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On the entirety of degrowth: definitions, meanings and proposals



By Filka Sekulova and Francois Schneider

One might say that the term degrowth provides few new insights. At first sight the concept seems identical with the calls of the Radical Ecology Movement from the Seventies, supplanted by the Meadows report to the Club of Rome on ‘The limits to growth’. Yet, unlike terms such as “sustainable development” that got swollen over time after incorporating economic indicators in its body, degrowth took its own path of meanings and emergence. It resurged in the grass-root anti-car movement in France challenging not only the physical limits to growth but the very mechanisms that drive societal organization: the role of technical innovation and growth for growth’s sake.

Therefore, the term got coined in an atmosphere of rebellion or in dire rejection of the dominant paradigm where progress is defined in terms of highways’ width, length and strength, in terms of using motorized vehicles and modes of fast transport, in terms of ever-increasing productivity, urbanization, asphalt, volumes of sales, Kuznets curve or efficiency in the management of residuals. 

Interest in degrowth seems to be on the growth track

The concept was gradually taken as a curious topic to write about by various journals in France, and as an even more curious topic to organize conferences about. Interest in degrowth seems to have grown by itself, without extreme dissemination efforts, with the exception of the famous 14-month donkey tour in the name of decroissance which Francois Schneider undertook in 2004. Gradually, academic conferences around degrowth emerged, the first being in Paris, organized by Research & Degrowth France  (R&D). The second one, organized by an expanded team of R&D in Barcelona, saw twice as many participants from academia and civil society. The third international conference on degrowth took place in Venice and more than tripled attendance, with up to 800 academics, practitioners and activists. Meanwhile, a group in Montreal organized another big and well-attended event along the lines of the international degrowth-conferences. Now the forthcoming Leipzig conference had to close registration at 2500 participants. Interest in degrowth, as an intellectual, political, practical, emotional and artistic concept, seems to be on the growth track.

Degrowth is a concept in evolution

How did the meaning of the term evolve over time and gain popularity? The multiple actors, engaged within the degrowth intellectual frame, have contributed in different ways by adding different accents to the term (Demaria et al. 2013). This made it difficult to arrive at one comprehensive definition. Schneider et al. define degrowth as “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions”. Kerschner has argued that degrowth should be seen as a path towards the goal of a global dynamic equilibrium steady state economy (SSE) even if that goal can only be approximated. In order to achieve this, poor economies in the South could increase their aggregate material and energy throughput, while degrowth in physical terms would be required in rich countries as a means of freeing up the necessary resources.

Degrowth is also a call to “exit the economy” and “repoliticize it”, to expand, rediscover and re-value the non-monetary, non-capitalistic realities, which encompass everyday life (Kallis, 2014). Jean Boucher, a participant in the Degrowth Summer School in Barcelona 2014, defined degrowth as a “space of questioning where diverse ideal types - democracy, justice, agroecology, bioeconomics, conviviality, simple living, well-being, equality (considered the sources of degrowth) - are brought together in something of a theoretic utopia. Furthermore Demaria et al. offer an extensive definition of the roots and meanings of degrowth used in the literature so far. In sum, degrowth behaves as a concept in evolution, which is continuously completed, upgraded and re-valued.

In informal talks acceptance of degrowth is much higher

Degrowth has been mostly embraced as a research topic in the academia and as a philosophical base for action among grass-root activists. Yet the entire range of civil society actors in-between, namely non-governmental organizations, have hardly ever engaged with the concept, stating that the term offers little practical applicability. Some would argue that the radicalness and width of degrowth makes it inapplicable when searching for concrete solutions here and now. Indeed, what can you do with such a “utopian” term when talking to bankers and policymakers in the context of a pressing ecological, economic and social crisis? Policymakers are generally perceived as being allergic to critics of growth. Still, at a conference in Brussels hosted by the European Greens and co-organized by R&D this year, degrowth raised huge interest and quite some attendance. Furthermore, acceptance of the term in informal talks with people in politics is much higher than in formal statements.

Common questions around degrowth

When talking about degrowth and the famous phrase “decolonization of the imaginary” coined by Latouche, one is bound to face a number of repetitive questions. While academics and policy-makers are rather concerned with “why degrowth?”, practitioners and activists ponder upon “how degrowth?” Certainly, none of these can be answered in isolation. The hows are rooted in the whys, and the whys remain empty and abstract without the hows. Strangely enough, at various academic presentations on the physical limits to growth, one finds similar analysis on the causes of the multiple crises facing our reality: the rebound effect trap, the natural materials peaks and the laws of thermodynamics, the social limits to growth, the relation between happiness and income growth. The arguments that explicitly describe the deep crisis we are approaching in terms of power and economic relations, democracy and nature are popular and - to some extent - repetitive.

Yet, while analyses of the roots of the crises are drastically similar, even in terms of graphs, when it comes to “prescriptions”, positions diverge from solutions based on green growth, with slight systematic modifications, to radical breaks with “economicism” such as degrowth. Most academic writing is concentrated on the analysis of the reasons for degrowth, whereas effort towards imagining concrete utopias and expansion (or deepening) of the so-called degrowth bullet-points (as we ironically called the results of the Barcelona conference) are often regarded as being “normative science”. This is certainly not the case with the Leipzig conference, where the GAP process is going to pick upon the existing (imperfect) proposals and move these forward, at an even larger scale than in the Barcelona conference.

The idea of systems thinking is key

So again, which is the new message degrowth brings up? One is certainly the idea of systems thinking, applied to the ecological limits to growth. If degrowth is promoted for the sake of ecology alone, or equity alone, or democracy alone, or happiness alone, it could provide atrocious results. Resolving biophysical limits and environmental disasters without applying insights into the need to deepen and widen democracy could result in eco-fascism. Some examples could already be observed in isolated eco-communities. Resolving inequalities without paying attention to ecological limits could deteriorate environmental pressures further. Deepening democracy without concern for justice and ecology could lead to gated communities and further environmental aggravation. Concern for happiness without regard for justice and democracy could also bring out scandalous and even scary outcomes. Acting upon technology without concern for equity, capabilities and democracy in general is a slippery trap as well.

The same holds for degrowth proposals. Preaching shorter working weeks, for example, without reconsidering the meaning of “work” in life, power relations, the monetary and financial system (banking reserves, currencies), transport and energy infrastructure, social security, the declining (low) energy returns on conventional (alternative) energy sources and so on and so forth could invoke another illusionary revolution with painful consequences. Here, system maps could give a hand with a visual presentation on the connectedness between processes and proposals, and demonstrate how impossible ideas, such as car-free cities, for example, could work out perfectly, provided that more parts of the daily reality puzzle simultaneously change (Videira et al. 2013).

Another probably new feature of degrowth is that is cannot remain enclosed in academic conferences and papers, but requires a transformation of the way academic knowledge is created, distributed and processed. It touches upon the formality of teaching in various educational institutions and points towards incorporating the other forms of intelligence which often remain neglected and undervalued: such as emotional and practical intelligence, for example. Teaching degrowth without practicing it in some way will not be highly credible. Practicing degrowth, without understanding it profoundly, or reflecting upon the totality of its ideas, might also remain isolated actions, without creating positive spill-overs. In that sense, degrowth is properly understood when living it with the hand and foot, feeling it in the heart and soul, and contemplating upon it with the mind.

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