The Third Degrowth Conference has been an opportunity for rethinking the way the world should go about the transition toward a more sustainable economy. Economists, scientists, and social thinkers from all over the world gathered in Venice at the end of September 2012 to question the assumptions of the concept of “sustainable development” endorsed by governments and corporate business as the mainstream response to climate change and the depletion of natural ecosystems. The three-day conference was organised in this city not without reason: Venice is a stark reminder of the urgency to address the mounting ecological crisis. In fact, if climate change is not addressed in time the city of Venice will drown by the end of the century.
The main tenet underpinning the idea of “sustainable development” is that unlimited economic growth and environmental sustainability are not two irreconcilable aims: you can have your cake and eat it too. This is made possible by technological breakthroughs that bring about the decoupling of economic growth from output: GDP increases in spite of a plunge in the use of energy and materials. After all, is not efficiency in economic production what our age is all about? However, not all economists agree on this point and some of them argue that the aforementioned decoupling is not happening due to the “rebound effect” : efficiency improvements tend to rebound to increased consumption as relative prices fall. This is the contentious point that sets “degrowth” and “sustainable development” advocates apart.
When we talk about degrowth theory we are in reality referring to multiple streams, interpretations, and approaches that have as only a lowest common denominator the idea that the current pattern of consumerism is deeply unsustainable and that the size of the economy has to shrink in order to remain within global environmental carrying capacity. However, “degrowth” is not equivalent to negative GDP growth in a growth-oriented economy. This has its own name: recession, or if prolonged, depression. Instead, “degrowth” opens up the discussion of the selective downscaling of man-made capital. What “degrowth” proponents argue is that if we are to stay within our ecological limits as a society we will have to do with less high-speed transport infrastructures, less space missions for tourists, less new airports, or less factories producing unnecessary gadgets. We may still need more renewable energy infrastructures, better social services, more public squares or theatres, localised organic food production, and retailing centres. We need therefore a “selective degrowth”.
“Degrowth” opens up a political debate about which extraction–production–consumption activities need to degrow and which ones need to grow. As a matter of fact, essential public services do not need growth to be sustained. Cuba, the only country in the world which according to the WWF combines a high UNDP Human Development Index with a low ecological footprint has maintained a high quality of health and education services (comparable to those of the U.S.) despite its degrowing economy. The hypothesis is that “degrowth” can, under certain conditions and policies, increase welfare and improve environmental conditions. Finally, since capitalism needs growth, a fundamental reworking of its institutions is necessary for sustainable “degrowth”.
Some commentators that are critical of the idea of “degrowth” note that a degrowth of selected production and consumption activities is not implementable, even in principle, since it would require draconian state intervention (e.g. rationing and prohibitions) unlikely to be accepted by people. However, “degrowth” is not a policy, but rather it is framed as a political alternative that seeks a popular mandate for radical changes. It is a potent political vision that can be socially transformative. The economist Serge Latouche , the most prominent upholder of “degrowth”, calls for a “decolonization of the imaginary” as an active process of liberating thought, desires, and institutions from the logic of growth and accumulation for accumulation’s sake.
“Degrowth” is a multi-faceted political project that aspires to mobilise support for a change of direction, at the macro-level of economic and political institutions and at the micro level of personal values and aspirations. Income and material comfort are to be reduced for many along the way, but the goal is that this is not experienced as welfare loss. This begs the question whether such an alternative could ever become popular.
In the gap and loss of meaning created by the current economic crisis, such new stories may be seen to offer more convincing explanations and directions for the economy. Mobilisations throughout history always started with a “new cultural story” – initially a conversation among a few – that gradually comes to challenge an established paradigm that seemed previously unmovable. Probably the vast majority of the population has yet no perception of the ecological depletion of natural resources which is currently occuring, but as environmental calamities will begin wreaking havoc on wider geographical areas in the decades to come, there will be a stronger drive for change. As the renowned ecological economist Martinez Alier once stated: “I believe in the didactic power of natural catastrophes”.