It is astonishing to realize how much of our contermporary economy is structured around the attempt to make real the fantasy of a total romance in a bucolic setting of sea, sand, sun, and sex.
Climate change, ecosystem degradation, increasing inequality within and between countries are the results of the modern capitalist economy, which is based on the idea of infinite growth. Crises of capitalism do not just lead to social crises, but also to environmental crises which threaten the life and well-being of humanity.
Антизростання для людського процвітання
In recent years, a rather radical idea of the Green New Deal has entered the mainstream political debate as an attempt to resolve the problems of climate change and economic inequality. The radical transformation of the economy will allegedly help not only to overcome and slow down the consequences of climate change but also to create conditions for human and social development. However, even this may prove insufficient, and the very idea that growth (even the «green» version of it) can be maintained forever is a dangerous trap. To preserve a habitable planet and the conditions for human prosperity, degrowth may prove necessary.
The authors of the Club of Rome’s report titled The Limits to Growth wrote that, in addition to the limits to our ability to mine resources, there are also limits to the capacity of ecosystems to absorb waste and pollution created by humanity in the process of transforming territories and resources (Meadows et al., 1972).
The same report later prompted the ideas of the so-called «sustainable development,» which was supposedly counterposed to «economic growth» as a qualitative, rather than just quantitative change. Decades of policies and measures aimed at achieving sustainable development goals, as well as attempts to decouple economic growth from its negative environmental consequences, have not produced any results; meanwhile, the dynamics of climate change have only escalated in the past few decades.
In response to the inadequacy of «sustainable development» and its appropriation by neoliberal capitalism, the Adbuster activist group re-read The Entropy Law and the Economic Process by Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971) in the early 2000s and declared «degrowth» (decroissance in French) as a means and term for the radical struggle against the idea of infinite economic growth. The same year, L’Ecologiste published a number of articles on degrowth, and the next year, UNESCO held a seminar with degrowth on its agenda (Liegey and Nelson, 2020: 8). The central thesis of degrowth is that it must be a political project which will help us get rid of the belief that more is better.
During the debate around the recently published report on the limits to growth in 1972, Andre Gorz posed the question of whether balance on the planet was even compatible with the capitalist system. Gorz was among the first thinkers to use the term and idea of degrowth.
In the 1980s and 1990s, this term and movement existed and were used mainly in the francophone academy and activist circles. Its translation into English, degrowth, was coined in 2008 at an international conference in Paris (which was later held every two years in different cities: Barcelona in 2010, Venice in 2012, Leipzig in 2014, Budapest in 2016, Malmo in 2018, and the next one will take place in Hague in 2021).
Why degrowth? The «de-» prefix can be a little confusing, because it is unconsciously associated with decline, which may involve, for instance, austerity policies or even poverty. Serge Latouche writes that «degrowth» should be understood through «a-growth»: just as atheism is a rejection of the belief in god, degrowth is a rejection of the belief in infinite growth (Latouche, 2010). Degrowth cannot be appropriated or depoliticized, like, for instance, «sustainable development» can: it cannot be «green,» «environmentally friendly» or anything like that. The term itself is harder to empty of its meaning because it criticizes consumerism (even if it’s «organic,» «bio,» «sustainable» or whatever else) and the idea of growth for the sake of growth itself (Liegey and Nelson, 2020: 10-11).
Paradoxes of growth and Why degrowth?
Herman Daly writes that we have many problems: poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction, climate change, financial instability—but only one solution to them: economic growth. We believe that growth is the solution to all problems or at least a prerequisite to their solution, and Daly calls this «growthism» (Daly, 2019).
The goal of degrowth is to undermine this belief by debunking two myths: the capacities to overcome natural and social barriers to growth. Even if the planet’s resources were really infinite, their consumption while maintaining contemporary capitalism will not maximize human well-being.
Jevons paradox and the planet’s limitations
Georgescu-Roegen wrote that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources was impossible. For him, the economy is a way to transform resources into goods, services, and waste. Increasing consumption means increasing entropy and dissipating a finite reserve of energy, which has accumulated over hundreds of millions of years and will not have enough time to renew, since the rate of growth considerably surpasses the rate of renewal of energy reserves (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971).
Interestingly, when the oil crisis ended and the neoliberal economics emerged in the 1980s and the 1990s, discussions of degrowth and resource limitations subsided, if not died down completely. The age of «sustainable development» and hopes for new energy sources began. But the so-called renewable resources may not be able to help overcome the limits to growth, because they strongly rely on fossil fuels for transportation and manufacturing.
One of the prerequisites for overcoming resource limits and environmental problems is decoupling, which involves the separation of economic growth from its negative environmental impact. New technology and changes in consumption will supposedly allow us to maintain economic growth. The problem is, however, that the global economy is already beyond the planetary limits, and it will be impossible to return to them without slowing the consumption down. A literature review about «decoupling» demonstrates that even if it is not impossible, there is a chance that it will not be enough (Haberl et al., 2020).
Moreover, there is the so-called Jevons paradox, described by him back in the mid-19th century. Jevons wrote that technological progress which increases the efficiency with which a resource is used increases (rather than reduces) its use because its cost falls. At the time, Jevons was writing about coal, but now we can extrapolate it to any other energy source or resource.
In addition to the debate around the physical limits to growth, the late 20th century also saw an emerging debate around its social limits.
Marx's paradox, compound growth and limitations of capitalism
David Harvey writes that capitalism is always about growth because its goal is to gain profit. The capitalist economy, in which everyone has profit, presupposes growth, whose results are reinvested through the «laws of competition.» The 3 percent growth rate is sometimes considered to be «normal» and desirable in contemporary society, but Harvey writes that it is important to remember that this is «compound growth» (as in «compound interest»).
The circulation of capital over time can be imagined as a spiral which grows wider and wider, creating exponential growth. Even if, at the time of Marx’s writing, this growth rate was not a problem, today, even a low growth rate means large-scale consequences: the basis of growth itself is incredibly large. In Marx’s time, capital’s capacity to reach the planetary scale of growth could have seemed impossible (or maybe he just did not expect capitalism to last this long). Today, however, the global economy doubles every 25 years, which creates the need for profitable investment of tens of trillions of U.S. dollars (Harvey, 2020).
Why is the lack of growth problematic for capitalism? Harvey writes that to maintain the rate of profit under falling growth rates, the rate of exploitation of the working class has to grow. But this exploitation cannot be maintained without violence. The lack of growth, therefore, destabilizes capitalism and liberal democracy, because growth allows avoiding the conflict around distribution and supports capitalism politically (Harvey, 1982).
Andre Gorz, who asked the question of the limits to growth and the need for degrowth, also wrote about «compensatory consumerism» as a way to resolve the class conflict by trying to overcome the alienation of the working class through the consumption of goods and services. The growth of postwar capitalist economies allowed us to expand the manufacturing and consumption of mass-produced goods and opportunities for leisure, which created the illusion of growing wealth. But the neoliberal economy and the decline of welfare states meant that to maintain this compensatory consumerism, households had to take on debt. Debt, however, is also a problem in itself: it leads to a need for growth because it must be repaid with interest (Gorz, 1989).
The uneven geographical development today has caused the stagnation of climate agreements because they reproduce the existing structural inequalities. Degrowth calls for reducing manufacturing and consumption in the Global North, which will potentially create opportunities for the development of the Global South.
If capitalism requires reinvestment of profit into new industries, degrowth seeks to slow down the circulation of capital, which makes it radically different from contemporary mainstream economic approaches. In response to economic crises, two approaches are proposed: austerity or expanding investment (neo-Keynesian approaches, the modern theory of money). The former seeks to restore growth by increasing the confidence of «markets» that «government» spending will be under control and inflation will remain low. The latter involves pumping the economy up with money through public investment, which will help restore the circulation of capital and stimulate growth. Despite being different in logic, the purpose of both policies is to resume growth (Chertkovskaya et al., 2019). Degrowth also distances itself from neoclassical economics through its integration with unorthodox (non-mainstream) economic approaches, particularly ecological economics and ecofeminism. Ecological economics argues that the economic system is embedded in the social system, which, in turn, is embedded in the ecological system (the environment, the biosphere). The scale of the economy and the way it develops will have consequences not only for society but also for the environment.
Feminist critique is based on the premise that economic growth under capitalism is unfair because it is supported and subsidized by invisible reproductive labor, which is usually gendered. Although growth is unfair and unsustainable, it has support specifically because, under capitalism, it benefits those in power, and its negative consequences can be shifted to make the marginalized bear them (Garcia et at., 2017).
As Max Koch writes, «Within the framework of the capitalist mode of production and, more particularly, the current finance-driven accumulation regime and its consumption norm, and on the basis of the current mode of environmental regulation and energy regime, the type of changes in production and consumption processes that scientists regard as necessary to mitigate [climate change] will be impossible to achieve» (Koch, 2015: 447).
An overview of about a hundred and fifty research papers on degrowth shows that the degrowth movement sets three broad interconnected goals for itself: to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment, to reduce inequalities between countries and within them, and to transition from a consumerist society to a society based on participation and prosperity (Cosme et al., 2017).
Degrowth involves a transformation of society with values such as autonomy, life satisfaction, and care while maintaining environmental justice. Autonomy means conscious self-restriction by communities and their capacity to change according to circumstances. Life satisfaction means meeting the basic needs without destroying the environment and with autonomously chosen levels of inequalities. Care involves activities based on solidarity rather than exploitation, which reduces vulnerabilities (D’Alisa et al., 2014).
Stereotypically, degrowth is seen as «back to primitivism,» although the movement sees itself as oriented towards the future: it is an attempt to outline the future without the hyperconsumption, inequalities, and environmental crises caused by capitalism.
Degrowth focuses on the process of transformation as much as on the goal. The movement poses the question, How do we make the experience and process of degrowth desirable, comfortable, and emancipatory? That is why its main type of organization is an assembly, which presupposes active politicization. Degrowth is a decentralized multidimensional open network which encourages dialogue and experimentation. Since its main goal is to gain «power to» rather than "power over"—through involving enough people to be capable of transforming the society—the degrowth strategy works as long as the ideas and practices of degrowth are spreading (Liegey and Nelson, 2020).
Degrowth proposes to completely rethink the spheres that are key for the economy and people, particularly money, work, well-being. Degrowth practices can be categorized into three broad groups of changes: regarding work, property, and money (Parrique, 2019).
The degrowth approach is a means of qualitative transformation of the social order, which is why it rejects and denies the fetishism of quantitative parameters, such as the growth of GDP, jobs, wages, etc.
Transformations of work involve reducing working hours (to reduce the impact on the environment, but also for the social reason of fair distribution of employment), decent jobs (activities that are useful and allow for self-actualization), and quality leisure (sufficient free time for the free development of individuals and society).
This can be somewhat confusing to the working class and traditional trade unions as if degrowth will mean a rejection of full-time employment and higher compensation for labor. If «the economy» gives us jobs and means of existence, how can we criticize its growth?
One consequence of the modern fetish of growth and jobs is the spread of «bullshit jobs» which David Graeber wrote about. When growth increases job opportunities, we must remember that these are often stressful meaningless precarious jobs whose need to exist is not convincing even to those who work them. The bullshit jobs created by modern capitalism are the other side of the coin of growth for the sake of growth (Graeber, 2018).
Jobs for the sake of jobs, which support growth for the sake of growth, are an object of criticism for degrowth, which declares that well-spent leisure is a sign of good life. If free time is a criterion of the quality of life, under capitalism, we have less and less of it, because we are too busy earning money for the goods and services that are advertised to us (Harvey, 2020). Degrowth involves a rejection of the use of the increasing productivity from automatization to make goods and services cheaper; instead, it proposes shorter working hours with higher remuneration. The work that remains—including reproductive and care work—should, according to degrowth proposals, be distributed among everyone.
Paradoxically, the problems of unemployment and inequalities, generated by capitalism, are perceived as impossible to solve with degrowth, although in fact it is specifically aimed at fighting capitalism (Liegey and Nelson, 2020: 80).
Degrowth sees property as a social convention on what can be owned and how exactly. Its property practices include the redistribution of the existing wealth and resources (for example, by reducing income and wealth inequalities, limiting the maximum income, unconditional basic income, or unconditional basic services), distribution of goods in the process of their creation (for example, through collective ownership and cooperatives), and restrictions of private ownership of the commons (for example, through limiting the mining of resources and returning natural resources to common ownership).
Changes regarding money include the introduction of alternative types of money (to get rid of the possibility of generating debt and the reduction of all human interactions to the «common denominator» of money through that debt), the democratization of money production (producing money through public rather than private banks) and slowing down finances (reducing the dominance of finances in the economy and cutting private debt).
Since degrowth is anti-capitalist in its essence, its practices aim to establish the dominance of use value over exchange value. This can involve manufacturing «not for sale,» but rather for one’s own use or exchange, as well as care work and so on. In the Ukrainian context, the most widespread degrowth practice is growing food in your garden for your own consumption and for sale at informal markets.
In lieu of conclusions
The debate around «sustainable development» in liberal democracies has transformed environmental politics into a search for technocratic solutions to predetermined problems, instead of a struggle between different visions of the future. Degrowth is actually an attempt to re-politicize the struggle for environmental preservation and to stop the depoliticization of the sphere as one whose problems can be solved exclusively with technological solutions (D’Alisa et al., 2014).
The degrowth movement argues that the question is not whether we want to strive for degrowth, but how exactly we will implement what we perceive as the inevitability of degrowth. In other words, whether degrowth will be a choice implemented in a fair democratic way, or whether it will be a result of environmental and social decline.
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Cosme, Ines, Santos, Rui, and O’Neill Daniel (2017) «Assessing the degrowth discourse: A review and analysis of academic degrowth policy proposals.» Journal for Cleaner Production, 149: 321-334
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Illustration by Hanna Ivanenko.Translation from Ukrainian by Roksolana Mashkova. The article is part of the project «Eastern European Cities: Degrowth vs Right to Develop» project, supported by FES Regional Office «Dialogue Eastern Europe».