Can Europe Make It?

Limit growth: liberate degrowth

Degrowth stands for quality of life within planetary limits. This is the real opposite of capitalist growth.

Anitra Nelson Vincent Liegey
18 May 2020
Bern, Switzerland, on May 10, 2020.
Bern, Switzerland, on May 10, 2020.
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Glories Francois/PA. All rights reserved.

What we are experiencing is not degrowth but rather a tragedy. ‘Surely, nothing could be worse,’ wrote Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958) than ‘the prospect of a society of laborers without labor’. The economic implications of containing the COVID-19 pandemic means that currently we have a growth society without growth or its engine,workers. But, this is not degrowth.

Degrowth is to growth as quality is to quantity, totally different. Growth is pure quantity: it is quality neutral. It is only because we live in a capitalist society where having more money is associated with a better quality of life that such confusion arises — so, degrowth is confused with lack, poverty and austerity. In reality degrowth stands for quality of life within planetary limits. This is the real opposite of capitalist growth.

‘Surely, nothing could be worse, than the prospect of a society of laborers without labor.’

Degrowth is about a democratic and serene transition toward new models of society where infinite growth on a finite planet is recognised as neither possible nor desirable. The degrowth movement advocates limiting growth and liberating degrowth. Here quality of life — not economic quantity — will be central to all our gaols and assessments.

Degrowth advocates argue that the current recession caused by a simple virus is just a forewarning of what we will face if we do not discuss how to manage human life within planetary limits. Our choice is between convivial degrowth or forced recession, even social collapse. The COVID-19 confinement is full of learnings — opening the space to better understand degrowth and see degrowth as a desirable option.

Here, reflecting on this crisis, we raise a few points from those developed in our upcoming book Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide.

Learnings for degrowth

While the dominant mantra is that the market rules and must be left as free as possible of state interference, today governments are regulating aspects of the economy. As the pandemic threatened to overwhelm oft-neglected health sectors, states acted. Factories were closed, and corporations, markets and profits restricted, in favour of protecting life. Now could open up democratic debates on what we need to produce, and how we produce. We can decide on how we work and where, so our working lives have greater quality and, with reduced needs, we can work fewer hours.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, peak oil — ‘peak everything’ — potential pandemics and rising inequalities increasingly threaten our well-being, prompting a radical rethink of our economies. As the neoliberal political agenda fights to get back on track, degrowth invites us to imagine a safer world with local self-provisioning, making us independent of traded goods.

Forced confinement has allowed us to re-evaluate what really matters — human relationships and communication, care, solidarity and conviviality, all at the heart of degrowth principles. We have had to decide which are our essential needs and services, from food to housework, from childcare to health. And we have experienced the risks of just-in-time supply chains with numerous weak links but especially long-distance trade and transport across borders.

Our mega-machine seems very strong when everything works well, but incredibly fragile in the face of minor problems. Moreover many of us have experienced the benefits of a slower more deliberate lifestyle and Earth has been relieved of the excessive pollution of air, waters and land — potentially decolonising our productivist and consumerist imaginaries — freeing us to see that when we act altogether other preferable worlds are possible.

Stimulating growth is dangerous, useless and absurd

Now we have the opportunity to stop socially undesirable and environmentally dangerous activities. Instead, our money is being used to save toxic sectors such as airlines and mass tourism. Funds used by states to prop up industries that are environmentally dangerous is accumulating as public debt. We risk suffering austerity measures over the years to come, just to pay back those debts. At the same time environmental damage is not halted and even exacerbated by stimulating economies. Instead, degrowth invites us to invent new models based on social and environmental justice.

Recent uprisings such as the French yellow vest movement reveal that inequalities were already unbearable before the pandemic hit. This period offers us an opportunity to stop the mega-machine, decide on appropriate and just production, and share what we produce. If we don’t take control, the economic, environmental and social impacts of the pandemic crisis threaten to be more widespread than any experienced in the lifetime of current generations.

Paths to degrowth

Many people are reported saying they never imagined experiencing such pandemic restrictions and deaths. Once we were blind, now can we see? After supplies of toilet paper ran out, the next commodities in short supply were vegetable seeds! Yes, growing our own food, relocalisation, regulating to save our lives, expanding public services, and neighbourly solidarity is happening because most people understand we need them and they are desirable.

Once we were blind, now can we see?

Several pre-pandemic studies showed many of us were ready for a new paradigm anyway. In January, Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer found that 56 percent of the global population agreed: ‘Capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world’. In France, last autumn, two studies revealed a majority in favour of degrowth rather than green growth and its myth of ‘decoupling’ environmental damage from growth.

The psychological and cultural barriers are being overcome, opening new paths for self-organisation, prioritising local farmers and factories, and calling for a more representative, and direct, democracy. As restrictions diminish, won’t learnings from our seclusion lead to many people deciding for a greater and deeper enjoyment of a simple, secure life and conviviality?

A degrowth project

In most countries physical distancing has been imposed at the same time as efforts to save economies. No open debate has taken place. States of emergency have lifted the usual checks and balances on states. There has been a lot of confusion, unanswered questions, and breaking of seclusion and distancing rules considered irrational and unnecessary. This raises key questions central to the degrowth project which is based on open debates about future risks and responses.

Degrowth activists argue for ‘open relocalisation’ which means local production so we can, say through local assemblies, decide what our collective needs are, and how we might fulfil them via local production and sharing. That’s why we continue to work on building a strong suite of democratic skills and to negotiate for autonomy of decision-making around commoning.

Many degrowth activities support an ‘unconditional autonomy allowance’ (UAA) meaning an unconditional basic income, access to unconditional basic services and local economic structures such as local currencies. The UAA approach means access to sufficient provisions for a decent life, from birth to death, an unconditional allowance available to everyone. It means free access to a maximum amount of goods and services, such as food, bikes, gardening tools, health and education.

The UAA includes a cap on income (a maximum income) and democratic control of the money supply and debt creation through community-based audits — to avoid public losses for private profit. While useless sectors will end, retrenched workers will be re-skilled for other useful work. This is win-win: a win for the environment and for people.

Save the 99%, not the 1%

The good sense of citizens, displayed in respecting physical distancing and helping everyone take care, shows that self-organisation is possible and effective. Democracy ought to mean citizens being able to choose their essential goods and services and to call a halt to producing superfluous goods that increase carbon emissions contributing to global heating. So degrowth argues to save the people not the ‘economy’ (a euphemism for bosses). Surely a return to a ‘bullshit job’ is less attractive than reorganising for a local food system and direct trade economy?

The main degrowth goal is to re-politicise the economy, identifying our basic needs and how to achieve them in sustainable, fair, transparent and democratic ways.

An initially monetary unconditional basic income could be step-by-step de-monetarised in decentralised and relocalised ways with local currencies for local food production. These activities would reinforce food sovereignty and security to avoid economic disruptions and recessions in any future pandemic or similar disaster — all the more likely because of global heating.

Let’s garden, let’s re-appropriate spaces as commons for sustainability and resilience. The main degrowth goal is to re-politicise the economy, identifying our basic needs and how to achieve them in sustainable, fair, transparent and democratic ways. We can now re-imagine and create new types of commons governance based on our learnings from the CIVID-19 crisis — starting with decisions we made on the important goods, facilities and services which really matter to us.

This period is teaching us that it is possible to re-appropriate the economy and to decide what we produce, how we produce it, who produces it and for whom. Degrowth promises safer, more secure, healthier and enjoyable ways of life. Degrowth is an invitation for democratic deliberation about how to fulfil our basic needs in a sustainable, fair and convivial way.

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