Introduction to the Degrowth Movement

Zero waste advocates, monied environmentalists, and even a number of those in the minimalist lifestyle movement seem to all be allergic to the term “economics”. It’s no real wonder why– they have resources and financial stability enough to pursue their greener lifestyle, assuaging guilt, all while still operating within the system that made their lives so comfortable to begin with. To summarize a comment on this article: “Is it really minimalism when you can just go re-purchase the thing you got rid of if it turns out that you actually needed it?” Or just this response, period.

But like I’ve said a gajillion times, and like I’ll say a gajillion times more, the social and economic system that’s taken over the west has to be completely overhauled if we’re going to get this speeding, driver-less car off the road before it crashes. Minute adjustments to the steering wheel ain’t gonna fix that.

So I thought I’d post a small introduction to the Ungrowth Movement that I learned about from a film called The Light Bulb Conspiracy, a documentary about the history of planned obsolescence. Degrowth, also known as Ungrowth, is an ecological economic strategy proposed to combat reckless capitalism in the face of finite resources. It has pretty good traction abroad, but not so much in the US. I wonder why.

From the Degrowth.org website:

Definition

Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions. Such societies will no longer have to “grow or die.” Material accumulation will no longer hold a prime position in the population’s cultural imaginary. The primacy of efficiency will be substituted by a focus on sufficiency, and innovation will no longer focus on technology for technology’s sake but will concentrate on new social and technical arrangements that will enable us to live convivially and frugally. Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of GDP as an overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption, a shrinking of the economic system to leave more space for human cooperation and ecosystems.

Strategies

The multi-level nature of our complex societies obliges the degrowth movement to follow multiple strategies. This has led to a plethora of engaged debates.

Firstly, there have been debates between activist movements that focus on opposition, for example movements fighting infrastructures (i.e. highways, incinerators, big dams, nuclear plants etc.), and ones promoting alternatives (i.e. bicycles, reuse, solar panels etc.)

The other debate is between the focus on the national/international political level that action should be focused on the local level. Similarly, people debate about the importance of individual and collective action.

Another big debate has been taking place between degrowth supporters who focus on replacing existing institutions (e.g. financial institutions) and the ones who consider that institutions need only some adaptations and should on the contrary be defended (e.g. social security).

There has also been a debate between movements which give priority to practical action at either the grass-roots or political levels, and the ones who prefer doing theoretical analysis and denouncing the “growth religion”.

Most, if not all, strategies are appearing within each source of degrowth mentioned above. A degrowth perspective that avoids reductionism of all kinds would welcome the diversity and the complementarity of strategies (and sources). Although, how much of each strategy is needed and the priority given to them remains a subject of debate and which determine the specialization of actors. Again degrowth is far from a guideline of action.

From Wikipedia:

Degrowth (in French: décroissance, in Spanish: decrecimiento, in Italian: decrescita) is a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics and anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas. It is also considered an essential economic strategy responding to the limits-to-growth dilemma (see The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries andPost growth). Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—arguing that overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities. Key to the concept of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring and a decrease in well-being. Rather, ‘degrowthists’ aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community.

The movement arose from concerns over the perceived consequences of the productivism and consumerism associated with industrialist societies (whether capitalist or socialist) including:

  • The reduced availability of energy sources
  • The declining quality of the environment
  • The decline in the health of flora and fauna upon which humans depend
  • The rise of negative societal side-effects
  • The ever-expanding use of resources by first-world countries to satisfy lifestyles that consume more food and energy, and produce greater waste, at the expense of the third world

From The Magazine of the Anarchist Federation:

“It is a disquieting reality that even though there has been increased economic growth for many years now in the Western world, a serious proportion of the population is worse off, few are actually benefiting while a tiny number are seriously better off.”

This statement was made in 1997 by Green economist Richard Douthwaite and led off his article Good Growth and Bad Growth, which distills points he made in a book The Growth Illusion. But does anything exist that can be described as good growth? This article investigates the idea of growth and in particular looks at the spread of interest amongst both reformists and revolutionaries in France (including the French Anarchist Federation) in the idea of Decroissance that can be translated alternately as `degrowth’, `ungrowth’, or `retreat’.

Economic growth is central to the ideology of modern capitalism. In capitalist economies, growth is usually related to a measurement known as Gross Domestic Product, GDP, defined as the value of all goods and services purchased in a country over a specified period. Growth is said to occur if this value increases, and most nation states are obsessed that this happens, year by year. But this says nothing about whether spending was necessary, or who did the spending. Consumption of any goods or services, whether needed or not, contributes to growth. […]

The idea that if countries get richer by increasing GDP everyone will benefit to some degree has been challenged by some economists over the last few decades and some have come up with alternative measures to GDP. Measures such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) attempt to capture the effects of disregard for people and the environment in the endless search for increased profits that contribute to growth. They attempt to include the effects of unemployment caused by companies automating production, for example. What these newer measures show is that whilst globalisation has helped increase growth in the rich economies as indicated by higher and higher GDPs, other measures like the ISEW have gone down very sharply since the 1970s (even in Australia, Germany and the UK) and gaps in average wealth between rich and poor people, and between rich and poor countries, are getting greater. […]

Anti-growth views are challenging to social-democrats and marxists who argue that growth is only bad in the wrong hands, that people are only starving and disease-ridden because of unfair distribution. All it needs is a restructuring of society and the problem is solved! On the other hand, the idea of Decroissance seems to side with a much more negative and even catastrophist outlook about the world, supported by other contemporary theories like `Peak Oil’ which predicts that a slow down in the rate of global oil production is inevitable in the next couple of decades which will have a huge effect on the world economy. James Lovelock, the somewhat crazed British scientist of `Gaia’ fame, also sees the need for `sustainable retreat’ but warns that its already gone so bad that `civilisation’ will have to plan to defend itself against the disasters and scarcity created by global meltdown, which he thinks will result in `tribal’ warfare. The logic of this is we’d better get ready to deny entry to flooded-out Bangladeshi refugees unless they have something useful to offer `our’ European democracies, because that will be the only hope of maintaining stability in the face of environmental collapse.

It all seems a bit gloomy. So why are social anarchists in France interested in this kind of theory now? In Britain, ecological ideas and environmental activism have been around for long time on the radical agenda and crossed over significantly into anarchist circles in the 1990s before predictions of global catastrophe really hit the mainstream (at least, wildlife TV presenter David Attenborough admitted he was only recently convinced that global warming was a real phenomenon). It is probably true to say that environmentalism has influenced anarchism less quickly in France, and it has emerged at a time when global warming and fuel crises are becoming discussed more widely. More generally, anti-globalisation sentiment in France is in part a response to threats to the domestic economy such as pressure by the World Trade Organisation to remove farming subsidies that support local production of food (WTO talks failed to reach agreement because neither US nor France want to remove there own). It is therefore no surprise that Jose Bove, the farmer who became a media icon over his anti-McDonalds and WTO activism, is also a supporter of Decroissance.

On the other hand, much of the British environmental movement has not yet realised the need for non-statist solutions and can be quite individualist and moralistic. One important aspect of French anarchist views on Decroissance is that living `lightly’ does not have to equate to austerity and overpowering morality and libertarians “do not want to see totalitarian management of Decroissance driven by new Green Khmers”, a reference to overbearing communist control in Cambodia. From the “habit of a nun we could make a hell of a lot of g-strings”, they say! They also make the point that although individuals taking the initiative to live a greener lifestyle is laudable e.g. buying goods that don’t have to travel so far (French wine springs to mind!), this is not a solution to over-consumption and energy waste because so much of this comes directly as a result of government policies on military spending, transportation and agriculture which are all materials and energy intensive. Governments who create public campaigns to get us to save electricity and water are complete hypocrites, and the middle class desire for a more eco-friendly and ethical, but still market-led, economic system is a dead-end.

The French anarchists are also fiercely anti-work – work being not only the driver for much of the wasteful consumption in our society, but also part and parcel of our class-divided society. Anarchist communists, although we are not anti-technology, are in favour of creating simpler devices and tools that do not leave power in the hands of experts. We also want to show how cities and transportation have arisen to support capitalist economies based on industry and trade, and how a future anarchist society could be so much better. These are good reasons to be against complex technological so-called solutions to global warming. It is also clear that a move away from intensive animal rearing is the only way that food can be produced sustainably, since meat-eating requires huge amounts of land, plus food and water for the animals. And we have no desire for workers to self-manage mobile phone factories if we don’t need mobile phones. Taking all these ideas together, the logic of revolutionary Decroissance, if such exists, is not about a slow retreat, but about destruction of both work and economies as we know them, including industrial factories and agri-business. In this sense there really isn’t anything that could be described as `good’ growth. Class struggle must be central to revolutionary Decroissance because without it, we might forget to see that we have common interests with workers and peasants in developing countries like India and China, and instead be taken in by bogus arguments about over-population or perhaps feel threatened or even morally outraged by the effects of their rapid industrialisation. Instead we need to concentrate on forcing degrowth at home, by refusal of work and attacking the basis of capitalism – ownership of land and resources, and the powers that result from this – and create solidarity with workers who are struggling for better lives abroad.

Read the AF’s pamphlet on Ecology and class struggle: Where there’s Brass, there’s Muck, available from our usual address.

Where can you learn more? Try Degrowth.org, Projet Decroissanse (French), or check out some of the books by Serge Latouche, a French political theorist and important figure in the movement. Tangentially, you might also be interested in learning about Buddhist economics.

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