Degrowth... and buen vivir by Janet M. Eaton

Degrowth is a call for a radical break from traditional growth-based models of society whether ‘left’ or ‘right’, to invent new ways of living together in a true democracy, respectful of the values of equality and freedom, based on sharing and cooperation and an economy that reduces the use of natural resources and energy.

International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas
Montreal, May 2012

The term degrowth is a translation of the French word décroissance which was first referred to by ecological economist, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in his 1971 paper on ‘entropy and the economic process’ which brought into prominence the ecological limits to growth as it relates to the industrial economic growth model…

The French degrowth movement also built upon a tradition within French politcal culture, critical of the social ills related to consumerism and the misguided assumptions of the economic growth model. The writings of philosophers and scholars like Marx, Gandhi, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, Ivan Illich, E.F. Schumacher and others have informed the movement.

While France has been the centre much of the degrowth movement, it is gaining traction in other parts of Europe and in North America where it is associated to a larger degree with ecological economics and the biophysical limits to growth.

In North America, ecological economics founder, Herman Daly, York University professor and author of Managing Without Growth, Peter Victor, co-author of The Ecological Footprint William Rees and co-author of Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Charles Hall, are associated with the degrowth movement and the latter three all spoke at the Montreal Conference on Degrowth in the Americas.

Of particular interest, however, are the parallels between western degrowth discourse and indigenous perspectives and discourse which have emerged in Latin America, especially a model called ‘live well, not better’ (vivir bien in Spanish, Sumak Kawsay in Quechua, commonly referred to as buen vivir) and now a central element of Bolivia and Ecuador’s political framework…

It is important to note that degrowth proponents do not call for contraction of the economy within the existing neo-classical economic paradigm, where contraction is generally understood as recession or depression and the miseries they bring, but rather a planned economic contraction or equitable down-scaling, leading to an alternative paradigm where the focus is on ecology, participatory democracy, community and a ‘good life’.

In this regard, worksharing, consuming less, inventing creative ways of living together, devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community and voluntary simplicity are all important elements of sustainable degrowth. Here we see similarities with the Latin American indigenous concept of buen vivir which emphasizes the harmonious relation between human beings and their environment and between humans in their communities. In fact different societies around the world have similar views of this shared basic aim of a good life as, for example, beumran meaning thriving or flourishing, as used by the early Arab historian and philosopher Ibn Kaldûn and Gandhi’s swadeshi-sarvodaya.

It is obvious that the growing economic, ecological and financial crises facing the planet and humanity necessitate thinking outside the box in order to challenge the nostrums of the growth economy. Within that context, degrowth serves a valuable function as a symbolic word that challenges the ‘tyranny of growth’ and the absurd pursuit of growth at all costs… One well-known degrowth academic put it this way:

… degrowth is not just a quantitative question of doing less of the same, it is… more fundamentally about a paradigmatic re-ordering of values, in particular the (re)affirmation of social and ecological values and a (re)politicization of the economy..
Degrowth academics also speak of ‘decolonizing the mind’ or ‘decolonizing the imagination’ noting that once economic growth is recognized as an abstract idea and not an objective reality one can begin to seriously envision and espouse alternatives. Some in the movement speak of this as ‘escaping the economy’.

In the same manner, Buen Vivir allows for the escape from the old notions of economic growth because it provides an alternate economic paradigm already being tested within certain Latin American countries, even if only on the fringes at this time.

Janet Eaton is an independent researcher, activist and educator, living in Nova Scotia. The above comprises excerpts from a longer paper, What is Degrowth? available with references at www.beyondcollapse.wordpress.com

Open Space Issue: 
Beyond Growth - Living with Limits