Is anyone really ready for degrowth?

Inclusive Economy26 Mar 2010Tom Green

Only a few hours till the conference begins. I´ve been looking forward to this degrowth conference for months, though not without some trepidation. I cannot embrace the term degrowth enthusiastically—it sounds about as intuitively appealing as undergoing deworming, though in both cases, the end result may be quite desirable. I used to think it would be better if the English-speaking world adopted the French term decroissance directly, though upon further reflection I realized it sounds to English speakers like all croissants will be confiscated—an unappealing future of austere breakfasts. It´s not like the concept is new to me, but finding a label that does not turn people off before they´ve heard the idea out is a tough one. Early on, from about the age of 11, I´ve been worried about the natural environment and my thoughts became more and more focused on what we were losing as the economy expanded its reach. I came to ecological economics via Herman Daly´s Steady state economics, so the term “steady state” comes to me more naturally than does “degrowth”. However, steady state suggests that nothing ever changes, that technology is frozen, that humans are not allowed to have new ideas, a misinterpretation that Daly has consistently sought to correct.

Earlier this week I was interviewed for a short film that is scheduled to be shown at the degrowth conference by two Canadian film makers, Leah Temper (who is doing her PhD in ecological economics here in Barcelona) and Claudia Medina. I struggled with the challenge of summarizing the complex and still evolving ideas involved in degrowth in a digestible sound bite, knowing that growth is such a pervasive idea that people don´t even have the concept that there might be an alternative. The degrowth ideal implies reduced rates of material and energy use in rich countries, but it also implies that poor people, in rich or poor countries, should have their material needs met in a way that supports wellbeing. It´s easy for degrowth to come across as sounding like there is a lot of sacrifice involved, but part of the problem here is that the degrowth future is compared to a future with growth that is ever less plausible. If anyone figures out how to summarize degrowth in a 30 second bite, pass on your secret.

A more substantive source of my trepidation about this conference comes from the fact that degrowth is a tough sell in a world that has just experienced involuntary degrowth. It sounds a bit like we might be holding a conference on how to deliberately sabotage the economy, throw more people out of work and ensure that government services and social assistance will be cut back even further. I´m also a little uncertain about how the program merges elaborating degrowth theory and a heartfelt desire for on the ground change. Don´t get me wrong. Change is urgently needed. I think that there is little value in insisting on sound theory, then using this theory to develop a “perfect” degrowth scenario, if this scenario is entirely naïve about what people want and what is politically possible. But at the same time, getting the theory right is helpful to clear thinking about the implications of different degrowth policies and pathways (as far as those can be predicted when we are talking about taking a growth-dependent system and putting it into an entirely different domain). How well we mix theorizing and pushing for a desired future (and the alternative visions thereof) remains to be seen.

At the hostel I´m staying at, a master´s student in development studies from the London School of Economics asks me what brings me to Barcelona. When I tell her it´s for a conference on degrowth, she tells me she´s never heard of the term in any of her LSE courses and when I explain the concept, her reaction is hardly enthusiastic or displays much curiosity (to her credit, she´s on a break before exams). And yet, one would think that within the development studies community, the concept of degrowth would be embraced, or at least given serious consideration. Otherwise, how are the material needs of people in the South supposed to be met if the North´s voracious appetite for resource inputs and its corresponding emissions of wastes are not brought under control?

My impression, LSE students notwithstanding, is that in North America, we are way behind Europe in terms of public discourse on degrowth or the steady state, so in Barcelona, I am looking forward to probing discussions, based on a shared premise that further economic growth in the rich world is likely to be ecologically suicidal and of little benefit to human wellbeing. Not even two weeks ago in Vancouver I was at workshop convened by a progressive Canadian think tank that delved into the problems with growth and what alternatives might improve humanity´s predicament. The workshop was framed around the theme of the Prosperity without growth report put out by the UK Sustainable Development Commission´s Tim Jackson. Peter Victor, author of Managing without growth spoke in what was intended to be a degrowth-consistent manner, avoiding adding to the workshop´s CO2 tally by being beamed in from Toronto on a (sadly unreliable) internet conferencing system. Richard Lipsey, co-author of one of the standard economics texts that has introduced many a Canadian student to the mainstream economics paradigm and with it the love of eternal growth, provided a response to Victor´s argument that further growth made no sense and that an alternative pathway that met the needs of society´s most vulnerable people was possible. Lipsey argued that people would not be willing to go back to early 1900s standards of living and technologies.

I felt like the workshop participants had been sucked into a time warp and spit out in the 1970s, with the economics profession´s allergic reaction to the Club of Rome´s Limits to growth report and their subsequent misrepresentations of that report and the model it relied upon. As the discussion continued, Lipsey began hedging a little—further growth might be environmentally problematic, so his solution was that society needed to pursue “sustainable growth” – whatever that is. Bill Rees, co-originator of the ecological footprint followed with a presentation on why sustainable growth is an oxymoron. Here is not the place to go into further details, the workshop did not coalesce into any great wisdom other than that public policy should not focus in on ensuring GDP growth, but the big question on my mind was why was it that some 40 years later and with much more sobering data in hand, society is still not able to grapple with a rather simple question about what limits might exist and what they might imply for economic activity with any sophistication? I assume we will do better in Barcelona because of our shared starting point—but eventually, a much more diverse community will have to be brought into the conversation.