Response by Giorgos Kallis to Brian Davey’s review of Degrowth

Read Brian Davey’s review

Dear Brian,

thanks a lot for your thoughtful and in-depth review of our book. I really appreciate that you did put the time and effort to read it so closely and engage critically with its content and arguments. Your criticisms are all well reasoned and based on a sound understanding of what we were trying to do, even though I don’t always agree with you and feel we write from slightly different perspectives.

First, you were right that we missed some important keywords in our vocabulary. The obvious excuse is that we had a page limit by the editor and we had to make choices. There is a good argument to make for including entries on “climate change”, “cap and share”, “resilience” and “transition towns”, as you suggest. At hindsight we could have done it and leave other keywords out. But we didn’t. And this probably has to do with our own biases and preferences. Climate change we felt it was covered in the introduction; but you are right that there was much more to say about growth and carbon budgets, and the impossible arithmetic of climate change. If we had a chapter on peak oil why not climate change? With Cap-and-share we were not familiar enough and it escaped us, though it would have been nice to include it as a concrete “action” on climate change at an international level. “Resilience”, as “vulnerability” and other keywords of the global environmental change community are not used a lot in the degrowth literature. I also share some of Alf Hornborg’s concerns with the usefulness of the concept. “Transition towns” could also be part of the book, no excuse here, other than at some point we drew a boundary and we felt that the material that would go under transition towns was already covered under other entries, such as “nowtopians”.

(Your critique did give us an idea. In due time, we will make a call for additional entries for the vocabulary, which we will make available online in the website of the book.)

In the more substantial part of your review: yes, there is a difference between what you call “involuntary” degrowth and what we see as a “politicized” take on degrowth. Note, we never used the term “voluntary”, not even in our entry on simplicity. “Political” in Castoriadis’ terms means the pre-paradigmatic view that humans make their own history, and they are not subject to immutable, outside forces that pre-determine their fates, and to which the best that they can do is adapt. “Political” means also an attention to distributional issues and an avoidance of generalized “we”s. “We” will not suffer all the same from climate change and “we” have not contributed the same to the problem. Richard Branson for example has contributed a lot with air and space travels to climate change, and he is well insulated in his gated estates from any future climate and social calamities.

In this respect, we do have a problem as you correctly noticed, with the “involuntary”, or better put “survivalist” take on degrowth, which argues that growth is coming to an end, whether we like it or not, and “we” better be preparing to adapt and become “resilient to” in order to survive. This framing of the issue hides the fact that we are not all equally responsible or equally vulnerable; it opens the potential for authoritarian responses to save “us” from disaster; and it is politically disempowering and demobilizing, as it suggests that we can do nothing to change the system and its trajectory, only prepare and “survive with our peers”.

The discourse of the “always forthcoming”, never yet here, climate change disaster has done very little to mobilize people to take action against it. As you acutely analyse in your piece, responding to climate change will require a dramatic reorganization of life projects and social structures, which most people are reluctant to undertake. Your response is that “they will undertake them”, when there is no other option and the disaster will already be there. We doubt that this will be automatically the case. The socioenvironmental disaster is already here (I am writing from Greece), and rather than adaptation, what we see is oppression and conflict. In the absence of a positive vision, in the face of a disaster many people will simply recoil, close borders, accept “leaders” that promise to save them, and try to shift costs to others, if need be by violence. A social change, if it is to take place, requires desire, materialized into an alternative political vision, a vision driven by a quest for the enjoyment of life, not by fear of a looming disaster, or a pure survivalist spirit. If by being Southern Europeans, we bring a much needed “enjoyment of life” perspective in the “limits to growth” debate, this is good, and I don’t understand Brian why you frame it as a weakness of the book. And it is commendable, given the far from “enjoyable” and fully involuntary disaster that we do experience in our countries currently.

Note also your own contradiction. If climate disaster, degrowth and whatever else the future holds for us is “involuntary” and the best we can do is to become “resilient” in “transition towns”, then what is the point of an international “cap and share”, like the one your propose, or any other mitigation action for that matter? Cap-and-share is a voluntary, and deeply political action, for which people would have to be seriously mobilized and organized to get it institutionalized. How would this ever be done without a positive, political vision about the future? And why do it, if the future is pre-determined? According to your logic, we can only let climate change take its path, while preparing for adapting and surviving. Why act now, if not in order to create a better and more enjoyable world tomorrow? Why act now if we don’t believe that it is in principle possible to change the future, i. e. that we are not slaves to external “involuntary” forces, but that we can make our own history?

Our distaste of the a-political involuntary/survivalist perspective, does not mean that we underplay that there are real “limits to growth”. At least 7 of our chapters (Kerschner, Sorman, 2 by Ugliatti, one by Latouche, Victor, Farley and perhaps other) write from this tradition, which we fully recognize in our introductory piece as a crucial stream of degrowth. 7 out of 50 is a good representation if one considers that the “limits to growth” is the thesis with which more people are familiar with, and on which there is tons of literature and recent books (by Richard Heinberg, etc). Our ambition was to integrate the “limits” literature of Georgescu-Roegen, Odum and Herman Daly, in which the three of us are trained in our ecological economics school in Barcelona, with the “vocabulary” and concepts of a Franco-phone and “Southern” literature, which we have more recently come across, and the likes of Castoriadis, Gorz, Illich, Bataille or Escobar. It is in that sense that we claim that this is the first book about “degrowth” in English. Degrowth is much more than the Anglophone “limits to growth” literature.

Your comments about the use of French words in our book are a little bit off the mark and contradictory with your own argument. You actually correctly say that the use of the english word imaginary (“imagined reality”) for the French concept “imaginary” (the symbols and ideas that mobilize a society and provide it with a meaning of what it is and what it seeks) can be confusing, as the former means something very different from what the intellectuals who use the latter want to convey. Same with depense. If we called it “expenditure”, its meaning would be completely confusing to the reader. Expenditure has a precise meaning in English, which does not capture all that Bataille wants to talk about. We called it depense, and this made you think you don’t understand it, and you had to read carefully our chapters as well as the originals of Bataille to understand what it is (and you did understand it very well!). That was precisely the point of using the original in French.

Finally, about the substance of depense: I don’t understand exactly what is your criticism. In your review you give an excellent description and analysis of the concept. I am really happy that our book prompted you to engage with a new concept. That was precisely our point. Note: we called our last chapter an “epilogue”, not a “conclusion” to the book. We wanted to end with opening a new debate. It was in the introduction of the book, and on the entry on “degrowth”, that we pulled the different threads of the book together, balancing and linking different theories and concepts (and there depense had only a small part dedicated to it).

Concerning our thesis with depense, you got it right: we wanted to question the assumption of an eternal scarcity (and of external limits), which we see as a central idea of modernity, capitalism and neoclassical economics, and instead argue that the problem has always been the management of excess, i.e. the decision of what we do with the surplus. This, and only this, was our main point. You contest that depense is not fully operational as a normative concept. (On a side note: French philosophers, from Bataille and Foucault, to Lacan and Castoriadis have developed new ways of seeing and understanding the world; it is somewhat a vulgarization of this complex thought to elevate “normative operationalization” as the standard of evaluating its usefulness). In the specifics, you are right: a Nazi celebration, a Soviet parade, Tibetan monks and cannibalistic Aztec ceremonies, are all in a sense depense, but some are desirable, others not. Exactly: we were not elevating depense to a normative principle. We were saying that it is a key question, and that a degrowth society should develop its particular forms of depense, that will be different from those of capitalistic society (as well as reduce part of its accumulation and increase its depense).

You raise a lot of valid questions about “which depense”, “where”, “how,” “how do you define surplus”? These are the types of questions and debates we hoped our epilogue would prompt. This is not the conclusion and closure of the book, but the introduction of a new (and let us admit, not fully developed) idea, that will hopefully spur new debates and new research. And your excellent review and debate makes me think that we succeeded.


Read Brian Davey’s review

Featured image: Greece Uprising. Image of the Syntagma square garden. 100.000 people gathered at the centre of Athens on Sunday, 29/5/2011. It was the first day of the people’s protest against the IMF in european cities. Author: Kotsolis. Source:

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