The critique of economic growth is almost as old as the phenomenon of economic growth itself. But the term “degrowth,” as it is used today, goes back to relatively recent beginnings. Let’s briefly review its history.
Some traditions of critique of growth date back to the late 18th century and ranged from Luddite riots against the machinery of industrialization to romantic unease with modernity or anti-colonial dissections of European civilization. Yet in the second half of the 20th century, changing public perceptions of the finiteness of resources on this planet also led to a popular wave of criticism of economic growth.
The first report to the Club of Rome in 1972 launched a worldwide debate on “The limits of growth” which has not yet died down. The birth of the word décroissance, translated into English as “degrowth”, can also be dated to the year 1972. The political scientist André Gorz already wondered at that time: “Is the balance of the earth, for whom the non-growth – or even decrease in material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?
Other intellectuals of this period influenced early discussions of degrowth, including the Romanian-American mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, who integrated an understanding of physics and thermodynamics into economic theory.
Degrowth was formed as a political project to open cracks for systemic alternatives.
The growth debate at the time extended far beyond environmental movements and included industrialized country governments, labor unions, and anti-colonial development debates. One aspect of current degrowth ideas was, for example, articulated by American revolutionary intellectuals and civil rights activists James and Grace Lee Boggs, who argued in 1974 that “the revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than acquire more material things”, because, they continue, these were “acquired at the cost of the damnation of more a third of the world in a state of underdevelopment, ignorance, disease and premature death. ”
Yet at that time the term “degrowth” was rarely used and only became part of a larger set of ideas much later – and with the end of the oil crisis and the rise of neoliberalism from the 1980s, a broader critique of economic growth took a back seat.
This only changed in the early 2000s. At the height of neoliberal single-mindedness (“There is no alternative” by Margaret Thatcher) and the hegemony of “sustainable development” in the debates environmental (the assertion that economic growth can be reconciled with sustainability), degrowth was constituted as a political project to open cracks for systemic alternatives. In 2002, a special issue of the French magazine Silence was published under the title “Decroissance durable et conviviale”.
In the introduction to the issue, Bruno Clémentin and Vincent Cheynet explicitly coined the term sustainable degrowth as a counter-term to “sustainable development”, the fashionable word at the time. By combining the words “degrowth” and “sustainability”, the authors underlined the fact that ending further growth should not indicate collapse or recession – as the word “degrowth” may suggest to many – but a democratic process of transformation towards a more just, sustainable society that consumes less materials and energy.
And the reference to degrowth as “convivial” (French term, derived from the Latin con vivere, to live together) underlined that it referred to a positive vision of well-being defined by cooperative social interrelations between them and with nature, a vision insisting that another world is indeed possible.
“Degrowth” was both a provocation and a political proposal intended to challenge the dominant economic assumptions of development and chart a course for the future.
In this new use of the term, “degrowth” was both a provocation and a political proposal intended to challenge prevailing economic assumptions of development and chart a course for the future. Initially, he combined two intellectual currents: first, a socio-metabolic and thermodynamic analysis of capitalist growth, which highlighted the need for the countries of the North to get out of the race for irrational and unsustainable growth and to reverse the related hegemony of the “growth paradigm”. which asserted that GDP growth was good, imperative and unlimited; second, the radical critiques of the “post-development” school of thought, which criticized capitalist “development” and the idea that progress necessitates growth as a misguided, destructive and universalizing Western ideology.
The term imposed itself in France in the following years, in particular thanks to the work of the economist, philosopher and critic of French development Serge Latouche. In 2008, the English term “degrowth” had received international attention, with the first “International Conference on Degrowth on Ecological Sustainability and Social Justice” in Paris. From then on, the concept of degrowth spread from France to Spain, Italy, the rest of Europe and beyond.
At its origins, the movement was rooted in anarchist environmental groups, campaigns for car-free cities and against large-scale industrial infrastructure, as well as local collective projects such as collective housing groups and eco-villages. However, it is the biannual International Conferences on Degrowth that have served as meeting points, places of exchange and the slow formation of an international framework for degrowth. In 2014, the fourth international conference in Leipzig attracted 3,000 participants.
In 2020, the seventh international conference, held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attracted over 4,000 attendees. Research on the subject has multiplied, with hundreds of peer-reviewed academic journal articles being published on the subject. Every year, summer schools on degrowth organized by different institutes and collectives across Europe attract dozens and sometimes hundreds of participants, and the world day of degrowth in June is an opportunity for organizations and initiatives communities to organize festivals and conferences around the world.
Critiques of degrowth and its core propositions should be an integral part of the larger “movement of movements” that is needed for a globally just future for all.
While degrowth continues to be a largely academic and activist concept, the critique of growth as a top priority is also gaining traction in the public domain. While polls should be taken with a grain of salt, a poll conducted in France in 2018 showed that 54% of respondents supported degrowth, compared to 46% who supported green growth; in another poll, also in France, 55% of those questioned were for a future of degrowth, against 29% who preferred a more secure and stable continuation of the present and 16% who were for a neoliberal and digitized future.
In another poll, a majority of Europeans agreed that the environment should be a priority, even if it hindered economic growth. Surveys like these don’t necessarily translate, for example, into voting patterns – it’s still hard to imagine a degrowth party taking double-digit percentages of the vote in French or European elections. But they do indicate that there is some concern and receptivity on the part of the public, and that there may be room for degrowth to thrive and develop further as a new competing eco-social common sense. with eco-modernist and green growth ideas.
Research on degrowth is now quite diverse and empirically robust. It covers disciplines such as economics and humanities, political science, climate science, technology studies, and selected natural and engineering sciences, and includes hundreds of scholarly articles on issues ranging from economic modeling to analyzes of international socio-metabolic datasets, including case studies. squat studies in Barcelona.
More mainstream books have been published in English on the subject since 2014, along with dozens of edited books and special issues that focus on diverse topics such as housing, technology, political economy, tourism, food, democracy, social. movements, feminism, anthropology and history.
However, while degrowth goes beyond the ecological and economic perspectives that dominate the literature, there is not much writing that explores degrowth in its full breadth, including analyzes from the social sciences and humanities. . And while the degrowth movement is clearly progressive or even broadly anti-capitalist, there are few books exploring degrowth from an explicitly critical perspective of capitalism that engages in broader debates on the left, that is- that is, who sees systems of domination such as patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and capitalism as central structural problems we face today.
This is what we seek to do in The future is shrinking. In doing so, we argue that degrowth represents a critically important and internally coherent framework for a just future – a framework that must complement and eventually transform progressive proposals like the Green New Deal. While “degrowth” as a term does not need to be taken up by emancipatory social movements and the wider left, we argue that its perspectives, critiques and core propositions should be an integral part of the “movement”. movements” that is needed for a globally just future for all.
Extract of The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter. Copyright © 2022. Available from Verso Books.