On April 27, we welcome our members at the General Assembly and interact with them on a topical theme: “growth versus degrowth?”. The debate is not new, but flares up again in the current context of climate change and sustainability challenges.  

The WEF (World Economic Forum) has already put it on its agenda: should we advocate shrinking rather than growing economies? Can we use less of the world’s energy and resources and put wellbeing ahead of profit? Advocates and opponents are heard. Also the European authorities are interested in the "post-growth" era and organise a conference entitled “Beyond Growth” in May. They will address questions such as :  what narrative do we need to guide progress towards a European Union that aims to prosper, rather than to grow? What governance structures do we need to deal with today’s interlinked, social and economic challenges and ensure that all policy areas contribute to the EU’s common objectives? 

For sure, the choice of this year’s theme is our shot at the big time. In preview of our panel discussion we offer a sneak peek about the current situation of the degrowth movement in the academic literature [1]. 


The history : MIT and Lyon as the birthplaces 

1972: does it ring a bell?  

It has marked the beginning of a global debate on the implications of continued worldwide growth following the publication of the book “Limits to Growth”. The latter reports the findings of a study on the exponential economic and population growth with finite supply of resources by an international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [2]. In the same period the term “décroissance” (later translated in English as degrowth) was coined by the Austrian-French social philosopher André Gorz, but it took another 30 years for the “degrowth movement” to take off in Lyon. 

Since the early 2000s, the topic has attracted more and more attention from scientists, activists, politicians and practitioners. In fact, more than 100 academic papers have been published, books have been written, conferences are held, international  press eagerly reports recent developments and tweets are used to voice provoking statements. Important to set things straight from the beginning: the ‘degrowth’ debate does not focus solely on the ecological limits of growth but also tackles the social limits of growth.  

Degrowth: What's in a name? 

Review of the literature reveals that ‘degrowth’ is not defined in a consistent manner, making it very complex to grasp what degrowth currently entails. Influential [3] authors  define degrowth for example as “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, in the short and long term”. Others [4]  as “the democratic transition to a society that – in order to enable global ecological justice – is based on a much smaller throughput of energy and resources, that deepens democracy and guarantees a good life and social justice for all, and that does not depend on continuous expansion” 

Yet, there seems to be a common understanding that degrowth is not a synonym for negative growth (economic recession) nor is it a goal in itself. Degrowth also goes beyond the a-growth perspective, what implies ignoring GDP as an indicator of social welfare. Overall, degrowth is a quest for building, in a voluntary way, a better society and creating a new “post-development” pattern that is socially just and within ecological limits. 

Proposals for action

Academic literature puts forward various degrowth proposals that can be categorized according to three ecological economics policy objectives:  

Goal 1: Sustainable scale: reduce the environmental impact of human activities;  

Goal 2: Fair distribution: redistribute income and wealth both within and between countries; and  

Goal 3: Efficient allocation: promote the transition from a materialistic to a convivial and participatory society. 

Detailed analysis of these policy proposals reveal that the most emphasised strategy to reach goal 1 is resource use ; goal 2 is access to goods and services and goal 3 is voluntary simplicity and downshifting.  

More recent work reveals 6 pathways to make it happen [5] 

  • Pathway n°1: Democratization, solidarity economy, and communing : to contain and dismantle the high concentration of economic power in a few corporations” and “enable all people to participate in economic activities” 

  • Pathway n°2: Social security, redistribution, and caps on income and wealth 

  • Pathway n°3: Convivial and democratic technology : “Which technology should society use? And for what, by whom, how, and how much of it? And who decides?”  

  • Pathway n°4: Revalorization and redistribution of labour : to reduce “bullshit jobs” (that are useless) and “batshit jobs” (that are harmful) and liberate time for more meaningful activities 

  • Pathway n°5: Democratizing social metabolism : to deliberate on what should grow and what should degrow. 

  • Pathway n°6: International solidarity : degrowth in richest countries to enable sustainable prosperity in poorest nations. 


Concluding remarks 

In general, the analysis reveals that the degrowth literature is more focused on social equity than on environmental sustainability. Perhaps not surprisingly given the connection of degrowth with social grassroots movements that try to raise awareness about alternative lifestyles that can be more sustainable.  

In addition, a striking observation is that many of the academic proposals suggest a high(er) level of state intervention (e.g. caps, taxes, and regulations) to pursue a degrowth transition. This contradicts the need for voluntary and democratic downshift, put forward by many degrowth proponents, viewing civil society as an active agent of change. Consequently, this stresses the importance of discussing the relationship between democracy and degrowth. 

Finally, despite the substantial amount of literature, some issues are only partially tackled, or are rather blurred, while others issues are neglected such as population growth, geopolitics and imperialism, and information technology … 


What’s next? 

The insights from literature can be very powerful, but how do they translate in practice? How should a board of directors approach this topic? We will share these findings with our speakers and are looking forward to their views during their short expert talks. Afterwards an interactive discussion will take place based on your input and questions. 

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  • Bruno Colmant

    C’est un cri d’alarme que pousse Bruno Colmant dans son dernier livre “Une brûlante inquiétude”. 

    Selon lui le néolibéralisme et ses promesses de prospérité partagée auxquelles il a cru, nous ont  anesthésié. Des pans entiers de la population se détournent des institutions démocratiques un peu partout dans le monde. Les riches contre les pauvres. Que signifient ces colères populaires? 

  • Valerie Trouet

    Tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet: “Climate science isn't always about breaking the bad news” 

  • Geert Noels

    "'Degrowth' is complete nonsens, we hebben 'Regrowth' nodig. De groei van de toekomst zal gedreven worden door clean tech en oplossingen voor de problemen van vandaag."