Degrowth: social change beyond the planet’s limits

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Please cite the paper as:
Mercedes MARTINEZ-IGLESIAS and Ernest GARCIA, (2012), Degrowth: social change beyond the planet’s limits, World Economics Association (WEA) Conferences, No. 2 2012, Sustainability – Missing Points in the Development Dialogue, 24th September to 21st October, 2012



The perception that we have already entered a necessarily transitional phase of overshoot, beyond the planet’s limits, has become a central subject, which is growing in quantity and impact, in the literature about the present environmental predicament of humanity. This view believes the collapse of industrial civilization to be possible in the near future and revisits, from this perspective, the fate of different societies in the past. The discussion about the scope and possible social effects of a “degrowth”, decline, or way-down is intense. Degrowth ideas have spread to the point of questioning the promises of sustainable development which, after the Rio summit in 1992, dominated the discourse on the possible response to environmental and social problems. The rationale for such a questioning is clear-cut: if population and the economy are truly beyond the limits, then current visions and theories of social change would be deeply perturbed; if the development era is approaching its end, then many sociological theories on current societies will share the same destiny, sustainable development doctrines between them. But visions of degrowth are also plural, with significant frictions drawing potential inner lines of division. The most important one separates those who associate degrowth to a total catastrophic collapse of civilization (the die-off, the rapid return to the Olduvai Gorge, to the prehistoric origin of the human species) from those who associate it with the continuity of wellbeing (defending the idea of a more or less prosperous way-down).

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2 responses

  • petersoderbaum says:

    Thank you for an excellent paper. The degrowth discourse focusing on “adjusting the population and physical scale” certainly adds to the dialogue about the future. You are criticizing the mainstream interpretation of sustainable development as GDP-growth subject to ‘modernization’ using new technology etc. and I agree. But we can also think and argue in terms of other interpretations of ‘sustainable’ and ‘unsustainable’ development and the demands for action that follow. Rather than “business as usual” we may refer to a need for radical change in visions and institutional arrangements. “Degrowth” can then be understood as an essential element in such a radical interpretation of sustainable development.
    In your paper reference is made to”small is beautiful” and the need for utopias to deal with the present crisis. But you do not discuss much the ‘drivers’ behind present unsustainable development. Mainstream economics and mainstream ideology are among the candidates since these perspectives make present unsustainable behaviour and patterns legitimate. Should we not include mainstream and alternative paradigms in economics as well as mainstream and alternative ideological orientations in our discourses?
    Peter Söderbaum

    • Mercedes Martinez-Iglesias & Ernest Garcia says:

      Thank you very much for your insightful comment. We agree that mainstream and alternative paradigms in economics must be discussed. But we are sociologists and we consider social change mainly under a social and cultural focus. In our view, we can contribute that to the debate, not else. Anyway, we will try to react to your suggestion by saying a few words about economic ideas.

      From our position as outsiders, we perceive three basic positions in the debate about development and sustainability, which can be summarized as follows:
      1) Sustainable development as sustained growth. Expansion of production and consumption should then be maintained, together with the consolidation of affluent culture and lifestyles. Reduction of inequality tends to be delayed until a wealthier future (only the growth permits redistribution). Global scale dependence tends to be strengthened. Technological innovation should assure solutions to eventual scarcities or pollution crises.
      2) Sustainable development as qualitative improvement without increase in the physical scale, that is to say, as evolution of a homeostatic, steady-state or zero-growth economy. In most of its versions, state intervention should guarantee the generalized satisfaction of basic needs in a context of global interdependence. Transition to a solar age would drastically reduce the consumption of non-renewable resources, thus allowing many inter-resource substitutions.
      3) Sustainability is always uncertain, submitted to the permanent necessity of adapting in random conditions. In order to gain flexibility, societies should liberate themselves from considering development as an objective instead of a means (in some versions, development is seen as being the cause of both poverty and environmental degradation). More integration of the economy into natural cycles should permit a fair satisfaction of basic needs. Sufficiency as a cultural regulator, and egalitarian community institutions interconnected by middle intensity relations complete the picture.

      Appropriate labels for these three views can be, respectively: sustainable growth, steady-state, and degrowth. The basic economic theses for each of these views can be synthesized this way:
      Sustainable growth:
      – Vision of sustainable development: sustainable development as a new, “environmentally aware”, expansive phase of the present industrial era.
      – Sustainability criterion: weak sustainability (intergenerational transmission of a constant or growing amount of natural ‘capital’ plus man-made capital).
      – Technology: high replaceability of natural resources by man-made capital.
      – Accounting: monetary calculation of environmental externalities, integrated accounting.
      – Social structure: only the growth permits some redistribution and reduction of poverty.

      – Vision of sustainable development: sustainable development as a new historic era of qualitative improvement without increasing the physical dimension.
      – Sustainability criterion: strong sustainability (intergenerational transmission of a constant amount of natural resources).
      – Technology: low replaceability of natural resources by capital, high replaceability of non-renewable by renewable.
      – Accounting: accountancy of the natural heritage in physical magnitudes, optimum scale calculations.
      – Social structure: equity by redistribution (centralized).

      – Vision of sustainable development: sustainable development as a self-contradictory concept (similar to the perpetual mobile or the immortal organism).
      – Sustainability criterion: quasi-sustainability as slowing-down and scaling-down (parsimonious use of the resources with a view not to speeding up the unavoidable entropic degradation).
      – Technology: low replaceability of natural resources by capital; heterogeneity and, therefore, limited replaceability of natural resources by natural resources..
      – Accounting: political ecology, valuation of resources through social conflict.
      – Social structure: different forms of communitarian egalitarianism.

      It is an ideal typology. A sort of Weberian ideal types. Our opinion is that basic pre-theoretical options (growth, zero-growth, degrowth) tend to appear in association with the abovementioned theses, as well as other cultural traits, narratives, etc., to which we don’t refer here.

      Sustainable growth is mainstream. Steady-state and degrowth are alternative.

      Following Georgescu-Roegen, we don’t think these two alternative views can be fully unified. Analyzing the implications of an article by Georgescu-Roegen (“The steady-state and ecological salvation: a thermodynamic analysis”, BioScience, 27(4): 266-271, 1977) could be relevant for the objectives of this conference. Georgescu-Roegen’s criticism of the steady-state concept was based on the assertion that the inevitable entropic degradation of materials (the irrevocable dissipation caused by the use -a phenomenic point raised by Georgescu-Roegen himself on the condition of a “fourth law of thermodynamics”) made complete recycling impossible and, accordingly, also rendered impossible the indefinite extension of a steady state economy driven by renewable energy sources. And so, in the end, the steady state would also be unsustainable. We’ll try to contribute something along this line in a separate comment to the very interesting Charonis’s paper on alternative discourses.

      We totally agree with the assertion that mainstream economics and mainstream ideology are candidates to be considered as part of the ‘drivers’ behind present unsustainable development because they legitimate present unsustainable behaviour and patterns. Material drivers of unsustainable development are demographic growth, economic growth, and hard, high impact technical mega-systems (the pseudo-equation of environmental impact by Ehrlich and Holdren is always useful in this context). Demographic transition doctrine legitimates population growth. Modernization and development doctrines legitimate economic growth. Faith in progress legitimates new technologies, despite their factual impacts. Population control, degrowth, and convivial technologies are the corresponding alternative criteria.

      Finally, we can’t imagine any way to understand degrowth as an element of sustainable development. According to our view, the degrowth approach is characterized:
      – on the one hand, by the insistence that a situation of overshoot is unsustainable and therefore transitory and,
      – on the other hand, by the understanding that we therefore have to look for answers to social and political problems outside of the development paradigm.

      This point of view has theoretical grounds [mainly the bioeconomics of Georgescu-Roegen and the philosophy of Ivan Illich, also incorporating elements from the historical and anthropological critique of development (Rist), doctrines of post-development (Rahnema and Bawtree) and other sources].

      It has empirical grounds too: all data indicating overshoot. Global ecological footprint. Peak oil. Deterioration of 2/3 of ecosystems services. Stress related to food and freshwater. Overstepped planetary boundaries: rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, interference with the nitrogen cycle.

      Only a very radical lecture of sustainable development (increasing ecoefficiency in a steady-state economics which is the sustainable outcome of a degrowth phase) could reconcile both concepts, but in our view it would be too artificial.

      Thank you again for your cutting, stimulating comments.