Oliver Balch tackles key topics in sustainability research
Capitalism loves growth. The whole system is founded on promoting it, creating it, defending it. “Growth, growth, endless growth.” If you wanted neoliberal capitalism in a nutshell, there you have it. And the formula has worked, up to a point. Millions elevated from poverty, billions of jobs created, trillions of dollars earned (and spent - on healthcare, food, shelter, iPhones).
But can the physical world continue to support the perpetual drive for growth? Can we as a society sustain the dogged quest for ever more economic expansion? Do we even want to? Capitalist doctrine has never troubled itself much over this line of questioning. Of course we can, it asserts. Growth is natural. Growth is good. Yet exponential growth and a finite planet are beginning to show themselves as increasingly awkward bedfellows. Pollution, climate change, resource depletion, wage inequality: the growth juggernaut is looking increasingly unsteady.
Sufficiency, not efficiency
Enter degrowth. More of an emergent movement than a cogent theory (the academy has yet to really embrace it), degrowth-ism shares many of the same starting points as corporate sustainability. Both argue that business has to change. It cannot go on taking and taking, using and using. At least, not without concomitant efforts to steward what we have and restore what we’re losing. That’s where the similarities between the two doctrines end, however. Green growth, sustainable growth, equitable growth, decoupled growth: these are the solutions put forward by corporate sustainability theorists. Basically, keep growing but in a way that’s cleaner, leaner and greener. In contrast, degrowth theorists say “enough is enough”. Their watchword is sufficiency, not efficiency. It’s time to slow down and live within our planetary means.
Yet pinning down degrowth theory to a single set of theoretical tenets or, harder still, policy applications is no easy task. Although first coined in the late 1970s, the idea of degrowth (or ‘décroissance’, to give it its French form) gained more popular momentum after a major conference on the subject in Paris in 2008. The current movement’s intellectual origins belong to a variety of radical thinkers linked to the Club of Rome, a think-tank that represents those with a “common concern for the future of humanity”.
Of these, the Romanian American mathematician and ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen is credited for articulating many of the theory’s core concepts, particularly around the limited “carrying capacity” of earth and the need for a managed decline in economic growth. The movement’s best known contemporary champion is the French emeritus professor of economics at the University of Paris-Sud, Serge Latouche. In his 2009 book Farewell to Growth, Latouche describes himself not as anti-growth or pro-decline but as being “a-growth” – in other words, a non-believer in the growth narrative. Full stop.
Degrowth theory advocates for a “voluntary reduction” of the economic system, much like a managed recession. Drawing on Stuart Mill’s notion of the economy being held in a stationary state, they talk of a steady state, in which some worn-out capital stock might be replaced but the ambition of new net investment is rejected. Living with the inevitable retraction this would unleash would require a major shift in lifestyles, its proponents admit. By that’s no bad thing, they argue. Hence, the proliferation of campaigns and initiatives to downsize our consumption, work less, lease or lend what we already have, and so on.
The capitalism conundrum
How to impose a degrowth system on the current capitalist order presents a major conundrum. Forced, autocratic management of the economy by the state is the most pragmatic way forward, but degrowthers won’t stomach it: they are big on political democracy. Writing in Le Monde diplomatique, Latouche shows he is not politically naïve, either. While countering capitalism head-on through state power (as attempted by the Keynes-Fordist regulations of the social democratic era) may be conceivable and desirable, it is practically improbable given the evisceration of the western working class as a political force. The basic problem is that capital won. Loathed as he is to admit it (one senses), he also has to acknowledge that a global system suddenly bereft of capitalists would result in chaos.
This leaves the degrowthers with a raft of measures designed to essentially handicap rampant capitalism and counter the move to globalism. Solutions put forward therefore include: bringing material production back to the levels of the 1960s (ie in line with the sum of the Earth’s resources, or less), returning to small-scale farming, and relocalising all forms of activity. The academic association Research & Degrowth, which gathers researchers on the topic, coordinates a range of working groups on specific policy areas such as consumption, technology and finance.
One of the substantive recommendations to have emerged is a universal basic income, a proposal that is generating very real debate in the policy mainstream. Other suggestions are a little more left-field. The list includes limiting interest rates and money creation (by introducing 100% reserves in banks, for example), taxing advertising expenditure, abandoning subsidies for extractive industries and decreeing a moratorium on technology innovation. In their new book Reinventing Prosperity, a follow-up by the Club of Rome of its seminal 1972 classic Limits to Growth, authors Graeme Maxton and Jorgen Randers argue for restricting trade, taxing fossil fuels at source and printing money to fund clean-tech jobs.
Critics have accused the degrowth movement of being too vague. It remains a new-ish theory, however, so some ambiguity and need for clarification is to be expected. Plus, the concept of growth is pretty vague too, an element of disjointed polymorphism in any critique seems fair enough. Another line of concern centres on the developing world. It’s well enough saying to rich, bloated westerners that enough is enough, but is it just to impose GDP retraction on those whose economies have yet to really get going?
A third criticism surrounds the concept’s uniqueness. Is the theory’s call for less consumption, for instance, really so removed from debates about sustainable consumption? Perhaps the biggest challenge that degrowth advocates face, however, is political relevancy. As the environmental economist Robert Ayers notes: “None of the important economic actors, whether government leaders or private sector executives, has an incentive compatible with a ‘no growth’ policy.” Arguably, this lack of traction in the corridors of power represents the most significant area where degrowth and sustainable development part ways.
Jorgen Randers (credit: Akademikerne Creative Commons)
In a nutshell
“Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions.”
Research & Degrowth
“We are currently witnessing the steady commercialisation of everything in the world. Applied to every domain in this way, capitalism cannot help but destroy the planet much as it destroys society, since the very idea of the market depends on unlimited excess and domination.” Serge Latouche, 2006.
Barcelona Manifesto 2010
At the second International Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Barcelona, delegates agreed the following list of political proposals:
• Promotion of local currencies, elimination of fiat money and reforms of interest
• Transition to non-profit and small scale companies
• Increase of local commons and support of participative approaches in decision-making
• Reducing working hours and facilitation of volunteer work
• Reusing empty housing and co-housing
• Introduction of the basic income guarantee and an income ceiling built on a maximum-minimum ratio
• Limitation of the exploitation of natural resources and preservation of the biodiversity and culture by regulations, taxes and compensations
• Minimize waste production with education and legal instruments
• Elimination of mega infrastructures, transition from a car-based system to a more local, biking, walking-based one.
• Suppression of advertising from the public space
Ayres, Robert. 2008. Sustainability economics: where do we stand? Ecological Economics 67 (2), 281–310.
Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1971. The entropy law and the economic process. Harvard University Press.
Kallis, Giogios. 2011. In defence of Degrowth. Ecological Economics 70(5):873-880.
Latouche, Serge. 2006 (January). The Globe Downshifted. La Monde diplomatique.
Latouche, Serge. 2009. Farewell to Growth. Polity Press.
Maxton, Graeme & Jorgen Randers. 2016. Reinventing Propserity: Managing Economic Growth to Reduce Unemployment, Inequality and Climate Change. Greystone Books.
basic income Club of Rome degrowth green growth sharing economy