The Growth of Degrowth (Part 2)

Vital degrowth movement boosted at Barcelona conference
June 1, 2010

Whether the quest is for deeper democracy, protection of the planet, or enrichment of our way of living, the degrowth process starts with reducing the use of natural resources and energy. The moment is now, since we’re already in a period of degrowth and reassessing our dependence on free market capitalism. Yet turning around the mindset of a critical mass of believers in that system is a daunting challenge. The appeal of a degrowth movement for the task is its linking of a host of alternative initiatives, both as sources of and fallout from degrowth. Its goal is an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global levels, in both the short and the long terms. 

What should degrow? First is the capacity to exploit natural resources and humans' lives now prevailing in the global economy, and demonstrated by transnational corporations overriding social justice and ecological considerations. Growth in such exploitation cannot physically continue unlimited. Within a closed system (the universe), usable energy is constantly decreasing (the law of entropy). 

How, then, shall we degrow?

We begin with the understanding that the economy is a management process that must provide for us all and preserve our environment. We who benefit most from economic growth must reduce our consumption; but, while still doing less harm to the planet, we should accept that the people of developing countries will increase their consumption levels until they achieve a decent quality of life (Serge Latouche). We can, in turn, learn downsizing methods and survival techniques from them, since it is their traditional knowledge.

The recent Second International Degrowth Conference at Barcelona attempted to answer the question: "What will it look like?" Bringing together a plurality of approaches and creativity, and building on the findings of the first international conference in 2008, the 500 participants responded. Some of their suggestions follow.

The concept of sustainable degrowth has evolved over several decades from numerous sources including: Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation, decrying the embedding of social relations within the dominant economic system and

applauding the consequent emergence of social defence mechanisms; the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth; Georgescu-Roegen’s application of the law of entropy to economics; and Herman Daly’s Steady State Economy based on no-growth. 

Barcelona’s Autonomous University (co-host of this conference with the University of Barcelona) counts J. Martinez-Alier as a faculty member; his latest publication, Beyond GDP lies economic degrowth, addresses the increasing pressure on the environment and on human livelihoods at the “commodity frontiers.”

York University economics professor Peter Victor, in his presentation Managing Without Growth, explores low-growth and no-growth scenarios, using a “dynamic simulation model.” He argues that economic growth in developed countries “is neither necessary nor sufficient for meeting specific policy objectives such as full employment, no poverty, and protection of the environment.”

It is understood that downsizing production, consumption, and pollution will result in less economic activity. Two occurrences might attenuate this: in a more equitable society, some currently unpaid services would be paid, boosting employment; additionally, new employment opportunities would be created when social and ecological priorities are respected, particularly at the local level.

The terms “contraction” and “convergence” describe the process: the first would limit inputs to production according to ecological constraints; the second calls for a more equitable distribution of entitlements to natural resources. This is the double dividend of degrowth.

Equitable downsizing of economic activity, when it is chosen and not imposed, involves a shift in focus to local territory where people's needs can best be determined. Meeting these needs, preferably with locally produced goods and services, is expected, and import substitution encouraged. Only excess produce should be exported, reducing export transportation costs and the destabilizing effect of dependence on foreign trade as a significant component of the economy.

Trade should be integrated with social and environmental development, at home and abroad. Currently, the environmental and social impacts of resource exploitation are not distributed evenly. First Nations and peoples of developing countries are subjected to deregulated, foreign-controlled operations that too often destroy their traditional ways of living, their social structures, and their environment. These costs should not be externalized; these conditions are not sustainable.

A prime cause of economic growth is interest on debt. In a degrowth scenario, interest-free money (cash) is used for trading purposes. This is enhanced within a community by establishing local currencies, barter, or LETS operations (local economy/employment trading systems), using different currencies for different purposes.

Banks create non-cash money by making loans. The responsibility for creating such money belongs to government (seignorage) and should be transferred from  banks to the state or to the central bank, where the latter is owned by the state. This money would then be used by government as revenue and spent into circulation in accordance with its policy objectives, thereby avoiding bank-created debt.

As an interim measure, commercial banks would retain a role as intermediaries between savers and lenders. Benefits would accrue to savers investing in the community, increasing liquidity; penalties would be levied on those hoarding money to earn interest. As the money supply dwindles, borrowers might be reluctant to repay with interest and would borrow less. However, says Richard Douthwaite, “as long as debt-based money continues to be used, some new loans will need to be taken out to maintain a money stock adequate for the reduced level of trading activity.” Thereafter, new money required for trading would be created by the state.

Alternatives to the too-big-to-fail bank are the community-owned model and the credit union. Statistics for 2002 show that 12% of the world’s population were members of cooperatives, including credit unions. Members of both community-based models set the priorities for their institutions, ethically. Most important, they network with others, but have little incentive to expand beyond their community.

As Keynes pointed out, economic issues will play a lesser role when the focus is on goals (such as happiness and self-fulfillment), not means (working for money and higher social status). We need regulation of institutions that curtail or negate our right to the creative use of our energy, to choose how we work and what work we do. We need access to training and education to create or take advantage of such opportunities.

In a degrowing economy, how might employment be distributed fairly? By work-sharing and adopting a shorter work week. Indeed, the three-day work week was much discussed at the conference. Renamed the four-days-free week, it reflected the ever-present need for more time to develop relationships when individualism, even isolationism, and virtual socializing are the norm.

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So what might a degrowing community look like? Interactive, on many levels: family, in the community-wide sense;  friends, inclusive of those on the sidelines and minorities; in touch with nature and protective of the environment; democratic in its decision-making processes and in instructing elected officials as to the needs of the community; locally focused for self-sufficiency, but globally aware and connected; culturally expressive of diversity; spiritual, in an open sense.

In the words of Ivan Illich, we seek conviviality, which he defines as autonomous and creative intercourse among persons and of persons with their environment. We need to smell the flowers and count the stars, together.  If conviviality is reduced below a certain level, Illich warns, no amount of individual productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members. No amount of work will then make us happy.

Local produce and slow foods complement the concept of the local community and the ideal of voluntary simplicity that accompanies it. Ursula Franklin recently characterized the ideal society as a potluck supper, where everyone brings something and you get a variety of goodies.

  Some suggested physical attributes of a degrowing community include:


  • streets open to people;
  • limits to population density;
  • smart growth – i.e., horizontal, not vertical;
  • co-housing and squats options;
  • shifting urban population to rural;
  • small, localized utility sources;
  • self-sufficiency, more feasible in less concentrated cities;
  • equal rights and responsibilities;
  • bottom-up planning with citizen input; and
  • inclusive of minorities, immigrants and the disadvantaged.


Cities will shrink their ecological footprints. At the top of their list of requisites is public transportation: cars must be restricted from city centres. Population density will increase within the city until public transit is affordable and attractive, without extending city boundaries. Goods and services will be brought to the neighbourhood, discouraging outlying shopping centres, encouraging self-sufficiency. People will live near their workplace, preferably within walking or biking distance. Lots of open green spaces and gathering places will be part of the commons; “taking back the commons” is already a popular theme.

Transition Towns have begun reducing their dependence on fossil fuels and increasing their self-sufficiency. Volunteers across the globe are developing strategies, building community, and networking under this banner. A number of Canadian municipalities are on the list of “official” members of Transition Towns, or of those “mulling” it over. They hope to achieve many of the social goals outlined above.

The democracy deficit  has been on the minds of Canadians this year, with its accompanying challenge of motivating citizens to learn what’s behind the

headlines and taking appropriate action. Building community in a particular territory develops concern for and about others. Citizen participation is growing, providing input for decision-makers. One model suggests that municipal councils act as executive bodies, with citizen committees providing the priorities and parameters for decision-making.

A major target for reduction, not surprisingly, is the military, particularly the armament industry. Another Franklinism is the definition of peace as the presence of justice and the absence of fear. War doesn’t fit in this view. Nor does it fit with the goals of degrowth – not with environmental, not with social, and certainly not with economic goals.

What about "green" technology as a solution to environmental problems? Some caution is in order here. First, it comes with a "rebound effect" where energy efficiencies can result in increased consumption in other areas. As well, the implementation of alternative technology adds a non-negligible cost to the environment. Most significantly, it distracts us from the unsustainability of growth and the need to reduce consumption. James Robertson states that efficiency improvements should be accompanied by an “ethic of sufficiency.”

An animated video, Life After Growth - Economics for Everyone, peoduced and directed by Canadians Claudia Medina and Leah Temper, premiered in Barcelona and is now available online.

As of this writing, the final Declaration of the Conference, summarizing its findings, has not yet been posted.

How will all of this evolve with the current capitalist system? That, presumably, will be a focus of the third international degrowth conference. We know that many of these processes are already under way. Structural changes will necessarily come from the bottom up. They will have to co-exist with capitalism for the foreseeable future. But, since 2008, the practitioners of degrowth economics have a competitive advantage: shock.


(Judy Kennedy is a freelance writer who lives in Granville Ferry, N.S. She is a member of the CCPA-N.S. Steering Committee. This second part of her report on the Growth of Degrowth covers the Second International Degrowth Conference, held recently in Barcelona, Spain.)