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The Stirrings of a "Degrowth Movement"

Academics from around the world explore the (positive) implications of a no-growth economy.

If economic growth and planetary survival are on an inexorable collision course – as Peak Oil, global warming, species extinctions and many other trends suggest – then what is the path forward?

In April 2008, more than 140 researchers in economics, the environmental sciences and social sciences from 30 countries converged on Paris for the first conference on “Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity.” Now the proceedings from that epochal event are available online as a pdf file. The 322-page document is probably one of the best single collections of timely, authoritative writings on “steady state” or “no-growth economics.”

Photo by “nicorien,“http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicorien/118131870 via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, ShareAlike license.

The core question of the conference – and of a proto-movement with strong support in France, Italy and other European nations – is how to imagine a world that is not based on indefinite economic and material growth. “Is degrowth of industrialised countries possible in the present context?” asks the conference website. “What are the social and institutional conditions required for a fair and sustainable economic de-growth process?”

Of course, merely asking this heretical question immediately raises a host of additional questions: How should progress in achieving degrowth be measured? How does the global South regard degrowth? What effects would degrowth have on consumption, production and the distribution of wealth? How could degrowth, social equity and sustainability be achieved in a coordinated way?

In the context of conventional economics, even asking questions like these is considered incendiary. The fact that there is now a committed international corps of thinkers collaborating in trying to answer such questions is a hopeful sign indeed.

Browsing the conference proceedings yields a number of interesting articles:

  • “Why Environmental Sustainability Can Most Probably Not Be Attained with Growing Production”
  • “Conceptual Roots of Degrowth”
  • “Gastonomic Sciences: Slow Food Revolution versus Gene Revolution”
  • “Why Are We Growth-Addicted?”
  • “Less is More: The Influence of Aspirations and Priming on Well-being”
  • “The Finality of Degrowth and its Relation with Justice”
  • “The Degrowth Economy and Lifestyles”
    For those who want a short introduction to degrowth, instead of wading through the long conference proceedings, consider Serge LaTouche’s essay in the French newspaper Le Monde.

The planet’s various ecological crises will surely have to get worse before the premises of the Degrowth conference will receive a fair and open hearing. Still, I am encouraged that a degrowth conversation has begun. I know that readers of OntheCommons.org are not timid or parochial, so you will probably enjoy the formal declaration that was ratified by conference participants:

We, participants in the Economic De-Growth For Ecological Sustainability And Social Equity Conference held in Paris on April 18-19, 2008 make the following declaration:

1. Economic growth (as indicated by increasing real GDP or GNP) represents an increase in production, consumption and investment in the pursuit of economic surplus, inevitably leading to increased use of materials, energy and land. 2. Despite improvements in the ecological efficiency of the production and consumption of goods and services, global economic growth has resulted in increased extraction of natural resources and increased waste and emissions. 3. Global economic growth has not succeeded in reducing poverty substantially, due to unequal exchange in trade and financial markets, which has increased inequality between countries. 4. As the established principles of physics and ecology demonstrate, there is an eventual limit to the scale of global production and consumption, and to the scale national economies can attain without imposing environmental and social costs on others elsewhere or future generations. 5. The best available scientific evidence indicates that the global economy has grown beyond ecologically sustainable limits, as have many national economies, especially those of the wealthiest countries (primarily industrialised countries in the global North). 6. There is also mounting evidence that global growth in production and consumption is socially unsustainable and uneconomic (in the sense that its costs outweigh its benefits). 7. By using more than their legitimate share of global environmental resources, the wealthiest nations are effectively reducing the environmental space available to poorer nations, and imposing adverse environmental impacts on them. 8. If we do not respond to this situation by bringing global economic activity into line with the capacity of our ecosystems, and redistributing wealth and income globally so that they meet our societal needs, the result will be a process of involuntary and uncontrolled economic decline or collapse, with potentially serious social impacts, especially for the most disadvantaged.

We therefore call for a paradigm shift from the general and unlimited pursuit of economic growth to a concept of “right-sizing” the global and national economies.

1. At the global level, “right-sizing” means reducing the global ecological footprint (including the carbon footprint) to a sustainable level. 2. In countries where the per capita footprint is greater than the sustainable global level, rightsizing implies a reduction to this level within a reasonable timeframe. 3. In countries where severe poverty remains, right-sizing implies increasing consumption by those in poverty as quickly as possible, in a sustainable way, to a level adequate for a decent life, following locally determined poverty-reduction paths rather than externally imposed development policies. 4. This will require increasing economic activity in some cases; but redistribution of income and wealth both within and between countries is a more essential part of this process.

The paradigm shift involves degrowth in wealthy parts of the world.

1. The process by which right-sizing may be achieved in the wealthiest countries, and in the global economy as a whole, is “degrowth”. 2. We define degrowth as a voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society. 3. The objectives of degrowth are to meet basic human needs and ensure a high quality of life, while reducing the ecological impact of the global economy to a sustainable level, equitably distributed between nations. This will not be achieved by involuntary economic contraction. 4. Degrowth requires a transformation of the global economic system and of the policies promoted and pursued at the national level, to allow the reduction and ultimate eradication of absolute poverty to proceed as the global economy and unsustainable national economies degrow. 5. Once right-sizing has been achieved through the process of degrowth, the aim should be to maintain a “steady state economy” with a relatively stable, mildly fluctuating level of consumption. 6. In general, the process of degrowth is characterised by: — an emphasis on quality of life rather than quantity of consumption; — the fulfilment of basic human needs for all; — societal change based on a range of diverse individual and collective actions and policies; — substantially reduced dependence on economic activity, and an increase in free time, unremunerated activity, conviviality, sense of community, and individual and collective health; — encouragement of self-reflection, balance, creativity, flexibility, diversity, good citizenship, generosity, and non-materialism; — observation of the principles of equity, participatory democracy, respect for human rights, and respect for cultural differences. 7. Progress towards degrowth requires immediate steps towards efforts to mainstream the concept of degrowth into parliamentary and public debate and economic institutions; the development of policies and tools for the practical implementation of degrowth; and development of new, non-monetary indicators (including subjective indicators) to identify, measure and compare the benefits and costs of economic activity, in order to assess whether changes in economic activity contribute to or undermine the fulfillment of social and environmental objectives.