A review of Giorgos Kallis’ new book

Although the number of publications about degrowth has been exploding in the last decade – with hundreds of articles as well as dozens of edited volumes and special issues already published – until now there had not been a single academic monograph systematically outlining what degrowth is all about. Of course, the broad contours of the concept of degrowth have been presented in several oft-cited articles and introduced in edited books or special issues. And with Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era which has been translated in more than ten languages, the newly emerging degrowth spectrum of academics, activists and practitioners in Europe and around the world has settled on something resembling a definitive book. However, this edited volume explicitly did not provide a systematic, let alone coherent introduction, but rather a pluriverse of terms and concepts that are key to forming various degrowth visions.

A systemic introduction

The Barcelona-based ecological economist Giorgos Kallis, one of the editors of the degrowth vocabulary and a key figure in the emerging academic field of degrowth research, has now published an introductory book. In contrast to his recent volume “In Defence of Degrowth” that presented a series of shorter articles and opinion pieces, this new book simply entitled “Degrowth” is a systematic introduction. It is structured in six chapters, each building on the others before, but also accessible on their own.

While chapters two and three are new and innovative synthetic efforts to combine existing scholarship to provide – from a degrowth perspective – a theory of the economy and an analysis of economic growth, the other chapters will be more familiar to readers who have followed Kallis’ and other degrowth scholars’ work and debates over the last years. In chapter two “The economics of degrowth”, Kallis does not apply existing economic theory to understand degrowth or discuss efforts to model degrowth scenarios, as one would expect from the title. Rather, in the spirit of the transdisciplinary and deconstructive approach of degrowth scholarship that aims at “exiting the economy” and mainstream economics, he introduces “a degrowther’s theory of the economy”. In this longest and most innovative chapter, Kallis combines perspectives from various disciplines to sketch a rudimentary model – in non-mathematical form – of the economy.

The economy as a social and political construct

In contrast to the circular flow model so central to neoclassical economics, Kallis’ proposed definition focuses on institutions, social metabolism and human needs: “Economy is the instituted process of interactions between humans and their environments, involving the use of material means for the satisfaction of human values.” To substantiate this understanding, Kallis integrates the following theories: building on the work of historians and anthropologists such as Timothy Mitchell and Karl Polanyi, he argues that “the economy” is not something preexisting that can simply be observed and measured by economists. Rather, “the economy” is an invention, a social and political construct with a specific history.

More conventional for degrowth scholarship and building mainly on the work of ecological economists – in particular Nicholas Georgesu-Roegen – Kallis describes the economy as fundamentally material, a social metabolism governed by the laws of thermodynamics. Expanding on Georges Bataille’s idea of dépense, Kallis further argues that the ends of economic life are unproductive expenditures beyond the useful and necessary. And finally, he introduces Marxist political economy, in particular focusing on the role of exploitation (including expropriation and appropriation), class (understood in a very broad sense as those exploited) and conflicts as a key motor of history.

While this chapter presents a powerful effort to synthesize various perspectives prominent in the degrowth spectrum, it may be questioned whether “many of us who write about degrowth understand the economy” in this particular way . Some, for example, might focus more on (eco-)feminist perspectives, others might highlight theories of the nation-state as the key institution driving economic growth. Further, considerable theoretical tensions remain that are not (yet) satisfactorily resolved in the Kallis’ account – in particular between a broadly Marxist analysis of capitalism and the focus on unproductive expenditures as the end of economic life, or between the labor theory of value and ecological economics.

The end of growth

Building on this understanding of the economy, chapter three provides a short account of the origins and history of economic growth. Growth is analyzed as a two-fold phenomenon: On the one hand, a material process driven by the exploitation of paid and unpaid work (both human and non-human) and by accumulation that dates back to the 15th century and in particular to the rise of capitalism; and on the other hand a hegemonic idea that dominates politics since the mid-20th century. Growth, Kallis argues, will come to an end sooner or later due to limits in expenditure (overaccumulation) or work inputs (resource scarcities, climate change).

Chapter four presents “The case for degrowth” and is based on statistical evidence and arguments common in the degrowth literature. Its key findings are well-argued and illustrated with multiple graphs. They show that growth is neither natural (human nature), desirable (well-being), ecologically sustainable (rebound effects), nor necessary (welfare state, employment, debt).

Building on these facts, chapter five introduces the “utopia of degrowth” as a new imaginary aimed at changing politics and society. In Kallis´ perspective, this utopia consists of a degrowth vision based on nine principles: end to exploitation, direct democracy, localized production, sharing and reclaiming the commons, focus on relationships, dépense, care, diversity, and finally the decommodification of land, labor and value. These principles find concrete form in a set of public policies promoted by degrowthers and aimed at effecting change in the degrowth direction. Kallis particularly focuses on three areas of intervention: work sharing, taxes and benefits, and cap and share. And they also characterize multiple grassroots actions and alternative projects so characteristic of degrowth utopian thinking. To resolve the apparent disconnect between top-down policies and bottom-up practices, Kallis introduces a Gramscian understanding of hegemony. In particular, he sketches a non-deterministic framework of coevolutionary processes to understand and strategize the challenge of a degrowth transformation.

Controversies around degrowth

In the final and most interesting chapter, Kallis discusses key controversies and debates, many of which were provoked by critics of degrowth in recent years: Is degrowth is really necessary and feasible? Does the slogan misfire? How can the transformation succeed? Is degrowth compatible with capitalism or with liberal democracy? Is degrowth a Western idea? What about population growth and immigration? By analyzing these controversies, Kallis not only defends and sharpens his own perspective on degrowth – providing for good discussions in university classrooms. He also identifies some weaknesses of degrowth scholarship (even though these could have been highlighted more strongly) and outlines areas for future research.

Kallis’ new book is mandatory reading for students, researchers and practitioners interested not only in degrowth, but also more generally in economics, politics and sustainability. The book’s arguments are highly significant to tackle the key challenges of the twenty-first century – climate change, rising global inequality, economic crises. And it is well written: scholarly yet accessible, rigorously argued but with humor and full of everyday examples, introducing existing concepts with illustrative graphs, but also advancing the debate into new arenas. It is not the introduction to degrowth – many scholars will find issue with the way certain aspects of the critique of growth, the degrowth theory or the utopia are presented. And with its focus on what could be called the “Barcelona school” of degrowth, it does not introduce degrowth discussions in other language regions, in particular Germany, but to some degree also Anglo-Saxon countries. But by systematically presenting a degrowth theory from one particular perspective – an ecological economics perspective with anti-capitalist leanings – the book is a welcome addition to degrowth scholarship and will have considerable influence on teaching degrowth at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

This blog article is an Accepted Manuscript of the article “Review on Giorgos Kallis Book Degrowth, Agenda Publishing (2018)”, Ecological Economics, available online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.01.030. ©2019. This manuscript version is made available under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.”

Teaser photo credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash