Pozo Julia (Fabero, 2023). Foto: Jorge Riechmann.
Pozo Julia (Fabero, 2023). Foto: Jorge Riechmann.

A (friendly) critique of the Degrowth movement. An outline


In aliis linguis

(The following text is an outline of the main themes in a longer text by the author, published at his site, which he has sent us with the aim of opening the discussion.)

1. The term Degrowth is not a good descriptor for the movement that has emerged

The movement is asserting a wild variety of criticisms of and alternatives to the present globalised, industrialised, urbanised, financialised, neo-liberal, sexist, grotesquely unequal, extractivist, imperialist etc. world order. Many of these actually have nothing to do with the reduction of economic growth, or could easily be implemented within an economy that continues to be about growth, such as monetary reform, making trade more equitable, housing justice, patriarchy, curbing advertising, fairer taxes, reducing debt, indigenous rights, and decolonisation.

Thus the term Degrowth has become “… a rag-bag of utopian dreams”. A more accurate title might be the “Finally Fed Up With Capitalism” movement. This is highly desirable because it shows that discontent with consumer-capitalist society is finally coming to the boil.

2. The literature does not recognise the magnitude of the degrowth required to achieve a sustainable and just society

There is a strong case that if we are to live in sustainable ways that all could share then rich world per capita rates of consumption must be reduced by perhaps 90%.

The common response is the tech-fix claim that technical advance will enable GDP growth to be decoupled from resource and environmental impact. But there is now overwhelming evidence that apart from in some limited areas this is not happening and is not going to happen.

3. The Degrowth literature does not recognise the stunning enormity of the task… The Degrowth Conundrum

Degrowth of the magnitude argued above means phasing out, writing off, scrapping, most of the present amount of factories, corporations, transport, trade, investment, industry, financing, and profit-making. This in an economy, society and culture that is, firstly, fiercely and blindly committed to constant and limitless increases in production and consumption and living standards. Secondly it is an economy structured in such a way that it must have growth or it implodes.

4. The goal must therefore be transition to some form of Simpler Way

The literature reveals almost no recognition that the focus must be on getting to far simpler lifestyles and systems. The Simpler Way solution is outlined, along with the reasons why it would enable dramatic reductions in resource consumption.

5. Capitalism cannot possibly move in the degrowth direction

This is not clearly recognised by the movement. Marxists/Socialists get this right, but get the nature of the post-capitalist society wrong. It cannot be centralised, i.e., led by the state. It must be localised and Anarchist.

6. The issue of strategy is neglected

The magnitude of the predicament rules out most of the popular possibilities, including Marxist/socialist strategies. The task here and now is to change ideas and values, i.e., culture. This is best attempted by prefiguring the alternative ways, as the Anarchists advise. Here and now it is a mistake and waste of energy to try to get Degrowth policies implemented by governments, or to try to take the state.

7. This society is incapable of solving its problems

It is in the process of self-destruction. There is no possibility of avoiding a possibly terminal collapse, for a combination of bio-physical and social reasons. This could be the end of us but it will clear the way for transition as people realise that the old system is not going to provide for them and they must go local, self-sufficient, cooperative and frugal. Our task is to increase the numbers who will try to build the alternative as the old system crumbles.

8. What is to be done?

Simply help to raise awareness of this perspective. Nothing can be achieved unless this is done. This does not require heroic sacrifice at the barricades. The capitalist class will resist furiously but their power will diminish as systems fail, and as their legitimacy fades. It could be a peaceful revolution. Its chances are not good, but TINA.

Arqueología industrial en Pozo Julia (Fabero, 2023). Foto: Jorge Riechmann.
Industrial Archeology at Pozo Julia (Fabero, 2023). Photo: Jorge Riechmann.
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  1. Dear Ted: it’s been a pleasure to translate another piece of your thought and make it available to Spanish-speaking audiences.

    Yet, I think your critique will come as a surprise to most of Spanish degrowthers, because the flavour of Degrowth that you are criticizing is not what we know here in Spain (and I’ll dare to said neither in Portugal, France or Italy). Let’s go point by point to try to make clear what I mean:

    1. I don’t have the impression that Degrowth movement has become such a catch-all multimovement. Anyway, it could be understandable that as far as growth/capitalist civilization permeates everything, degrowthers in the end are faced with all those problems that you mention. Also, most of them come from other political or social movements, and the carry their backpacks with them. And I think it is a good thing indeed, because it makes all those struggles to mutually feedback. And one of the most important feedbacks here, is precisely the opposite of your critique point: because they are degrowthers, they know that the ways to fix all those problems that “could easily be implemented within an economy that continues to be about growth” are impossible.

    • 2. I guess you’re talking of what is begining to be available now in English, but the classical Degrowth literature, and also mostly of what is now being published in Spanish at least, by authors like Carlos Taibo, Pedro Prieto, Carlos de Castro (and other members of his team at University of Valladolid), Jorge Riechmann, and many others that you can read at 15/15\15 magazine, clearly recognize, from the begining, “that if we are to live in sustainable ways that all could share then rich world per capita rates of consumption must be reduced by perhaps 90%.” It might not be the case for other authors in English-language texts, but it’s clearly so in many Spanish authors (and I guess French and Italians too). So, what you are criticizing here is not the Degrowth movement, but just the literature which is written in English and what may represent only a second (third?) wave of Degrowth thinkers and only in English or Central-Europe cultures. You might be thinking of Hickel, Kallis, Steinberger, etc?

    • 3. I think it’s the same case as in point 2.

      4. Not few of us, degrowthers in Galicia and in Spain and other parts of the World, believe that Degrowth and your Simpler Way are fully compatible. That is, that we can degrow our societies with that simpler societies in mind as a goal. I mean that there is an eco-communalist, anarchist faction of Degrowthers, and I think it’s quite strong in Spain. Adrián Almazán (who translated your book in Spanish) and Luis González Reyes, Carlos Taibo, Pedro Prieto or even Carlos de Castro, and myself could be politically very close to that.

    • Ted has replied to Manuel’s comments in an email message to us that we are pasting below:

      I would not be surprised if the discussion in Spain was more focused than where I am, and what I find in the general literature. Your tradition has been much more clearly about the key issues. I don’t see the inclusiveness of the critical commentary as undesirable, it reflects the extent of the discontent with the system. But I do think it tends to distract from what i think are the few fundamental issues, and I would like to see movement to a more unified critique and movement. This does not mean de-emphasising or dropping projects/campaigns, it means more explicitly linking them to the overarching degrowth concept, that is, framing issues like alternative currencies or housing as sub-goals or implications of the general thrust. I don’t think that’s being made clear enough at present.

      Re your point 2; again your team is likely to be on what I see as the right path than much of the material I encounter.

      Re your point 5. I find that a large amount of degrowth literature is close to Green New Deal thinking, that is, assuming sometimes implicitly that a reformed capitalism would suffice. I would like to see much more clear and forceful recognition that degrowth is totally incompatible with capitalism. Most of your comment is indisputable, noting essential elements in the (lengthy) case.

      Re point 6. Much of the literature claims and seems to be about strategy but is not; it is only asserting goals, policies the government is being demanded to implement. The most common strategy assumed, usually implicitly, is calling for the state to make the changes. I argued that this is a waste of time. My long article in Environmental Values, Dec 2023 details the case, including explaining why goals and means to them must be Anarchist in nature, not Socialist. It is important to recognise the time factor here; eventually yes the (small, remnant, powerless) “state” will have to oversee/administer big policies (decided by local assemblies), but at this stage of the revolution it is a mistake to try to get the state to implement such changes. At this very early stage strategy must be about the effort to change the culture, the mentality that is for degrowth and simpler, localised, cooperative settlements etc, not about demanding that the state do this or that … because we can get nowhere until we have changed the growth and affluence mentality. When there is widespread recognition of the kind of society we must eventually transition to then change at the state level will probably be easy, rapid and peaceful. The distinction is very important; I worry that much energy is going into campaigns that are not primarily about building a new “imaginary”.

  2. 5. “Capitalism cannot possibly move in the degrowth direction”. That is obvious for nearly all degrowthers that I know, so it’s not a point to criticize Degrowth as a whole. Degrowth is clearly anti/post/non-capitalist. I’m not to say that there may be some self-called Degrowth author that could argue that there is a possibility of a Capitalism that can function without growth, but it’s clearly outside of the Degrowth mainstream and has no sense at all, for Capitalism needs growth and it’s hardwired in its DNA. And it wouldn’t be Degrowth Capitalism, because Degrowth is not only the fact that the GDN falls, it’s a sociopolitical movement to go outside of the need for growth, outside of capitalism and imperialism, because it’s mandatory for Degrowth that the remaining resources are shared with internation justice so that every person has her/his fair share.

  3. 6. “The issue of strategy is neglected” This one could be your strongest point, Ted. But I don’t that strategy is so neglected, as many degrowthers advocate for an ecosocialist kind of strategy. You may not like, that it’s a strategy indeed! Here we enter the strong political debate about which is the best strategy to make Degrowth a reality. And there points in favour of ecosocialists, as well as anarchists, so some of us advocate for a hybrid solution: the dual strategies, about which there has been a debate in Spain and up to some extent in other Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, for some years. Bottom-up strategies are good for small territories, as Jared Diamond showed, but Top-down are good for bigger scale problems. So I think it’s possible to dynamically combine them: at some moments to put a bigger effort and social energies in the top-down way, later in the bottom-up, and always having them cooperating in a symbiotic way. I wrote about it in my book La izquierda ante el colapso de la civilización industrial. It’s a pity that it is not available in English… yet.

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