A History of Degrowth

The birth of the word „décroissance” (French for degrowth), and with this the beginning of an idea, can be dated to the year 1972. Already back then, the social philosopher André Gorz asked: “Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?”. Today we answer this question with “No”, but this is another story. In the same year, “The Limits to Growth” was published by the Club of Rome. The publication sparked off a broad discussion, during which in France the word “décroissance“ repeatedly cropped up. Other intellectuals of that time influenced the debate: Among them Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Jacques Grinevald and Ivo Rens. A few years later, with the end of the oil crisis and the expanding neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s, the discussions were pushed into the background. In the 1970s, the critique of growth received a name, but the critique and the thoughts about alternatives to growth had already been around for a long time. The first economists to talk about economic growth, for example, never thought of growth as a never-ending process, but regarded it as necessary only for a period of time.
What we today call the degrowth movement started about 30 years after the first appearance of “décroissance” in Lyon. In 2002, the magazine “Silence” published a special issue on the topic of degrowth, which received lots of public attention. It was reprinted twice, 5,000 magazines were sold. In the wake of the publication’s success, the topic of degrowth created a meeting point where environmental activists from Lyon could join Parisian critics of development. More and more voices were speaking of “décroissance”. The “Institute for Economic and Social Studies on Sustainable Degrowth” was founded in Lyon. The following year, the institute organised a symposium on the same topic. Many of the today well-known degrowth thinkers took part in the symposium, e.g. Serge Latouche, Mauro Bonaiuti, Paul Ariès, Jacques Grinevald, François Schneider and Pierre Rabhi. But it was not only scientific debates which were taking place in Lyon. There were also protests for a car- and ad-free city, and the foundation of food cooperatives, as well as communal meals in the streets. In 2004, the ideas made their way to Italy, and in 2006 to Catalonia and Spain. They were taken up as, “decrescita”, “decreixement” and “decrecimiento”. The newspaper “La Décroissance, le journal de la joie de vivre“ was founded in France and François Schneider received attention from both the public and the media by walking through southern France with a donkey in order to raise awareness about degrowth.

In 2007, a few years after the donkey tour, François Schneider, together with Denis Bayon and Fabrice Flipo, founded the academic organisation Research and Degrowth (R&D). This organisation has since then initiated and accompanied the international degrowth conferences. The first international degrowth conference for ecological sustainability and social equity took place in Paris in 2008. The English term “degrowth” was used in the conference and thereby introduced into the international academic debate. With the second degrowth conference, which was organized 2010 in Barcelona, the currently more active Spanish part of R&D emerged. Further international degrowth conferences took place in Venice in 2012 and in Leipzig 2014. Since 2008, the conferences have attracted more and more attention as well as participants, among them scientists from diverse disciplines as well as activists and practitioners. The conferences serve as a meeting point, a room for discussions, for learning and for networking, and at the same time create more public attention for the movement.

More than 100 academic papers on degrowth have been published in international journals since 2008, including several special issues. Furthermore, books dealing with degrowth are available in major parts of the global North and published in various languages. Degrowth has become a topic at Universities and is discussed in international and German media (Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, El Pais, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, Frankfurter Rundschau, Taz, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Der Freitag).

Degrowth in Germany

The critique of economic growth was also a topic in 1970s Germany. In magazines like “Technologie und Politik. Das Magazin zur Wachstumskrise” (1976-1983) (English: Technology and Politics. The magazine about the growth crisis), alternatives to a growth society were discussed and larger publishers like Fischer and Rowohlt had whole pocket book series on the topic. Also the newly founded party “Die Grünen” (The Greens) had a strong wing demanding a departure from the politics of economic growth.

In the 1980s and 1990s, concepts of “sustainable development” and “ecological modernisation” pushed the discourses calling for alternatives to economic growth into the background. Ideas of “qualitative” and “green” growth, founded on a belief in the feasibility of decoupling economic growth from the consumption of resources, became dominant. Nevertheless, several larger conferences on the topic of growth critique took place in Germany in the 1990s and 2000s. There were the “Beyond growth?!” conference organized by the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation in Berlin 1999 and also the series of McPlanet conferences organized by globalisation critics together with church and environmental organisations (five conferences between 2002 and 2012 in Berlin and Hamburg). But it was only in the 2000s that these conferences received notable public attention and other voices joined in.

Since 2008 a public post-growth seminar has been held at the University of Oldenburg (Ringvorlesung zur Postwachstumsökonomie). These evening lectures are organised by the economists Niko Paech and Werner Onken. Here the majority of lecturers are scientists from various fields who are critical of economic growth. Furthermore the “Blog.Postwachstum“ was established when Irmi Seidl and Angelika Zahrnt published the book “Postwachstumsgesellschaft” (Post-growth Society) in 2010. Since then, the blog that only appears in German covers parts of the German debate about post-growth.

In 2010, the “Netzwerk Wachstumswende” (~Network growth-turn) was founded by some young members of the “Vereinigung für Ökologische Ökonomie (VÖÖ)” (German Society for Ecological Economics). In the same year, the VÖÖ reformulated its identity according to the idea of an “Economy without growth”. The network “Wachstumswende” has since then been an online collaboration platform for individuals who are critical towards economic growth. The network includes local degrowth groups, discussions, a blog, diverse projects as well as a lecture and event pool. In 2011, the “Förderverein Wachstumswende” (an association to formally host the network) was created, which supports the network long-term and runs the online portal Wachstumswende.de. At the same time the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (German Think-Tank for a social, democratic and ecological economy) was founded in Leipzig. This think tank develops, disseminates and communicates concepts for a social, environmental, just and democratic economy. Since 2013, degrowth has been a major topic of the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie. Besides the Konzeptwerk and the Förderverein Wachstumswende there are now many more initiatives which include degrowth in their work, as could also be seen in the many events held by diverse organisations and individuals at the degrowth conference in Leipzig.

From the beginning of Attac Germany (2001), the critique of growth has been one of its topics. In 2009, Matthias Schmelzer and Alexis Passadakis, members of the German “Attac Coordination Group” published a discussion paper on post-growth and in 2010 an Attac core text. From this initiative evolved the preparation team for the congress “Beyond growth?!” that was attended by 3,000 people in Berlin in 2011 and was characterized by the strong involvement of political groups which work on the topics of environment and development, as well as of church organisations and trade unions.

Economic growth also became a topic for discussion on the level of national politics. Between 2011 and 2013 a German parliamentary committee of enquiry worked under the title „Wachstum, Wohlstand, Lebensqualität – Wege zu nachhaltigem Wirtschaften und gesellschaftlichem Fortschritt in der Sozialen Marktwirtschaft“ (English: Growth, Prosperity and Quality of Life – Paths to Sustainable Economics and Societal Progress in the Social Market Economy). The evaluation of this committee’s influence varies. It helped to make critiques of growth a possible topic of discussion in official political circles, and stirred discussions in the media. Furthermore, in an extensive report, the committee shows that decoupling is no solution to existing ecological and social problems. However a progressive discussion was blocked by the then ruling government (Christan Democrats and Liberals (CDU/CSU and FDP)) and some involved experts. As a result the final report provides no concrete policy proposals and no vision for a society that does not have to grow.

Milestones of the German degrowth movement are certainly the already mentioned conference “Beyond Growth!?” organized by Attac, as well as the international degrowth conference which attracted more than 3,000 participants to Leipzig in 2014. Both conferences brought together critics of growth from different social movements, and contributed to the growing international debate on degrowth.
Degrowth is a topic for diverse projects in Germany – you can find the current state of affairs on other parts of this website.

Sources

D’Alisa, Giacomo, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis (edit.) 2014. Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, Routledge.
Muraca, Barbara . Décroissance; A project for radical social transformation. Environmental Values 22 (2013): 147–169.
Schmelzer, Matthias 2014: Gutes Leben statt Wachstum: Degrowth, Klimagerechtigkeit, Subsistenz – eine Einführung in die Begriffe und Ansätze der Postwachstumsbewegung. Blogbeitrag Juli 2014 auf www.degrowth.de. Link to the Blogpost
Ulrich Brand 2014. Degrowth: Der Beginn einer Bewegung?. Die Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik. 10/2014, Seite 29-32. Link to pdf