About the essence of degrowth

The concept of degrowth has lately been a frequent topic of discussion – and confusion – in Europe. What is it actually about? A review of  recent academic literature reveals that degrowth has many faces and that the concept can be used inconsistently even in a short article by a single author. In this short piece, I try to shed light on the most important characteristics, and contradictions, of the concept.

Critique of growth is not a novel phenomenon. Since the 1950s, many social scientists have questioned – from both social and environmental perspective – the usefulness of unconditionally striving for economic or GDP growth (van den Bergh, 2009, p. 540). In 1970s, the famous Limits to Growth report (Meadows et al., 1972) elicited planetary boundaries and Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973) brought up questions about size and the proper place for economics. However, in 1970s, limits were discussed much more in the terms of  population growth than consumption even though the role of wealth and “saturation level” were noticed, as well (Cohen, 2001).

The concept of degrowth is originally based on the work by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who is one of the founding fathers of ecological economics. Thus, the roots of the concept go thirty years back in time (Martínez-Alier et al., 2010, p. 1741). However, for the moment, degrowth is the buzzword of the latest wave of growth critique. On the basis of the recent academic writings, the following two aspects seem to be common to various framings of degrowth:

(1) Degrowth deconstructs and repoliticises the naturalness of economy and the growth imperative by viewing them as historical phenomenon (e.g. Fournier, 2008; Martínez-Alier et al., 2010). It states that without  an unconditional growth objective there will be more political space for all types of policy that aim at improving well-being but have negative consequences for growth or the rate of growth  (van den Bergh, 2009).

(2) Degrowth foregrounds of democracy and citizenship as starting points for alternatives to consumersim and economism. Citizens are needed for questioning, not just the economic models but the importance accorded to economy in general in our present-day societies (e.g. Fournier, 2008; Martínez-Alier et al., 2010).

At the same time, diverse framings of degrowth differ from each other in at least two respect. While some authors want to emphasise the mere act that degrowth departs from the current status quo, some others frame degrowth as a political programme with quite specific contenst. Confusingly, the extent to which degrowth is seen as a concrete concept or a political slogan varies even within one article. At least the following two ”schools of thought” seem to exist:

(1) Degrowth as a political slogan: Implies escaping from the economy as a system of representation (Fournier, 2008) or being relaxed/neutral about growth (van den Bergh, 2009); the concept is considered to be asymmetrical to economic growth (Latouche, 2010; Martínez-Alier et al., 2010).

(2) Degrowth as a concrete political programme: Implies scaling down the economy and growth, e.g. ”an equitable and democratic transition to a smaller economy with less production and consumption ” (Martínez-Alier et al., 2010, p. 1741; see also van den Bergh, 2009). The concept can be used as a synonym for decrease in the context of  economic growth, e.g. ”[d]egrowth of the ecological footprint in the North (and thus the GDP) is a necessity” (Latouche, 2010, p.521) 

Personally, I prefer the first one of these schools of thought and particularly the idea that degrowth would mean being relaxed about economic growth. However, it is clear that each time one talks about degrowth, it is essential to define, what one actually means. Degrowth is an intriguing buzzword – but also one with potential to create plenty of misunderstandings.  

References

Cohen, M.J., 2001. The Emergent Environmental Policy Discourse on Sustainable Consumption, in:

Cohen, M.J., Murphy, J. (Eds.), Exploring Sustainable Consumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Science. Pergamon, Oxford. pp. 21–37.

Fournier, V., 2008. Escaping from the economy: the politics of degrowth, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. 28, 528–545.

Latouche, S., 2010. Degrowth. Journal of Cleaner Production. 18, 519–522.

Martínez-Alier, J., Pascual, U., Vivien, F.-D., Zaccai, E., 2010. Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticism and future prospects of an emergent paradigm. Ecological Economics. 69, 1741–1747.

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., Behrens III, W.W., 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. The New American Library, New York.

Schumacher, E.F., 1973. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Harper Perennial, New York.

van den Bergh, J.C.J.M., 2010. Relax about GDP growth: implications for climate and crisis policies. Journal of Cleaner Production.18, 540–543.

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