Degrowth is a frontal attack on the ideology of economic growth. Some call it a critique: a slogan or a ‘missile word’. Others talk of the ‘theory of’ – or the ‘literature on’ – degrowth; or of degrowth policies’. Many see themselves as the ‘degrowth movement’ or claim they live ‘the degrowth way’. What is degrowth and where did it come from?
Intellectually, the origins of degrowth are found in the Continental écologie politique of the 1970s. Andre Gorz spoke of ‘décroissance’ in 1972, questioning the compatibility of capitalism with earth’s balance ‘for which … degrowth of material production is a necessary condition’. Unless we consider ‘equality without growth’, Gorz argued, we reduce socialism to nothing but ‘the continuation of capitalism by other means – an extension of middle-class values, lifestyles and social patterns’.
‘Demain la décroissance’ (‘tomorrow, degrowth’) was the title of a 1979 translated collection of essays of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian émigré teaching in the US and a proto ecological economist who argued that economic growth accelerates entropy. These were the times of the oil crisis and the Club of Rome. For continental ‘red-green’ thinkers, however, the question of limits to growth was first and foremost a political one. Unlike Malthusian concerns with resource depletion, overpopulation and collapse of the system, theirs was a desire for pulling the emergency brake on the train of capitalism, or, to quote Ursula Le Guin, ‘put a pig in the tracks of a one-way future consisting only of growth’.
The slogan ‘décroissance’ was revived in the early 2000s by activists in the city of Lyon in direct actions against mega-infrastructures and advertising. Serge Latouche, a professor of economic anthropology and vocal critic of development programmes in Africa, popularized it with his books, calling for an ‘End to sustainable development’ and ‘a long life to convivial degrowth’.
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