Schools of thought on degrowth

Note: This is an excerpt from Brian Davey’s book Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis, published by Feasta.

The economy of the future is described by different groups with different words in different languages and they do not always exactly translate into an identical idea. However, the words, like “Degrowth”, “Decroissance”(French) or “Postwachstum”(German) share an idea of contraction of the economy in order to stay within ecological limits while at the same time including the idea that there will be a need for community and political solutions to the problems that we already know will emerge – the unemployment, the energy shortages, the hunger and the homelessness. Since 2008 there have been 4 global “degrowth conferences” each larger than the previous one – in 2008 in Paris, 2010 in Barcelona, 2012 in Venice and, most recently, in September 2014 in Leipzig in Germany. The alternative vision and philosophies for society that has emerged from this process is drawing on a variety of sources. This includes a lively dialogue between the theorists of degrowth in the countries of the global north with activists and strategists against poverty and environmental degradation in the south. For example, ideas like “buen vivir” from the indigenous people of the Andes have become sources of inspiration that are widely accepted.[1]

The Spectrum of Degrowth Perspectives

This does not mean that absolutely all “post growth” or “degrowth” thinkers share the same values and understandings of what needs to be done. There is a spectrum that spans from the political right across to the left and includes feminist economic thinkers. Matthias Schmeltzer, an economic and political historian at the University of Geneva, and one of the organisers of the September 2014 Leipzig Degrowth Conference, describes 5 different schools of thought to be found among Degrowth thinkers in the German speaking world.[2]

One of the trends is politically and socially conservative. The thinkers in this group acknowledges that growth is coming up against natural and social limits and diagnose the problem as citizens and states living beyond their means – driven by consumption, the expenditures of the welfare state, debt, greed and decadence. For these thinkers contraction is unavoidable and will need to be brought about by a change in personal values in the form of more personal responsibility, a strengthening of the patriarchal family to take on more responsibilities, self denial and a reduction in what they see as the burden being carried by the welfare state.

Over and against this is a feminist economic perspective. It has not been explicitly developed as a contribution to the degrowth debate but has become an important source of inspiration. For the feminist thinkers the growth economy exploits and impoverishes the “subsistence activities” of the household, the societies of the global south and nature. This endangers future reproduction – in favour of growing production. The future of humanity and nature presupposes and requires reproduction yet the capital accumulation process, the separation of paid and unpaid work, has come to devalue the reproductive activities mostly carried out by women. The solution to this is a process of de-commercialisation, re-developing commons-based shared activities and resources and the development of non-hierarchical local structures. It is a perspective and strategy that matches well the redevelopment of local cultivation and food sources, the redevelopment of the local economy and particularly non-monetised activities.

Other approaches to Degrowth include social reformist; sufficiency orientated; and anti-capitalist approaches.

What Schmeltzer characterises as the Social Reformist School diagnoses the problems as arising because politics is fixated on growth – driven by economic sectors, institutions and structures that have become dependent on it. Actually it would be better to describe some of the people in this group, not as advocates of “Degrowth” but as proponents of “A-Growth” . This term is intended to mean a style of politics that is indifference to growth, a kind of “Growth Atheism” since GDP per capita is in any case a useless measure of social welfare.

Politicians and actors from civil society must bring about the end of the growth dogma and disentangle economic and institutional structures (like the social security system) from growth in the direction of sustainable kind of liberalism. It will be achieved by ecological taxation, policies to promote sufficiency, civic insurance systems, sustainable consumption and the development of alternative welfare indicators.

The Sufficiency School of Degrowth goes further. For the Sufficiency School it is impossible to adequately decouple resource use from growth. One consequence is that that overconsumption in the global north is taking place at the cost of the global south from which a large proportion of the material resources are extracted. The problem of growth and resource use is driven by the need to have a rising income in order pay interest on loans. It is further attributable to the volume of resources needed to sustain long distance large scale production chains. This Sufficiency School thus not only proposes a sufficiency rather than a consumerist approach in life, it also argues for the need to re-develop more local and small scale forms of self production. People must become “pro-sumers” – i.e. producers of what they themselves consume. To make this possible there is a need for land and financial reform, reform of work time and the extension of subsistence and regional economies.

The sufficiency approach has many similarities to that of the “Transition Movement” – an international network of groups that has come together to try to prepare local communities with information and practical projects for a future of “energy descent”. The movement tends to avoid explicit political engagement and favours communities making their own initiatives like community gardens without waiting for politicians to wake up to the gravity of the crisis.

Finally there is the Degrowth of Capitalist Critics. Their argument is that capitalist growth causes multiple crises and that the “imperial lifestyle” in the global north is at the cost of the global south (for example the climate change impacts). To the critics of capitalism the drivers of growth are to be found in the property and power relationships including the processes of privatisation. The necessary counter politics involves the promotion of the commons, the promotion of the solidarity economy, climate justice and more democracy in economy and state.

Rather than advocating a top-down centralised form of socialist planned economy people with this perspective tend to promote networked bottom-upwards forms of development. They see a place for exemplary projects at the same time as advocating political and trade union strategies for more economic democracy, state regulation and guided investment, reduction in working time, proposals for a basic citizens income on the one hand and maximum income limits on the other.

In summary new styles and understandings of politics and economics are emerging. There is variety and difference but, over a wide spectrum, the differences are best thought of as a healthy diversity. The diversity between the left and the greens can give rise to complementary relationships rather than being sources of deep division and antagonism.

Shaping New Utopias – or making the best in a difficult and highly uncertain time?

For all of that it seems to me that an important issue hangs over this movement – how much are we in the business of designing and shaping the future, using the current crisis to re-envisage new kinds of “concrete Utopias” – and how much are we in the business of preparing to cope with a very difficult and chaotic time where involuntary Degrowth happens anyway, opening up a Pandora’s Box of problems so that we need practical and political tools to get through them. Are we in the business of advocating a voluntary process of degrowth by design – or are we developing the ideas for surviving an involuntary and very challenging process that will happen anyway – and containing quite a few unpleasant surprises?

There is, as yet, too much that is unknown and that we cannot know. The current world economic situation is above all characterised by “strong uncertainty”. A highly complex society can disintegrate in many different ways that are unpredictable. I can, for example, write a book to attempt to describe a host of problems only to witness a type of disintegration not so far described in this book at all – for example brought about by an unstoppable Ebola epidemic which paralyses physical and financial infrastructures and global trade. Or perhaps we will witness chaos brought about by political turmoil and war caused by the miscalculations of politicians in a horrific future that is completely unexpected. That happened before – in 1914. I can advocate an open source society based on knowledge commons only to witness a disintegration of the internet because of a shortage of essential materials – or see the internet make possible a host of marvellous products for countries in the global south and then witness this internet using so much carbon energy that it helps tip humanity into runaway climate change.

Just as hottest months are after mid-summer because warmth accumulates and there is a lag so, perhaps, techno-optimism is at its height when decline has already started. At a time like this it is possible to see the problems ahead but they are still seen in the rosy glow, with a bright confidence that they can be fixed. It is even possible to imagine that these problems are a new opportunity to re-launch the utopian visions whose earlier versions failed.

Yet we should always take into account that our visions of the future are bound to be flawed by the limitations of what we know. All that we know, even if we go to university and think we know a great deal, is very limited indeed and the world in a short time will seem very different from what we expected it to be. The greatest challenge for all political and economic visionaries is that the world will inevitably evolve differently from what we expect because of processes and issues that we could not know about in advance. This is true even though we are obliged to try to anticipate the problems of the future in order, if possible, to forestall them, and, if not, to cope and do as best we can with them.

You can read Seán Conlan’s impressions of the Degrowth conference in Leipzig here, and read Willi Kiefel’s paper on Richard Douthwaite’s legacy which he presented at the conference here.


2. Schmeltzer, Matthias 2014 “Gutes Leben statt Wachstum” Atlas der Globalisierung/ Le Monde Diplomatique Supplement: Der Postwachstumsatlas pp 16-21
3. van den Bergh, Jeroen CJM – “Environment versus growth – A criticism of “Degrowth” and a plea for “A-Growth”, Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 5, 15th March 2011, pages 881-890

Featured image: Buen Vivir. Source:

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