Degrowth: A Call for Radical Socio-Ecological Transformation

by Federico Demaria, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain

“Growth for the sake of growth” remains the credo of all governments and international institutions. Economic growth is presented as the panacea to all the world’s problems: poverty, inequality, sustainability, you name it. Left-wing and right-wing policies differ only on how to achieve it. However, an uncomfortable scientific truth has to be faced: economic growth is environmentally unsustainable. Moreover, beyond a certain threshold, it isn’t socially necessary. The central question then becomes: how can we manage an economy without growth?

This question is gaining legitimacy in different arenas, from science to politics. For instance, in September 2018, at the Post-Growth Conference at the European Parliament, over 200 scientists together with almost 100,000 citizens urged European institutions to act in their open letter titled “Europe, It’s Time to End the Growth Dependency.” This did not happen out of the blue. The debate has been lively for at least two decades, as seen from the over 200 academic articles, ten special issues, biennial international conferences with thousands of participants, summer schools, and even a master’s degree at our university in Barcelona. Our book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era was translated into more than ten languages. Important grassroots initiatives are taking place, from the opposition to environmentally destructive projects (with over 2,000 of them mapped in the Environmental Justice Atlas, e.g. the ‘Stop Coal. Protect the Climate!’ campaign Ende Gelände in Germany), to the building of alternatives such as commons, solidarity economies, and co-housing. But what exactly do we mean by degrowth?

Generally, degrowth challenges the hegemony of economic growth and calls for a democratically led, redistributive downscaling of production and consumption in industrialized countries as a means to achieve environmental sustainability, social justice, and well-being. Degrowth is usually associated with the idea that smaller can be beautiful. However, the emphasis should not only be on less, but also on different. In a degrowth society everything will be different: activities, forms and uses of energy, relations, gender roles, allocations of time between paid and non-paid work, relations with the non-human world.

The point of degrowth is to escape from a society absorbed by the fetishism of growth. Such a rupture is therefore related to both words and things, to symbolic and material practices, to the decolonization of the imaginary and the implementation of other possible worlds. The degrowth project does not aim for another growth, nor for another kind of development (sustainable, social, fair, etc.), but for the construction of another society, a society of frugal abundance (Serge Latouche), a post-growth society (Niko Paech), or one of prosperity without growth (Tim Jackson). In other words, from the outset it is not an economic project, but a societal project that implies escaping from the economy as reality and as imperialist discourse. “Sharing,” “simplicity,” “conviviality,” “care,” and the “commons” are primary significations of what this society might look like.

Although it integrates ecological economics, degrowth is a non-economic concept. On the one hand, degrowth implies the reduction of social metabolism (the energy and material throughput of the economy), in order to face existing biophysical constraints (of natural resources and the ecosystem’s assimilative capacity). On the other hand, degrowth is an attempt to challenge the omnipresence of market-based relations in society and the growth-based roots of the social imaginary, replacing them with the idea of frugal abundance. It is also a call for deeper democracy, applied to issues which lie outside the mainstream democratic domain, such as technology. Finally, degrowth implies an equitable redistribution of wealth within and across the Global North and South, as well as between present and future generations.

Over the last couple of decades, the face of the triumph of a single-thought ideology of growth has been no other than that embodied by the seemingly consensual “sustainable development” slogan, a nice oxymoron. Its aim was to try to save the religion of economic growth in the ecological crisis and it seemed to be well accepted by the anti-globalization movement. It became urgent to oppose the capitalism of a globalized market with another civilizational project or, more specifically, to give visibility to a plan that had been in formation for a long time, but progressed underground. The rupture with developmentalism, a form of productivism for the use of so-called developing countries, was thus the foundation of this alternative project.

The term “degrowth” was proposed by political ecologist André Gorz in 1972, and was used as the title of the French translation of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s essays in 1979. Degrowth was then launched by French environmental activists in 2001 as a provocative slogan to repoliticize environmentalism. The motto of degrowth was almost accidentally launched by a pressing need to break with the doublespeak, and often meaninglessness, of sustainable development. Thus the phrase is not originally a concept (at least not symmetrical to economic growth) but rather a defiant political slogan aimed at reminding us of the meaning of limits. Degrowth is neither recession nor negative growth and should not be interpreted literally: degrowing to degrow would be as absurd as growing to grow.

A degrowth transition is not a sustained trajectory of descent, but a transition to convivial societies that live simply, in common, and with less. There are several ideas about the practices and institutions that can facilitate such a transition and allow such societies to flourish. The attractiveness of degrowth emerges from its power to draw from and articulate different sources or streams of thought (including justice, democracy, and ecology); to formulate strategies at different levels (including oppositional activism, grassroots alternatives, and institutional politics); and bring together heterogeneous actors who focus on different issues, from agroecology to climate justice. Degrowth complements and reinforces these topic areas, functioning as a connecting thread (a platform for a network of networks) beyond one-issue politics.

In fact, degrowth is not the alternative, but rather a matrix of alternatives that reopens the human adventure to creativity and a plurality of destinies, by lifting the lead blanket of economic totalitarianism. It is about exiting the paradigm of homo œconomicus or Marcuse’s one-dimensional man, the main source of planetary homogenization and the murder of cultures. If “development” is no longer the organizing principle of social life, there is space for a pluriverse. This would be “a world where many worlds fit,” as the Zapatistas say. Degrowth is just one among a multiplicity of worldviews that are alternatives to development, such as Buen Vivir, Afrotopia, and Swaraj. In our new book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, we have collected over a hundred of them, from all over the world. It is therefore not possible to formulate “turnkey” solutions for degrowth, but only to outline the fundamentals of any non-productivist sustainable society and concrete examples of transitional programs.

The degrowth hypothesis posits that a trajectory of radical socio-ecological transformation is necessary, desirable, and possible. The conditions of realization and political questions that concern the social dynamics, the actors, the alliances, the institutions, and the processes that will create degrowth transitions remain open and are actively debated in Europe and beyond. The time is ripe not only for a scientific degrowth research agenda that asks inconvenient questions, but also for a political one. As ecological economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor argued in The New York Times: “Imagining a world without growth is among the most vital and urgent tasks for society to engage in.”

Direct all correspondence to Federico Demaria <federicodemaria@gmail.com>

Spain, Volume 9, Issue 1

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