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Socially sustainable degrowth as a social–ecological transformation: repoliticizing sustainability

SPECIAL FEATURE: EDITORIAL Socially Sustainable Degrowth as a Social-Ecological
Socially sustainable degrowth as a social–ecological
transformation: repoliticizing sustainability
Viviana Asara
Iago Otero
Federico Demaria
Esteve Corbera
Springer Japan 2015
In the late 1980s, the sustainable development paradigm
emerged to provide a framework through which economic
growth, social welfare and environmental protection could
be harmonized. However, more than 30 years later, we can
assert that such harmonization has proved elusive. Steffen
et al. (2015) have shown that four out of nine planetary
boundaries have been crossed: climate change, impacts in
biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered bio-
chemical flows are a manifestation that human activities
are driving the Earth into a new state of imbalance.
Meanwhile, wealth concentration and inequality have
increased, particularly during the last 50 years (Piketty
2014). In 2008, the collapse of large financial institutions
was prevented by the public bailout of private banks and,
nowadays, low growth rates are likely to become the norm
in the economic development of mature economies (Sum-
mers 2013; IMF 2015; Teulings and Baldwin 2015). The
three pillars of sustainability (environment, society and
economy) are thus simultaneously threatened by an inter-
twined crisis.
In an attempt to problematize the sustainable develop-
ment paradigm, and its recent reincarnation in the concept
of a ‘‘green economy’’, degrowth emerged as a paradigm
that emphasizes that there is a contradiction between sus-
tainability and economic growth (Kothari et al. 2015; Dale
et al. 2015). It argues that the pathway towards a sustain-
able future is to be found in a democratic and redistributive
downscaling of the biophysical size of the global economy
(Schneider et al. 2010; D’Alisa et al. 2014). In the context
of this desired transformation, it becomes imperative to
explore ways in which sustainability science can explicitly
and effectively address one of the root causes of social and
environmental degradation worldwide, namely, the ideol-
ogy and practice of economic growth. This special feature
aims to do so by stressing the deeply contested and political
nature of the debates around the prospects, pathways and
challenges of a global transformation towards
The ‘growth’ paradigm (Dale 2012; Purdey 2010)is
indeed largely accepted in advanced and developing
countries alike as an unquestioned imperative and natu-
ralized need. It escapes ‘the political’, i.e. the contested
public terrain where different imaginaries of possible
socio-ecological orders compete over the symbolic and
material institutionalization of these visions. In this sense,
the contemporary context of neoliberal capitalism appears
as a post-political space, i.e. a political formation that
forecloses the political, the legitimacy of dissenting voices
and positions (Swyngedouw 2007). As Swyngedouw
(2014:91) argues: ‘‘the public management of things and
people is hegemonically articulated around a naturalization
of the need of economic growth and capitalism as the only
reasonable and possible form of organization of socio-
natural metabolism. This foreclosure of the political in
terms of at least recognizing the legitimacy of dissenting
&Viviana Asara
Institute of Environmental Science and Technology,
Universitat Auto
`noma de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
Research and Degrowth, Barcelona, Spain
Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-
Environment Systems (IRI THESys), Humboldt-Universita
zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Department of Economics and Economic History, Universitat
`noma de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
Sustain Sci
DOI 10.1007/s11625-015-0321-9
voices and positions constitutes a process of de-politi-
cization. [] (The) wider framework of neoliberal growth
is in itself not contestable.’
Counter-hegemonic discourses and praxis are needed to
re-politicize the debate about what kind of society (and
sustainability) we want to live in and to open up alternative
avenues (Mouffe 2005). Degrowth aims to repoliticize the
debate on the relationships between sustainability, econ-
omy and society (Kallis et al. 2014) and to advance a new
vision of social–ecological transformations. It contributes
to building a counter-hegemonic narrative, in alliance with
equivalent alternative frameworks emerging from the glo-
bal South such as Buen Vivir from Latin America (Gu-
dynas 2011), ecological Swaraj from India (Kothari 2014)
and Ubuntu from South Africa (Metz 2011).
In what follows, we present first the intellectual origins
of degrowth, to explain how such a paradigm understands
the question of sustainability. Special attention is paid to
the social and ecological limits to growth and to the social–
ecological transformation envisioned by the degrowth
paradigm. Next, we discuss the contents of the papers
included in this Special Feature. Finally, we conclude by
stressing the contribution of degrowth to sustainability
science and practice, and argue for a re-politicization of the
science and practice of sustainability.
Origins and foundational scientific premises
The concept de´croissance (degrowth) was first coined by
´Gorz in a debate organized by Le Nouvel Obser-
vateur in Paris in 1972, as a follow-up of the Limits to
Growth report (Meadows et al. 1972; Demaria et al. 2013).
Participants included philosophers Herbert Marcuse and
Edgard Morin, the ecologist Edward Goldsmith and the
then President of the European Commission Sicco Man-
sholt. Gorz employed the term to question the compati-
bility of the capitalist system with the ‘‘degrowth of
material production’’,
and he underscored the importance
of reducing consumption and promoting values like fru-
gality, autonomy and conviviality.
Gorz’s commentary exemplifies the encounter of the
ecologist and culturalist critiques of economics (Latouche
2011,2013; Bonaiuti 2013; Martinez-Alier et al. 2010).
The former draws centrally on Nicholas Georgescu-Roe-
gen’s bio-economics, which relies on ecological science to
challenge orthodox economics (Sorman and Giampietro
2013). The culturalist critique is inspired by ‘post-devel-
opment’ theorists and political ecologists, who critiqued
the widespread adoption of particular technologies and
consumption and production models from the global North
worldwide (Illich 1973,1978; Gorz 1975,1991,2009;
Latouche, 2009,2011). For Bonaiuti (2008,2013), these
two lines of critical thought share similar pre-analytical
premises and they antagonize with the sustainable devel-
opment paradigm, which does not question the anthropo-
logical, political, cultural and institutional premises of
growth economics. Indeed, Georgescu-Roegen’s bio-eco-
nomics unravelled the entropic nature of the economic
process. While economic science was built on the mecha-
nistic paradigm (Newton–Laplace) and on the model of
classic science, the thermodynamic revolution, Georgescu-
Roegen (1971) argued, should urge us to consider the
fundamental element of irreversible time and the increase
of entropy in a closed system. Georgescu-Roegen (1971,
2009) emphasizes the ecological limits to growth (Grine-
vald 2008) and his works, alongside Boulding’s (1966)
thesis on biophysical limitations of economic activity and
Kapp’s (1961,1970) reframing of environmental exter-
nalities as an inherent aspect of modern consumption and
production, are considered the foundations of ecological
Building on ecological economics research, degrowth
challenges the possibility that economic growth can be
decoupled from material and energy flows (Jackson 2009;
Dietz and O’Neill 2013). It is argued that even if there is
some evidence for relative decoupling—e.g. world GDP
has risen faster than carbon dioxide emissions over the last
18 years (Jackson 2009)—absolute decoupling, i.e. abso-
lute decline in resource use over time while the economy
grows, is not occurring (Ayres et al. 2004; Krausmann et al.
2009; Galeotti et al. 2006; Stern 2004; Soumyananda
2004). Degrowth thus challenges the possibility that some
ideas, such as the dematerialization of the world’s economy
(UNEP 2011), ecological modernization, green growth
(Martinez-Alier 2014; Latouche 2009;Go
and Naredo 2015, this feature) and the circular economy
(Haas et al. 2015) fulfil their promises. Additionally,
degrowth calls attention to the fact that eco-efficiency gains
are often re-invested in further consumption or economic
activities that counterbalance the improvements achieved
(Jevons’ Paradox or rebound effect, Polimeni et al. 2007).
The interest for critical engagements with economic
growth and development paradigms faded during the last two
decades of the twentieth century, but revived with the turn of
the new one (Kallis et al. 2014). A special issue in 2002 was
published in the journal Silence (No. 280), and a colloquium
entitled ‘‘Unmaking development, redoing the world’’ was
held at UNESCO in Paris on that same year (Duverger 2011;
‘The global equilibrium, for which no-growth—or even
degrowth—of material production is a necessary condition, is it
compatible with the survival of the (capitalist) system?’ M. Bosquet
´Gorz), Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 397, 19th June 1972, p. IV.
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Muraca 2013). With the organization of the first international
colloquium on sustainable degrowth in Lyon in 2003, which
gathered hundreds of participants from France, Switzerland
and Italy, degrowth established itself as an international
movement (D’Alisa et al. 2014). Degrowth became ‘both a
banner associated with social and environmental movements
and an emergent concept in academic and intellectual circles,
[which] are interdependent and affect each other’’ (Martinez-
Alier et al. 2010:1742). At least five international academic
conferences with civil society participation were subsequently
held in Paris (2008), Barcelona (2010), Venice and Montreal
(2012) and Leipzig (2014) with increasing number of par-
ticipants (in Leipzig there were about 3000 participants) and
the next one will be organized in Budapest in 2016. Once a
marginal perspective, degrowth is starting to being referred to
also in the mainstream debate. For instance, recently Paul
Krugman (2014) in The New York Times noticed that ‘‘anti-
growth environmentalism is a marginal position even on the
Left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless’’.
Even Pope Francis (2015), in his Encyclical Laudato Si’,
argues that ‘‘the time has come to accept degrowth in some
parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other
places to experience healthy growth’’.
Defining principles
As noted above, degrowth was originally placed at the junc-
tion of ecological and cultural critiques to economic growth
and development, but has recently evolved to encompass also
concerns on democracy, justice, meaning of life and well-
being (Flipo 2007; Demaria et al. 2013). Degrowth has thus
given birth to an incipient social movement and activist-led
science and it has been depicted as ‘‘a performative fiction
indicating the necessity of a rupture with the growth society’
(Latouche 2013:7). Some scholars and activists have tried to
define degrowth more concretely as a downscaling move-
ment. Schneider et al. (2010:512) define it as ‘‘an equitable
downscaling 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’’.
The adjective ‘socially sustainable’ has often accompa-
nied the term to stress that the normative content of degrowth
is overall related to the improvement of social well-being and
equity, and to distinguish it from ‘unsustainable degrowth’,
that is, from economic recessions that deteriorate social
conditions (Schneider et al. 2010). The objective of degrowth
is not to reduce GDP, an arbitrary indicator (Fioramonti
2013;Philipsen2015), but to increase social justice and
ecological sustainability. Therefore, degrowth should not be
understood in its literal meaning (i.e. negative growth of
GDP) or just as shrinking of material throughput (Sekulova
et al. 2013;Kallisetal.2014). The mere shrinking of con-
sumption and production levels by themselves would be even
more deleterious than current growth systems. Growth
economies do not know how to degrow: there is nothing
worse than a growth society that does not grow (Latouche
2008:18; Kallis et al. 2012). Degrowth is a provocative slo-
gan to challenge, and escape, the ideology of growth
(Hamilton 2004). It is a social project or, borrowing from
Bloch, a ‘concrete utopia’ (Muraca 2014; Latouche 2009)
that envisions a deep social–ecological transformation.
Emphasis is not put on ‘less’, but on ‘different’: ‘‘In a
degrowth society, everything will be different: different
activities, different forms and uses of energy, different rela-
tions, different gender roles, different allocations of time
between paid and non-paid work and different relations with
the non-human world’’ (Kallis et al. 2014:4).
Ecological and social limits to growth
From a degrowth perspective, the current social–eco-
logical–economic crisis is the result of systemic limits to
growth and the obsession to promote growth at all costs,
including the creation of debt to fuel growth or austerity
policies to restore stability (Kallis et al. 2014,2009;
Bonaiuti 2013). These tensions recall O’Connor’s (1998)
second contradiction of capitalism, which highlights that
capitalism systematically undermines the biophysical
conditions on which it depends in the pursuit of capital
accumulation, although there are no automatic connec-
tions between biophysical limits, increases in costs of
capital and the end of capital accumulation (Klitgaard
2013; see also Harvey 2014). However, recognizing the
importance of defining ecological limits in which the
economic activity should be embedded is not sufficient
(Deriu 2008;Muraca2013). On the one hand, it should
be acknowledged that the ecological crisis directly stems
from the ‘imperial mode of living’ of the global North,
which is ‘‘rooted in prevailing political, economic, and
cultural everyday structures’’ (Brand and Wissen
2012:555). Taking this into account, economic growth is
not only environmentally unsustainable, but also unjust,
and degrowth connects with concepts such as the
recognition and reparation of ecological debt, post-ex-
tractivism and Buen Vivir (Martinez-Alier 2012;
Demaria et al. 2013). On the other hand, degrowth
advocates agree that ecology by itself cannot pinpoint
the way or the normative ground on how to reach the
desired social-ecological transformation (Muraca 2013;
Deriu 2008). Degrowth aims to open up the democratic
discussion of selective downscaling of man-made capital
and of the institutions needed for such a ‘prosperous way
down’ (Odum and Odum 2001). An important lesson
Our translation from the original text in Spanish.
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taken from early political ecologists is that degrowth is
about a (collective and individual) democratic movement
of establishing limits within which human well-being
and creativity can flourish (Muraca 2013; Kallis et al.
2014; Asara et al. 2013). The literature on autonomy
emphasizes collective self-limitations, rather than (ex-
ternal) limits to growth, invoked not to protect nature or
avoid disaster, but because simplicity, conviviality and
frugality is how good life is conceived. Limits to growth
therefore become ‘‘a social choice, not []anexternal
imperative for environmental or other reasons’’ (Sch-
neider et al. 2010:513).
Additionally, degrowth scholars are increasingly
engaging with the intersection between income and well-
being. The so-called Easterlin paradox refers to the lack
of positive correlation over time between reported sub-
jective well-being and income growth, at least for coun-
tries with sufficient means to meet basic needs (Easterlin
1974; Helliwell et al. 2012). What Max-Neef (1995)has
called the ‘threshold hypothesis’ holds that, after a certain
threshold point, economic growth does not bring about
improvements in people’s quality of life. Other studies
have shown that income equality is conducive to better
individual and collective health and happiness (Jackson
2009; Chancel et al. 2013; Pickett and Wilkinson 2009).
Such emerging evidence, however, has not yet under-
mined the extended mantra that economic growth can be
‘a magic wand to achieve all sorts of goals’’ (Dale 2012):
from soothing class tension and reducing poverty to
reducing the gap between ‘developed’ and ‘developing
countries’, to fostering social capital and steering envi-
ronmental sustainability through ‘green growth’, among
It can be argued then that such ideological fix on eco-
nomic growth stems from the naturalization of the pre-
vailing social order in which the interests of capital are
identified with the common good (Dale 2012; Purdey
2010). For example, it has been traditionally assumed that
the benefits of economic growth (spurred by financial
benefits accumulated by business and investors) trickle
down to the poorest groups of society through a variety of
means, such as employment and redistribution programs.
More recently, the calls for and rhetoric of ‘green growth’
suggest that fostering resource efficiency measures, pro-
moting more sustainable primary energy sources and
mobilizing new sources of private funding for resource
conservation will allow for continuous capital accumula-
tion whilst generating social benefits, such as new
employment opportunities. Economic growth thinking rests
thus upon the paradoxical combination of promised abun-
dance and structural scarcity, in which desires are trans-
formed into needs and needs are reduced to solvent demand
(Rist 1996).
A radical social–ecological transformation: actors,
strategies and policies
Degrowth implies a critique of ‘commodification’ or
‘economization’, that is the increasing ‘‘conversion of
social products and socio-ecological services and relations
into commodities with a monetary value’’ (Kallis et al.
2014:4). Commodification is a fundamental tool for mak-
ing economic growth possible (Altvater 2012; Victor
2014). Escaping the ‘tyranny’ of economic growth means
opposing economism as a thinking and behavioural para-
digm and root ourselves in the terrain of the political
(Fournier 2008). In doing so, we need to be attentive to
micro- and macro-level transformations (Sekulova et al.
2013) and to challenge the imaginaries of instrumental
rationality, consumerism, utilitarianism and productivism
(Muraca 2013). In this regard, Kallis et al. (2014) have
provided a review of practices, institutions and actors that
might facilitate a degrowth transformation ‘‘to convivial
societies who live simply, in common and with less’’ (ibid:
11). Non-capitalist grassroot economic practices including
eco-communities, cooperatives, ethical banks, urban gar-
dens, time banks and community currencies contribute to
secure the basic needs of people relying on new processes
of commoning with low material throughput. New welfare
institutions such as an unconditional basic income, taxation
on resources or resource caps, redistribution policies, job
guarantee, socialization of care, public control over the
creation of money, reduction of working hours and work
sharing can secure a basic level of subsistence for all and
liberate time from paid work, thus expanding voluntary and
convivial activity and autonomy (Kallis et al. 2012,2014).
Care, education, health or environmental restoration can be
the basis of a new, labour-intensive economy, prosperous
without growth (see Jackson 2009). The role of the state is
hence deemed crucial to facilitate the degrowth transfor-
mation through the implementation of ‘non-reformist
Socially sustainable degrowth should thus be
conceived as a consequence of multiple strategies, ranging
from oppositional activism to building alternative institu-
tions to reforming some existing institutions, simultane-
ously implemented across multiple scales, from the local to
the global (Demaria et al. 2013). In terms of actors, the
evidence highlighted above suggests that activists, practi-
tioners and researchers have played a key role in promoting
degrowth, alongside policy makers, politicians, trade
unionists and other lay citizens. What political subjects will
be important in the future remains an open question.
Giorgos Kallis and the Collective Research and Degrowth (2014)
presented ten degrowth policy proposals in a press article entitled
‘Yes, we can prosper without growth’’ that was published by several
mainstream European newspapers (see
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There is a growing consensus among degrowth actors
that degrowth involves a multi-scalar transformation
beyond capitalism. In contrast to a marginal adjustment of
economic and social systems resulting from multiple and
overlapping crisis, the concept of transformation indeed
‘conveys something more radical than mere change or
even transition to a new world’’ (Tschakert et al. 2013:346;
Brown et al. 2012). The concept of transformation implies
the need to go beyond pursuing or simply protesting
against business-as-usual to actively constituting new
meanings and practices. Radical diversion from existing
pathways, as Burch and Harris (2014) assert, may only
occur with intentional action in the realms of practice and
policy, which O’Brien (2012) calls ‘deliberate transfor-
mation’, through the imagination of a post-capitalist future.
This differentiates degrowth from previous approaches to
sustainability based on a transitory or reformist pathway.
Therefore, the transformative nature of socially sus-
tainable degrowth breaks with the political and cultural
status quo and opens up spaces for new political and cul-
tural imaginaries. Degrowth is both a critique of the ide-
ology of growth (so-called ‘decolonization of the
imaginary’, see Latouche 2014) and a proposal for an
alternative desired direction. Transition discourses instead
entail the persistence of pre-existing trajectories without
changing the end goals (i.e. economic growth) and do not
question the hegemonic neoliberal mode of governance
(Brown et al. 2012). Incremental changes, the realm of
sustainable development and mainstream sustainability
thinking, may end up resulting in obstacles to sustainability
by increasing investment in the existing system and nar-
rowing down alternatives for change (Rickards and How-
den 2012). Transition approaches fail to fundamentally
rethink social structures, because they do not engage crit-
ically with the root causes of unsustainability.
However, we acknowledge that transformation is a
concept with diverse, fragmented and, at times, contested
meanings manifested at both agency (personal attitudes,
political organization) and structure (institutions, socio-
economic arrangements) levels (Brown et al. 2013).
Transformative approaches go far beyond keeping the main
functions of a given socio-ecological system intact by
adjusting to changing conditions (Brown et al. 2013). They
aim instead to alter the fundamental attributes of a system,
such as the economic mode of production, political insti-
tutions, ideologies, societal norms, everyday life, ecology
(ibid; Brown et al. 2012) and so-called ‘social natures’, i.e.
combined socio-ecological assemblages that are spatially,
temporally as well as socially and materially produced, a
result of power relationships and cultural meanings (Hey-
nen et al. 2006; Swyngedouw and Heynen 2004). Trans-
formations involve non-linear processes, because they deal
with dynamic multidimensional and complex systems and
understand social innovation as a key driving force of such
processes (Brand et al. 2013). They involve multiple scales
and system levels, from the local to the regional, national
and international levels, and functional levels such as the
markets, states and civil society (Brand et al. 2013).
The contributions to this special feature
This special feature brings together six contributions
selected from papers presented at the Third and Fourth
International Conferences on Degrowth for Ecological
Sustainability and Social Equity (Venice 2012, and Leipzig
2014) and an ad hoc call for papers that we launched in
August 2013. While early degrowth scholarly contributions
were generally focused on problem diagnostics, i.e. ‘‘Why
degrowth?’’ (Schneider et al. 2010; Saed 2012; Martinez-
Alier et al. 2010; Cattaneo et al. 2012), more recent debates
have focused on the prognosis, i.e. ‘‘What needs to be done
and how?’’ (D’Alisa et al. 2014; Sekulova et al. 2013;
Kallis et al. 2012; Kosoy 2013). This special feature pro-
vides: first, some light on the discursive weaknesses of the
sustainable development paradigm and on the economic
and ecological implications of a global downscaling of
resource and energy consumption; second, it provides new
evidence on the actual practice of degrowth by analysing
distinct political and social initiatives developed at distinct
administrative and spatial scales, from local to regional and
global levels. Overall, the articles shed light on some of the
opportunities and challenges involved in the transformation
that socially sustainable degrowth entails while contribut-
ing to challenge contemporary economic development
´mez-Baggethun and Naredo open the collection of
papers with a critical analysis of the shifting discourses on
the relationship between growth and the environment in
international sustainability policy. The authors review key
policy documents from the publication of the Limits to
Growth report and the celebration of the first Earth Summit
in Stockholm (1972) to the celebration of the last Earth
summit in Rio (2012). They identify three major discursive
shifts in these policy documents over the studied period.
First, whereas in the first years of international sustain-
ability policy in the 1970s, perpetual economic growth was
considered the origin of environmental problems, it is now
fully acknowledged as the solution to them. A key insight
is that the concept of sustainable development, as presented
by the 1987 Brundtland Report, played a key role in the
restoration of growth as a desirable objective from an
environmental and social point of view. Second, the
authors identify a discursive shift from states and public
regulation to private initiatives and market-based instru-
ments as preferred means for addressing global ecological
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problems. Third, the politically committed tone of the first
declarations in the 1970s—linking sustainability to equal-
ity, autonomy and cooperation, among other societal
goals—gave way to the current technocratic approach
where sustainability is presented as an apolitical problem to
be tackled through technical fixes. The authors conclude
that from the sustainable development consensus, sustain-
ability principles have been over time re-shaped to fit
dominant economic ideas, including the axiomatic neces-
sity of unconstrained growth. These ideas, they argue, have
to be broken down to move towards a radical turn in
international sustainability policy that effectively tackles
the roots of ecological and social degradation. A critical
question for future research and action concerns whether
and how the degrowth movement can help in this endeavor.
´rez et al. address the potential limits of
global economic growth by applying a system dynamics
global model that allows economic, energy and climate
dynamics to be analysed in an integrated way under dif-
ferent socioeconomic alternatives. Their results suggest
that expanding the use of coal as a means to maintain
global economic growth in the future would not only be
unfeasible due to supply limits, but also undesirable
because of the climate impacts that would unfold during
the next decades. Subsequently, they explore the economic
and energy implications of an anticipated democratic col-
lective shift towards a smaller and equitable economy
which does not depend on economic growth. Some
guidelines are derived for such a transformation including:
the prompt application of strong sustainable and transition
energy policies, the decrease of around 10 % in global total
primary energy demand, a radical transformation of the
transportation sector and equal sharing of the total primary
energy supply per capita. In terms of GDP, such a transi-
tion would imply a global convergence to the current world
average level, whereby industrialized countries would
reduce their per capita GDP four times while the Southern
countries would increase it threefold. The transition would
also require that the most energy-intensive countries should
reduce their current per capita energy consumption by
70 % to allow the least energy-intensive ones to increase it
by 30 %.
Gerber’s is the first of three papers providing insights on
new forms of practising degrowth. He offers a preliminary
overview of the main types of local credit systems, ascer-
taining their possible role in the degrowth transformation.
He evaluates classical credit systems and modern credit
alternatives to highlight their relevance for socially sus-
tainable degrowth. He argues that post-growth-friendly
credit arrangements should also consider the use of alter-
native forms of money, because the money we use on a
daily basis has been created by commercial banks through
credit and as such it creates constant pressures towards
growth. He thus proceeds with an evaluation of local credit
systems based on alternative money, from negative interest
credit to social credit and mutual credit. He finds that the
transformation towards a post-growth credit system apt for
degrowth should go through different stages and levels. At
the community level, local mutual credit systems could
integrate the national currency and represent a good start-
ing point for the degrowth transformation. At the national
level, a Douglasian-type social credit scheme (with uni-
versal basic income and ticketing system) combined with a
large-scale socialization of investment credit would cancel
much of the routine needs for credit.
Kunze and Becker discuss the role that small-scale
renewable energy cooperatives can play in a degrowth
social–ecological transformation, thus enriching emerging
debates about economic democracy and cooperativism
within the degrowth literature (Johanisova and Wolf 2012;
Johanisova et al. 2013). The authors define a new concept
that would be able to embody such a challenge through its
embedded normative goals: collective and politically
motivated renewable energy projects (CPE). The political
motivation rests on a participatory and democratic organ-
isational structure combined with collective legal owner-
ship and collective benefit allocation mechanisms. CPEs
also include at least one of the following normative goals:
an overall reduction of energy consumption, the protection
of biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, a transition town
agenda or more social equity and the empowerment of
disadvantaged groups. Starting from an European survey
on renewable energy projects, the study further narrows
down the research scope upon sixteen projects, where in-
depth interviews are carried out, and presents the results of
four emblematic cases from Wales, Italy, Spain and Ger-
many. The cases analysed show that CPE can involve an
upscaling movement, growing beyond the niche in which
they emerged. The authors argue that if CPEs and alter-
natives more generally emerge at multi-scalar levels, they
could embody a transformational potential beyond
Missoni deals with health, an almost neglected topic
within degrowth scholarship (an exception is Borowy
2013). While acknowledging the important role of com-
munity action for local change and individual lifestyle
changes, Missoni argues that these experiences would fail
if not embedded in a global governance system aiming at
correcting socioeconomic determinants of health. The
author argues that trade liberalization and deregulation
processes intensified the commodification and commer-
cialization of vital social determinants of health, affecting
it through a variety of mechanisms, including changes in
lifestyles, environmental degradation, reduced human
security, privatization and commercialization of health
care. Further, global public–private partnerships allowed
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private interest to influence global and national health
policies. In this regard, the author uses two case studies
from the food and tobacco industries to exemplify the need
for public regulation in contrast to corporate practices
inducing unhealthy lifestyles, and he highlights the
importance of transnational social movements in pushing
the prioritization of health and equity goals in policy-
making. The author advocates for a more comprehensive
analysis of the relations between health and degrowth,
which should extend beyond medicine and health-care
systems to focus also on the social determinants of health
and the study of how such determinants might change
during and after the transformation advocated by degrowth.
According to Missoni, health policy in the context of
degrowth should be governed by the principle of ‘doing
better with less’ (Benatar 2013), i.e. focusing on the pro-
motion of healthy lifestyles and choices, the control of
medical consumerism and a more cautious use of techno-
logical resources in health services. Missoni argues that the
World Health Organisation can potentially play an impor-
tant role in promoting these changes in health governance
through, for example, international standards or a new
legally binding global health treaty.
The special feature ends with a review article by
Escobar who situates degrowth and post-development
theory within the larger context of transition discourses. He
presents an overview of transition discourses and initia-
tives. Then he pays attention to the resurgence of post-
development debates in Latin American social movements
through notions such as ‘Buen Vivir’. The author under-
scores that both degrowth and post-development theory
challenge the centrality of development, capitalism, market
and growth in economic and cultural representations; they
share intellectual sources and converge in the link between
ecology and social justice; and they are aimed towards
radical societal transformations. Escobar also argues that
both approaches can learn from each other in a number of
critical issues. For example, degrowth could emulate some
of the post-development epistemic practices in which local
knowledges are central to cross-scale political and eco-
nomic changes, while post-development could create
scholarly networks similar to those of degrowth to gain
greater impact on academic circles. Post-development
scholars’ interest in biocentrism and non-dualist approa-
ches could be a fruitful input to develop in greater depth
the critique to modernity embedded in degrowth thinking,
whereas degrowth’s notion of conviviality could be helpful
to advance a critique to over-consumption in the global
South. Finally, Escobar stresses the importance for transi-
tion discourses to move away from a view of globalization
as the universalization of modernity and adopt instead a
view of globality as the struggle to preserve and foster the
The articles together make evident that degrowth aims at
re-embedding the economy within local communities and
environments by means of re-localization and self-reliance
through grassroot innovations and alternatives, and at the
same time it is aware that such practices are insufficient for
the transformation required unless major shifts in national
and supra-national political and economic structures also
take place. Additionally, the articles implicitly suggest that
‘the local’ is not contained or mobilized as a form of
‘militant particularism’ (Harvey 1996): radical localizers
do not argue against connections out of the locality per se
(such as in the form of networks), but argue against reifi-
cation of connections as always inevitable and good, thus
emphasizing the ‘materiality’ of scale (North 2005,2010).
Repoliticizing the science and practice
of sustainability
In the opening article of this journal, Komiyama and
Takeuchi (2006) regretted the political biases of the con-
cept of sustainable development, to which sustainability
science is inextricably linked (Kates et al. 2001). Such
biases, they argued, raised concerns about the solidity of its
scientific basis, which remained unclear to many
(Komiyama and Takeuchi 2006). For degrowth, the
weakness of sustainable development as a truly transfor-
mative concept directly stems from its falsely consensual
nature (Hornborg 2009). Degrowth unveils the ideological
role of capitalist growth (Purdey 2010) and opens up the
debate about the relations between economy, society and
sustainability, including their cognitive, material and
political interactions. In other words, degrowth helps to
further emphasize the existing contradictions between
growth, the environment and social well-being, and envi-
sions a potential multi-scalar transformation pathway
towards smaller and localized economies that redistribute
wealth, supported by state and supra-national policies. In
doing so, degrowth aspires to repoliticize the debates on
the science and practice of sustainability.
It has been suggested that sustainability scientists have
embraced a ‘thin sustainability’ concept—‘‘meeting
human needs, both now and in the future, without
degrading the planet’s life support systems’’ (Miller
2013:283). Such a definition encourages widespread
agreement, but limits the degree to which deeper discus-
sions over a ‘thick sustainability’ and what it might mean
to different people in different contexts take place (Miller
2013). By providing a thicker meaning of sustainability,
degrowth re-politicizes the debate and asks the following
question: If we are to guarantee a sustainable and just
future for present and future generations, why should our
economies grow?
Sustain Sci
Almost 15 years after sustainability science was coined
as a new scientific endeavour (Kates et al. 2001), the
problems it aims to address have not diminished but
exacerbated. The mismatch between a growing scientific
field and effective and sustainable social–ecological
change can be explained by different factors, including
insufficient scientific engagement with stakeholders,
anachronistic academic institutions and incentives, lack of
meta-studies making transdisciplinary sustainability
research available to scholars and practitioners and, in
general, a missing link between knowledge production and
action (Wiek et al. 2012; van der Leeuw et al. 2012;
Kauffman and Arico 2014; Miller et al. 2014). Accord-
ingly, ways forward have been advanced including funda-
mental reforms in the academy, more comparative studies
making sustainability insights accessible and applicable,
and a new social contract between scientists and society in
which scientists participate in the co-production of
knowledge for action with other stakeholders (Wiek et al.
2012; Kauffman and Arico 2014; Wittmayer and Scha
2014). Important as these factors may be, we argue that if
they are not articulated into a broader critique of the fun-
damental underpinnings of our societies, such as that
offered by degrowth and other transformation approaches
(Escobar 2015, this feature), sustainability science is unli-
kely to meaningfully inform the social–ecological trans-
formation required to confront the global environmental
crisis. Uncovering the ideology and practice of economic
growth (connected to capitalism) as the ultimate driver of
unsustainability may help sustainability science to further
flourish and be more influential in re-defining the Earth’s
sustainable future.
Acknowledgments Jonas Ø. Nielsen provided helpful comments to
an earlier draft of the paper. We acknowledge the financial support of
the Spanish government through the project BEGISUD ‘‘Beyond
GDP growth: Investigating the socio-economic conditions for a
Socially Sustainable Degrowth’’ (CSO2011-28990). EC has also been
supported by the Spanish Research, Development and Innovation
Secretariat through a ‘‘Ramo
´n y Cajal’’ research fellowship (RYC-
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... The core agenda of mainstream developmentalist policy is currently the sustainable development paradigm: a framework for the harmonisation of economic growth, social welfare, and environmental conservation (Asara et al. 2015). In response, critical development studies problematise "globalised", "neoliberal", "financialised" forms of industrial modernization and capitalist expansion, besides questioning the perverse notion that "[w]hat is good enough for the United States [and for global North] is good enough for the rest of the world" (Fine 1999, p. 12, brackets added). ...
... The emphasis of degrowth is not on "the less", but on the different (Asara et al. 2015). This reignites discussions over the meaning of a good life. ...
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... Degrowth is a socio-political revolution that proposes a "planned economic contraction" (Alexander, 2012) to shift society's consumption management toward a decarbonized, lower-quantity creation. Degrowth emphasizes environmental sustainability and change (Asara, Otero, Demaria, & Corbera, 2015). This theory reforms and rebuilds societies and markets around excellent governance, overhaul, and hospitality (D'Alisa, Demaria, & Kallis, 2014). ...
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... 2. Transformation includes a radical change and significant new practices and meanings (Asara et al., 2015;Blythe et al., 2018;Feola, 2015). A transformation often involves an intention to change a situation to a more beneficial state (Chapin et al., 2009), in the case of the ongoing sustainability transformation it relates to the Brundtland report emphasizing the importance of acknowledging the needs of future generations (UNWCED, 1987). ...
... A fifth development that underlies the increased attention for frugal innovation is the increasingly widespread awareness of the ultimate global consequences of existing production and economic models in terms of environmental pollution and resource depletion, leading to an urgent need to invest in a global green transformation with low carbon footprints, and production and consumption patterns based more systematically on circularity and usage instead of relying on mass production, ownership and waste creation. Globally, discussion on degrowth and other alternative thinking models on what 'development' actually is and entails has started to flourish (see, for instance, Asara et al., 2015;Dartnell and Kish, 2021;Kerschner et al., 2018;Raworth, 2017;Weiss and Cattaneo, 2017). Underneath the current production and economic models that dominate the global economy is an innovation model and thinking that emphasizes value capture more than value creation. ...
... Unsurprisingly, the planetary boundaries concept is conveniently instrumentalized in technocratic governance efforts to serve the normative aim of "sustainable development" (G omez-Baggethun and Naredo 2015), without challenging the underlying structural conditions of unsustainability. Political ecologists and social ecological economists have long criticized how the framing of limits as something external that resides in nature and is given to humanity "depoliticizes" decisions at stake (Asara et al. 2015;Streissler 2016;Muraca and D€ oring 2018;L€ ovbrand et al. 2015). The post-political definition of planetary boundaries renders invisible, or at least relativizes, the social conflict embedded in the trajectories that transgress the boundaries, or the distribution of the benefits and impacts that they entail (Kallis 2019;Dietz and Wissen 2009;Brand and Wissen 2021). ...
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The planetary boundaries concept has profoundly changed the vocabulary and representation of global environmental issues. The article starts by highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of planetary boundaries from a social science perspective. It is argued that the growth imperative of capitalist economies, as well as other particular characteristics detailed below, are the main drivers of the ecological crisis and exacerbated trends already underway. Further, the planetary boundaries framework can support interpretations that do not solely emphasize technocratic operational approaches and costs, but also assume that these alone can be the solution.
... Unsurprisingly, the planetary boundaries concept is conveniently instrumentalized in technocratic governance efforts to serve the normative aim of "sustainable development" (G omez-Baggethun and Naredo 2015), without challenging the underlying structural conditions of unsustainability. Political ecologists and social ecological economists have long criticized how the framing of limits as something external that resides in nature and is given to humanity "depoliticizes" decisions at stake (Asara et al. 2015;Streissler 2016;Muraca and D€ oring 2018;L€ ovbrand et al. 2015). The post-political definition of planetary boundaries renders invisible, or at least relativizes, the social conflict embedded in the trajectories that transgress the boundaries, or the distribution of the benefits and impacts that they entail (Kallis 2019;Dietz and Wissen 2009;Brand and Wissen 2021). ...
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The notion of societal boundaries aims to enhance the debate on planetary boundaries. The focus is on capitalist societies as a heuristic for discussing the expansionary dynamics, power relations, and lock-ins of modern societies that impel highly unsustainable societal relations with nature. While formulating societal boundaries implies a controversial process – based on normative judgments, ethical concerns, and socio-political struggles – it has the potential to offer guidelines for a just, social-ecological transformation.
Cities are critical sites for understanding, and potentially ameliorating, the effects of global ecological change, the climate emergency and natural resource depletion. Contemporary cities are sociomaterially connected through global markets, trade and transportation, placing ever‐increasing demands on the natural environment and generating dangerous pollutants and emissions. Current approaches to address these environmental crises are dominated by neoliberal forms of ‘green’ urban development, carbon accounting and techno‐economic solutions, which extend corporate control over cities and tend to entrench inequality. A more strategic approach for enabling ecologically sustainable and equitable urban futures is urgently needed. We present five strategies for urban ecological futures in the global North, derived from qualitative and ethnographic empirical research with international eco‐communities, which open up discussions about how to tackle this challenge by acknowledging the role and potential of: (1) non‐extractive community economies; (2) democratic processes of co‐operative action; (3) social approaches to resource management; (4) participatory collaborative governance; and (5) urban heterogeneity and social justice. We explore the relational, contested and contextual processes through which these approaches could become embedded in urban policy and planning, thereby offering the strategic capacity required to move towards truly sustainable cities.
Sustainability is an essential concept in environmental, social, economic, and management literature and is being encouraged by a growing awareness of the environmental damage caused by unsustainable economic growth models. Environmental sustainability involves providing resources to both present and future generations without endangering the health of the planet’s ecosystems. The aviation industry is frequently researched in terms of economic and environmental awareness to mitigate its adverse effects on monetary systems, governmental structures, the atmosphere, biological communities, and human societies. The public interest in the future of aviation is utilizing nontraditional environmentally friendly sources, such as cutting-edge fuels, and innovational engines in aircraft to increase engine efficiency, reducing aviation industry fuel consumption; also, developing, producing, and employing green products, while optimizing air traffic management and trajectory, additionally applying taxation and sanctions for non-sustainable operations are written on the other side of the coin.
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The discourse of ‘green growth’ has recently gained ground in environmental governance deliberations and policy proposals. It is presented as a fresh and innovative agenda centred on the deployment of engineering sophistication, managerial acumen and market mechanisms to redress the environmental and social derelictions of the existing development model. But the green growth project is deeply inadequate, whether assessed against criteria of social justice or the achievement of sustainable economic life upon a materially finite planet. This volume outlines three main lines of critique. First, it traces the development of the green growth discourse quaideology. It asks: what explains modern society’s investment in it, why has it emerged as a master concept in the contemporary conjuncture, and what social forces does it serve? Second, it unpicks and explains the contradictions within a series of prominent green growth projects. Finally, it weighs up the merits and demerits of alternative strategies and policies, asking the vital question: ‘if not green growth, then what?’
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In one lifetime, GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, has ballooned from a narrow economic tool into a global article of faith. As The Little Big Number demonstrates, this spells trouble. While economies and cultures measure their performance by it, GDP only measures output. It ignores central facts such as quality, costs, or purpose. Sustainability and quality of life are overlooked. Losses don't count. The world can no longer afford GDP rule―GDP ignores real development. Dirk Philipsen demonstrates how the history of GDP reveals unique opportunities to fashion smarter goals and measures. The Little Big Number explores a possible roadmap for a future that advances quality of life rather than indiscriminate growth.