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Degrowth: is this the end of GDP?

“Degrowth goes far beyond reduction of GDP”

On February 1st, 2022 |
4 mins reading time
3
“Degrowth goes far beyond reduction of GDP”
Timothée Parrique
Timothée Parrique
Researcher in Ecological Economics at the School of Economics, Lund University, Sweden
Key takeaways
  • Degrowth is a planned and democratic reduction of production and consumption in rich countries to reduce environmental pressures and inequality, while improving well-being.
  • Economists who study degrowth agree that it is not possible under the current constraints of our economy. As such, another economic system, which could thrive without being forced to keep growing, is needed.
  • Environmental pressures are correlated with income. The latest available figures tell us that the richest 10% of individuals are responsible for half of global emissions.
  • We can make a small portion of growth greener, but only when considering some environmental pressures. For Timothée Parrique we must therefore continue to transform production through eco-efficiency, while investing in sufficiency, and find ways to reduce production and consumption.

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.

Interview by Julie de la Brosse
1Pour en savoir plus sur les orig­ines mul­ti­ples de la décrois­sance, voir la col­lec­tion Les précurseurs de la crois­sance de Serge Latouche aux édi­tions Le Pas­sager Clan­des­tin
2Serge Latouche, Le pari de la décrois­sance, 2006
3Paul Ariès, Décrois­sance ou bar­barie, 2005
4Fan­ning et al., The social short­fall and eco­log­i­cal over­shoot of nations, Nature Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, novem­bre 2021
5Gior­gos Kallis et al., « Fri­day Off »: Reduc­ing work­ing hours in Europe, Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, avril 2013
6https://​secu​rite​-sociale​-ali​men​ta​tion​.org
7Mathilde Szu­ba, Carte car­bone : plutôt qu’une taxe, un quo­ta pour chaque citoyen ? Social­ter, juin 2019
8Voir le récent rap­port de Car­bone 4 Décou­plage et crois­sance verte, le rap­port Decou­pling Debunked, et une revue sys­té­ma­tique des études empirique sur le décou­plage : Hel­mut Haberl et al., A sys­tem­at­ic review of the evi­dence on decou­pling of GDP, resource use and GHG emis­sions, juin 2020
9Pour une liste com­plète : https://​tim​o​th​eepar​rique​.com/​a​c​a​d​e​m​i​c​-​a​r​t​i​cles/, et pour une revue de la lit­téra­ture sur le sujet : Gior­gos Kallis, Research On Degrowth, Annu­al Review of Envi­ron­ment and Resources, octo­bre 2018
10Clau­dio Cat­ta­neo et al., A degrowth approach to urban mobil­i­ty options: just, desir­able and prac­ti­cal options, Local envi­ron­ment, Jan­vi­er 2022
11Robert Fletch­er et al., Path­ways to post-cap­i­tal­ist tourism, Tourism Geo­gra­phies, aout 2021
12Yan­nick Oswald et al., Glob­al redis­tri­b­u­tion of income and house­hold ener­gy foot­prints, jan­vi­er 2021
13Simone D’Alessandro et al., Fea­si­ble alter­na­tives to green growth, Nature, mars 2020
14https://​well​beinge​con​o​my​.org
15Jean-Louis Lav­ille, L’économie sociale et sol­idaire. Pra­tiques, théories, débats, 2016
16Dominique Bourg, De l’économie cir­cu­laire à l’économie per­ma­cir­cu­laire, Annales des mines, 2018
17Vin­cent Liegey et al., Un pro­jet de décrois­sance. Man­i­feste pour une Dota­tion incon­di­tionelle d’autonomie, 2013
18https://​www​.social​guar​an​tee​.org
19Bap­tiste Mylon­do, Pour un revenu sans con­di­tion : Garan­tir l’accès aux biens et ser­vices essen­tiels, 2012
20Sophie Swa­ton, Pour un revenu de tran­si­tion écologique, 2018
21Lucas Chan­cel, Cli­mate change and the glob­al inequal­i­ty of car­bon mis­sions 1990–2020, octo­bre 2021
22Lucas Chan­cel, « Il faut un impôt sur la for­tune avec un malus sur le car­bone », Reporterre, avril 2021