Renewable Matter # 10 / May-June

You're Wrong Kate. Degrowth is a Compelling Word

by Giorgos Kallis

Today, the ideology of degrowth is more popular than ever. This is why – replies Giorgos Kallis to Kate Raworth – it is still useful to talk about degrowth: it reminds us that you can’t have your cake and eat it.


My friend Kate Raworth “cannot bring herself to use the word” degrowth. Here are nine reasons why I use it.

1. Clear definition. “Degrowth” is as clear as it gets. Definitely no less clear than “equality”; or “economic growth” for that matter (is it growth of welfare or activity? monetised or all activity? if only monetised, why would we care?). Beyond a critique of the absurdity of perpetual growth, degrowth signifies a decrease of global carbon and material footprint, starting from the wealthy.

The “green growth camp” also wants such a decrease, but it argues that GDP growth is necessary for – or compatible with – it. Degrowth, not: in all likelihood GDP will decrease too. If we do the right things to thrive, such as capping carbon, if we transform the profit economy to one of care and solidarity, the GDP economy will shrink. Kate too calls for “an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows” and to “free ourselves” from the growth “lock-in”. The Germans named this “post-growth” and I am fine with it. But somehow it beautifies the scale of the challenge: reducing our energy or material use in half and transforming and stabilizing a shrinking (not simply “not growing”) economy. With its shock element “de”-growth reminds that we won’t have our cake and eat it all. 

2. Right conversations with the right people. Know this feeling “what am I doing with these people in the same room?” Hearing the words “win-win” and looking at graphs where society, environment and economy embrace one another in loving triangles as markets internalize “externalities” (sic)? Well, you won’t be invited to these rooms if you throw the missile of degrowth. And this is good. Marx wouldn’t be concerned with sitting at the table with capitalists to convince them about communism.

Why pretend we agree? I’ve never had a boring or confusing conversation about degrowth (witness the present one). Passions run high, core questions are raised (did we loose something with progress? what is in the past for the future? is system change possible and how?). But to have these conversations you need to know about – and defend – degrowth.

3. Mission un-accomplished. Kate asks us to imagine that the “missile” “has landed and it has worked!. Problem is the missile has landed, but it hasn’t worked, so it is not yet “the time to move on”. Microsoft spellcheck keeps correcting degrowth into “regrowth.” Degrowth is anathema to the right and left. Economists turn ash-faced when they hear “degrowth.” Eco-modernists capture the headlines with a cornucopian future powered by nuclear and fed by GMOs. A recent book calls degrowthers “Malthusians”, eco-austerians and “collapse porn addicts.” A radical party like Syriza had as slogan “growth or austerity.” The ideology of growth is stronger than ever. In the 70s its critique was widespread, politicians entertained it and at least economists felt they had to respond.

4. There is a vibrant community and this is an irreversible fact. In Barcelona 20-30 of us meet frequently to read and discuss degrowth, cook and drink, go to forests and to protests. We disagree in almost everything other than that degrowth brings us together. In the fourth international conference in Leipzig, there were 3,500 participants. Most of them were students. After the closing plenary, they took to the shopping streets with a music band, raised placards against consumerism and blocked a coal factory. Young people from all over the world want to study degrowth in Barcelona. If you experience this incredible energy, you find that degrowth is a beautiful word. But I understand the difficulty of using it in a different context: Half a year a visitor in London and I feel I am the odd and awkward one insisting on degrowth.

5. I come from the Mediterranean. Progress looks different; civilization there peaked centuries ago. Serge Latouche says that “degrowth is seen as negative, something unpardonable in a society where at all costs one must ‘think positively’.” “Be positive” is a North-American invention. Please, let us be “negative.” I can’t take all that happiness. Grief, sacrifice, care, honour: life is not all about feeling “better.” For Southerners at heart – be it from the Global North or South, East or West – this idea of constant betterment and improvement has always seemed awkward. Wasting ourselves and our products irrationally, refusing to improve and be “useful.” has its allure. Denying our self-importance is an antidote to a Protestant ethic at the heart of growth. Let’s resist the demand to be positive!

6. I am not a linguist. Who am I to question Professor Lakoff that we can’t tell people “don’t think of an elephant!” because they will think of one? Then again, a-theists did pretty well in their battle against gods. And so did those who wanted to abolish slavery. Or, unfortunately, conservatives for “deregulation.” By turning something negative into their rallying cry, they disarmed the taken-for-granted goodness of the claim of their enemy. The queer movement turned an insult into pride. This is the art of subversion. Is there a linguistic theory for it?

This is different from what Lakoff criticized US democrats for. Democrats accept the frame of Republicans, providing softer alternatives (“less austerity”). “Green growth” is that; degrowth is a subversive negation of growth: a snail, not a leaner elephant. Guardian’s language columnist Steven Poole finds degrowth “cute”. When most people agree with him, and find the snail cute, we will be on the path of a “great transition.”

7. Cannot be co-opted. Buen vivir sounds great. Who wouldn’t like to “live well”? And indeed Latin Americans took it at heart: the Brazil-Ecuador inter-Amazonian highway with implanted “creative cities” in-between; Bolivia’s nuclear power programme; and a credit card in Venezuela. All in the name of buen vivir. Which reminds me of “Ubuntu Cola.” No one would build a highway, a nuclear reactor, issue more credit or sell colas in the name of degrowth. As George Monbiot put it capitalism can sell everything, but not less. Could degrowth be coopted by austerians? Plausible, but unlikely; austerity is always justified for the sake of growth. Capitalism looses legitimacy without growth. By anti-immigrants? Scary, but not impossible, it has been tried in France. This is why we cannot abandon the term: we have to develop and defend its content.

8. It is not an end. It is as absurd to degrow ad infinitum as it is to grow. The point is to abolish the god of Growth and construct a different society with low footprints. There is a “lighthouse” for this: the Commons. A downscaled commons though. Peer-to-peer production or the sharing economy use materials and electricity too. Degrowth reminds that you cannot have your cake and eat it all, even if it’s a digitally fabricated one.

9. Focuses my research. I spend effort arguing with eco-modernists, green growthers, growth economists, or Marxist developmentalists about the (un)sustainability of growth. This persistence to defend degrowth is productive: it forces to research questions that no one else asks. Sure, we can in theory use fewer materials; but then why do material footprints still grow? What would work, social security, money, look like in an economy that contracts? One who is convinced of green growth won’t ask these questions. Kate is not; she agrees with our 10 degrowth policy proposals: work-sharing, debt jubilee, public money, basic income. Why in the name of degrowth though she asks? Because we cannot afford to be agnostic. It makes a huge difference, both for research and design, whether you approach these as means of stimulus and growth anew or of managing and stabilizing degrowth.

Degrowth remains a necessary word.