Degrowth (in French: décroissance, in Spanish: decrecimiento, in Italian: decrescita) is a political, economic, and social movement based on environmentalist, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas. Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—as overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities. Key to the concept of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring and a decrease in well-being. Rather, 'degrowthists' aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community.
At the individual level, degrowth is achieved by voluntary simplicity. Global solutions, for ‘degrowthists’, involve a relocalization of economic activities in order to end humanity's dependence on fossil fuels and reduce its ecological imprint. Degrowth opposes sustainable development because, while sustainable development aims to address environmental concerns, it does so with the goal of promoting economic growth which has failed to improve the lives of people and inevitably leads to environmental degradation. In this way, degrowth stands in sharp contrast to current forms of productivist capitalism that consider the accumulation of capital and commodities a desirable end .
- 1 Background
- 2 Origins of the movement
- 3 Degrowth movement
- 4 Criticisms
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 External links
- The reduced availability of energy sources (see peak oil)
- The declining quality of the environment (see global warming, pollution)
- The decline in the health of flora and fauna, including humans themselves
- The ever-expanding use of resources by first-world countries to satisfy lifestyles that consume more food and energy, and produce greater waste, at the expense of the third world (see neocolonialism)
As economies grow, the need for resources grows accordingly. There is a fixed supply of non-renewable resources, such as petroleum (oil), and these resources will inevitably be depleted. Renewable resources can also be depleted if extracted at unsustainable rates over extended periods. For example, this has occurred with caviar production in the Caspian Sea. There is much concern as to how growing demand for these resources will be met as supplies decrease. Many people look to technology to develop replacements for depleted resources. For example, some are looking to biofuels to meet the demand gap after peak oil. However, others have argued that none of the alternatives could effectively replace versatility and portability of oil.
Proponents of degrowth argue that decreasing demand is the only way of permanently closing the demand gap. For renewable resources, demand, and therefore production, must also be brought down to levels that prevent depletion and are environmentally healthy. Moving toward a society that is not dependent on oil is seen as essential to avoiding societal collapse when non-renewable resources are depleted. "But degrowth is not just a quantitative question of doing less of the same, it is also and, more fundamentally, about a paradigmatic re-ordering of values, in particular the (re)affirmation of social and ecological values and a (re)politicisation of the economy".
The ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the Earth's ecosystems. It compares human demand with planet Earth's ecological capacity to regenerate. It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste.
According to a 2005 Global Footprint Network report, inhabitants of high-income countries live off of 6.4 global hectares (gHa), while those from low-income countries live off of a single gHa. For example, while each inhabitant of Bangladesh lives off of what they produce from 0.56 gHa, a North American requires 12.5 gHa. Each inhabitant of North America uses 22.3 times as much land as a Bangladeshi. Of the 12.5 hectares used by the North American, 5.5 is located in the United States, and the rest is found in foreign countries. According to the same report, the average number of global hectares per person was 2.1, while current consumption levels have reached 2.7 hectares per person.
In order for the world's population to attain the living standards typical of European countries, the resources of between three and eight planet Earths would be required. In order for world economic equality to be achieved with the current available resources, rich countries would have to reduce their standard of living through degrowth. The eventual reduction of all available resources would lead to a forced reduction in consumption. Controlled reduction of consumption would reduce the trauma of this change.
Degrowth and Sustainable Development
Degrowth thought is in opposition to all forms of productivist economics. It is, thus, also opposed to sustainable development. While the concern for sustainability does not contradict degrowth, sustainable development is rooted in mainstream development ideas that aim to increase capitalist growth and consumption. Degrowth therefore sees sustainable development as an oxymoron, as any development based on growth in a finite and environmentally stressed world is seen as inherently unsustainable. Since current levels of consumption exceed the Earth's ability to regenerate these resources, economic growth will lead to their exhaustion. Those in favor of sustainable development argue that continued economic growth is possible if consumption of energy and resources is reduced.
Furthermore, growth-based development has been shown to be more effective in expanding social inequality, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, than in actually generating more wealth and increasing living standards. Critics of degrowth argue that a slowing of economic growth would result in increased unemployment and increase poverty. Many who understand the devastating environmental consequences of growth still advocate for economic growth in the South, even if not in the North. But, a slowing of economic growth would fail to deliver the benefits of degrowth—self-sufficiency, material responsibility—and would indeed lead to decreased employment. Rather, degrowth proponents advocate for a complete abandonment of the current (growth) economic system, suggesting that relocalizating and abandoning the global economy in the Global South would allow people of the South to become more self-sufficient and would end the overconsumption and exploitation of Southern resources by the North.
"The Rebound Effect"
Technologies designed to reduce resource use and improve efficiency are often touted as sustainable or green solutions. However, degrowth opposes these technological advances on the ground of what is referred to as the "rebound effect". This concept is based on observations that when less resource-exhaustive technology are introduced, behaviour surrounding the use of that technology will change and consumption of that technology will increase and offset any potential resource savings. In light of the rebound effect, proponents of degrowth hold that the only effective 'sustainable' solutions must involve a complete rejection of the growth paradigm and a move toward a degrowth paradigm.
Origins of the movement
The contemporary degrowth movement can trace its roots back to the anti-industrialist trends of the 19th century, developed in Great Britain by John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement (1819–1900), in the United States by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and in Russia by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1911).
The concept of "degrowth" proper appeared during the 1970s, proposed by the Club of Rome think tank and intellectuals such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Jean Baudrillard, André Gorz, Edward Goldsmith and Ivan Illich, whose ideas reflect those of earlier thinkers, such as the economist E. J. Mishan, the industrial historian Tom Rolt, and the radical socialist Tony Turner. The writings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi also contain similar philosophies, particularly regarding his support of voluntary simplicity.
The Club of Rome reports
In 1968, the Club of Rome, a think tank headquartered in Winterthur, Switzerland, asked researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a report on practical solutions to problems of global concern. The report, called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, became the first important study that indicated the ecological perils of the unprecedented economic growth the world was experiencing at the time.
The reports (also known as the Meadows Reports) are not strictly the founding texts of the movement, as they only advise zero growth, and have also been used to support the sustainable development movement. Still, they are considered the first official studies explicitly presenting economic growth as a key reason for the increase in global environmental problems such as pollution, shortage of raw materials, and the destruction of ecosystems. A second report was published in 1974, and together with the first, drew considerable attention to the topic.
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's thesis
The Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen is considered the creator of degrowth,[dubious ] and its main theoretician. In 1971, he published a book called The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, in which he noted that the neoclassical economic model did not take into account the second law of thermodynamics, by not accounting for the degradation of energy and matter (i.e. increase in entropy). He associated every economic activity with an increase in entropy, whose increase implied the loss of useful resources. When a selection of his articles was translated into French in 1979 under the title Demain la décroissance ("tomorrow, degrowth"), it spurred the creation of the movement in France.
If you try to measure the reduction in the rate of growth by taking into account damages caused to the environment and its consequences on our natural and cultural patrimony, you will generally obtain a result of zero or even negative growth. In 1991, the United States spent 115 billion dollars, or 2.1% of the GDP on the protection of the environment. The Clean Air Act increased this cost by 45 or 55 million dollars per year. [...] The World Resources Institute tried to measure the rate of the growth taking into account the punishment exerted on the natural capital of the world, with an eye towards sustainable development. For Indonesia, it found that the rate of growth between 1971 and 1984 would be reduced from 7.1 to 4% annually, and that was by taking only three variables into consideration: deforestation, the reduction in the reserves of oil and natural gas, and soil erosion.
Schumacher and Buddhist Economics
E. F. Schumacher's 1973 book Small is Beautiful predates a unified degrowth movement, but nonetheless serves as an important basis for degrowth ideas. In this book he critiques the neo-liberal model of economic development, noting the absurdity of increasing "standard of living", which is based solely on consumption, as the primary goal of economic activity and development. Instead, under what he refers to as buddhist economics, we should aim to maximize well-being while minimizing consumption.
In January 1972 Edward Goldsmith and Robert Prescott-Allen—editors of The Ecologist journal—published the Blueprint for Survival, which called for a radical programme of decentralisation and de-industrialisation to prevent what the authors referred to as "the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet". Signed by leading scientists of the day, the Blueprint went on to inspire the establishment of environmentalist political parties around the world.
'Buy Nothing Day'
Buy Nothing Day occurs on the Friday following Thanksgiving Day in the United States. This is the unofficial first day of the Holiday shopping season. Typically retail stores offer goods for dramatically reduced prices, prompting consumers to buy more. Buy Nothing Day is a rejection of this unabashed consumption.
Supporters of economic liberalism believe that economic growth brings about the creation of wealth, by increasing employment, improving quality of life, and providing better education and healthcare, in other words, there should be more resources in order to make and improve on more things. From this point of view, degrowth constitutes economic recession and is a destroyer of wealth.
An additional liberal criticism of degrowth is that progress is increasingly linked to knowledge rather than the use of physical resources, and that the progress of technology will solve the world's environmental problems. Free-market environmentalism is a position that argues that most environmental problems are caused by a lack of property rights and the extension of such to include externalities.
Self-regulation of the market
Supporters of the self-regulation of the market believe that if a particular non-renewable resource becomes scarce, the market will limit its extraction via two mechanisms:
- an increase in price (supply and demand)
- an increase in funding for the development of alternatives (i.e. renewable energy, recycling, etc.)
This position argues that allowing market forces to take effect is the most rational way of solving the problem, and consider that these forces are more efficient than centralized decision systems (see economic calculation, dispersed knowledge, tragedy of the commons). Market capitalism can take advantage of the exploitation of energy sources that were not economically viable 10 or 20 years prior, because under new conditions the required economic growth will necessitate their use.
In response to the theories of Georgescu-Roegen, Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz noted that capital and labor can substitute for natural resources in production either directly or indirectly, ensuring sustained growth or at least sustainable development.
The concept of degrowth is founded on the hypothesis that producing more always implies the consumption of more energy and raw materials, while at the same time decreasing the size of the labor force, which is replaced by machines. This analysis is considered misleading from the point of view that technological progress allows us to produce more with less, as well as provide more services. This is what is known as creative destruction, the process by which the "old" companies from a sector (as well as their costly and polluting technologies) disappear from the market as a result of the innovation in that sector that brings down costs while consuming less energy and raw materials in exchange for increased productivity.
At the same time, this reduction in costs and/or increase in profits increases the ability to save, which simultaneously allows for investment in new advances, which will replace the old technologies.
Marxists distinguish between two types of growth: that which is useful to mankind, and that which simply exists to increase profits for companies. Marxists consider that it is the nature and control of production that is the determinant, and not the quantity. They believe that control and a strategy for growth are the pillars that enable social and economic development. According to Jean Zin, while the justification for degrowth is valid, it is not a solution to the problem.
Third world critique
The concept of degrowth is viewed as contradictory when applied to lesser-developed countries, which require the growth of their economies in order to attain prosperity. In this sense the majority of supporters of degrowth advocate the attainment of a certain, acceptable level of well-being independent of growth. The question of where the balance lies (i.e. how much the developed nations should degrow by, and how much the developing nations should be allowed to grow), remains open.
Supporters of scientific progress argue that it will solve the problems of energy supply, waste and the reduction of raw materials. This ideology draws inspiration from the Enlightenment to develop an optimistic technologist vision. They point to the reduction in the relation between energy consumption and production (or energy intensity) over the past twenty years. They propose that research into nuclear energy could provide temporary energy alternatives to the oil crisis, while technologies such as nuclear fusion come online.
This argument is contrasted by the data obtained by the Global Carbon Project in 2007, which notes the stagnation in the aforementioned decrease in energy intensity, which is one of the variables of the Kaya identity, which tends to show that either the economic downturn, or demographic decline are essential to prevent ecological disaster.
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