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An Open Letter to the Degrowth Movement

By: Chris Conrad


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The degrowth movement should shift trajectories, dramatically, as soon as possible. In what direction? Political science research, and direct organizing. I’m an undergraduate political science student in the US. In the last year, I’ve consumed a huge chunk of literature on degrowth. I have deep respect and admiration for the work done by the folks at Research and Degrowth (R&D), the Barcelona-based degrowth research network, and I fully believe degrowth (in the global North) is necessary and desirable. This is an open letter to R&D, the wider degrowth community, and others interested in post-growth economics. I’m writing as an unknown student, with the hopes that someone will hear, and just might listen. I know I’m not academically qualified to make the generalizations I make here — I’m simply writing this letter as a hopeful student who has devoured degrowth literature, but has yet to find a robust answer to the challenging question of how to make our dreams into a reality.

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
- Karl Marx I want to make a simple argument. R&D, and others researching degrowth and post-growth, should shift trajectories, dramatically, as soon as possible. In what direction? Political science research, and direct organizing. Why? We are running out of time. The IPCC’s 2018 report on warming of 1.5 degrees sounded the alarm to the world: we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030, and to net zero by 2050, to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In the global north, to compensate for its historically disproportionate role in driving emissions, emissions must go to net zero by 2030. Here’s the tough part. If the central thesis of degrowth is correct — that economic growth unavoidably drives ecological destruction and GHG emissions, and green growth is a fairytale — then we have a little more than nine years to end the gospel of growth. Degrowth (and ecological economics) clearly and exhaustively show that material use and emissions are tightly coupled to GDP. In other words, we cannot stop the ecological crisis - in a just way - without degrowth becoming mainstream. And we only have 9 years, give or take, to avoid catastrophic harm. 150 million more people will die from 2 degrees instead of 1.5 C, just from air pollution alone. Degrowth is gaining followers, yes; in the 14 years since François Schneider rode a donkey across France, the research and activist community has expanded significantly. But there’s a big gulf between where we are and where we need to be. We cannot afford to spend 14 more years in the ivory tower, we have nine years to change the world’s opinion of growth and possibly take down capitalism along the way! This poses an incredible challenge. The Mont Pelerin Society took about 30 years to mainstream neoliberalism, and it had the advantage of being in the interest of capital. Degrowth still has a long way to go and is a counter-hegemonic project; not exactly a recipe for securing billionaire donors! Growthism is so entrenched that we still argue about whether degrowth is even the right word to use when communicating to the public. Even the furthest left political parties see degrowth as politically toxic. So, in summary: degrowth is ecologically necessary, but still is far from being politically acceptable or even desirable. This must change, and very quickly. How? I have three tentative suggestions. First, the research agenda should shift significant attention to questions of political science and sociology. We must ask (and answer) questions about how to win the battle of ideas. Put simply, we must engage the vast political science and sociology research on social movement theory to chart ourselves a way to a degrowth world. There is an immense literature on how social movements achieve success that speaks directly to the “how do we achieve degrowth?” question. For example, much of the social movement theory literature utilizes the concepts of political opportunity structures, resource mobilization, and framing to explain whether movements succeed or fail – but I have yet to find any systematic academic examination of degrowth through the lens of these concepts. For an example of what I’m envisioning, see Doug McAdam’s spectacular and lucid article applying social movement theory to the US climate movement. I suspect this neglect is a product of degrowth’s intellectual heritage in ecological economics and political ecology. Many of the academics have backgrounds in economics or ecology, not social movement theory. So it makes sense that the research has thus far somewhat neglected the challenging (but crucial!) question of how the hell to turn degrowth into a mainstream idea, or embed it into existing social movements, and convince the public to adopt our policies. But this must change if we want to have any shot at upending the growth narrative by 2030. To be clear, there has been significant attention devoted to the transformation question already (for example, the 2020 Vienna conference, and more in the postscript below). My argument is that these existing treatments have largely ignored social movement theory, to their own detriment. Second, it may be prudent to communicate beyond the ivory tower of academia. If the goal is to mainstream degrowth ideas, energy must be focused on spreading ideas publicly, rather than conducting research that never reaches the public eye. Put simply, greater emphasis should be placed on appealing to ordinary people and policymakers. Perhaps this means writing more books like Hickel’s Less is More, or Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. Perhaps it means writing more op-eds for major media outlets, giving more public talks, or creating a degrowth media collective. Perhaps it means securing greater funding for a dedicated think tank, or collaborating with existing progressive think tanks. Too little emphasis is currently placed on communicating to the public. Hopefully, the process of converting degrowth ideas from the language of academia to be publicly accessible will help clarify the many challenges with framing an idea as counterintuitive as degrowth for a general audience. Certainly, framing is another area within the political science/social movement theory umbrella that could use greater research attention (I wrote a paper on this subject that took an initial stab at the question, if you’re interested, it’s here). Third, real time and effort should be invested in organizing. If degrowth is to become mainstream, we must not only win the battle of ideas, we must help build a mass social movement to force politics to abandon the growth imperative. Reversing civilization’s current path towards ecological catastrophe while maximizing wellbeing will require massive changes to the political systems of global North countries. It seems to me that the only way this transformation will happen in time is through massive mobilization by a social movement demanding a different economy. Writing more journal articles or books simply won’t cut it. Action is required to change political systems. Organizing to create a transnational degrowth movement with tens of millions of members capable of making the global North abandon growth (and capitalism) seems impossible. But this is basically what we must make happen to avoid climate catastrophe, even if the scale of the transformation seems without precedent.  However, to quote Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Past struggles and victories (universal suffrage for non-property owners, the right to unionize, social democracy in parts of Europe) were without exception the result of mobilization and social movements, not benevolent capitalists. If history teaches us one lesson, it’s that social movements — ordinary people mobilizing to demand better — are unstoppable. The last 3 years have seen an unprecedented mobilization by new environmental movements (Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise, Fridays for Future). I hope they succeed. But I’m also scared by the question: what happens if they succeed in pushing through policies for an energy transition, and economic growth goes negative? If degrowth’s thesis is correct, the climate movement (and society writ large) will face a politically tricky choice: abandon growth, or not? What if the fetish of growth has not been dislodged? This fear is what keeps me up at night, and it’s ultimately the reason I’m suggesting we turn more attention to organizing a mass degrowth movement. So when the climate movement realizes it must confront the question of growth, we will be there as a partner movement to help them make the right choice. Postscript: I know that many of the folks at R&D and others do devote significant time to public talks, and some to organizing (I met one scholar-activist of this mould when I spent a semester abroad in Copenhagen). I also recognize that there are a good number of folks in the degrowth movement who are activists/practitioners. And I recognize that many of the people at R&D are already thinking about the questions I’ve raised here, and some research is already being done on how to achieve the transition (for examples, here, here, here, here, and here). My argument is that these things should be made a more core focus of the existing research/practice, and should in particular use concepts from social movement theory that have thus far been under-utilized.
This open letter to the degrowth movement was originally published on the author’s personal Medium blog (find it here). It has been revised and updated for republication on degrowth.info.

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Chris Conrad

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