Degrowth: "What Sorcery is this?"



by Amerissa Giannouli

Amerissa Giannouli is a junior project manager at Inter Alia. Amerissa holds a BSc in Economics and a MA in European Economic Policy

“Degrowth” is related to socio-ecological and economic transformation which is characterized by lower consumption and production - without implying the decrease of well-being. It is traced back to the anti-industrialism trends of the 19th century.  It examines the environmental impact and its relations to the current economic system associatedto economic growth, consumerism and materialism.  In this sense, the alternatives proposed, concern the industrialized countries.  It has links to ecological economics and shares common values with movements, such as the Commons Movement, Buen Vivir, Feminism Movement, and others.

Firstly, let us describe our current socio-economic system and its impacts on our natural environment. This system heavily depends on resource extraction and processing for the production of goods and services. If the resources are exhaustible (see oil and coal), the system uses new technologies and innovations. However, despite the technology efficiency, industrial production will cause different types of environmental and health problems. This is because it is built on fossil fuels and creates products with a limited lifespan. This economy aims to maximize profits, achieve high Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and high rates of economic growth, resulting in high level of Greenhouse (GHS) emissions.

For this reason, there was a shift to renewable energy resources.  Nowadays, we experience the emergence of smart cities, Green Growth and Green entrepreneurship, Blue Growth and other impressive ways of dealing with the lack of natural resources. However, it is questionable if these could deal with the climate change as well. Despite the use of environmentally friendly technologies and the energy efficiency in production, several environmental and social problems still exist. This happens because the current economic system requires more growth and high rate of consumption in order to survive. It must be clear that this is not a closed system. Our decisions influence the lives of others and vice versa. In a textbook, you could find this as "externalities".  In most cases, externalities do not seem to care about borders.

An economist could tell you that, this is because the markets are not perfect and that you should internalize these externalities by assigning monetary values to the costs and benefits produced by your actions. Imagine that you produce a quantity of good and pollute the environment thus creating external costs that you do not take into consideration when pricing this particular good.  Now, if the government applies an environmental tax equal to the amount of this external cost, then you will be forced to produce B, less than A. Voila! Another tree will be saved!

However, by doing that, you are still working in the market system with market mechanisms and laws, which are considered to be imperfect.

It seems that countries with access to natural resources are considerably wealthy. However, since the environmental impacts do not stay in one place and most of the developed countries are industrial countries, their economic wealth is at the expense of others. The gap between the levels and speed of development in different countries will always create social problems.

For the most industrialized and developed countries, someone could propose, to transfer money to the non-industrialized countries. Due to unhealthy competition, the latter will attempt to follow the developed countries' paradigm. Even if they use new environmentally friendly technologies, the problems of the current economic system will still exist.

Maybe these seem to be too judgmental. Indeed, doing something is better than doing nothing. Nevertheless, we still have not solved the historical distributional inequalities in social, economic and environmental level. High level of growth seems to be a short-term but not a sustainable solution.

Looking at the global social changes and the radicalization of communities, aiming to higher growth seems to undermine our development. Our values and our sense towards happiness and well-being are under question.  We have separated ourselves from the global ecosystem. We have even twisted the definition of democracy.

It is time to introduce Post Growth, which is about redefining the meaning of good life.

Let’s assume that, we accept that there are limits to economic growth and that there are no resources left to use. Maybe we just do not want to use them for other reasons (ethical, cultural). What does this mean? Does this mean that considering the current high birth rates and unsatisfied human needs we are all going to suffer? Not quite.

Post Growth is about using whatever is working, focusing on the values of cooperation and sharing, as well as social and environmental justice.  Although we cannot change the current systemic operations in a day, we can move beyond the traditional, market related economic and social practices. Below four different but interrelated levels of change are proposed:

a. Education & Civic Society

The educational system plays an important role in the development of young people and the provision of sustainable education for all. It is important for the people to be well informed, politically and socially aware. Despite the need for higher employability, being critical, analytical and empowered to participate in the community are crucial for social development.  Hence, we are talking about a model of education that incorporates activities (non-formal education, group work) and institutions (youth forums, social labs) that support the empowerment of young people and foster social participation.

b. Local Development & Community Culture

Alternative economic models should be explored.  The social and solidarity economy (social enterprises, cooperatives), and the sharing economy (couch-surfing, co-housing, shared community spaces, tool-sharing) are a few alternative models that could co-exist with the market economy but at the same time do not allow for over production or over consumption.  It has been observed that these models work more on local level and additionally, implying a different way of thinking, a more systemic thinking and community sense. In this sense, local communities, especially the rural areas or communities at the municipality level, could form policies, provide information and training that support the development of these alternative economic models.

c. Alternative Work Values

There is high concentration on work productivity and profit, which is related to the national economic targets measured on indicators such as GDP.  It is a political discussion and direction that has influenced the mindsets of the people.

Sometimes we work to survive and not to live. We work under unjust, dangerous conditions and under pressure. We do not have time to enjoy life or do other non-paid activities, such as community work. Sometimes, people see volunteerism as something unimportant and a loss of time. The whole third sector is not considered as part of the national accounts. However, it has been said that volunteerism and social activities increase happiness and self-fulfillment. Of course, if you have to pay the rent, eat, provide for your children and family, it is not easy to do other non-work related activities.  Nevertheless, if you are in a community that sharing economy is officially recognized, it might be a little easier to rethink your values and the purpose of working.  Thus, the government could use alternative indicators for measuring the national well-being (Gross National Happiness, Genuine Progress Indicator) and provide incentives for more socially inspired activities.

d. Consumption & Production

If the market competition in the cities is so strong and you cannot compete with a social enterprise or a cooperative, you can still have a socially and environmentally responsible enterprise (the circular economy (less waste and material use))that provides jobs to young entrepreneurs and invests on innovations. Furthermore, consumption can be also responsible, supporting environmental friendly enterprises, fair trade and local producers.  Social innovations could make a great difference if we think about how we consume, produce, move and become entertained every day.  For this reason, it is important to apply environmental and social business standards, as well as provide information and raise awareness on alternative consumption patterns.

To support these, bring in mind the solidarity movements over the last decade at the European South that experienced the economic crisis. It is true that things might not be great, but there is hope when people are gathering and working together. Think about the self-organized communities and the grassroots movement.

In the end, all we need to do is to think outside the box. Let's step away from our comfort zones, believe in ourselves and look for solutions beyond economic growth!

For more info contact Amerissa Giannouli at giannouli@interaliaproject.com

© Inter Alia 2013