What is, and isn't, degrowth?

Staff-student discussion

Dr Julien-François Gerber and MA student Arca Arguelles-Caouette discuss degrowth

Julien-François (J): For me, there is something very much obvious about degrowth. We use way too many natural resources, everybody knows this; we have scientific study after scientific study showing us how massive our use of resources is. We need to decrease our use of resources, not just in the current system, but also rethink the kind of society we want. At a very basic level I think that’s what degrowth is about. But it’s not only about reducing; it’s also about redistributing resources better; this redistribution aspect of degrowth is essential.

We need to have a collective discussion about what is required and what is unnecessary, and we need to have this collective reflection beyond all the noises of capitalist modernity.

How about you? What is degrowth for you?

Arca (A): I agree. But for me degrowth also involves collective, bottom-up activism; initiatives and every-day practices that are already happening. Degrowth is not going to happen, it’s already happening in local and specific places. I think it’s also an invitation to critically rethink our lifestyles and our societies. It also problematizes growth as tied to deeply racial, gendered and extractive hierarchies and dependencies.

Degrowth brings in a new unit of analysis which moves away from the rational individual to really thinking about communities. And this brings in more thinking about who is included and excluded in communities.

But maybe we should also look at what degrowth is not.

J: I agree, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the word degrowth. A lot of people think that it has some kind of negative meaning built into it. It’s important to understand that the word degrowth was meant as a slogan, introduced in social movements in the early 2000s: it’s not a concept. What I like about the word ‘degrowth’ is that it really strikes at the core of capitalist modernity: the idea that more is better, that we need more stuff, more technological progress, that it’s never enough. These are key ideas of modernity. Degrowth is meant to trigger discussion about this, to provoke reflection and to go beyond the notion of sustainable development. For degrowthers, sustainable development is an oxymoron because in the word ‘development’ there is often an implicit association with growth. We never talk about the end of development; we’re supposed to develop forever.

Degrowth is not just about less of the same; it’s not just less consumption and less production ... that already has a name, it's called a recession.

A: In line with that idea of confusing degrowth and sustainable development, I would argue that they both build from a different logic; for one thing degrowth criticizes growth and it also goes beyond the individual, the agency of the individual. It is not limited to the individual’s acts, choices and lifestyles. Degrowth looks at other measures beyond the merely individual; it also advocates values or ethics around well-being which can include sharing, caring, nurturing, horizontality. It’s also about re-questioning our social relationships.

J: I’d like to add something about the circular economy. Many degrowthers would embrace the circular economy, they would agree that we need to ‘close the loops’ and try to recycle as much as we can, but they would add that we cannot just focus on circularity without problematizing growth. You cannot have a circular economy that grows. A lot of people within circular economy circles still have this naivety, that we can continue to expand the economy as long as we recycle. Degrowth argues that we also need to stop unnecessary consumption and production.

A: Indeed. Degrowth doesn’t just look at consumption but also at the problem of production, especially in this period of climate crisis. It’s not greener energies, or climate-smart technologies or more sustainable development that are going to bring us solutions. Degrowth really looks at production; why to do we still have extractive economies, or over-dimensioning, over-producing and over-consuming systems?

J: Right. Degrowth is not just about less of the same; it’s not just less consumption and less production, while everything else remains the same. That already has a name, it’s called a recession. Degrowth is not a recession; it’s a rethinking of the economic and social structures that we live in.

A: Do you have any examples of degrowth in practice?

Degrowth is not just for industrialized countries, it is also relevant in the global South.

J: There’s a lot to be learned from many different examples: from First Nations in the context of the Americas; from historical and indigenous societies that were often absolutely non-growing: for 95% of human history we were living in societies that were not growing. From a more modern, contemporary perspective, we could say that Cuban agriculture of the 80s is a nice example: all its relationships with the ex-USSR were cut and it had to completely rethink the way it organized its economy. It was the largest-scale transition to agro-ecology ever witnessed so far, and it was pretty successful. It had all kinds of sustainability indicators going up, agroecological production was doing well and health indicators were also on the up. Unfortunately, at the end of the 90 it went back to a normal growth-based model.

Do you have any examples to share?

A: For my research paper I’m looking at the re-appropriation and sharing of peasant-driven technology by peasant farmers in France. A peasant cooperative, L’Atelier Paysan, advocates the re-appropriation agricultural tools that are made by and for peasant farmers. Related to degrowth are the ideas that knowledge(s) and know-hows (skills) should be for everyone and should be accessible to everyone. This goes against the idea of dispossession by accumulation. The peasant farmers take part in the cooperative’s activities where they learn how to build, assemble, fix and repair. They create and test these tools and technologies that are adapted to their farming grounds and their practices. The idea is also to share technologies and be able to repair them; to know how to repair these agricultural, peasant-driven tools and to advocate for more ‘human’, more ecological and resilient farming models. What L’Atelier Paysan is doing is a very concrete case of degrowth in an industrialized country. However, degrowth is not just for industrialized countries, it is also relevant in the global South.

J: Yes, that’s true. Very often people think that degrowth comes from the global North and therefore only applies to industrialized countries, but it’s striking that many of the fundamental degrowth ideas come from the global South. For example, Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was a scholar from Sri Lanka, coined the term ‘post-industrialism’ in 1914. What he says about post-industrialism resembles degrowth. Two of the forefathers of degrowth, Ernst Schumacher and Ivan Illich, were both influenced by an Indian economist, Joseph Kumarappa who was very much a degrowth thinker, not to mention Gandhi and many others. The critique of growth also applies to many sectors of so-called developing countries, where the ideology of growth has taken solid root. Having said that, I totally agree that the first economies that need to degrow right now remain industrialized economies as they account for the lion’s share of the global use of resources.

You can farm organically whilst still damaging the soil in the long term: you can create a desert of just soil and nutrients.

It’s interesting to note that the country that arguably gets the closest to degrowth is not located in the global North but in the global South. I’m thinking of Bhutan. It’s not a very egalitarian country and not a paradise, but it has put many interesting policies in place that in some ways get close to a post-growth economy. For example, Bhutan has its own macroeconomic indicator, the Gross National Happiness Index; it has free education and free healthcare for everyone; 50% of the country is under protected areas; the constitution states that 60% of the country should be covered  by forests; it limits foreign investments and is not part of the WTO; it wants to transition to fully organic agriculture; it bans ads on billboards and in the streets (typical of the pressure we are put under to consume more) among many other policies.

I was wondering whether the people you worked with had a link with the degrowth movement there because France is a kind of stronghold of the movement in the world. In France, the notion of degrowth is widely discussed, even in the biggest newspapers. There’s even a political party focusing on degrowth issues. Did you notice the presence of these ideas?

A: Most of my encounters for my research paper were with peasant farmers. Our discussions did not explicitly talk about degrowth, but more on thinking critically about technology; of being techno-critical. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet people in the degrowth movement. Some of the peasant farmers I met were also leaning towards more agro-ecological farming models. They’re interested in less intensive organic farming and in practices that are less harmful to the soil. Because you can farm organically whilst still damaging the soil in the long term: you can create a desert of just soil and nutrients. And so there this idea of hosting other living beings than just the farmers on the farm.  The peasant farmers I met are also conscious that their tools should be used by different people on the farm, so tools that can be used by anybody (to some extent).

I’m trying to expand my understandings of what farming ground is and of the boundaries between what is natural or not. For this I’m following some of the ideas put forward by feminist political ecology scholars. I’m interested in how this field of studies contributes to thinking about technology by asking questions about who can access and use these technologies; understanding where they are used and who’s included in their development. Technologies are used in environments that aren’t merely ‘natural’ but are socially and naturally constructed. Degrowth should include such contributions from feminist political ecology as well as thinking about who is included in the notion of community.

How can we transition to a degrowth society?

J: I could close by saying something on the transition to degrowth.

A: Yes, that’s very relevant.

J: How can we transition to a degrowth society? This is always a difficult question because we live in a historical period where we have one system that is dominant globally - capitalism - and it’s difficult to see the end of it right now. Erik Olin Wright said that societal transformations take place through three different paths. The first is what he called a ‘rupture’, meaning a revolution, which doesn’t seem so appropriate right now for degrowth. The second is ‘symbiosis’, which is basically reformist change, working at the policy level towards a more degrowth-oriented society. Personally, I have my doubts about it, as I think we can only go so far within a state-centric framework. I think something more radical is necessary, and that would be the third way in Wright’s typology. He called this ‘interstitial politics’, which refers to the building of autonomous pockets within capitalism. They would be degrowth pockets that would slowly expand and then connect with each other, not necessarily going through policy makers. Policy makers can encourage these pockets, but they are not essential to them, at least not immediately. This requires organizing at the grassroots level in different ways.

Organizing for degrowth within growth-addicted capitalism necessarily involves social struggles. Here I totally agree with Murat Arsel who recently published a working paper saying that some authors within the degrowth literature neglect social conflicts. I think social mobilizations and conflicts are a key component in the transition to a degrowth society. One possible agent of change could be the people involved in environmental justice movements or ecological conflicts in general. This is one of the most powerful socio-political forces in the world right now. Thousands of people today are literally fighting economic growth when it takes the form of a new mine or a new plantation, a power-plant or a new highway. People don’t want them and are fighting against such forms of so-called development. So there is perhaps a natural alliance between environmental justice and degrowth. That’s something I really believe in. I think if you only have narrow conflicts around ecological issues you won’t get very far. You need a degrowth approach that gives you a broader view. And similarly, if you are only concerned with degrowth without a political force, you will go nowhere. So there is perhaps an alliance there to be made.

A: Yes, I agree that environmental justice can contribute to degrowth and to bringing these two ideas together into a conversation. Environmental justice understands that climate change, for example, affects people differently; it’s already affecting the most vulnerable people and it’s also deepening already-existing social inequalities. These elements of environmental justice have to be understood in degrowth. It also brings up an understanding that humanity is not universal; degrowth moves away from the universalist view of humanity and understands that there are deep-rooted racist and gender hierarchies and social inequalities that are continuing within capitalism and growth.

J: These frictions are not yet fully explored in the degrowth literature. It’s still a young movement so there is a lot to add and a lot to clarify and, as you say, there are more struggles on many other fronts.

Arca Arguelles-Caouette

Arca Arguelles-Caouette is completing her MA in Development Studies at ISS

Julien-François Gerber is Assistant Professor of Environment and Development at ISS


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