What Is Economic Degrowth?

By Glenn Ashton · 17 Nov 2010

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Picture: spencerpaulc
Picture: spencerpaulc

Our economic system is premised on the notion of endless growth. Its unintentional manifestations include global warming, dwindling resources, proliferating pollution, the accelerating extinction of species, water and food shortages, all set against the backdrop of a burgeoning global population. 

We live in an era that has generated more wealth than any previous known civilisation, yet remain surrounded by inequality. The market has failed to deliver on the promises of its supporters. In fact, we face an unresolved and deepening economic crisis. Ideologically driven geopolitical resource wars have further eroded the fragile reserves of the West.

The developed world’s accumulation of “stuff,” inherent to our consumer culture, has shifted wealth away from the historically dominant nations to the new emerging economies, led by China and India. 

While pundits may dispute the scale and causes of our economic crisis, the politicians and economists fiddle at the fringes. Wealth continues to be generated for the select few, while the global system creaks under the strain of debt piled upon speculative instruments. This is propped up by an apparently healthy stock market driven by dollar printing presses running amok.

In light of all of the above, it would seem wise to propose, examine, explore and analyse other economic models, which are capable of sustaining both humanity and life on earth.

Perhaps the most revolutionary solution – revolutionary only because it challenges the foundations of our existing system, as any good revolutionary concept should – is that known in French as 'décroissance,' translated as degrowth. 

Degrowth examines the flipside of an economy founded on growth. It emphasises putting a human face in how we transact and perhaps more importantly, interact. After its initial conceptualisation by Romanian economist, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, it has been elegantly expounded upon by many other articulate thinkers like Serge Latouche. Its roots lie in the Club of Rome report “The Limits of Growth” and can be traced back to other philosophers like Thoureau and Ghandi, who emphasised concepts like simplicity, justice and equality.

It is difficult to pin down exactly what degrowth is. It is not a model for an alternative economic system. It is more a tool for opening up a discussion on the failures of and alternatives to the status quo.

For instance we need to consider whether our primary reason to interact with strangers is to exploit and extract money from them. Surely happiness is more important than exploitation? Presently both rich and poor, exploited and exploiter alike are unhappy, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Degrowth supports ways to achieve a far more functional society than our present model, which externalises damage to both psyches and planet.

Degrowth is not so much a concept as a call to arms, the initiation of a cultural counter current. It is not a concept but a keyword to provide space for discourse. There is no textbook on degrowth. It is not the antithesis of “growth,” as communism is simplistically portrayed as the opposite of capitalism. Proponents reject polarised perspectives.

Instead, degrowth enables us to examine different ways of doing things, placing different emphases on what is important to us as humans and as society. It does not attempt to be a one size fits all prescription like capitalism, socialism or any other -ism. It is rather the promotion of a non-destructive, humanistic economy and society. 

Surely a steady state economy and society, where we have enough but not too much, is far more satisfying than one in which competitive driven insecurity dominates?

The most rabid (and uniformed) critiques of degrowth inevitably dismiss proponents of degrowth as communists (or liberals in the USA!), who wish to take away from the rich to compensate the poor, consequently de-motivating everyone.

This is not at all what is proposed. Rather, degrowth is visualised as the birth of steering our technologically sophisticated world toward a balanced contraction or steady state system that recognises and values everyone’s worth, not one that devours everyone who fails, just as it devours resources in order to sustain itself. 

We cannot continue to externalise the impacts of our present model. We cannot endlessly shift production to exploit poor workers in South Africa, Myanmar, China or anywhere else, in a competitive race to the bottom. Degrowth suggests that self-sufficient, participatory local economies are more effective and human than competitive, profit driven and globalised concepts of growth.

What prevents us from placing a true - not exploitative - value on the products and components of the world and the individuals that contribute the value? Proponents of degrowth are keenly observing the present economic crisis, where obscure financial instruments, controlled by young graduates driven by nothing more than greed and technical knowledge, inevitably shift the system towards an end-time entropy.

The reality is we are faced by two converging end-times. One is economic meltdown, the other a just as inevitable ecological meltdown. These two events are incontrovertibly linked if we continue down our existing path.

So what is the problem with creating a green economy based on reparation, whose core values are founded on restoration, not exploitation? Surely it makes far more sense to create a wetland than to destroy one? Even in capitalist terms, wetlands are worth anything between US$2000 and US$80,000 per hectare per year, through the value of natural services they provide.

Is it sufficient to place an economic value on natural services? Why not rather provide for and reward healthy ecosystems, such as wetlands that attenuate floods, provide clean water, fish, food, and fibre? By examining what really is valuable, constructive shifts in perspective can occur. Thus opportunities open to reclaim the humanity in how we transact, while including and redesigning the systems that sustain us.

Degrowth also forces us to re-examine how we use language. Words are all too often usurped and abused to the point of meaninglessness. Just what is sustainable about development? Is sustainable development even possible using the present model? What is green about subsidising fossil fuels, industrial fishing fleets and strip mining that destroy our planet, water and air? Greenwash has made greed interchangeable with green, turning the purity, logic and beauty of language on its head.

In a purportedly democratic world, embracing the alternative of degrowth enables us to question why and how democracy has been usurped by corporations with all of the rights of people but few of the responsibilities? Why are human rights allowed to be trumped by those of predatory corporates? Degrowth impels us to reclaim power from agents implicit in the corruption of democracy by profit driven anti-democratic principles and forces.

Many insist such lofty notions are but empty dreams. But what about the empty dreams built upon the empty promises of a failing economic system which devastates communities and environments? 

Surely degrowth offers sweeter options than the bitter taste of poisoned water and the reek of acrid air. What of the abstraction of land exploited beyond its carrying capacity, where it has simply become a medium in which patented seeds are planted and chemicals applied to grow what we unthinkingly refer to as “food,” supplying a fast food culture which has more to do with kill than fill. The flipside is the slow food movement, epitomising the disparate attractions of degrowth.

Degrowth is more than simply the opposite of growth. It is an idea, a seed that allows us to reshape not only perceptions but also our world. Degrowth opens us up to possibilities far too complex to describe and analyse in such a brief exposition as this.

Through stimulating a more comprehensive discourse around the possibilities raised by considering degrowth – which will never be a one size fits all for both North and South, developed and undeveloped in the same way as the existing model claims to be – we can at least open ourselves to examine novel solutions to the daunting challenges we face.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Catherine Wijnberg
16 Nov

Easy to Say, How to Do?

Thanks Glenn for an interesting article which raises some important thought-provoking points. Of course the real challenge is how to move this laudable concept into a doable action.

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14 May

Degrowth Can Be a Viable Option

Degrowth could be a lot more viable politically and doable if it did not involve decreasing incomes. This is the issue that the Depopulation-Green Economic Environment strategy addresses. By decreasing the number of people that GDP is divided by, incomes can remain the same or even increase while degrowth occurs.

That gives us both a doable and politically viable degrowth strategy.

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