By Kristin Laufenberg

If current crises like environmental degradation and social inequality can be seen as result of our economic and social systems, the concept of a degrowth economy has been advanced as a possible solution. Degrowth is in direct contrast to economic systems such as capitalism or sustainable growth, and in fact has much more in common with a post-development perspective in advocating for a fundamental transformation of society that will challenge the very notion of what an ‘economy’ is, as well as the dominant discourses which shape our perception of reality.

“It is a manifestation of the colonization of our imaginary that we now consider infeasible any bold collective attempt to plan our way out of the ecological catastrophe. As philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than serious social change.”1

What is Degrowth?

Definitions of degrowth generally refer to a reduction or slowing down of the economy, with the goal of achieving equality, addressing ecological and environmental problems, improving familial and community relations, and decoupling notions of success and happiness from materialism and economic growth.2

Why can't we degrow under Capitalism?

It is very important to reiterate and explain that degrowth is not just about slowing down within a growth economy: scholars are clear that degrowth will not be possible under current economic and social conditions. It is impossible to just degrow under the current system, because capitalism by its very nature is ‘grow or die’ – it is founded on and feeds on growth, and in turn every establishment and custom in the West feeds into this growth paradigm.3

As a result of this single-minded focus on growth, capitalism engenders ‘lock-in’. Growth-as-development paradigm is so far-reaching and pervasive and enmeshed in so many institutions that it is very difficult to break free of. It is also self-reinforcing. A classic example of lock-in which feeds on and reinforces itself is transportation in the United States. Rising incomes and cheap cars led to the building of long, wide roads, so homes and workplaces were built to be spread out along these roads, so people needed cars to get to them, so more roads were built with homes and workplaces spread out along them. The result is that outside of a very few large cities, public transportation is non-existent and cars are a necessity. Samuel Alexander4 and Tim Jackson5 give fascinating examples about the effect of lock-in on consumer behavior. Jackson discusses “the perverse effect of dominant structures” and concludes: “people trying to live more sustainably find themselves in conflict with the social world around them […] In spite of a growing desire for change, it’s almost impossible for people to simply choose sustainable lifestyles, however much they’d like to” 6.

Since the current system is only designed for, and indeed locked into, growth, when the economy does contract (as in the case of a recession or depression) it results in real suffering and hardship7. So capitalist market economies are unable to safely and voluntarily degrow, and degrowth will only be possible under a different system altogether.

Why can’t we degrow under Sustainable Development?

Just as degrowth cannot occur under capitalism, degrowth scholars are also critical of sustainable development, when sustainable development is still advocating economic growth. The ‘second contradiction of capitalism’ as articulated by James O’ Connor is no less true under green or sustainable growth. Acid rain, salinization of the soil, and pesticide use are examples of capitalism “impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital”8

Also, sustainable development poses unrealistic expectations of (as of now) mythical efficiency improvements or technological breakthroughs which are supposed to fulfil the world’s energy needs without further damaging the environment; renewable energies in particular yield less of a surplus than expected when one considers the energy necessary for their production and the costs and time implied in shifting a fossil fuel-based society to one based on renewables.9

Finally, the ‘Prius paradox’, or potential for rebound effects, must not be overlooked. Any improvements in energy efficiency, for example, if leading to falling prices or increased revenues, could lead to increased consumption. We will either consume more of these eco-technologies or spend the savings they bring elsewhere, bringing no real decrease in consumption or production.10

Degrowth through a Post-Development Lens

In my comparison of post-development theory and degrowth approaches, several connections between the two have become apparent:

  1. The global capitalistic economy founded on exploitation and neo-colonial domination is both unsustainable and undesirable; therefore:
  2. ‘Development as we know it - based on the neoliberal economic growth-for-development paradigm - is unsuitable for addressing today’s socio-economic and environmental crises; hence:
  3. We need to design and appreciate development alternatives to support social wellbeing in harmony with nature as imperative to the transition toward truly sustainable, post-capitalist futures.11
I will focus now on two ideas for which I found an equivalent in both post-development and degrowth literature:

1. Diversities of Economies & Prosperities

The concepts of diverse economies and diverse prosperities have much in common and are present in both post-development and degrowth literature. Degrowth would entail scaling down working hours, incomes, expenditures, and luxury and other material items. In their absence, it is expected that people would have to find a more ‘diverse prosperity’12. This could involve finding meaning and happiness in spiritual growth, better social, familial, and community relations.

This is very similar to the concept of Buen Vivir, or good life, a movement often promoted as an alternative to development in post-development literature and practice. “It includes the classical ideas of quality of life, but with the specific idea that well-being is only possible within a community. Furthermore, in most approaches the community concept is understood in an expanded sense, to include Nature. Buen Vivir therefore embraces the broad notion of well-being and cohabitation with others and Nature”. This “good life in a broad sense”13 would allow for “the dimensions of self-reliance, community, art or spirituality” that Sachs envisions in his description of diverse prosperity.

Similarly, both degrowth literature and post-development literature about community development refer to the concept of a ‘diverse economy.’ Gibson-Graham14 refers to “multiple ecologies of economic productivity” which would include social and physical assets and “economic ‘others’ that sustain material survival and wellbeing”. Sachs also describes the “many sources beyond money” that contribute to well-being; since they are diverse, they increase community resilience in the face of crises or shock.

2. Colonization of the Mind as a Result of a Dominant Discourse

Both capitalism and the traditional development paradigm, as the dominant discourses in their respective fields, lead to and help perpetuate a ‘colonization of the mind’ or ‘colonization of the imagination.’ Capitalism as an economic system and Western-style development have both permeated Western societies to such an extent as to seem immutable and beyond reproach; it has become difficult to identify alternatives to either one or to imagine a world without them. The North is locked into capitalism, and in countries which haven’t yet ‘developed’ it is the goal for which they strive.

Degrowth and post-development theory, in challenging two interrelated dominant discourses, are both “focused on unhinging notions of development from the European experience of industrial growth and capitalist expansion; decentering conceptions of economy and de-essentializing economic logics as the motor of history”.15

Conclusion and Criticism of Degrowth Through a Post-Development Lens

I am convinced, and tried to make the argument, that degrowth represents many of the tenets of post-development, especially when contrasted with a system like capitalism. This being said, I would like to conclude by articulating a few criticisms of degrowth from a post-development perspective.

One critique concerns the concept’s origins. Although Schneider et al talk about degrowth as ideally being the “result of a collective choice for a better living, not an imperative imposed by an external authority” and mention the need for “viable development alternatives developed by the South and for the South”, the fact remains that degrowth was developed by Western academics. Some degrowth authors speak of the need for the South to begin developing ‘differently’ if they are not to follow the West into a locked-in pattern of growth and environmental degradation. It is interesting and a bit ironic that Western academics and practitioners first planned and implemented the traditional, top-down, exogenous development of the South, and now are calling for a halt to it, again on the West’s terms, before many countries in the South have had the chance to reap any of the benefits they were told to expect from Western-style development.

Within developed countries as well, there are aspects of degrowth that can be perceived as top-down, exogenous commands. Proposed policies such as capping working hours or income, or higher taxes on income or luxury goods, would be very difficult to implement on a small or local scale, but equally politically difficult to impose on a larger population which is not convinced of their merits. Carbon rationing or other cap and trade systems can seem equally dictatorial, and Schneider et al point out that these systems actually extend rather than challenge the realm of the markets and monetary values. Avoiding these “eco-authoritarian, expert-based regimes”, while still bringing about real change and challenging the dominant structures and institutions of society, will require walking a fine line.

> Comment this artlicle on the German blog "Postwachstum"

A longer version of this article was published 27 March 2014 by the Peace and Conflict Monitor

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1 Kallis, Giorgos 2011. “In defence of degrowth.” Ecological Economics: 70 (2011) pp. 873-880.
2 Schneider, Francois; Kallis, Giorgo; Martinez-Alier, Joan 2010. “Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue.” Journal of Cleaner Productions: 18 (2010) pp. 511-518
3 Kallis, 2011
4 Alexander, Samuel 2012. “Degrowth implies Voluntary Simplicity: Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Consumption.”
5 Jackson, Tim 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. London: Earthscan
6 Jackson 2009, p 151-153
7 Latouche, Serge 2004. “Degrowth economics.” Le Monde diplomatique, November 2004
8 O’Connor, James 1988. “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction.” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: 1/1 (1988) pp. 11-38
9 Kallis, 2011
10 Fournier, Valerie 2008. “Escaping from the economy: the politics of degrowth.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy: Vol. 28 No. 11/12 (2008) pp. 528-545. Schneider 2010, Kallis 2011
11 Ruttenberg, Tara 2014. “RMSED 6036: Post Development: Theory and Practice.” University for Peace, Costa Rica
12 Sachs, Wolfgang 2009. The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power (2nd ed.). London: Zed Books
13 E.g. Gudynas, Eduardo 2011. “Buen Vivir: Today’s tomorrow.” Development: 54-4 (2011) pp. 441-447.
14 Gibson-Graham J.K. 2005. “Surplus Possibilities: Postdevelopment and Community Economies.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 26 (1).
15 Gibson-Graham 2005