Let’s Degrow Up and Grow Down!

By François Schneider *

François Schneider responds to Miklos Antal’s criticism of the use of the term degrowth for the alternative economics movement.

One of the main critiques of degrowth has been the so-called ‘negative’ connotation of the term. People understand the term, and very often even agree with the idea it brings, but they are concerned that it is not good to use this term to communicate with the general public, with politicians and with “others” in general.

In a recent post in this blog, and in a paper co-authored with Stefan Drews in the journal Ecological Economics, Miklos Antal takes on this concern and explains to us why degrowth, in his view, is an unfortunate name for the alternative economics movement. In both of these pieces, he reviews the pro and cons of degrowth. In the blog he adds a new proposal: to replace degrowth by D.E.growth meaning “delight & equity growth.”

I recognize that finding a suitable name for a wide transformative movement is an important task. However; I disagree with the idea of renaming the degrowth movement, and with the lack of understanding that the notion of degrowth needs to be supported and recognized.

First degrowth was never supposed to be the name for the alternative economics movement. Degrowth is not just about economics, it tackles much wider and important issues. And from the start the use of the term was even used to describe an “exit” from the economy, as argued prominently by french economist and philosopher Serge Latouche. When we called for a degrowth march in 2005 in France, the people that appeared were not economists thinking of new economic notions (except for a few, like Latouche), but rather grassroots believers in an alternative to economics with many voluntary simplicity adepts. In the degrowth conferences we have organized (Paris, Barcelona, Venezia, Montreal, Leipzig, Budapest), we have seen more economists coming, yet the notion aggregates a larger variety of disciplines and strategies of action.

march
The “March for Degrowth” organized in 2005 across France brought together thousands of grassroots activists fighting for an alternative to (growth) economics. [Photo credit: Casseurs de pub, 2005]

The term degrowth does not bring all the ideas that need to be included for a wide socio-ecological-cultural transformation. It is only the name of one particular movement, seeking recognition of an important idea that is dismissed: that a variety of things need to be reduced. The idea of degrowth is not to become a hegemony, or to eclipse the different movements supporting different alternatives. Degrowth is part of this broad transformation movement, or at least shall be recognized as part of it. Degrowth does not seek to supplant the positive notions of conviviality, equity, delightfulness etc. However the acceptance of degrowth by other movements and cooperation with them will not occur by telling something else. To sum-up, the idea of degrowth is part of the array of ideas that needs to be included in a global positive process of socio-ecological transformation as it brings on the scene some important missing components.

But did degrowth really fail to get accepted? Is it really seen as “bad”? Let us question this idea. Different statistics on degrowth show that quite a large part of the population like the idea.  Indeed, Antal admits that among the new terminologies coming up in debates about alternatives to the current political-economic system, the idea of degrowth has been incredibly successful, and it gets more and more acceptance thanks to all the publications, events, actions that refer to it. Moreover, it is actually a main goal of the degrowth movement to challenge the perception that degrowth is something negative. Cultural transformations can and do occur, and they are necessary: we need a cultural transformation towards degrowth.

The degrowth movement is part of those movements that seek to challenge social consensus. By nature these movements cannot federate from the start, it is their very nature to embrace an issue that is denigrated. This is the case of the feminist movement when women are considered second-order citizens, or the black movement when there is discrimination. It is not necessarily about groups of people, but it can be about modes of transport, occupations, but also societal processes that are undervalued. The movement for degrowth enters in this category, and had good success with it. But let us be clear again: the black movement does not fight so that everybody becomes black, the bicycle movement does not fight to make it the only mode of transport, and the degrowth movement does not seek a hegemony of degrowth. They struggle so that given groups, tools or ideas become part of societal transformation.

If degrowth was the name of a multinational of toothpaste, Drews and Antal would be right: degrowth is not the right word to gain (market) competition. However degrowth is not just about raising attention, being interesting, provocative, easy to remember. It actually has a meaning! When I was doing a tour of conferences to support degrowth, the reactions were clear, people could give a meaning to degrowth, but not to other notions like sustainable development, sustainable consumption, green growth, etc. I think they would not understand the same thing than degrowth with the concept of “Delight & Equity growth” proposed by Antal. The message of D.E.growth is nice, but it misses some important aspects.

Degrowth is not just about critics to growth, it is also about “less”. What is interesting is that degrowth leads to different interpretations that are complementary. It includes shrinking the economy (like it or not, yes we are in favour of less consumption and production in the privileged parts of the world), but it is not limited to it, different people put forward different complementary meanings. It is about simplicity, frugal use of resources, less draining of ecosystems, different types of human relations (less commodified relations, less online relations), etc. Yet less is not necessarily bad, indeed degrowthers propose that “less is more”.

In addition, degrowth is not about one issue only, and it combines quantifiable and non-quantifiable elements. On the measurable side, degrowth is about reducing natural resource exploitation to tame entropy, it is also about less ecosystem exploitation to allow for their regeneration. On the less measurable it is about making real democracy possible (smaller scale decision making, but keeping multi-scale connections), less manipulation from advertisements, deliberation on the ideas of progress, development, techniques. It is also about less competition, large scale redistribution, sharing and reduction of excessive incomes and wealth instead of « trickle down philosophy». It brings the question of redistribution in a democratic way, at the time when we can still do it in a civilized way, before problems become too acute. On the non quantifiable side, degrowth is about enjoying simplicity: being happy with little. It is also about decolonizing the imaginary: challenge to commodification, challenge to the search for profit and the western model of development; and challenging the supremacy of quantification and single parameters! As you can see degrowth challenges mono-thinking.

Antal does make us more aware of one thing: we have to be clear that degrowth is not related to “down”. Degrowth is about less, because lightness elevates. Look at a balloon that gets lighter! Getting fatter is not necessarily “up”! We do not need to stick to the images of curves going down. Even if curves going down would not necessarily be related to “bad” anyway. Think of the curves of radioactivity or toxicity that go down, this would be positive.

balloons
Balloons rising in Salina, Utah, undated. [Photo credit: Web]

Another criticism of Antal is that degrowth would be associated with recession. In terms of communication, certainly we will have to recall that recessions are part of the growth society. Recessions are part of business cycles, they are related to growth: phases of recessions are related to phases of growth. Degrowth is about another path, another society.

We do not need a very profound thinking to realize that our society has gone over the limits, in terms of mineral resources extraction, in terms of ecosystem disturbances, in terms of amounts of products available, etc. This is not only a problem in terms of materials. The fact that there is too much also in terms of monetary flows and market relations; this is visible at least for the so-called “developed” part of the planet (the Global North).

What is the positive phenomenon that we should absolutely not challenge? Growth? In their article, Drews and Antal mention that on a scale from 0 to 10 (from very bad to very good), growth is valued at 6 in some statistics. However we have to see this in the context of the incredible media/political push of this idea of growth. This is not just Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. People talk of personal growth, growth of infrastructures, everything seems to need growth. Yet this crazy growth fetish that we witness has not always been there; rather, it seems to have become dominant only in the last hundred years of industrial and capitalist development. If we look at many religions, for instance, the basic message is not that we need to always increase, but rather a message that we need to live simply. Sure there were certainly always some people who wanted more, but in the generalized culture this was criticized. There were the adepts of secular non-violence and simplicity, as highlighted in recent reviews of “degrowth precursors”. And this goes as far as many early economists that also thought that endless growth was senseless.

Antal is right that we have had many years of total fascination with the idea of growth in public discourses, and now it is very difficult to challenge it. While he admits that growth fetish is a problem, he advises us to avoid challenging it directly.  And this is the debate: Can we say that we are in a democracy if those that get into power do not tell what they think? Should we tell that we are for “money for all”, and then get voted and do degrowth?  Should we only think that we are for degrowth but not tell it? Should we surrender in front of growth?

There are already people fighting for more conviviality, for more social justice. One message that is missing –and this is why degrowth has had so much impact– is the message that we cannot just always add a new layer. Democracy is also about including the question of reduction in the democratic debate. A democracy that continues to tell to people that we will always have more is not a democracy, it is a seller of toothpaste.           

It seems that today’s growth religion is not so much about people believing in growth, it is about believing that others believe in growth. This is reflected by Antal’s proposition in his blog post that growth is already in the brains of 99% of people. In reality when we talk with people informally most are in favour of degrowth, but like Antal, they fear that others would not like it. We are in a growth religion because it enables us to avoid dealing with challenging transformations. Why is growth is often seen as positive? Because it helps us to avoid challenging ourselves. Think of “personal growth”: I just need to accumulate as many trainings as possible, learn always more things, and at no point I have to think of what I want to leave out. In case of industrial growth it is the same. Promising growth, promising more is the best for short term and local social peace. Tell European voters that they will always have more, call it by different names, and we automatically avoid social conflict (but only locally in the short term). As we do not see the impacts of most our consumption, it takes some time to understand the reality of what it means. So the idea of growth actually avoids dealing with transformation, it avoids the painful political aim of redistribution, of deciding collectively what not to produce and consume. Certainly this cannot go on forever. Change the adjective before growth, call it exquisite, call it beautiful, it will never mean less. And at some point some people will dare saying that the king is naked, that degrowth is needed.

descente-a-velo
First magazine on degrowth published in France.

Degrowth challenges growth in simple terms. In the case of economic growth the message is simple: more economic growth will make whatever else better. But it also challenges growth in its more complex terms: in reality growth is not only about GDP growth, it is a multidimensional idea related to expanding the limits, the limits in terms of natural resource access, in terms of the possibility to acquire anything. It is about augmenting the capacity to exploit people too. Growth is also not only the growth of economists, it is the growth of ecosystems and mineral exploitation, the growth of urbanisation, the growth of large infrastructures,  personal growth, the growth of complexity. The error of thinking that growth is only measurable by GDP leads to the misinterpretation that degrowth is also only about GDP degrowth.

The cultural change proposed by degrowth is tremendous. The important cultural transformation needed cannot come only with concepts that easily comfort people in what they are already doing. So are delight, equity, transition, sustainability, good life really going to describe a “radical” name for movements? Less implies a strong transformation. A process of degrowth can be taken only in the context of a complex active and participatory reorganisation of society, in all the aspects of its functioning.

Finally, as Antal correctly points out, we need to develop real visions and narratives. The degrowth slogan has worked for the last 15 years, but we now need to go on to the next step: developing concrete political proposals. Developing narratives and actions from the bottom-up is, in my view, the way to move forward. Let us work on it together!

* François Schneider is founding member and current president of the Research and Degrowth (R&D) collective.  In the past he worked on life-cycle assessment, cascade recycling, rebound effects, transport issues, sustainable consumption and regional material flows. Since 2001, he has been active in developing the degrowth concept, movement and debate in France and Europe. He works now on putting degrowth into practice on the French-Spanish border in a project called Can Decreix and remains involved at the international level on degrowth.

 

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