|“The Good Life” mural painted by Amanda Lynn, Forestville, Califonria, 2021. Photo: Kamran Nayeri.
What is degrowth?
Degrowth is an ambiguous label used by different currents that have emerged or have been reconsidered as such since the 1960s when the contemporary environmentalist movement got underway. The bulk of these movements identify as Greens although it includes eco-anarchists (e.g. Trainer 2010; Australian Simplicity Institute) and others. The ambiguity of what degrowth stands for is a problem both for its proponents and its critics that sometimes misrepresent it.
I will briefly review and discuss degrowth by focusing on a recent book The Case for Degrowth (2020) by Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, and Federico Demaria (herein, “The authors”). Mike Davis has recommended the book as “eloquent and urgent.” The authors themselves declare: “The purpose of this book is to motivate and empower citizens, policy makers, and activists to reorient livelihoods and politics around equitable wellbeing.” (p. 5)
In their view:
“Degrowth makes the case that we have to produce and consume differently, and also less. That we have to share more and distribute more fairly, while the pie shrinks. To do so in ways that support pleasurable lives in resilient societies and environments requires values and institutions that produce different kinds of persons and relations.” (ibid.)
Yet degrowth “does not claim one unitary theory or plan of action. A remarkably diverse network of thinkers and actors experiment with different initiatives and engage in healthy debates about what degrowth, and what form it can or should take un different contexts.” (p. 19)
Thus, degrowth appears as as décroissance in France, decrescita in Catalonia, and sumak kawsay (an ancient Quechua word for “good living”) or Bon Vivir in Latin America, Ubuntu in South Africa, and so on.
Intellectual sources of degrowth
At its core degrowth is about volunteer simplicity as a lifestyle choice. Voluntary simplicity has deep historical roots. In the U.S. its intellectual origins is in American transcendentalism, most directly the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the more practical example of Henry David Thoreau. In the Western tradition simplicity is a theme in Christianity. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, God is infinitely simple. The Roman Catholic and Anglican religious orders of Franciscans also strive for personal simplicity. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) practice the Testimony of Simplicity, which involves simplifying one’s life to focus on what is important and disregard or avoid what is least important. Simplicity is tenet of Anabaptistism.
Recent sources of degrowth come from the Club of Rome, a think tank headquartered in Winterthur, Switzerland. Meadows, et. al. (1972) published The Limits to Growth a report prepared at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) using simulation models to predicate the future of economic growth on a planet with limited resources. In 2012, one of the researchers of the original study, Randers (2012), published the last report 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Intellectually more interesting sources include E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) and “Buddhist Economics” (1966) as well as Herman Daly’s stationary state economics such as“Towards a Steady-State Economy.” (2008) and others (see, here).
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