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Last Updated: 03/27/2014
Degrowth Through a Post-Development Lens
Kristin Laufenberg

If current crises like environmental degradation and social inequality can be said to be the result of our economic and social systems, the concept of a degrowth economy has been advanced as a possible solution. Degrowth is in direct contrast to economic systems such as capitalism or sustainable growth, and in fact has much more in common with a post-development perspective in advocating for a fundamental transformation of society that will challenge the very notion of what an ‘economy’ is as well as the dominant discourses which shape our perception of reality.

“It is a manifestation of the colonization of our imaginary that we now consider infeasible any bold collective attempt to plan our way out of the ecological catastrophe. As philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than serious social change.” – Kallis 2011: 879

This essay will examine the concept of a degrowth economy, as an alternative to the dominant capitalist economic system, from a post-development perspective. The concept of degrowth, as opposed to traditional capitalism or sustainable development, will be described. Aspects of degrowth that are compatible with post-development theory will follow, and the conclusion will include a few critiques from this same perspective. While I will draw from academic sources and literature, this essay will reflect personal opinions and understandings, especially in light of the class “Post Development: Theory and Practice” led by PhD candidate Tara Ruttenberg at the University for Peace, February 2014.

What is degrowth?

Definitions of degrowth generally refer to a reduction or slowing down of the economy, with the goal of achieving equality, addressing ecological and environmental problems, improving familial and community relations, and decoupling notions of success and happiness from materialism and economic growth. For example, Schneider et al (2010) describe “…an equitable down-scaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, in the short and long term” (512). While capitalism is founded on and reliant on growth, with GDP as a commonly accepted metric of success or progress, degrowth rejects the long-term sustainability of capitalism and argues that further economic growth will only exacerbate social and ecological problems such as inequality and climate change.

Why can’t we degrow under capitalism?

It is very important to reiterate and explain this point further – degrowth is not just about slowing down within a growth economy; scholars are clear that degrowth will not be possible under current economic and social conditions. It is impossible to just degrow under the current system, because capitalism by its very nature is ‘grow or die’ – it is founded on and feeds on growth, and in turn every establishment and custom in the West feeds into this growth paradigm. In a nutshell, “Growth is not an option, but an imperative stemming from the structure of basic institutions” (Kallis 2011: 873-875).

As a result of this single-minded focus on growth, capitalism engenders ‘lock-in’. The growth-as-development paradigm is so far-reaching and pervasive, and enmeshed in so many institutions (more on this ‘dominant discourse’ later), as to be very difficult to break free of. It is also self-reinforcing. A classic example of lock-in which feeds on and reinforces itself concerns transportation in the United States. Rising incomes and cheap cars led to the building of long, wide roads, so homes and workplaces were built to be spread out along these roads, so people needed cars to get to them, so more roads were built with homes and workplaces spread out along them…the result is that outside of a very few large cities, public transportation is non-existent, cars are a necessity, there are many incentives for both consumers and producers, and there is relatively little interest in public transportation or even things like bike lanes (example derived from Alexander 2012: 4; Martinez-Alier et al 2010: 1746). Samuel Alexander (2012) and Tim Jackson (2009) give fascinating examples about the effect of lock-in on consumer behavior. Jackson discusses “the perverse effect of dominant structures” (151) – for example, the incentives we have to obtain private transport rather than use or demand public transport; the fact that waste disposal is cheap while recycling is expensive; and other ways in which “people trying to live more sustainably find themselves in conflict with the social world around them…In spite of a growing desire for change, it’s almost impossible for people to simply choose sustainable lifestyles, however much they’d like to” (151-153). Again in the context of private vs. public transport, Alexander discusses the “structural reasons” that dictate consumer choice – “…’structure’ influences consumption behavior by making some transport choices easy or necessary and other options difficult or impossible…Driving, therefore, is not just a matter of ‘private preference’” (4). These structural reasons, and the difficulty of breaking free even on the level of individual consumers, are indicative of the lock-in effect.

Since the current system is only designed for, and indeed locked into, growth, when the economy does contract (as in the case of a recession or depression) it results in real suffering and hardship (Latouche 2004; Schneider et al 2010: 516). So capitalist market economies are unable to safely and voluntarily degrow, and degrowth will only be possible under a different system altogether; institutions, policies, and the foundations of our economy will need to be radically restructured into something that won’t really resemble capitalism as we now recognize it (Kallis 2011: 875).

Why can’t we degrow under sustainable development?

Just as degrowth cannot occur under capitalism, degrowth scholars are also critical of sustainable development, when sustainable development is still advocating economic growth. To cite just a few factors which should provoke suspicion of sustainable development: Green growth is still growth, which under any guise cannot be sustainable as it is based on non-renewable resource use and environmental degradation (Fournier 2008: 531; Kallis 2011: 874). This ‘second contradiction of capitalism’ as articulated by James O’ Connor (1988) is no less true under green or sustainable growth. Acid rain, salinization of the soil, and pesticide use are examples of capitalism “impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital” (22). Capitalism or any other kind of growth-oriented system cannot be sustainable as it destroys the very resources upon which it depends, thus inducing scarcity, generating rising costs, squeezing profits, and self-sabotaging itself (O’Connor 1988: 13; Foster 2002).

Also, sustainable development poses unrealistic expectations of (as of now) mythical efficiency improvements or technological breakthroughs which will fulfill the world’s energy needs without further damaging the environment; renewable energies in particular yield less of a surplus than expected when one considers the energy necessary for their production and the costs and time implied in shifting a fossil fuel-based society to one based on renewables (Kallis 2011: 874).

Finally, the ‘Prius paradox’, or potential for rebound effects, must not be overlooked. Any improvements in energy efficiency, for example, if they lead to falling prices or increased revenues, could lead to increased consumption. We will either consume more of these eco-technologies or spend the savings they bring elsewhere, bringing no real decrease in consumption or production (Fournier 2008: 532; Kallis 2011: 874; Schneider et al 2010: 516). Indeed, van Griethuysen (2010) argues that this is natural and inevitable; the motive for all innovation is profit, so the rebound effect – rather than a paradox – is the expected result of any investment or innovation made with profit in mind (592).

Degrowth Through a Post-Development Lens

In my comparisons of post-development theory and degrowth, several connections between the two have become apparent. This section of the essay in particular will reflect my understanding of post-development as a discourse which criticizes mainstream development practices and seeks alternatives to development, based on the following premises (as explained in the class syllabus):

1) the global capitalist economy founded on exploitation and neocolonial domination is both unsustainable and undesirable; therefore 2) ‘Development as we know it’ based on the neoliberal economic growth-for-development paradigm is unsuitable in addressing today’s socio-economic and environmental crises; hence 3) we need to design and appreciate development alternatives to support social wellbeing in harmony with nature as imperative to the transition toward truly sustainable, post-capitalist futures (Ruttenberg 2014: 1).

Hopwood et al (2005), in mapping the various approaches to sustainable development, identify three broad, encompassing perspectives: status quo, in which sustainable development can be achieved within the present economic and social structures; reform, in which “fundamental reform is necessary but without a full rupture with the existing arrangements”; and transformation (42).

(Hopwood et al 2005: 41)

A transformationist view holds that “the roots of the problems are the very economic and power structures of society” (42). Both post-development and degrowth can be considered ‘transformationist’ approaches, as both approaches argue that radical change is needed at a very fundamental level to achieve environmental sustainability and equitable development and well-being (45).

As for a more explicit connection between degrowth and post-development, Martinez-Alier et al (2010) state that “…there is a strong body of cultural criticism (embodied in the term “post-development”) of the notion of development that denounces the identification of development to the still dominant fetish of economic growth…The de-growth movement vigorously supports the “post-development” critique” (1745). If the economy is considered to be important to a society or for development, then post-development critiques of the mainstream development paradigm will necessarily also deal with the economic system of that paradigm, capitalism. I will focus on two ideas for which I found an equivalent in both post-development and degrowth literature: that of diverse economies/diverse prosperities; and the existence of a hegemonic discourse as regards Western-style development and capitalism, and the resulting ‘colonization of the mind.’

Diversities of Economies & Prosperities

The concepts of diverse economies and diverse prosperities have much in common and are present in both post-development and degrowth literature. Degrowth would entail scaling down working hours, incomes, expenditures, and luxury and other material items; in their absence, it is expected that people would have to find a more ‘diverse prosperity’ (Sachs 2009: xii). This could involve finding meaning and happiness in spiritual growth, better social, familial, and community relations, or a sense of equity or justice that wasn’t present under capitalism, for example. A smaller economy would necessitate the re-definition of what brings happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of security: “Proponents [of degrowth] insist that degrowth does not require a decrease in quality of life, simply a different conception of quality of life, one that gives more importance to sensorial experiences, relationships, conviviality, silence, beauty than to consumption” (as cited in Fournier 2008: 536).

This is very similar to the concept of Buen Vivir, or good life, a movement often promoted as an alternative to development in post-development literature and practice (for example, Gudynas 2011). “It includes the classical ideas of quality of life, but with the specific idea that well-being is only possible within a community. Furthermore, in most approaches the community concept is understood in an expanded sense, to include Nature. Buen Vivir therefore embraces the broad notion of well-being and cohabitation with others and Nature” (441). This “good life in a broad sense” (441) would allow for “the dimensions of self-reliance, community, art or spirituality” that Sachs (2009) envisions in his description of diverse prosperity (xiii).

Similarly, both degrowth literature and post-development literature about community development refers to the concept of a ‘diverse economy.’ Gibson-Graham (2005) refers to “multiple ecologies of economic productivity” which would include social and physical assets and “economic ‘others’ that sustain material survival and wellbeing” (12). Sachs (2009) also describes the “many sources beyond money” that contribute to well-being; since they are diverse, they increase community resilience in the face of crises or shock (xiii).

Cameron (2003) cites research arguing that communities which are described as ‘disadvantaged’ can struggle to break free of that designation; the community becomes reduced to a label and pigeonholed as needy and problematic. But in reality every community has informal or hidden assets and capabilities, which, while not necessarily part of a formal wage, production, or labor market from a capitalist perspective, contribute in important ways to that community and its economy (5). These informal assets and capabilities can be considered as parts of a diverse economy, and would necessarily become increasingly important in the implementation of a degrowth economy.

“The Hidden and Visible Parts of the Economy”

(Cameron 2003: 5)

The illustration makes clear that formal capitalist practices are only a small portion of “the diversity of practices that support subsistence and sustain livelihoods” (Gibson-Graham 2005: 20). As the formal economy decreases in size and importance, people would increasingly come to rely on and appreciate the other half of a diverse economy, and these aspects would in turn become more vigorous and powerful (and hopefully, self-reinforcing; perhaps communities could become ‘locked-in’ to a diverse economy).

Colonization of the Mind as a Result of a Dominant Discourse

Both capitalism and the traditional development paradigm, as the dominant discourses in their respective fields, lead to (and help perpetuate) a ‘colonization of the mind’ or ‘colonization of the imagination.’ Capitalism as an economic system and Western-style development have both permeated Western societies to such an extent as to seem immutable and beyond reproach; it has become difficult to identify alternatives to either one or to imagine a world without them, or to appreciate the value of the diverse economies or prosperities mentioned before. The North is locked into capitalism, and in countries which haven’t yet ‘developed’ it is the goal for which they strive (Sachs 2009: xv).

Sachs (2009) in particular is critical of the “Western perception of reality” (xix) which has become so pervasive as to become a monoculture, threatening alternative societies, cultures, and aspirations. He says of development:

… [it] cannot be separated from the idea that all peoples of the planet are moving along one single track towards some state of maturity, exemplified by the nations ‘running in front’…Tuaregs, Zapotecos or Rajasthanis are not seen as living diverse and non-comparable ways of human existence, but as somehow lacking in terms of what has been achieved by the advanced countries” (xviii).

He further argues that the traditional development paradigm is the dominant model for the ‘undeveloped’ to follow, as “hopes for the future are fixed on the rich man’s patterns of production and consumption” (ix). Western-style development has become such a “habit of thought” (xii) that it shuts down all other possibilities, other alternatives to development, and results in a colonization of the mind which is very difficult to break free of.

In this vein, but more specific to the field of degrowth, is the concept of economic determinism or ‘economism’. Economism is belief in the primacy of the capitalist economy; everything else is subordinated to the market or reduced to economic dimensions (Schneider et al 2010: 511). Economism suggests that in a capitalist society, “the founding principles of Western patterns of consumption and production remain non-negotiable” (Fournier 2008: 530). Similar to a Western concept of development, economism colonizes the mind to shut out alternative and diverse concepts of ‘economy’ or ‘prosperity’.

In contrast, degrowth seeks to challenge economism and “decolonize the collective imagination and free it from the tyranny of growth” (Fournier 2008: 532). Just as post-development questions the hegemony of the traditional development paradigm, and seeks alternatives to development, degrowth

…has called into question the ‘hardness’, ‘fact-ness’ or supposed inevitability of economic “realities” such as the market, work or value. From this perspective, the economy is seen as a historical process created through discursive practices rather than as a natural, autonomous and a historical phenomenon…freeing the imagination and conceptualization of material practices from the grip of capitalism (Fournier 2008: 534)

Degrowth and post-development theory, in challenging two interrelated dominant discourses, are both “focused on unhinging notions of development from the European experience of industrial growth and capitalist expansion; decentering conceptions of economy and de-essentializing economic logics as the motor of history” (Gibson-Graham 2005: 5).

Conclusion and Criticism of Degrowth Through a Post-Development Lens

I am convinced, and tried to make the argument in this essay, that degrowth represents many of the tenets of post-development, especially when contrasted with a system like capitalism. This being said, I would like to conclude by articulating a few criticisms of degrowth from a post-development perspective.

One critique concerns the concept’s origins. Although Schneider et al (2010) talk about degrowth as ideally being the “…result of a collective choice for a better living, not an imperative imposed by an external authority” and mentions the need for “viable development alternatives developed by the South and for the South…and for policy reforms which will seek disentanglement, i.e. removal of the obstacles that prevent Southern countries from post-development” (515-516), the fact remains that degrowth was developed by Western academics. Some degrowth authors speak of the need for the South to begin developing ‘differently’ if they are not to follow the West into a locked-in pattern of growth and environmental degradation. Latouche (2004), for example, states that “Degrowth must apply to the South as much as to the North if there is to be any chance to stop Southern societies from rushing up the blind alley of growth economics”. It is interesting and a bit ironic that Western academics and practitioners first planned and implemented the traditional, top-down, exogenous development of the South, and now are calling for a halt to it, again on the West’s terms, before many countries in the South have had the chance to reap any of the benefits they were told to expect from Western-style development. Indeed, due to the extent to which the development model and capitalism have ‘colonized’ our minds and become the pervasive discourse, “…the desire for recognition and equity is framed in terms of the civilizational model of the powerful nations, [and] the South has emerged as the staunchest defender of development” (Sachs 2009: viii). Who can blame them?

Within developed countries as well, there are aspects of degrowth that can strike one as top-down, exogenous commands (and thus more reminiscent of ‘development’ than post-development). Proposed policies such as capping working hours or income, or higher taxes on income or luxury goods, would be very difficult to implement on a small or local scale, but equally politically difficult to impose on a larger population which is not convinced of their merits. Carbon rationing or other cap and trade systems can seem equally dictatorial, and Schneider et al (2010) point out that these systems, rather than representing a challenge to economism (as degrowth purports to do), actually extend the realm of the markets and monetary values (514). Avoiding these “eco-authoritarian, expert-based regimes” (514), while still bringing about real change and challenging the dominant structures and institutions of society, will require walking a fine line.


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Schneider, Francois; Kallis, Giorgo; Martinez-Alier, Joan 2010. “Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue.” Journal of Cleaner Productions: 18 (2010) pp. 511-518.

Kristin Laufenberg is an MA candidate at UPeace in the Responsible Management and Sustainable Economic Development program.