Why is the concept of « degrowth » taboo?

Article publié le 25 novembre 2022

Text: Isma Le Dantec.

Against the backdrop of a major climate and energy crisis, decision-makers of all stripes are encouraging us to be tempered in our consumption patterns, yet one taboo remains: a potential degrowth. In a system in which growth has been the raison d’être, how we can enable ourselves to change the paradigm? A brief overview of those who have laid the groundwork for this line of thought and their arguments.

Up until now, the subject of degrowth had been confined to a small circle of activists, philosophers, and alternative economists, but during the last presidential campaign, it made itself heard. During the French primaries for the EELV party [Europe écologie les verts (Europe Ecology – The Greens Party)], Delphine Batho tirelessly carried the banner for this idea. The former Minister of Ecology under François Hollande and current president of Génération Ecologie [Ecology Generation] has made it her political rallying cry, « because degrowth is what differentiates ecologists from all other political forces, which have in common their support of economic growth, in other words, of continuing the destruction, » she argued in Rennes on September 9, 2021.
While Yannick Jadot – who is less supportive of degrowth – won the EELV primaries, the ecologists’ « 2022 project » included many related points in their proposal, for instance, « to put commercial advertising back in its place » by reducing its share in the public space, and to « decarbonize transportation » by eliminating tax breaks on airplane or freight truck fuel. These measures had all already been recommended in 2020 by the 150 citizens selected at random at the Climate Convention, and adopted, in part, by the government.
But when discussing degrowth, the government instead invokes it as a threat. « With degrowth, there will be less wealth and more poor people. Either that or impoverish everyone through an egalitarian logic that I do not condone, » responded Bruno Le Maire in a January 27th debate with Delphine Batho organized by Le Monde. « Opting for degrowth is not an answer to climate challenge, » refuted Emmanuel Macron before the members of the Climate Convention, after poking fun at the « Amish model » and the « return of the oil lamp » in front of the 70 elected officials of the Left who had called for a moratorium on 5G in 2019. In early July, Elisabeth Borne declared her « ecological radicalism » in a general policy speech to the Assembly, stating right off the bat: « I do not believe that the climate revolution will happen through degrowth. On the contrary, the ecological revolution we want to lead is through innovation. »

A « Bullet Word »

Degrowth provokes such hostile reactions that even Jean-Marc Jancovici, the alleged apostle of the subject, equivocates to avoid using the term. The engineer has become one of the main spokespersons for degrowth in France in recent years, particularly since his talk titled « CO2 or GDP, » which reached 1.7 million views on the Internet. « The world in which we live, » he argues, « is a finite world, and to believe that the energy resources we have today will always be available is to delude ourselves. » And yet, when a journalist from Ouest France asked him, in May 2022, what a world in economic degrowth might look like, he replied: « I don’t like to talk about degrowth. I prefer to talk about a shrinking world, or a more sober one. »

« The proponents of degrowth […] aim to exit capitalism and find another way to ensure human progress. Specifically through the mechanisms of wealth redistribution and social solidarity. »

Unlike Jean-Marc Jancovici’s malleable and conventional lexical field of sobriety, the lexical field of degrowth is divisive, attractive, frightening, provocative, and causes people to react without even getting into the details of what the term implies. It is a « bullet word, » as Paul Ariès has noted. The use of the term is frightening, because « capitalism is a system of accumulation that works a bit like a bicycle… that is, if it stops moving forward, the system collapses. In order to function, » adds the political scientist, « the capitalist system requires evermore production and consumption. » André Gorz, another great thinker of degrowth, agrees: « To the majority of people, growth represents the promise – though entirely illusory – that they will one day cease to be underprivileged, and non-growth, their condemnation to hopeless mediocrity.«  And indeed, it is almost certain that a degrowth program, were it applied rigorously and overnight in a single country, would lead to a contraction of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the most widely used index of wealth. But the proponents of degrowth, who are critical of this index, aim to exit capitalism and find another way to ensure human progress, specifically through the mechanisms of wealth redistribution and social solidarity.

Step One: Accept the Limits of Growth

While degrowth was, at first, a deliberately provocative slogan designed to clearly distinguish itself from the idea of sustainable development, it has since given way to many related and interconnected political and economic ideas. Its most complete and succinct definition is probably that given by the economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel: « Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource throughput designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being. »

Timothée Parrique, an economist and the author of a dissertation on the subject, agrees with this definition. For him, getting away from preconceived ideas and seriously considering degrowth means accepting the postulate of the limits of growth. There are, first of all, ecological limits: « Infinite growth is not possible in a finite world, because the more we produce, the more we extract and pollute. There is talk of green growth, but this concept is nothing but a theoretical hypothesis without any supporting empirical evidence, despite more than three decades of experimentation, » he explains. And then there are economic limits, since so-called developed economies have seen their growth rates slow down for the past several decades. But this is not so concerning: « After all, living organisms rarely grow forever. An economy is sort of the same: economic growth is only one stage in the development of a society. Stubbornly striving for unlimited growth is not development, it’s bulimia, » he adds.
Infinite growth would therefore not only be improbable, but undesirable. One might think that even if growth incurs certain social and environmental costs, it is worth the effort. And yet, it has been proven that growth does not reduce inequality; more often than not, it increases it, argues Thomas Piketty in Capital and Ideology (English translation published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2020; originally published by Editions du Seuil, 2019). Does growth make people happy? Some empirical studies indicate that it does, but only up to a certain point that is largely exceeded in Western countries. « Growth can even backfire on well-being by having a negative impact on social relations, because of workaholism, for example, » observed Timothée Parrique.

A Term That Appeared in the 1970s

These reflections on the limits to growth and the possibility of a paradigm shift originate from the Meadows Report published in 1972 by the Club of Rome, an international think tank. Entitled The Limits to Growth (translated in French as Halte à la croissance ?), this document predicts the inevitable collapse of a civilization whose population, economic activity, and environmental impacts are in perpetual growth. Based on the study of a number of indicators, the authors of the report demonstrate that « the basic behavior mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital. » According to their findings, this era will inevitably be « followed by a collapse » if « we assume no change in the present system or if we assume any number of technological changes in the system. »

« What is at stake is not the curtailing of all forms of evolution, as the fervent proponents of infinite growth are wont to suggest, but rather a reconsideration of the balance. »

Clearly, the finiteness of the Earth – in which natural resources and habitable and agricultural areas are limited – will prevent us from benefiting in the long term from a permanent growth in population, economy, and the exploitation of these resources. The authors therefore recommend that rich countries put a brake on growth in order to achieve a global and stable balance. Developing countries, on the other hand, should continue to grow to cover their essential needs until they too reach a level of equilibrium.
In looking at these early formulations of degrowth thinking, it becomes clear that what is at stake is not the curtailing of all forms of evolution, as the fervent proponents of infinite growth are wont to suggest, but rather a reconsideration of the balance. It is not only a matter of « de-« , but also of « re-« : re-evaluating, reconceptualizing, restructuring, relocating, redistributing, reducing, reusing, recycling. It is through these « 8 Rs » that Serge Latouche, professor emeritus of economics and « pope » of degrowth, analyzes the concept.

Problematic Biases

Degrowth implies such an exit, even if only imaginary, from everything that governs the present world, that it is often easier to criticize it than to give it a chance. An apologia for recession, an embrace of widespread impoverishment… degrowth is often misunderstood, leading thinkers to define it, at first, by dismissing what it is not.
This was what Paul Ariès attempted to do in his text, « Their Recession Is Not Our Degrowth, » published during the 2008 financial crisis. He states: « Degrowth does not mean doing the same thing with less, or with much less, it means doing something else altogether: reconnecting with a concrete utopia… Thus, it is not by learning to tighten our belts that we will solve both the social and the environmental crises, but by once again becoming users who master our own ways. »
Another common misperception among the detractors of degrowth is that it is opposed to all development. « Those who castigate degrowth for its supposed anti-innovation stance are not making a distinction between innovation and progress, » remarks Timothée Parrique. Indeed, innovation may not be progress, or at least not progress for all. « For example, innovations in terms of tax optimization are a solution for companies to pay less taxes, but a problem for the State, which receives less taxes, » he says.

Timothée Parrique : « Growth is an excuse for delaying the redistribution of wealth. »

Degrowth might also raise a legitimate concern: injustice against the most disadvantaged, both on an individual and a global scale. Under what pretext could those who have, until now, shamelessly profited from and sucked the planet’s resources dry tell the most precarious to stop dreaming of prosperity? In reality, the proponents of degrowth clearly state that it is rich countries that need to degrow, following the example of France, whose carbon footprint must be decreased at least fivefold in the next 30 years.
To support this argument, in the September 2020 issue of Lancet Planetary Health, Jason Hickel showed that most of the ecological degradation is due to excessive consumption by countries in the North, with disproportionate consequences for countries in the South. This is true both for greenhouse gas emissions and for material extraction, he explains. The added value of his study is that it provides precise figures for the historical responsibility of each country: according to his calculations, Western countries are responsible for 92% of global CO2 emissions. « Growth is an excuse for delaying the redistribution of wealth, » states Timothée Parrique, reminding us that the trickle-down theory, according to which the enrichment of the wealthiest has positive consequences for the most disadvantaged, has been empirically disproven.

A Tool for Imagining Other Possibilities

In closing, despite the bias more generally associated with ecology, degrowth is not a depressing project, an abandonment of all pleasure, or a sacrifice of all comfort. It is for this reason that we must allow ourselves to imagine other possibilities, to think outside the established framework: what would happen if we replaced the notions of competitiveness and productivity with cooperation, the distribution of tasks, chosen time, and social utility? Would we be more unhappy? In a system of degrowth, our main asset could be the time we are free to use as we wish. To take care of each other, to participate in a collective project, to learn, to take the time to travel, to be creative, to pursue a passion…
Degrowth is not just deconstructing, despite what the term might suggest, but the introduction of a new paradigm Timothée Parrique attempts to outline, with recourse to three foundational ideas: autonomy, sufficiency, and care. « Autonomy is a principle of freedom that promotes temperance, self-management, and direct democracy. Sufficiency is a principle of distributive justice that affirms that everyone, today and tomorrow, should have enough to satisfy their needs, and that no one should have too much, given ecological limitations. Care is a principle of non-exploitation and non-violence that promotes solidarity with humans and animals, » he details. Far from the « Green Khmers » and « Amish oil lamps » that are brandished as a threat or ridiculed, because god forbid anything should change, we have at our fingertips something here is something that would make us want to give the otherwise a chance.

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