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Research On Degrowth

  • Institute for Ecological Economy Research, Berlin, Germany; Humboldt University Berlin; Technical University Berlin


Scholars and activists mobilize increasingly the term degrowth when producing knowledge critical of the ideology and costs of growth-based development. Degrowth signals a radical political and economic reorganization leading to reduced resource and energy use. The degrowth hypothesis posits that such a trajectory of social transformation is necessary, desirable, and possible; the conditions of its realization require additional study. Research on degrowth has reinvigorated the limits to growth debate with critical examination of the historical, cultural, social, and political forces that have made economic growth a dominant objective. Here we review studies of economic stability in the absence of growth and of societies that have managed well without growth. We reflect on forms of technology and democracy compatible with degrowth and discuss plausible openings for a degrowth transition. This dynamic and productive research agenda asks inconvenient questions that sustainability sciences can no longer afford to ignore. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Environment and Resources Volume 43 is October 17, 2018. Please see for revised estimates.
EG43CH04_Kallis ARI 22 May 2018 14:8
Annual Review of Environment and Resources
Research On Degrowth
Giorgos Kallis,1,2 Vasilis Kostakis,3,4 Steffen Lange,5
Barbara Muraca,6Susan Paulson,7
and Matthias Schmelzer8
1ICTA, Autonomous University of Barcelona, 08193 Barcelona, Spain;
2ICREA, 08010 Barcelona, Spain
3Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance, Tallinn University of Technology,
19086 Tallinn, Estonia; email:
4Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, Cambridge,
Massachusetts 02138, USA
5Institute for Ecological Economy Research, 10785 Berlin, Germany;
6College of Liberal Arts, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA;
7Center for Latin American Studies, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA;
8DFG Research Group, University of Jena, Zurich CH-8001, Switzerland;
Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 2018. 43:4.1–4.26
The Annual Review of Environment and Resources is
online at
Copyright c
2018 by Annual Reviews.
All rights reserved
economic growth, green growth, sustainability, political ecology,
ecological economics, democracy
Scholars and activists mobilize increasingly the term degrowth when pro-
ducing knowledge critical of the ideology and costs of growth-based devel-
opment. Degrowth signals a radical political and economic reorganization
leading to reduced resource and energy use. The degrowth hypothesis posits
that such a trajectory of social transformation is necessary, desirable, and pos-
sible; the conditions of its realization require additional study. Research on
degrowth has reinvigorated the limits to growth debate with critical exami-
nation of the historical, cultural, social, and political forces that have made
economic growth a dominant objective. Here we review studies of economic
stability in the absence of growth and of societies that have managed well
without growth. We reflect on forms of technology and democracy com-
patible with degrowth and discuss plausible openings for a degrowth transi-
tion. This dynamic and productive research agenda asks inconvenient ques-
tions that sustainability sciences can no longer afford to ignore.
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Degrowth: a process
of political and social
transformation that
reduces a society’s
throughput while
improving the quality
of life
Throughput: the
energy and resource
flows in and out of an
Economic growth:
an integrated cultural,
political, ecological,
and economic process
manifested as an
increase in the total
market value of all
goods and services
Green growth:
economic growth
accompanied by a
reduction of a society’s
1. INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.2
2. HISTORY: ORIGINS OF THE GROWTH PARADIGM. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.4
OFDEGROWTH............................................................. 4.8
6. TECHNOLOGY STUDIES AND DEGROWTH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.13
7. POLITICAL SCIENCE: DEMOCRACY AND DEGROWTH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.16
8. CONCLUSION: A DEGROWTH TRANSITION? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.18
Degrowth is a new term that signifies radical political and economic reorganization leading to
drastically reduced resource and energy throughput. Related scholarship critiques the ideology
behind the dogma of economic growth; contributes to documentation of negative material, social,
and ecological effects of growth; and assesses alternatives to growth-based development (1). Put
simply, the degrowth hypothesis is that it is possible to organize a transition and live well under a
different political-economic system that has a radically smaller resource throughput.
In the early 2000s activists in Lyon, France, mobilized the slogan ecroissance (Degrowth) in di-
rect actions and publications against cars, consumerism, and advertising (2). The term was drawn
from the title of a translated collection of essays by physicist-economist Nicholas Georgescu-
Roegen who, in the 1970s and 1980s, developed a thermodynamic theory of economic processes,
concluding that in the long run economic activity will inevitably “decrease” to a level support-
able by solar flows (3). The impulse toward degrowth was also inspired by thinkers including
Serge Latouche, an economist and critic of the Westernization of Africa, who popularized
ecroissance through a series of books in the 1990s and 2000s that criticize economistic reasoning
and the ideology of economic development (in English, see 4).
Degrowth became a missile slogan for activists in France, Italy, and Spain, followed by other
parts of Europe and beyond (2). A community of scholar-activists studying and practicing degrowth
formed around a series of biannual international conferences starting in 2008. Most of the 4,000
participants in the 2014 Leipzig conference converged on their critique of green growth, and that
ecological and social sustainability require a radical reorganization of society, although opinions
varied on how this might—or should—play out (5).
This new (and young) generation of scholars mobilizes concepts and tools across disciplinary
boundaries and goes beyond critique to study conditions for the emergence and proliferation of vi-
able alternatives. Degrowth conferences follow participatory formats with sessions and assemblies
that facilitate conversation among scientists, activists, and political stakeholders (6). Emerging
paradigms of activist and post-normal science draw awareness to values and political stakes that
influence scientific inquiry and promote involvement of lay communities in the struggle for the
production and verification of knowledge (7). Scholars theorizing degrowth learn with, articulate,
and apply critical perspectives already embodied by social movements, notably those engaged in
environmental justice struggles. The flow of ideas is multidirectional; after reading scholarly work,
activists launched the term degrowth, and their applications have traveled back to consideration
by scientists and scholars (8).
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Degrowth is a normative concept with analytical and practical applications. In this regard,
degrowth research is not any different from growth or development economics, which also start
from a normative premise—that growth and development are desirable—then investigate and
promote conditions for their realization.
Fournier (9) reviews older francophone literature on ecroissance, and Weiss & Cattaneo (10)
review over 100 recent peer-reviewed articles with the word “degrowth” in their titles. Our article
covers a wider range of research relevant for the degrowth hypothesis (Figure 1). Section 2 reviews
work by historians on the origins and rise to dominance of the idea of growth. Section 3 reviews
recent work, mostly by ecological economists and sustainability scientists, on the unsustainability
of green growth. These two literatures show the ideological and political construction of growth
and its ecological and social limits—these are foundational elements of the degrowth agenda, which
asks how we can manage without growth in the case that growth is not desirable or sustainable
(Figure 1). This creates a range of questions addressed by the historical and ecological-economic
The birth of political economy
The invention of GDP
Cold war and growth targeting
The politics of growthmanship
Colonization, international
development, and growth
Cultures of growth and common senses
Employment without growth
Money, debt, and growth imperative
Ecological macroeconomic models
Degrowth economic policies
Capitalism and (de)growth
Anthropology and social sciences
Premodern steady-state societies
Intentional communities and degrowth
Adaptation to stagnation
Shrinking cities/regions
Technology studies
Technological system and the growth imperative
Convivial and low-tech systems
Peer-to-peer and “design global, manufacture local”
Political science
Direct democracy and degrowth
Occupied squares and
pregurative degrowth politics
Growth dependence of liberal democracies
End of growth and the authoritarian turn
Ecological economics
EROI and growth
Role of energy and resources in the
Decoupling: theory and empirics
Growth, resource use, and well-being
Research on degrowth
Green growth
is unlikely
without growth?
for prospering
without growth?
How do communities
manage without growth?
How did GDP growth
become hegemonic
and how may its hegemony
be dismantled?
Growth is an
and political
Can well-being
be secured with
lower throughput
and output?
How can
be stable
without growth?
Figure 1
Research on degrowth. Here we show the different themes of degrowth research and the disciplines they come from (political science,
economics, ecological economics, history, anthropology, and technology studies). Research on the history of ideas and on ecological
economics provides the two foundational degrowth ideas: that growth is an ideological construction and that growth is ecologically
unsustainable. Making economies and societies stable without growth, then, raises new questions that are addressed by research
communities in these and other disciplines. Research On Degrowth 4.3
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literature (see arrows in Figure 1), but also by other literatures. Section 4 focuses on the economic
literature and what it offers in seeking to understand how economies may be stable without growth.
Section 5 draws insights from ethnographies of social systems that have managed well without
growth. Section 6 looks at technology and degrowth. Section 7 considers political philosophy
and work on links between democracy and degrowth. Section 8 concludes by looking toward
conditions for a degrowth transition.
The growth paradigm refers to the entrenched cognitive framework in which economic growth
is constructed and conceived as necessary, good, and imperative (11, 12). When and why did this
paradigm come about, and how did it become hegemonic?
Here we review historical-anthropological studies on the economy within a broader research
field on invented (national) traditions. These studies show that the apparent natural status of
the national economy as a distinct institution is of relatively recent origin, with consequences
including the separation and mystification of the economy as a domain of professional experts,
unknowable to common people. Better understanding of historical invention of the economy
informs efforts to reverse this process by reclaiming economic activities as a public domain that
can be understood—and changed.
One can distinguish two separate periods in the genesis of “the economy” as concept and
institution (13). Scholars such as Margaret Schabas and Michel Foucault analyze how the birth of
political economy in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France and Britain formed the economic
sphere as a separate sphere of social life and as the domain of a specific kind of social action (14, 15).
The economic sphere was construed as a relatively autonomous, self-equilibrating sphere governed
by different laws than nature (14), and also distinct from the state. The state supposedly intervened
from the outside into that economic sphere (15, 16). In the second period of change, during the
1930s and 1940s, what we now identify as “the economy” was established as a self-contained
structure or totality of relations of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services
within a given geographical space (17–19). Economic growth as a policy goal appeared in the
1950s (see collection of essays in 20), together with the development of accounting techniques
and statistical tools designed to represent and measure it. Soon after, processes of state-sponsored
economic statistics, particularly national income accounting, worked to mark the national economy
as a well-defined object (13, 18).
Research on the power of economic statistics and the public trust in numbers shows how GDP
statistics were devised and gained dominance in the making of nation states, in socio-economic and
military conflicts, geopolitics, and global uneven development. Studies vary from popular critiques
of the “Gross Domestic Problem” (21–23), to analyses of specific aspects of the internationalization
of GDP accounting (see 24; 25, chapter 1), to stories of the making and contribution of GDP (26,
27). The statistical convention of GDP crystallized the formerly fuzzy sphere of the economic
into a technical object with well-defined content and boundaries. GDP has been characterized as
a global abstraction that naturalized the nation state and became, such as the anthem and the flag,
a symbol of national sovereignty (24). It rose to prominence between the 1930s and 1950s, linked
to Keynesian efforts to counter the Great Depression and to plan expenditures for the Second
World War and postwar reconstruction (25).
Boundaries construct exclusions. The limitations of GDP as a measure of wellbeing, or even
of economic output, are widely known. GDP calculations increase not only with the flow of
goods and services valued as “good,” but also with expenditures for social “bads,” such as prisons,
disasters, epidemics, and oil spills. GDP does not count valuable unpaid work for subsistence
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a form of politics
focused on the pursuit
of economic growth
Growth paradigm:
a worldview
institutionalized in
social systems
proclaiming that
economic growth is
necessary, good, and
or caretaking, nor ecosystem services, and ignores enjoyment of the commons, unless they are
enclosed and commodified with monetary admission. What is less known is that the early founders
of GDP were aware of these limitations, extremely cautious regarding universal applications, and
wary of the statistic’s ability to measure welfare, and to be used for comparisons over space and
time. The institutionalization of national accounts involved fundamental controversies about how
to define economic output, such as whether public expenditures should be counted as output
(they were counted), whether or not to include unpaid housework and subsistence labor (they
were excluded), and whether it makes sense to weigh different expenditures by their prices alone.
It was not scientific consensus, but rather the political usefulness of market-oriented data for
countercyclical policies, war planning, and the distribution of development aid that turned GDP
into a universal yardstick (25–27).
But even after the introduction of GDP, Keynesian-led economic discussions focused on levels
of output, employment or prices, and whether these could be sustained, not on rates of change.
When and how did the shift to growth happen? Unprecedented political focus on growth emerged
in the early 1950s (first in the United States and somewhat later in Europe and Japan), giving rise
to growthmanship, a form of politics focused primarily on the pursuit of economic growth as
an all-embracing and overarching priority. Heinz W. Arndt’s (28) The Rise and Fall of Economic
Growth is a classic history of the work on growth by British and US economists. Other historians
and political scientists trace the evolution and politics of the growth paradigm in the United States,
Britain, Japan, and other countries (11, 29, 30). Beyond national peculiarities, there are noticeable
similarities between growth discourses in OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development) nations in the postwar decades.
GDP numbers were increasingly politicized as growth became a pivotal policy goal of gov-
ernments in the context of Cold War competition, the pursuit of modern development, and
pacification of class struggles. In the West, growth was instrumental to diffuse demands of the
workers’ movement, and in the East, to excuse the lack of democracy and the failure of more
revolutionary ambitions (11, 12, 25). In parallel processes, growth targeting became a driver of
five-year socialist plans and of social-democracy programs. Overambitious growth targets of the
Soviet Union scared the West, and helped US and European progressives to overcome resistance
by liberals to economic plans and targets that gave a stronger role to government (25).
We know little, however, of the genesis of the growth paradigm in the Eastern bloc, or how it
became entrenched despite the abolition of certain capitalist institutions. Such knowledge would
help us to better understand how growth became a bipartisan narrative that now transcends
ideological divisions. Scholarship on institutional and political-economic processes that established
the growth hegemony can also be strengthened by complementary research on how the paradigm
infiltrated everyday practices and became popular commonsense.
The depth of that internalization became clear in the wake of environmental and social critiques
and movements that challenged the growth paradigm in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These
newly emerging problems were integrated into the paradigm without displacing core principles, as
evidenced in subsequent sustainable, green, and inclusive growth strategies (25). Repeated efforts
to replace or amend GDP have proved futile, given that the peculiar circumstances supporting the
internationalization of national accounting in the mid-twentieth century cannot be reproduced.
Today GDP is not just an economic statistic, but a means to organize society on the assumption that
only markets create wealth (21). Questioning GDP and searching for alternative indicators is not
just a technical question, but a political and cultural project that requires significant reorganization
of economic institutions, such as markets and ownership structures, as well as diverse sociocultural
institutions that organize social security, social stratification, and prestige (21, 23, 25). Research On Degrowth 4.5
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Absolute decoupling:
an absolute decline in
throughput, alongside
GDP growth
Relative decoupling:
growth in the rate of
throughput slower
than GDP growth
Purposeful economic growth had precursors in colonial doctrines of improvement and devel-
opment, and was used to stabilize the international economic order after each world war (31).
During the second half of the twentieth century, it was entrenched through processes of interna-
tionalization of standards and rules, rising power of the profession of economics, and international
competition in the context of the Cold War and decolonization (12, 25).
The rise of the growth paradigm was integral to the invention of development and the “making
of the Third World” (19, 32). Post-development scholars have shown how, starting with President
Truman’s 1949 inaugural address, large parts of the world (largely colonies or former colonies),
were defined as underdeveloped, subject to development aid by those countries identified as de-
veloped. Backed by the first set of national income estimates (24), this division justified a range of
interventionist policies.
Post-development studies articulated through the work of Serge Latouche and others are
important predecessors and sources for degrowth, examining the ideology of growth-based devel-
opment as a Western myth that naturalizes sociohistorical processes as unidirectional, continuous,
cumulative, and irreversible, thereby justifying the expansion of capitalist markets and economic
growth throughout the world (1, 33). In Latouche’s spirit, degrowth is not only about downscal-
ing energy and resource use, but also about an overall project of exiting economism (9), that is,
decolonizing the social imaginary and liberating public debate from prevalent discourses couched
in economic terms, privileging growth (4).
Although driven by political, institutional, and discursive processes, growth is also biophysical.
The economic process converts energy, resources, and matter to goods, services, and waste (34).
In theory, it seems possible to decouple material throughput from economic output by improving
the resource efficiency of production. Ecological economists, however, argue that in practice
absolute decoupling is unlikely, even though relative decoupling is common (34). Efficiency should
not be confused with scale (35): The more efficiently we use resources, the lower they cost,
and the more of them we end up using (36). This is, in essence, growth. Just as increases in
labor productivity lead to growth and new jobs, not to less employment, increases in resource
productivity increase output and resource use (37). Capitalist economies grow by using more
resources and more people, more intensively. Accelerating this is unlikely to spare resources.
Growth can become “cleaner” or “greener” by substituting, for example, fossil fuels with solar
power, or scarce, environmentally intensive metals with more abundant and less intensive metals.
But new substitutes have resource requirements, and life-cycle impacts that cross space and time.
Energy is a vital source of useful work (38); growth has been possible because fossil fuels did things
human labor alone could not do. Ending the use of fossil fuels is likely to reduce labor productivity
and limit output (34). Solar and wind power are constrained only by their rate of flow, but unlike
fossil fuels, they are diffuse—more like rain than a lake (3). To collect and concentrate a diffuse
flow of energy, more energy is necessary and more land is required. The EROIs (energy returns
on energy investment) of renewable energies are between 10:1 and 20:1, compared to more than
50:1 for earlier deposits of oil and coal (39). An economy powered by a diffuse energy flow is then
likely to be an economy of lower net energy and lower output than one powered by concentrated
stocks (3). Land use for solar or wind also competes with the use of land for food production, and
rare materials are necessary for infrastructures and batteries that store their intermittent flows,
with significant environmental effects.
Historical data corroborate ecological economic theory (40). Ayres & Warr (38) find that the
use of net energy after conversion losses explains a big portion of the United States’ total factor
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productivity and economic growth. At the global level, GDP and material use have increased
approximately 1:1. Carbon emissions have increased somewhat slower than GDP, but still have
increased (34). This is unlikely to be a coincidence. Exceptions may exist, but cross-panel data
analysis shows that overall, 1% growth of a national economy is associated with 0.6% to 0.8%
increase in its carbon emissions (41) and 0.8% growth in its resource use (42).
Global resource use follows currently the “collapse by 2050” scenario foreseen in the “Limits
to Growth” 1971 report (43–45). Domestic material use in some developed OECD economies
has reached a plateau, but this is because of globalization and trade. If we take into account
imported goods, then the material requirements of products and services consumed in OECD
countries have grown hand in hand with GDP, with no decoupling (46). For water use, the effects
of growth overwhelm any realistic savings from technologies and efficiency (47); water footprints
have increased even in regions such as California where water withdrawals were stabilized (40).
Carbon emissions in some EU (European Union) countries have been declining, even after
trade is taken into account, suggesting some substitution of fossil fuels by cleaner energies. [Al-
though recession also played a role (34).] These declines are nowhere near the 8–10%, year-after-
year reductions in carbon emissions required for developed nations under scenarios compatible
with a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2C (48). Further reductions will be harder to sustain
once one-off substitutions of oil or coal with natural gas are exhausted (34).
Resource use or carbon emissions are a product of the scale of the economy (GDP) times its
resource or carbon intensity (kg/GDP or kgCO2/GDP). With 1.5% annual increase in global
income per capita, carbon intensity has to decline 4.4% each year for staying within 2C; with 0%
growth, carbon intensity has to fall 2.9% each year (49). In the period 1970–2013, the average
annual reduction rate for carbon intensity was less than 1.5%—and this gets harder to sustain as
the share of carbon-intensive economies in global output increases (49). As Jackson (50) showed
in his seminal work, it is practically impossible to envisage viable climate mitigation scenarios that
involve growth. This calls for research on managing, or prospering, without growth (50, 51).
Some scenarios deem possible meeting climate targets while sustaining growth, but these
generally assume after 2050 some sort of “negative emissions technology,” geo-engineering or
otherwise. According to a recent Nature editorial, these technologies remain currently “magical
thinking” (52). Clean energy investments can stimulate the economy in the short run, but in
the long run growth may be limited by their low EROIs. Studies suggest that economic growth
requires a minimum EROI of close to 11:1 (53). Less EROI means less labor productivity, and
hence less growth. Indeed, “Limits to Growth” scenarios do not predict growth ending when
resources are exhausted but, rather, when the quality of resources declines to such an extent that
further extraction diverts more and more investment away from productive industry (44).
Degrowth is defined by ecological economists as an equitable downscaling of throughput, with
a concomitant securing of wellbeing. If there is a fundamental coupling of economic activity and
resource use, as ecological economics suggests there is, then serious environmental or climate
policies will slow down the economy. Vice versa, a slower economy will use less resources and
emit less carbon (40). This is not the same as saying that the degrowth goal is to reduce GDP (54);
slowing down the economy is not an end but a likely outcome in a transition toward equitable
wellbeing and environmental sustainability.
Advancing a position of “a-growth,” van den Bergh (54) proposes ignoring GDP and imple-
menting a global carbon price, indifferent to what its effect on growth turns out to be. Ignoring
GDP is a normative position—but at the end, the economy will either grow or not, and if it
does not, then there should be plans for managing without growth. Given how entrenched GDP
growth is in existing institutional and political structures, a-growth approaches must be advanced
as part of broader systemic change (55). Research On Degrowth 4.7
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Is it possible to secure a decent standard of living for all while throughput and output degrow?
Substantive evidence indicates that prosperity does not depend on high levels of production and
consumption. Kubiszewski et al. (56) find that the Genuine Progress Indicator, an indicator that
includes environmental and social costs alongside output, peaked in 1978, despite subsequent
global growth. A similar indicator, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, has stayed at the
same levels in the United States since 1950, despite a threefold growth of GDP (57).
Wealthier countries on average have higher levels of life expectancy and education than poorer
ones, but above a certain level of GDP, income does not make a difference in wellbeing—equality
does. Satisfactory levels of wellbeing are achieved by countries such as Vietnam or Costa Rica at a
fraction (one-third or less) of the output, energy, or resource use of countries such as the United
States. Even the lower levels of resource use of mid-income countries, however, would not be
sustainable if they were to be generalized to the planet as a whole. No country currently satisfies
social wellbeing standards while staying within its share of planetary boundaries, suggesting that
radical changes in provisioning systems are necessary (58).
Wealthier people within a country are on average happier than others, but in the long run,
overall happiness does not increase as a country’s income rises (59). Nuances of this income-
happiness paradox depend on the sample of countries included and how one defines and asks
about happiness. Within societies, individuals with higher incomes evaluate their lives as better
than others, but do not enjoy better emotional wellbeing (60). Income determines social rank,
and rank affects individuals’ assessments of their lives. Growth does not change relative rank
or relative access to positional goods (those signifying position) but it does inflate expectations
and prices of material goods, increasing frustration (61). Relative comparisons matter for per-
sonal wellbeing in low-income and high-income countries; for both, the more equally income
is distributed, the happier people are (62). Pro-environmental behaviors and sharing are also
strongly associated with personal wellbeing (63). This suggests that an economic contraction
may not impact wellbeing negatively if accompanied by redistribution, sharing, and value shifts
There is no political constituency currently demanding degrowth, but a survey of 1,008 people
in Spain finds that one-third prefers ignoring or stopping growth altogether (64). Even so, the
majority, including those in this one-third, want growth rates in the order of 3% or higher (64).
This may not be as paradoxical as it first seems: One may be aware that continued growth is
impossible or catastrophic but also sense that capitalist societies need growth to avoid collapse.
The stability of current economies does depend on growth—growth is necessary to avoid unem-
ployment, reduce debt, and fund public services. Recent economic research, however, shows that
this is not necessarily so—under certain conditions, economies may function well without growth.
We now turn to this research.
Although literature explicitly addressing degrowth economics is young (65), economists have
long raised similar questions. Classical economists considered the concept of a stationary state,
where economic growth eventually and unintentionally ends, be it due to limits to the division of
labor (Smith) or a confined supply of land (Ricardo). Whereas Smith and Ricardo painted a dark
picture of the stationary state in contexts with high levels of economic inequality, Mill argued that
distributional policies could lead to a high degree of social welfare (66).
Economists may share politicians’ obsession with growth, but there is nothing in neoclassical
models to suggest that zero or negative growth is incompatible with full employment or economic
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stability. In recent years, several authors have investigated no-growth economies in the context
of established macroeconomic theories. From a neoclassical supply-side perspective, Irmen (67)
shows that market economies do not always generate growth, nor do they need growth to function.
Lange (68) tests several models and shows that the major condition for stable degrowth is a decline
in the supply of production factors—labor and/or natural resources—and a reduction of working
hours (51). Heikkinen (69) and Bilancini & D’Alessandro (70) develop neoclassical models in which
decreases in labor supply lead to stable degrowth with increasing social welfare, as consumption
losses are overcompensated by more free time, allowing enjoyment of nonmaterial relational
In Keynesian models, the primary condition for an end of growth is constant aggregate demand.
Fontana & Sawyer (71) emphasize the role of investments: If firms invest less, wage income
stabilizes and growth is low. Exploring conditions for a stable steady-state, Lange (68) examines
the economic circle the other way around: The central condition for zero growth is nonincreasing
demand by households and government, which leads to low levels of investment by firms. In
this model, nongrowing economies have zero net investments and savings and a constant sum of
consumption and government spending.
Lack of growth does not mean lack of change. Zero change in net investments may entail
increased investments in one sector (e.g., renewable energies), compensated by disinvestment in
another (e.g., coal). Fontana & Sawyer (71) show that with government deficit, private savings can
still be positive. High levels of employment can be achieved in nongrowing economies by reducing
average working hours, shifting employment toward labor intensive sectors, and/or redirecting
technological change to increase resource rather than labor productivity (68).
Ecological economists have been explicitly concerned with the question of steady-state
economies (35). In Daly’s (35) concept, market mechanisms bring about an efficient and sta-
ble steady-state economy, if (a) a relatively equal distribution of income and wealth is guaranteed,
(b) energy and resource throughput is capped, and (c) population growth is limited. Jackson (50)
analyzes a contemporary system in which supply continuously expands due to market competition
and firms’ profit orientation, and consumption follows due to conspicuous consumption and ma-
terialist values. Jackson (50) paints an alternative picture of a “Cinderella economy” (p. 133)
characterized by equality, reduced work, and ecological limits (p. 194). Paech (72) develops
a more concrete vision of a postgrowth economy, where (a) the distance between producers
and consumers is shortened with a strong regionalization of economic structures; (b) working
hours are reduced and strategies to reduce consumption by repairing, sharing, and downscal-
ing allow for higher wellbeing; (c) firms focus on preserving and repairing products rather than
producing new ones; and (d) numerous policies support consumers and firms to follow these
Integrated ecological-economic models are increasingly important sources of policy proposals.
Victor (51) developed an econometric system-dynamics model to simulate low or negative growth
paths that may be initiated by a set of economic policies including carbon taxes, reductions in
average working hours, and a combination of progressive taxation and social spending. Scenarios
of low or negative growth led to positive results measured by social and ecological indicators.
Among others, Gran (73) extends Victor’s model by including ecological footprints and comes to
very similar results for the German economy.
On the basis of such studies and multiple other contributions, several authors have compiled
policy packages for a transition toward degrowth economies including green taxes, caps, and the
elimination of dirty subsidies. These policies limit the environmental throughput and redirect
technological change to increase resource efficiency rather than labor productivity (65, 68, 72).
Minimum and maximum income and wealth levels, as well as a more progressive taxation, are Research On Degrowth 4.9
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intended to avoid inequality (35, 65). Divestments from dirty sectors and investments in green
sectors bring about necessary sectoral changes (55, 72). To counterbalance the growth impetus
observed in shareholder-based companies (74), economic legislation (e.g., legislation regarding
commercials and product designs) can favor firms that are socially and ecologically responsible,
including cooperatives or not-for-profit corporations and organizations (72, 75).
Reductions of working hours are included in all major degrowth scenarios (51, 76). They are
meant to prevent unemployment in nongrowing economies and free up time for reproductive,
subsistence, social, and recreational activities (72). However, Sorman & Giampietro (77) claim
that if EROI declines, human labor will have to increase, not decrease. Scarcer and more expensive
energy, be it due to depletion or climate change mitigation, will likely reduce labor productivity
and demand more work to sustain the same amount of product. The amount of product, however,
will not be the same in a degrowth trajectory; reductions in working hours become feasible if
consumption and production are also reduced, if sharing is increased, or if conspicuous and luxury
expenditures decline (78). In an energy-scarce future, it is also possible that work in the paid sector
declines, whereas unpaid care or subsistence work increases. Research in Catalonia shows that the
unpaid sector is much less energy-intensive than the paid (79).
A fundamental question here is whether capitalist economies could really function without
growth. Binswanger (74) claims that the existing economic system and, particularly, its monetary
system, create “a growth imperative.” In a model with discrete time parameters, endogenous
money supply, and positive interest rates, he finds that there is an imperative for growth to pay
back interests. However, others argue that this would not be the case if bank profits were socialized
or distributed to savers (80). If one economic actor, for example banks, in a monetary system
accumulates assets continuously, then another actor necessarily accumulates debts continuously,
leading to economic instability (68, 80). Zero growth in such a setup of endogenous money and
positive interest rates, however, can be achieved as long as all interest is spent (80, 81).
Competition and the drive to accumulate also create a growth imperative. Magdoff & Bellamy-
Foster (82) theorize that zero growth would be possible if all wages and all revenues of firms (above
replacement for capital depreciation) were consumed. Without saving and accumulating, growth
would come to an end. However, they deem this scenario incompatible with capitalism, given
that owners of capital are propelled to accumulate wealth (rather than spending all money on
consumption) and firms must reinvest to stay competitive.
Capitalist economies do undergo prolonged periods of zero or negative growth, but these have
generally been undesired and unstable periods. Without growth, profits and accumulation by
capital holders come at the expense of other groups in society—intensifying economic inequalities
and social tensions (83). Recession and depression are possible within capitalism; degrowth is
probably not. Whereas in theory, growth may not be necessary or inevitable within capitalism,
in practice, the system generates growth via dynamics of competition, private ownership, and the
availability of cheap energy supply. Economic growth is also perceived as a political necessity to
pacify social conflict and ensure reproduction of the system.
Lange (68) argues that a combination of collective firm ownership, prevention of economies
of scale, and limits on the exploitation of fossil fuels would prevent actors from accumulating
interest and reduce pressures to do so. Such reforms, however, chart a transitional pathway beyond
capitalism as we know it, and raise questions of whether the resulting institutions and economic
system could still be described as capitalistic (68). Blauwhof (83) claims that this is precisely why
apparently innocuous reforms, such as carbon caps and taxes, a basic income, or reduced working
hours, are so fiercely resisted by capitalist interests with power and are unlikely to be implemented,
short of a social revolution and systemic change.
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Studies of life-worlds not driven by expansion can broaden the horizon of environmental and
economic sciences, which have tended to circumscribe desire and possibility within the already
jeopardized form of industrial fossil fuel socio-economies. We can learn from noncapitalist soci-
eties that have lived long without growth; from countries and cities that adapt constructively to
halted growth; and from groups within high-growth societies who live with little or no money,
either by choice or by necessity (84).
Global economic growth is a nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon, driven by his-
torically unique sociocultural systems and values that developed in tandem with capitalism and
colonialism (Section 2). During the preceding 200,000 years, many human populations thrived
without growth. Long-enduring societies, such as Classical Greece, developed institutions, moral
codes, and myths that tempered impulses for expansion (85), and expended surpluses in ceremonies
and collective pursuits that reaffirmed social order as opposed to investing them to expand pro-
duction (86). Scattered efforts to enlarge territories, markets, or resource use have led to processes
and outcomes that historians characterize as the rise, fall, or collapse of civilizations.
History curricula pay scant attention to ways in which populations have survived and adapted
over millennia with relatively steady-state economies. Throughout human existence, diverse
hunter-fisher-gatherers have maintained extremely low ecological footprints, rigorously measured
in contemporary groups, such as the Andaman Islanders (87). Archaeological and genomic data
show that hunter-gatherer communities living in the Kalahari for 70,000 years are the longest-
enduring society on Earth. During 25 years of research among a group known as the Ju/’hoansi,
Suzman (88) has documented affluence measured in time, social relations, and cultural richness,
rather than material possessions; he argues that the Kalahari people have made a good living by
working only enough to sustain their communities in harmony with their desert environment.
Ethnographers draw attention to sociocultural features of human populations who flourish
without pursuing growth. In the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lewis (89) observed
that Mbendjele Yaka people value resources for their abundance, rather than scarcity, and practice
management strategies aimed at sustaining that abundance, together with moral obligations for
nonreciprocal sharing among community members via distribution of forest resources such as
meat and honey. Studying groups on three different continents, Bird-David et al. (90) find varying
manifestations of a “cosmology of sharing” in which relations among community members and
with the natural world are constituted as interdependent partnerships. In a comparative analysis of
data from a range of human groups, Woodburn (91) found that the most egalitarian societies favor
immediate consumption rather than surplus accumulation, and they sustain social institutions that
undermine uneven buildup of power, wealth, or authority.
More common today are socio-economies in which practices and meanings oriented toward ex-
panding profit have been incorporated into older systems oriented toward reproduction of families
and communities. Fraser et al. (92) compare Amazonian livelihood systems in which smallholders
engage in extractivist activities for cash, variously balanced with agroforestry for subsistence, and
mutuality coexists in complementarity and tension with exchange values and market mechanisms.
Guttmann-Bond (93) reviews engineering and agricultural technologies adapted to sustain pop-
ulations over thousands of years with stable resource use: raised fields in Bolivia and Mexico,
water-harvesting in the Negev desert, terraces in Yemen, and intercropping around the world.
These ancient technologies based on local materials are being reinstated within some contem-
porary market economies, not for purposes of economic growth, but for survival and resilience
in marginal environments. Altieri & Toledo (94) celebrate the role of such long-enduring tech-
nologies in a threefold agroecological revolution (technical, social, and epistemological) that is Research On Degrowth 4.11
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restoring local self-reliance, regenerating agrobiodiversity, and producing healthy foods with low
inputs, while empowering peasant organizations across Latin America.
Revaluation and recuperation of non-Western traditions that can inform alternatives to growth-
based development range from Maya-infused Zapatista projects in Mexico, to South African ideas
of Ubuntu, to Buddhist-inspired economies of happiness in Bhutan (95). Bogad ´
ottir & Olsen
(96) argue that controversial whale hunts in the Faroe Islands express principles that may nourish
degrowth pathways; in communal harvests of sizes that have remained consistent over centuries,
meat and blubber are shared among community members for nourishment, and neither money nor
profits are generated. As with hunter-gatherers in the Congo studied by Lewis (89), these islanders
find that principles of their longstanding steady-state economies (commons, ritualized sharing,
immediate expenditure, respect of limits) clash with capitalist logics of scarcity and conservation,
represented not only by expanding market forces, but also by international NGOs (nongovern-
mental organizations) who attack traditional practices with impacts that are minimal compared to
those of the economic growth.
In India, Kothari (97) finds promise in grassroots local projects that exercise “radical ecological
democracy” and that do not necessarily seek to scale up. Alternative forms of engaging larger-
scale bioregional processes are evident in cases such as the Arvari River Parliament, formed by
72 riverine villages in western India, which meets regularly to make ecological, economic, and
social decisions. In Latin America, the idea of “buen vivir,” nourished by deep cultural traditions
that prioritize ecological balance and community wellbeing, has emerged as an alternative to
developmentalism (1). Amid debates and conflicts around desired socio-ecological worlds, Bolivia
and Ecuador have attempted to institutionalize aspects of this indigenous cosmology via national
policies and programs.
How do growth-driven societies adapt to economic recession, resource depletion, or population
loss? Involuntary declines are not degrowth in themselves, and countries in recession or depression
are not degrowth experiments, unless communities make a virtue out of necessity, building low-
impact livelihoods that enhance wellbeing and equality. Although there are plenty of studies of the
social and economic effects of recessions, there are fewer studies of how societies adapt to them.
Some of them focus on Cuba’s special period. Without explicitly embracing degrowth, Cuban
society responded to crises in the 1990s by experimenting with strategies and shifts envisioned
by degrowth thinkers. Unwelcome reductions in imports of food, agrochemicals, and industrial
equipment were met with shifts from high-input toward semiorganic agriculture and from energy-
intensive toward labor-intensive methods, resulting in reduced ecological and carbon footprints
(98). Borowy (99) documents surprising improvements during Cuba’s special period in public
health indicators including maternal and infant mortality; obesity; mortality from diabetes, tu-
mors, and strokes; and death from external causes. The rise of urban agriculture fed people well
with fewer fossil and financial resources, provided labor-intensive employment, enhanced urban
environments, stimulated community building, and brought about lifestyle changes with tangible
health benefits (99).
Rises in Cuban life expectancy during this period contrast sharply with the concurrent mor-
tality crisis—extreme among men—in post-Soviet Russia. Although US data indicate reduction
of health-related fatalities after recessions (100), austerity cuts in health expenditures have the
opposite effect (101). Cuba-specific advantages in achieving this transition included relative socio-
economic equality, strong public policies, such as support of public health, absence of landlord and
agribusiness interests, and limits to private accumulation. Analysts, however, agree that degrowth
processes would have also benefitted from more open democracy.
Other studies focus on shrinking cities. The city of Leipzig shrank continuously since 1966,
and more quickly since 1989, until a recent upturn. As other cities struggled to reignite growth,
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Leipzig’s authorities decided early on to adaptively manage contraction. They envisioned a dy-
namic, sustainable city that would preserve trademark architectural heritage, replace dilapidated
housing with green spaces, and support microscale centers. Florentin’s (102) research finds value
in Leipzig’s example, even though its realization has been constrained by limited financial and
legal resources.
Schindler’s (103) similar study of Detroit documents the breakdown of the city’s “growth
coalition” as authorities accepted the end of growth and embraced plans to invest in landscape
infrastructure to improve residents’ quality of life. Schindler’s description of communities’ efforts
to reorganize amid collapse emphasizes the importance of the city’s decision to declare bankruptcy,
putting the interests of its citizens before those of banks and debtors. This was not the case in
Greece, which suffered the greatest economic depression recorded among Western countries
(104). Although sharing projects and new commons addressing immediate needs for food, health,
and socialization proliferated in the city of Athens, their scale was insufficient to compensate for
the decline in state provisioning, given the extreme austerity for repaying debts. Processes of
gentrification and renewed investment and growth in contexts such as Leipzig and Detroit also
raise concerns that, within contemporary capitalist systems, recession, devaluation, and debt relief
may open up new profitable outlets paving the way for relaunching growth.
Innovations are motivated not only by crisis but also by new visions. In households and com-
munities around the world, people are voluntarily acting to reduce the harmful impacts of their
lifestyles on vulnerable human and ecological systems. Many intend to support green growth. Oth-
ers, who strive toward living without growth, are examined in two edited collections: Ecocultures:
Blueprints for Sustainable Communities (see the chapter by Boehm et al. in 105) and Environmental
Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages (106).
Cattaneo & Gavald`
a (107) examine two degrowth-minded eco-communes in the outskirts
of Barcelona and find that resource use and paid working time of participants have declined
substantially. They argue that economic and material degrowth was not the objective, but rather a
felicitous outcome of broader ambitions to colive autonomously and democratically, reviving and
sharing common spaces. Around the world, place-based responses to climate change and peak oil
have sprung up in the form of so-called transition towns. Following a two-year study on processes
of relocalization and consensus-building in select transition towns, Barr & Pollard (108) analyze
the coalescence of traditional narratives of environmental activism with more personal changes in
behavior and attitudes.
Research on past and present alternatives illuminates attributes of low-throughput and steady-
state socio-economies, undermining the conviction that there is no alternative to growth. These
insights from peripheral niches in the world system can be developed via further research on
strategies and possibilities to influence the organizing principles and social metabolisms of larger
and more complex economies.
Until recently, degrowth literature had little to say about technology other than a critique of tech-
nological fixes (see Section 3). However, thoughts on technology by twentieth-century philoso-
phers Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich have long influenced the conversation, and a recent collection
of essays reporting on research presented at the Leipzig degrowth conference offers new and
complex ways to think about degrowth and technology (109).
Ellul (110) argued that in modern societies a technological system has emerged with its own
logic of reproduction, autonomized from social control. At the core is a scientific-industrial com-
plex, which invents what can be invented and develops what can be developed without external Research On Degrowth 4.13
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considerations for the social purposes that new knowledge serves. Unlike most contemporary
degrowth thinkers, Ellul went as far as claiming that profit-seeking, growth, and capitalism are
epiphenomena of the technological system, not its driving forces.
If technology has such dominating power, then the pursuit of sustainability requires release
from it. Heikkurinen (111) argues that all technology is geared to transform the nonhuman into
human-made objects, therefore an ecologically sensible social project should restrain technological
practice. Others emphasize instead an appropriation and habilitation of technology to destabilize
the hegemonic order of the growth-oriented technological regime and enable new modes of
economic (re)production (112).
Illich (113) and Ellul agree that economic growth results from the inversion of tools from
means into ends but differ in their responses. Illich advocated technologies that users can control,
dismantle, repair, or reconstitute, conceptualized as spaces and tools for conviviality. Think of a
bicycle compared to a nuclear power plant. Similarly, Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (114) argued
for alternative trajectories of technology appropriation that encompass small-scale, decentralized,
environmentally sound, and locally autonomous applications.
Using a “matrix of convivial technology” based on five dimensions (relatedness, accessibility,
adaptability, bio-interaction, and appropriateness), Vetter (115) ethnographically evaluates the
practices of several degrowth-related groups who produce, develop, or adapt different technolo-
gies. Grunwald (116) applies a technology assessment to evaluate green technologies that are often
promoted in the name of growth, and considers the position of those who expect to overcome
ecological crises merely by technological progress morally hazardous, because they ignore the
ambivalences of technology and its unavoidable, unintended side effects.
Lizarralde & Tyl (117) develop a practical, convivial approach for directly engaging design-
ers, engineers, and other stakeholders in the development of new products and services. They
introduce guidelines for integrating conviviality criteria into the design process with attention
to relationships between the life-cycle stages of a product or service and the five main threats to
conviviality identified by Illich (113). Criteria and constraints outlined in these recommendations
prioritize users’ autonomy and creativity, local production, and the use of simple techniques. The
aim of this design for conviviality approach is to enable designers and engineers to embrace com-
plex design processes in the transition toward a degrowth society and to cocreate such a society
with stakeholders (117).
Several case studies look at concrete tools. Alexander & Yacoumis (118) argue that low-tech
technologies (such as solar shower bags, washing lines, bicycles, and alternative heating and cool-
ing methods) are compatible with an energy descent scenario, and their use produces cultural
conditions for the emergence of degrowth practice and ethos. The Malmo-based “Bike Kitchen”
is a repair studio where people borrow tools and use the space for repairing or building their
own bikes, one example of a rich tapestry of emerging community-driven spaces that aim to
make technology and know-how available to everyone (119). Carlsson & Manning (120) exam-
ine projects in California that meet needs in transportation (bicycling subculture), food (urban
gardening/agriculture), and communication (open-source communities). The authors conceptu-
alize participants in these spaces as a new class of “nowtopians,” people consciously exiting a
capitalist system in which they are categorized as excess labor, and coconstructing utopias now
through systems of reciprocity and gift-exchange.
Nowtopian urban initiatives, such as the Bike Kitchen, and community-driven spaces that
experiment with digital technologies, such as makerspaces and hackerspaces (121, 122), offer
alternatives to growth-oriented and technology-led visions of the “Smart City” (122). However,
features of high or low technologies alone do not open alternative pathways—that depends on the
wider political and cultural contexts in which they are embedded (121, 122). Today, the dominant
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“Design global,
manufacture local”
(DGML): processes
through which designs
are developed as a
global digital
commons while
products are
manufactured locally
trajectory of technological development is still geared around growth. Pollex & Lenschow (123)
examine the EU’s strategic Horizon 2020 program of R&D and find that the growth paradigm is
dominant, marginally updated with green growth, and beyond GDP notions.
A very different innovation trajectory is demonstrated by the grassroots-driven KSLM (Kerala
Science Literature Movement), which started in Southern India in 1962 as a small group of social
activists interested in science, and grew to become a people’s science movement, with an NGO as a
pillar (124). KSLM has been popularizing scientific thinking by translating key scientific literature
from English to the local language (Malayalam), and by helping to implement forms of production
and innovation that challenge the dominant progrowth and market-led paradigm (124). In 1987,
the Integrated Rural Technology Center was established in response to the conviction that the
diffusion of scientific literature alone was not enough to emancipate rural populations; they should
be able to use knowledge to transform their social contexts. Via this center, people in Kerala have
been developing or modifying technologies developed elsewhere to suit local and rural needs and
desires (124).
Another trajectory is manifest in DGML (“design global, manufacture local”) processes through
which design is developed, shared, and improved through global digital commons, in which shared
resources are managed by a community according to rules set by the community (121). Manu-
facturing takes place locally, often through shared infrastructures, and the convergence of digital
commons with local manufacturing technologies in products ranging from three-dimensional
printers and laser cutters to low-tech tools and crafts is giving rise to new forms of value creation.
Successful low-cost DGML projects include wind-turbines, farming machines, and prosthetic
robotic hands.
Three interlocked practices observed in these projects make them compatible with a degrowth
trajectory: They provide incentives for design-embedded sustainability; they open possibilities for
on-demand production; and they are based on practices of sharing in common digital and physical
productive infrastructures (125). DGML technologies have the potential to be low-cost, feasible
for small-scale operations, and adjustable to local needs (125, 126). DGML technologies promote
technological sovereignty, helping people—from farmers and artists to computer engineers and
designers—to become more autonomous by controlling the manufacturing of their means of
What opportunities do these diverse socio-technical trajectories offer? Increasing access to in-
formation and communication technologies enables the global scaling up of small group dynamics.
Commoning processes through which participants relate to each other by sharing digital resources
and by coshaping technologies has been referred to as peer-to-peer (P2P) and operates differently
from peer-to-peer for market-based exchange, as in the Bitcoin network (127). Bauwens et al.
(127) claim that a P2P trajectory may lead a transition out of capitalism, as hierarchical corporate
models become less suited for new digital technologies, compared to open, commons-based forms
of production, as evidenced in digital commons such as Wikipedia. As new forms of creating,
assessing, and distributing value are established, an alternative noncapitalist system of produc-
tion may emerge within the capitalist system in a transition that will inevitably involve social and
political struggle (127).
Even though certain DGML projects abide by principles linked to degrowth, it cannot be taken
for granted that expanding these modes of production will lead to degrowth. And although the
P2P model can perhaps come to dominate the digital/knowledge sphere, it is not clear how it may
influence physical processes of resource extraction, transport, and infrastructure development,
still dominated by a growth logic.
Pueyo (128) analyzes a different scenario in which the tendency of automation/artificial intelli-
gence coupled with rising energy costs leads to machines substituting and automating the high-paid Research On Degrowth 4.15
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jobs of the managerial and capitalist classes. In such a scenario, advancement of capitalism may
lead not only to the abolition of meaningful wage labor, but also the abolition of professional
and executive labor. Pueyo imagines a possible alliance between managers and workers but once
again, such an alliance will not come to be automatically, but through political organization and
struggle, whose prospects we turn to now.
Are there existing political-economic dynamics that would favor degrowth-oriented scenarios?
Given the historical coemergence of liberal democracy with capitalism and growth, what would
degrowth imply for democracy? According to D ¨
orre et al. (129), modern, industrialized societies
rely on continual expansion, acceleration, and growth for their dynamic stabilization and structural
reproduction. This compulsion has not only driven growth in material flows and GDP, but also in
the occupation of spheres of life—including human desires and creativity—that were previously
not subordinated to market valorization and the capitalistic logic of accumulation.
Liberal welfare democracies have tempered capitalistic social relations by maintaining a dis-
tinction between the economic and the political order (130), subtracting spheres of life from the
capitalistic logic and adding a form of social citizenship to civil and political rights (131). But given
their dependence on economic growth for the pacification of class conflict, welfare democracies
have also legitimized capitalism (11, 132). Growth has been instrumental for securing employ-
ment, tax revenue, and investments in large-scale infrastructures. In addition, it has kept alive the
promise of social mobility and increasing wellbeing (133). During a relatively short historic pe-
riod, the alliance between liberal welfare democracies and the capitalistic growth logic guaranteed
some social redistribution of economic surplus and a promise of improved wellbeing (134), while
supporting a hegemonic project that built consensus between elites and subaltern classes as well
as different political fronts.
The dynamic stabilization based on Fordist-era growth, however, turned out to be structurally
dysfunctional. Growth-based democracies have been facing fundamental crises due to their im-
manent acceleration logic and to social and ecological limits that reduce the margin of profitability
and spell the end of “easy” economic growth (135). After the crises of the 1970s, neoliberal re-
structuring mobilized economic growth with a radically different normative order (136) rooted
in globalization, deregulation of financial flows, and new modes of governing. Subjects were no
longer formed as social citizens, but as individual entrepreneurs of themselves. This new growth
path operates not only by occupying new territories both geographically and via the further com-
modification of former public sectors (education, public services), but also by mobilizing and
appropriating the innovative energy and desires of workers in the culture industry and new digital
and creative economies (137).
According to Brown (136), the neoliberal program has dismantled the separation between the
economic and the political by extending economistic and entrepreneurial logics of competition
to all dimensions of social and public life, including the state. A novel variant of homo economicus,
no longer the nineteenth-century merchant or man of trade, but a new entrepreneurial man,
replaces homo politicus altogether, while the sphere in which discourses about the good life and
social justice took place disappears. Thus, neoliberal rationality neutralizes normative foundations
of liberal democracy, leading to a path of dedemocratization (136), where subjects are driven to act
as personal enterprises, responsible for their own investments and failures (131).
An ongoing crisis of growth, heightened by the global financial crisis of 2008, further jeopar-
dizes the stability and legitimacy of liberal democracies. According to Streeck (138, p. 22), “lower
growth rates were acceptable for the new powers as long as they were compensated by higher
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profit rates and an increasingly inegalitarian distribution. Democracy ceased to be functional for
economic growth and in fact became a threat to the performance of the new growth model.” This
points to postgrowth scenarios compatible with authoritarian regimes and neo-feudal capitalistic
formations. These are characterized by increased inequality without redistribution and without
social mobility, and by a shift from accumulation of (productive) capital to accumulation of wealth,
with investment in luxury goods and personal services (139). Social pacification in this scenario is
no longer conveyed by the promise of partaking in the national wealth, but by forms of repression
and regulation exercised under a constant narrative of state of exception; or through ideological
disciplining of the masses whose responsibility is individualized, spiritual values compensating for
material destitution, and voluntary philanthropy replacing redistribution (133).
In response to economic crisis, dedemocratization, and authoritarian postgrowth scenarios,
degrowth thinkers imagine a radical social-ecological transformation (140) that forges new forms
of democracy guided by (global) social and environmental justice, solidarity, and autonomy (6).
This stream of degrowth excludes a mere return to the growth-dependent model of welfarist
liberal democracies (6), addressing not only the environmental and structural consequences of
neoliberal growth (Section 3), but also the pervasive logic of economism (Section 2) (141).
In the heterogeneous literature on democracy and degrowth, some scholars advocate the recon-
stitution of a stronger deliberative democracy, in which—in a Habermasian mode—the separation
of the economic and the political logic is reinstated (142) and the (capitalistic) economy is subor-
dinated to ethical principles and politically negotiated conditions. Others claim that to challenge
neoliberal rationality and restore democracy on a different footing, we need a more radical trans-
formation of social institutions and alternative principles of societal organization, some of which
are already prefiguratively embodied by new social movements (133, 143). An essential element is
economic democracy (144), not only in the sense of more participation in decision making within
enterprises, but also in terms of radical restructuring of economic processes through collective
deliberation about their scope, functions, and structure.
Referencing especially Gorz (145), degrowth thinkers and activists articulate a strong critique
of techno-managerial modes of governance implemented under neoliberalism (141), against which
self-management at different scales of societal organization strengthens collective autonomy. Ac-
cording to Ashish Kothari (97), this comes close to India’s tradition of swaraj, which can be loosely
translated as “self-rule” and includes collective autonomy and mutual responsibility, put in prac-
tice by the network of self-organized communities for a radical ecological democracy presented
in Section 5.
Concepts of real and direct democracy, albeit intended in different ways and open to scholarly
and societal debate, are central to alternative projects articulated by degrowth thinkers and ac-
tivists. New social movements, such as the Spanish Indignados, often compared to the US Occupy
movement, and various social experiments following the dissolution of both formal movements,
explicitly incorporate degrowth critiques and advocate real democracy against the pseudodemo-
cratic face of (neo)liberal representative democracies (143). Although pragmatist factions of the
movement promote real democracy via wider participation in institutional processes and the ex-
tension of democratic decision making to all spheres of life, an autonomist faction challenges the
very structure of representation and calls for direct democracy not only with respect to the political
dimension, but also extended to economic, ecological, and social spheres and relations (143).
Models of direct democracy in degrowth discourse are inspired by Cornelius Castoriadis (141,
146). Democracy for him means that society becomes autonomous by recognizing and taking
responsibility for its self-instituting character against the imposition of imaginaries based on non-
questionable truths coming from gods or immutable pseudoscientific laws, such as the invisible
hand of the market, the selfish gene, or an economy’s need to grow. For Castoriadis, democracy and Research On Degrowth 4.17
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capitalism are fundamentally incompatible, given capitalism rests on heteronomous justifications,
and their parallel evolution is coincidental.
The idea of society as self-instituting reinforces degrowth-based critiques against the naturaliz-
ing narrative of neoliberal rationality. It liberates spaces for the imagination of radical alternatives.
However, it remains unclear why and how diverse autonomous societies led by a direct demo-
cratic process of decision making would embrace the degrowth project in its substantial form (140,
147). Under current conditions, a transition to direct democracy in tandem with a decelerating
economy is a highly unlikely scenario. Other than environmental justice groups that oppose spe-
cific developmentalist projects that damage their livelihoods, Indignados/Occupy movements, and
other social experiments that prefiguratively embody alternatives, there are few signs of movement
toward a political-constitutional change of that order. In the absence of social forces that can cat-
alyze radical change, the scenario of stagnation and an authoritarian drift seems more likely. This
underscores the importance of strengthening social movements and political tendencies aiming
to revitalize democracy and politicize economics.
Abandoning economic growth seems politically impossible. As a result, many scientists prefer to
study policy and technological fixes that promise to make growth sustainable rather than think
about managing without growth. This review summarized evidence from ecological economics
suggesting that proposed green growth paths are unlikely to be sustainable and highlighted liter-
atures that suggest that although degrowth may seem politically impossible, under certain condi-
tions it could become real and have desirable effects.
In future degrowth societies envisioned in the literature examined here, the economic is no
longer at the center of everything; democracy is direct; surplus is expended for reproduction
or fun; income and wealth are distributed according to egalitarian principles; vital resources,
infrastructures, and spaces are shared and held in common; technology is convivial and serves
social purposes; resource throughput is minimized; and working hours are reduced by cutting
consumption, production, and wasteful expenditures (1, 9, 34).
Degrowth proposals are to a certain extent utopian—there is no “topos” (place) where they
fully exist. But are there viable transition pathways toward this vision? Thinking of open and plural
utopias helps to free the imagination to conceive worlds that motivate changes in our actions today,
producing something different tomorrow, although not necessarily the utopia initially imagined
(148). Although some degrowth proposals (76) can be criticized as wishful thinking, sound points
for studying and starting transitions are found in real existing societies living without growth
(see Section 5) and radical social experiments that embody and anticipate degrowth utopias. What
Muraca (133) calls concrete utopias illuminate potential openings for paths forward that are already
The fate of such openings will play out amid coevolutionary processes involving institutional or-
ganization, technology, environmental conditions, values, and knowledge (149). Although current
worlds seem trapped in continuity, history is rife with surprise, fueled by the incessant creativity
of humans and their ability to come up with new ways of seeing the world and new forms of living
and producing their societies and their environments (150).
From this perspective, recent debates on the possibility of voluntary paths to degrowth versus
the more probable event of forced reductions provoked by an involuntary crash (10, 77) is mis-
leading (78). Change is always voluntary and is always enacted through unchosen conditions (such
as the availability of fossil fuels or the thermodynamics of production processes). History is shaped
by collective action or inaction. As economic growth falters and as the toll of its limits and costs
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becomes unbearable, a transition in the direction of something akin to degrowth could emerge
from dynamics among unforeseeable reactions, experiments, adaptations, and political struggles.
Such a transition does not have to be in the name of degrowth. As with the eco-communes of
Barcelona that Cattaneo & Gavald`
a (107) studied, the reduction of resource use can be the out-
come of broader processes of social transformation driven by an ambition to co-live autonomously
and democratically (1).
In contexts where life under growth is already disastrous for many people, and threatens to be-
come even more so with climate change and the overshooting of planetary boundaries, literature
reviewed here studies, envisages, and advocates changes in institutions, policies, values, under-
standings, and everyday modes of living. Without the voluntary work to conceive and embody
alternative ideas, explanations, practices, and institutions today, an involuntary end to growth may
well lead to a state of continual economic depression in which islands of wealth are sustained in
seas of deprivation, without pretense of democracy and social justice.
Degrowth is an action, or activist, research program. The scholarship presented here constructs
intentionally novel forms of knowledge, sensibilities, and values, and circulates new narratives
aimed to support positive transitions. It raises vital questions for future research concerning forces
and factors that render growth so hegemonic, the scalability of alternatives, the efficacy of proposed
institutional changes, conditions for stability without growth, social dynamics of transition, and
compatible philosophies of humanity and nature.
One may agree or disagree with the diagnosis and prognosis of degrowth, but it cannot be
denied that this exciting research agenda asks vital—and sometimes inconvenient—questions that
can no longer be ignored.
1. Economic growth is a recent social and political objective—GDP was first measured in
the 1930s and growth entrenched as an overriding goal in the 1950s.
2. There is no empirical evidence of absolute decoupling of throughput from economic
growth; sufficient decoupling to stay within environmental limits is logically possible,
but physically unlikely.
3. Economic growth has long worked as the key dynamic stabilization mechanism for mod-
ern, capitalistic societies. The end of economic growth without social transformation
would lead to destabilization.
4. Economies can be stabilized without growth if basic monetary, fiscal, labor, and welfare
institutions are transformed (working hours are reduced, new investment in clean sectors
is offset by disinvestment in dirty sectors, debt interest is spent or socialized, redistribution
of wealth is secured, and growth in relational goods compensates for decline in material
5. Capitalism as we know it is incompatible with degrowth.
6. Perpetual growth is ecologically limited and, in all likelihood, disastrous.
7. Planned degrowth is politically unlikely, given established interests and power relations.
8. An authoritarian and more unequal variant of capitalism is likely to emerge after a pe-
riod of stagnation, unless social forces organize politically to produce more democratic
alternatives. Research On Degrowth 4.19
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9. Human history offers myriad examples of noncapitalist societies, and of community
economies not based on capitalist relations, that have lived well without growth.
10. Appropriate and “design global, manufacture local” technologies can provide localized
solutions to human needs, while degrowing throughput.
1. How and why did growth become hegemonic in the Eastern bloc in the twentieth century?
2. How does the idea of growth reproduce its commonsensical hegemony through everyday
practices and performances?
3. Why does resource use keep increasing in service-based economies?
4. Why is there so little absolute decoupling?
5. How and under what conditions may work sharing, basic income, green taxes, or rein-
vestment plans allow economies to manage without growth?
6. How do existing collectives and community economies undo the imaginary of growth
through their everyday practices, and how and under what conditions may their experi-
ences be scaled up?
7. Why and how did past civilizations and societies manage without growth?
8. How do digitalization, automation, and artificial intelligence open or limit possibilities
for a degrowth transition? What are their implications in terms of throughput?
9. Is growthmanship coming to an end, and why? Or is it morphing to a new, authoritarian
The authors are not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that
might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.
G.K. acknowledges support from the “Mar´
ıa de Maeztu” Unit of Excellence (MDM-2015-0552)
grant from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness; he acknowledges that he
is a member of Research & Degrowth, an academic association dedicated to research, training,
awareness raising, and events organization around degrowth. V.K. acknowledges financial support
from IUT (19-13) and B52 grants of the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research.
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... Ein anderer Literaturstrang erklärt die Abkehr von Finanzialisierung, das heißt eine verstärkte Entkopplung von Finanz-und Realwirtschaft, sowie einen stärkeren Fokus auf Investitionen in klimafreundliche Bereitstellung als für ein klimafreundliches Leben notwendig (Aglietta, 2018;Crotty, 2019;Keynes, 1936;Malm, 2013Malm, , 2016Schulmeister, 2018) (geringe Übereinstimmung, starke Literaturbasis). Degrowth und eine stärkere Gebrauchswertorientierung stehen dabei im Vordergrund (Eisenstein, 2021;Georgescu-Roegen, 1971;Hickel, 2021;Hickel & Hallegatte, 2021;Hickel & Kallis, 2020;Kallis et al., 2012Kallis et al., , 2018Keyßer & Lenzen, 2021;Meadows et al., 1972;Schröder & Storm, 2020) (geringe Übereinstimmung, starke Literaturbasis). ...
... Ein alternativer Literaturstrang betont, dass Kommodifizierung und Monetarisierung der Natur keine dauerhafte Lösung darstellt, solange finanzialisierte Ökonomien aus systemischen Gründen -wenn Finanzmärkte durch struktu-relle Blasenentwicklung, Instabilität und Wachstumserwartungen charakterisiert sind -mittels Wachstum auf Basis von Ausbeutung der Natur soziale Spannungsverhältnisse auszugleichen suchen (Bracking, 2020;Hache, 2019b;Harvey, 2011;Kemp-Benedict & Kartha, 2019;Maechler & Graz, 2020;Spash, 2020aSpash, , 2020bSullivan, 2013) (geringe Übereinstimmung, starke Literaturbasis). Sollen planetare, biophysische Grenzen eingehalten werden, dann ist eine Beschränkung von Wachstum oder ein ökonomisches Schrumpfen (Degrowth) in Ökonomien mit hohen Einkommen und (vor allem) mit hohem Konsumniveau in dieser Perspektive eine wesentliche Bedingung (Eisenstein, 2021;Georgescu-Roegen, 1971;Hickel, 2021;Hickel & Hallegatte, 2021;Hickel & Kallis, 2020;Kallis et al., 2012Kallis et al., , 2018Keyßer & Lenzen, 2021;Meadows et al., 1972;Schröder & Storm, 2020;Spash, 2020a) (geringe Übereinstimmung, starke Literaturbasis). Bei Ent-Kommodifizierung, Ent-Monetarisierung sowie Stärkung des Gebrauchswerts im Rahmen des Degrowth-Konzepts geht es um die Entfaltung des Menschen als soziales Wesen, die durch die Umstrukturierung unseres Werte-, Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftssystems zur Einhaltung biophysischer Grenzen ermöglicht und befördert wird. ...
... Bei Ent-Kommodifizierung, Ent-Monetarisierung sowie Stärkung des Gebrauchswerts im Rahmen des Degrowth-Konzepts geht es um die Entfaltung des Menschen als soziales Wesen, die durch die Umstrukturierung unseres Werte-, Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftssystems zur Einhaltung biophysischer Grenzen ermöglicht und befördert wird. Diese Entfaltung würde eine materialistische Wertehaltung erweitern und transzendieren und ein gutes Leben für alle abseits von gegenwärtigen, dem modernen Kapitalismus inhärenten Monetarisierungstendenzen ermöglichen (Eisenstein, 2011(Eisenstein, , 2021Hickel, 2021;Hickel & Hallegatte, 2021;Hickel & Kallis, 2020;Kallis et al., 2012Kallis et al., , 2018J. Lent, 2017;J. ...
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Zusammenfassung Die technische Zusammenfassung richtet sich an das Fachpublikum und fasst die wichtigsten Ergebnisse des Berichtes zusammen, ohne aber alle Details auszuführen. Jedes Kapitel wird auf ungefähr zwei Seiten zusammengefasst. Hierbei wird bei den relevanten Aussagen eine Bewertung mit Hinblick auf Übereinstimmung und Literaturbasis angeführt. Im Unterschied zur Zusammenfassung für Entscheidungstragende wird auch die Literatur angeführt.
... Este decrecimiento sostenible conllevará a la mejora de las condiciones ecológicas a nivel local y global, a corto y largo plazo (Sachs, 2004). Esta nueva concepción reconoce la responsabilidad de los individuos y la relevancia de la equidad para evitar la crisis social o económica que cuestionara la democracia y el humanismo, logrando paulatinamente la desmaterialización de la economía (Kallis et al., 2018). Así, a diferencia de las posturas antropocentristas, la noción de Desarrollo Sostenible no es una premisa para el decrecimiento (Latouche, 2010;Ruggerio, 2021). ...
... Esta postura coloca en el centro del sistema al entorno natural y promueve la sostenibilidad ambiental. Además, este sector de la literatura sostiene que existe una deuda ecológica que debe ser saldada por parte de los países industrializados hacia los más pobres a causa del empleo de los recursos naturales de manera inequitativa y poco ética; y con base en ello, se reclaman diferentes ventajas para el desarrollo de las economías más atrasadas, con el propósito de saldar esta deuda (Martínez Alier, 2007;Kallis et al., 2018). ...
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Resumen: El Desarrollo Sostenible constituye uno de los desafíos más importantes para la humanidad. Dada la relevancia de este proceso, es susceptible de ser analizado y definido. Se aplica una metodología de revisión bibliográfica con el propósito de recopilar de manera ordenada definiciones, críticas y extensiones del concepto de Desarrollo Sostenible. Se logra segmentar posturas teóricas, académicas y políticas y clarificar su participación en los debates actuales. Se concluye que la actual noción de Desarrollo Sostenible es resultado de la evolución de conceptos previos; en tanto, su significado continúa en disputa en ámbitos académicos, políticos e institucionales. Palabras clave: sostenibilidad, medioambiente, discusión. Abstract: Sustainable Development constitutes one of the most important challenges for humanity. Given the relevance of this process, it is worthy of being analyzed and defined. A bibliographic review methodology is applied with the purpose of collecting definitions, criticisms, and extensions of the concept of Sustainable Development in an orderly manner. It is possible to segment theoretical, academic, and political positions and clarify their participation in current debates. It is concluded that the current notion of Sustainable Development is the result of the evolution of previous concepts; meanwhile, its meaning continues to be disputed in academic, political, and institutional spheres.
... Some emerging economies such as China are seeing similar developments. Economic growth has supported and, to a certain extent stabilized, capitalist societies by facilitating distribution and material participation, thereby reducing class conflicts and sustaining the output legitimation of welfare democracies (Kallis et al. 2018;G€ org et al. 2020). In these circumstances, economic growth has become the material basis of social life and of the societal organization it has enabled (Schmelzer 2016). ...
... These achievements have been supported in the past by a reallocation and redistribution of economic growth to those services and have been heavily jeopardized by the neoliberal restructuring of societies toward unrestrained economic expansion without redistribution (Harvey 2010;Dardot and Laval 2017). This is endangering the stability of welfare democracies worldwide and opening the doors to authoritarian regimes (Kallis et al. 2018). The challenge is how to embrace constraints on expansion via democratization and not through authoritarian crisis solutions that focus on the competitive advantage of one nation (or certain racial groups within nations) at the expense of all others. ...
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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.
... Reducing the production allows to satisfy the target immediately: the AD curve goes down to AD', the equilibrium moves from point 1 to point 2 in Figure 2.a and the economy moves from point A to point B in Figure 2.b, where there is greater environmental sustainability and less economic sustainability. De-growth allows only to reduce the pollution intensity, while growth could support employment, reduce debt, and fund public services (Kallis et al., 2018). ...
Conference Paper
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This paper contributes to the existing literature in different ways. First, the paper inserts the ecological issue in the macroeconomic framework presenting an eco-Keynesian cross to highlight the need for policy coordination to accelerate the ecological transition. Then, it helps to close the gap between the recent advancements of the literature on industrial policies with the analytical tools developed to study macroeconomic policies proposing an Eco-3-Equation model. It explains how integrating macroeconomic, fiscal, and monetary policies is even more essential in the current geopolitical context with exogenously rising energy prices to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. Section 2 introduces the ecological macroeconomic policies and illustrates the eco-Keynesian cross. Section 3 presents the Eco-3 equation model. Section 4 illustrates two interesting ecological transition case studies and the policy coordination for ecological structural change. Finally, Section 5 is devoted to concluding remarks.
... Reducing the production allows to satisfy the target immediately: the AD curve goes down to AD', the equilibrium moves from point 1 to point 2 in Figure 2.a and the economy moves from point A to point B in Figure 2.b, where there is greater environmental sustainability and less economic sustainability. De-growth allows only to reduce the pollution intensity, while growth could support employment, reduce debt, and fund public services (Kallis et al., 2018). ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
This paper contributes to the existing literature in different ways. First, the paper inserts the ecological issue in the macroeconomic framework presenting an eco-Keynesian cross to highlight the need for policy coordination to accelerate the ecological transition. Then, it helps to close the gap between the recent advancements of the literature on industrial policies with the analytical tools developed to study macroeconomic policies proposing an Eco-3-Equation model. It explains how integrating macroeconomic, fiscal, and monetary policies is even more essential in the current geopolitical context with exogenously rising energy prices to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. Section 2 introduces the ecological macroeconomic policies and illustrates the eco-Keynesian cross. Section 3 presents the Eco-3 equation model. Section 4 illustrates two interesting ecological transition case studies and the policy coordination for ecological structural change. Finally, Section 5 is devoted to concluding remarks.
... Bei Postwachstum geht es nicht um das Verharren in Rezessionen, sondern um Strukturveränderung durch "change by design", einem strategischen, konfliktiven und in vielen Bereichen experimentellen Prozess, bei dem sich nicht nur Klimaschäden verringern, sondern auch dominante Sachzwänge und Vorstellungen gesellschaftlicher Entwicklung und die damit einhergehenden Kräfteverhältnisse verändern. Dies beinhaltet ein anderes Verständnis von individuellem und gesellschaftlichem Wohlstand (Chertkovskaya et al., 2019;Hickel, 2020;Jackson, 2017;Kallis et al., 2018). Es geht individuell und kollektiv um Suffizienz, das heißt zu problematisieren, "was genug ist" (Skidelsky & Skidelsky, 2012). ...
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Zusammenfassung Die Gesellschaft-Natur-Perspektive beschäftigt sich mit historisch entstandenen, tiefenwirksamen Treibern der Klimakrise. Ihr Fokus liegt auf klimaschädlichen Merkmalen von Natur-Mensch-Beziehungen, die für die westliche Moderne typisch und auch in Österreich wirksam sind. Dazu zählen Wachstumszwang, Kapitalakkumulation, dualistische Verständnisse von Natur und Mensch, Vorstellungen und Praktiken der Naturbeherrschung, sozial-ökologische Ungleichheit und disziplinäre Wissensproduktion.
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In recent years, scholarly attention has turned to the fracturing of global supply chains and the costs and benefits of reorienting economies to the local scale. While its real extent is debated, the term 'deglobalisation' has been broadly used to refer to this break from the expansionist neoliberal common-sense of previous decades. This paper conducts narrative reviews of six approaches which have emerged in this context: Hyper-localism, Open Localism, Cosmo-localism, Foundational Economy, Developmental Nationalism and Strategic Autonomy. It examines these emerging proposals for more local production, consumption and trade, and hints at relevant research directions for the uncertain era ahead. Its conceptual contribution shows that we are now faced with complex and differing processes of (de)globalisation-sometimes overlapping and sometimes competing. Grounded in a post-growth perspective, the paper concludes with an invitation for dialogue and future research around local production where capitalist political economy and organisation are not taken for granted.
The initial training received in Spanish faculties of education by future teachers is influenced by the principles and approaches passed on by their lecturers and professors over the course of their programmes. This in turn will have repercussions on the schooling they provide to their future pupils. An examination was undertaken of the discourse relating to degrowth of academic staff and students at the Faculty of Education of the University of León, as a case study. This discourse was analysed through the triangulation of three research tools of a qualitative nature: interviews, discussion groups, and a documentary review of teaching guides for subjects taught in that faculty. The results show that university teaching staff tends to reproduce models linked to the predominant neoliberal discourse. Although the study has limitations due to the small sample size used in a case study, it is believed that its outcomes may be transferable to other university contexts. The conclusion is that there is an urgent need to provide training in degrowth to the teaching staff of faculties of education if there is to by education in a model of degrowth allowing future generations to inherit a sustainable planet.
This article examines the idea of degrowth, a concept in political ecology used to envision a democratically planned downscaling of production and consumption in affluent regions of the world as a means to avoid ecological breakdown, decrease inequality, and improve quality of life. Since its inception at the beginning of the 2000s in France, the idea of degrowth has sparked a worldwide social movement which has revamped critiques of capitalism, globalization, and modernity. To better grasp its contours, I synthesize the paradigm of degrowth in four essential features: a resource-saving macroeconomic diet, the abolition of extreme wealth, a redirection of economic activities towards concrete needs, and a decentralization of power.
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Four and a half decades after the Club of Rome published its landmark report on Limits to Growth, the study remains critical to our understanding of economic prosperity. This new review of the Limits debate has been written to mark the launch of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Limits to Growth. The 1972 report articulated for the first time the dynamic nature of our dependency on physical resources and on ecological systems. It illustrated the processes of ‘overshoot and collapse’ that can occur when these limits are approached and suggested that, without a shift in direction, adverse consequences would become obvious “within the next century”. The report attracted fierce controversy. It also inspired generations of environmental and social thinkers. It continues to offer challenging insights into the predicaments of the 21st Century economy. Limits Revisited outlines the contents of the Club of Rome’s report, traces the history of responses to it and dispels some of the myths surrounding it. We unravel the arguments that have raged for forty years in its aftermath and explore more recent findings which relate to the original hypothesis. There is unsettling evidence that society is still following the ‘standard run’ of the original study – in which overshoot leads to an eventual collapse of production and living standards. Detailed recent studies suggests that production of some key resources may only be decades away. Certain other limits to growth – less visible in the 1972 report – present equally pressing challenges to modern society. We highlight, in particular, recent work on our proximity to ‘planetary boundaries’ and illustrate this through the challenge of meeting the Paris Agreement on climate change. We also explore the economic challenge of a ‘secular stagnation’. If the Club of Rome is right, the next few decades are decisive. One of the most important lessons from the study is that early responses are absolutely vital as limits are approached. Faced with these challenges, there is also clearly a premium on creating political space for change and developing positive narratives of progress. A part of the aim of the APPG is create that space.