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Degrowth: Desirable but Improbable

Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at U of T and Vice-President of Science for Peace.

National Archives at College Park - Still Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Degrowth is a growing intellectual movement among those alarmed by the climate crisis. Its proponents envision a desirable world which has not only come to terms with the ecological crisis, but also is more egalitarian and convivial than our current societies, both in the global North and South. Advocates also provide a cogent critique of economic growth. They contend, perhaps less cogently, that capitalism is the problem because it is inherently growth oriented. One finds, in addition, the analysis of many relevant policies, at both the national and global level, for overcoming the climate/ecological crisis and building an egalitarian society. However, the political strategy for moving from our current situation to the desirable world is underdeveloped. It seems highly improbable that we will witness a transformation of capitalism in the next decade or two, let alone a nonviolent transformation.

Some of the terms are confusing. All eco-socialists are degrowthers, but not all degrowthers are eco-socialists (though most are). The degrowth movement is diverse; yet many (probably most) degrowth proponents, together with eco-socialists, believe that system change is needed to safeguard the environment and build an equitable society. Radical degrowth advocates prefer to refer to the future they want as “post-capitalism” rather than post-growth or socialism. “Post-growth” is a suspect term, from their viewpoint. That is because those who believe that capitalism is compatible with ecological sustainability prefer the term “post-growth.” “Post-capitalism,” on the other hand, declares that capitalism is the problem, but avoids the ideological baggage of socialism while implying an anti-capitalist orientation.

Degrowth as a theory and program emerged in France in the 2000s, later spreading to the rest of Europe, and then to North America and the world. Degrowth has long intellectual roots. The movement sides with the famous Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome in 1972. André Gorz, a French eco-Marxist who wrote presciently about ecological destruction and capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s, is another important influence.

            That the origins of degrowth lie in the universities, and it remains largely an intellectual movement, is not incidental Many books and articles in the degrowth tradition are demanding to read for those who lack training in the social sciences. One wonders who the audience is for many of the books and articles: mainly activist-scholars, it appears. The academic exigency of publish (in specific refereed journals) or perish seems to have molded the expression of degrowth. Yet there is an effort to popularize the approach, such as in the perplexing slogan found on climate marches – “System Change, Not Climate Change.”           

What, in essence, is degrowth all about? I think nearly all advocates would agree the degrowth concerns an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the national and global levels “- with degrowth starting in the rich countries, but soon including, with technological and monetary assistance, the countries of the global South. Proponents promise a good life for all within the planet’s ecological boundaries.

            One problem with this approach, and the criticism that sparks anger in its adherents, is the improbability of achieving this transformative program within a couple of decades (which is the time we have available). The quandary of degrowth is captured by the ironic slogan that was scrawled on the walls of Paris in 1968: “Be realistic. Demand the Impossible.”

·       “Be realistic”: Degrowth’s central idea is realistic. The idea of infinite growth on a finite planet is absurd.

·       “Demand the impossible”: If terminating growth is essential, and if that necessarily entails the end of capitalism, then we must demand the end of capitalism. However, as a famous Marxist once observed: “ it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

There is, in short, a major political problem with degrowth.

            Consider the dimensions of this problem.

·       Who will vote for degrowth (besides you and me)? Degrowth has a negative connotation. “Post-growth” is more positive, if vague. “Post-capitalism” would scare many people – what actually is proposed? Right-wing populists would feast on the doctrine, were it to be a contender for power. They would swiftly discredit the program as the product of “woke” socialists whose real goal is to abolish private property and impose new taxes and restrictions on liberty. (Trump’s White House condemned even a rather tame version of the Green New Deal in 2019 “as seeking to achieve what Stalin tried, and failed, to achieve.”)

·       Where is the mass movement? Degrowth constitutes an intellectual movement, mainly of those associated with universities throughout the world. The doctrine is complex, assuming prior knowledge of economic history, ecology, and social theory. Many of the major works on the topic are unlikely to engage a mass audience.

·       Degrowth in one country will not work.   It is predictable what will happen if a degrowth-influenced government assumes power. Capital flight and capital strike will lead to a decline in the value of the national or regional currency; the resulting inflation of prices and growing unemployment and shortages will produce an economic crisis; and this economic crisis will precipitate a political crisis in which the government backs down or collapses. What is needed is a globally coordinated movement in several countries at once; but such coordination is hard to achieve and is nowhere in sight.

·       Will an ecological crisis galvanize support for a radical degrowth program? It might. However, we encountered such a crisis in 2023 in the form of extreme weather throughout the world, along with the warmest year on record, and it did not lead to a shift to the left. Indeed, a widespread ecological crisis, owing to the insecurity and fear it would unleash, might bolster the far right. Fascist themes of blood and earth and of imposed order might prevail, together with the scapegoating of migrants fleeing ecological and political disasters in their homelands.

In sum, degrowth is acute in identifying continuous economic growth as a problem, though its further argument that capitalism is inherently growth oriented is problematical. Its vision of a future society governed by the equitable and democratic downscaling of production and consumption is highly attractive. Degrowth advocates have also developed an array of worthy policies. But the political strategy is lacking, even though degrowthers recognize the political challenges.

            If green growth (as previously argued) is inadequate to the climate challenge, degrowth is impracticable. We arrive at an impasse. But this reform-versus-revolution dichotomy is too crude: there is a third alternative (leaving fascist denialism and eco-anarchism aside): a radical-reformist Green New Deal. A later post will develop this idea.


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