Von Joe Herbert, Nathan Barlow, Iris Frey, Christoph Ambach, Pietro Cigna

Degrowth: lost in plurality?

There seems to exist a gap in the degrowth discourse around the question of how to move towards a degrowth society. This brings to our attention an important concept – that of strategy. Here, we will use the word ‘strategy’ to refer to how the ends (i.e. a degrowth society) is achieved by the means. Having spent a number of years probing into the degrowth discourse and literature, we found it to be seemingly open to all strategies for pursuing radical transformation towards a socially and ecologically sustainable degrowth society. However, there is little debate on which strategy – or mix of strategies – might be more effective in different contexts (geographical, institutional, sectoral, cultural, etc.). Therefore, we argue that degrowth’s articulation of how the ends can be achieved by the means, can roughly be characterised by a ‘strategic indeterminance’.

Degrowth’s strategic indeterminance can partially be explained by its all-encompassing nature. Degrowth seeks to act as an umbrella for a myriad of concepts, theories, schools of thought, practices, actions and movements. Under this umbrella, for example, one can find elements of environmental justice, solidarity economy, eco-feminism, eco-socialism, the transition towns movement and green anarchism.

To be clear, this openness and embracing of pluralism can to an extent be considered a positive feature of degrowth, which describes itself as a movement of movements. On the other hand, we feel that this same openness is resulting in a neglect of spaces for reflection or debate around reconciling the myriad strategies implied by these differing degrowth ‘approaches’. Furthermore, some strategies may be regarded as mutually exclusive. For example, use of state power would certainly spark disagreements between eco-socialists and green anarchists, as witnessed in a lively plenary at the 6th international degrowth conference in Malmö (where this paper had earlier been presented).

This is not an entirely new debate. At the 2010 Barcelona Degrowth Conference, there was an attempt to instigate a more focused strategic approach within the degrowth movement, however this was unsuccessful, and protecting plurality was preferred. We argue that the pendulum has swung too far towards excessive plurality, thereby valuing all approaches (and strategies) equally in all contexts, resulting in a detrimental strategic indeterminism.

So what if degrowth exhibits ‘strategic indeterminism’?

By avoiding a discussion on why some strategies may be more appropriate than others at certain points in time and space, degrowth risks the following:

  • Postponing likely conflicts between differing strategies until they are forced (perhaps by crisis), rather than proactively seeking resolutions through reasoned discussion
  • Ignoring the massive divergence between visions of a degrowth society and our current society attempting to maintain its mode of living
  • Ineffectively utilising the limited energies and resources of people in the (already marginal) degrowth movement

 

Now what should be the response?

Given that degrowth sees itself as an academic and activist ‘movement’, we believe it has a responsibility to go beyond diagnosing multiple crises and outlining the principles of a degrowth society. Degrowth must also investigate how to achieve its desired transformation. This requires a shift from current strategic indeterminance towards a co-produced mix of context-sensitive strategies.

Co-produced refers to the need for both academics and ‘on the ground’ actors (e.g. activists, organizers and practitioners) to be involved in the research process. The former providing a more systemic perspective informed by theory and cross-contextual knowledge, while the latter contributes context-specific knowledge and experience. Context-sensitivity refers to the incorporation in the research process of distinctions between different institutional arrangements, cultures, values, political landscapes, governance structure, etc.

This research should be done through a systematic method, which looks beyond single cases or ‘best’ practices, instead drawing upon learning from projects, initiatives and movements across different contexts, exhibiting variegated strategies and outcomes. From this, context-specific codifications of strategies should be compiled in order to filter the plurality of degrowth, and to clarify that some strategies are more appropriate than others in certain contexts for seeking social ecological transformation (i.e. a degrowth society).

The consideration of strategy also belongs to a broader debate in degrowth around an understanding of transformation processes. An understanding of transformation processes provides a means to guide an evaluation of the effectiveness and appropriateness of different strategies. Degrowth scholars’ existing representations of transformation pathways towards a degrowth society point vaguely to local autonomous strategies like oppositional activism (Demaria et al 2013) and the development of nowtopias (foodcoops, urban gardening), as well as more institutionally-focused non-violent and democratic “non-reformist reforms” (Gorz, in Muraca 2013: 166) e.g. basic income, green taxes, bans on advertising.

We argue that at present, degrowth’s understanding of transformation represents an underdeveloped area of debate and research within the movement. Firstly, the discourse on transformation has not adequately addressed the barriers to a degrowth transformation (Blühdorn, 2011). A better understanding of barriers to such a transformation would benefit from an expansion of degrowth’s existing interdisciplinary approach to draw more comprehensively on socio-political fields of inquiry, including critical political economy (Buch-Hansen, 2018), political ecology and social ecology (Görg et al, 2017), history, sociology, psychology, and more. Secondly, degrowth’s separation of micro and macro level aspects of transformation misses the relation between levels, which may be aided by an incorporation of the meso-level and a multi-scalar analysis. An understanding of transformation processes is the foundation for evaluating strategies and identifying a mix of effective and appropriate strategies for moving towards a degrowth society in a particular spatio-temporal context.

In summary

Importantly, we do not advocate for a wholesale reduction in the plurality and openness of degrowth to a selected handful of strategies, but rather a move away from the assumption that all strategies should be considered equally valid across all contexts. Additionally, the debate on strategy can open the door to the similarly important (and related) question of how degrowth understands processes of transformation.

Therefore, we advocate for an opening up of spaces for debate and co-production of knowledges on strategies towards a degrowth society, even if this initially necessitates conflicts within the degrowth movement.

Further considerations

How can degrowth develop strategies and understandings of transformation which are sensitive to the tension between chaos and order which constitutes most of society’s complex phenomena? While chaos is characterised by high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability, order is concerned with simple rules which imply common systemic causes. The presence of both chaos and order means that developing effective strategies will always be incredibly challenging, but it is both a feasible and necessary task.

There is of course a risk that such over-reliance on empirics reduces potential strategies to only those that have already been actualised. Therefore, room for experimentation and innovation in both theory and practice must be complementary to such a re-consideration of strategy. Additionally, context-sensitive strategies should not be mandatory and rigid, but provide a dynamic body of knowledge available to practitioners to draw upon when needed, and which researchers can iteratively refine over time.

This article emerged from four of the authors experiences at the 2018 Degrowth and Environmental Justice summer school at ICTA-UAB, Barcelona, and Cerbère, France, where it was first presented. It has since been presented at the 6th International Degrowth Conference, in Malmö, Sweden.

References

Blühdorn, I. (2011) ‘The Politics of Unsustainability: COP15, Post-Ecologism, and the Ecological Paradox’, Organization & Environment. 24(1), pp. 34–53.

Buch-Hansen, H. (2018) ‘The Prerequisites for a Degrowth Paradigm Shift: Insights from Critical Political Economy’, Ecological Economics, 146, pp. 157–163..

Demaria, F. et al. (2013) ‘What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement’, Environmental Values, 22(2), pp. 191–215.

Görg, C. et al. (2017) ‘Challenges for Social-Ecological Transformations: Contributions from Social and Political Ecology’, Sustainability, 9 (1045)

Muraca, B. (2013) ‘Decroissance: A Project for a Radical Transformation of Society’, Environmental Values, 22(2), pp. 147–169.

Autor_in

Joe Herbert, Nathan Barlow, Iris Frey, Christoph Ambach, Pietro Cigna
Joe Herbert is a doctoral researcher in Human Geography at Newcastle University. His master’s thesis analysed the resonance of degrowth as a frame for environmental activism in the UK, and his PhD research studies young people’s environmental action and values through a lens of degrowth.
Nathan Barlow is currently finishing his MSc in Socio-Ecological Economics at Vienna University of Economics and Business and is an editor at degrowth.info. His research focuses on comparing U.S. and European discourses and movements for a social ecological transformation.
Iris Frey studies Socio-Ecological Economics at Vienna University of Economics and Business and is an activist with System Change not Climate Change! in the Austrian climate movement.
Christoph Ambach is studying Socio-Ecological Economics and Policy at Vienna University of Economics and Business. He is interested in collective processes of designing a social ecological transformation towards a good life for all.
Pietro Cigna is enrolled on the master's programme in International Environmental Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), focusing on ecological economics and political ecology. His master's thesis looks at the proposal to combine a basic and a maximum income.