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Strategies for Cultural Change: Degrowth and the Use of Space

Strategies for Cultural Change: Degrowth and the Use of Space

Degrowth addresses the negative consequences of consumerism (psychological stress, long working hours and positional competition) and discusses the benefits of frugal lifestyles. Henri Lefebvre, a French philosopher from the 20th century, argues that if ideas or values are not physically implemented in space, they become mere fantasies. As such, if degrowth wishes to prevail, it has to leave its mark on space, just as consumerism has successfully done. This article considers ideas of creating space and human-nature connectedness, which in combination, seem to be a perfect match in forming a strategy for degrowth.

Consumption Culture

Supermarkets, drugstores and bazaars have all kinds of techniques to make consumers want stuff that they do not need. The placement of toys at children’s eye level or sweets near checkout counters are just two examples. These are processes of rationalization according to Henri Lefebvre. Rationalization leads consumers into buying more than they intend to. On the other hand, there is something that Lefebvre calls enchantment. Processes of enchantment make consumption seem more attractive to consumers by branding the product as artisanal, locally sourced or socially conscious. An example of this would be McDonald’s creation of a ‘rustic’ burger.

Through the interplay between rationalization and enchantment, people are constantly lured into the role of a consumer.

If the consumption paradigm is secretly oppressing consumers, why do individuals not break free from this role? All they have to do, so it seems, is stop purchasing superfluous goods. In other words, one might wonder, are consumers not responsible for their own oppression? According to Lefebvre, individuals occupy space the way it is offered to them. People are constantly stimulated to exercise their individual freedom by means of purchasing a variety of goods. Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, perceived consumption as a collective behaviour that has been forced upon humankind.

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The urban drivers of economic growth

The urban drivers of economic growth

In the 1980s, cities were defined as the ‘growth machines’ of the economy (Molotch, 1976). Today, urban economists epitomize them as economic ‘triumphs’ (Glaeser, 2011). Cities, intended as dense and mixed forms of urban living organized in agglomerations of economic activities, are presented as the solution to many of contemporary socio-ecological problems. They are viewed as the location of the so called ‘energy transition’, ‘social innovation’ or the ‘clean economy of knowledge’.

Cities have been a central topic in degrowth scholarship, although never put at the forefront of the debate. Latouche (2014) portraits the ‘degrowth city’ looking at the Mediterranean way of life of small towns. He called for a regional economy of sufficiency. Many degrowers explicitly advocate the need for changing the mobility infrastructure in order to reach some kind of slow mobility, and they promote the collectivization of public and housing spaces to be used as forms of commoning. Practices of repair, energy sufficiency, food coops, urban gardening and many more are properly ‘urban’ practices, because they interrupt the fast and productive use of city space.

Why then it is so hard to make those practices multiply and enable a more systemic transition to a degrowth society? Planning scholars have for years studied and criticized the mechanisms of urban land transformation that drive national economic growth. Urbanization is not the consequence of economic growth but the actual driver of it. The enlargement of cities, their number of jobs, estates and infrastructures, is a driving force behind growth. Already in the early 90s, after the fall of the Fordist economic system, it has become clear – for national governments as much as multinational corporations – that cities were becoming a new market where to invest surplus capital (primarily industrial capital) and gain rich returns.

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Defending degrowth is not Malthusian

Defending degrowth is not Malthusian

 Jenny Downing

Self-limitation is not about constraining, but about defining collectively as societies our limits.

Political ecology ‘has made strong arguments against natural limits’ and is in friction with ‘degrowth’s .. urgency of less’, writes Paul Robbins. Indeed, political ecologists developed the field as a response to 1970s neo-Malthusianism. Nancy PelusoLyla Mehta or Betsy Hartmann have exposed the racist, classist and patriarchal underpinnings of neo-Malthusian discourses of environmental degradation, overpopulation, or scarcity.

I am a political ecologist. I love these books. How do I square then this with my defense of limits and degrowth?

It took me sixteen years after my PhD to figure it out. We should distinguish, I always felt, reactionary notions of limits, like the ‘coming anarchy’ of prophets of doom like Robert Kaplan or Garett Hardin; and limits like those defended from activists at places like Standing Rock. Lumping all defenses of limits as Malthusian is analytically sloppy and politically wrong.

I felt this in my skin when, as a late-night twitter intellectual, I was told by fellow travelers that I am a baby-killer and a Malthusian (Me, a Malthusian?!). But the catalyst that got me going was an essay by Gareth Dale, in which I learned that Malthus was actually in favour of growth, not limits.

Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population is one of those classic works that academics feel comfortable citing without taking the trouble to read. I followed Gareth’s lead and sat down to read it again – line by line. And here is the story I have to tell.

First, Malthus was not a Malthusian, he was an economist. Second, radical environmentalism has always been romantic – and romantics were the fiercest critics of Malthus.

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The Radical Plan to Save the Planet by Working Less

The Radical Plan to Save the Planet by Working Less

The degrowth movement wants to intentionally shrink the economy to address climate change, and create lives with less stuff, less work, and better well-being. But is it a utopian fantasy?

In 1972, a team at MIT published The Limits to Growth, a report that predicted what would happen to human civilization as the economy and population continued to grow. What their computer simulation found was pretty straightforward: On a planet of finite resources, infinite exponential growth isn’t possible. Eventually, non-renewable resources, like oil, would run out.

Historically, we have considered growth a positive thing, synonymous with job security and prosperity. Since World War II, the gross domestic product (GDP) measure has been used as “the ultimate measure of a country’s overall welfare.” One of John F. Kennedy’s staff economists, Arthur Okun, theorized that for every 3-point rise in GDP, unemployment would fall a percentage point—one reason why presidential campaigns fixate on the measure.

But growth has led to other problems, such as the warming of the planet due to carbon emissions, and the extreme weather and loss of biodiversityand agriculture that comes along with that. Consequently some activists, researchers, and policy makers are questioning the dogma of growth as good. This skepticism has led to the degrowth movement, which says the growth of the economy is inextricably tied to an increase in carbon emissions. It calls for a dramatic reduction in energy and material use, which would inevitably shrink GDP. 

The Green New Deal, popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seeks to decrease carbon by growing the renewable energy industry. But the degrowth movement believes we need to take this further, by designing a social upheaval that disentangles the idea of progress and economic growth once and for all.

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Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth!

Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth!

Thomas Hawk

If making the degrowth case was like baking a cake, disproving the plausibility of green growth would be the equivalent of turning the oven on. Decoupling is only “a myth” or “a fantasy,” some would say, a notorious fallacy that requires as much attention as the confabulations of Flat Earthers. And yet, faith in decoupling is strengthening in environmental agendas all around the world, including the OECD, European Commission, World Bank, UNEP, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals where it even has its own target.

War of the de- words

The concepts of “degrowth” and “decoupling” are actually the same age. Décroissance (the French ancestor of degrowth) was born at a colloquium in 2002 and decoupling first adopted by the OECD in 2001. Since then, the squabbling has been incessant. Decouplers tout efficiency as a recipe for more goods and services at a lower environmental cost while degrowthers plead for sufficiency, arguing that less commodities is the only road to sustainability.

Reading over government reports today, it would seem that decoupling has won. But has it really? In a recent report (Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth), my co-authors and I have enquired to determine if the scientific foundations behind the decoupling hypothesis were robust. After reviewing the bulk of the latest empirical studies, our finding is clear: the decoupling literature is a haystack without a needle.

The validity of the green growth discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of Gross Domestic Product from all critical environmental pressures. Problem is: there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling having ever happened. This is the case for materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases, land, water pollutants, and biodiversity loss, for which decoupling is either only relative, and/or observed only temporarily, and/or only locally.

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How much will the US Way of Life © have to change?

How much will the US Way of Life © have to change?

On the future of farming, socialist science, and utopia

Image: Karla S. Chambers

Debates about the Green New Deal—Ocasio-Cortez’s version and occasionally radical varieties such as that of the US Green Party—have incited much discussion about paths to utopia. Central to these conversations is the labour question: who will do the work of making the world, and how will that work be apportioned? And how much will the US Way of Life © have to change?

Ecologically-minded socialists and degrowthers tend to point out that cheap energy and excess material use are built into the socio-technical structures of capitalism. Getting rid of capitalism requires replacing capitalist technology. We must build, literally, a new world, which may require more labour and much lighter consumption patterns in the core, especially among the wealthy. Eco-socialists also tend to be more attentive to agriculture’s role in development in the periphery and core.

Eco-modernists tend, instead, to focus on eliminating exploitation while maintaining as much as possible of the physical infrastructure and patterns of consumption of capitalism. They imagine machines that will take the place of the current ecologically destructive physical plant, including in the countryside—prototype AI bots to supplant fruit pickers, or non-existent carbon-dioxide-sucking machines in place of restorative agriculture, a proven method of sequestering atmospheric carbon. Very frequently, they imagine a totally post-work world, creating the conditions for a new utopia: Fully Automated Luxury Communism.  

Those who hold the latter position often forget that the current distribution of labour is the fruit of a very specific historical moment, marked not merely by a temporary cheapness of energy—and tell Bangladesh, the Seychelles, or your grandchildren that petroleum is cheap—but specific sectoral allocations of labour in farming, industry, and services in the core states.

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What Kind of a Green Deal? The implications of material and monetary flows.

What Kind of a Green Deal? The implications of material and monetary flows.

What Kind of a Green Deal? The implications of material and monetary flows1.


Introduction: the resurgence of New Green Deals. 

Green Deals, Growth and Material Flows 

Paying for a Green Deal: monetary flows. 

Introduction: the resurgence of New Green Deals.

With increasing momentum, the idea of a New Green Deal (or Green New Deal) has entered the mainstream of progressive political debate. While a group of British economists and campaigners promoted the idea more than ten years ago2, it didn’t take off then. Now, however, the seriousness of, and public attention to, the climate emergency has helped to revive the idea: an ambitious transformative programme is needed to decarbonise the global economy, not least in the rich countries. Almost simultaneously, a similar set of policy proposals have emerged in several places, including in the USA, with the (New) Green New Deal3 proposed by leftists in the Democratic Party (the “Justice Democrats”4) and adopted by some of the prospective presidential candidates, in the UK, with the Labour Party’s Green Transformation paper5, in Spain, with the PSOE’s Transformación Ecológica6, and in the programme of Yannis Varoufakis’s pan-EU party DIEM 25. These all share the idea of investing in the rapid decarbonisation of the economy, creating “green jobs” in sectors such as renewable energy and housing retrofit, and offering a Just Transition for workers in those industrial sectors (predominantly fossil fuels) that will have to be closed down and replaced.

However, these policy frameworks all have shortcomings: none is, as yet, sufficiently detailed, each leaves significant gaps in the areas that have to be addressed, and all are promoted by parties that have yet to gain power or (in the Spanish case, with a challenging general election imminent) regain it.

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The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future

Once is the defining image of the good life under capitalism, commonly held up as a model to which all humanity should aspire.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Yet with the global economy already in gross ecological overshoot, and a world population heading for more than 11 billion, this way of living is neither fair nor sustainable.

To live within our environmental means, the richest nations will need to embrace a planned process of economic “degrowth”. This is not an unplanned recession, but a deliberate downscaling of economic activity and the closely correlated consumption of fossil energy. We don’t argue this is likely, only that it is necessary.

You might naturally assume this will involve pain and sacrifice, but we argue that a “prosperous descent” is possible. Our new book, Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, envisions how this might unfold in the suburban landscapes that are currently emblematic of overconsumption.

The well-known documentary The End of Suburbia presented a coherent narrative of a post-petroleum future, but got at least one thing wrong. There is not a single end to suburbia; there are many ends of suburbia (as we know it).

Reimagining the suburbs beyond fossil fuels

Suburban catastrophists such as James Kunstler argue that fossil fuel depletion will turn our suburbs into urban wastelands. But we see the suburbs as an ideal place to begin retrofitting our cities.

This won’t involve tearing them down and starting again. Typically, Australia’s built environment is turned over at less than 5% per year. The challenge is to reinhabit, not rebuild, the suburban landscape. Here are some of the key features of this reinvigorated landscape:

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Stability without Growth: Keynes in an Age of Climate Breakdown

What do Keynesian Democrats think about the movement for post-growth and de-growth economics? Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, DC, has given us some insight into this question. In a recent blog post, republished by Counterpunch, he takes aim at two articles that I wrote for Foreign Policy in which I argue that it is not feasible to reduce our emissions and resource use in line with planetary boundaries while at the same time pursuing exponential GDP growth.

Baker agrees — thankfully — that we need to dramatically reduce emissions and resource use to prevent ecological collapse. But he thinks that this is entirely compatible with continued GDP growth.

Let’s imagine, he says, that a new government imposes massive taxes on greenhouse gas emissions and resource extraction while at the same time increasing spending on clean technologies, with subsidies for electric vehicles and mass transit systems. Baker believes that this will shift patterns of consumption toward goods that are less emissions and resource intensive. People will spend their money on movies and plays, for example, or on gyms and nice restaurants and new computer software. So GDP will continue growing forever while emissions and resource use declines.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I, for one, would embrace such an outcome. After all, if growth was green, why would anyone have a problem with it? Baker makes the mistake of believing that degrowthers are focused on reducing GDP. We are not. Like him, we want to reduce material throughput. But we accept that doing so will probably mean that GDP will not continue to grow, and we argue that this needn’t be a catastrophe — on the contrary, it can be managed in a way that improves people’s well-being.


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How do you degrow?

We live nextdoor to my partner’s grandmother, Maria, who was born during the Second World War in Northern Italy. This means that she knows what hard times look like. Maria could not believe we would be using washable diapers for our baby boy. With genuine surprise she asked me, “why?”, and then she was curious in which pot we were planning to boil the diapers. In her eyes, we could not possibly be choosing to use washable diapers – to her, an extinct garment reminiscent of poverty and manual labour – when there exists the comfort of the disposable. Therefore, it must be that we cannot afford disposable diapers. Needless to say, for the first six months of our son’s life, every time Maria went to the supermarket, she bought us a packet of disposable diapers.

Everything about the lifestyle we are accustomed to, as rich westerners, has to change. If we let that sink in for a little bit that is when the real disruption comes in, giving way to a radical shift in perspective. So, where do we go from here?

As practitioners of the degrowth creed, the first challenge we face is precisely this, where do we start? This is a very real question that needs to be answered when degrowthers decide to settle down. Since it’s possible to start anywhere, why not start with the closest and most immediate: ourselves. Our life. Our lifestyle, our diet, our jobs. I want to bring forward how this radical decision – to choose the self as the first point of action towards a degrowth future – brings large obstacles, huge consequences, many humbling lessons and above all, so many mixed feelings.

How do we go about practicing degrowth?

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Saving the Environment: Is Degrowthing the Answer?

Saving the Environment: Is Degrowthing the Answer?

Photo Source Anahi Patricia Jasso Aleman | CC BY 2.0

A friend recently sent me a piece by Jason Hickel, arguing that growth can’t be green and that we need to move away from growth oriented economics. I am not convinced. It strikes me both that the piece misrepresents what growth means and also confuses political obstacles with logical ones. The result is an attack on a concept that makes neither logical nor political sense.

In the piece, Hickel points out the enormous leaps that will be required to keep our greenhouse gas emissions at levels that will prevent irreversible environmental damage. He then hands us the possibility, that even if through some miracle we can manage to meet these targets with the rapid deployment of clean energy, we still have the problem of use of other resources that is wiping species and wrecking the environment.

Hickel’s points about the imminent dangers to the environment are very much on the mark, but it is not clear that has anything to do with the logic of growth. Suppose the Sustainable World Party (SWP) sweeps to power in the next election. They immediately impose a massive tax on greenhouse gas emissions, which will rise even further over time. They also inventory all the resources that are in limited supply and impose large and rising taxes on them.

Furthermore, they pay developing countries large sums to protect regions that are important for sustaining species facing extinction and for the global environment. The new administration also hugely increases spending on research on clean technologies and has massive subsidies for zero emission vehicles and even more importantly for mass transit. As the SWP implements this policy, it has very stimulative fiscal and monetary policies.

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The limits of renewable energy and the case for degrowth

The limits of renewable energy and the case for degrowth

Photo from Pixabay

The energy transition is the focus of much discussion. To read the accounts in the mainstream media, one gets the impression that renewable energy is being rolled out quickly and is on its way to replacing fossil fuels without much ado, while generating new green jobs. If the claims of Jeremy Rifkin are to be believed, renewable energy will become cheaper and cheaper, on the model of computers and telecommunications.

But what is the current combined share of solar photovoltaic energy and solar thermal energy, wind and tidal energy, and geothermal energy? (I am not including hydroelectric power and biomass here. While they are arguably forms of renewable energy, they are typically looked at separately because, having reached maturity, they have limited potential for expansion, unlike solar and wind power which remain underexploited.) People tend to think it constitutes 5, 10 or even 20 per cent of total energy production. The figure is actually much smaller: a mere 1.5 per cent. That’s the net result of the last 45 years of progress on the energy transition, according to the official figures of the International Energy Agency.

To break it down, from 1973 to 2015:

  • The share of petroleum in the global energy mix decreased from 46 per cent to 32 per cent
  • Coal’s share grew from 25 per cent to 28 per cent
  • Natural gas’s share grew from 16 per cent to 22 per cent
  • Nuclear’s share grew from 1 to 5 per cent
  • Hydroelectricity’s share grew from 2 to 3 per cent
  • The combined share of biofuels, wood and waste decreased from 11 per cent to 10 per cent
  • And renewable energy’s share grew by a factor of 15, from 0.1 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

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Degrowth as a concrete utopia

Degrowth as a concrete utopia

Economic growth can’t reduce inequalities; it merely postpones confronting exploitation. Español

“My Visit to the Mountain Homestead.” Credit: Flickr/Eli Duke. CC BY 2.0.

The emergence of interest in degrowth can be traced back to the 1st International Degrowth Conference organized in Paris in 2008. At this conference, degrowth was defined as a “voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society,” so challenging the dogma of economic growth. Another five international conferences were organized between 2010 and 2018, with the latest in Malmo in August.

This year also saw the publication of Giorgos Kallis’ landmark book Degrowth,which opens with three bold statements. First, the global economy should slow down to avert the destruction of Earth’s life support systems, because a higher rate of production and consumption will run parallel to higher rates of damage to the environment. Hence, we should extract, produce and consume less, and we should do it all differently. Since growth-based economies collapse without growth we have to establish a radically different economic system and way of living in order to prosper in the future.

Second, economic growth is no longer desirable. An increasing share of GDP growth is devoted to ‘defensive expenditure,’ meaning the costs people face as a result of environmental externalities such as pollution. Hence, growth (at least in rich countries) has become “un-economic:” its benefits no longer exceed its costs.

Third, growth is always based on exploitation, because it is driven by investment that, in turn, depends on surplus. If capitalists or governments paid for the real value of work then they would have no surplus and there would be no growth. Hence, growth cannot reduce inequalities; it merely postpones confronting exploitation.

The growth paradigm.

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Excerpt From “De-Growth in the Suburbs, A Radical Urban Imaginary.” Part 4


We started publishing 3 weeks ago this series of an excerpt from Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson’s new book, “Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary”.

The chapter we will be publishing over 4 weeks (Reimagining the Suburbs Beyond Growth) is the first chapter in the book.

You can read the 3 parts we already published  here and here and here

Dr Samuel Alexander,  is the co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, as well as Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.

This book addresses a central dilemma of the urban age: how to make suburban landscapes sustainable in the face of planetary ecological crisis.  The authors argue that degrowth, a planned contraction of overgrown economies, is the most coherent paradigm for suburban renewal. They depart from the anti-suburban sentiment of much environmentalism to show that existing suburbia can be the centre-ground of transition to a new social dispensation based on the principle of enlightened material and energy restraint.


“There is nothing that embodies the twisted values of growth-addicted capitalism more visibly than suburban sprawl.  Massive matrices of carbon-intensive consumerism, the suburbs reflect the forces that are driving our descent into ecological crisis.  But as deepening crises begin to engulf us, Alexander and Gleeson see an unlikely flicker of hope.  The suburbs, they argue, hold the potential for a new, more resilient way of living that could help see us through the calamities of the Anthropocene.  This is a brilliant, invigorating book, poetically written and full of exciting ideas.  A marvellous achievement.’

Jason Hickel, author of The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions

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Giorgos Kallis’ Degrowth | A review by Sarah Hafner

Giorgos Kallis’ Degrowth | A review by Sarah Hafner

Rethinking our economic paradigms is an urgent and fundamentally important task. Giorgos Kallis’ new book Degrowth is adding to a joint endeavour of postgrowth thinking, CUSP PhD candidate Sarah Hafner finds. It offers both, a justification as well as a vision and new imaginary for the degrowth agenda.

enriquelopezgarre/ pixabay.com

Rethinking the prevailing economic ‘growth’-paradigm in economics is an urgent and fundamentally important task. Equally important is it to think about ‘socially and environmental sustainable’ alternatives and the transition towards these alternative/s (see Jackson, 2017; Martínez-Alier et al., 2012).

Giorgos Kallis, Research Professor at the University Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and well-known for his contributions in the degrowth literature, opts exactly for this endeavour in his new comprehensive summary and thought-provoking book Degrowth. This blog provides a short review.

Economic approach / Economic system

The author himself situates his work at the interface of two approaches: the economic and the political or utopian one. This is also how this book review is structured.

The reader of the book learns quickly that in Kallis’ perspective degrowth “is not an economic theory, much less of an economic contradiction” and so, he clarifies from the beginning that his book doesn’t engage with tackling traditional growth and economic theories (see e.g. Lange, 2018 for an overview on the latter; as well as e.g. Jackson, 2017 and Jackson and Victor, 2018 for economic modelling work on this topic), and is focusing instead on the interrelations of the economic system with the political and societal/social system.

Degrowth, as developed in the book, stands in clear contrast to the prevailing capitalist system (see also Foster, 2011 or Jackson, 2017); well-being as a function (up to some level) of income and relative income (i.e. related to status and positional consumption; e.g. Kahnemann and Daeton, 2010; Easterlin, 1975), Kallis argues, is not a universal fact, but heavily related to the emphasized values in the current (capitalist) system.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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