degrowth

We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

The November Edition of the Monkerai Review looks at Degrowth.

“Is degrowth essential for just transition?”

Degrowth (décroissance, decrecimiento, decrescita) is a critical interrogation of growth-based economics.

Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the sustainable contraction of economies as the core means of addressing long term environmental issues and social inequalities.

While degrowth can frame discussions on the failures of and alternatives to the status quo, its advocates recognise there is no theory of contraction equivalent to the growth theories of economics. Whether or not a theoretical foundation is necessary is an ongoing point of creative tension within its social-grassroots movement, at least within minority, wealthy countries. Its key advocates, such as Professor Serge Latouche and Peter Victor promote it as a wide-ranging economic solution,  others are more sceptical of its co-existence with continuing capitalism and its tendency towards personal-community scale change as opposed to systemic transformation.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a peculiar situation: although hardly anyone would deny the deep ecological crisis facing humankind, we seem to be caught in a net of assumptions that impede a practical solution. Having acknowledged that we need to reduce consumption of energy and materials drastically,1,2 we still often think that adjustments within the current system of production and consumption will accomplish this formidable task.

At the same time, it is widely recognized that the results of the dominant approaches to solving the ecological crisis are far from satisfying. Thus, a growing community of scientists and social activists, sharing the basic insight that a reduction of energy and material use implies a reduction of gross domestic product (GDP), is gathering under the heading of sustainable degrowth.3Degrowth obviously entails a fundamental transformation of economic structures. But what precisely are the necessary steps?“

– Andreas Exner and Chrisian Lauk, ”Social Innovations for Economic Degrowth.“

Image by Daniel Skorodjelow . Licensed under Creative Commons.

Degrowth

Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—as overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities.

‘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.

Degrowth opposes sustainable development because, while sustainable development aims to address environmental concerns, it does so with the goal of promoting economic growth which has failed to improve the lives of people and inevitably leads to environmental degradation.

Resource depletion

As economies grow, the need for resources grows accordingly.

There is a fixed supply of non-renewable resources, such as petroleum (oil), and these resources will inevitably be depleted.

Renewable resources can also be depleted if extracted at unsustainable rates over extended periods.

Many people look to technology to develop replacements for depleted resources. [and to increase resource efficiency]

Proponents of degrowth argue that decreasing demand is the only way of permanently closing the demand gap.

Ecological footprint

It compares human demand with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate.

It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste.

According to a 2005 Global Footprint Network report:, inhabitants of high-income countries live off of 6.4 global hectares (gHa), while those from low-income countries live off of a single gHa.

In order for world economic equality to be achieved with the current available resources, rich countries would have to reduce their standard of living through degrowth.

The eventual reduction of all available resources would lead to a forced reduction in consumption. Controlled reduction of consumption would reduce the trauma of this change.

“The Rebound Effect”

Technologies designed to reduce resource use and improve efficiency are often touted as sustainable or green solutions. However, degrowth opposes these technological advances on the ground of what is referred to as the “rebound effect” This concept is based on observations that when less resource-exhaustive technology are introduced, behaviour surrounding the use of that technology will change and consumption of that technology will increase and offset any potential resource savings. In light of the rebound effect, proponents of degrowth hold that the only effective 'sustainable’ solutions must involve a complete rejection of the growth paradigm and a move toward a degrowth paradigm.

Origins of the movement

The contemporary degrowth movement can trace its roots back to the anti-industrialist trends of the 19th century, developed in Great Britain by John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement (1819–1900), in the United States by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and in Russia by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1911).

Criticisms

Supporters of economic liberalism believe that economic growth brings about the creation of wealth, by increasing employment, improving quality of life, and providing better education and healthcare, in other words, there should be more resources in order to make and improve on more things. From this point of view, degrowth constitutes economic recession and is a destroyer of wealth.

Supporters of the self-regulation of the market believe that if a particular non-renewable resource becomes scarce, the market will limit its extraction via two mechanisms:

  • an increase in price (supply and demand) …. [this occurs after things have run out]
  • an increase in funding for the development of alternatives (i.e. renewable energy, recycling, etc.)

The concept of degrowth is viewed as contradictory when applied to lesser-developed countries, which require the growth of their economies in order to attain prosperity. In this sense the majority of supporters of degrowth advocate the attainment of a certain, acceptable level of well-being independent of growth. The question of where the balance lies (i.e. how much the developed nations should degrow by, and how much the developing nations should be allowed to grow), remains open.

Supporters of scientific progress argue that it will solve the problems of energy supply, waste and the reduction of raw materials. This ideology draws inspiration from the Enlightenment to develop an optimistic technologist vision

One day, we might even live in cob houses that we build ourselves, but over the next few critical decades the fact is that most of us will be living within the poorly designed urban infrastructure that already exists. We are hardly going to knock it all down and start again. Instead, we must ‘retrofit the suburbs’, as leading permaculturalist David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited.

This is not the eco-future that we are shown in glossy design magazines featuring million-dollar “green homes” that are prohibitively expensive.

Degrowth offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.

montreal.degrowth.org
Montreal: justifying and understanding economic "degrowth"

Montreal is having a conference about “degrowth” in the Americas! An excerpt for why they’re arguing for degrowth and what that even means:

Little Vade Mecum for the Growth Objector

By Yves-Marie Abraham, HEC Montréal
May 2011

1. What is degrowth?

  • This is not an economic depression, nor a recession, but a decline in the importance of the economy itself in our lives and our societies.
  • This is not the decline of GDP, but the end of GDP and all other quantitative measures used as indicators of well being.
  • This is not a decline in population size, but a questioning of humanity’s self-destructive lifestyle.
  • This is not a step backwards, but an invitation to step aside, out of the race in pursuit of excessiveness.
  • This is not nostalgia for some golden age, but an unprecedented project to invent creative ways of living together.
  • This is not degrowth imposed by the depletion of the biosphere’s resources, but a voluntary degrowth, to live better here and now, preserving the conditions necessary for the long-term survival of humanity.
  • This is not an end in itself, but a necessary step in the search for models depicting free societies, liberated from the dogma of growth.
  • This is not a project of voluntary deprivation and impoverishment, but an attempt to find a “better life”, based on simplicity, restraint, and sharing.
  • This is not “sustainable development”, but a rejection of capitalism, no matter if it is “green” or “socially just”, and no matter if it has State-run or private enterprises.
  • This is not ecofascism, but a call for a democratic revolution to end our productivist-consumerist model of society.
  • This is not voluntary simplicity, but a revolutionary political project that implies the adoption of the principles of voluntary simplicity on the individual level.
  • This is not is not an “anti-modern” movement, but a “neo-modern” movement, based on respect for the values of freedom and equality.

In summary, degrowth is a call for a radical break from traditional growth-based models of society, no matter if these models are “left” or “right”, to invent new ways of living together in a true democracy, respectful of the values of equality and freedom, based on sharing and cooperation, and with sufficiently moderate consumption so as to be sustainable.

…continued here.

-Dean

Reliable Prosperity

Reliable Prosperity demands a new approach to the economy. By placing equal emphasis on environmental stewardship, social equity and financial returns we will build a more resilient system that pays dividends far into the future.

Working along with natural principles of development, expansion, sustainability, and correction, people can create economies that are more reliably prosperous than those we have now, and that are also more harmonious with the rest of nature.

– Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies

Would a de-growing or steady-state economy stop us from expanding our knowledge, stifle innovation and education and stop society from ever creating and completing the kind of grand projects that Neal Stephenson has in mind? Not necessarily at least. Would our approach to these things have to be different? Definitely, but as Stephenson and I have observed, our current economy isn’t really enabling these projects anyway.

Our approach might have to be much more inclusive at a political and economic level. Because of this, we might have to think really hard, at a collective level, about what it is that we really want to achieve. There might be some projects and technologies that we ought to avoid. But if we have to carefully consider our options, we might be able negotiate a path that is environmentally/economically sustainable, reasonably ethical, and still have room for the great innovations and ventures that Stephenson would like to see.

In 1992 world leaders signed up to something called “sustainability”. Few of them were clear about what it meant; I suspect that many of them had no idea. Perhaps as a result, it did not take long for this concept to mutate into something subtly different: “sustainable development”. Then it made a short jump to another term: “sustainable growth”.

And now, in the 2012 Earth Summit text that world leaders are about to adopt, it has subtly mutated once more: into “sustained growth”.

This term crops up 16 times in the document, where it is used interchangeably with sustainability and sustainable development.

But if sustainability means anything, it is surely the opposite of sustained growth. Sustained growth on a finite planet is the essence of unsustainability.

Permaculture Research Institute