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Buen Vivir, Degrowth, and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to Sustainable Development and Green Economy


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This article proposes that the 'Green Economy' is not an adequate response to the unsustainability and inequity created by 'development' (a western cultural construct), and puts forward alternative socio-environmental futures to (and not of) development. 'Sustainable development' is an oxymoron. Therefore, instead of the 'post-2015 development agenda', we argue in favour of the '2015 post-development agenda'. We discuss Buen Vivir from Latin America, Degrowth from Europe and Ecological Swaraj (or Radical Ecological Democracy) from India. The intention is to outline that there is politics beyond a unilinear future, unsustainable and unjust, consisting primarily of economic growth.
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Development, 2014,57(34), (362375)
© 2015 Society for International Development 1011-6370/15
Development (2014) 57(34), 362375. doi:10.1057/dev.2015.24
Thematic Section
Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj:
Alternatives to sustainable development and the
Green Economy
ABSTRACT This article proposes that the Green Economyis not an
adequate response to the unsustainability and inequity created by
development(a western cultural construct), and puts forward
alternative socio-environmental futures to (and not of) development.
Sustainable developmentis an oxymoron. Therefore, instead of the
post-2015 development agenda, we argue in favour of the 2015
post-development agenda. We discuss Buen Vivir from Latin America,
Degrowth from Europe and Ecological Swaraj (or Radical Ecological
Democracy) from India. The intention is to outline that there is politics
beyond a unilinear future, unsustainable and unjust, consisting
primarily of economic growth.
KEYWORDS well-being; environmental justice; sustainability;
economic growth; equity; sustainable development
Concern over the ecological unsustainability of human presence on Earth, and the
growing inequality coupled with continuing deprivation of a huge part of humanity, has
grown rapidly in the last couple of decades (Rockstrom et al., 2009; Piketty, 2014;
Steffen et al., 2015). Inequality, injustice and unsustainability, already part of many
state-dominated systems, have clearly been worsened by the recent phase of capitalisms
accelerated expansion (Harvey, 2014).
Along with this, however, the global exploration of pathways towards sustainability,
equity and justice has also grown. These are of two broad kinds. First, and currently
on the ascendance, are Green Economy(GE) and sustainable development(SD)
approaches. These entail a series of technological, managerial, and behavioural changes,
in particular to build in principles and parameters of sustainability and inclusion into
production, consumption and trade while maintaining high rates of economic growth as
the key driver of development. These attempts have failed (and we argue, will continue to
fail) to deliver what they promised: halt the worsening of the planetary health, eradicate
poverty and reduce inequality. Somewhat on the fringes, as the second broad trend, are
paradigms that call for more fundamental changes, challenging the predominance of
growth-oriented development and of the neo-liberal economy and related forms of
representative democracy. This essay attempts to provide a critique of the Green
Economymodel, and describe the alternative
notions or worldviews of well-being emerging (or
re-emerging) in various regions. By comparing the
two, it suggests how the latter can contribute to re-
politicize the public debate by identifying and
naming different socio-environmental futures:
Buen Vivir, Ecological Swaraj or Radical Ecological
Democracy (RED), and Degrowth. Finally, it dis-
cusses the risk of mainstream co-option of radical
alternatives, and concludes on the need to strive
for genuine political and socio-ecological
SD and the GE
Everything must change in order to remain the
same, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Stockholm 1972 to Rio+20: from the critique
to the defence of economic growth
In 1987, the UN World Commission on Develop-
ment and the Environment presented the report Our
Common Future(better known as the Brundtland
report), coining the concept SD, then launched at the
United Nations Conference on Environment and
Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (Principle
12 of the Declaration) and ratied at the United
Nations Conference on Human Settlements in
Istanbul 1996 and the World Summit on SD in
Johannesburg 2002. Compared with the United
Nations Conference on the Human Environment in
Stockholm 1972, this implied an overall reframing of
both the diagnosis and prognosis in relation to the
ecological crisis (see Table 1). The focus supposedly
became poverty in developing countries, instead of
afuence in developed countries, along the lines of
the post-materialist thesis of Inglehart (1990); you
rst need to be rich, in order to be an environmen-
talist; for a critique, see Martinez-Alier (2002). In so
doing, economic growth was freed of the stigma, and
reframed as a necessary step towards the solution of
environmental problems (Gómez-Baggethun and
Naredo, 2015). This watering down of the initial
debates of 1970s inuenced by the Meadows et al.
(1972) report constitutes the core of the GE, a kind of
Green Keynesianism with proposals such as a New
Green Deal, and the 2030 Agenda for SD.
At the UN Conference for SD in 2012 (so called
Rio+20 Summit) the concept of Green Economy
played a key role (even if not as much as expected) as
the guiding framework of the multilateral discus-
sions. In preparation for the summit, The United
Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) pub-
lished the report Towards a green economy: Path-
ways for sustainable development and eradication of
poverty(UNEP, 2011). The working denition pre-
sents the GE as one that results in improved human
well-being and social equity, while signicantly
reducing environmental risks and ecological
scarcities(UNEP, 2011: 16). In consonance with
the pro-growth approach of SD, the report denied any
trade-off between economic growth and environmen-
tal conservation and conceptualized natural capital
as a critical economic assetopening the doors for
commodication (so called Green Capitalism).
In the Rio+20 nal declaration, advocacy for
economic growth is recalled in more than 20 articles.
For example, Article 4 states that We also reafrm
the need to achieve SD by: promoting sustained,
approach is based on neoclassical economic theory
(environmental economics), leading to the belief that
economic growth will de-link (or decouple) itself from
its environmental base through dematerialization
and de-pollution because of the improvement in
eco-efciency (increased resource productivity and
decreased pollution). In this conceptual framework,
market prices are considered the appropriate means
for solving environmental issues and exogenous rates
of technological progress are expected to counter-
balance the effects of resource exhaustion. However,
as we will see, the conict between economy and
environment cannot be solved with appeals to
sustainable development,eco-efciency,ecologi-
cal modernization,circularor Green Economy.
The weakness of the GE
While the GE approach could be seen as an
improvement over the conventional neo-liberal
economic model, it remains fundamentally awed
on a number of counts. For instance, the nal
objective for a New Green Deal is the creation of
Kothari et al: Alternatives to Development and Green Economy
resilient low carbon economies, rich in jobs and
based on independent sources of energy supply
(NEF, 2008; UNEP, 2008). While on this end there
might general agreement, the controversy remain on
the means to adopt. This is reected in the ongoing
discussions on Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs) to replace the Millennium Development
Goals, which nations of the world are expected to
adopt in late 2015. Among the aws or weaknesses
of the GE/SD approach as articulated thus far in
various UN or UN sponsored documents (UNEP,
2011; UN Secretary General Panel, 2012; SDSN,
2013; United Nation, 2013; United Nations, 2014),
including the nal text for adoption Transforming
our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Devel-
1. Absence of an analysis of the historical and
structural roots of poverty, hunger, unsustainabil-
ity, and inequities, which include centralization of
state power, capitalist monopolies, colonialism,
racism and patriarchy. Without this diagnosis, it
is inevitable that the prescriptions will not be
transformative enough. From the time of the
Rio+20 summit (2012), every UN report on the
post-2015 Agenda has lacked such a diagnosis
2. Inadequate focus on direct democratic governance:
There is welcome stress on accountability and
transparency, but not on direct democracy
(decision making by citizens and communities
in face-to-face settings). Power in such a polity
would ow upwards from the ground, enabling
greater accountability and transparency than
possible in only representative democracy.
There is no mention of indigenous peoples
rights to self-determination (now recognized
under the United Nations Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples), or of free, prior
and informed consent powers to communities
relating to lands and resources (ILO, Conven-
tion 169)
3. Inability to recognize the biophysical limits to
economic growth: While recognizing ecological
limits, these approaches do not see the inherent
contradiction between these same limits and
unending economic growth (which necessarily
entails increasing material and energy ows, as
ecological economists have shown). Instead,
Table 1. A comparison of UN environment conferences: Stockholm 1972 and Rio de Janeiro
1992 (based on Gómez-Baggethun and Naredo, 2015)
Stockholm 1972 Rio de Janeiro 1992
Prescription for the
environmental crisis
Detailed enumeration of biotic and
physical resources that should be
More abstract notion of
sustainable development
Causes of
Resource extraction and existing
relations of economic exploitation
Poverty in developing countries
Main actors Governments Private initiatives:
corporations and NGOs;
Agenda 21 for municipalities
(the lowest administration
Instruments Political demands;
Territorial and resource planning.
Legislation (e.g.,
Environmental Impact
Market instruments.
Development 57(34): Thematic Section
there is repeated talk of accelerated growth,
albeit greenand inclusive. Given that human
activity has already crossed several planetary
boundaries, we may need global degrowth,
along with radical redistribution so that coun-
tries/regions thus far deprived can gain without
further threatening the Earth
4. Continued subservience to private capital: The
approaches remain excessively soft towards big
private business and nance capital, and depen-
dent on their goodwill (i.e., voluntary mea-
sures) to not only make their operations
sustainable but to provide nancial support for
the transition to sustainability. There is hardly
any talk of the need to reign-in irresponsible
corporate behaviour towards the Earth and peo-
ple, through legal and other regulatory mechan-
isms; and no talk whatsoever of the need to
transfer control over the means of production to
collectives of producers. There is also continued
faith in market mechanisms (e.g. the Reducing
Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degrada-
tion (REDD) mechanism) as a major element of
the GE, despite the evidence that these not only
hardly work, but are inimical to the goals of
equity and justice as they foster commodication
5. Modern science and technology held as panacea:
There is some grudging concession to indigen-
ous and traditional knowledge, practices, and
technologies, but in general, the GE/SD
approaches focus predominantly on modern
science and technology. Largely ignored is the
need to promote democratic, community-based
research and development (R&D), and the
importance of keeping knowledge in the com-
mons or public domain. For instance, environ-
mental problems need approaches such as
Post-Normal science, a problem-solving strat-
egy to be used when facts are uncertain, values
are in dispute, stakes are high, and decision
urgent(Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1994: 1882)
6. Culture, ethics and spirituality nowhere in the
picture: The importance of cultural diversity,
and of ethical and spiritual values (especially
towards fellow humans and the rest of nature)
is greatly underplayed. The crucial links
between culture, sustainability and equity are
neither worked out nor recognized
7. Unbridled consumerism not tackled head-on:
While there is a welcome focus on sustainable
production and consumption, there is no expli-
cit focus on the need to curb and drastically cut
down the present consumption levels of the rich
in the global North (the so-called 1 percent,
including the dominant elites of the South).
Without this, the majority of humankind will
never have the space needed to become more
secure and genuinely prosperous
8. Global relations built on localization and self-
reliance missing: There is little acknowledge-
ment of the need for relatively self-reliant (not
to be confused with gated!) communities, at
least for basic material/physical, learning, and
health needs, with governments and civil society
facilitation. Examples across the world testify to
the possibilities of such a transformation, which
dramatically cuts unsustainable transportation,
empowers people to be in control of their own
lives, democratizes production and markets, and
provides a stable basis for wider socio-economic
and political relations across communities. On the
contrary, the GE approach continues to promote
large-scale global trade, albeit in products that are
greenwhich according to UNEP would be more
9. No new architecture of global governance: Missing
is the need to change the current system of
global governance to be far more responsive
and accountable to the peoples of the world;
whether it is a reformed UN, or a new global
assembly of peoples that brings on board all
relevant partners, indigenous peoples and local
communities. Such global governance would
have to prioritize human rights and environ-
mental agreements over economic, nance,
trade, and commerce agreements.
Radical alternatives for human well-being:
Buen Vivir, ecological Swaraj (RED) and
Critique of development and origins of
alternatives worldviews
A range of different and complementary notions or
worldviews have emerged in various regions of the
Kothari et al: Alternatives to Development and Green Economy
world that seek to envision and achieve more funda-
mental transformation than that proposed by GE/SD
approaches. Some of these are a revival of ancient
worldviews of indigenous peoples; some have
emerged from recent social and environmental
movements in relation to old traditions and philoso-
phies. Arising from different cultural and social con-
texts, they sometime differ upon the prognosis (what
and how shall be done), but they share the main
characteristics of the diagnosis (what is the problem
and who is responsible for it) as well as similar or
equivalent Weltanschauungen (worldviews).
Unlike SD, which is a concept based on false
consensus (Hornborg, 2009), these alternative
approaches cannot be reduced to any single one
and therefore do not aspire to be adopted as a
common goal by the United Nations, the OECD
or the African Union. These ideas are born as
proposals for radical change from local to global.
In a post-political condition (Swyngedouw,
2007), they intend to re-politicize the debate on
the much-needed socio-ecological transforma-
tion, afrming dissidence with the current world
representations and searching for alternative
ones. Along these lines, they are a critique of
the current development hegemony (Escobar,
1995; Rist, 2008), meaning a critique of the
homogenization of cultures because of the wide-
spread adoption of particular technologies, and
consumption and production models experi-
enced in the Global North. The western develop-
ment model is a mental construct adopted by
(read imposed upon) the rest of the world that
need to be deconstructed (Latouche, 2009).
Development might thus be seen as a toxic term
to be rejected (Dearden, 2014), and thus, sus-
tainable developmentan oxymoron.
Deconstructing development opens up the door
for a multiplicity of new and old notions and
worldviews. This includes Buen Vivir, a culture of
life with different names and varieties in various
regions of South America (Gudynas, 2011; Monni
and Pallottino, Development, forthcoming); Ubuntu
with its emphasis on human mutuality in South
Africa and several equivalents in other parts of
Africa (Metz, 2011); Swaraj with a focus on
self-reliance and self-governance, in India (Kothari,
2014); degrowth as the hypothesis that we can live
wellwithless,andincommon(DAlisa et al.,
2014); and many others. We could even go back to
Aristotleseudaimonia (human ourishing), despite
the criticism that we might have.
These worldviews are not a novelty of the
twenty-rst century, but they are rather part of a
long search for and practice of alternative ways
of living forged in the furnace of humanitys
struggle for emancipation and enlightenment.
What is remarkable about these alternative
proposals, however, is that they often arise from
traditionally marginalized groups. These world-
views are different from dominant western ones
as they emerge from non-capitalist communities,
and therefore break with the anthropocentric and
androcentric logic of capitalism, the dominant
civilization, as well as with the various state
socialism (effectively state capitalism) models
existing until now. However, as we shall see
below, some approaches emerging from within
the belly of the beast(capitalist or industrialized
countries) can also break from dominant logic,
such as is the case with degrowth.
These worldviews differ sharply from todays
notion of development. It is not about applying a
set of policies, instruments and indicators to exit
underdevelopmentand reach that desired con-
dition of development. In any case, how many
countries have achieved development? Decades
after the notion of developmentwas spread
around the world, only a handful of countries
can be called developed,othersarestruggling
to emulate them, and all are doing this at
enormous ecological and social cost. The pro-
blem is not in the lack of implementation, but
rather in the concept of development as linear,
unidirectional material and nancial growth.
The world experiences a widespread bad devel-
opment, including those countries regarded as
industrialized, that is, countries whose lifestyle
was to serve as a reference beacon for backward
countries. The functioning of the global system is
itself a bad developer.
In short, it is urgent to dissolve the traditional
concept of progress in its productivist drift and of
development (as well as its many synonyms) as a
unidirectional, especially in its mechanistic view of
economic growth. However, it is not only about
Development 57(34): Thematic Section
dissolving it; different views are required, much
richer in content as well as in complexity. As
Kallis, 2015 explains:
Sustainable development and its more recent rein-
carnation green growthdepoliticize genuine poli-
tical antagonisms between alternative visions for
the future. They render environmental problems
technical, promising win-win solutions and the
impossible goal of perpetuating economic growth
without harming the environment.
Therefore, these alternative approaches are neces-
sary to challenge the ideas of GE and SD, and the
associated belief in economic growth as a desirable
path in political agendas. We briey describe a
few of these below coming from the contexts in
which we, the authors, live: Buen Vivir from Latin
America, degrowth from Europe and Ecological
Swaraj (or RED) from India.
Buen Vivir: a life culture
Latin America, starting from a renewed criticism of
conventional development, nds itself in a process
of re-engaging with its origins. On one hand, it
maintains and retrieves a historical tradition of
criticism and questioning that were elaborated and
presented from this region long ago, but fell behind
and threatened with oblivion. On the other hand,
other conceptions emerge, especially originating
from its own ancestral people and nationalities of
Abya Yala (name of America before the arrival of
European settlers) as well as from other regions
of the Earth.
At this point we recognize that, while much of
the positions on the conventional development
and even many of the critical currents are devel-
oped within the own western knowledge of mod-
ernity, the most recent Latin American proposals
go beyond those limits. Many of them have
re-emerged in the context of struggles against
extractive industry and other manifestations of
neo-liberal economies.
Its best known expressions remind us of the
constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia; in the rst
case is Buen Vivir (Good Life) or Sumak Kawsay
(in Kichwa), and the second, in particular Vivir
Bien (Living Well) or Sumak Qamaña (in
Aymara), and Sumak Kawsay (Quechua)
(Salón, 2014). This does not imply at all that
these countries are adhering to the principles of
Buen Vivir (we come back to this later). Other
Andean indigenous peoples have similar world-
views, including Ametsa Asaiki of the Peruvian
Amazonian peoples and Nandereko of the Guar-
ani. In any case, it is imperative to recover the
practices and experiences of indigenous commu-
nities, assuming them as they are, without ever
idealizing them.
In indigenous knowledge, there is nothing analo-
gous to the concept of development, often leading to
a rejection of that idea. There is no concept of a
linear process of life to establish a before and after
state, namely underdevelopment and development,
referring to the dichotomy in which people have to
go through in order to achieve welfare, as in the
Western world. Nor are there concepts of wealth
and poverty determined by the accumulation and
lack of material goods. Buen Vivir looms as a
category in permanent construction and reproduc-
tion in close relationship with the rest of nature.
Insofar as it is a holistic approach, it is necessary to
understand the diversity of elements that are condi-
tioned by human actions in the promotion of Buen
Vivir, such as knowledge, codes of ethics and
spiritual conduct in relation to the environment,
human values and the vision of future, among
others. Buen Vivir, in short, is a central category of
life philosophy of indigenous societies.
Buen Vivir does not synthesize a mono-cultural
proposal, as is the case of development.Itisa
plural concept (it would be better to speak of Good
Livingsor Good co-livings) arising especially
from indigenous peoples, without denying the
technological advantages of the modern world or
possible contributions from other cultures and
knowledge that challenge the presuppositions of
dominant modernity.
Buen Vivir, as an open and under-construction
proposal, enables the formulation of alternative
views of life that encompass harmony with nature
(as a part of it), cultural diversity and pluri-
culturalism, co-existence within and between
communities, inseparability of all lifes elements
(material, social, spiritual), opposition to the con-
cept of perpetual accumulation, return to use
Kothari et al: Alternatives to Development and Green Economy
values and movement even beyond the concept of
value. Buen Vivir, in short, proposes a civilizational
Ecological Swaraj or RED
Emerging from the grass-roots experience of
communities and civil society practicing or con-
ceiving alternatives across the range of human
endeavour in India, Ecological Swaraj (loosely,
self-rule including self-reliance), or RED is a
framework that respects the limits of the Earth
and the rights of other species, while pursuing
the core values of social justice and equity. With
its strong democratic and egalitarian impulse, it
seeks to empower every person to be a part of
decision making, and its holistic vision of human
well-being encompasses physical, material,
socio-cultural, intellectual, and spiritual dimen-
sions (Shrivastava and Kothari, 2012; Kothari,
2014). Rather than the state and the corpora-
tion, it puts collectives and communities at the
centre of governance and the economy, an
approach that is grounded in real-life initiatives
across the Indian subcontinent (see www.
This approach rests on the following main
(intersecting) elements:
Ecological sustainability, including the conser-
vation of nature (ecosystems, species, functions,
and cycles) and its resilience, building on the
belief that humanity is part of nature, and that
the rest of nature has intrinsic right to thrive
Social well-being and justice, including lives
that are fullling and satisfactory physically,
socially, culturally, and spiritually; where there
is equity in socio-economic and political entitle-
ments, benets, rights and responsibilities across
gender, class, caste, age, ethnicities, and other
current divisions; where there is a balance
between collective interests and individual free-
doms; and, where peace and harmony are
Direct political democracy, where decision-mak-
ing power starts at the smallest unit of human
settlement (rural or urban), in which every
human has the right, capacity and opportunity
to take part, and builds up from this unit to
larger levels of governance that are downwardly
accountable; and, where political decision mak-
ing takes place respecting ecological and cul-
tural boundaries
Economic democracy, in which local commu-
nities (including producers and consumers,
often combined in one) have control over the
means of production, distribution, exchange,
and markets; where localization is a key princi-
ple providing for all basic needs through the
local regional economy, and larger trade and
exchange, as necessary, is built on and safe-
guards this local self-reliance; and, where non-
monetized relations of caring and sharing regain
their central importance
Cultural and knowledge plurality, in which
diversity is a key principle; knowledge (its gen-
eration, use and transmission) is in the public
domain; innovation is democratically generated
and there are no ivory towers of expertise;
learning takes place as part of life and living
rather than only in specialized institutions; and,
individual or collective pathways of ethical and
spiritual well-being and of happiness are avail-
able to all
Ecological Swaraj is an evolving worldview, not
a blueprint set in stone. In its very process of
democratic grassroots evolution, it forms an alter-
native to top-down ideologies and formulations,
even as it takes on board the relevant elements of
such ideologies. This is the basis of its transforma-
tive potential.
Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era
Degrowth calls for a rejection of the obsession with
economic growth as a panacea for the solution of
all problems. It should not be interpreted in its
literal meaning (decrease of GDP) because that
phenomenon already has a name: it is called
Degrowth does not mean less of the
samebut it is simply different. It was born in the
Global North, and it is being developed for that
context, though the questioning of a one-way
future consisting only of economic growth is also
Development 57(34): Thematic Section
inspired by and relevant for the Global South
(Demaria et al., 2013).
Degrowth signies, rst and foremost, a cri-
tique of growth. It calls for the decolonization of
public debate from the idiom of economism and
for the abolishment of economic growth as a
social objective. Beyond that, degrowth also
signies a desired direction, one in which socie-
ties will use fewer natural resources and will
organize and live differently than today. Shar-
commonsare primary signications of what
this society might look like. When the language
in use is inadequate, degrowth contributes to a
new vocabulary to articulate what begs to be
articulated (DAlisa et al., 2014).
The term was proposed by political ecologist
André Gorz in 1972 and then launched by envir-
onmental activists in 2001 as a provocative slogan
(mot-obus, a missile word) to re-politicize environ-
mentalism. It springs from the hypothesis that we
can live better with less and offers a frame that
connects diverse ideas, concepts, and proposals
(Demaria et al., 2013).
Generally, degrowth challenges the hegemony
of growth and calls for a democratically led redis-
tributive downscaling of production and consump-
tion in industrialized countries as a means to
achieve environmental sustainability, social jus-
tice, and well-being (Demaria et al., 2013).
Degrowth is usually associated with the idea that
smaller can be beautiful. However, the emphasis
should not only be on lessbut also on different.
Degrowth signies a society with a smaller meta-
bolism (the energy and material throughput of the
economy), but more importantly, a society with a
metabolism which has a different structure and
serves new functions. In a degrowth society every-
thing will be different from the current main-
stream: activities, forms and uses of energy,
relations, gender roles, allocations of time between
paid and non-paid work, and relations with the
non-human world (DAlisa et al., 2013).
While integrating bioeconomics and ecological
macroeconomics (Victor, 2008; Jackson, 2011),
degrowth is a non-economic concept. On one side,
degrowth certainly implies the reduction of energy
and material throughput, which is needed to face
the existing biophysical constraints (in terms of
natural resources and ecosystems assimilative
capacity). On the other side, degrowth is an
attempt to challenge the omnipresence of market-
based relations in society (i.e., commodication)
and the growth-based roots of the social imagin-
ary, replacing them with the idea of frugal abun-
It is also a call for deeper democracy,
applied to issues which lie outside the mainstream
democratic domain, like technology. Finally,
degrowth implies an equitable redistribution of
wealth within and across the Global North and
South, as well as between present and future
The attractiveness of degrowth emerges from its
power to draw from and articulate different
sources or streams of thought and formulate
strategies at different levels. It brings together a
heterogeneous group of actors who focus on hous-
ing and urban planning, nancial issues and alter-
native money systems, agroecology and food
systems, international trade, climate justice, chil-
drens education and domestic work, meaningful
employment and cooperatives, as well as transport
and alternative energy systems. Degrowth could
complement and reinforce these topic areas, func-
tioning as a connecting thread (i.e., a platform for
a network of networks) beyond one-issue politics
(Asara et al., 2015).
Discussion: naming different socio-
environmental futures
Buen Vivir, RED and degrowth are attempts to
re-politicize the public debate by identifying and
naming different socio-environmental futures
(Swyngedouw, 2007). They articulate particular
concerns, demands, and means to achieve the
desired socio-environmental arrangements (theory
is politics). Furthermore, they oppose power in its
different forms, starting from their provocative
assertion against the consensus on growth and
development in parliamentary politics, in business,
in the bulk of the labour movement and in the
social imaginary. Rather than accepting a fake and
apolitical consensus (such as the need to grow in
order to pay the debts, or SD, or climate change
discourse àlaAl Gore where everyone is
Kothari et al: Alternatives to Development and Green Economy
supposedly in the same boat), these notions give
visibility to the contradictions and the conicts at
different scales.
We have limited ourselves to present the three
worldviews in which we are directly involved,
though there are several equally important and
relevant worldviews and notions, such as those
emanating from movements of feminism, post-
extractivism, solidarity and social economies, com-
mons, permaculture, transition towns, steady
state, social ecology, global justice, environmen-
tal/climate justice, occupy everythingand others;
from traditions like ubuntu, agdal, and others; from
initiatives like Blockadia, the Yasuni ITT proposal
in Ecuador and other similar attempts to leave oil
in the soil, coal in the hole, gas in the grass, and
so on.
While the above-sketched notions are intern-
ally diverse and there has been no global attempt
at trying to consolidate them into a single coher-
ent vision or framework (if this was even possible
or desirable), there are a number of common
elements that can be discerned even without a
systematic comparative assessment. This is espe-
cially true at the level of the fundamental values
or principles that they espouse, or are based on.
These include: bio-ethics or respect for all life and
the rights of (and stewardship towards) non-
human nature; holistic human well-being that
puts non-material (including spiritual) and mate-
rial aspects on the same footing; equity and
justice; diversity and pluralism; governance based
on subsidiarity and direct participation; collective
work, solidarity and reciprocity while respecting
the individual; responsibility; ecological integrity
and resilience; simplicity (or the ethic of enough-
nessand sufciency aparigraha in the Indian
context); dignity of work; and qualitative pursuit
of happiness.
All these proposals recognize that humanity
must reconnect with nature. Humanity must
assume its limits and adapt its life to natural life
cycles. The task seems simple, but is extremely
complex. Instead of keeping the divorce between
nature and human beings, we must encourage
their re-engagement. This also means accepting
the essence of the human community, with and in
terms of other human beings, as part of nature,
without attempting to dominate it.
Radical well-being notions and worldviews can
be quite different in their cultural and socio-
economic contexts, but they share a common (if
currently unstated) critique of the GE, as well as
many elements of alternative futures. They call for
resistance and regenerationbased on the de-
commodication of Nature, radical redistribution
of income and wealth as well as of reproductive
work (care), democratization of the economy,
decentralization and de-concentration of the pro-
ductive sectors, and a deep engagement within and
As a rst small step in this direction, we show
below how the various well-being alternatives
outlined above, and others emerging elsewhere in
the world, differ from the GE/SD approach in many
Parameter GE/SD Approaches Radical Well-being Approaches
State and corporate-centred, with measures
for accountability and transparency;
representative democracy
Community-centred; direct democracy
with representative governance
institutions responsible to local
State and corporate-centred and owned;
Green Growth as main driver; centrality of
nancial and market measures for
sustainability along with public policy;
continued emphasis on competitive trade
and economic globalization
Community-centred; community or
public ownership of means of production;
holistic well-being oriented; centrality of
customary and/or public policy measures
for sustainability; localized self-reliance
for basic needs
Development 57(34): Thematic Section
The lines between GE/SD and more radical
well-being approaches can of course at times be
fuzzier than it appears from the table above. For
instance, some proponents of the former seem to
encompass the notion of rights of nature, but
perhaps not in a holistic, ethical sense as in the
latter. On equity and justice, the former can
encompass many rights-based and pro-active
state actions (e.g., on gender), but usually does
not want to make the rich give up substantially
towards redistribution, and is weak on changing
the structures creating inequality, including
Mainstream co-option of radical
The GE/SD approaches can be seen as an attempt
by the proponents of neo-liberal or state-domi-
nated systems to survive the obvious negative
impacts of ecological and social crises, at least in
the short run, while retaining legitimacy in the
face of increasing demands from the public for
greater responsibility and accountability. Part of
this is also an effort to co-opt the voices and
language of those advocating radical alterna-
tives. For instance, degrowthwas chosen not
only as a provocative slogan, but also as one
difcult to co-opt. For the moment, it has
worked, though it has occasionally been used by
certain politicians and journalists as a synonym
of recession (Ariès, 2008).
However, the most interesting example of these
attempts of semantic appropriation is how the
indigenous visions of Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay
(outlined above) have been taken over in ofcial
discourse and policy in some Latin American
countries, and consequently by agencies like
UNEP. In a comparative analysis of the GE
approach and development strategies of some
Latin American countries based on these indigen-
ous visions (e.g., Vivir Bien in Bolivia, Sumak
Kawsay in Ecuador), UNEP (2013) argues that
there is essential similarity between the two.
UNEP is able to assert this because, in adapting
these concepts into constitutional, legal, or
(Continued )
Parameter GE/SD Approaches Radical Well-being Approaches
Social justice
and equity
Inclusive development and entitlements;
state welfare or responsibility towards the
Radical redistribution of power and
wealth; empowerment of the weak to
take control of their lives; in the short-
run future a welfare and facilitative role
for the state.
culture, and
Predominant focus on modern science &
technology, some concession to traditional
knowledge/science and technology;
acceptance of privatization; cultural and
spiritual aspects marginalized or commodied.
Equal status to diversity of knowledge
systems; knowledge generation and
custodianship in the public domain;
respect of cultural diversity and
undogmatic spiritual self-realization.
Human-centred; sustainability as
instrumentalist goal; nature as either
commons or privatized.
Life-centred; inherent value of non-
human nature; spiritual connection
between humans and non-human
nature; nature as predominantly the
Central goal, but not necessarily over-riding;
unclear acceptability of absolute limitsof
material and energy ows.
Non-negotiable as a bedrock of human
existence; absolute limitsof energy and
materials clearly accepted, with
precautionary principle in situations of
knowledge uncertainty.
Kothari et al: Alternatives to Development and Green Economy
administrative provisions, these countries have
either distorted their original meanings and/or
clubbed them with other contradictory concepts.
Bolivia, for instance, proposes in its National
Development Plan a change from a development
model based on primary exports to one based on
the philosophy of Vivir Bien, Living Well, which
proposes the fundamental complementarities of
access to and enjoyment of material goods, and
effective, subjective, and spiritual self-realization
in harmony with nature and in community with
human beings. However, the Plan also proposes
high rates of GDP growth, and continued use of
extractive industries to generate necessary
resources and surplus to plough into sectors like
In Ecuador, possibly one of the worldsmost
progressive constitutions makes the state
responsible for a development path that is the
organized, sustainable and dynamic grouping of
economic, political, socio-cultural and environ-
mental systems which ensure the achievement
of good living (Sumak Kawsay), and extends to
nature the right to full respect for its existence
and the maintenance and regeneration of its
vital cycles, structure, functions and evolution-
ary processes. This and Ecuadors National Plan
for Good Living (20092013) come close to the
radical alternative visions outlined above. And
yet, partly because of the continued dependence
on extractive industry, partly because of lack of
conviction in direct democracy and economic
localization, and partly because the state retains
enormous power, it is far from clear that the
country is headed towards achieving such
visions (Acosta, 2013).
It is not surprising that across the Latin
American region, despite some undoubtedly pro-
gressive governments and policies, indigenous
peoples continue to struggle against the state,
and radical human rights and environmental
justice groups and activists continue to raise
fundamental questions about the direction the
governments are taking. In such a scenario,
the GE approach mirrors, or is mirrored by,
indigenous notions of well-being, is somewhat
Conclusion: the need for radical
movements to foster transformative
socio-ecological transitions
The inability or unwillingness of UN institutions
and processes to acknowledge the fundamentally
awed nature of the currently dominant economic
and political system, and to envision a truly
transformative agenda for a sustainable and equi-
table future, is disappointing. But it is not surpris-
ing, given that these processes are in the hands of
ofcials of nation-states and formal sector experts
with private corporate power pushing from
behind, and there is seriously inadequate voice of
ordinary (including indigenous) peoples in them.
For this reason, even as civil society pushes for the
greatest possible space within the post-2015 SDGs
Agenda, it must also continue envisioning and
promoting fundamentally alternative visions and
There is a need to relocate at the centre of our
societies the value of solidarity and mutual
principles of social organization beyond the con-
ventional economics and utilitarianism on
which the GE is based. This complex challenge,
barely sketched in this text, we will not meet
overnight. We must give way to transitions from
existing alternative practices worldwide, guided
by utopian horizons advocating a life in har-
mony among human beings and between us and
the rest of nature. This urges us to move towards
a new civilization demanding another economy
and another politics. It is a patient and deter-
mined construction and reconstruction one
that begins to dismantle various dominant
fetishes (like growth), and promotes radical
changes from existing experiences, especially at
the local level, typical of a RED.
The possibility of radical well-being notions
such as those outlined above becoming preva-
lent, and replacing the currently mainstream
model of development(with or without its
sustainableand greenrobes), is clearly dim in
the current scenario. However, it is not an
impossible dream; indeed, as multiple crises
increase when even the Green Economyfails to
deliver as it inevitably must, people everywhere
will be looking for meaningful alternatives. This
Development 57(34): Thematic Section
is already happening for instance in the context
of Southern Europes severe economic crisis, or
as a response to the alienation of an increasingly
capitalist state in many southern countries.
Indigenous peoples, local communities, civil
society and other actors of change need to
continue dreaming, practicing, and promoting
these alternatives, for one day there will be an
overwhelming demand for them, and it will be
tragic if we would have meanwhile abandoned
them because we thought they were an
The authors acknowledge useful comments on a previous draft by Filka Sekulova, and kind support by the
Editor Stefano Prato. Special thanks to grass-roots activists who continue to be an incredible source of
inspiration. Federico Demaria received nancial support from the project Social innovations for
Alternative Ecological Economies(SINALECO; PK612919).
1The key aim for a transition to a Green Economy is to enable economic growth and investment while increasing
environmental quality and social inclusiveness. (UNEP, 2011: 16).
2 Adapted from Kothari (2013). As this article was going to press, the nal outcome document of the SDG process
came out, though formally not yet adopted. It was too late for us to review in detail, however on a quick reading, we
did not nd any signicant change from the previous documents that we analyze here, so we consider our critique
still fully pertinent. The nal text for adoption on the 2527 September 2015 is available here (Last accessed on 18
August, 2015)
3 Considering the weak and arbitrary nature of GDP as an indicator (Van den Bergh, 2009), and following Latouche
(2009), the irrelevance of GDP increases/decreases can be expressed with the term a-growthin the same sense
that one can be an a-theist (Demaria et al., 2013).
4 Frugal abundance is the term used by Latouche (2009). Understanding degrowth as a matrix of alternativeswe
should also consider other proposals with similar connotations such as: convivialityby Ivan Illich, prosperity
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as recognized in the Constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador, and also Eudaimoniaby Aristotle, human ourishing,
joie de vivre and others.
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This article examines the implications for a change in framework from sustainable development to degrowth in the environmental and social discourse of International Economic Law (I.Econ.L.). It argues that the framework of sustainable development accommodates the Global North's inaction in assuaging environmental degradation and alleviating global inequality by remaining embedded in a capitalist, growth-oriented political economy. Degrowth would provide a strategy to move past such an impasse by encouraging actors to grapple with the role growth plays in the rationale behind I.Econ.L. Degrowth advocates a planned economic contraction to reconcile human's relationship with the environment. This project serves as the first effort to link ideas of degrowth with I.Econ.L. and seeks to identify some of the areas in I.Econ.L.'s scholarship where degrowth would serve as an alternative to sustainable development and what such an alternative would mean for the norms in the different areas of I.Econ.L.
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Sufficiency is an indispensable strategy for sustainable development that is gaining growing attention in both the scientific and the political sphere. Nevertheless, the question of how sufficiency-oriented social change can be shaped by different actors remains unclear. There are many different concepts of sufficiency and all of them entail certain notions of social change. However, these notions of social change remain mostly implicit. By conducting a semi-systematic literature review on sufficiency and transformation, this article makes explicit notions of social change in various concepts of sufficiency. Additionally, these notions are structured and discussed concerning their possible contribution to a broader socio-ecological transformation to advance the debate about sufficiency-oriented strategies. The literature was sampled by a systematic search in the databases of Web of Science and the ENOUGH-Network, a European network of sufficiency researchers, and complemented by texts known to the author. In total 133 articles, books and book chapters were reviewed. The sufficiency concepts were analyzed regarding two dimensions: the goal of and the approach toward social change. Various ecological and sometimes social goals that different concepts of sufficiency pursue were identified. Some scholars operationalize the social and ecological goals in a sufficiency-specific way as consumption corridors or a pathway toward a post-growth economy. Furthermore, three different approaches to sufficiency-oriented social change were identified: a bottom-up-approach, a policy-making-approach and a social-movement-approach. Specific contributions and limitations of these approaches were identified. The three approaches differ regarding the role of conflicts and the conceptualization of behavior and social practices. By interpreting the results utilizing the Multi-Level-Perspective of Sustainability Transition Research and Erik O. Wright's transformation theory, synergies for sufficiency-oriented social change were identified. The review founds a theoretical basis for further empirical and theoretical research on shaping sufficiency-oriented social change.
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There are three major reasons why ideas associated with ubuntu are often deemed to be an inappropriate basis for a public morality in today's South Africa. One is that they are too vague; a second is that they fail to acknowledge the value of individual freedom; and a third is that they fit traditional, small-scale culture more than a modern, industrial society. In this article, I provide a philosophical interpretation of ubuntu that is not vulnerable to these three objections. Specifically, I construct a moral theory grounded on Southern African world views, one that suggests a promising new conception of human dignity. According to this conception, typical human beings have a dignity by virtue of their capacity for community, understood as the combination of identifying with others and exhibiting solidarity with them, where human rights violations are egregious degradations of this capacity. I argue that this account of human rights violations straightforwardly entails and explains many different elements of South Africa's Bill of Rights and naturally suggests certain ways of resolving contemporary moral dilemmas in South Africa and elsewhere relating to land reform, political power and deadly force. If I am correct that this jurisprudential interpretation of ubuntu both accounts for a wide array of intuitive human rights and provides guidance to resolve present-day disputes about justice, then the three worries about vagueness, collectivism and anachronism should not stop one from thinking that something fairly called 'ubuntu' can ground a public morality.
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Degrowth is a rejection of the illusion of growth and a call to repoliticize the public debate colonized by the idiom of economism. It is a project advocating the democratically-led shrinking of production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological sustainability. This overview of degrowth offers a comprehensive coverage of the main topics and major challenges of degrowth in a succinct, simple and accessible manner. In addition, it offers a set of keywords useful for intervening in current political debates and for bringing about concrete degrowth-inspired proposals at different levels [en] local, national and global. The result is the most comprehensive coverage of the topic of degrowth in English and serves as the definitive international reference.
The author begins by defining what is to be understood by the word 'development', and then moves to the colonial period to show that the practices presently claimed as new have in fact a long history. Traces President Truman's concept of underdevelopment leading to the invention of development and the prinicples of cooperation formulated by Third World countries and international organisations. Following the work of Rostow, and the proclamation of the new international economic order, it was thought that all nations would share the promise of abundance and inequalities would be reduced. However, the debt problems and the environmental crisis came to the fore, particularly because they affected the finance and supply systems of the North. Being unable to solve them, every one joined in hoping that 'development' would be durable and humane - such was the justification in both North and South for perpetuating a system which maintains and reinforces exclusion while claiming to eliminate it. Concludes by showing why development has gradually been drained of content so that it is now a residue used to justify the process of globalisation.