A new intellectual renaissance has begun, and it promises to do for the 21st century what the first one did for the 14th: reassert reason over dogma to redefine our collective frame of reference. The difference this time is that the dogma is economic not ecclesiastic, and the stakes for the planet are immeasurably higher.
Degrowth, décroissance in French, traces its intellectual origins to Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who showed that the very act of exploiting the Earth’s finite resources degrades the total store of energy available. In his seminal 1971 book The Entropy Law, he wrote that once a product is made, the energy that went into it becomes transformed and can never be returned to its original state. Even recycled goods show some degree of energy degradation. As more natural energy is transformed by human industry, less “usable” energy is left for future generations. As energy falls, entropy rises, and entropy in this case consists of random, useless energy: waste.
Arresting endless growth does not mean going backward. “A degrowth society project is radically different from negative growth,” writes Serge Latouche, emeritus professor of economy at the University of Paris and one of the lead voices of the décroissance movement. “The first can be compared to an austere therapy that is voluntarily undertaken to improve one’s well-being when we are under the threat of obesity through overconsumption. The second is the forced diet, which can lead to death through famine. It has been said time and time again. There is nothing worse than a growth society without growth.”
The key to achieving this rationalism lies in politicizing our culture to revive the idea of citizenship—ecological citizenship. We currently have corporate determinism, not political leadership; a society of consumers, not of citizens. People are little more than factors of production in a sort of corporatist/Marxist economic dystopia.
By recognizing that unchecked economic growth itself is the problem, degrowth is more mature and rational than the more familiar environmental or enviro-political movements. As Professor Valérie Fournier at the University of Leicester School of Management wrote in the International Journal of Sociology:
“In becoming mainstream, sustainability has been washed out of its more radical questioning of economic models, and especially economic growth … If there is to be any hope of a sustainable future, it is precisely economic growth that needs to be called into question. Sustainable development and ecological modernization only serve to ‘sustain the unsustainable’; they not only absolve major corporations and a capitalist economy of endless growth of environmental responsibilities, but also cast them as the new heroes of sustainability.”
Another improvement over mainstream environmentalism is degrowth’s rejection of populism. In order that it become a mass movement with mechanisms that can link local communities into a broad political movement, degrowth cannot be managed at the local or direct level: “It is for this reason that the Parti pour la Décroissance was created, and that proponents of degrowth support representative democracy. They argue that while direct democracy is appropriate at small local level, it cannot be organized beyond small groups of 50 people, thus excluding the majority of citizens.”
The movement took a major step forward in April 2008 when more than 140 international researchers in economics and the natural and social sciences met in Paris for the inaugural conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity.
The logic of degrowth is impeccable, and we deny it at our peril. Latouche put our choice best in the title of one of his essays: “Degrowth, whether you like it or not.”