As we hurtle towards an increasingly uncertain future because of the climate crisis that we humans have caused, a debate is intensifying about whether this climate crisis can best be averted via degrowth, green growth, or eco-socialism. Note, these concepts are not necessarily mutually incompatible, which makes the debate between them a bit incoherent at times, since there could be far more overlap among these concepts than there are real differences. Just pointing out this overlap and that, despite this, a debate keeps raging on, suggests that perhaps much of this debate is rooted a lot more in misunderstandings than in substantive differences. I would even go so far as to suggest that the root of the misunderstandings in this debate can be found in the word “degrowth” and that we all would be a lot better off if we found a better name for the movement that it claims to represent.
To figure out the usefulness of the word degrowth, as it is applied to the degrowth movement, we should first look at what is meant by the term. According to one of the movement’s main websites, degrowth.info,
“Degrowth is an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction. The degrowth movement of activists and researchers advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. This requires radical redistribution, reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a shift in common values towards care, solidarity and autonomy. Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”
The first thing to note is that this description of degrowth does not advocate for the degrowth of the economy, which is what the term would logically imply for those unfamiliar with the movement. Rather, it states that it is a critique of – presumably economic – “growth at all costs.” This is not the same as being in favor of economic degrowth. The rest of the explanation goes on to outline what it is for, emphasizing ecological well-being, redistribution, and shifting towards care, solidarity, and autonomy. The one point where reduction/degrowth comes up is in connection with the “reduction of the material size of the economy,” which is perhaps the main reason for using the term, but even that does not necessarily mean a reduction of the overall size of the economy, as the word degrowth implies. That is, it is conceivable that an economy could grow immaterially, in terms of its cultural output, which, thanks to digital technology, is practically infinitely reproducible with near-zero additional material resources.
One of the degrowth movement’s main proponents, Jason Hickel, writes, “What degrowth scholarship adds [to the need to transition to renewable energy] is simply to observe that if we want to reduce emissions fast enough to stay under 1.5C or 2C, high-income nations cannot continue to pursue growth.” Clearly, this formulation could be interpreted not as an argument for degrowth, but for a steady-state economy. He then goes on to suggest that the term is actually in reference to energy throughput: “this is precisely what degrowth calls for: a reduction of excess energy and material throughput.”
Another major contribution to the degrowth movement is a book by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan, The Future is Degrowth, who write that degrowth aims to be controversial, “a provocation.” Given that they then go on to dispel at least six common misconceptions about degrowth, it is clearly a concept that lends itself to misconceptions. The most common misconception is that degrowth aims to reduce economic activity, via austerity, as an end itself. Instead, they clarify, degrowth is a critique of the growth paradigm in economics. “Degrowth also takes aim at policies promoting GDP growth precisely because growth does not differentiate between useful and destructive, essential and superfluous,” write Schmelzer et al. (p.24) Instead, what degrowth stands for is:
- Democratizing the economy
- Redistribution and social security
- Democratizing technology
- Revaluation of labor
- Democratization of social metabolism [reorienting production and consumption towards more ecological outcomes]
- International solidarity
None of these aims implies the degrowth of anything other than of harmful and unecological activities. Surely, if that is the only kind of degrowth that the movement means when referring to the term degrowth, then all ecologically minded individuals, including those in the green growth camp, would be in favor of degrowth.
In short, the problem with degrowth is really with the word, and not with what degrowth movement supporters say it stands for. It is an ambiguous word because, on the one hand, it argues against the economic growth compulsion of conventional capitalist economics, but when one takes a closer look at it, it says that it is not really in favor of economic degrowth, but mainly in favor of degrowing ecologically harmful activities. Not only that, but the degrowth movement also usually clarifies that its main target audience is the Global North and not the economies and societies of the Global South.
An additional problem with using “degrowth” for the movement is that unless one is well-versed in the movement’s proposed program(s) (which is difficult to do, since there are so many varieties), ordinary citizens who hear it for the first time are likely to be turned off by the term, since it does connote austerity and belt-tightening for everyone, not just for the top 10% or for those in the Global North.
Degrowth as a concept is not only easily misunderstood, but the very use of this word frames the issue in precisely the way that it says it does not want to frame it. Jason Hickel’s response to Robert Pollin’s criticism of degrowth makes exactly this point when he challenges Pollin’s commitment to economic growth: “We cannot let ourselves be dragged into framing our aspirations for a better world in the language of growth…” But using the word “degrowth” just reinforces that growth framing as well, even if the word is meant to imply a completely different vision. If the concept of growth is the main reference point, then turning it into its negative means that the framing remains, where growth = ecological destruction and negative growth (degrowth) = ecological sustainability. The degrowth movement can deny that this is what it means as much as it wants, but this is the clear implication.
There is an alternative, though, where we can frame the movement for ecological sustainability as a critique of the economic growth framework, without succumbing to the misunderstandings to which the word degrowth leads. Many in the environmental movement have thus taken up the term “post-growth” as being a far better alternative descriptor for the movement. Post-growth implies that we need to get beyond the GDP growth imperative while remaining agnostic as to whether economic growth is implied in a transition toward ecological sustainability. Post-growth also suggests a future in which the quality of economic activity is more important than its sheer quantity.
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