The Growth of Degrowth (Part 1)

Campaign for fair, sustainable economy is gaining ground
May 1, 2010

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a maniac or an economist. So said economist Kenneth Boulding back in the 1970s. Concept, process or movement — décrosissance, to give its European popularity its due — is about creating a simpler society of more rewarding human relations by an equitable reduction of material flows or throughputs.

      As a response to the current environmental and socioeconomic crises, and bypassing the debate on the oxymoronic “sustainable development,” degrowth advocates seek a reduction of the collective capacity to acquire and use physical resources, aiming for a more equitable, democratic society and for sustainability, both environmental and economic.

      To explore these concepts, 140 academics, scientists, and civil sector representatives met in Paris in April 2008 for the first international conference on degrowth. The proceedings can be downloaded and have been summarized by F. Schneider et al. as Crisis or Opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability, Journal of Cleaner Production,(2010). The following is derived in part from this summary.

*     *     *

An early observation by degrowth promoters was that technical improvements in efficiency are not sufficient in themselves to reduce consumption. Often the savings they engender are redirected to other forms of consumption. This has been termed the “rebound effect.” What should be sought along with technical innovations are limits and reductions in the scale of production and consumption, leading to a gradual transformation of lifestyles. Add to these the political frameworks required to implement and support them.

      Sustainable degrowth does not mean across-the-board degrowth. Small and medium-sized operations, as of renewables and transportation systems, would flourish. Those of disadvantaged groups (and countries) would grow to reach a level reflecting an equitable standard of living for their populations. This is set out in the Declaration of the First Degrowth Conference.

How can we achieve such a paradigm shift in our values, our instincts of greed, selfishness, competition, and aggression? Many strategies are proposed, some enthusiastically and some with caveats. Most urge a bottom-up process, starting with communities of shared interests, of those seeking a better quality of life — even voluntary simplicity.

      A number of submissions refer to the need for decentralization, and public participation in designing and implementing changes, to avoid “dictatorship” of those with other agendas. To counter today’s emphasis on individualism, the process as well as the goal should develop community, localism, and well-being.

      Also discussed was the inadequacy of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a production indicator, both for what it doesn’t measure (harm caused, remediation, i.e., the “externalities” of production and unpaid work) and for what it promotes: increased outputs and consumption. Alternatives include the Human Development Index and the eSNI, the maximum attainable production level which allows vital environmental functions to remain available for future generations (and ways to measure it). Canadians add the Genuine Progress Index.

      Strategies for achieving degrowth include a trade-off between increased investments in renewables versus further exhaustion of resources. One group’s experiment indicates that sustainability increases with strategies of low growth rates and consumption, along with appropriate investment stimulus. Capping and taxing resource use and pollution seem a given, as well as rationing; but cap-and-trade is dismissed as extending the realm of markets.

      In a degrowth economy, credit would play a minor role, since adding interest requires growth – to pay it off. Banking should be a public service! New savings and loan institutions such as credit unions, lending circles, and local currencies or barter systems should be encouraged, focusing on local needs.

      A proven alternative to suburban sprawl is co-housing, which actually starts with a community of the like-minded who develop a residential complex designed with private units and common space, to live in part as a community.

      Localization is highlighted, particularly for the agricultural sector. Europe’s penchant for farmers’ markets and buying clubs has a new outlet: the Eataly supermarket chain bases its stock, though not entirely, on such produce. Of course, organics are preferred for their reduced use of pesticides, of soil disruption and compacting, and for their employment of local people.

      Developing sustainability implies self-sufficiency, for the present and the future. Food security is part of that, but so is job security. A shift from the dominant message that society must serve the economy, particularly the export economy with its “competitive advantage” mantra, implies full employment in meeting local needs. A basic income is proposed, as well as job-sharing, reduced hours of work, and paying caregivers, as strategies leading to more time – for leisure, nature, friends and family. And for Slo Foods!  

A recently added comment — that a fifth of the UK and Australia work forces have already reduced their hours to spend more time for family and leisure — needs to be advertised. And so does the news that degrowth from the recession has already resulted in a reduction of emissions and consumption. But that is negative and unsought degrowth. When it results from collective choice along with wealth redistribution, investment in social and environmental security, and in public goods (commons), then sustainability is truly developed.


      (Freelance writer Judy Kennedy lives in Granville Ferry, N.S., and is a member of the CCPA-NS Steering Committee. The second part of her article next month will report on the findings of the second international Degrowth Conference, held recently in Barcelona.)