BY GIORGOS KALLIS
An extended version of this article was first published on ‘The Great Transition Initiative’ (greattransition.org) in February 2015.
Both the name and the theory of degrowth aim explicitly to repoliticize environmentalism. Sustainable development and its more recent reincarnation ‘green growth’ depoliticize genuine political antagonisms between alternative visions for the future. They render environmental problems technical, promising win-win solutions and the impossible goal of perpetuating economic growth without harming the environment. Ecologizing society, degrowthers argue, is not about implementing an alternative, better, or greener development. It is about imagining and enacting alternative visions to modern growth-based development. This essay explores such alternatives and identifies grassroots practices and political changes for facilitating a transition to a prosperous and equitable world without growth.
Ecology vs. Modernity
The conflict between environment and growth is ever-present. For ‘developers’, the value of growth is not to be questioned: more mining, drilling, building, and manufacturing is necessary to expand the economy. Against developers stand radical environmentalists and local communities, who are often alone in questioning the inevitability of “a one-way future consisting only of growth” (Le Guin, 1975). In this opposition to development projects, philosopher Bruno Latour (1998) sees a fundamental rejection of modernity’s separation of means and ends. Radical environmentalists recognize that ecology, with its focus on connecting humans with one another and with the non-human world, is inherently at odds with growth that separates and conquers.
The rise of mainstream discourse on sustainable development effectively erased the radical promise of ecology. The notion of sustainability that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit neutralized and depoliticized the conflict between environment and growth. Since then, negotiations between government, businesses, and ‘pragmatic’ environmentalists have assumed that new markets and technologies can simultaneously boost economic growth and protect natural systems. Environmental problems have been largely consigned to the realm of technical improvement, the province of experts and policy elites.
Ten years ago, the provocative formulation of ‘degrowth’ – a so-called ‘missile concept’– was put forward to challenge this de-politicization of environmentalism and attack the “oxymoron of sustainable development” (Latouche, 2009, see Fournier, 2008). The use of a negative word for a positive project was intentional: by subverting the desirability of growth, degrowth aimed to identify and question the ideology that must be confronted in order to transition to a truly sustainable world: the ideology of growth. Degrowth theorists call for an ‘exit from the economy’, an invitation to abandon economistic thinking and construct viable alternatives to capitalism. However, proposing alternative economic models is not enough. We must also question the existence of an autonomous sphere called ‘the economy’. The ‘free market’ is not a natural process; it has been constructed through deliberate governmental intervention. Repoliticization of the economy will require hard-fought institutional change to return it to democratic control.
The Degrowth Imperative
There is a substantial body of evidence that demonstrates how growth threatens both environmental and social well-being (D’Alisa et al., 2008). Continued economic growth makes us more likely to exceed the safe operating space defined by planetary boundaries, making life harder for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. Although ‘green growth’ has become a buzzword in recent years, it remains an oxymoron. Its emphasis on enhanced efficiency creates a paradox: decreased resource requirements lead to lower costs and – by the simple workings of supply and demand – a rebound in the consumption of resources (Alcot, 2008). This is part of the fundamental dynamic of capitalism: increasing productivity frees up resources that are invested to provide yet more growth.
Continued economic growth in wealthy nations is also proving inimical to well-being. As Herman Daly (1997) observed, ‘illth’ (congestion, crime, and other undesirable side effects) increases as fast as, or faster than, wealth as measured by GDP. Redistribution, not growth, is what improves well-being in affluent nations. Moreover, despite significant economic growth, people in the United States and most countries of the West are at best only marginally happier than they were in the 1950s. The wealthy are happier than the poor, but wealth, in the aggregate, does not translate into a higher average level of happiness because aspirations also increase and comparisons intensify with higher standards of living. Growth can never quench the desire for positional goods; only redistribution and new values can.
What about those in poor nations who have yet to see the benefits of growth? Degrowth in the Global North can provide ecological space for the Global South. For example, strong carbon caps for the North and better terms of trade for the South can help compensate for past carbon and resource debts, redistributing wealth between North and South. Economic growth in the South, moreover, threatens alternative, non-monetized means of livelihood, generating the poverty that, in turn, makes more growth ‘necessary’. Degrowth in the North, then, can provide space for the flourishing of alternative cosmovisions and practices in the South, such as buen vivir in Latin America or ubuntu in Africa. These are alternatives to development, not alternative forms of development.
Seeds of a Degrowth Transition
Degrowth alternatives have begun to flourish as the formal economy has fallen into crisis. These include: food production in urban gardens; co-housing and ecocommunes; alternative food networks, producer-consumer cooperatives, and communal kitchens; health care, elder care, and child care cooperatives; open software; and decentralized forms of renewable energy production and distribution. These alternatives are often accompanied, or even supported, by new forms of exchange such as community currencies, barter markets, time banks, financial cooperatives, and ethical banks (Conill et al., 2006, Gibson-Graham, 2006).
Such projects display various facets of degrowth. They promote a shift to a more locally based economy with short production and consumption cycles. They emphasize reproduction and caring, to satisfy use values, not profits. They replace wage labor with voluntary activity. They do not have a built-in tendency to accumulate and expand, and they are less resource-intensive than their counterparts in the formal economy. Such practices of ‘commoning’ cultivate solidarity and humane interpersonal relations, and generate shared, non-monetary wealth.
As these alternative forms of provisioning suggest, a degrowth transition will be heavily bottom-up. However, broad institutional changes will be needed to foster adoption of such practices. For example, a guaranteed basic income would provide universal access to national wealth, securing basic sustenance for all and liberating time for non-paid activity. With the complementary policy of a job guarantee, the state could provide employment for all who wish to work in activities that support the common good. A shorter workweek and job sharing without a reduction of monthly wages could also combat unemployment and create more time for leisure and commoning. Adoption of these policies would reduce economic insecurity without the need for further economic growth.
A transition beyond growth will entail a transition beyond capitalism, since the essence of capitalism is accumulation and expansion. A degrowth transition would likely follow a pattern similar to those of past systemic economic shifts. Capitalism arose from feudalism as connections were forged between new economic practices and entities (firms, corporations, trade contracts, banks, investments) and political and institutional developments supportive of these practices (abolition of monarchies and feudal privileges, enclosure of the commons, liberal democracy, laws protecting private property).
Analogously, contemporary grassroots practices and institutional changes can seed a transformation of the current system, as economic growth approaches its limits. Degrowthers see deepening democracy as essential to a degrowth transition. They welcome experimentation with direct forms of popular democracy, such as those practiced by the Occupy movement. They envision a regime that combines elements of direct and delegative democracy, such as the ‘radical ecological democracy’ advocated by Ashish Kothari (2014).
A degrowth transition would differ sharply from the revolutions of the twentieth century, not only because it would be resolutely non-violent and democratic in character, but also because the target would not just be capitalism, but also productivism. An exit from growth requires an exit from capitalism, but an exit from capitalism does not necessarily bring an exit from growth. Twentieth century socialist regimes replaced the capitalist relations of production without changing the basic objective of resource exploitation and surplus accumulation for the sake of mass production and consumption.
Degrowth requires a commitment not just to protect nature or to manage and mitigate the impacts of capitalism, but also to create an alternative social-ecology and a fundamentally different basis for action. From this new perspective, environmentalists opposing a mega-project need not perform cost-benefit calculations or devise alternatives that accommodate growth. They can simply assert that such projects do not fit the world in which they want to live. They can say that there is alternative, and it is called ‘degrowth’.
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