If continued growth is not sustainable, would its opposite – degrowth – be the right alternative?

Generally speaking, degrowth is an economic, social and political movement promoting a decrease of both the production and the consumption (thus rejecting the widespread idea of the necessity of “growth for growth’s” sake) with the goal to improve human well being, increase social equity and safeguard ecological conditions.

The first appearance of the actual term in the economic theories dates back to the ‘70s with Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 1971) who stated: “The human activity transforms energy and materials of low entropy or good quality into waste and pollution which are unusable and have high entropy. Degrowth could slow down this process of material degradation”.

Other important theoric signposts are represented by: the output of the Club of Rome (Meadows, D. et al. The Limits to Growth, 1972: an exponential increase in the use of limited resources would soon deplete them no matter how big the reserves are); Herman Daly (Toward a Steady-State Economy, 1973; Steady State Economics, 1977; and Beyond growth, 1996) provides that the economy should “conform to the rules of a steady state – seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth.”

Theories turned into activist movements after year 2000, with Serge Latouche’s thinking inspiring most of these initiatives. He started publishing articles on “Le Monde diplomatique” since 2003 and published the book “Le Pari de la Decroissance” in 2006.

I was curious to check what was happening in my context/country. Well, In Italy there is the presence of various associations and organizations: Associazione per la Decrescita set up in 2004, Decrescita Felice Social Network, and the Movimento Decrescita Felice who are mainly supporting Latouche’s ideas. These concepts found a political outlet in the M5S Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) who even got the third place at the Italian elections at the beginning of 2013.

Reading about all the degrowth theories and the proposals of the degrowth movements, I actually found myself agreeing on some of them, especially when they call for a focus on quality rather than on quantity, for the need of implementing non-monetary indicators to measure the degree of development and well-being of a country and for their will to pursue an economic system respectful of the earth’s biological capacity.

Yet, how could a widespread degrowth affect the urgent development challenges we have to face as of today at a time when “the poorest one-third of humanity still needs to considerably increase its consumption to achieve a decent quality of life”?

Quoting Amartya Sen (Nobel prize in economics 1998) “Development is to expand people’s freedom by removing restrictions that limit their ability to make free choices…”. Development is not only about Growth but it requires a number of mechanisms to “enlarge people’s choices and enhance human capabilities (the range of things people can be and do) and freedoms” (UNDP).

Næss (professor at the Danish Aalborg University) points out the risk that degrowth policies without proper redistribution mechanisms will have negative impacts on poorer parts of society. It would be necessary to target overconsuming societies but also adopt “regulations to ensure a gradually more fair and equitable distribution of wealth and income between the inhabitants locally, nationally and – through UN adopted international taxes and distribution mechanisms – between nations”.

The European Commission warns about possible consequences of degrowth on increased unemployment unless adequate preparation and conditions are set up.

Prof. Cornia (member of the Committee for Development Policies at the United Nations) criticizes Latouche’s idea that the rich countries need to degrowth to make room for poorer countries: “we are intertwined with those less developed countries: we import raw materials from them, so if we reduce the consumption of our goods it is necessary to implement policies to increase the prices of what they exported, otherwise they will be in even more trouble.”

In the same direction, I find extreme the degrowth idea that Southern societies should look for disentanglement from Northern countries to cut their dependency and that it is necessary to pursue food sovereignty, energy independence, relocalisation of economies (to reduce costs and pollution of goods transport).

Just with these few examples it is clear that there are many challenges and controversies about a sudden switch to degrowth and its impact on development.

A degrowth approach would require profound and radical changes both voluntary from individuals, as well as new policies at country levels. And it should be global, change the values, and modify the consumption patterns: not something you can solve with a decree, you need education and a long process.

And changes are difficult. A partial picture of how much individuals are willing to change the market rules and move towards cooperation rather than competition is shown by the result of the recent referendum in Switzerland that rejected a proposal to set a threshold to executives’ pay of 12 times the salary of junior employees…

So, if continued growth is not sustainable (see my previous blog post on this) and degrowth is more a long term process, what to do in the meanwhile? Maybe apply a mix of the two? Or an effective sustainable development policy? To tackle the pressing development issues we need all the possible resources. These can come also from profitable growing businesses if managed sustainably and with the focus on CSR strategies.

Let’s see if the next degrowth conference in Leipzig in September 2014 (the 4th of its kind since the 1st one held in 2008 in Barcelona) will offer more alternatives or clearer options. Now, let’s take a look at this video to relax and think whether – for each of us – slowing down could be feasible and beneficial.

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