We live in an age of converging crises. Only days ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a damning report on the state of the environmental crisis. At the same time, while a few countries are recuperating from the pandemic, an on-going third wave of Covid wreaks havoc across the Global South. In both crises, the economic imperative overrides other concerns and appears to render necessary changes illusory. Even among staunch proponents of our current economic system, calls for reform grow louder.1 The health and environmental crises are illustrative of broader tendencies: environmental disasters, rising global inequality, political polarization, a strengthening of right-wing extremism, anti-immigrant policies, and accompanying human misery.
In light of this, movements are mobilizing. Beyond reform, they argue that systemic changes are needed. Their struggles take a holistic view, emphasizing how the individual crises are entangled and driven by underlying structural factors. A question moving increasingly to the center of attention is growth itself as a driver of social inequality and unsustainability. Critics of growth argue that reckoning with environmental devastation and social inequality is directly tied to leaving behind the growth-paradigm. Among the frameworks and movements criticizing growth, degrowth is especially prevalent.
Degrowth argues that environmental sustainability and social justice necessitate transitioning beyond growth-reliance. In order to address social and environmental issues, we have to transition towards societies that are not just smaller in size but also operate according to a different logic – a logic that is not determined by the market sphere.2
More and more, this traditionally fringe position that critiques economic growth and envisions alternative futures is gaining traction. Mainstream media outlets such as the New Yorker or the Harvard Business Review have given it some airtime. Organisations such as the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and the European Environmental Agency (EEA) are engaging positively with the underlying ideas.3 In 2018, a conference on post-growth was organised at the behest of members of the European Parliament.4
Not surprisingly, degrowth has as of yet failed to gain the support of governments and the private sector. At the same time, progressive actors and peoples’ movements, especially those from the Global South, have also raised concerns and critiques about the framework of degrowth, its origins, and its implications for global mobilisation.
In reaction to this, Degrowthers have sought to build bridges and create spaces for mutual exchange with a variety of movements. This is an on-going project, and spaces such as the 8th International Degrowth Conference taking place in the Hague from 24-28th of August of this year play an important role in bringing together different movements.5
As Nancy Fraser recently pointed out:
‘Only by addressing all major facets of this crisis, ‘environmental’ and ‘non-environmental’, and by disclosing the connections among them, can we begin to build a counter-hegemonic bloc that backs a common project and possesses the political heft to pursue it effectively.’6
In this spirit, this article aims to provide an overview of some of the key discussions and points of critique directed towards degrowth over the years, especially by people’s movements, and how they have impacted upon scholarship, activism and discourse.
To do that, the article is structured into the following parts. First comes an introduction to and definition of Degrowth. There, the history as well as the broader socio-ecological critique and program of Degrowth are outlined as well as key concepts explained. The second part locates Degrowth among other progressive movements and contrasts it with other growth critiques. Besides that, Degrowth strategies and tactics are discussed and compared with those employed by people’s movements. The third part deals with the origin of Degrowth, as a movement and a framework, as well as the question of the political subject. In other words, who are those at the front of a degrowth transformation? The last part provides an analysis of geographical applicability and the matter of (global) class relations. Put differently, who and where does degrowth apply to? Lastly, the outlook provides a synthesis that revisits the questions underlying the issue areas covered.
This article aims to systematically outline the key areas of contention and spaces for collaboration. What can Degrowth learn from people’s movements? How can connecting to people’s movements help Degrowth address some of its blindspots and areas insufficiently addressed? What stands in the way of alliance-formation? While this article does not claim to answer these questions comprehensively, it serves to highlight some of the key areas in which future discussions need to take place.
Degrowth – a definition and outline
First off, what is degrowth actually? In the early 1970s, the term ‘décroissance’ (french for degrowth) was first used in French intellectual circles. It tallied with the publication of the ‘Limits to Growth’ report by the Club of Rome – the first international report to make a comprehensive case for the unsustainability of modern socio-economic systems, the finitude of earth’s resources, and the dire consequences of exhausting them. The work of Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen on the biophysical impossibility of continuing economic growth proved equally formative.
Beyond the purely environmental, the discussion on ‘décroissance’ included a broader civilizational critique that aimed at the negative social effects of modern development. It was inspired by thinkers such as Ivan Illich and his critique of industrialization, as well as André Gorz who stressed the need for democratizing societal decision-making on the economy and re-embedding it within social and ecological limits. Degrowth possesses broad conceptual roots that manifest in different streams inspired by a diversity of thinkers from the Global North and South.7
The modern incarnation of degrowth goes back to the early 2000s. Degrowth became an ‘activist-led science’, including activists, academics and practitioners equally.8 In 2008, the first international degrowth conference took place in Paris and laid the foundation for degrowth as it exists today.
A diverse array of thoughts and positions has grown out of this. Rather than aiming for a comprehensive program that speaks with a single voice, degrowth proponents have fostered plurality under the degrowth umbrella.9 Underlying this are some fundamental positions that unite the different proponents. Firstly, the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. Secondly, the negative impacts of growth-dependence on societies, and thirdly, the need to transition to a society beyond growth.
What is growth? We need to distinguish between ‘material growth’ and ‘economic growth’. Material growth is defined as the amount of material or quantity of matter, such as coal and oil burned, trees cut and minerals mined, and energy that is used by human production. Economic growth, on the other hand, is understood as the rise in monetary value of the goods that are exchanged on the market. This is commonly measured via the gross domestic product of countries, or GDP.10 Proponents of continuing economic growth tend to argue that material growth can be ‘decoupled’ from economic growth. That means that economic growth can continue to rise while material growth remains stagnant or even decreases. They believe this will be possible via technological progress. Renewable energy will spread ever faster. Also, technology such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) that sucks CO2 from the air as well as new, as of now unknown, technologies will enable us to get to ‘net zero’ with on-going growth.11
Degrowth proponents, on the other hand, point out that material and economic growth are intimately linked. The gains in efficiency that have led to absolute decoupling in some countries such as Germany have only been possible through the outsourcing of polluting industries and environmental burdens to countries of the global South.12 There exist trends towards relative decoupling, meaning a reduction in the relative amount of waste and emissions produced per unit of economic value. Importantly though, this still entails compound growth of materials and energy used, only at a slower pace. As it stands, there is no proof of absolute decoupling in the present that would be in line with staying within 1,5° or 2°C, and as a recent review of the scholarship on decoupling concluded, ‘such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future’.13
Besides decoupling, technology generally underpins the strategy of growth-proponents and overt reliance on future innovations is commonplace. From models of the IPCC to Bill Gates’ book on climate change to governments and international organisations, the over-confident belief in technology provides the strategic backbone. The recent statement by US climate envoy John Kerry is emblematic of this. He argued that up to 50% of emissions cut will occur through technology that is yet to be invented. Indeed, considering the failure of carbon-capturing technology to operate at anything remotely resembling the necessary scale and there being no proof of absolute decoupling taking place on an aggregate level, reliance on growth takes on increasingly fantastical forms.14 Therefore, a genuine transition towards sustainability must grapple with growth.
Besides the ecological critique, degrowth provides a civilizational critique that emphasises the negative social effects of growth-reliance. This critique takes a cultural as well as socio-economical form that emphasize the pathologies of the current mode of development.
Degrowth criticizes the mediation of increasing parts of society through the market sphere – be it love, care, spirituality, or relationships with people and nature more broadly.15 It argues for re-embedding the market within society and decommodifying social relations. Strongly connected to this is a critique of economic rationalities. Inspired by thinkers such as Ivan Illich, degrowthers point out how modern growth-based societies are characterised by a process of continuous need-creation and resulting dependencies. Rather than emancipation from want and domination, they alienate and breed inequalities.16 Degrowth is also inspired by thinkers such as Byung-Chul Han whose writing on the ‘burnout society’ outlines how modern societies imperative to perform breeds mental illnesses.17 In contrast to the pursuit of more, degrowth proponents advocate for frugal abundance and a critical and democratic engagement with individual and collective needs.18
Growth-reliance further manifests as exploitative relations within as well as between societies. Inspired by feminist scholars, Degrowth stresses the need to change the relation between the productive and reproductive sphere. Moreover, relations between countries are highly unequal. This manifests as unequal exchange of resources and the plunder of materials from poorer countries – a process that has accelerated since the late 20th century.19
But also within societies of the global North, since the 1970s especially, maintaining growth has come at the expense of the broader population. Welfare states have been gutted, austerity measures implemented, ecosystems and territories have been exploited and those living in them exposed to dangers and waste. Degrowth proponents argue that the imperative to grow and our society’s reliance on growth are responsible for these negative societal impacts and for increasing polarization and inequality linked to growth.20
As ecological economist Giorgios Kallis put it:
“If humanity is not to destroy the planet’s life support systems, the global economy should slow down. We should extract, produce and consume less, and we should do it all differently. Growth economies collapse without growth. To prosper without growth we have to establish a radically different economic system and way of living.“21
Degrowth thinkers and activists have developed a wide range of alternative proposals to our current societal model. These proposals are based on principles such as the ending of exploitation, implementing bottom-up democracies e.g. through the building of assemblies at different scales; relocalizing economies; and revolutionising property relations e.g. via (re-)establishing the commons and decommodifying land, labor, and value – thereby abolishing class divisions. The change they envision includes revolutionising the relation between productive and reproductive work and allowing for the development of diverse economies at different scales that reflect regional and cultural differences.
A degrowth society would then include global ecological justice. This means human societies that reduce their material throughout sufficiently by changing production and consumption to become sustainable and rethinking the relationship between humans and non-humans such as animals and nature overall. They will include social justice and autonomy that allow all people to live a good life according to their own ideals, values and understandings. Lastly, institutional and structural changes will be implemented that allow for a good life that is possible without and independent of growth.
Movement & strategies
Where does degrowth stand in relation to progressive movements generally? And how does it relate to other critiques of growth? Growing out of these questions are positions on capitalism, and more generally how change is envisioned.
Overall, Degrowth is a progressive movement that connects to a broad range of movements advocating for socio-ecological change. Specifically, degrowth can be counted among a number of approaches critical of growth. Prominent among them are: a-growth, steady state economics, doughnut economics, well-being economics and degrowth.22 Despite a number of shared positions, there exist key differences. Explicit anti-capitalism, for example, not being common in all but degrowth. An early example and one of the most famous publication’s of post-growth scholars is Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity without Growth’. Jackson’s book, based on a report to the British prime minister, was key in stimulating discussion introducing growth-criticism to a broader audience. In it, besides an ecological economical analysis of the unsustainability of our current growth-based system, he argues for broad institutional shifts and a more policy-oriented approach that would potentially even allow for broad continuity – a capitalism without growth, so to speak. In this, post-growth as exemplified by Jackson differs from degrowth approaches who are explicitly anti-capitalist.23
Despite that, degrowth has been accused of being somewhat weak on capitalism.24 To a certain extent, this can be explained by terminological vagueness. As a result, post-growth and degrowth positions are mixed. Indeed, scholars such as Giorgios Kallis advocate for a ‘socialism without growth’.25 Others like Jason Hickel place future degrowth against the backdrop of a history of centuries of capitalist exploitation and expansion that needs to be reckoned with.26 An academic symposium engaging with this pointed out large overlaps in positions between degrowth and the anti-capitalist left.27
Yet, Degrowth goes further than many progressive movements by emphasizing the need to transition beyond growth. It is not only capitalist societies that are growth-dependent. The same is true for socialist societies. Therefore, degrowthers also stress the issues with socialist alternatives that remain dependent on economic expansion and high-tech solutions.
Applied to the question of development pathways of the Global South, this point of contention exists within the broader post-growth community as well. Some degrowthers together with post-development scholars like Arturo Escobar argue that advocating for degrowth in the North while perpetuating growth in the South continues along economistic lines and hides the myriad of alternatives that Indigenous communities and others have developed.28 Moreover, they do not consider its uneven effects. Growth is not synonymous with progress, even in countries who are lauded for their exemplary high rates of economic growth like India.29 This issue will be further explored in the following parts.
Another important question is degrowth tactics and strategies. Or, put differently, how does societal change occur? Degrowthers argue for a diversity of tactics, ranging from ‘civil’ to ‘uncivil’, prefigurative to oppositional, from personal to structural.30 Yet, how societal change occurs – what its driving factors are and what forces it is up against – remains undertheorized.31 Degrowth emphasizes the role of ‘prefigurative politics’: small-scale initiatives that seek to provide manifested alternatives to current ways of living. Additionally, a range of policies such as work time reduction, redistribution through taxes and basic income provision are regularly proposed.
But how these are to be implemented and what forces they are up against is not well understood. Notwithstanding the ‘frightening dimensions of growth’, degrowthers tend to emphasize the positive aspects of a degrowth transformation.32 Moving away from growthism is desirable in and of itself. This approach places the pathologies of growth and the debate on needs at the center.
This understanding of change differs from that of many people’s movements that are grounded in struggle and resistance against explicitly named oppositional forces. Movements that subscribe to the radical pole of Just Transition, as outlined in a TNI workshop report, are explicit about the need to dismantle existing structures of exploitation that are directly connected to current societal energy infrastructures and the reliance on fossil fuels.33 These struggles manifest in the resistance against pipelines by indigenous defenders of water and land in North America, or in the opposition to lithium mining in Latin American countries like Chile.34
To be sure, the relationship between prefigurative politics and oppositional politics is complementary rather than contradictory. Moreover, there are numerous examples of frameworks built by people’s movements that offer alternatives to current forms of development such as Buen Vivir, Food Sovereignty, Post-Extractivism, and others.35 Nonetheless, as Federico Demaria and colleagues have pointed out, there is a tendency to shy away from some of the more difficult matters such as ‘the thorny distributive questions’.36 In a finite world, who will govern those limits? What are the power relations? Which vulnerabilities exist and how do we address them? What are the processes through which we may engage with these issues? Also, what forces are in the way of distributive justice?37
Overall then, what stands in the way of a degrowth transition? What are the forces opposing it? Considering its direct opposition to fossil capitalism, some degrowthers can appear to lack a sense of urgency.38 A stronger connection with people’s movements that directly contest unsustainable practices on the ground is a robust answer to this. Movements that build on frameworks such as Just Transition are built around a social power approach, recognising that changes which benefit the majority may nonetheless face opposition from powerful minorities, and seeking to incorporate this analysis into their modes of action and collaboration.39
Mobilization & the political subject
Connected to these questions is the matter of the main political actors in a degrowth transformation. Who does degrowth want to appeal to? Who does it seek to mobilize? Who are those enacting a degrowth agenda and steering it?
Most people’s movements, be they food sovereignty as represented by La Via Campesina or Just Transition as represented by Trade Unions or Environmental Justice movements, represent clearly outlined groups. In these movements, political agency, who is at the helm and whose interests are given most weight, is directly tied to those at the core of the struggle, who are most immediately impacted. While solidarity across and between different groups and actors is critical, and while movements strive to meet the needs and respect the rights of all, workers, food producers, or front line communities are seen as having special relevance as political actors, as a result of their particular position in relation to global capitalism. One way of understanding this is through what Ian Scoones and his colleagues at the STEPS centre call enabling approaches: transformative change requires the inclusion of those most affected and threatened by potential consequences to give a voice to those who bear the brunt of impacts.40
For Degrowth, the answer is less straightforward. In 2013, Federico Demaria and colleagues described it as an ‘open question’ that would heavily influence the ‘forms of conflict’ as well as the ‘persistence of the movement’ over the following years.41 The matter remains open. Nonetheless, there are some overarching trends around which different positions have congregated. Two of which are especially prominent. These are not mutually exclusive. They nonetheless take different approaches and thereby answer the question of the political subject in different ways. The first trend is characterised by emphasizing broad inclusivity. The second trend emphasises the connection to people’s movements.
Degrowth is often described as a ‘movement of movements’ – based on the inclusion of a number of actors, causes, and strategies under an umbrella of shared values and goals.
‘If there is a consensus in the degrowth community, this is that a transition can only be the outcome of multiple strategies and multiple actors; a movement of movements changing both everyday practices and state institutions.’42
According to this understanding, the subject of the degrowth movement ‘is not traceable along conventional lines of class, but consists of a greater alliance between activists, academics, practitioners, ecologically concerned citizens, unemployed and underemployed, and includes those struggling for environmental justice in the Global South and peripheral Global North’.43 This approach premised on broad inclusivity emphasizes shared goals and lived practices as uniting elements around which the degrowth movement mobilizes – in the Global North as well as the Global South.44
In addressing the diversity of actors involved, some emphasize the shared factor of practice – ‘of practising the ideas of degrowth in their daily lives or in the institutions in which they are involved.’45 Personal but also collective practice holds special importance for those emphasizing the role of prefigurative politics. This has significant implications for the understanding of the political subject. As Panos Petridis and colleagues put it:
‘Rather than seeking to first define and then make alliance with the subject that is relevant for degrowth, the basic idea is that by participating in such ventures, a new collective political subject is created.’46
Through emphasizing a broad inclusivity and not engaging comprehensively with questions of class relations, there is a danger of hiding and indeed perpetuating the ‘(largely) white middle class nature’ of the movement.47 Stefania Barca, for example, argues that Degrowth has thus far failed to articulate a comprehensive understanding of class. She advocates for and points out ways in which degrowth and labor politics may be thought together. Out of this arises an ‘emancipatory ecological class consciousness: the awareness that climate change (and environmental violence in general) is the newest form of class war – as always, articulated with gender and racial domination – and that it needs to be combated via struggles for dealienation and communing.’48
Barca’s argument for centering a broadly understood global working class is emblematic of the second trend within Degrowth. It reaches back to Joan Martinez-Alier who understands concrete struggles around socio-ecological issues such as the building of dams or the establishment of new mines and plantations as ‘degrowth in practice’. Specifically with regard to degrowth and environmental justice movements, degrowthers argue that there is deep complementarity. While Environmental Justice (EJ) lacks a comprehensive ‘theoretical roadmap’, degrowth has thus far failed to connect to a broader social movement.49 Beyond complementarity, this stream emphasizes shared values with social movements across the world, such as the Zapatistas and their resistance to industrial development.50 The social movements engaged in these conflicts are therefore potential flag bearers with whom to collaborate.51
This second trend takes up a position more closely aligned with enabling approaches. It seeks to connect to people’s movements and emphasizes the potential for alliance-formation. Political change is based on direct struggle from the bottom up. An example of this approach is the ‘Environmental Justice Atlas’, a platform serving to gather information on environmental conflicts across the world that is directed at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.52 ICTA can currently be considered to house the most influential research group on degrowth and the EJ-Atlas symbolizes some of the personal continuity among researchers. In this spirit, a special issue looked more closely at the potential for alliance-formation between EJ and Degrowth.53 Yet, the results have not been without controversy. Indeed, there exist a number of key areas of contention.
Geography & class beyond borders
Among these areas of contention, North-South relations remain a key dividing line. As a survey of activists from the global South showed: Degrowth is understood to be eurocentric and primarily applicable to its region of origin. It is ‘not only perceived as ‘missing the point’, but is also in some ways a ‘luxury’ debate’.54
These critiques directly tie in to questions flagged in the previous parts. Namely, how does degrowth cooperate with other movements? Especially, how does it cooperate beyond Europe or the Global North? Is it a movement and framework that holds regional validity rather than broader answers to bigger questions? What is the role of power and how does it understand structural hierarchies and dependencies? In order to answer these questions, there is value in doing so through the categories of geography and class.
Geography – Degrowth for the North
Many degrowth proponents emphasize decolonisation and the need to break on-going unequal trade relations. The economic anthropologist Jason Hickel says that ‘solidarity with the South requires degrowth in the North’.55 The economies of the global North must essentially retreat and reduce economic pressures on countries of the global South. Out of this will grow the space for self-directed and autonomous development. This would further avoid the trap of a European framework setting the global agenda (again).56 ‘To the extent that degrowth in high-income nations releases Global South communities from the grip of extractivism, it represents decolonisation in the truest sense of the term.’57
Underlying this demand is a critique of global capitalism. In order to maintain growth rates, the price of labor and resources in countries of the global south are actively depressed. Moreover, there exist significant outflows of wealth from the South to the North that can be characterised as ‘plunder’.58 These phenomena are especially relevant in extractive industries. As Patrick Bond has shown, African countries end up accruing a net negative following the extraction and export of natural resources.59 This loss is further exacerbated by a lack of retainment of profits and little reinvestment of capital in the respective countries.
The aforementioned reduction of economic pressures manifests as a process of ‘delinking’. Of curtailing the unidirectional flows of labor and materials and emphasising domestic economies and societal needs instead of pressures of a global capitalist system.60 Degrowthers connect to this criticism and point to a feedback effect: degrowth in the North will lead to reduced pressures on the South. Delinking Southern economies, on the other hand, will accelerate the degrowth-transition in the North.61
Besides that, degrowth proponents generally advocate for a redistribution of global wealth.62 Often, they do so through advocacy for a climate and/or ecological debt.63 These concepts trace their roots to Latin American environmental justice organisations of the early 1990s.64 Their central claim is that the Global North appropriates an unequal share of natural resources while at the same time externalizing negative environmental costs. Therefore, a debt should be paid by the North to the South.65
The transition towards sustainable societies must include all societies, if we are to avoid shooting beyond the planetary boundaries. But inequality and relations of exploitation exist as much within as between regions and countries. For that reason, degrowth also emphasizes shared structures of inequality and unsustainabiliity across societies.
Class – Degrowth in the South?
In the on-going efforts related to the promotion of alliance formation, Degrowth connects to movements in socio-ecological conflicts.66 Beyond the immediate context, these conflicts arising, e.g., from large-scale projects are understood as the unavoidable negative impacts of growth-based development that darken alleged success stories across the global South. In India, rapid growth has mostly benefited the already well-off. It exacerbated existing inequalities and endangered the livelihoods of many, such as those dependent on now degraded ecosystems.67 Instead of universal progress, growth leads to the spread of unsustainable ways of living across societies and increases in inequality. Often without improving the plight of the poor. The missing link between growth and welfare can be witnessed in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Both of whom were praised for their high economic growth levels just before the eruption of popular uprisings in 2011.68 As in the Indian case described above, this begs the question: growth for whom exactly? In this sense, degrowth is understood beyond geographical limits as applying to ‘the global middle and upper classes’ who are responsible for the bulk of emissions (87% in 2013 numbers).
This chart shows the budding of a transnational consumer class.69 The concept of ‘imperial mode of living’, developed by scholars Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen illustrates this:
‘The imperial mode of living is built on the ideal of a comfortable and modern life based on the permanent availability of consumer goods. In order to make this dream a reality, people around the world have to work hard, mine natural resources and slaughter animals — and they have to do it on a scale that pushes the earth to its ecological and social limits. The consequences are outsourced: to the Global South, future generations and marginalised groups in societies everywhere.’70
While originating in the Global North, this way of being is proliferating across the world. Degrowth is critical of and provides an alternative to a way of life that is inherently unsustainable and deeply unjust.71
The outsourcing of externalities occurs in the Global North as well. The origins of the environmental justice movement lie in North America. The issues that were flagged then are still prevalent now. The discussion on ‘sacrifice zones’ – areas where low-income communities or people of color live that are knowingly exposed to increased risk of harm from polluting industries – illustrates this.72 These sacrifice zones can be found across countries, regardless of GDP. Nonetheless, as the following table shows, the gap between different regions of the world remains vast, in terms of historical as well as present contributions.73 Against this background, there is a need for future research on degrowth impacts across societies.74
What are the synergies and tensions between Degrowth and people’s movements? This article has aimed to answer these questions, at least partly. To do so, it started by outlining degrowth and its core ideas, critiques, and program. Moreover, where it is positioned in relation to other movements and as well as its strategies of choice. Also, what the role of class is and who its political subjects are. Lastly, with whom and where Degrowth resonates. Or put differently, whether degrowth is only relevant in the Global North or possesses relevance beyond geographical boundaries.
There exist strong synergies between Degrowth and many people’s movements. The critique of the negative impacts of growth-based development and the need to rethink societal relations have proven fertile ground for engaging with frameworks developed in the Global South such as Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay, Radical Ecological Democracy, and Post-Extractivism.75
If viewed from a ‘social movement ecology’ perspective,the strengths and weaknesses of the different movements as well as their strategies and tactics for change are centered and new methods for collaboration are privileged. To reach back to Nancy Fraser, this occurs against the background of a ‘happy coincidence’. Namely, the opposition to capitalism as the driver of the ecological as well as socio-economic crises.76 Beyond the lowest common denominator, there is room for each framework to complement one another based on overall shared principles and values. This might be even more important considering the recent exponential uptake of degrowth and its talking points across a broad range of actors and mediums.
At the same time, there remain areas of contention with parts of Degrowth. Among these, the question of who stands at the front of a Degrowth transformation and what role class plays for mobilisation looms especially large.
To understand the implications of this for Degrowth and the potential for further alliance-formation, it is first best to take a step back and center one of the key characteristics of Degrowth: its plurality.
Degrowth understands itself as a ‘movement of movements’. But plurality can have unwanted effects. It can hide differences and power imbalances within the movement. Furthermore, it has strategic implications leading to what some have called ‘strategic indeterminance’.77
Where does Degrowth go from here? Two general trends have been outlined: broad inclusivity and connecting to bottom-up struggles and projects. Another way of looking at this is through Erik Olin Wright’s categorization of societal transformation into ‘interstitial’, ‘symbiotic’, and ‘ruptural’ politics.78 ‘Ruptural’ politics, those seeking direct confrontation and change through the breaking of institutions are rare among degrowthers. More prominently, some such as Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis trend towards symbiotic politics that builds on broad appeal and policy-orientation. Transformation is approached from within the system through the democratic empowerment of the many. The emphasis lies on connections with frameworks such as the ‘Green New Deal’ that have broad-based appeal.79 More reflective of the second trend are those engaging in interstitial politics that seek to build direct alternatives in ‘the niches, spaces, and margins of capitalist society’ where power is less absolute.80
The question is less whether degrowth can accommodate one or the other. Rather, how does it straddle the divide between the two? This shines a light on an on-going dilemma that most political ideas and movements are faced with. How ‘mainstream’ do we go? How far do we accommodate? What is the purpose, overall? And what are the implications of trending either way?
What might such a broad-based approach hide? As the aforementioned ‘enabling approach’ by Scoones and colleagues suggests, politics is characterised by fundamental uncertainty. Transformation, as critical political economy has shown us, generally occurs in uneven ways. If, as Harold Lasswell famously argued, politics is about ‘who gets what, when, how’, then a strategy of active inclusion of those directly experiencing the violence and impacts of the current system, as well as potential future impacts of a transition is consequential.
Mobilising along class-lines and engaging in a politics that is premised on explicit representation is one way of answering what above has been called ‘the thorny distributive questions’. It is one strategy on how to engage with the contingencies of social processes. Beyond representation, there is a need for degrowth to more strongly connect to people’s movements by taking up a stronger oppositional stance and engaging more deeply with their strategies and tactics.
Seeing fossil capitalism and current socio-economic modes of being from the eyes of movements and struggles on the ground makes it direct. It reminds us that climate justice and calls to ‘leave it in the ground’ are not just directed at 2050 or a future beyond growth. They are calls of resistance to methods and actions that perpetrate violence in the here and now. They are acts of self-defence that occur in the present.
The connection to movements provides also fertile learning ground. A significant part of degrowthers are following an interstitial approach. Ideas and movements are budding in the cracks of the current system and mobilizing in parallel but also in opposition to it. These long-standing struggles may provide inspiration for the important question facing these Degrowth initiatives: how to connect the different initiatives? How can they be fortified and radicalized? In what ways can they be the arbiters of broader changes and what needs to be considered to enable a socio-ecologically just process? On this, degrowthers can learn from people’s movements and their rich history of opposition and building of alternatives.
The author would like to thank Katie Sandwell, Hamza Hamouchene, Julien-François Gerber and Denis Burke for their feedback on the article.
1 Garicano, Luis and Centre for Economic Policy Research (Great Britain). 2021. Capitalism after Covid: Conversations with 21 Economists; https://www.ft.com/content/de643f89-5be8-4344-81ac-78c7026e9bfe
3 Laurent, Eloi. 2021. From Welfare to Farewell. ETUI, The European Trade Union Institute. https://www.etui.org/publications/welfare-farewell (August 12, 2021).
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/10/can-we-have-prosperity-without-growth ; https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/growth-without-economic-growth
9 As Demaria et al. (2013, p. 193, 210) stress, degrowth serves as a gathering point for different strands of critical thinking, a point of convergence, where different actors and groups come together to develop strategies on different levels and with different emphasis. At the same time, degrowth is characterized by what Chertkovskaya et al. (2019, p. 5) label ‘weak theorising’. Instead of developing an orthodox approach, the goal is to strive for ‘cognitive justice’ by allowing the accommodating of different approaches and ideas: ‘Multiplicity is a key resource and strength of degrowth, and this multiplicity is making degrowth capable of including a variety of converging ideas and movements, while offering them a space for meaningful interchange.’ – Chertkovskaya, Ekaterina, Alexander Paulsson, and Stefania Barca. 2019. Towards a Political Economy of Degrowth.
11 See e.g.: Global Green Growth Institute; Breakthrough Institute; OECD; on ‘net zero’ see: https://demandclimatejustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/NOT_ZERO_How_net_zero_targets_disguise_climate_inaction_FINAL.pdf
12 EEB, 2019, p. 53 – European Environmental Bureau. 2019. Decoupling Debunked – Evidence and Arguments against Green Growth as a Sole Strategy for Sustainability. Brussels: EEB. https://eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked/ (June 8, 2021).
13 EEB, 2019 – European Environmental Bureau. 2019. Decoupling Debunked – Evidence and Arguments against Green Growth as a Sole Strategy for Sustainability. Brussels: EEB. https://eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked/ (June 8, 2021).
14 https://medium.com/lobbywatch/carbon-capture-keeps-proving-its-critics-right-what-comes-next-32ac9750a7aa ; https://www.foei.org/resources/publications/chasing-carbon-unicorns-carbon-markets-net-zero-report
19 Hickel, Jason, Dylan Sullivan, and Huzaifa Zoomkawala. 2021. “Plunder in the Post-Colonial Era: Quantifying Drain from the Global South Through Unequal Exchange, 1960–2018.” New Political Economy: 1–18.
22 https://timjackson.org.uk/ecological-economics/pwg/ ; https://weall.org ; https://doughnuteconomics.org ; It is important to note that the schools of thought outlined here and this understanding of post-growth is focused on the Western context. Others like Hollender, 2015 and Gerber, Raina, 2018 use the category ‘post-growth’ to denote an array of schools of thought that seek to be globally inclusive and take into consideration frameworks from the Global South as well.
23 The difference in position can be nicely witnessed in this interview of Tim Jackson together with Giorgios Kallis where they discuss, among other things, the position on capitalism of degrowth and post-growth. https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/beyond-the-choke-hold-of-growth-post-growth-or-radical-degrowth/ ; https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/the-politics-of-post-growth/
24 Andreucci, Diego, and Terence Mcdonough. 2015. “Capitalism.” In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, eds. Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis. New York ; London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 87–90. ; Andreucci, Diego, and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro. 2019. “Capitalism, Socialism and the Challenge of Degrowth: Introduction to the Symposium.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30(2): 176–88.
31 This has been the central topic of the 2020 conference in Vienna and further debated in a 10 part series on degrowth.info: https://www.degrowth.info/en/blog/beyond-visions-and-projects-the-need-for-a-debate-on-strategy-in-the-degrowth-movement
33 Mitchell, Timothy. 2011. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London ; New York: Verso.; Latouche, 2010, pp. 65-6 – Latouche, Serge. 2009. Farewell to Growth. Cambridge ; Malden, MA: Polity.; https://www.tni.org/en/justtransition
34 https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/indigenous-resistance-big-picture-behind-pipeline-protests ; https://www.powershift.org/pipeline-resistance ; Jerez, Bárbara, Ingrid Garcés, and Robinson Torres. 2021. “Lithium Extractivism and Water Injustices in the Salar de Atacama, Chile: The Colonial Shadow of Green Electromobility.” Political Geography 87: 102382.
35 Kothari, Ashish et al., eds. 2019. Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. Tulika Books. ; Kothari, Ashish, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. 2014. “Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to Sustainable Development and the Green Economy.” Development 57(3): 362–75.
36 Demaria, Federico, Giorgos Kallis, and Karen Bakker. 2019. “Geographies of Degrowth: Nowtopias, Resurgences and the Decolonization of Imaginaries and Places.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 2(3): 431–50.
43 Petridis et al., 2015, p. 186 – Petridis, Panos, Barbara Muraca, and Giorgos Kallis. 2015. “Degrowth: Between a Scientific Concept and a Slogan for a Social Movement.” In Handbook of Ecological Economics, eds. Joan Martinez-Alier and Roldan Muradian. Edward Elgar Publishing, 176–200. https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781783471409/9781783471409.xml (June 21, 2021).
49 Akbulut, Bengi, Federico Demaria, Julien-François Gerber, and Joan Martínez-Alier. 2019. “Who Promotes Sustainability? Five Theses on the Relationships between the Degrowth and the Environmental Justice Movements.” Ecological Economics 165: 106418.
50 Gerber, Julien-François, and Rajeswari S. Raina, eds. 2018. Post-Growth Thinking in India: Towards Sustainable Egalitarian Alternatives. Hyderabad, Telangana, India: Orient Blackswan.; Nirmal, Padini, and Dianne Rocheleau. 2019. “Decolonizing Degrowth in the Post-Development Convergence: Questions, Experiences, and Proposals from Two Indigenous Territories.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 2(3): 465–92.; Demaria et al., 2019
51 Gerber, 2020, p. 253 – Gerber, Julien-François. 2020. “Degrowth and Critical Agrarian Studies.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 47(2): 235–64.
; Martínez-Alier, Joan. 2012. “Environmental Justice and Economic Degrowth: An Alliance between Two Movements.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 23(1): 51–73.
54 Rodríguez-Labajos et al., 2019, p. 177. – Rodríguez-Labajos, Beatriz et al. 2019. “Not So Natural an Alliance? Degrowth and Environmental Justice Movements in the Global South.” Ecological Economics 157: 175–84.
59 Bond, Patrick. 2018. “Ecological-Economic Narratives for Resisting Extractive Industries in Africa.” In Environmental Impacts of Transnational Corporations in the Global South, Research in Political Economy, Emerald Publishing Limited, 73–110. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0161-723020180000033004 (August 5, 2021).
64 Martinez-Alier, Juan. 2002. The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation. Cheltenham, UK Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar. ; Paredis, Erik et al., eds. 2007. The Concept of Ecological Debt: Its Meaning and Applicability in International Policy. Gent: Academia Press.
65 Schlosberg, David, and Lisette B. Collins. 2014. “From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice.” WIREs Climate Change 5(3): 359–74.; On the relation between both concepts and some key differences see also Warlenius, 2017.; Warlenius, Rikard. 2018. “Decolonizing the Atmosphere: The Climate Justice Movement on Climate Debt.” The Journal of Environment & Development 27(2): 131–55. ; Rice, James. 2009. “North—South Relations and the Ecological Debt: Asserting a Counter-Hegemonic Discourse.” Critical Sociology 35(2): 225–52.
68 Pfeifer, Karen. 2016. “Neoliberal Transformation and the Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.” In Political and Socio-Economic Change in the Middle East and North Africa: Gender Perspectives and Survival Strategies, eds. Roksana Bahramitash and Hadi Salehi Esfahani. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 21–73. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137481429_2 (August 6, 2021).