What do we have to loose with degrowth?

Development Policy28 Mar 2010Giorgos Kallis

What is degrowth? This is a question we often receive these days as organizers of the conference. Not from those who have worked for some years with the idea and have read the works of Latouche, Georgescu-Roegen, Illich, Gorz, Kastoriadis and the like. Or from those who have tried to practice it, in one of its many variants, on the ground, such as the inhabitants and urban community gardeners of the squat of Can Mas Deu in the hills of Barcelona where we will have the conference dinner on Monday. But it is a reasonable question from those who are encountering the idea for the first time.

If one is looking for a single definition with a measuring unit, we are not giving one, because this is precisely what we are fighting against. Degrowth involves three key complementary and interrelated ideas:

1) A reduction of environmental impact through a downscaling of the economy, i.e. less total production of good and services. This is not the same as “green growth” or dematerialization, which aspire to a reduction of environmental impact through more efficient or cleaner technologies, while keeping production and consumption growing.

2) A decolonization of our collective and individual imaginary from the opressin g idea that “more is better”. Degrowth postulates that less may also be better. And that there are times when we can (and should) say “enough”.

3) A reduction of the domain of society upon which the economic rationality of market exchange applies. This doesn’t mean abolishing markets. It means limiting substantially their sphere of influence. In the place of free-markets, we should establish “market-free” areas, the role that churches played once upon a time. Regulated markets to exchange food products are ok, but no markets for sex, no money exchange for hospitality, no money payments for domestic services and no market exchange for the provision of public goods, such as water or housing. As Andre Gorz puts it “the more we extend the sphere of activities about which we can say ‘This is not for sale’ or ‘I can’t put a price on this’ the richer our individual and our social lives”.

This requires radical change in our institutions, in our values, in the ways we produce and consume, and in the ways we choose collectively what to produce and what to consume.

Sounds impossible? If so, this is a sad testament to how our imaginary has been colonized by the mentality of the market economy. But maybe we are like those Czechs who just before the Velvet Revolution thought nothing could ever change. If not degrowth, what else is left? And what do we have to loose trying?