What is degrowth?
Degrowth is an ambiguous label used by different currents that have emerged or have been reconsidered as such since the 1960s when the contemporary environmentalist movement got underway. The bulk of these movements identify as Greens although it includes eco-anarchists (e.g. Trainer 2010; Australian Simplicity Institute) and others. The ambiguity of what degrowth stands for is a problem both for its proponents and its critics that sometimes misrepresent it.
I will briefly review and discuss degrowth by focusing on a recent book The Case for Degrowth (2020) by Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, and Federico Demaria (herein, “The authors”). Mike Davis has recommended the book as “eloquent and urgent.” The authors themselves declare:
“The purpose of this book is to motivate and empower citizens, policy makers, and activists to reorient livelihoods and politics around equitable wellbeing.” (p. 5)
In their view:
“Degrowth makes the case that we have to produce and consume differently, and also less. That we have to share more and distribute more fairly, while the pie shrinks. To do so in ways that support pleasurable lives in resilient societies and environments requires values and institutions that produce different kinds of persons and relations.” (ibid.)
“does not claim one unitary theory or plan of action. A remarkably diverse network of thinkers and actors experiment with different initiatives and engage in healthy debates about what degrowth, and what form it can or should take un different contexts.” (p. 19)
Thus, degrowth appears as as décroissance in France, decrescita in Catalonia, and sumak kawsay (an ancient Quechua word for “good living”) or Buen Vivir in Latin America, Ubuntu in South Africa, and so on.
Intellectual sources of degrowth
At its core degrowth is about voluntary simplicity as a lifestyle choice. Voluntary simplicity has deep historical roots. In the U.S. its intellectual origins is in American transcendentalism, most directly the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the more practical example of Henry David Thoreau. In the Western tradition simplicity is a theme in Christianity. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, God is infinitely simple. The Roman Catholic and Anglican religious orders of Franciscans also strive for personal simplicity. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) practice the Testimony of Simplicity, which involves simplifying one’s life to focus on what is important and disregard or avoid what is least important. Simplicity is a tenet of Anabaptistism.
Recent sources of degrowth come from the Club of Rome, a think tank headquartered in Winterthur, Switzerland. Meadows, et. al. (1972) published The Limits to Growth, a report prepared at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) using simulation models to predicate the future of economic growth on a planet with limited resources. In 2012, one of the researchers of the original study, Randers (2012), published the last report 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Intellectually more interesting sources include E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) and “Buddhist Economics” (1966) as well as Herman Daly’s stationary state economics such as“Towards a Steady-State Economy” (2008) and others (see, here).
From ideas to a movement
After the radicalization of the 1960s, voluntary simplicity became a trend in the back to land and the hippie movement. In the late 2000s, I linked up with voluntary simplicity individuals and groups in northern California to learn about it and the existing intentional communities. Some of the people I met had reduced their material possessions and needs to a minimum and had disentangled themselves from much of the monetary relations. Intentional communities I visited similarly aimed at finding the sweet spot to maximize communal living based on shared values while leaving sufficient space for individual choices. However, the history of communal living in the U.S. since the nineteenth century has not been encouraging. (see, endnote 1) The degrowth movement has spread in recent times among Green academics, thus some attempt to “theorize” it.
Growth or capitalism?
The degrowth literature focuses attention on economic growth defined as an annual increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and material growth defined as “the increase in the quantity of matter and energy transformed” in the same country in the same year. As the authors point out, while planetary scientists agree that material growth is detrimental to the ecological health of the planet, economic growth is generally celebrated as good for society almost across the political spectrum.
As the authors point out there are good reasons to criticize economic growth as measured by GDP. All income or expenditure no matter their source contribute to economic growth hence the GDP increases. Cutting down a forest to sell wood to the lumber market will increase the GDP regardless of its negative impact on biodiversity and climate change and the pure human joy of being in the forest.
But the authors do not attempt to establish any systematic connection between economic and material growth because they not consider the sources for economic growth: investment demand and consumer demand. In the global capitalist economy, economic growth is driven by capitalist investment which itself is driven by capitalist profit. As Marx put it, capital is self-expanding value expressed in its simplest form, money capital, as M —> M’ where M’ > M. Industrial capital involves a production cycle:
M —> C (materials + machinery + labor power)—>P—>C’ where C’ > C (final product)
That is, capitalists invest money capital in raw materials, machinery, and labor power to produce commodity C’ which they hope to sell in the commodity market at M’ greater than M resulting in a profit P. This process of valorization of capital requires a consumer market. Thus, the process of capital accumulation (growth) will require an ever-expanding consumer market. (See endnote 2)
There lies the sources of economic and material growth. Ongoing economic growth requires material growth (growth of material and energy use for expanded production). Consumer demand while essential for valorization of capital, is itself conditioned by the capitalist system which generates new “wants” and “needs” through propaganda (advertisement and marketing) as well provision of consumer credit to expand effective demand (demand backed by monetary means). Of course, capitalist cyclical and secular crises intervene. Keynesian economics resulted from the recognition that left to itself, the capitalist market will occasionally fail and that the capitalist state can and must intervene with fiscal and monetary means to bolster sagging investment and consumption demands.
Presumably, the focus on growth offers a vantage point into the sources of growth. For example, when in the 1970s it was assumed that one third of humanity lived in “socialist” countries (Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, N. Korea, and Cuba), the focus on growth included attention to productivist features of the “socialist” economies, while a focus on the “capitalist” economies would have neglected these. However, today most observers agree that that humanity lives by-and-large in a global capitalist economy with the possible exception of the very small economies of Cuba and North Korea.
It may be argued that growth in capitalist economies is sometimes mostly driven by consumer expenditure. For example, in the United States 70% of the GDP is due to consumer expenditure. However, high consumer demand in industrialized capitalist economies of the Global North (and soon China) depend on production for profit and ever-growing capital accumulation, the driver of economic growth. This reality comes to light in every economic recession and even more so in an economic depression (e.g. the 1930s in then U.S.). When production slows down significantly or even stops, working people are laid off en masse and consumer demand collapses as the result. By contrast, the economic recovery, hence a return to economic growth, follows capitalist investment and subsequently higher employment and perhaps even higher wages hence a renewal of consumer demand. Thus, the primacy of capitalist accumulation in pursuit of profit in discussion of sources of growth becomes clear.
Strategy for social change
Because the degrowth movement is part of the Green movement which shuns social theory, in particular, any theory of “capitalism,” its strategy is descriptive focusing on the movements of resistance to aspects of the industrial capitalist mode of social existence. Thus, in the chapter entitled “Making Changes on the Ground,” the authors write:
“Here we build a case for degrowth from the ground up, learning from people who embody and perform everyday common senses in the spirit of degrowth. This differs from global programs to curb biodiversity loss and climate change, but we do not see them as mutually exclusive.” (p. 44)
I think there is much value in learning from all existing and past experiences of resistance to the capitalist mode of life, including attempts to opt out of it “to produce and consume differently, and also less.” The authors correctly stress that much of the most basic spheres of life is still supported by non-capitalist provisioning beginning with women and the household. While noting that
“[c]ommoning can be oriented toward growth or degrowth, toward defending the status quo or enacting change through performative re-articulation s of common sense,” they add:
“We urge greater appreciation of forms of care and social reproduction and consumption including communal food gardens, community supported agriculture, agroecology networks; eco-communes, co-living and co-housing arrangement s; peer-to-peer software, hardware, digital commons, and co-parenting and childcare circles.” (pp. 45-46)
Still, the authors realize that
“[i]t is naive to think about change, however, as a question of individual volition.” (p. 50) They add: “Taking personal action is a first step toward building societies that implement needed changes in policies and institutions.” (p. 51)
While I agree with their general prescription, the test is in how one implements these concomitant processes of personal and social changes. For example, their reference to the 2009-16 crisis in Greece focuses attention on how “many Greeks disoriented by prolonged crisis found meaning in cooperative projects…” (p. 53). There is no discussion of the role played by the SYRIZA-led coalition government in that crisis and the Greek left, especially SYRIZA, from the perspective of addressing the root-causes of the crisis in such a way that would have empowered and improved the lives of the Greek working people to resolve the Greek and the planetary crises. (for such a critical approach see, Nayeri, 2015)
While degrowth urges us to produce and consume less and differently, it still hangs on to the idea of progress linked to advances of science and technology. So the authors write:
“…[W]e recognize the role that large-scale high-tech production will continue to play and observe that many smaller processes, including those oriented toward purposes other than growth, are also strengthened by technological innovations.” (p. 59)
While the authors point to the “continued shadow” of power relations in the degrowth future (they cite, racism, sexism, and classicism) they don’t seem to worry about the rising power of the technological and scientific elite that invariably follows the high technological society they embrace. Also, it is doubtful that a high technology society would be compatible with a smaller ecological footprint degrowth aims for.
Macro level changes
The authors recognize that micro-level changes must be complemented with macro-level transformations. They propose five such “reforms” to the present capitalist societies in the Global North:
“Green New Deal without growth; universal incomes and services; policies to reclaim the commons; reduction of working hours; and public finance that supports the first four.” (p. 65)
They correctly criticize promises of “green growth and propensity, widely understood as increased income and material wealth” including in the Green New Deal (p. 67) as running counter to the degrowth vision of producing and consuming less and a shrinking economic pie.
The authors urge other reforms such as universal incomes and services because they provide “freedom to say ‘no’ to exploitive wage relations.” (p. 70). A similar approach is offered for reclaiming the commons (citing sanitation, health, care commons as most important), reduction of working hours, etc. Degrowth as the authors outline it “…is a collective endeavor to make life viable through material and meaningful support not driven toward profit.” (p. 71)
Here again, they do not penetrate below the surface of socioeconomic reality. No amount of “universal incomes and services” in any capitalist society will undo “exploitive wage relations.” As Karl Marx has shown in volume 1 of Capital (1867) exploitation of wage labor is baked into the capital-labor relations at the point of production. That is, a worker’s wages falls short of the value of what she/he produces plus the value of means of production and any raw materials used by the amount of surplus value (profit). That is, profit is equal to unpaid labor time. As long as workers work in a capitalistically run economy, they will he exploited no matter what reforms are made to their working conditions. This provides yet another example of how the authors as well as the intellectual basis of the degrowth movement side step the reality of the capitalist world economy as they shun any social theory.
Society-wide-strategies for change
Citing Erik Olin Wright, the authors name three strategies for socioeconomic transformation (p. 87): interstitial (building alternatives in the cracks of current system), symbiotic (working within the system for reforms), and ruptural (disrupting or revolting against dominant systems). I have already discussed the first two of these. But there is a paucity of discussion in this book about strategies for a revolutionary (not evolutionary) transformation. The closest they come to “revolutionary action” is the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Spanish Indignados (anti-austerity movement). None of these have resulted in degrowth where they have occurred. Moreover, none of these have explicitly challenged the prevailing capitalist order, much less transcended it.
The authors talk about building alliances for society-wide transformation. They include:
“…nature lovers, care providers, families with children, biking fanatics, vegans, overworked professionals, hippies, unemployed people, indebted families, climate refugees, back-to-the-landers, senior citizens, people engaged in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements, and more.” (p. 98)
They also add as “vital allies”
“workers, feminists, anti-racists, and members of low-income communities.” (ibid.)
And there is more:
“People working in manufacturing, construction, transportation, schools, hospitality, groceries, and other sectors….and worker organizations ranging from conventional trade unions to online communities are central to mobilization.” (ibid.)
There is more to this laundry list of actors for transformational social change in the direction of degrowth. But the authors themselves have wisely elsewhere cited that commoning need not be inconsistent with growth. Why should any of these actors and their actions be necessarily anti-growth?
Realizing they have no clear idea of who would be mobilized and how to affect a society-wide transformation in the direction of degrowth, the authors admit:
“You still might not be convinced that a politics of degrowth is feasible. We have our doubts too.” (p. 108)
Degrowth shines a light on the problem of growth on a planet with finite resources. It also envisions a smaller human society living on a shrinking economic pie by producing and consuming less and in more ecologically sustainable ways. They argue not only for its necessity but also its desirability as expressed by many forms of resistance to it and utopias to avoid it.
However, the degrowth movement as the authors of this popular book demonstrate consciously shun any theory of society, in particular, the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. Thus growth appears as a cultural choice instead of a systemic compulsion.
A few statistics should make the problem degrowth avoids quite clear. According to the Credit Suisse report (2016), the richest 3.5 million people worldwide (o.7% of world population) control $116 trillion or 45.6% of the world’s wealth (Of course, even in this tiny group wealth is highly concentrated in an even tinier subgroup). The share of the poorest 3.5 billion people (73% of the world population) is only $6.1 trillion of wealth or on average less than $10,000 in wealth each (Of course, a majority in this group have no wealth or even have negative wealth, debt).
On the other hand, According to the World Bank about 85% of the world live on less than $30 per day and 63% live on less than $10 per day. Clearly, much of the world resources are used in the Global North by the well-to-do population.
Clearly, to effectively end growth it is necessary to transcend wealth producing economies, in particular the global anthropocentric industrial capitalist economy. If we stop accumulation of wealth by a tiny fraction of people on the planet (0.7% of total world population) and provide this ruling elite with all they can consume for a very comfortable existence for the rest of their lives, we can use the bulk of the existing wealth to improve the lives of the 85% of the world’s population whose basic needs are not met. Second, the simple act of refusing to produce in order to accumulate immense wealth for a tiny fraction of the world population (and for anyone else in the future) will reduce the ecological footprint of the humanity radically and immediately, a giant step towards restoring the health of the ecosphere.
Moreover, by not recognizing the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization as the source of our crises, the degrowth movement cannot identify social actors who could contribute to the effort to end growth by transitioning to a steady state economy in line with what degrowth movement envisions and a culture of being as opposed to the culture of having.
I believe the degrowth movement can learn a few things from the socialist and ecological socialist movements, just as these movements have often have not considered the necessity of a smaller world population and the need for a shrinking of the economic pie and in some cases even the need for producing and consuming differently.
Last and most central is the problem of the culture and nature relationship. The degrowth movement, while an offshoot of the Green movement, seem oddly uninterested in directly tackling humanity’s malignant relations with the rest of nature as reflected in anthropocentrism. Historically all wealth comes from expropriation of nature through exploitation of working people. Ecocentric Socialism theory and practice, which I have developed (Nayeri, 2018, 2020, 2021), shares a similar vision of a much smaller humanity producing and consuming very differently and much less in mostly local economies. But it is also centrally focused on healing our pathological relationship with the more than human nature. In this it draws on the cultures of hunter-gatherers and the wisdom of indigenous peoples, such as the culture of reciprocity and gratitude which views humanity as deeply rooted in the web of life on planet Earth.
1. Many lasted very briefly at most a few years due to internal strife. A few religious sects have lasted but they have not proved attractive to the big majority of people. According to the Census Bureau, fewer than three people lived in the average American household in 2010. Single-person households only made up about 13 percent of all American households in 1960. The 2019 American Community Survey counted 139.69 million housing units, up 1.15 million from 2018, and up 7.90M from 131.79 million in 2010. (See also Strauss 2016)
2. Strictly speaking, there are three types of markets, the consumer market which in the U.S. constitute 70% of the GDP, the capital market (e.g. machinery), and the luxury goods market (which caters to the capitalist class and its immediate periphery)
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——————. “The Case for Ecocentric Socialism,” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. July 4, 2021.
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Teaser photo credit by the author