The widespread embrace of economic growth and development, even among environmental activists, is the primary cause of the current socio-ecological crisis facing the world, according to a new book that espouses the philosophy of “degrowth” and whose editors believe more comprehensive “counter-hegemonic narratives” are necessary to create new forms of living that are not dependent on equating growth with progress.
The degrowth philosophy has attracted a relatively large following in Europe, especially in France where it is known as décroissance. Its advocates view degrowth as the hypothesis that humans can achieve prosperity without economic growth. The philosophy has struggled to gain similar traction on this side of the Atlantic, although many radical thinkers, including the late American anarchist theoretician Murray Bookchin, have promoted similar ideas over the past 50 years.
The vast majority of people who call themselves environmentalists or climate activists believe global ecological health can be sufficiently addressed without distancing themselves from the ideology of economic growth. One prominent climate scientist, Pennsylvania State University professor Michael Mann, recently optimistically cited data showing that the U.S. economy grew in 2014 while carbon dioxide emissions remained flat. This “is a very hopeful sign that we can indeed grow the economy and lower carbon emissions at the same time,” Mann remarked.
In “Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era,” the book’s editors — Federico Demaria, Giorgos Kallis and Giacomo D’Alisa — aim to demonstrate to Mann and other true believers in the economic growth paradigm that there are realistic alternatives to capitalism and that economic growth should be abolished as a social objective.
“Environmentalists should be the first ones to realize that economic growth is not good for the environment,” Demaria said in an interview with CounterPunch. Extensive research has shown that economic growth is not sustainable from an ecological perspective, he emphasized, adding, “We should look for other ways to satisfy our needs.”
Beyond debates over the logic of embracing never-ending growth on a finite planet, the global economic crisis of the last seven years has shown that capitalism’s inherent growth imperative could be entering a self-destructive phase. Even the International Monetary Fund, whose primary goal is to manage economic growth and the international flow of capital, concluded in a new report that slower growth in both developed and emerging economies could be the new reality.
One of the countries hardest-hit by the seven-year-old economic crisis, Greece, has become a hotbed for degrowth thinking. In February, a degrowth forum in Athens titled “Prosperity Without Growth” attracted more than 500 people. “Most of the presentations and the proposals were of very high quality, a fact which can upscale the seriousness and the influence of degrowth within Greek society,” according to a summary of the forum.
Demaria, a researcher in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a member of the academic association Research & Degrowth, touted the success of the Athens forum as an indication that the degrowth movement is gaining momentum. Another noteworthy development, according to Demaria, is that degrowth’s proponents are becoming ideologically diverse and are not limited to the left side of the political spectrum.
Santi Vila, the minister of planning and sustainability for the government of Catalonia in Spain and a member of centrist political party Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, has spoken in favor of degrowth and welcomed research done on the topic at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Vila has stated that societies need to revise the model of progress and reduce consumption, while at the same time addressing inequality.
The minister plans to support the translation of “Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era” into Catalan and launch it at a public event in Barcelona, Demaria said. The editors of the book also are expected to be invited in July to explain degrowth to the Catalonia parliamentary commission on sustainability.
While degrowth has a champion in Catalonia, one of the movement’s top theorists — Federico Demaria — will have a platform in Brussels. Demaria said he recently accepted an invitation to serve as an adviser for crafting the electoral program of the European Union Greens, a coalition of EU Green parties.
Generally, though, political support for degrowth among most mainstream political parties remains weak. For the past 70 years, public debate has been “colonized” by the idioms of growth-related economics like inflation and quantitative easing, the book’s editors contend. Public intellectuals and policymakers prefer not to take into consideration how people are actually feeling and human relationships with nature.
Escape from the Pursuit of Economic Growth
In the book, its editors emphasize that degrowth signifies a desired direction, one in which societies use fewer natural resources and organize and live differently than today. Degrowth does not call for doing less of the same. The objective is not to make an elephant leaner, but to turn an elephant into a snail, they write.
Like-minded colleagues often question the value of using a negation — degrowth — for a positive project. In the book, the editors respond that they aim precisely to decolonize a mode of thinking that is dominated by a future consisting only of growth. Highlighting resources limits was the focus of many projects in the 1970s, while in the early 2000s, with the emergence of today’s degrowth movement, the focus was applying criticism to the idea of sustainable development, a term many have labeled an oxymoron.
Degrowth’s proponents purposefully used the term as a “missile word” to re-politicize environmentalism and end the depoliticizing consensus on sustainable development. Sustainable development “renders environmental problems technical, promising win-win solutions and the (impossible) goal of perpetuating development without harming the environment,” the editors write.
Degrowth calls for the politicization of science and technology against the increasing “technocratization” of politics. Even so-called socialist economies ended up resembling state capitalism because they remained trapped in the pursuit of growth and development.
In the book’s epilogue, the editors zero in on the theory of dépense, or the collective consumption of “surplus” in a society. Social dépense can be a genuinely collective expenditure, the spending in a collective feast, the decision to subsidize a class of spirituals to talk about philosophy, or to leave a forest idle. Dépense is an expenditure that in a strictly economic sense is unproductive, but in a degrowth society will be brought back to the public sphere.
While the editors promote a collective dépense, they also push for “personal sobriety,” not in the fashion of a Protestant call for austerity, but based on the premise that finding the meaning of life individually is an “anthropological illusion.”
Finding meaning alone through the accumulation of things “is an illusion that leads to ecologically harmful and socially unjust outcomes since it cannot be sustained for everyone,” they write. “People should take themselves less seriously, so to say, and enjoy living free from the unbearable weight of limitless choice.”
Language also is important to degrowth’s proponents. “We prefer to use the words such as ‘flourishing’ when we talk about health or education, rather than growing or developing. The desired change is qualitative, like in the flourishing of the arts. It is not quantitative, like in the growth of industrial output,” the editors write.
France Leads Degrowth Movement
The French degrowth movement eventually spread to other countries, entering Italy as decrescita and Spain as decrecimiento. In the U.S., there is not a degrowth movement per se, but there are similar traditions, like the social ecology of Bookchin and more recently the work of the Post Carbon Institute. In his writings and social analysis, Bookchin believed technology and forms of production could be used for freedom and abundance and could allow people to have more time to be human toward each other if they have power over the technology, not technology having power over people.
If human societies want more leisure time, as proponents of degrowth advocate, Bookchin wanted to figure out how that would be structured. Bookchin was picking up on Marx who also speculated on what people’s days should look like.
“The central feature of modernity has affected many strains of Marxism too, which pushed the dream of collective emancipation to the extreme by means of a life of material abundance for everyone,” the editors write in the epilogue.
The book is filled with 51 short chapters written primarily by academics from Europe and the Americas. The editors explain that the academics contributing to the book were instructed to write as simply as possible with the general public as the target audience. “They do not demand previous knowledge of the debates or the terminology. Still, they are framed and composed with the desirable rigor and expertise of academic book chapters,” they write in the preface.
In one of the early chapters, Arturo Escobar, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, explains that the concept of development did not exist in its current connotation until the late 1940s, when “economic development” paved the way for the duplication of conditions characterizing industrialized nations in “under-developed areas,” namely industrial agriculture, urbanization and the adoption of modern values.
After two decades of rapid growth, especially in the Global North, the Club of Rome commissioned a study that was turned into the 1972 book “The Limits to Growth.” At the same time, the president of the European Commission, Sicco Mansholt, was talking about degrowth, or “below zero growth.” By the late 1970s, however, the neoliberal agenda had gained supremacy, putting degrowth on the backburner.
In the early 2000s, the degrowth movement began to regain momentum. Its proponents expressed the belief that hospitality, love, public duty, nature conservation and spiritual contemplation traditionally do not obey the logic of personal profit. “Above a certain level, growth does not increase happiness. … This is because once basic material needs are satisfied, extra incomes are devoted increasingly to positional goods (e.g., a house bigger than the neighbor’s),” the editors write. “Growth can never satisfy positional competition; it can only make it worse. Growth there will never produce ‘enough’ for everyone.”
In the book’s epilogue, the editors also stress that “degrowthers are not afraid of idleness,” citing French political writer and revolutionary Paul Lafargue’s essay “The Right to be Lazy” as one of their inspirations. A society that has developed so many resources surely can extend the right to idleness from the new rich to everyone, Lafargue wrote in his 1880 essay.
The editors also emphasize they are not afraid of the “idleness of capital” and in fact desire it. “Degrowth involves slowing capital down,” they say.
“Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era” is the first English language book to comprehensively cover the burgeoning literature on degrowth. French economist Serge Latouche’s “Farewell to Growth” was published in English, but it did not tackle the issue of degrowth as directly as “Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era.”
The ideas presented in the book also are similar to some of the proposals in Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” released in the fall of 2014. “The policy proposals are very close. The only thing that is different is on the slogan that we use. Klein is not so convinced about degrowth as a slogan,” Demaria said. “But what she means by saying ‘this changes everything’ is that it changes everything in the social and economic systems. So that’s exactly what we mean.”
Klein and the editors also agree on the definition of degrowth, “in the sense that what we need is not just less — less use of energy, less use of materials and so on — but you need a different use of energy and materials,” Demaria said.
Is Economic Growth a Panacea for Poverty?
Many mainstream pundits today are using the plight of the developing world as a weapon against calls for greater ecological awareness. They accuse environmentalists and climate activists of pushing policies that will deprive poverty-stricken people around the world from ever getting access to electricity and other modern amenities that people in the developed world take for granted.
The editors acknowledge that a frequent criticism of the degrowth proposal is that it is applicable only to the “overdeveloped” economies of the Global North. “The poorer countries of the Global South still need to grow to satisfy basic needs,” they write in the introduction. “Degrowth in the North will reduce the demand for, and the prices of, natural resources and industrial goods, making them more accessible to the developing South.”
But in the South, they do not need to follow the same growth trajectory of the North to live easier lives. There are many alternative visions such as Buen Vivir in Latin America, Ubuntu in South Africa and the Gandhian Economy of Permanence in India. “These visions express alternatives to development, alternative trajectories of socio-economic system,” they write.
Nations and societies should pursue policies that address specific problems instead of adopting a policy of general economic growth, according to Demaria. China is a clear example of the perils of economic growth. “The reason why they are facing a problem with air pollution is exactly because of economic growth. So it is problematic to say that you need more economic growth to come out of air pollution,” he said.
In his new book “Fusion Economics: How Pragmatism Is Changing the World,” Laurence Brahm noted that China is facing a “catastrophic crisis,” as 60% of all surface water is so toxic that it is unfit for human contact, while 70% of underground water is already undrinkable.
One of the primary causes of this environmental devastation, according to Brahm, was a “blind fixation” with high growth that began in the 1990s. The drivers of the high growth were fixed asset investments and polluting industries that were fossil fuel-based. “China’s leadership for the past decade has judged everything based on GDP,” he writes.
Degrowth’s proponents question the common assumptions that people need economic growth to come out of poverty. “What we are saying is that what is called economic growth and development has not solved inequality, has not solved poverty, has not solved climate change and it has not solved the major problems that we have,” Demaria said.
Mark Hand writes about energy and the environment. He can be reached at markhand13@gmail, or found on Twitter at @MarkFHand.