Has Degrowth Outgrown its own Name?
The following article presents a debate that was first published on From Poverty to Power, a conversational blog maintained by Duncan Green. It is kicked off by Kate Raworth, renegade economist and development re-thinker, who feels that degrowth has outgrown its name. In reply Giorgos Kallis, the world’s leading academic on degrowth, counters with the view that ‘degrowth’ is still a compelling term. Let the debate begin…
Why Degrowth has out-grown its own name by Kate Raworth
Here’s what troubles me about degrowth: I just can’t bring myself to use the word.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the degrowth movement is addressing the most profound economic questions of our day. I believe that economies geared to pursue unending GDP growth will undermine the planetary life-support systems on which we fundamentally depend. That is why we need to transform the growth-addicted design of government, business and finance at the heart of our economies. From this standpoint, I share much of the degrowth movement’s analysis, and back its core policy recommendations.
It’s not the intellectual position I have a problem with. It’s the name.
Here are five reasons why.
- Getting beyond missiles. My degrowth friends tell me that the word was chosen intentionally and provocatively as a ‘missile word’ to create debate. I get that, and agree that shock and dissonance can be valuable advocacy tools.
But in my experience of talking about possible economic futures with a wide range of people, the term ‘degrowth’ turns out to be a very particular kind of missile: a smoke bomb. Throw it into a conversation and it causes widespread confusion and mistaken assumptions.
If you are trying to persuade someone that their growth-centric worldview is more than a little out of date, then it takes careful argument. But whenever the word ‘degrowth’ pops up, I find the rest of the conversation is spent clearing up misunderstandings about what it does or doesn’t mean. This is not an effective advocacy strategy for change. If we are serious about overturning the dominance of growth-centric economic thought, the word ‘degrowth’ just ain’t up to the task.
- Defining degrowth. I have to admit I have never quite managed to pin down what the word means. According to degrowth.org, the term means ‘a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet.’ Sounding good, but that’s not clear enough.
Are we talking about degrowth of the economy’s material volume – the tonnes of stuff consumed – or degrowth of its monetary value, measured as GDP? That difference really matters, but it is too rarely spelled out.
If we are talking about downscaling material throughput, then even people in the ‘green growth’ camp would agree with that goal too, so degrowth needs to get more specific to mark itself out.
If it is downscaling GDP that we are talking about (and here, green growth and degrowth clearly part company), then does degrowth mean a freeze in GDP, a decrease in GDP, being indifferent about what happens to GDP, or in fact declaring that GDP should not be measured at all? I have heard all of these arguments made under the banner of degrowth, but they are very different, with very different strategic consequences. Without greater clarity, I don’t know how to use the word.
- Learn from Lakoff: negative frames don’t win. The cognitive scientist George Lakoff is an authority on the nature and power of frames – the worldviews that we activate (usually without realizing it) through the words and metaphors we choose. As he has documented over many decades, we are unlikely to win a debate if we try to do so while still using our opponent’s frames. The title of his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, makes this very point because it immediately makes you think of a you know what.
How does this work in politics? Take debates about taxes, for example. It’s hard to argue against ‘tax relief’ (aka tax cuts for the rich), since the positive frame of ‘relief’ sounds so very desirable: arguing against it just reinforces the frame that tax is a burden. Far wiser is to recast the issue in your own positive terms instead, say, by advocating for ‘tax justice’.
Does degrowth fall into this trap? I had the chance to put this question to George Lakoff himself in a recent webinar. He was criticizing the dominant economic frame of ‘growth’ so I asked him whether ‘degrowth’ was a useful alternative. “No it isn’t”, was his immediate reply, “First of all it’s like ‘Don’t think of an elephant!’ – ‘Don’t think of growth!’ It means we are going to activate the notion of growth. When you negate something you strengthen the concept.”
Just to be clear, I know that the degrowth movement stands for many positive and empowering things. The richly nuanced book Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era edited by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis, is packed full of great entries on Environmental justice, Conviviality, Co-operatives, Simplicity, Autonomy, and Care – every one of them a positive frame. It’s not the contents but the ‘degrowth’ label on the jar that makes me baulk. I’ll adopt the rest of the vocabulary, just not the headline.
- It’s time to clear the air. Just for a moment let’s give the word ‘degrowth’ the benefit of the doubt and suppose that the missile has landed and it has worked. The movement is growing and has websites, books and conferences dedicated to furthering its ideas. That’s great. These debates and alternative economic ideas are desperately needed. But there comes a time for the smoke to clear, and for a beacon to guide us all through the haze: something positive to aim for. Not a missile but a lighthouse. And we need to name the lighthouse.
In Latin America they call it buen vivir which literally translates as living well, but means so much more than that too. In Southern Africa they speak of Ubuntu, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Surely the English-speaking world – whose language has more than one million words – can have a crack at finding something equally inspiring. Of course this is not easy, but this is where the work is.
Tim Jackson has suggested prosperity, which literally means ‘things turning out as we hope for’. The new economics foundation – and many others – frame it as wellbeing. Christian Felber suggests Economy for the Common Good. Others (starting with Aristotle) go for human flourishing. I don’t think any of these have completely nailed it yet, but they are certainly heading in the right direction.
- There’s too much at stake, and much to discuss. The debates currently being had under the banner of degrowth are among the most important economic debates for the 21st century. But most people don’t realize that because the name puts them off. We urgently need to articulate an alternative, positive vision of an economy in a way that is widely engaging. Here’s the best way I have come up with so far to say it:
We have an economy that needs to grow, whether or not it makes us thrive.
We need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows.
Is that ‘degrowth’? I don’t actually know. But what I do know is that whenever I frame it like this in debates, lots of people nod, and the discussion soon moves on to identifying how we are currently locked into a must-grow economy – through the current design of government, business, finance, and politics – and what it would take to free ourselves from that lock-in so that we can pursue social justice with ecological integrity instead.
We need to reframe this debate in a way that tempts many more people to get involved if we are ever to build the critical mass needed to change the dominant economic narrative.
So those are five reasons why I think degrowth has outgrown its own name.
I’m guessing that some of my degrowth friends will respond to this blog (my own little missile) with irritation, frustration or a sigh. Here we go again – we’ve got to explain the basics once more.
If so, take note. Because when you find yourself continually having to explain the basics and clear up repeated misunderstandings, it means there is something wrong with the way the ideas are being presented.
Believe me, the answer is in the name. It’s time for a new frame.
You’re wrong Kate. Degrowth is a compelling word by Giorgos Kallis
My friend Kate Raworth ‘cannot bring herself to use the word’ degrowth. Here are nine reasons why I use it.
1. Clear definition. ‘Degrowth’ is as clear as it gets. Definitely no less clear than ‘equality’; or ‘economic growth’ for that matter (is it growth of welfare or activity? monetised or all activity? if only monetised, why would we care?). Beyond a critique of the absurdity of perpetual growth, degrowth signifies a decrease of global carbon and material footprint, starting from the wealthy.
The ‘green growth camp’ also wants such a decrease, but it argues that GDP growth is necessary for – or compatible with – it. Degrowth, not: in all likelihood GDP will decrease too. If we do the right things to thrive, such as capping carbon, if we transform the profit economy to one of care and solidarity, the GDP economy will shrink. Kate too calls for ‘an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows’ and to ‘free ourselves’ from the growth ‘lock-in’. The Germans named this ‘post-growth’ and I am fine with it. But somehow it beautifies the scale of the challenge: reducing our energy or material use in half and transforming and stabilizing a shrinking (not simply ‘not growing’) economy. With its shock element ‘de’-growth reminds that we won’t have our cake and eat it all.
2. Right conversations with the right people. Know this feeling ‘what am I doing with these people in the same room’? Hearing the words ‘win-win’ and looking at graphs where society, environment and economy embrace one another in loving triangles as markets internalize ‘externalities’ (sic)? Well, you won’t be invited to these rooms if you throw the missile of degrowth. And this is good. Marx wouldn’t be concerned with sitting at the table with capitalists to convince them about communism.
Why pretend we agree? I’ve never had a boring or confusing conversation about degrowth (witness the present one). Passions run high, core questions are raised (did we lose something with progress? what is in the past for the future? is system change possible and how?). But to have these conversations you need to know about – and defend – degrowth.
3. Mission un-accomplished. Kate asks us to imagine that the ‘missile’ ‘has landed and it has worked’. Problem is the missile has landed, but it hasn’t worked, so it is not yet ‘the time to move on’. Microsoft spellcheck keeps correcting degrowth into ‘regrowth’. Degrowth is anathema to the right and left. Economists turn ash-faced when they hear ‘degrowth’. Eco-modernists capture the headlines with a cornucopian future powered by nuclear and fed by GMOs. A recent book calls degrowthers ‘Malthusians’, eco-austerians and ‘collapse porn addicts’. A radical party like Syriza had as slogan ‘growth or austerity’. The ideology of growth is stronger than ever. In the 70s its critique was widespread, politicians entertained it and at least economists felt they had to respond.
4. There is a vibrant community and this is an irreversible fact. In Barcelona 20-30 of us meet frequently to read and discuss degrowth, cook and drink, go to forests and to protests. We disagree in almost everything other than that degrowth brings us together. In the fourth international conference in Leipzig, there were 3500 participants. Most of them were students. After the closing plenary, they took to the shopping streets with a music band, raised placards against consumerism and blocked a coal factory. Young people from all over the world want to study degrowth in Barcelona. If you experience this incredible energy, you find that degrowth is a beautiful word. But I understand the difficulty of using it in a different context: half a year a visitor in London and I feel I am the odd and awkward one insisting on degrowth.
5. I come from the Mediterranean. Progress looks different; civilization there peaked centuries ago. SergeLatouche says that ‘degrowth is seen as negative, something unpardonable in a society where at all costs one must ‘‘think positively’’’. ‘Be positive’ is a North-American invention. Please, let us be ‘negative’. I can’t take all that happiness. Grief, sacrifice, care, honour: life is not all about feeling ‘better’.
For Southerners at heart – be it from the Global North or South, East or West – this idea of constant betterment and improvement has always seemed awkward. Wasting ourselves and our products irrationally, refusing to improve and be ‘useful’, has its allure. Denying our self-importance is an antidote to a Protestant ethic at the heart of growth. Let’s resist the demand to be positive!
6. I am not a linguist. Who am I to question Professor Lakoff that we can’t tell people ‘don’t think of an elephant!’ because they will think of one? Then again, a-theists did pretty well in their battle against gods. And so did those who wanted to abolish slavery. Or, unfortunately, conservatives for ‘deregulation’. By turning something negative into their rallying cry, they disarmed the taken-for-granted goodness of the claim of their enemy. The queer movement turned an insult into pride. This is the art of subversion. Is there a linguistic theory for it?
This is different from what Lakoff criticized US democrats for. Democrats accept the frame of Republicans, providing softer alternatives (‘less austerity’). ‘Green growth’ is that; degrowth is a subversive negation of growth: a snail, not a leaner elephant. Guardian’s language columnist Steven Poole finds degrowth ‘cute’. When most people agree with him, and find the snail cute, we will be on the path of a ‘great transition’.
7. Cannot be co-opted. Buen vivir sounds great. Who wouldn’t like to ‘live well’? And indeed Latin Americans took it at heart: the Brazil-Ecuador inter-Amazonian highway with implanted ‘creative cities’ in-between; Bolivia’s nuclear
power programme; and a credit card in Venezuela. All in the name of ‘buen vivir’. Which reminds me of ‘Ubuntu Cola’. No one would build a highway, a nuclear reactor, issue more credit or sell colas in the name of degrowth. As George Monbiot put it capitalism can sell everything, but not less.
Could degrowth be coopted by austerians? Plausible, but unlikely; austerity is always justified for the sake of growth. Capitalism looses legitimacy without growth. By anti-immigrants? Scary, but not impossible, it has been tried in France. This is why we cannot abandon the term: we have to develop and defend its content.
8. It is not an end. It is as absurd to degrow ad infinitum as it is to grow. The point is to abolish the god of Growth and construct a different society with low footprints. There is a ‘lighthouse’ for this: the Commons. A downscaled commons though. Peer-to-peer production or the sharing economy use materials and electricity too. Degrowth reminds that you cannot have your cake and eat it all, even if it’s a digitally fabricated one.
9. Focuses my research. I spend effort arguing with eco-modernists, green growthers, growth economists, or Marxist developmentalists about the (un)sustainability of growth. This persistence to defend degrowth is productive: it forces to research questions that no one else asks. Sure, we can in theory use fewer materials; but then why do material footprints still grow? What would work, social security, money, look like in an economy that contracts? One who is convinced of green growth won’t ask these questions.
Kate is not; she agrees with our 10 degrowth policy proposals: work-sharing, debt jubilee, public money, basic income. Why in the name of degrowth though she asks? Because we cannot afford to be agnostic. It makes a huge difference, both for research and design, whether you approach these as means of stimulus and growth anew or of managing and stabilizing degrowth.
Degrowth remains a necessary word.
Kate Raworth’s and Giorgios Kallis’ editorials were originally published in two parts on Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog. The original posts feature a great discussion with the two authors in the comments, as well as a poll on the term “degrowth”.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.
This is a community site and the discussion is moderated. The rules in brief: no personal abuse and no climate denial. Complete Guidelines.