Degrowth is a linked intellectual and social movement that seeks to challenge the central place of growth in economic policy and to support and create practical alternatives to growth-based economics.
We don't need bigger cars or fancier clothes. We need self-respect, identity, community, love, variety, beauty, challenge and a purpose in living that is greater than material accumulation. Donella Meadows
Origins and History
Degrowth originated as an intellectual debate in 1970s France with the use of the term decroissance in a 1972 article by André Gorz inspired by the Limits to Growth report and the Ecological Economics of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. Having disappeared somewhat during the neoliberal hegemony of the 1980s and early 1990s, it experienced a revival from the late 1990s on with a wave of practical action and accompanying critical scholarship centred around the city of Lyon in Southwest France. The Institute for Economic and Social Studies on Sustainable Degrowth was founded in Lyon in 2002. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the concept was adopted by environmental and anticapitalist movements in Italy, Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain.
Following a well-publicised walking tour by degrowth scholar-activist Francois Schneider in 2007, an international conference in Paris in 2008 marked the first documented use of the English term 'degrowth' and the establishment of Degrowth as an international academic movement. Further conferences followed in Barcelona (2010), Venice and Montreal (2012), Leipzig (2014), Budapest (2016),, Malmö in August 2018 and Mexico City in September 2018.
Francois Schneider and colleagues offer this definition of degrowth:
"Sustainable degrowth may be defined as an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, in the short and long term."
The authors note that the term 'sustainable' is not used to imply that the process of degrowth should be sustained indefinitely, rather that it seeks an end state that is environmentally and socially sustainable.
Many degrowth theorists point out that degrowth is not simply about the cessation of growth, or reduction in GDP, though both of these are likely consequences.
According to Giorgos Kallis, Federico Demaria, and Giacomo D’Alisa:
"Degrowth signifies a society with a smaller metabolism, but more importantly, a society with a metabolism which has a different structure and serves new functions."
"In a degrowth society everything will be different: different activities, different forms and uses of energy, different relations, different gender roles, different allocations of time between paid and non-paid work, different relations with the non-human world."
The degrowth movement incorporates multiple approaches and perspectives. Theorists have characterised it in various ways, based on shared philosophies, aspirations and values along with a broad consensus as to the limitations and failures of the growth paradigm and need for alternatives.
Francois Schneider and colleagues identify five distinct philosophical, practical, political and/or intellectual sources for degrowth:
- The culturalist source - anthropologists and others criticising the imposition of the developmental model and trajectory experienced by Europe and North America onto the rest of the world.
- The democratic source - promoting a broadening of debate over the nature of economic and political systems, breaking the hold of vested short-term economic interests over politics, technology, education and information.
- The ecological source - respect for and defense of ecosystems and living beings
- The existential source - emphasising the search for meaning through the range of lifestyle possibilities opened up by a degrowth agenda, including through approaches such as spirituality, non-violence, art, community and voluntary simplicity.
- The bioeconomic source - also known as ecological economics, based on biophysical limits on provision of resources and metabolism of wastes.
In related fashion, Giorgos Kallis, Federico Demaria, and Giacomo D’Alisa identify ten core theses in the Degrowth movement and related literatures, divided into three strands: ecological-economic, culturalist (based on anthropological, philosophical and diversity-centred critiques of liberal democracy) and the third focused on the creation of alternatives.
- The Ecological-Economic Strand
- Thesis 1: Growth Is Senseless. In developed economies, growth persists for perverse reasons. This is in terms of both individual behaviour (a false equation of increased levels of material consumption with enhanced quality of life) and social policy (sustaining rising general levels of individual consumption in the absence of wealth distribution).
- Thesis 2: Growth Is Uneconomic and Unjust. Various measures and indicators of well-being and social welfare consistently show that above certain levels, growth does not translate into improved general levels of well-being. In addition, continued growth causes extreme levels of social and environmental damage at commodity frontiers where raw materials (including human labour) are extracted and wastes dumped, the negative impacts of which fall mostly upon poor, vulnerable and otherwise marginal people.
- Thesis 3: Growth Is Ecologically Unsustainable. The volume of economic activity correlates closely with environmental impacts, including ecological depletion and greenhouse gas emissions. Decoupling of growth and environmental damage remains a mythical phenomenon that has never been convincingly demonstrated in practice.
- Thesis 4: Growth Is Coming to an End. The inherently unsustainable nature of growth means it can not persist. Current attempts to sustain growth are based on illusory premises, namely a ficticious finance economy and creation of public and private debt.
- The Culturalist Strand
- Thesis 5: The Growth Consensus Has Eroded the Political. The term 'degrowth' is deliberately provocative, intended to challenge the way discourses on 'sustainable development' depoliticise sustainability debates by limiting discussions about possible futures to those achievable within the growth paradigm. This is the most recent form of a longer-standing phenomenon whereby capitalist ideology dictates that economic surplus be invested in creation of further material capital and the post-WW2 Washington consensus that this is the appropriate development trajectory for the entire world, foreclosing the exercise of political sovereignty in the form of collective decisions as to societal priorities.
- Thesis 6: Limits Liberate. Degrowth is not articulated as a response to externally imposed limits, but a conscious and deliberately political choice that prioritises personal autonomy, social conviviality and harmony with the natural world, viewing all of these as more important than increased material consumption for its own sake.
- The 'Alternatives' Strand
- Thesis 7: A Transition beyond Growth Is a Transition beyond Capitalism. Growth and capitalism are interdependent; a shift away from growth requires redistribution of economic and political power such that capital ceases to exert its current levels of social force.
- Thesis 8: Degrowth Alternatives Already Exist. Such alternatives are taking place at both grassroots level and in terms of recommendations for state-led political action. Grassroots alternatives include numerous forms of community-led initiatives and social movements, all of which are imagining, co-creating and in many cases enacting genuine practical alternatives based on creation of new commons. Many of these lived alternatives have been demonstrated to support levels of individual well-being equal or superior to those in wider society at far lower levels of material throughput. Economic policy proposals are focused on ensuring adequate levels of income regardless of employment status, such as universal basic income, job guarantee schemes, workshare to provide an equitable distribution of labour, reclaiming money as a public good, selective cancellation of debt, and investment in social and cooperative forms of service-based enterprise that are labour intensive, provide meaningful work and emphasise social over material benefits.
- Thesis 9: The Politics of a Degrowth Transition Are Open and Plural. Multiple perspectives, valid debate and no consensus exist on the nature and interrelationships of alternative activities and supporting institutions. Many view creation of more inclusive and participatory forms of democracy as inherent to transformation to a degrowth society.
- Thesis 10: Degrowth in the North Will Let the South Live Well. Numerous alternative ideas and initiatives already exist in the Global South, whose creation and expression are currently constrained by economic and subjective colonisation by the growth agenda.
A later review by Kallis, Demaria and D’Alisa identifies five main themes in the degrowth literature:
- Limits of, and to, growth
- Degrowth and autonomy
- Degrowth as repoliticization
- Degrowth and capitalism
- Proposals for a degrowth transition
Degrowth and Democracy
A key observation in degrowth debates concerns the need to open up spaces for democratic debate and action about the desirable aims of society and ways to achieve these, which have been undermined by an unquestioned mainstream political consensus in favour of growth. Degrowth as political philosophy thus highlights the need for revision of the institutions, practices and assumptions of liberal democracy as they currently exist, and creation of new political structures and philosophies that are neither the product of nor dependent on the growth paradigm and allow decentralised, inclusive and pluralistic processes of democratic deliberation.
Escobar, A., 2015. Degrowth, postdevelopment, and transitions: a preliminary conversation. Sustainability Science 10, 451–462. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0297-5
Reflections following crash on macro-economic implications:
- Kallis, G., Martinez‐Alier, J., Norgaard, R.B., 2009. Paper assets, real debts: An ecological‐economic exploration of the global economic crisis. Critical perspectives on international business 5, 14–25. https://doi.org/10.1108/17422040910938659
- Alier, J.M., 2009. Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth: Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth. Development and Change 40, 1099–1119. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01618.x
While most strongly developed as a form of critical scholarship, Degrowth exists in close partnership with, and in order to support, civil society movements for social and environmental change. An effective degrowth agenda needs to combine reduction in levels of material and energetic throughputs necessary for acceptable quality of life, through simplification of economic and social processes of the types pioneered by many community-led initiatives for sustainable lifestyles, enabled by macro-scale changes in social and regulatory contexts.
Giacomo D'Alisa and colleagues describe Degrowth as a form of engaged scholarship, providing diverse social movements with an interpretative frame, or set of ideas that help make sense of specific local actions and link them to wider social, political and philosophical themes. They draw attention to the diversity and fluidity of civil society action, both in terms of aspirations (ranging from conservative to transformative) and strategies. Strategically, they particularly distinguish a continuum linking 'civil' actors seeking to work within existing frameworks of organisation and action, and mobilise or leverage relatively high levels of social capital and legitimacy within these, and 'uncivil' actors openly challenging and operating outside or in opposition to prevalent societal norms. They locate actors operating with the degrowth frame at all points along this continuum, and suggest that the co-existence of diverse and compatible perspectives and approaches, each with its own set of limitations and risks, is a possible source of synergies that can enhance the collective potential for transformative action. Specific movements include Transition, ecovillages and cohousing projects, along with certain forms of protest against centralised development initiatives, in both the Global North and Global South, that seek to perpetuate the growth imperative and associated patterns of social metabolism (flows of energy and materials).
Cohousing, a mainly urban phenomenon in which residents collectively design and manage their own residential space and associated social architecture, creates many of the social advantages of ecovillages, potentially in a wider range of settings. Like ecovillages, co-housing projects allow residents to reduce material dependency on marketed goods and services through strategies such as sharing goods and services and organising communal spaces so as to facilitate this, shared meals and other collective activities, and collaboration and mutual support in childrearing.. Evidence from several studies shows that cohousing communities can achieve high levels of self-reported well-being among residents, who in many cases substantially reduce levels of ownership and consumption of material goods and resources such as electricity.
'Rurban' squats on the city periphery in Barcelona show a partial return to a domestic mode of production whereby residents undertake productive work within their community - such as growing and preparing food, creation and maintenance of basic infrastructure, and engagement with and service provision to the wider community - instead of wage-labour outside it (including use of permaculture techniques in cultivation), thus replacing industrial processes with domestic ones that are far more energy- and resource-efficient. Like the ecovillage and cohousing example, this shows how alternative forms of living can reverse trends towards commodifying and transferring to the market various economic activities traditionally undertaken within the domestic sphere, where relative consumption of energy and other resources is generally lower and easier to maintain within sustainable limits without compromising (and in many circumstances enhancing) experienced quality of life.
Detailed analysis of patterns of energy consumption in the Spanish agri-food system show both the need and prospects for sustainable degrowth in this sector. Industrialisation of production methods since the 1950s, combined with changes in how food travels from farm to plate (increased levels of transportation, processing, packaging, storage for unseasonal consumption and use of energy=intensive domestic methods for storing and preparing food), have dramatically reduced the energetic efficiency of food production in Spain. In the year 2000, the agri-food system in Spain consumed an estimated 1400PJ of energy, mostly from fossil fuels, in order to produce food with a total calorific value of 235PJ. In other words, the system consumed six times as much fossil fuel energy as that available in the food produced. The study concludes that a shift to sustainable agriculture would require a complete structural reorganisation of the agri-food system to one with a greater emphasis on organic, local and seasonal production and consumption. This corresponds with existing prescriptions and actions around food on the part of many community-led initiatives, such as permaculture, Transition, slow food, community-supported agriculture and others.
Gerber, J.-F., 2015. An overview of local credit systems and their implications for post-growth. Sustainability Science 10, 413–423. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0298-4
Kunze, C., Becker, S., 2015. Collective ownership in renewable energy and opportunities for sustainable degrowth. Sustainability Science 10, 425–437. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0301-0
Missoni, E., 2015. Degrowth and health: local action should be linked to global policies and governance for health. Sustainability Science 10, 439–450. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0300-1
- Kallis, G., Demaria, F., D’Alisa, G., 2015. Degrowth, in: International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier, pp. 24–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.91041-9
- Schneider, F., Kallis, G., Martinez-Alier, J., 2010. Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Production 18, 511–518. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.01.014
- G. Kallis, Demaria, F., D’Alisa, G., 2014. Introduction-Degrowth, in: Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. Routledge, New York, pp. 1–17.
- Asara, V., Otero, I., Demaria, F., Corbera, E., 2015. Socially sustainable degrowth as a social–ecological transformation: repoliticizing sustainability. Sustainability Science 10, 375–384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0321-9
- D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F., Cattaneo, C., 2013. Civil and Uncivil Actors for a Degrowth Society. Journal of Civil Society 9, 212–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/17448689.2013.788935
- Deriu, M., 2012. Democracies with a future: Degrowth and the democratic tradition. Futures 44, 553–561. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2012.03.016
- Sekulova, F., Kallis, G., Rodríguez-Labajos, B., Schneider, F., 2013. Degrowth: from theory to practice. Journal of Cleaner Production 38, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2012.06.022
- D’Alisa, G., Forno, F., Maurano, S., 2015. Grassroots (Economic) Activism in Times of Crisis: Mapping the Redundancy of Collective Actions. PACO 8, 328–342. https://doi.org/10.1285/i20356609v8i2p328
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- Jarvis, H., 2011. Saving Space, Sharing Time: Integrated Infrastructures of Daily Life in Cohousing. Environment and Planning A 43, 560–577. https://doi.org/10.1068/a43296
- Lietaert, M., 2010. Cohousing’s relevance to degrowth theories. Journal of Cleaner Production 18, 576–580. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2009.11.016
- Williams, J., 2008. Predicting an American future for cohousing. Futures 40, 268–286. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2007.08.022
- Cattaneo, C., Gavaldà, M., 2010. The experience of rurban squats in Collserola, Barcelona: what kind of degrowth? Journal of Cleaner Production 18, 581–589. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.01.010
- D’Alisa, G., Cattaneo, C., 2013. Household work and energy consumption: a degrowth perspective. Catalonia’s case study. Journal of Cleaner Production 38, 71–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.11.058
- Infante Amate, J., González de Molina, M., 2013. ‘Sustainable de-growth’ in agriculture and food: an agro-ecological perspective on Spain’s agri-food system (year 2000). Journal of Cleaner Production 38, 27–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.03.018
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