Where does the concept of degrowth come from?
The term “sustainable degrowth” appeared in France in 2002 as a slogan used to criticise the concept of sustainable development. Its origins are diverse 1 and go back to the emergence of political ecology in the 1970s with authors such as André Gorz and the critique of wage labour, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and bioeconomics, Cornelius Castoriadis and radical autonomy, François d’Eaubonne and ecofeminism, Ivan Illich and conviviality, Marylin Waring and the critique of national accounting. The idea was theorised in France by academics such as Serge Latouche2 and Paul Ariès3 before being developed abroad under the name of “degrowth”.
How can it be defined today?
Degrowth is a planned and democratic reduction of production and consumption in rich countries to reduce environmental pressures and inequalities, while improving well-being. It has four main characteristics: sustainability, justice, well-being and democracy. Unlike a recession, degrowth is not accidental and general but chosen and selective. It is a societal project that aims to abandon the race for monetary accumulation in favour of a vision of development centred on social health and ecological resilience.
Degrowth is often described in a rather caricatural way as a return to the stone age or the candle. What exactly is it?
This is a misunderstanding. Countries like the Netherlands or South Korea have the same quality of life as the United States, Australia, or Canada, but with a much smaller ecological footprint, and a country like Costa Rica even achieves high social performance without exceeding its ecological budgets4. Producing or consuming less can mean living better, in the same way that eating less red meat, for example can mean better health. The challenge is to reorganise the economy to allow this biophysical system to take place in the most just and user-friendly way possible. This is why those advocating for degrowth employ a wide range of tools, ranging from the reduction of working hours5 (to share the available jobs in sectors in decline), to social security food projects6 (to ensure that no one falls into food poverty), or the introduction of a carbon card7 to reduce the use of fossil fuels. A very modern programme that has nothing to do with stones and candles!
Wouldn’t it be enough to make growth greener?
We can make a small part of growth greener, but only for some environmental pressures (for greenhouse gases, but not for resource use or impacts on biodiversity) and never completely8. So we need to continue making production greener through eco-efficiency (the current strategy), but also invest in energy sufficiency and find ways to reduce production and consumption.
Has degrowth become the subject of research?
Yes, there are now more than 500 academic papers in English9. There are concept papers on the challenges of degrowth in sectors such as transport10 or tourism11, empirical studies on the role of inequality in global warming12 and macroeconomic modelling scenarios13. The subject is growing in popularity and universities such as Barcelona, Leeds, Vienna, and Lund are beginning to specialise in this area.
So degrowth does not necessarily entail a great anti-capitalist revolution?
Capitalism is a system that favours the accumulation of capital. The problem is that in an economy where environmental pressures are correlated with GDP, accumulation comes at the expense of ecosystems (and very often without increasing welfare). Economists who study degrowth agree that it will not be possible under the constraints of the current economic system. It is therefore necessary to build another economic system that could thrive without being forced to keep growing. Some speak of a welfare economy14, a social and solidarity economy15, or a permacircular economy16. The main idea is that capitalism is a system which ill-adapted for the ecological challenges of the 21st Century. The big question is which institutions to keep and which to abolish.
Isn’t there a contradiction in wanting society to move towards energy sufficiency, while at the same time providing everyone with a universal income, which seems more like a Keynesian stimulus tool?
That depends on the type of universal income! To organise degrowth, some people propose an Unconditional Autonomy Allowance17 which would be given partly in euros, partly in local currencies, and partly as access rights to public services. There are other tools such as social guarantees18, or universal basic income19, or the ecological transition income20. The aim is not to revive the economy as a whole, but rather to favour certain sectors (eco-innovations and social innovations, active mobility, donation practices, social housing etc.) and to penalise others (financial speculation, advertising, car production, aviation, the meat industry).
In concrete terms, how can we push for a reduction in consumption?
If environmental pressures are correlated with income, we will not all approach “deconsumption” in the same way. The latest figures show that the richest 10% of the population is responsible for half of the world’s emissions21. To tackle the climate crisis, we will therefore have to drastically reduce inequalities. This will require sophisticated tools that combine ecological efficiency and social justice, such as combining a wealth tax with a carbon penalty22. Furthermore, this is not just a problem of consumption, but also of production. Companies do not simply respond to consumer demand, they also encourage purchases through advertising and programmed obsolescence. To put an economy on a diet, we must first curb these calls for consumption by regulating advertising and eliminating programmed obsolescence.