable’ – with the advancement of cleaner or more efficient technologies and with renewable energies. However, to date, there is hardly any country who can claim an absolute reduction in material use or carbon emissions while growing. When one does, like Germany, it is because it outsources polluting industrial and extractives activities to other nations.
Of course renewable energy from solar or wind flows should be encouraged. But it would unfortunately be impossible – with today’s technology – to sustain Western levels of energy consumption for everyone while only relying on renewable energy. Existing sources of renewable energy have much lower energy return to energy investment than fossil fuels. In other words, a solar or a wind civilization could only support much smaller economies. A transition to renewables would therefore have to be a degrowth transition.
On the social front, the assumption that economic growth endlessly improves subjective well-being has been proven wrong. While income and well-being seem to be linked at low income levels, there is a threshold beyond which further income is unrelated to well-being. In most Western countries, the increase in happiness stagnated somewhere between 1950 and 1970 or even turned into a negative trend, despite a steady growth in GDP. In the United States, the percentage of the ‘very happy’ has steadily decreased since 1945 while economic growth has continued to take place.
Once basic material needs are satisfied, extra income is often used to project immaterial needs (relational, existential, spiritual) into material consumption, an delusional process fed by the marketing and advertisement industry. In addition, psychological studies have found that individuals become quickly accustomed to income rises, and as a result do not see their welfare increase as much as they expected ex ante.
In sum, these critical voices argue that a fundamental rethinking of growth, well-being and development is urgently needed. This is the degrowth project.