International Journal of Sociology
and Social Policy
Vol. 28 No. 11/12, 2008
#Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Received 30 January 2008
Revised 13 March 2008
Accepted 13 March 2008
Escaping from the economy: the
politics of degrowth
University of Leicester School of Management, Leicester, UK
Purpose – Whilst there is a growing recognition of environmental degradation, the policies of
sustainable development or ecological modernisation offered by national governments and
international institutions seem to do little more than ‘‘sustain the unsustainable’’. By promising to
reconcile growth with the environment, they fail to question the economic principle of endless growth
that has caused environmental destruction in the first place. In this context, alter natives based on
critiques of growth may offer more promising grounds. The aim of this paper is to explore how the
degrowth movement that emerged in France over the last decade resonates with, and can contribute
to, green politics.
Design/methodology/approach – After locating the movement within environmental politics and
providing a brief account of its development, the paper focuses on its core theme – escaping from the
Findings – Here it is argued that the movement’s main emphasis is not merely on calling for less
growth, consumption or production, but more fundamentally, in inviting one to shift and re-politicise
the terms in which economic relations and identities are considered. This politicisation of the
economy is discussed in terms of the movement’s foregrounding of democracy and citizenship, and it
is argued that the articulation of these two concepts may offer interesting points of departure for
conceptualising and practising alternatives to consumer capitalism.
Originality/value – The final part of the paper explores how the degrowth movement’s stance on
democracy and citizenship could help address two problematic issues within environmental politics:
that of inclusion, and motivation
Keywords Citizenship, National economy, Public policy, Sustainable development
Paper type Conceptual paper
At a time when it has finally become widely accepted that climate change was caused
by man-made emission of CO
, the exploration of alternative economic models to
consumer capitalism seems a more than ever pressing issue (Wall, 2007). Within this
context, the degrowth movement that emerged in France over the last decade may have
some interesting contribution to make. Yet whilst the movement has made its way into
other European countries, especially Italy and Belgium, its ideas have hardly made an
appearance in Anglo-Saxon academic or public debates; indeed, at the time of writing
this paper I found only three English-language articles on degrowth (Baykan, 2007;
Fotopoulos, 2007; Latouche, 2007) beside a few articles by Latouche published in the
English version of Le Monde Diplomatique (Latouche, 2004b, 2006b). No doubt, the
ideas that circulate within the degrowth movement in France resonate with critiques of
growth made elsewhere in green politics or development politics (see for example,
Curtis, 2003; de Rivero, 2001; Douthwaite, 1992; Escobar, 1995; Meadows et al., 1972;
Scott-Cato, 2006; Seabrook, 1993; Trainer, 2002, to mention only a few examples).
However, the degrowth movement may have something to add to these critiques; in
particular, it will be argued in this paper that the movement’s over-arching theme –
escaping from the economy – provides interesting points of departure for
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The author is grateful to the editor of the journal as well as the two anonymous reviewers for
their helpful comments on an earlier draft of the paper.
conceptualising and practising alternatives to Western style consumer capitalism,
notably in its foregrounding and articulation of democracy and citizenship. The
degrowth movement’s critique of growth is inscribed within a conceptual framework
that challenges orthodox economic thinking or ‘‘economism’’ for ‘‘colonising our
imagination’’ (Latouche, 2005a). From this perspective, the main culprit is not growth
itself but the ideology of growth, a system of representation that translates everything
into a reified and autonomous economic reality inhabited by self-interested consumers.
It follows that to challenge the ‘‘tyranny of growth’’, it is not sufficient to call for lesser,
slower or greener growth for this would leave us trapped within the same economic
logic; rather we need to escape from the economy as a system of representation. This
means re-imagining economic relations, identities, activities in different terms; and it is
to this end that the degrowth movement puts forward the notions of democracy and
Before exploring further how the degrowth movement proposes to escape from the
economy, the paper will first situate the movement within the broader context of
environmental politics. The second part of the paper will then offer a brief introduction
to the development of degrowth in France. The third part of the paper will return to the
movement’s core theme of ‘‘getting out of the economy’’ and discuss its articulation in
terms of democracy and citizenship. Finally, the paper will explore how the degrowth
movement’s stance on democracy and citizenship can contribute to two problematic
notions within environmental politics: inclusion and motivation.
Locating degrowth within environmental debates
As Gibbs (2007) observed, we are all environmentalists now as it has become difficult
to escape knowledge of climate change or oil reserve depletion, and their potential
impact on our lives. The social and environmental problems raised by economic
growth have become front page news, and the accumulation of facts pointing to the
unsustainability of current patterns of growth probably does not need rehearsing here,
it may be sufficient to point to some of the most telling statistics:
.it would take five to six planets for the entire world population to consume and
pollute to the standards of US citizens (and around three planets for European
standards) (e.g. Walter and Simms, 2006).
.Ecological footprint analyses show that people in the North are living far beyond
their ecological means. Whilst the average biologically productive area available
to each world citizen (assuming equal distribution) in 2003 was 1.8 hectares, the
footprint of US citizens was 9.6 hectares, that of EU citizens was 4.8 hectares and
that of low-income countries 0.8 hectares (Global Footprint Network, 2006).
In spite of the urgency of these problems, politicians, at local, national and
international levels have been busy designing policies aimed at, for example, curbing
carbon emission; and business has also joined on the environmental bandwagon, as a
growing number of organisations develop ‘‘green’’ policies (e.g. Banerjee, 2001;
Fineman, 2001). For example, in spring 2007, several retail chains, including Tesco,
Marks & Spencer and Wal-Marts, all announced their commitment towards becoming
In widening its audience, environmentalism has become articulated in terms of
programmes of reforms that have come under various re-assuring labels such
sustainable development or ecological modernisation (Baker, 2006; Blu
Welsh, 2007; Gibbs, 2007). These programmes of reforms tend to offer an optimistic
view based on the use of eco-efficient technologies to resolve environmental problems
and are usually cast in terms of their ‘‘reasonable’’ and ‘‘workable’’ solutions; thus the
discourse of environmental modernisation embraced by many corporations tends to
stress its pragmatism and practical relevance over and above the naivete
of more radical views (Prasad and Elmes, 2005). Central to these programmes and their
‘‘pragmatism’’ is the belief in the compatibility between consumer capitalism and
ecological sustainability; indeed, this belief has become a hegemonic and convenient
¨hdorn and Welsh, 2007), fuelled by faith in ‘‘eco-technology’’ and market
mechanisms. Thus, whilst environmental concerns have moved centre stage of
government and sometimes corporate agenda, the founding principles of Western
patterns of consumption and production remain non-negotiable. Ecological
sustainability, as framed by national governments or international institutions (e.g.
Agenda 21, the Kyoto protocol, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund),
remains firmly subordinated to economic growth. Whilst there are different
approaches to ecological modernisation or sustainable development (e.g. Barry, 2005;
Christoff, 1996), the central motif is to reconcile the tensions between technology and
ecology, economic growth and ecology, and competitive market and ecology (Blu
and Welsh, 2007). In this convenient rendering, economic growth and environmental
protection are intimately linked through win-win strategies, suggesting we can have
everything we want without facing any risk (Milne et al., 2006).
However, this political smoothing of sustainability has been the object of severe
criticisms (e.g. Blu
¨hdorn and Welsh, 2007; de Geus, 2003; Harvey, 1996; York et al.,
2003). In becoming mainstream, sustainability has been washed out of its more radical
questioning of economic models, and especially economic growth; and for many since
the publication of the Limits to Growth report in 1972 (Meadows et al., 1972), if there is
to be any hope of a sustainable future, it is precisely economic growth that needs to be
called into question (e.g. Carruthers, 2001; Milne et al., 2006; Trainer, 2002; Scott-Cato,
2006). As Prasad and Elmes (2005) note, policies of sustainable development, corporate
environmentalism or ecological modernisation are only ‘‘practical’’ to the extent that
they involve minimum disruption and inconvenience for corporations and consumers
in the North, but certainly not in their ability to provide for a more sustainable futures.
Indeed, it could be argued that what is managed under policy of sustainable
development is not the path towards a more sustainable future, but rather the inability
and unwillingness to become sustainable (Blu
¨hdorn and Welsh, 2007). Thus in the face
of mounting ecological disasters worldwide, from droughts to floods, desertification to
species extinction, the continued insistence on the efficacy of technological and market
solutions and the concomitant denial that the capitalist principle of infinite growth is
unsustainable can only be qualified as pathological (Blu
¨hdorn and Welsh, 2007).
Discourse and policies of sustainable development and ecological modernisation only
serve to ‘‘sustain the unsustainable’’ (Blu
¨hdorn, 2007); they not only absolve major
corporations and a capitalist economy of endless growth of environmental
responsibilities, but also cast them as the new heroes of sustainability: BP (British
Petroleum) will take us ‘‘Beyond Petroleum’’, and growth towards a sustainable future.
The movement for degrowth is firmly grounded in this critique of growth-orientated
‘‘solutions’’ to environmental degradation, as will become evident in the following
An introduction to the degrowth movement
The idea of degrowth, or de
´croissance, and the debates it has generated are inscribed
within a critical tradition that has challenged neo-liberal understanding of economic
development and growth for some time; thus the movement identifies Gandhi, Gorz
(1975), Arendt (1958), Illich (1973) and Schumacher (1973) (to mention only a few) as its
precursors. The term de
´croissance first appeared in the French translation of
Georgescu-Roegen’s (1971) seminal work The Entropy Law and the economic
process. It has since been popularised by various writers, mostly academics and
journalists such as Latouche, Arie
`s, Cheney and Schneider, to mention a few of its most
prominent advocates, in the pages of the Monde Diplomatique (e.g. Latouche, 2004b,
2006b) and various other publications (e.g. Arie
`s, 2005, 2006; Cheynet et al., 2003;
Latouche, 2001, 2004a, 2005a, b, 2006a). Its ideas have been circulated and debated in
various forums, for example in a monthly magazine entitled La De
a research centre – the Institut d’Etudes Economiques et Sociales pour la De
Soutenable, a political party – le Parti pour la De
´croissance, as well more informal local
or internet-based groups.
Georgescu-Roegen (1971) introduced the notion of degrowth in response to what he
regarded as the irreversible damage inflicted by the politics of endless growth
preached by neo-liberal economics. He argued that classical economics was based on a
mechanistic vision that ignores the principle of entropy, the second principle of
thermodynamics. According to the entropy law, whilst it may be the case that energy is
conserved (‘‘nothing gets lost, everything is transformed’’), it is nevertheless degraded
or transformed by its use, and therefore cannot be returned to its original state and
used again in the same way. For example, the energy that goes into the making of a
computer can never be returned to its original state and be used to make another
computer. Thus endless growth, supported by an ever growing use of natural
resources, will lead to the exhaustion and despoiling of the earth capacity and is a
physical aberration. For Georgescu-Roegen, classical economics by ignoring the
entropy law is both not materialistic enough in that does not take the physical reality of
natural resources into account, and too materialistic in that it reduces human beings to
their economic function as producer and consumer, a key argument of the movement
for degrowth to which I shall return in the next section.
Drawing on the work of Georgescu-Roegen, proponents of degrowth denounce
economic thinking and systems that see growth as the ultimate good. They offer
degrowth as a symbolic weapon or ‘‘missile concept’’ (mot obus) (Arie
`s, 2005) against
the ‘‘tyranny of growth’’, and to provoke thought about alternatives. Besides pointing
out that growth and ever-increasing consumption are unsustainable socially and
ecologically, they also question measures of growth such as the Gross National Product
`s, 2005; Cle
´mentin, 2005). Such measures only take into account the
production and sale of commodified goods and services, ignoring the damaging effects
these have on other ‘‘goods’’: justice, equality, democracy, human and ecosystems’
health, quality of life, social relations. They point to the absurdity of an economic
system based on ‘‘growth’’ when what is meant to ‘‘grow’’ remains arbitrary. Thus,
increasing cancers, road accidents, obesity, ecological disasters, wars all contribute to
economic growth through the consumption of insurance, medical products and
services, cleaning industry, weapons and so on, a point made by many in green politics
(e.g. Scott-Cato, 2006).
And the degrowth movement is equally vitriolic of any attempt to reconcile growth
and environmental concerns; for example, the concept of sustainable development is
seen as an ‘‘oxymoron’’ (Latouche, 2004b), for growth, be it sustainable, green or
however qualified, cannot be sustainable. At the core of this argument is a critique of
the reliance on eco-technologies to fuel ‘‘greener’’ growth. The main point made here
relates to what has become known as the ‘‘rebound effect’’ (Binswanger, 2003;
Schneider, 2002, 2003): any gain in energy derived from the use of more efficient
technology is usually cancelled out by an increase in consumption. Eco-efficient
technologies only make us consume more, a finding confirmed by others (e.g. Princen,
2003; Herring, 2002); for example, fuel efficient cars enable us to travel more; the use of
solar energy enables us to heat our house or water more, and so on. The problem is not
with these eco-efficient technologies themselves, potentially they can be useful, but
with their inscription within a paradigm of growth; their deployment towards
increased consumption and production.
It is within this context of mounting ecological (and social) wreckage, of the absurd
and arbitrary definition of growth, and the pursuit of growth (be it ‘‘sustainable’’) at all
cost, that degrowth is offered first and foremost as a conceptual or ideological weapon.
Proponents of degrowth seek to challenge the ‘‘naturalness’’, the supposed inevitability
and desirability of growth; they oppose the ideology of growth (more than growth in
itself which is no more than an arbitrary calculation), and offer degrowth as a ‘‘missile
`s, 2005), a political weapon to decolonise the collective imagination and free
it from the tyranny of growth (Latouche, 2005a). Thus degrowth is not presented as a
programme, an ideology or another economic theory (Latouche, 2006b), but as a
symbolic challenge to policies that herald growth as an end in itself; degrowth is not to
be turned into a blueprint or an end in itself, but to remain a means for fostering a spirit
of critique (Arie
`s, 2005), for questioning the priority accorded to economic values and
principles. According to Arie
`s (2005), this critical intent is well served by the term
‘‘degrowth’’. Although the term may have a negative connotation, it presents the
advantage of not being easily recuperated by capitalism and the logic of ever more
upon which it is based. Indeed, as Monbiot (2007) aptly put it in a critical commentary
on supermarkets’ chains attempts to cut down carbon emission, supermarkets may try
to sell us ‘‘green’’ or ‘‘ethical’’, but one thing that supermarkets or capitalism more
generally cannot sell us is ‘‘less’’.
But degrowth is not just a quantitative question of doing less of the same, it is also
and, more fundamentally, about a paradigmatic re-ordering of values, in particular the
(re)affirmation of social and ecological values and a (re)politicisation of the economy. It
aims to take us out of the economy, of the domain of the calculable and economic
rationality, and ask fundamental questions about the nature of wealth, its distribution,
its use, and misuse. Thus degrowth is not just a quantitative question of producing and
consuming less, but a tool proposed for initiating a more radical break with dominant
economic thinking. This radical break is signalled firstly by foregrounding democratic
choices and debates in the shaping of the economy, and secondly by re-imagining
economic relations and identities in different terms; both moves can be captured under
a core concern of the degrowth movement: escaping from the economy (sortir de
´conomie). This theme will be explored in the following section, but first it may worth
outlining briefly the various ways in which the degrowth movement has manifested
itself in French politics.
The degrowth movement is a rather loose and open network including a variety of
forums for circulating, sharing and debating ideas and experiences. These exchanges
take place through various medias and platforms, for example, the monthly periodical
´croissance: Le Journal de la Joie de Vivre; various local or national internet-based
forums (see for example, de
`croissance.info, an open platform for debating different
perspectives on ‘‘degrowth’’ both theoretically and at a more practical level, at
´croissance.info); a research and resource centre on degrowth (Institut d’Etudes
Economiques et Sociales pour la De
´croissance Soutenable, www.De
In addition, the degrowth movement organises various events to take its ideas to the
public; the two most prominent events are the ‘‘buy nothing day’’ in November of each
year, and the organisation of the Marche pour la De
´croissance (Walk for Degrowth).
The first walk was organised in the summer 2005, with participants joining for
anything from a day to the 4-week long treck. The walk was herarlded as a success not
only in bringing the idea of degrowth to visibility, but also in fostering experiments in
degrowth itself, with participants sharing low impact living for a month. Similar walks
took place in summer 2006 and 2007. At a more formal level, the degrowth movement
led to the formation of a political party in April 2006, Parti pour la De
To conclude this brief overview of the development of the degrowth movement,
there are three points worth of note. The first one is the firm grounding of the
movement within academia; many of its spokespersons (e.g. Arie
`s, Latouche, Cheynet,
Schneider) are university academics who have developed links with various European
research institutes including ESEE (European Society for Ecological Economics,
www.euroecolecon.org), SERI (Sustainable Europe Research Institute, www.seri.at) and
R&D (Research and Degrowth/Recherche et De
Together, these various institutes are organising an international conference on
degrowth (‘‘Economic Degrowth for Sustainability and Equity’’) to be held in April
2008. Secondly, the growing international dimension of the movement is also reflected
at a more popular level with the emergence of a degrowth network in Italy (Decrescita,
www.decrescita.it), and a European wide network of Growth Objectors for Post
Development/Reseau d’Objecteurs de Croissance pour l’Apres-Developpement
(ROCADE, www.apres-developpement.org). Finally, the development of the degrowth
movement in France is interesting in that it has acquired a level of visibility and
organisation that it may not have reached elsewhere. Indeed, it is a term with which
most candidates in the French presidential election of 2007, as well as the mainstream
press, had to engage with, be it to misrepresent and undermine it (Latouche, 2007).
Putting the economy in its place
Putting the economy back in its place, or ‘‘escaping from the economy’’ (sortir de
´conomie) (Homs, 2006; Latouche, 2005a, b) has become a central motif of the
degrowth movement, and is particularly apt in capturing some of its central themes,
especially the emphasis on democratic choice, and the foregrounding of social and
humanistic values over economic rationality. Putting the economy back in its place
involves the affirmation of values grounded in humanism and the republican ideals of
democracy, equality and solidarity (Arie
`s, 2007; Cheynet, 2007).
For proponents of degrowth, in order to challenge neo-liberal economics of growth,
it is not enough to propose alternative economic models because the proposal of
alternative economies does not in itself question the importance accorded to the
economy; instead, we need to start with value and politics, we need to oppose economic
determinism or ‘‘economism’’ by going back to the terrain of the political. Thus one of
the starting point of the degrowth movement is to politicise the economy, to reveal it as
an abstract idea, a self-referential system of representations (Latouche, 2005b; Homs,
2006) rather than an objective reality, a set of ‘‘given’’ facts and forces as it is commonly
presented. Of course, on this point, degrowth advocates draw upon a whole tradition
that since Polanyi (1944) has sought to deconstruct the naturalness of the economy (see
for example, Caille
´, 2005; Callon, 1998; Gibson-Graham, 1996, 2006) and 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 though discursive practices rather than as a natural,
autonomous and a-historical phenomenon. For example, Gibson-Graham (1996, 2002,
2006) have called for a reconceptualisation of economic relations and identities away
from ‘‘capitalocentric’’ thinking. Throughout their extensive work, Gibson-Graham (e.g.
1996, 2002, 2006; the Communities Economies Collective, 2001) has sought to reframe
economic activities in terms of the co-existence of different forms of transactions,
labour, and ways of producing and distributing surplus. In their involvement in various
community regeneration programmes, Gibson-Graham and their colleagues in the
Community Economies Collective have invited people to re-imagine their economic
activities in terms other than those made available by capitalism. For example, they
have sought to re-present different forms of transactions beside commodity market (e.g.
local trading schemes, gifts, mutual exchange between households), different forms of
labour beside wage labour (e.g. self-employment, volunteering, domestic work) and
different forms of surplus distribution beside capital accumulation and profit
‘‘imperative’’ (e.g. governed by social or environmental ethic). This broadening of the
‘‘economy’’ has opened up possibilities for people to re-imagine their ‘‘economic
activities’’ in terms of the voluntary contributions, mutual help and provision of ‘‘free
services’’, in which they routinely engage in the home, the neighbourhood or the
The degrowth movement shares much of Gibson-Graham’s critical intent, and also
insists that the economy is open to choices and multiple possibilities; both approaches
contribute to freeing the imagination and conceptualisation of material practices from
the grip of capitalism. However, if they both share a concern to politicise the economy,
they approach this task from different perspectives. Firstly, whilst Gibson-Graham is
concerned to free the economy from capitalist rendering, and to map out economic
relations in terms other than those made available under capitalism, the degrowth
movement starts with concepts or values within politics (democracy, citizenship) to
recast economic activities in political terms. Secondly, the degrowth movement
inscribes its reconceptualisation of the economy within environmental concerns, and
thus could forge links between environmental-led and economic-led calls to rethink the
Insisting on the constructed nature of the ‘‘economy’’ is not to deny the importance
of the various material practices that go into meeting our needs. However for
proponents of the degrowth movement (as well as for the many authors mentioned
above who stress the constructed and political nature of the economy), these practices
need to be re-embedded within the social and the political rather than be seen as
belonging to an autonomous, reified field of ‘‘the economy’’.
This escape from the economy is at least as much a question of decolonising the
imagination as one of enacting new practices, it calls for rethinking the economy (or as
´, 2005, puts it ‘‘de-thinking the economic’’), or rethinking ourselves outside
economic relations, for example, by fighting against the reduction of human beings to
their economic function, as producers and consumers (Arie
`s, 2005). This re-thinking
outside the economy is illustrated here with two conceptual moves within degrowth
debates, each corresponding to the affirmation of a different set of values to that of
‘‘economic rationality’’: replacing the discourse of economic imperatives by that of
choice and democracy, and recasting the consumer as a citizen.
From economic imperative to democratic choice
A concept central to degrowth is that of democracy, and with it, the affirmation of
choice in the face of the supposed inevitability or autonomy of the growth economy.
Degrowth foregrounds choice by firmly placing what are usually presented as
inevitable economic rules or forces within a democratic framework, and questioning
‘‘immutable’’ economic precepts such as the commonly deployed notion that growth
(and efficiency) will help protect and create jobs; and surely no one could stand against
this! For politicians and managers, the protection and creation of jobs has long been a
magic trick (or as degrowth proponents would maybe more aptly call it, a blackmailing
strategy) deployed to call for and legitimise efficiency measures designed to increase
competitiveness or programmes of growth, as if ‘‘jobs’’ where in themselves an
irrefutably desirable end; and indeed one of the main arguments that has been made
against the degrowth movement is that it would lead to the loss of jobs. However,
proponents of degrowth question the social utility of creating or protecting
meaningless or even harmful jobs, for example they ask: what sort of jobs? Under what
conditions? To produce what? For whom? With what consequences? For what social
utility? These questions have led to debates within the degrowth movement that not
only provide a critique of the value placed on (waged) work, but also call for self-
reduction in working time by unilaterally taking unpaid leave (e.g. Homs, 2007).
But if the degrowth movement is intent on getting us out of economic imperatives,
they are equally suspicious of political or ecological imperatives. Thus, they are wary
of the possible danger of emerging authoritarian responses to environmental crisis.
There is a long-lived tension within environmentalism between a commitment to
democracy and grassroots participation on the one hand, and a concern for immediate
action and results in the light of rapid ecological degradation on the other (Latta, 2007;
Torgerson, 1999). Indeed, the sense of an environmental crisis could become another
means (besides invoking the threat of terrorism) of reinforcing state authority
¨hdorn and Welsh, 2007).
The degrowth movement recognises the danger of ‘‘ends-oriented’’ thinking where
the perception of a crisis produces a ‘‘political imperative’’ that pushes aside democratic
debate and urges us all to act in a concerted manner. As Latouche (2006b) notes, faced
with serious environmental threats, people who have the most to lose (mainly in the
North) might well hand over their freedom to state figures promising to preserve their
lifestyles. This would of course entail a drastic aggravation of global injustice, and be a
serious blow to democracy. Degrowth is offered as a way of avoiding ‘‘ecocracy’’ in the
future, a path we could chose today to remain in a position to collectively and
democratically shape our future in the face of ecological degradation. The more we
wait, the more the shock imposed by the earth natural limits might be brutal and the
risk of emerging ‘‘ecototalitarian’’ responses high. But whilst recognising the threat of
environmental degradation, proponents of degrowth are not prepared to sacrifice
democracy to some ‘‘ecological imperative’’ any more than to economic or political
Unlike some radical ecologists and in particular deep ecologists (e.g. Næss, 1989;
Sessions, 1995), degrowth proponents are as keen to escape from the ‘‘force’’ of nature
as they are from the force of capitalism or the market. Degrowth is not presented as an
ecological imperative (although it may be that too), but as an opportunity to initiate
debates and reclaim decisions about the organisation of economic and social activities.
`s (2005) insists that degrowth is not a ‘‘forced option’’ in the face of
catastrophic environmental crisis; he is keen to move away from apocalyptic visions
that could legitimise imposed solutions, and insists that degrowth is a choice that
defenders would make without the oncoming ecological crisis, ‘‘simply to be human’’.
Degrowth is not defended as a necessity but as a choice, one that has to be made
democratically and openly. Similarly, for Latouche (2006b), whilst degrowth may
impose itself through natural limits, it is an opportunity to democratically reclaim and
rethink the way we live, or ‘‘to make a virtue out of necessity’’. The material conditions
defined by limited ecological space and its current over-use may create an imperative
for radical change in the ways we organise ourselves, but it does not in itself dictate
how this should be done.
This emphasis on democratic choice over ‘‘imperative’’ is accompanied by a
privileging of human and social values above ecological ones. Whilst degrowth may
have to operate within ecological limits, it is strongly anchored in humanist values; and
various proponents are at pain to show that their concerns are primarily with human
values and social justice rather than ecological values. Thus as noted above, Arie
(2005) would stand for degrowth even without the oncoming ecological crisis, ‘‘simply
to be human’’; in a similar vein, the Parti pour la De
´croissance defines itself as
‘‘humanist’’ before ecologist. Similarly, for Latouche (2006a), degrowth is not just about
protecting the environment, it is a question of social justice. More generally, it is argued
that the ecological crisis is just one consequence of an ideology of growth that destroys
the social fabric (by creating inequalities and poverty) and democracy as well as the
environment. In sum, degrowth is not defended as a necessity but as a political choice:
we are not condemned to degrowth, rather it is an open path we can chose and shape.
Thus degrowth is not envisaged in terms of sacrifice, or austerity and scarcity (as it
is often accused of), but as an opportunity to reconsider what constitutes the good life.
This emphasis on the good life is signalled by the use of terms such as conviviality
(Moins de biens, plus de liens – ‘‘Fewer goods, more relationships’’ being one of the
motto of the movement) and well-being (indeed, the sub-title of the Journal de La
´croisssance is La Joie de Vivre). Proponents 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 (Arie
Replacing the consumer by the citizen
Reclaiming citizenship and privileging this role over economic ones such as that of the
consumer has been a strong motif in recent green politics (e.g. Dobson, 2003, 2006;
Dobson and Bell, 2006; Dobson and Valencia-Saiz, 2005; Doherty and de Geus, 1996;
Hayward, 2006; Latta, 2007). Dobson’s (2003) conceptualisation of ecological
citizenship is of particular interest here since its political rather than moral emphasis
seems well in tune with the degrowth movement. Dobson’s (2003) definition of
ecological citizenship is grounded in ecological footprints; ecological citizenship is
bound by the obligations arising from limited ecological space and excessive ecological
footprint; it is grounded in material relations but translate these material relations into
political ones. Thus, the current vast inequalities in ecological footprints between rich
and poor countries define relations of obligation, especially from the rich to bring about
a more equitable distribution of ecological space (Dobson, 2003). For Dobson,
grounding ecological citizenship in material relations related to limited ecological
space makes it an eminently political concept for it sets the conditions of (in)justice:
‘‘Political obligation between citizens is generated, in my conception, by the
requirements of justice under conditions of ecological space scarcity’’ (Dobson, 2006, p.
448). Thus ecological citizenship, on this understanding, is not a moral issue, but as
Dobson (2003, 2006) is at pain to show, a political one. The community created by the
material relations defined by ecological footprint is a political community, rather than
one defined by a ‘‘common humanity’’.
This emphasis on the political nature of citizenship is one shared by the degrowth
movement . Here citizenship is also envisaged in terms of collective, political practice;
indeed, it is the collective and political nature of citizenship that opens up escape route
from the economy. Calling upon citizens takes us away from the individual, self-
interested motives of the consumer; it serves to link individual choices and behaviours
into collective action, to frame them in a political context, not only ‘‘by opening up the
possibility of checking self-interest against the common good’’ (Dobson and Valencia
Saiz, 2005, p. 158), but also by lifting what could amount to no more than isolated
individual lifestyle decisions and actions (e.g. to recycle, buy green products) into a
wider political domain. This politicising function of citizenship is particularly central
of the degrowth movement’s proposal for a general consumption strike.
One particular strategy that is put forward as a political weapon for people to
reclaim themselves as citizens is the consumption strike (Arie
`s, 2006). But this
consumption strike is a not envisaged as the isolated acts of individuals, as an exercise
in lifestyle whereby individuals boycott a particular product or opt for voluntary
simplicity (although these are also deemed to be worthwhile strategies). Rather, it is
proposed as a political act that would be accompanied by collective demands to
government and industries (Arie
`s, 2006). Citizens could, for example, demand
institutional or legal frameworks that privilege human rights (such as a universal right
to decent accommodation, to free public transport) above the rights of consumers to
choose cheap throw-away products, or of producers to advertise. So the idea of the
consumption strike is not about exercising power as a consumer (i.e. a sort of ‘‘voting
with your trolley or wallet’’), but rather about refusing to identify oneself as a consumer.
This consumer strike could be organised in steps so that the future ‘‘ex-consumers’’
learn to use this weapon and to live without consumption; the steps that are suggested
include for example, participating in the ‘‘buy nothing day’’ that already takes place in
November of each year and organising others, targeting forms of consumption that are
deemed particularly damaging (e.g. cheap ‘‘throw-away’’ goods manufactured under
conditions of slave labour), or inviting people to reflect on how they could consume less
`s, 2006). And as we learn to live outside the economy, or the domain of commodity
exchange, the consumption strike could also become an end in itself. Unlike the
worker’s strike whose aim is to return to work, the aim of the consumer strike is not to
return to consumption, but rather to learn to move away from it. Thus the general
consumption strike could be both a means and an end: a weapon to attack capitalism
and growth economics at its core – in its sacralisation of consumption, but at the same
time a way of learning to live differently from the homo economicus which we are
commonly reduced to.
If the general consumption strike is one mechanism imagined to privilege the citizen
over the consumer, another conceptual strategy that has been put forward is to re-
imagine the market as a space that calls upon us as citizen, that appeals to our sense of
civil obligation and participation rather than to our ‘‘economic rationality’’. Thus,
Latouche (2003) proposes to reframe the market in terms of the Agora. Drawing on
studies of markets in Africa as well as on the imagery of the Agora in Ancient Greece,
he suggests that recasting the market as the Agora would re-inscribe exchange within
the social and the political, and would call upon us as citizens rather than consumers.
‘‘Markets’’ would no longer be thought of as just places for commodity exchange, but
also as having social and political functions. This is not to say that the market so
conceived would have no economic function, but that it would not be reduced to this.
For Latouche, the Agora is first and foremost a place of public life and civil society. It is
a place for encountering the foreign, the other (a school of tolerance); it is also a forum
for political life where elected officials and candidates come out to speak, to campaign
and debate. And the Agora is also a place of counter power to the official power (of the
Acropolis); for example, in Africa it is a place where women can subvert their
subordinate role and affirm themselves as citizens.
In terms of practice, rethinking the market along the line of the Agora means re-
inscribing it within time and space, embedding it within local contexts so that it has a
more immediate reality to participants. So the market is no longer an abstract, distant,
universal, omnipresent and omnipotent ‘‘force’’, but a specific social reality firmly
located in time and space. Indeed, the localisation of exchange, production, finance and
politics is seen as ‘‘the most important strategic means’’ of degrowth (Latouche, 2006a).
For proponents of degrowth, this means producing locally most of the products that
are to satisfy local population’s needs, local financing of organisations through the
harnessing of local credit, local exchange schemes, including those relying on local
money, and at the political level, the creation of ‘‘small republics’’ whereby all citizens
are involved in the public affairs of their area.
In sum, the notions of democracy and citizenship are strong motifs of the degrowth
movement, and are both part of its broader intent to ‘‘escape from the economy’’, to
redefine economic relations and identities in political terms. The emphasis on
democracy clearly refutes any economic or ecological imperative and firmly places the
decisions concerning the organisations of our affairs within our own collective hands,
and the foregrounding of the figure of the citizen over that of the consumer paves the
way for forms of collective engagement that take us away from the self-interested
actions of the homo economicus. However, this dual emphasis on democracy and
citizenship is not without potential tensions, tensions that are also reflected within the
broader context of environmental politics and that are discussed in the next section.
Who wants to be a citizen?
Any talk of democracy or citizenship begs questions about inclusion and exclusion:
who will be willing/able to take part in civil society? Will it be, as environmental
politics are often represented, the preserve of a small minority? (e.g. Latta, 2007;
Schosberg, 1999) Or can it be made to involve, and appeal to, a broader audience? As
noted earlier, there is a potential tension between environmentalism and democracy
(Torgerson, 1999; Latta, 2007). On this issue, the degrowth movement is clear that it
would stand for democracy before ecology, and as I discussed earlier is wary of
‘‘ecological imperative’’ discourse. By foregrounding choice and democracy in its
attempt to politicise the economy, it is careful not to fall into another form of
determinism, ecological or otherwise, and is insistent that whilst the material
conditions defined by limited ecological space and its unfair distribution create an
imperative for radical change, they do not in themselves dictate the ways in which this
should be done; indeed, this ecological crisis could be seen as an opportunity to shape
our future. In addition, the foregrounding of citizenship in the degrowth movement as
well as in some recent work within environmentalism (e.g. Dobson, 2003, 2006; Doherty
and de Geus, 1996) calls upon us all to participate in environmental actions.
Environmental degradation is not a problem to be solved exclusively by government
policy but through the everyday decisions and actions of all of us (e.g Berglund and
Matti, 2006). If, following Dobson (2003), we define citizenship in terms of material
relations grounded in ecological scarcity, then we are all drawn in as citizens, called to
act and participate in the fair distribution of limited natural resources; we are all in
relations of obligations, in a position of owing or being owed ecological space (Dobson,
However this potentially all inclusive definition of (ecological) citizenship leaves two
questions open. The first one concerns the mechanisms through which we are called
upon as citizens (how do we get the call?), the second concerns our willingness to
answer that call, in other words why should we want to be a citizen?
Turning to the first point, the degrowth movement may have some interesting
contributions to make. It has proposed or organised the creation of various spaces of
civil society, of citizenship, from one day event such as the ‘‘Buy Nothing Day’’, to the
more ambitious general consumption strike, to month long events such as the Marches
pour la De
´croissance, or attempts to re-embed markets within local fabric and politics.
However, if degrowth proponents are keen to open up spaces for the enactment of local
democracy, they are equally wary of the danger of leaving political participation to
these relatively small and local levels, for, they argue, this could lead to parochialism,
and to the confinement of critique and alternatives to a few marginal groups. Thus, to
challenge the supposed neo-liberal consensus around growth, and re-politicise
economic debates and practices, there is a need to engage with a wider public. For
degrowth to be inclusive, it cannot be left in the hands of local or direct participation
but needs to be articulated at broader levels, it needs to become a mass movement. This
is not to deny the importance of grassroots initiatives, of local politics and ‘‘small
events’’; but for proponents of degrowth, we also need to develop mechanisms that will
link up local spaces and actions into a broader political movement, and that will bring
debates to a broader audience; an this involves entering parliamentary politics (Arie
2007). It is for this reason that the Parti pour la De
´croissance was created, and that
proponents of degrowth support representative democracy. They argue that whilst
direct democracy is appropriate at small local level, it cannot be organised beyond
small groups of 50 people, thus excluding the majority of citizens (Cheynet, 2007). For
supporters of degrowth, representative democracy is essential to the organisation of
inclusive collective action and debate. And indeed it seems that this strategy has
succeeded in bringing the notion of degrowth to public debate, for as noted earlier, it
has become a term with which the press and mainstream politicians have had to
engage with (although usually not embrace).
The second issue raised by the emphasis on citizenship concerns motivation is;
considering the comfort many of us in the North enjoy as consumers, why would we
want the burden, obligations, responsibility of citizenship? Indeed, a quick perusal at
the reactions of governments or individuals in the face of rapidly escalating
environmental degradation does not bring much hope. Whilst there is a growing
number of people and governments who recognise the urgency of ecological threats,
they remain unwilling or unable to do anything other than ‘‘sustain the unsustainable’’
to borrow a phrase from Blu
¨hdorn (2007); this is, indeed, a response I am commonly
faced with when talking to students about the sort of alternative economies we could
build in response to environmental and social degradation. Whilst many of the
students seem well aware of the environmental and social wreckage caused by Western
style consumption and production, they admit that they remain unwilling to do away
with fast food, designer clothing or cheap consumer goods. So short of the
authoritarian responses that would eschew the motivation question and that the
degrowth movement is so keen to avoid, what could drive people to abandon the
comfort of consumerism and take on the obligation of citizenship? Various suggestions
have been offered. For example, Dobson (2003, 2006) in his discussion of ecological
citizenship argues that it is justice that will motivate us to acknowledge, and act upon,
our obligations. He agrees that simply pointing to material asymmetries in the use of
ecological resources will not provide sufficient ground for action; there need to be
reasons that link the facts of asymmetries to conclusions about how we should act. For
him, this is the role of justice: ‘‘Justice is the reason that links the facts (unequal
occupation of ecological space) to the normative conclusion (act so as to reduce the
occupation of ecological space where appropriate’’ (Dobson, 2006, p. 450). However, this
still leaves open the question of why we should be motivated by justice. Dobson (2006)
deals with this in a footnote, where he claims ‘‘I hope I will not be asked to explain why
people should feel motivated to do justice, as this is a task that has confounded much
more powerful minds than my own’’ (p. 451). Indeed, but then we are back to the
In a rebuttal of Dobson’s thesis, Hayward (2006) tries to eschew the question of
motivation by putting forward ‘‘resourcefulness’’ as the main ecological virtue; this he
argues ‘‘involves the development and exercise of human capacities, and this fulfils
part of the substance of a good human life; it also eases the pressure on finite natural
phenomena that are needed as resources in (roughly) inverse proportion to
resourcefulness’’ (p. 442). For Hayward, the very definition of resourcefulness avoids
the problem of motivation behind Dobson’s justice; since resourcefulness relies on the
development of human capacities, it also defines the good life. In other words it is what
we should all want to develop if we are to become fully human, to realise our potential
as human beings. Thus resourcefulness conveniently aligns ecological concerns and
personal interests; as individuals deploy ingenuity to reduce their use of resources,
they will also develop themselves or realise their human capacities. But as Dobson
(2006) notes, it is not clear what is ecological about resourcefulness; indeed, humans
can, and have, put their ingenuity to work on many projects, from space exploration, to
the exploitation of resources, or the design of war machines and nuclear weapons; and
the reduction in the use of natural resources has, so far at least, not been at the forefront
of these projects.
Both the values of justice and resourcefulness could be read within a degrowth
framework; concerns for justice underpin its avowed republican values of democracy,
equality and solidarity, and its articulation of democratic choice and citizenship. A case
could also be made for the existence of a parallel between Hayward’s resourcefulness
and the degrowth movement’s emphasis on humanistic value; thus, for example, Arie
(2005) claim that he would stand for degrowth even without the ecological crisis, but
simply to be ‘‘human’’ hints at the development of human capacities beyond that of
‘‘consuming’’. However, maybe the point is not to find what could motivate us to be
‘‘good ecological citizens’’, as any simple answer to this question is bound to be flawed
and could be co-opted into another set of instrumental measures, but rather to create
spaces where we can act as citizens rather than as consumers, whatever our motives
for doing this might be (social justice, environmental justice, self-development). In
other words, instead of trying to work out our motivations for acting as citizens, we
could simply create as many spaces as possible where we would be defined in terms
other than economic rationality: not as consumers who want more (for less), who are
after value for money, or the latest cheap deal. Whilst the degrowth movement is no
more able to answer the big motivation question as any other environmental writers or
theories, it can make a small contribution to environmental politics by opening up such
As I have suggested earlier, degrowth is not merely about consuming and producing
less, it is first and foremost about providing a critique of the economy and its
colonising effect, and pointing to escape routes. Escaping from the economy thus
provides an essential starting point for conceptualising forms of social organisation
that do not rely on economic vocabulary, for imagining practices such as consumer
strikes that break up with economic rationality, for developing spaces such as local
markets in which we can experiment non-economic relations and identity. Thus maybe
the main contribution of the degrowth movement to environmental politics and debates
is that through its emphasis on ‘‘escaping from the economy’’ it provides both
conceptual and practical strategies for challenging the growth economy; and it does
this by inviting us to rethink economic practices in terms of democratic choices and
acts of citizenship. This is not to say that these non economic spaces do not exist
already; the myth of universal commodification tends to ignore the fact that many of us
spend a significant proportion of our time providing for ourselves, or helping others
provide for themselves, without relying on the market (e.g. Williams, 2004, 2005a, b). In
addition, others have made similar points about the need to escape from ‘‘orthodox’’
economic framing; as was mentioned earlier Gibson-Graham (1996, 2002, 2006) have
called for a reconceptualisation of economic relations and identity away from
capitalocentric thinking. However, considering the serious nature of the ecological and
social crisis facing us, multiplying the calls to escape from the economy, and finding as
many points of exit as possible may be far from a redundant exercise.
1. Growth does not fare much better in terms of social justice. The global inequality in the
use of ecological space has been accompanied by growing inequalities in the distribution
of wealth. Economic growth fuelled by increased consumption does not bring more
wealth to the most needy, as the infamous ‘‘tricking down effect’’ would have us believe.
Rather it tends to privilege the richest and those who are already consuming beyond
their fair share of the earth resources. Thus whilst the amount of global wealth has
never been so high, 1.1 billion people still have no access to drinking water, 1.2 billion
people live on less than 1 dollar a day and 2.8 billion on less than 2 dollars a day; this
represents 45 per cent of the world population (UNDP, 2006) . The poorest 20 per cent of
the planet accounted for 1.1 per cent of world income in 2006 against 2.3 per cent in
1970; the richest 20 per cent (mainly living in the North) accounted for 86 per cent of the
world income against 70 per cent in 1970.
2. In this regard, Pumar (2005) offers an interesting account of the way in which the neo-
liberal understanding of sustainability became institutionalised, and came to efface more
3. The book was translated in French as De
4. This emphasis on critique is also reflected in the Parti pour la De
and statutes; the party defines itself as a counter-power and its statutes contain a clause
stipulating that any member who becomes elected to a position of executive power will
have to resign from the party for the duration of his/her mandate.
5. Although the terms of consumers and citizens are commonly used to index different set
of concerns or motives (the pursuit of individual interests and satisfaction versus moral
and collective responsibility), the distinction is not always clear cut. As Shaw (2007)
notes, given the impact that consumption patterns have on society and the environment,
it has become, for some, a vehicle for practising citizenship and building community.
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