From Growth to Degrowth: a Brief History

July 7, 2017

The notion of economic growth as a regular, ongoing, self-sustained process no longer holds up to critical analysis. Even during what’s been called “The Glorious Thirty” – the years between the end of World War II and the 1974 oil crisis – growth occurred almost solely in industrialized countries and involved a minority of the world population; it was built on the senseless waste and pillaging of limited natural resources, access to cheap fossil fuels, dependency on killer technologies and the creation of global inequalities and imbalances that would prove to be unbearable and unsustainable.

When it became evident that geophysical limits could bring growth to a halt, the concepts of durable or sustainable development were proposed. The 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, advocated for “clean” growth that guarantees ecological sustainability, development and social justice all at the same time. This proposal became the backbone of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. However, the explosion of inequalities and the fact that we have gone beyond the ecological limits of the planet have rendered hopes for sustainable development obsolete.

With economic and financial globalization, the integration of the world markets is said to be what will achieve development, which often involves countries assuming massive debts and making huge payments to service them. These, in turn, drive forced growth to guarantee repayment. It is thus no longer about balancing the three pillars of sustainable development – growth, social justice and the sustainability of the planet – but rather entrusting the task of caring for society and the Earth to the economy and the market.

In time, the “green economy” and “green growth” replaced the sustainable development goals. The green economy seeks to optimize resource management and incorporate nature into the large cycle of production, manufacturing and market valuation.

But this is not what’s happening. For the old industrialized countries, growth must be stimulated by demand from emerging countries, which did, in fact, experience astronomical growth rates in the 2000s. Having adopted the same economic model as the over-developed countries – based on unbridled acceleration of industrial production – they are now the ones being violently confronted by the limits of growth. The case of Brazil is emblematic: after having experienced a staggering increase in economic activity and having promoted social policies based on growth, the process came to a sudden halt and the country was plunged into a serious social and political crisis. Once again, growth generates the need for more growth in order to ease the frustrations caused by promises that are difficult or impossible to keep.

In growth-based societies, the cessation of growth means prolonged economic recessions, an explosion in poverty, an intensification of productivist or extractivist activities and setbacks in democracy. But social progress, prosperity and living well are possible without economic growth; in fact, they require a shift towards post-growth or degrowth societies.

The origins of the debate on growth

The public debate on growth began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the strongest critiques came from the 1972 report for the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth (Meadows, 1972). This report led to the questioning of the foundations of industrial society in light of the biophysical limits of the Earth and exponential population growth. The report concluded by proposing zero growth. For methodological and political reasons, this report was the subject of much debate among right-wing, left-wing and Third World scholars. The latter perceived it as having been produced by rich countries with the goal of crystallizing inequalities so as to maintain their access to resources or as a resurgence of Malthusian theories.

But the report reminded all that growth depends on the extraction of non-renewable raw materials. After updating the report in 1992 and 2004, Dennis Meadows wrote in 2012 – forty years after the first version – that it was no longer possible to slow the system to zero growth because its ecologic footprint had increased beyond sustainable levels. According to him, that is why it is now necessary to reverse growth.

Also around that time, the works of Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen showed how thermodynamics and the laws of living beings are inseparable from the economy and society (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971 and 2006). Infinite material growth is unsustainable due to the irreversibility of the transformation of energy into matter. The economy is a system embedded in the biosphere: a bioeconomy. Even with recycling, no technical process will be able to totally eliminate the entropic aspects of the extraction and transformation of resources, as industrial societies absorb gigantic injections of polluting and non-renewable energy.

Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomics approach subordinates the economy to the geophysical limits of the Earth and the fair distribution of resources, and therefore involves profound changes to economic systems and their underlying values.  Georgescu-Roegen’s best-known disciple and the founder of ecological economics, Herman Daly, defended a steady-state economy. Georgescu-Roegen rejected this proposal and affirmed that the economy must contract to return to the situation that existed prior to the point where the planet’s bio-capacity was exceeded (Daly, 1997).

Another source of inspiration for degrowth was the critique of development as the “Westernization of the world,” in the words of Serge Latouche (2006). This reflection was inspired by the works of Ivan Illich and, a little later, by André Gorz and Cornelius Castoriadis. They led to the questioning of industrial societies, which give machines a central role and rely on consumerism and its seductive imagery.

The debate has been taken up again in the past decade due to the impacts of globalization and the acceleration of the ecological disaster. The abundance, prosperity and peace promised by globalization and growth are becoming a nightmare: persistent and growing poverty and inequality, resource depletion, climate change, loss of biodiversity, reduced sense of well-being and an accelerated occurrence of environmental disasters and industrial accidents. The ideology of growth is beginning to crack under the ever more present signs that make its promises seem more remote and threats feel more imminent. Global warming provides clear evidence of this failure.

The term “degrowth” is provocative and almost blasphemous in nature. It is a watchword that prods people’s consciences in a world dominated by the cult of growth for the sake of growth – or, in other words, the pursuit of profit for the sake of profit.

One of its limitations is that it is often narrowly understood as promoting “negative growth” and as a result, it may obscure the issues of civilization at stake. This is why some critics of growth prefer to use the terms “post-growth,” “a-growth,” “anti-growth,” or, as Ivan Illich put it, “breaking the addiction to growth.”

Degrowth is not, in fact, the opposite of growth or negative growth, nor is it an economic concept, even though it refers to and originated in studies in economics. It means:

  • Reducing consumption of natural resources and energy in accordance with the biophysical constraints and the renewal of the capacity of ecosystems. This involves exiting the productivist cycle of production and consumption;
  • Inventing a new political and social vision opposite to the one that underlies the ideology of growth and development;
  • Building a pluralistic and diverse social movement in which various currents of thought, experiences and strategies to build autonomous and frugal societies converge. Degrowth is not an alternative, but a matrix for alternatives;
  • Diverse ways to move beyond growth and reject immoderation;
  • A movement that raises the political and democratic question, “How can we live together and with nature?” instead of “How can we grow?”

Degrowth and the way out of a growth economy

What economists call growth is the expansion of the quantitative measure of output, expressed in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). In other words, growth is the process that allows ever increasing consumption and capital accumulation. In the history of capitalism, this process is ongoing, with variations depending on the period and geographical location. Growth may be slow, as was the case during the 19th century and in the old industrial nations since the 1980s.  “The Glorious Thirty” has often been taken as a model for strong and balanced growth that is conducive to social progress. Far from being a model, this period is actually an exception in the history of capitalism. It was only possible due to easy access to cheap natural resources in the Global South, severe pressure on the environment and the massive de-skilling and rationalization of labor. In return – and to deal with the Communist bloc and social protest – some social and economic rights were granted to the population.

Global growth not only draws on labor and capital; it also requires energy and natural resources. These resources are limited and cannot be replaced by technical capital, contrary to the affirmations of neoclassical economic models. Therefore, the capitalist process of production-consumption feeds on the expropriation and destruction of livelihoods and forms of life that escape market valuation. Since the 1980s, economic and financial globalization has accelerated the commodification of natural resources and living organisms, as well as the extraction of natural resources. However, the capitalist economy can only grow by escalating irreversible socio-environmental destruction and concentrating the wealth produced in the hands of a minority.

This is why degrowth is not the same as negative growth, or zero growth, or a stationary state: degrowth is not a shift towards downward economic fluctuations, nor a recession. It is a political choice that leads to a voluntary and planned reduction in the use of energy and resources, to redefining our needs and choosing “frugal abundance.”

In green capitalism, it is claimed that reducing pressure on resources can be achieved through the use of new technologies that improve technical and economic efficiency. But as long as the principles of growth and accumulation are not called into question, an increase in efficiency will be absorbed by an increase in the volume of production: past improvements in the energy efficiency of cars, for instance, were offset by an increase of average car power and the overall volume of production. This “rebound effect,” described by economist William Jevons in the 19th century, is why green growth is not a solution to coping with the limits of natural resources: it is merely a means of perpetuating growth and capital accumulation.

Green technologies have also given rise to the hope of “decoupling” economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions. It is argued that due to energy efficiency gains made possible by growth, emissions will eventually decrease. But this does not take into account the increase in the production volume that will negate any gains in efficiency and productivity. Growth remains the problem.

The same can be said of the so-called “immaterial” growth that is based on services and a knowledge economy. To expect a dematerialized growth economy to emerge is to ignore the very material basis of many services. Software may be essentially made of “grey matter,” but the production of hardware and computer chips uses raw materials, energy and large amounts of water.

Lastly, in industrialized countries, the strong, accelerated growth of the “Glorious Thirty” was only possible thanks to the extraction of cheap resources from colonized countries dominated by the North. The countries of the Global South, some of which are currently experiencing strong growth, will see this growth dry up much faster than it did in industrialized countries: they will be confronted with an explosion in the demand for natural resources and most will be forced to extract these resources in their own countries. They could always attempt to grab these resources in other countries, but they would have to wade into war to control these natural resources.

In the field of economics, Herman Daly (1997), Tim Jackson (2011), and many others are developing new theories on macroeconomics and prosperity without growth. However, degrowth is also a strong critique of economism and it is inconceivable without a degrowth society.

Degrowth and the way out of a growth-based society

Growth is not related only to the economy. It is a vision of society that makes “progress” a historical norm for all human societies. In capitalism, this norm is economic growth measured in terms of GDP. Thus, growth has become a political goal, a compulsory civic virtue, the only way to achieve a free and just society and the road to democracy. This ideology reduces society to a collection of workers and consumers deprived of any political dimension. Social conflicts are reduced to mere tensions around the distribution of wealth, regardless of the nature of this “wealth” and how it was obtained.

Neoliberalism has accelerated this process at the global level. The neoliberal policies of the 1980s can be understood as a reaction to the slowdown of growth in industrialized countries, which occurred in the 1970s. Free trade and the increased financialization of corporations have been the driving forces behind a desperate search for new sources of growth.

In the social-democratic tradition (of all stripes), growth is seen as a necessary condition for social justice. It is a question of making the pie bigger so that everyone gets a bigger piece, without worrying about what recipe and ingredients are used. Yet, social justice cannot be reduced to the redistribution of the results of growth: it is about recognizing the equal dignity of all humans and it is inseparable from the preservation of the material conditions that are required to guarantee this dignity. It was precisely the illusion that free trade agreements and competition can restore growth that has led large numbers of social-democratic politicians to convert to neoliberal policies since the 1980s.

This is why degrowth is not an economic concept: it involves the whole of society, its representations and values. It questions the Western norm of progress and its imposition on the entire planet. Degrowth is based on the relocalization of activities, the redistribution of wealth, recovering the meaning of work, convivial and soft technologies, slowing down and giving power back to grassroots communities.

Degrowth is the expression of several currents of critical thought: the critique of the market and globalization; of excess; of technology and techno-science; of anthropocentrism and instrumental rationality; of homo economicus and utilitarianism.

Degrowth is embodied by the social movements that reject acceleration, economic and financial globalization, the massive extraction of natural resources, the blind headlong rush on energy issues, advertising and consumerism, and social and environmental injustice.

Degrowth and development ideology

Faith in a universal kind of growth is now being shaken in societies of the Global South. Critical views on growth and progress remained limited to Western societies for a long time and began to appear well before the post-war boom in the works of W. Benjamin, H. Arendt, G. Anders, J. Thellul and the Frankfurt School, among others. They are now gaining ground in the Global South, whose populations are still widely considered candidates in need of growth. This is why critics of growth, particularly those in left -wing circles, are often portrayed as denying the humanity of the peoples of the South. This amounts to saying that growth is founded in nature and constitutes the only way humans can free themselves from a sub-human condition. The dehumanization of Western societies expose, in part, the fallacy of such arguments.

The call for degrowth will only make sense and influence public policies in the Global South if the process that has been initiated in industrialized countries, is accompanied by the redistribution of wealth and outlines what a desirable future looks like. Only then will Gandhi’s saying, Live simply so others may simply live,” take on its full meaning.

Degrowth is a debatable option for societies of the Global South. They are not or not yet growth-based societies, their ecological footprint is low and the basic needs of the population have not yet been met. However, degrowth can be taken as a call not to enter a growth-based society, to break free from the economic and cultural domination of the Global North and to regain a sense of self-restraint and moderation that is often already present in their traditional cultures.

Degrowth and social movements

The ideology of growth was built over several centuries and its deconstruction will necessarily take a long time. It requires adopting social practices and making political choices that allow us to both deal with the pressing challenges of our time and lay the foundations for new ways to live together and inhabit the Earth.

Several social movements are part of the degrowth matrix, even though they do not necessarily claim the notion as theirs: the ones focusing on North-South relations and the pillaging of resources; farmers movements that reject productivism and promote “peasant agriculture”; movements fighting to cancel the debt that forces countries to export excessive amounts of raw materials at the expense of ecosystems; movements to reclaim land; the commons movement; movements for access to water; environmental justice movements; resistance to unnecessary large-scale projects (megadams, airports, highways, high speed trains, giant shopping centers); movements to decentralize energy and in favor of transition towns, Slow Food, Slow Science, Slow Cities, low tech instead of high tech, deglobalization, local food and the broader localization movement.

These resistance struggles and experiences are already tracing the path to other possible worlds. They are initiating a kind of change from below without which no social and political transformation is even thinkable. Is that enough? Where can we find leverage for broader transformations? While it is relatively simple to understand and agree on the need to change our vision, it is difficult to imagine what the transition towards a post-growth society looks like. This raises numerous questions. Degrowth of what, where and how? What kind of diversified policies and on what scale? How do we envisage solidarity and justice without economic growth? What are the milestones? What steps should we take? How can we organize industrial reconversion?

The alternatives to growth and productivism must be complementary at all levels: individual, local, national and global.

To move forward, it will be essential to achieve breakthroughs in the Global North for several reasons:

  • Capitalism and productivism were invented in countries of the Global North, as was productivist socialism.
  • This model was then exported from the Global North, as it found allies in the South.
  • This is where the illusion that unlimited growth of wealth is the necessary condition of happiness and justice is most deeply rooted.
  • In the countries of the Global North, the deterioration of ecosystems hits the poorest (food, health, housing, leisure) and economic and financial globalization destroys jobs, labor and nature.

In the Global South, many resistance movements and concrete experiences are seeking to redefine the relationship between societies and the environment while challenging neoliberalism and productivism. These movements are generally long-standing and they are linked to what Juan Martínez Alier calls an environmentalism of the poor” (Martínez Alier, 2002). They help to silence the pseudo-compassionate discourse about the countries of the Global South and those that claim that environmental concerns are only a luxury of rich countries and of the richest of the rich.

This reflection cannot be left in the hands of an enlightened elite composed of distinguished individuals and experts. We know that such a vision would only bring new forms of totalitarianism. Concrete social relationships and experiences must be the basis for our reflections.


Degrowth challenges both capitalism and socialism, and the political left and right. It questions any civilization that conceives freedom and emancipation as something achieved by tearing oneself away from and dominating nature, and that sacrifices individual and collective autonomy on the altar of unlimited production and the consumption of material wealth. Capitalism has brought further ills such as the expropriation of livelihoods, the submission of labor to the capitalist order and the commodification of nature. This project to establish rational control over the world, humanity and nature is now collapsing.

Degrowth – or, better said, post-growth or “breaking the addiction to growth” – outlines the paths to meet the aspirations of the movements that fight for the rights of Mother Earth, for deglobalization, and all broader struggles for true democracy.




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Genevieve Azam

Geneviève Azam, a senior lecturer in economics and a researcher at Toulouse University 2, is also militant ecologist and alter-globalist with ATTAC France.

Tags: building resilient societies, degrowth movement, new economy