The term “degrowth” originated in 1970s, along with the first movements of political ecology. At that time, the world began to realise the side effects of technological progress and limits of economic growth. In 1972, a report called “The Limits of Growth” was released by Denise Meadow that had an explosive effect on the world´s academic and political spheres. This article had a huge impact on the establishment of the first civilian ecological movements. Following the report, a French publicist and philosopher André Gorz, used the term degrowth (décroissance) for the first time in connection with the need to reduce consumerism.
After 1979, the term became more known in France thanks to a book written by a mathematician and economist Nicholas Goergescu-Roegen “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process“ (1971). This book laid the foundation to the former and also current followers of degrowth. The main message is: Unlimited growth in a limited world is not possible.The biosphere has certain limitations and any lasting growth threatens the ecological balance of the Earth, since it undermines the laws of physics, especially the laws of thermodynamics.
In Western Europe and former „communist“ countries, most of the original ecological movements were decisively critical towards productivism, extractivism, so-called development and economic growth. Capitalism and communism were not compatible with ecology. In 1974, the director of Ústavu marxizmu-leninizmu SVŠT, prof. Ing. Koloman Slivka wrote in Projekt– Revue Slovenskej Architektúry:
„Some theorists propose to stop economic growth (theory of zero growth). However, this option is not acceptable for the capitalistic system, because it is in a conflict with its fundamentals (reproduction, overvaluation, profit), nor even for socialism, because it is non-dialectic, anti-natural, utopian and naive.”
In former „communist countries“, any actions in favour of ecology were indirectly considered as a way to fight the regime. After the collapse of socialist regime, the activism for nature protection almost vanished in Slovakia (Nature Protest, The End of Ecology in Slovakia by Edward Snajdra).
Forasmuch as, zero growth was not acceptable to anyone, but the ecological problems were continuously accumulating, there was a need to find a different solution in form of „correction of the growth“ for capitalism and „dialectical approach“ for socialism (Prof. Ing. Koloman Slivka).
In 1987, a new term „sustainable development“ was introduced in the Brundtland Commision. The term became popular due to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. This new term advocated a change in how economic growth occurs rather than a change in the system. In this case, ecological and capitalistic economies are being considered compatible.
Since then, the term „sustainable development“ has spread throughout the world, as it was more acceptable to the politicians and strong economic players. According to it, the problem is purely technical and there is only a need to find how to grow green. Radical criticism against capitalism and economic growth subsided.
From 1985-1990, the term degrowth almost disappeared from ecological debates, even though the criticism silently continued against growth and development. It also disappeared from the former „communist“ countries which started to follow the model of Western countries after „the fall of communism“.
Sustainable growth became such a well-known and widespread term that people started to include the radical political ecology (the former one) into it. In order to correctly distinguish these two terms, two French writers and activists Bruno Clémentin and Vincent Cheynet again introduced the term „degrowth“ in 2001. That time, it was becoming clearer that sustainable development is not a sufficient answer to our ecological crisis. It was necessary to differentiate the mild sustainable development from the radical sustainable development. Nowadays, the radical sustainable development is known as degrowth.
After 2001, this concept returned to the public debates in Western countries and the number of ecologists, who were openly against the growth (objecteurs de croissance in French), started to grow. Numerous books and magazines have been published on this subject and even a Degrowth Party was established in France in 2006. France is also home to the first eminent economist, Serge Latouche (professor of economics) who is popularizing degrowth economy.
Degrowth economy is considered radical in the ways how it wants to solve the ecological crisis „from the bottom“ („from the bottom, radikalis= roots in Latin) unlike sustainable development which is satisfied with solving the problem through „green“ cosmetic changes and relies on the help of new and complex technologies (e.g. smart cities).
Other terms similarly used as sustainable development are: eco-capitalism, circular economy, positive economics…- none if these terms call in question the system we live in, just the way it functions.
However, it does not mean that they are not compatible with degrowth. Mild and radical activists often agree with each other on concrete local solutions. The radicals activists are considered to be those who constantly remind us, it is not enough to have renewable sources of energy, „eco“ products and electrical cars. They believe that at the same time, we need to cut down our global production and consumption and start to live more modestly, and find an economic system which is not going to be based on endless economic growth.
In 2015, Pope Francis also expressed his unexpected opposition to growth in his encyclical Laudato Si. His following quotes well portray the essential ideas of degrowth:
Criticism of technology:
„We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. „
Global social justice:
„That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.“
Even though, we can already see some changes, the phrase degrowth is still shocking and deterrent in political sphere. Some critics of degrowth do not make the effort to think it through and they ignorantly say that with this attitude we will go back to the age of candles or prehistoric times. To that, Pope Francis would reply:
„Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.“
Therefore, the term post-growth is increasingly being used nowadays. It is more presentable and less deterrent to politicians and strong economic players. However, according to a part of opponents of sustainable growth, post-growth does not have the same political weight and does not bear the vision of necessary radical change of the whole system as the word „décroissance“.
The word degrowth – décroissance was introduced, so it could not be abused by politicians and companies. It is not possible to divert the meaning of it and do greenwashing as it is in the concept of „sustainable development“.
„Degrowth is a political slogan with theoretical implications“
Degrowth has resonated mainly in France and most of the theoreticians, writers and activists of degrowth come from France. It is relatively widespread in the most of Western Europe, albeit rather minor.
In South America (primarily Equador and Bolivia), we can find philosophies of indigenous tribes and the movement called Buen Vivir (Good Life), which reject capitalism and the current view of development. They promote fully-fledged community life in harmony with nature and humans based on their own ancient teachings.
Degrowth movement is still quite minor in Central European countries, however there are small cores in every country. Vincent Leigey, a French activist living in Budapest, has supported the spread of degrowth movement in Hungary. In 2016, there was an international conference on Degrowth in Budapest.
In Slovakia, the only organization that publicly appeals for the reduction of material consumption is the Lesoochranárske zoskupenie VLK, even though it does not mention degrowth directly.
We can also mention climatologists Alexander Ač and Jozef Pecha from Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute (SHMÚ), who, based on their scientific results, criticize the excessive consumption and the inadequacy of current „ecological“ solutions (Dennik N 19.03.2019, Kurz “Klimatické Zmeny”).
In addition, Robo Jankovich from Zaježovská komunita with his book “Prebúdzanie Draka, o zanikaní a znovutvorení komunít a lokálnych vzťahov“ (2014, re-edited 2019), appears to be very close to the degrowth movement.
Historically, the philosophy behind degrowth comes from ancient directions and philosophies that have supported modesty and economy of happiness e.g. Cynicism (Diogenes 412-323 BC), Epicureanism (Epikur 342-270 BC), Taoism (Lao-Tseu 5-4th century BC) and, to some extent Buddhism, Christianity and other old tribal Indian, African and Asian teachings.
Important names of criticism of economic growth, technology and development:
- Serge Latouche, economist (1940 – still alive, FR)
- Paul Aries, political scientist (1959 – still alive , FR)
- Jean-Claude Michéa, philosopher (1950 – still alive, FR)
- Vandana Shiva, activist (1952 – still alive, India)
- Naďa Johanisová, economist (1956 – still alive, ČR)
- Joan Martinez Alier, economist (1939 – still alive, ES)
- Filka Sekulová, economic scientist (1979 – still alive, Bulharsko)
- Chems Eddine Chitour, engineer, professor of thermodynamics (1950 – still alive, Alžírsko)
- Karim Bem Mustapha, marine ecology researcher (still alive, Tunisko)
- Pierre G. Nakoulima, professor (still alive, Burkina Faso)
- Gustavo Esteva Figueroa, writer and activist (1936 – still alive, Mexiko)
- Jacques Ellul, sociologist and philosopher (1912 -1994, FR)
- Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, economist (1911 – 1977, DE, GB)
- Ivan Illich, anarchist and philosopher (1926 -2002, AU)
- Nicholas Goergescu-Roegen, matematician and economist (1906 – 1994, RO)
- Bernard Charbonneau, writer (1910 -1996, FR)
- Enrico Berlinger, politician, communist (1922 – 1984, IT)
- Tiziano Terzani, journalist and writer (1938 – 2004, IT)
- Francoise d’Eaubonne, writer and feminist (1920 -2005, FR)
- André Gorz, journalist and philosopher (1923 – 2007, FR)
- Murray Bookchin, historian, writer, philosopher (1921 – 2006, USA)
- Arne Naess, philosopher (1912 -2009, NO)
- Lewis Mumford, historian and sociologist (1895 – 1990, USA)