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Concept and aims
The concept of degrowth has been described as ―an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, in the short and long term. The paradigmatic propositions of degrowth are that economic growth is not sustainable and that human progress without economic growth is possible.‖ (Schneider et al. 2010). Degrowth is not a precisely defined term, but is deliberately ambiguous, a sort of a "bombshell" word to trigger controversy and debate on the "religion of growth". Advocates of degrowth want to part with the obsessive desire for growth. ―Only mad men and economists believe that infinite growth is possible in a finite world‖, is a quote attributed to Kenneth Boulding. This critique of the standard economic system on the one hand, and awareness of the social and ecological issues, on the other hand, lead logically to the necessary degrowth of the economy.
Origins of the “awkward term”
Décroissance was used in 1979 by J. Grinevald to translate some articles by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen‘s in a book entitled "Demain la decroissance" (tomorrow, degrowth). The newspaper "La Décroissance" first published in March 2004 then launched the term publicly in France. Entropia, an academic journal on themes linked to "la décroissance" has been in press since 2006. In April 2008, an international conference in Paris focused on "economic degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity". On this occasion, "décroissance" was translated for the English speaking audience as "degrowth", and a second conference on socially sustainable economic degrowth was held in Barcelona in March 2010 (www.degrowth.eu). Proponents of the concept warn very expllicitly that the term should not be confused with "recession", which implies an involuntary process.
Critiques of growth began to be vocalised in the environmental and counterculture movements of the 60‘s and 70‘s. Critiques of industrialisation and marketisation are of course even older, but these took further shape with the oil crisis of 1973. "The Limits to Growth", a report from the Club of Rome was published in 1972. Other works critical of environmental limitations of the economic system were published in the 1970‘s: Ivan Illich, Barry Commoner, and André Gorz, are well known authors of that decade. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen embedded theoretical economics in ecological constraints, the British economist EF Schumacher advocated more local and less technological and technocratic solutions in his book "Small is beautiful", Ivan Illich searched for less alienating and more emancipatory institutions and technologies, and Herman Daly promoted the steady-state. In India, Kumarappa, a Gandhian economist, had published the book ―Economics of Permanence‖ in the 1940s, written in prison.
Essentially five different and overlapping sources can be identified as having driven the conception and development of Degrowth: 1. Ecological economics / bioeconomics: Based on a critique of the market and on established principles of physics and ecology, the limits of ecosystems (‗carrying capacity‘) and their resilience are emphasized together with the finite nature of certain resources. There are absolute limits to the scale of global production and consumption, and to the scale national economies can attain without imposing environmental and social costs on others elsewhere or future generations. Degrowth is needed to prevent depletion of resources and overloading of sinks, and to preserve biodiversity. 2. Ecologists / environmentalists. Ecology implies the study of ecosystems and respect for the diversity of life found in ecosystems. The decline of biodiversity is thus a major issue. The indicator HANPP is relevant in this respect. Economic growth and population growth are pressures on biodiversity. 3. Cultural diversity / post-development. Anthropology and development studies have shown that the idea of development has been imposed as universal by western culture. Growth and unbalanced exchanges between North and South mean that (see ecologically unequal exchange) the world‘s wealthiest nations are using more than their legitimate share of global environmental resources, and as a result are effectively reducing the environmental space available to poorer nations, and imposing adverse environmental impacts on them. Serge Latouche is a prominent spokesperson of this critique of westernization of the cultures. 4. Democracy / critical politics. Proponents of degrowth insist that the transition to sustainable life patterns has to be democratic, resulting from a collective choice. This leads to a critique of institutions of representative democracy, and the close links between policymakers, orthodox economists and businessmen. Vincent Cheney analyses the weight of commodification on political ideology and practices, joining the ecological economics critique of "chrematistics" and the defence of "oikonomia". 5. Spirituality / voluntary simplicity. This refers to what some call "the meaning of life" and movements emphasizing spirituality, non-violence, art or voluntary simplicity. Advocates assess consumption as a social process of an ever-growing demand for new satisfactors of needs that are often meaningless. Critiques are aimed at advertising, seen as the paragon of our industrialised societies, with an "inner revolution" and a more spiritual life called for, based on personal and relations (conviviality) rather than objects.
The birth of a movement
Degrowth has now become a political, economic, and social movement based on environmentalist, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas. It can be described as a galaxy of people willing to experiment with or advocate alternative ways of co-existing with the goal of maximising happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means: reducing work time, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community. These experiments occur at three levels: individual, collective / communal, and political. At the individual level, degrowth is achieved by voluntary simplicity. Conviviality and slowness are endorsed through collective projects (e.g. slow food, transition towns). Proposals for global solutions involve the relocalisation of economic activities in order to end humanity's dependence on fossil fuels and reduce its ecological footprint.
In line with this objection to growth, several critiques are directed at the main economic indicator, GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Growth in GDP results from an increase in production, consumption and investment in the pursuit of economic surplus, inevitably leading to increased use of materials, energy and land. Confronted with an environmentally, socially and culturally destructive crisis of over-accumulation, it is becoming apparent that economic growth is the problem rather than the solution. Degrowth thus champions changing the benchmark from GDP to a measure of sustainable and equitable well-being. Degrowth also opposes the current notion of sustainable development because while sustainable development aims to address environmental concerns, it does so with the goal of promoting economic growth, growth which has failed to improve the lives of many people and lead to environmental degradation. Despite improvements in the ecological efficiency of the production and consumption of goods and services, global economic growth has resulted in increased extraction of natural resources and increased waste and emissions. Global economic growth has not succeeded in eliminating poverty, due to unequal exchange in trade and financial markets, which has increased inequality between countries. While sustainable development relies on solutions that are primarily technological or managerial, Degrowth in contrast questions the accumulation of capital and commodities through production and consumption.
Degrowth proponents aim to reduce the global ecological footprint to a sustainable level, through decreased and different production and consumption in the ―global North‖, and increased and different production/consumption in the ―global South‖. However, while there are clear objectives in the way of a need for a transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society, it is unclear how this transition can be organised and managed. Whether degrowth can be achieved through individual, local or networked activities remains an open question, as does how institutions could or should be transformed to support sustainable degrowth. Many partisans of Degrowth see it as leading in due course to a Steady-State Economy as proposed by Herman Daly in 1973.
- Institut d'études économiques et sociales pour la décroissance soutenable: http://decroissance.org/
Declaration of the Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18-19 April 2008: http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/Declaration%20on%20Degrowth%20EN.pdf
- Schneider, Francois, Giorgos Kallis and Joan Martinez-Alier (2010), "Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability", Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 18, Pages 511-518.