Degrowth (in French: décroissance, in Spanish: decrecimiento, in Italian: decrescita, in Catalan: decreixement, in German: Postwachstum, in Polish: postwzrost) is a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas. It is also considered an essential economic strategy responding to the limits-to-growth dilemma (see The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries and post-growth). Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—arguing that overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities. Key to the concept of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring or a decrease in well-being. Rather, "degrowthists" aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community.
- The reduced availability of energy sources (see peak oil)
- The declining quality of the environment (see global warming, pollution, threats to biodiversity)
- The decline in the health of flora and fauna upon which humans depend
- The rise of negative societal side-effects (see unsustainable development, poorer human health, poverty)
- The ever-expanding use of resources by first-world countries to satisfy lifestyles that consume more food and energy, and produce greater waste, at the expense of the third world (see neocolonialism)
As economies grow, the need for resources grows accordingly. There is a fixed supply of non-renewable resources, such as petroleum (oil), and these resources will inevitably be depleted. Renewable resources can also be depleted if extracted at unsustainable rates over extended periods. For example, this has occurred with 'caviar' production in the Caspian Sea. There is much concern as to how growing demand for these resources will be met as supplies decrease. Many organizations and governments look to energy technologies such as biofuels, solar cells, and wind turbines to meet the demand gap after peak oil. Others have argued that none of the alternatives could effectively replace versatility and portability of oil. Authors of the book Techno-Fix criticize technological optimists for overlooking the limitations of technology in solving agricultural and social challenges arising from growth.
Proponents of degrowth argue that decreasing demand is the only way of permanently closing the demand gap. For renewable resources, demand, and therefore production, must also be brought down to levels that prevent depletion and are environmentally healthy. Moving toward a society that is not dependent on oil is seen as essential to avoiding societal collapse when non-renewable resources are depleted. "But degrowth is not just a quantitative question of doing less of the same, it is also and, more fundamentally, about a paradigmatic re-ordering of values, in particular the (re)affirmation of social and ecological values and a (re)politicisation of the economy".
The ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the Earth's ecosystems. It compares human demand with planet Earth's ecological capacity to regenerate. It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste. According to a 2005 Global Footprint Network report, inhabitants of high-income countries live off of 6.4 global hectares (gHa), while those from low-income countries live off of a single gHa. For example, while each inhabitant of Bangladesh lives off of what they produce from 0.56 gHa, a North American requires 12.5 gHa. Each inhabitant of North America uses 22.3 times as much land as a Bangladeshi. According to the same report, the average number of global hectares per person was 2.1, while current consumption levels have reached 2.7 hectares per person. In order for the world's population to attain the living standards typical of European countries, the resources of between three and eight planet Earths would be required. In order for world economic equality to be achieved with the current available resources, rich countries would have to reduce their standard of living through degrowth. The eventual reduction of all available resources would lead to a forced reduction in consumption. Controlled reduction of consumption would reduce the trauma of this change assuming no technological changes increase the planets carrying capacity.
Degrowth and sustainable development
Degrowth thought is in opposition to all forms of productivism (the belief that economic productivity and growth is the purpose of human organization). It is, thus, opposed to the current form of sustainable development. While the concern for sustainability does not contradict degrowth, sustainable development is rooted in mainstream development ideas that aim to increase capitalist growth and consumption. Degrowth therefore sees sustainable development as an oxymoron, as any development based on growth in a finite and environmentally stressed world is seen as inherently unsustainable. Critics of degrowth argue that a slowing of economic growth would result in increased unemployment, increase poverty and decrease income per capita. Many who understand the devastating environmental consequences of growth still advocate for economic growth in the South, even if not in the North. But, a slowing of economic growth would fail to deliver the benefits of degrowth—self-sufficiency, material responsibility—and would indeed lead to decreased employment. Rather, degrowth proponents advocate for a complete abandonment of the current (growth) economic system, suggesting that relocalizing and abandoning the global economy in the Global South would allow people of the South to become more self-sufficient and would end the overconsumption and exploitation of Southern resources by the North.
"The rebound effect"
Technologies designed to reduce resource use and improve efficiency are often touted as sustainable or green solutions. Degrowth literature, however, warns about these technological advances due to the "rebound effect". This concept is based on observations that when a less resource-exhaustive technology is introduced, behaviour surrounding the use of that technology may change, and consumption of that technology could increase or even offset any potential resource savings. In light of the rebound effect, proponents of degrowth hold that the only effective 'sustainable' solutions must involve a complete rejection of the growth paradigm and a move toward a degrowth paradigm. There are also fundamental limits to technological solutions in the pursuit of degrowth, as all engagements with technology increase the cumulutive matter-energy throughput.
Origins of the movement
The contemporary degrowth movement can trace its roots back to the anti-industrialist trends of the 19th century, developed in Great Britain by John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement (1819–1900), in the United States by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and in Russia by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910).
The concept of "degrowth" proper appeared during the 1970s, proposed by the Club of Rome think tank and intellectuals such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Jean Baudrillard, André Gorz, Edward Goldsmith and Ivan Illich, whose ideas reflect those of earlier thinkers, such as the economist E. J. Mishan, the industrial historian Tom Rolt, and the radical socialist Tony Turner. The writings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and J. C. Kumarappa also contain similar philosophies, particularly regarding his support of voluntary simplicity.
Club of Rome reports
In 1968, the Club of Rome, a think tank headquartered in Winterthur, Switzerland, asked researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a report on practical solutions to problems of global concern. The report, called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, became the first important study that indicated the ecological perils of the unprecedented economic growth the world was experiencing at the time.
The reports (also known as the Meadows Reports) are not strictly the founding texts of the movement, as they only advise zero growth, and have also been used to support the sustainable development movement. Still, they are considered the first official studies explicitly presenting economic growth as a key reason for the increase in global environmental problems such as pollution, shortage of raw materials, and the destruction of ecosystems. A second report was published in 1974, and together with the first, drew considerable attention to the topic.
Lasting influence of Georgescu-Roegen
The degrowth movement recognises Romanian American mathematician, statistician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen as the main intellectual figure inspiring the movement.:13–16 :548f :1742 :xi In his magnum opus on The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Georgescu-Roegen argues that economic scarcity is rooted in physical reality; that all natural resources are irreversibly degraded when put to use in economic activity; that the carrying capacity of Earth — that is, Earth's capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels — is bound to decrease sometime in the future as Earth's finite stock of mineral resources is presently being extracted and put to use; and consequently, that the world economy as a whole is heading towards an inevitable future collapse.
Georgescu-Roegen's intellectual inspiration to degrowth goes back to the 1970s. When Georgescu-Roegen delivered a lecture at the University of Geneva in 1974, he made a lasting impression on the young and newly graduated French historian and philosopher Jacques Grinevald, who had earlier been introduced to Georgescu-Roegen's magnum opus by an academic advisor. Georgescu-Roegen and Grinevald soon made friends, and Grinevald started devoting his research to a closer study of Georgescu-Roegen's work. As a result, in 1979 Grinevald published a French translation of a selection of Georgescu-Roegen's articles entitled Demain la décroissance: Entropie – Écologie – Économie ('Tomorrow, the Decline: Entropy – Ecology – Economy'). Georgescu-Roegen, who spoke French fluently, personally approved the use of the term décroissance in the title of the French translation. The book gained influence in French intellectual and academic circles from the outset. Later, the book was expanded and republished in 1995, and once again in 2006; however, the word Demain ('Tomorrow') was removed from the title of the book in these second and third editions.:1742 :15f
By the time Grinevald suggested the term décroissance to form part of the title of the French translation of Georgescu-Roegen's work, this term had already disseminated through French intellectual circles since the early 1970s to signify a deliberate political action to downscale the economy on a permanent and voluntary basis.:195 Simultaneously, but independently hereof, Georgescu-Roegen had criticised the ideas of The Limits to Growth and Herman Daly's steady-state economy in his pointed and polemical article on Energy and Economic Myths, delivered as a series of lectures from 1972 and onwards at various places, but not published in print before 1975. In this article, Georgescu-Roegen stated the following view:
|“|| [Authors who] were set exclusively on proving the impossibility of growth ... were easily deluded by a simple, now widespread, but false syllogism: Since exponential growth in a finite world leads to disasters of all kinds, ecological salvation lies in the stationary state. ... The crucial error consists in not seeing that not only growth, but also a zero-growth state, nay, even a declining state which does not converge toward annihilation, cannot exist forever in a finite environment.:366f
... [T]he important, yet unnoticed point [is] that the necessary conclusion of the arguments in favor of that vision [of a stationary state] is that the most desirable state is not a stationary, but a declining one. Undoubtedly, the current growth must cease, nay, be reversed.:368f [Emphasis in original]
When reading this particular passage of the text, Grinevald realised that no professional economist of any orientation had ever reasoned like this before. Grinevald also realised the striking conceptual resemblance between Georgescu-Roegen's viewpoint and the French debates progressing by the time; this resemblance then transformed into the title of the French edition. Taken together, the translation of Georgescu-Roegen's work into French both fed on and gave further impetus to the concept of décroissance in the country — and everywhere else in the francophone world — thereby creating something of an intellectual feedback loop.:1742 :15f :197f
By the 2000s, when décroissance was to be translated from French and back into English as the catchy banner for the new social movement, the original term 'decline' was now deemed inappropriate and misdirected for the purpose: 'Decline' usually refers to an unexpected, unwelcome and temporary economic recession, something bad to be avoided or quickly overcome. Instead, the neologism 'degrowth' was coined to signify a deliberate political action to downscale the economy on a permanent and voluntary basis — as in the prevailing French usage of the term — something good to be welcomed and maintained, or so followers believe.:548 :15f :874–876
When the first international degrowth conference of its kind was held in Paris in 2008, the participants bestowed a generous amount of credit and appreciation on Georgescu-Roegen and his work.:15f, 28, et passim Further, in his manifesto on Petit traité de la décroissance sereine ('Farewell to Growth'), leading French champion of the degrowth movement Serge Latouche has credited Georgescu-Roegen as 'a main theoretical source of degrowth.':13–16 Likewise, Italian degrowth theorist Mauro Bonaiuti has considered Georgescu-Roegen's work to be 'one of the analytical cornerstones of the degrowth perspective.':xi
If you try to measure the reduction in the rate of growth by taking into account damages caused to the environment and its consequences on our natural and cultural patrimony, you will generally obtain a result of zero or even negative growth. In 1991, the United States spent 115 billion dollars, or 2.1% of the GDP on the protection of the environment. The Clean Air Act increased this cost by 45 or 55 million dollars per year. [...] The World Resources Institute tried to measure the rate of the growth taking into account the punishment exerted on the natural capital of the world, with an eye towards sustainable development. For Indonesia, it found that the rate of growth between 1971 and 1984 would be reduced from 7.1 to 4% annually, and that was by taking only three variables into consideration: deforestation, the reduction in the reserves of oil and natural gas, and soil erosion.
Schumacher and Buddhist economics
E. F. Schumacher's 1973 book Small is Beautiful predates a unified degrowth movement, but nonetheless serves as an important basis for degrowth ideas. In this book he critiques the neo-liberal model of economic development, arguing that an increasing "standard of living", based on consumption, is absurd as a goal of economic activity and development. Instead, under what he refers to as Buddhist economics, we should aim to maximize well-being while minimizing consumption.
Ecological and social issues
In January 1972 Edward Goldsmith and Robert Prescott-Allen—editors of The Ecologist journal—published A Blueprint for Survival, which called for a radical programme of decentralisation and deindustrialisation to prevent what the authors referred to as "the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet".
The movement has also included international conferences, promoted by the network Research&Degrowth (R&D), in Paris (2008), Barcelona (2010), Montreal Venice (both 2012), Leipzig (2014) and Budapest (2016).
Barcelona Conference (2010)
The First International Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity of Paris (2008) was a discussion about the financial, social, cultural, demographic, environmental crisis caused by the deficiencies of capitalism and an explanation of the main principles of the degrowth. The Second International Conference of Barcelona on the other hand focused on specific ways to implement a degrowth society.
Concrete proposals have been developed for future political actions, including:
- Promotion of local currencies, elimination of fiat money and reforms of interest
- Transition to non-profit and small scale companies
- Increase of local commons and support of participative approaches in decision-making
- Reducing working hours and facilitation of volunteer work
- Reusing empty housing and co-housing
- Introduction of the basic income guarantee and an income ceiling built on a maximum-minimum ratio
- Limitation of the exploitation of natural resources and preservation of the biodiversity and culture by regulations, taxes and compensations
- Minimize the waste production with education and legal instruments
- Elimination of mega infrastructures, transition from a car-based system to a more local, biking, walking-based one.
- Suppression of advertising from the public space
In spite of the real willingness of reform and the development of numerous solutions, the conference of Barcelona didn’t have a big influence on the world economic and political system. Many critiques have been made concerning the proposals, mostly about the financial aspects, and this has refrained changes to occur.
Degrowth around the world
Marxists distinguish between two types of growth: that which is useful to mankind, and that which simply exists to increase profits for companies. Marxists consider that it is the nature and control of production that is the determinant, and not the quantity. They believe that control and a strategy for growth are the pillars that enable social and economic development. According to Jean Zin, while the justification for degrowth is valid, it is not a solution to the problem. However, other Marxist writers have adopted positions close to the de-growth perspective. For example, John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, in common with David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Sweezy and others focus on endless capital accumulation as the basic principle and goal of capitalism. This is the source of economic growth and, in the view of these writers, is unsustainable. Foster and Magdoff develop Marx's own concept of the metabolic rift, something he noted in the exhaustion of soils by capitalist systems of food production, though this is not unique to capitalist systems of food production as seen in the Aral Sea.
Systems theoretical critique
In stressing the negative rather than the positive side(s) of growth, the majority of degrowth proponents remains focused on (de-)growth, thus co-performing and further sustaining the actually criticised unsustainable growth obsession. One way out of this paradox might be in changing the reductionist vision of growth as ultimately economic concept, which proponents of both growth and degrowth commonly imply, for a broader concept of growth that allows for the observation of growth in other function systems of society. A corresponding recoding of growth-obsessed or capitalist organisations has recently been proposed.
- A Blueprint for Survival
- Club of Rome
- Development criticism
- Ecological economics
- Edward Goldsmith
- Ezra J. Mishan
- François Partant
- Genuine progress indicator
- L-shaped recession
- The Limits to Growth
- Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen
- Political ecology
- Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World
- Serge Latouche
- Simple living
- Steady-state economy
- Paradox of thrift
- Tim Jackson (economist)
- Transition Towns
- Uneconomic growth
- Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt
- The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries
- Post growth
- Buen vivir
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