Degrowth is a call for a radical break from traditional growth-based models of society whether ‘left’ or ‘right’, to invent new ways of living together in a true democracy, respectful of the values of equality and freedom, based on sharing and cooperation and an economy that reduces the use of natural resources and energy. — International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas, Montreal, May 2012.
The term degrowth is a translation of the French word decroissance which was first referred to by ecological economist, Nicholas Georgescu- Roegen in his 1971 paper on ‘entropy and the economic process’ which brought into prominence the ecological limits to growth as it relates to the industrial economic growth model. The discussion which Georgescu-Roegen started led to a degrowth movement in France that critiqued conventional growth economics on the grounds that growth in the highly developed nations had become socially counter-productive, uneconomic and ecologically unsustainable. To degrowth advocates, ecological concerns like the depletion of natural resources, stagnating energy supplies, pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity, and the ever-expanding use of resources by the developed world at the expense of the developing world all pointed to the end of the classical economic growth model.
The French degrowth movement also built upon a tradition within French political culture, critical of the social ills related to consumerism and the misguided assumptions of the economic growth model. The writings of philosophers and scholars like Marx, Gandhi, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, Ivan Illich, E.F. Schumacher and others have informed the movement. While France has been the centre of the much of the degrowth movement, it is gaining traction in other parts of Europe and in North America where it is associated to a larger degree with ecological economics and the biophysical limits to growth. In North America, ecological economics founder Herman Daly, York University Professor and author of Managing Without Growth Peter Victor, co-author of The Ecological Footprint Professor William Rees, and co-author of Energy and the Wealth of Nations Professor Charles Hall are associated with the degrowth movement and indeed the latter three all spoke at the most recent ‘degrowth conference of the Americas.
Of particular interest however, are the parallels between western degrowth discourse and indigenous perspectives and discourse which have emerged in Latin America, especially a model called ‘live well, not better’, (Vivir Bien in Spanish, Sumak Kawsay in Quechua, commonly referred as Buen Vivir ) and now a central element of Bolivia and Ecuador’s political framework. One Ecuadorian economist concludes:
Of the alternative concepts that have been proposed , the one that presents the more options within its theoretical framework to replace the old notions of development and economic growth, is Sumak Kawsay, good living.
As can be deduced from its name, degrowth advocates the downscaling of production and consumption or the contraction of the economy as an imperative for addressing the ills of the dominant economic growth system, not only to preserve the conditions necessary for long-term ecosystem and human survival, but also in order to live better here and now. It is important to note that degrowth proponents do not call for contraction of the economy within the existing neo-classical economic paradigm, where contraction is generally understood as Recession or Depression and the miseries they bring, but rather a planned economic contraction or equitable down scaling, leading to an alternative paradigm where the focus is on ecology, participatory democracy, community and a “good life”. In this regard work sharing, consuming less, inventing creative ways of living together, devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community, and voluntary simplicity are all important elements of sustainable degrowth. Here we see the similarities with the Latin American indigenous concept of ‘Buen vivir’ which emphasizes the harmonious relation between human beings and their environment and between humans in their communities. In fact different societies around the world have similar views of this shared basic aim of a good life as e.g. beumran meaning thriving or flourishing, as used by the early Arab historian and philosopher Ibn Kaldûn and Gandhi’s swadeshi-sarvodaya.
Although degrowth is not considered a blueprint for change or an economic theory, many ideas for shifting the economic paradigm are discussed under its umbrella, such things as, monetary reform, substituting GDP with well- being or gross national happiness indices, income redistribution, relocalizing industrial manufacturing and agriculture, new forms of governance, the importance of citizenship and participatory democracy, embedding the economy within the social and cultural context, the ecological case for new kinds of laws and treaties, trade deglobalization, steady state economics, ecological economics and managing degrowth.
It is obvious that the growing economic, ecological and financial crises facing the planet and humanity necessitate thinking outside the box in order to challenge the nostrums of the growth economy. Within that context, degrowth serves a valuable function as a symbolic word that challenges the ‘tyranny of growth’ and the absurd pursuit of growth at all costs. Some also suggest that the term degrowth has the advantage of not being easily usurped or captured by proponents of the present flawed global economic growth model in the way that the so-called ‘green economy’ has been appropriated.
Degrowth is also useful in the present day context of growing threats of ecosystem and financial collapse because it frames the problem as a paradigm shift which opens the door to questioning the values, assumptions, and knowledge base underpinning the present economic growth system. In this respect degrowth has been referred to as a ‘tool’ for initiating a more radical break with dominant economic thinking. One well known degrowth academic put it this way:
…. degrowth is not just a quantitative question of doing less of the same, it is … more fundamentally, about a paradigmatic re-ordering of values, in particular the (re)affirmation of social and ecological values and a (re)politicization of the economy”
Degrowth academics also speak of ‘decolonizing the mind’ or ‘decolonizing the imagination’ noting that once economic growth is recognized as an abstract idea and not an objective reality one can begin to seriously envision and espouse alternatives. Some in the movement speak of this as ‘escaping the economy’.
In the same manner Buen Vivir allows for the escape from the old notions of economic growth because it provides an alternate economic paradigm already being tested within certain Latin American countries even if only on the fringes at this time.
Another important facet of degrowth is that after forty years, it has a respectable and growing literature found in academic journals, conference proceedings from International Conferences, Paris (2008) and Barcelona (2010) and two North American Conferences, Vancouver (2010) and Montreal (2012), in respected newspapers like Le Monde Diplomatique and its own monthly magazine La Decroissance, numerous blogs and online fora, research papers from an Institute devoted to degrowth,, as well as numerous books and text books. Likewise in Latin America there is a growing literature, some conference proceedings and considerable analysis and proposals for a post-industrial or post- development world based on their own unique indigenous perspective of Buen Vivir.
This constitutes an invaluable knowledge base and resource for not only the degrowth and indigenous movements but also for those in other related movements and disciplines who seek to better understand the current breakdown of the Neoliberal neoclassical economic growth model, its impacts, and to envision alternative economic futures.
Degrowth also acknowledges and encompasses related ideas, concepts and movements such as the end of growth, post-growth development, peak oil, voluntary simplicity, transition towns etc, alternatives to GDP, etc., as can be seen by reviewing the roster of speakers at the various conferences of late and recent writings. In the same manner those writing form other related perspectives, disciplines and movements are beginning to reference ‘degrowth. e.g. Richard Heinberg in the final section “Post- Growth Economics” of his latest book The End of Growth, reviews contributions from alternative economists and schools of alternate economic thought, including a short discussion of the origins of degrowth and philosophical influences.
Degrowth has also garnered more international attention of late, particularly after Economist Tim Jackson’s report Prosperity Without Growth was issued in March 2009 by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission. As noted in the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) annual report Life without Growth: Alternatives and Complements to GDP measured Growth, Professor Jackson’s report was remarkable in being the first such treatment of the topic issued by an official national government body and in that respect has become one of the most widely read current introductions to degrowth and an essential reference on the topic. The ISHES report also cites the collaborative work of Jackson and Canadian Professor Peter Victor which provides the key elements for an alternative economic pathway the Degrowth movement proposes to the world with a vision for transformative change.
At the same time a recent article Greetings from the New Economy, describing a recent June 2012 Conference of the New Economics Institute characterized this US based New Economy Movement as a large tent with differing perspectives, amongst which is found those focused on a no-growth economy. Prominent amongst the no-growth advocates is Boston College Professor, Juliet Schor.
In general the degrowth movement and certainly the Buen Vivir indigenous approach are critical of Capitalism, Colonialism, Imperialism and Neoliberalism and as such tend to reject the concept of sustainable development as oxymoronic, rooted as it is in mainstream development ideas that aim to increase capitalist growth and consumption.
Finally it is perhaps worth noting that the European originators of the concept of degrowth considered a potential function for degrowth as providing a platform for emerging discussion on the necessity of a political – economic shift that moves us beyond growth. In this respect the recent conference in Montreal provided such a platform for people who included academics and scholars from diverse academic disciplines, Institutes and Research Centres, NGO activists, and indigenous peoples all focused on finding an economic alternative to growth. Latin American scholar, Eduardo Gudynas sees a similar function for Buen Vivir suggesting that the rich and multiple discourses around Buen Vivir, amount to a political platform for different visions of alternatives to development.
In conclusion, degrowth heralds the need for a new political economic and societal paradigm and has opened up a space for initiating and framing discussions, analyses and strategies focused on making that essential transformation a reality.
Samuel Alexander Planned Economic Contraction: The Emerging Case for Degrowthhttp://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1941089
Joan Martínez-Alier a, Unai Pascual b, Franck-Dominique Vivien c, Edwin Zaccai .Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future prospects of an emergent paradigm. http://www.web.ca/~bthomson/degrowth/degrowth_history.pdf
John Dillon. The Economics of Sustainability. KAIROS Backgrounder. July 2010http://www.kairoscanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/SUS-GF-G20-EconomicsSustainability.pdf
Valerie Fournier. Escaping from the Economy. http://www.web.ca/~bthomson/degrowth/fournier_the_politics_of_degrowth_13mar08.pdf
Eduardo Gudynas. Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow. 2011 http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v54/n4/full/dev201186a.html
Life Beyond Growth. 2012. Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan. http://lifebeyondgrowth.wordpress.com/
Judy Kennedy. The Growth of Degrowth (Part 1) Campaign for fair, sustainable economy is gaining ground. http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/growth-degrowth-part-1
Serge Latouche. Degrowth economics. Le Monde Dkiplomatique. http://mondediplo.com/2004/11/14latouche/
Quebec Movement for convivial degrowth Mouvement Quebecois pour une decroissance conviviale.English translation http://www.decroissance.qc.ca/mouvement.html Bob Thomson (email@example.com)
Abby Scher. Greetings from the new Economy. CommonDreams.org Aug 4th, 2012
Bob Thomson. Pachikuti: Indigenous Perspectives and Degrowth. Conference Proceedings, 2nd conference on Economic Degrowth For Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity. Barcelona March 26th- 29th, 2010
Bob Thomson, Ottawa, 11 March 2011. Draft Bibliography on Convivial Degrowth http://www.web.ca/~bthomson/degrowth/draft_degrowth_bibliography.html
Degrowth Conference Barcelona 2010, March 26 – 29, 2010 the Second International Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity. http://barcelona.degrowth.org/
International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas. http://montreal.degrowth.org
Janet M Eaton presented on Degrowth and Trade Deglobalization at the Montreal International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas, May 2012. That paper will later be posted on this site.