The emergence of interest in degrowth can be traced back to the 1st International Degrowth Conference organized in Paris in 2008. At this conference, degrowth was defined as a “voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society,” so challenging the dogma of economic growth. Another five international conferences were organized between 2010 and 2018, with the latest in Malmo in August.
This year also saw the publication of Giorgos Kallis’ landmark book Degrowth, which opens with three bold statements. First, the global economy should slow down to avert the destruction of Earth’s life support systems, because a higher rate of production and consumption will run parallel to higher rates of damage to the environment. Hence, we should extract, produce and consume less, and we should do it all differently. Since growth-based economies collapse without growth we have to establish a radically different economic system and way of living in order to prosper in the future.
Second, economic growth is no longer desirable. An increasing share of GDP growth is devoted to ‘defensive expenditure,’ meaning the costs people face as a result of environmental externalities such as pollution. Hence, growth (at least in rich countries) has become “un-economic:” its benefits no longer exceed its costs.
Third, growth is always based on exploitation, because it is driven by investment that, in turn, depends on surplus. If capitalists or governments paid for the real value of work then they would have no surplus and there would be no growth. Hence, growth cannot reduce inequalities; it merely postpones confronting exploitation.
The growth paradigm.
Economic growth implies the acceleration of the production of goods and services. But it is not only GDP that has grown exponentially in the twentieth century: all indicators of work, environmental impact and ‘social metabolism’ have also accelerated (the processes of energy and material transformation in a society that are necessary for its continued existence), because GDP growth involves an increase in work and investment, the extraction of resources, and the disposal of waste.
However growth isn’t only a material process; it’s also cultural, political and social. After first appearing in colonial and industrial centres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it entrenched itself as a global ideology in the 1950s. Kallis calls this ideology “the growth paradigm:” the idea that perpetual economic growth is natural, necessary and desirable. This paradigm became the central concept of the geopolitical world order at a confluence of historical forces: the Cold War and the arms race, the end of colonialism and its indirect continuation under the guise of ‘development,’ and the failure of socialist projects for equality.
Even though growth is the child of capitalism, the pursuit of growth survived the abolition of capitalist relations in socialist countries. It is now easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of growth. Kallis argues that “every crisis leaves the idea of growth strengthened: the time when growth falters and seems to be coming to an end, when the costs of growth come to the forefront, is also when it becomes most necessary and is most ardently pursued, since without growth the system collapses.” The problem, however, is that economic growth is both increasingly harder to come by and is causing a planetary ecological breakdown.
Exiting the economy.
Degrowth evolved as much as a critique of the limits and costs of growth as a critique of economic reasoning. The problem isn’t only that economic growth is socially undesirable and environmentally unsustainable; it’s that the way economists frame reality is wrong. Kallis calls for “exiting the economy,” meaning de-centering the economy as a unit of analysis and a focus of political action. To do this it is necessary to mobilize different forms of knowledge and representations of reality.
Drawing from the work of Karl Polanyi, Kallis develops a critique of “economism:” the expansion under capitalism of the logic of commodity and market exchange to realms of life from which they were previously excluded. Indeed, what we today understand as ‘economic’ activities were once embedded in social institutions in pre-capitalist societies like rituals, kinship networks, and state or religious mechanisms of redistribution. Market activities were subordinate to politics and values.
Therefore the economy “is the instituted process of interactions between humans and their environments, involving the use of material means for the satisfaction of human values.” Societies develop institutions within which economic activities are embedded, so these institutions aren’t neutral; rather they order conflicting values and interests and are themselves a domain of power and struggle.
The economy is also part of the ‘social imaginary’ - how we organize our world based on certain foundational ideas that express what we think it should look like. Imaginaries rest on a system of symbols, “significations” and institutions like GDP and central banks. Kallis explains that “an imaginary provides a culture with the meaning that drives its actions. The imaginary of a market economy is imprinted in the institutions of a market economy, which in turn produce subjects who behave like the rational maximizers of market economics. Market economics is then validated by a world that it has helped create.”
But when a tension between these imaginaries and actual experience emerges, change becomes more likely through a process that is rife with conflicts, since the pursuit of new imaginaries is never shared by the whole of society. Those who hold power have an interest in things staying as they are, while the rest strive to unleash the social potential that can change the world.
In the case of degrowth the new imaginaries that we need revolve around the idea that there will never be enough until we share what there is; sharing and enjoying a limited planet is what degrowth is all about.
A concrete utopia.
Degrowth refers to a path where throughput, and in all likelihood output, shrinks while living conditions improve. Kallis frames this as a hypothesis: “subject to a radical and egalitarian social transformation, it is possible to sustain well-being and improve living and ecological conditions in an economy that unavoidably will contract. Seen as a research programme, the agenda is to find how, or under what conditions, this may become possible.”
Such a transformation is meant to re-embed the economy within society. And securing conditions that enable everyone to have enough will ensure that nobody faces scarcity - even if society produces less than today - by providing all the basic goods essential for human wellbeing free from payment.
Revisioning productivity is also important: taking resources and time out of the production circuit and devoting them instead to politics and leisure, or to spending time with family and friends. Unlike today, productivity would not be the final objective of public policies. Even if we are less productive, relational ‘goods’ increase and compensate for the loss of material goods. Furthermore, in degrowth, unpaid care work would be valued, and cooperatives or not-for-profits would become the dominant producers, employing most of the working population. As a consequence, the realm of production for profit would be radically reduced, and opportunities for accumulation – that is, investment for expansion and further profit – would be curtailed.
Even though the contraction of the economy is not the goal, in the long run this is inevitable. And it will happen either as a broader political project of social transformation (i.e. degrowth) or catastrophically through a series of crises. Kallis calls this project a “concrete utopia,” since there are concrete steps that can to help bring it closer.
To this end he discusses policy proposals including the replacement of GDP; a reduction in working hours to create employment in the absence of growth; a universal income or a guaranteed bundle of public services to ensure that everyone has enough to get by without depending on money; redistributive taxation to increase equality and the establishment of a maximum income to arrest competition for positional consumption; a redirection of public investments from the private sector to the public, and from infrastructure and activities that increase productivity to expenditures that green the economy and reclaim the commons; and the adoption of environmental caps.
It is worth noting that some of these policy proposals were included in a recent open letter signed by 238 scientists who called on the European Union to plan for a post-growth future in which human and ecological well-being is prioritised. Kallis concludes his book by arguing that, even though such policies may appear reformist compared with the utopian vision of degrowth, they are extremely radical when compared to where things currently stand. Borrowing the term ‘non-reformist reforms’ from André Gorz, he explains that if such reforms were to be implemented they “would require the very contours of the system to change radically to accommodate them. And simple and commonsensical as they are, they expose the irrationality of a system that makes them seem impossible and yet deems possible what in all likelihood will end in catastrophe.”