In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, a warning about the ecological consequences of exponential economic growth. It was immediately controversial met with a cacophony of praise from the environmental movement and ridicule from the capitalist class. But in the four decades since, an avalanche of criticism from formidable progrowth forces across the political spectrum managed to swamp the book’s message. The Thatcherite reaction to 1960s and 1970s radicalism spawned a global wave that swept proposals for a sustainable economic approach off the policy table entirely. The only game in town was market fundamentalism. Indeed, the concept of a “steady-state economy,” a world that avoids the lethality of growth for growth’s sake, was banished from mainstream political thinking.
The progrowth coalition mounted a series of wide-ranging arguments against the steady-state model. Without growth, it argued, prosperity would crumble and economic stagnation would lead inevitably to poverty and social unrest. It portrayed antigrowth sentiment as simply a new set of clothes for a neo-Malthusian philosophy that condemned poor people and nations to perpetual poverty. On the political left, it became gospel that only full employment (the left’s euphemism for growth) could create the wealth needed for redistribution, allowing the working class to secure its fair share. Meanwhile, the right used the compulsion for economic growth to beat back labour’s demand for greater equality.
The concept of a steady-state economy had been successfully snuffed out — or so it was presumed. Events finally caught up with the architects of deregulation, privatization and environmental denial, brought on by the popping of the speculation bubble and the spectacular failure of financial institutions in 2008, and again in 2010 when the banking industry managed to pass on its debt and turned its troubles into a generalized government fiscal crisis. Along with the growing awareness of looming ecological threats, those failures set the stage for renewed interest in the possibilities of “degrowing” the economy.
There is now an emerging, if modest, interest in a degrowth paradigm. This time, instead of being monopolized by a few intellectual pioneers prophesying in the wilderness, de-growth is fuelling a nascent global social movement. Four major international conferences exploring and advocating ecological sustainability within the context of social equity have been held: in Paris in 2008, Barcelona in 2010, and Montreal and Venice in 2012. The next is planned for Leipzig later in 2014.
The movement has a solid theoretical basis in ecological economics, a field pioneered by such advocates as Herman Daly and Joan Martinez-Alier. Ecological economics constructs a weighty case against a global economy based on a constant increase in producing material goods and accelerating the exploitation of limited natural resources. It offers a different notion of what matters in economic and social life and sees real opportunities of moving beyond the carbon economy.
There are now organizations and publications trying to shape a politics of de-growth, and the idea of a de-growth future is being taken on by environmental and economic justice activists as a critical part of human design. It is becoming an alternative policy frame under which the ideas that neoliberalism thought it had successfully expelled from the public domain are being revived and reworked by those who see a different future.
Martinez-Alier is one of the intellectual leaders of the de-growth movement. The author of several seminal works, including most recently Ecological Economics: From the Ground Up, he sees de-growth as an injection of common sense into the market-worshipping mainstream economics.
“What we have to do is to decrease the amount of fossil energy going into the economy,” he told me in an interview. “Oil is going to be taken from places like the Amazon, doing terrible damage locally. Or you have this crazy kind of boom in the fracking of gas also causing local damage. This is what a growing economy means. This cannot go on because the world is not large enough. We could have very good lives with less use of energy and materials.”
Martinez-Alier and a group of his students at the Autonomous University of Barcelona have become a kind of intellectual node for refining the de-growth analysis and sharing it with social actors seeking a way out of the stagnation currently gripping southern Europe. Their small but influential group Research and De-growth is seeking an alternative to the current fashion for austerity and its desperate attempt to restart the growth machine. In Catalonia, the Catalan Cooperativa Integral is an umbrella for dozens of local projects, both rural and urban, that touch thousands of Catalan lives and has influenced similar insurgent cooperatives in other Spanish regions.
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“De-growth is challenging this economic domination in human relations,” says Filka Sekulova, a Bulgarian who is a member of Research and De-growth and a founder of the de-growth pilot project Can Decreix (De-growth House in Catalan) in the French town of Cerbère. For Sekulova, de-growth is not some program of “virtuous austerity” to be “sold” to the populace like tax cuts or fast food or imposed from above by some politburo. It is something still being defined and created that calls for the participation of millions in a common search for an ecologically sustainable way of life.
“It’s a response to the limited biophysical capacity of the earth to capture all the pollution, all the contamination that is beyond the carrying capacity of the earth,” she says. “Democracy is about questioning economic growth as the central objective of society and also questioning all types of technological and infrastructural forces that are completely surrounding our lives. After all, no one ever asked us if we wanted to grow or not.”
Today’s de-growth paradigm is fueling a nascent social movement.
The steady-state notion that an economy does not have to be based on growth has returned, having shed its political innocence. Partisans of sustainable de-growth no longer see themselves as ringing alarm bells for the mantra of “we just can’t go on this way.” They do not expect the powerful and the corporate to heed their calls and change their profligate and predatory ways. Instead, they are making common cause with those actively resisting corporate growth strategies, from antiglobalization and economic justice movements to political ecology groups. They aspire to make de-growth the paradigm for policy options that have been anathema to the establishment: a basic guaranteed annual income for all, a significant reduction in work time and a decentralization of democracy to regions, communities and workplaces.
This time around, the push-back from mainstream left and right in favour of growth has a lot less credibility. The growth we have been experiencing since the 1980s restoration of the market über alles has been profoundly unsettling in its instability, galloping inequality and escalating environmental impacts. Wages have remained stagnant while corporate profitability has been breaking records. Middle-class citizens, not just the marginalized, are now being negatively affected. Good unionized jobs are disappearing as industrial economies have been hollowed out, with much manufacturing relocating to China and even-lower-wage jurisdictions. The speculative growth that has expanded the economy since the 1980s is proving to be a house built on sand. There is only so much credit that can flood the economy to sustain demand.
The promise of a rising tide raising all boats today appears hollow to the large number of unemployed and underemployed youth whose education and ambitions are badly out of sync with the meagre job possibilities on offer. A return to the salad days of the post-Second World War bargain between capital and labour to create a fair and regulated market economy seems a sad fantasy.
That comfortable game is over. The stakes are much higher now. And it is fertile ground for the partisans of a convivial de-growth (as its Quebec supporters like to describe it) and also others to encourage a serious rethink about the actual purpose of the economy, and put some creative policy ideas back on the table.