Growth, conventionally defined as the ever increasing flow of goods and services on the market, is a mantra that continues to be embraced by nearly the entire political spectrum, even though, in the contemporary period, the biophysical, social and economic “limits to growth” have been identified as an urgent problem for over 40 years. Despite remaining unsubstantiated, the premise is perpetually propagated and widely held that our species has no satiety gauge, that our material needs are unlimited, and that producing more, working more and buying more is the road to happiness. Neoliberals and social democrats alike genuflect before the idol of growth. Yet we know by analogy from biology that growth can be lethal: What is cancer but “a disease of overproduction,_of fulminant growth… growth tipped into_the abyss of no control?”
All but the plain stupid or wilfully blind by now recognize that unfettered by concern for the survival needs of planetary ecosystems, economic growth and its symbiont, the consumer society, is suicidal for the human species and genocidal for countless others.:. The conflation of growth and well-being stands in the way of considering the “externalities” — like clean air and water and a hospitable climate — ignored by mainstream economics; it overlooks or justifies the obliteration of biodiversity and the breakdown of the “essential services” ecosystems provide. But beyond this vexing truth, the very claims made for the necessity of growth – that increased economic activity results in greater general welfare, for instance – have been given the lie in recent years, at least in the global North, as all the gains of rising sales and profits have been appropriated by the power elite. Growth is clearly compatible with inequality of income and a deterioration or stagnation of the standard of living for the majority of people.
The frequently destructive character of growth and possible alternatives to it is the object of a current of thought that has been developing along diverse lines under the rubric “degrowth,” a rather inelegant but now widely adopted English translation of the French term décroissance.
Over the last 10 years in particular, the notion has generated interest and support from many intellectual and activist quarters, primarily in the Global North, which still accounts for the lion’s share of consumption growth in the global economy. A First International Conference on Economic Degrowth was held in 2008 in Paris, a second in Barcelona in 2010, and a third is scheduled for 2012 in Venice. An International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas will take place this coming May in Montreal.
While advocates of degrowth share many ideas about what’s wrong with the current enslavement to growth, their analyses and prescriptions vary considerably. Beyond a set of principles based on the goal of reducing humanity’s ecological footprint, degrowth can be construed concretely as a set of revolutionary reforms – reforms so far-reaching as to precipitate structural change, such as a significant reduction in working time, a citizens’ income, a reclaiming from the market economy of spaces for autonomous productive and creative activity. At the centre of degrowth thinking is the imperative of redistribution: the aim is not to enlarge the pie but ensure that everyone has a fairer share both within the overdeveloped economies and most importantly across the North-South divide. There is also an accent on re-localizing production and consumption circuits. As the articles in this feature attest, not all degrowth advocates are implicitly or explicitly anticapitalist. Some believe that another kind of capitalism can be envisioned in which growth at any cost is not the motive force. Environmental economist James Gustave Speth believes for instance that although “the planet cannot sustain capitalism as we know it,” the market can be transformed into a “benign and restorative force” in the context of a nonsocialist alternative; others are convinced that given capitalism’s grow-or-die ethos degrowth is fundamentally at odds with a capitalist market in any form. But while degrowth encompasses a spectrum of critical economic and social thinking, it aims by definition at a system of production and consumption radically different from the existing economic paradigm.
In the French-speaking world and Europe more generally, degrowth is associated with the work of social theorist Serge Latouche, who builds on the work of philosopher Ivan Illich and François Partant, a former development banker turned critic of the development paradigm. Latouche conceives degrowth as a “concrete utopia” in the language of the philosopher Ernst Bloch, namely a vision of a desirable state of affairs based not on wishful thinking but on real possibilities rooted in the present. In this Canadian Dimension special feature, Québec author Louis Marion, a founding member of the Mouvement Québécois pour une décroissance conviviale, sketches out some of these ideas.
In North America, a concept of degrowth has been put forward by a number of more traditional environmental economists, such as Herman Daly, who developed John Stuart Mill’s prescient idea of the steady-state economy, James Speth, Tim Jackson, and Canadian Peter Victor, professor at York University and author of Managing Without Growth (Edward Elgar Pub, 2008), who has kindly contributed an article to this Canadian Dimension feature which makes the case for the economic limits to growth given the exorbitant costs attached to the further exploitation of key resources such as oil.
Citing the need for more radical opposition to economic growth’s latest horror show, the Alberta Tar Sands, CD collective member Derrick O’Keefe discusses the theme of degrowth as one of the ways in which people concerned with social justice and ecology can begin to rethink basic assumptions about the economy and the environment.
Finally in this feature, Arthur Schafer, Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, offers a retrospective review of a pathbreaking 1977 book by Fred Hirsch about the diminishing social returns of growth related to the impasse of one-upmanship that defines the consumer society.
This article appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Degrowth Issue).