The concept of degrowth has been described 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 (Schneider et al., 2010). Critiques of growth began to be vocalised in the environmental and counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s. With French roots, ‘Décroissance’ was coined in 1979 by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in a book entitled Demain la decroissance (Tomorrow, degrowth). Other influential works critical of economic growth were published in the 1970s: Ivan Illich, Barry Commoner and André Gorz, are well-known authors of that decade. Essentially five different and overlapping sources are identified as having driven the conception and development of degrowth: ecological economics/bioeconomics; ecologists/environmentalists; cultural diversity/post-development; democracy/critical politics and spirituality/voluntary simplicity (Schneider et al., 2010).
Degrowth has now become a political, economic and social movement based on environmentalist, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas. It can be described as a galaxy of people willing to experiment with or advocate alternative ways of co-existing with the goal of maximizing happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means: reducing work time, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community. These experiments occur at three levels: individual, collective/communal and political. At the individual level, degrowth is achieved by voluntary simplicity. Conviviality and slowness are endorsed through collective projects (e.g. slow food, transition towns). Proposals for global solutions involve the relocalisation of economic activities in order to end humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels and reduce its ecological imprint.
Despite improvements in the ecological efficiency of the production and consumption of goods and services, global economic growth has led to increased extraction of natural resources and waste/emissions. Moreover, unequal exchange in trade and financial markets has increased inequality between countries.
Degrowth proponents aim to reduce the global ecological footprint to a sustainable level, through decreased and different production/consumption in the ‘global North’, and increased and different production/consumption in the ‘global South’. Whether degrowth can be achieved through individual, local or networked activities remains an open question, as does how institutions could or should be transformed to support sustainable degrowth. Many partisans of degrowth see it as leading in due course to a steady-state economy as proposed by Herman Daly in 1973.
Schneider, Francois, Giorgos Kallis and Joan Martinez-Alier (2010) Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability, Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, 511-518.
For further reading:
Declaration of the Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18-19 April 2008: http://events.itsudparis.eu/degrowthconference/Declaration%20on%20Degrowth%20EN.pdf
Daly, H. ed. (1973) Toward a Steady State Economy, San Francisco
Kerschner, C. (2010). Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 544-551.
O’Neill, DW. (in press) Measuring progress in the degrowth transition to a steady state economy. Ecological Economics [Accessed November 13 from http://degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/oneill_degrowth-transition-to-a-steady-state-economy.pdf ].
Research and Degrowth [http://www.degrowth.org/]
This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Tom Bauler
EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos