In France, where the concept originated and where it has had considerable impact, it is decroissance; in English it is degrowth, and in any language it is a significant symbolic challenge to the “tyranny of growth.”
Degrowth activists in France have formed a political party, and publish a monthly magazine; sadly for English speakers such as myself, this French language material remains largely inaccessible. Fortunately, a very useful summary of the politics of degrowth has been provided by Valerie Fournier in a paper currently available here.
Here I’ll pick up on some of the points that caught my attention.
Human progress seems to have been boiled down, in the minds of many, to a single notion – economic growth. All human advancement is, it seems, captured in this one variable; politicians and business commentators hold their breath as they receive the latest GDP statistics and our destiny is revealed in a number. Today, growth is the “the supreme, overriding objective of policy” for every government (except one, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan).
It might come as a surprise to learn that governments have not always had this growth obsession. In fact, economic growth only came into the policy picture 50 or 60 years ago, initially as a means to guarantee full employment in a post-war economy and avoid the horrors of the Great Depression. It quickly became the dominant policy goal in its own right. As the OECD makes clear, going for growth is now a basic assumption of economic policy and, outside the realms of green/ecological economics, it goes entirely unquestioned.
The recognition that growth has not always been the be all and end all of human endeavour is the beginning of an understanding of the damage that the obsessive pursuit of growth wreaks. We can challenge the growth imperative, unravel the assumptions behind it, and comprehend the environmental and human consequences of pursuing it with pathological desire. And with that understanding in place we can ask – is there an alternative to growth? It may be killing the planet but can we live without it?
A friend recently expressed to me one of the essential conundrums of contemporary capitalist society: “I can see growth can’t continue, [because of the environmental impacts] but I can’t see how we can stop it without the whole system falling over like a stack of cards.”
One good answer can be found in the recent report of the U.K Sustainability Commission, titled Prosperity Without Growth. But I thought I might also give a much shorter answer that comes at it from a slightly different angle, in the hope my friend and others might find it helpful.
Let’s look at why economies grow, and why capitalism (as we know it) depends on growth, because then we will quickly discover our answer as to how – in principle – we might create a no/low growth economy that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t produce social disaster.
To make progress on sustainability, greens, environmentalists, conservationists, nature lovers, and outdoor recreationists must recognise that simply espousing and advocating sustainable development is not nearly enough to bring it about in any meaningful way.
It is necessary to understand the logic of the existing economic system, its political and social institutions, and what drives this system relentlessly to exploit, degrade and ultimately destroy the natural world. Only with this understanding are we are fully empowered to challenge it head-on, in order to make sustainability its primary goal.
Allan Schnaiberg, in association with Kenneth Gould, David Pellow and others, has developed a theory that attempts to provide the required insight and understanding. This theory names the economic system the treadmill of production. Calling on the distinctly negative image of a treadmill – like the prison treadmill that broke Oscar Wilde – makes it clear that, by this analysis, something is fundamentally wrong with the way our economy functions.