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Degrowth Movement: Integration before Institutionalisation



The degrowth movement is at an important milestone after ten years of international conferences, with the formation of many groups, research, publications and other degrowth initiatives. Although we celebrated the existence of the degrowth movement in our Demaria et al. (2013) article, this paper argues the need to go beyond a shared degrowth value framework to formally create processes for genuine cooperation, collective action and to build a transparent and open horizontal organisation integrating our diversity in order to successfully institutionalise degrowth in society.
Degrowth Movement: Integration before Institutionalisation
Paper for the Institutionalisation of Degrowth and Post-growth: The European Level
Brussels 17 September 2018 — Politisation session
François Schneider and Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson —
François Schneider —
The degrowth movement is at an important milestone after ten years of international
conferences, with the formation of many groups, research, publications and other
degrowth initiatives. Although we celebrated the existence of the degrowth
movement in our Demaria et al. (2013) article, this paper argues the need to go
beyond a shared degrowth value framework to formally create processes for genuine
cooperation, collective action and to build a transparent and open horizontal
organisation integrating our diversity in order to successfully institutionalise degrowth
in society.
While we have established our credentials as strong critics of growth, our capacity to
impact and create real and broad spread change is restrained by doom narratives,
pessimism concerning the possibilities to transform institutions, and competition
between members and groups within the degrowth movement. The broad movement
lacks the basic ingredients of collective action: cooperation, coordination and trust.
This hinders, and shows the necessity for, the construction of a fully functioning
horizontal organisation to make us sufficiently different from growth structures and
more welcoming and attractive to members of the current social reality, to prevent
closure and authoritarianism, and to end the competitive diversity currently
fragmenting and weakening us internally.
Strong international and institutional challenges
We confront very strong growth narratives that drive and legitimate practices of over-
production and over-consumption. Mainstream narratives associate happiness,
comfort and status with growth. Yet, capitalism promotes intense competition with
great inequities, winners and losers, resulting in dramatic economic and political
crises and conflicts.
In spite of powerful growth lobbies, degrowth and associated movements have
successfully developed strong arguments to undermine growth narratives and many
mainstream people — well aware of our generally inequitable, unaffordable and
unsustainable lifestyles — are aware that our society is at a dead-end: we are on the
titanic, without an alternative. The level of resource consumption not only has had
dramatic ecological and social impacts but also has impeded political and cultural
cohesion and led to strong tendencies to closure: ‘We will be safe if we protect
ourselves; let’s close our borders and build gated communities.’ This ‘rich citadel’
narrative of the privileged starts with families and ends up with whole countries
closing their territories, a response that coincides with the rise of right-wing populism
represented by both Poutine (Russia) and Trump (US). At many scales, extreme right
parties have arisen, creating a real danger to tolerant and progressive democracies.
In the face of competitive and hierarchical capitalist structures, the degrowth
movement needs to model and encourage horizontal ways of operating to facilitate
those changes which will constitute degrowth and to constitute a convincing
alternative to growth and authoritarianism.
Degrowth movement achievements
Degrowth emerged as an activist and intellectual stance around 2001 in France,
developing practices in many areas, including the arts. Degrowth research has
resulted in well over 200 scientific papers, journal special issues, numerous books
and research teams. From the 2008 Degrowth Conference in Paris to the Post-
Growth Conference in Brussels now, degrowth constitutes a specific approach and
area of studies.
On the one hand, we have developed strong degrowth arguments and courageous
advocates. Degrowth literature identifies our fundamental concerns and values:
ecology, justice, conviviality, democracy, meanings of life and bio-economy (Demaria
et al. 2013). In these ways, in theory, degrowth has been outstanding in addressing
the resource and other limits that we face without resorting to walls and borders and
by promoting frugal abundance, liberation and conviviality (Schneider 2010).
People have tended to prioritise different concerns within degrowth. We need to
better integrate the diversity of actions and actors and show how we need to care for
both ecosystems and humans by pursuing equality and democracy. Integrative and
comprehensive tasks can be achieved in comprehensive degrowth projects that work
on all these fronts in combination. This requires a yet-to-be-achieved level of
horizontal organisation between and within degrowth groups and the whole
The degrowth movement has evolved a diversity of strategies including opposition
(especially to growth and large development projects); developing alternatives, with
radical members dedicated to hands-on practices; while reformists work for degrowth
within the system. However, this great diversity of actors, and activities adapting to
planetary limits, with individuals and organisations working at different scales,
demands greater coordination to have sufficient political impact and credibility for
policy makers. While the economic and political challenges of advanced capitalism
tend to overwhelm us, on occasions certain degrowth groups’ activities have shown
our capacity to offer a hymn of diversity, each striking their own note but in harmony
with the whole. And we can go further.
Growth limits and challenges for degrowth
The degrowth movement is distinguished from other movements by its specific work
on different limits to growth, which accounts for much of the diversity in the
movement. Moreover, the degrowth movement highlights that addressing limits as a
societal decision could actually liberate us — they are “freeing limits”.
The first important growth limit and degrowth achievement relates to what we do with
our time — turning away from harmful industrial production and conspicuous
consumption, unsustainable and unsociable activities, towards self-care, caring for
others, being convivial and participating in politics, sharing time for useful and
satisfying unpaid and paid work, wholly rethinking ‘work’.
The second limit, resource availability, has shown that private sector extraction and
consumption need to be capped. The degrowth movement has focused on reducing
resource use from the bottom-up with flourishing frugal cultures.
Third, growth demands public expansion of hard infrastructures using massive
resources and energy, as typified in urbanisation, industries and transport. Degrowth
campaigns have challenged high-speed, high consumption infrastructures.
Fourth, while the financial sectors of growth economies readily transfer massive
resources internationally, the result is very unequal distribution. In opposition, the
degrowth movement has created non-monetary production and exchange, and has
experimented with alternative currencies for localising economies and enhancing fair
Fifth, over-consumption is fuelled because people feel that their needs might be
unmet. The degrowth movement works towards everybody’s fundamental needs
being satisfied making over-consumption unnecessary.
Sixth, while growth is characterised by the regulation of work and property relations,
degrowth must emphasise ecological regulation and regulation for the meeting of
social needs. Significantly, the latter constitute limits to growth for capitalists.
It is crucial to integrate the work of degrowth actors within all these different
dimensions as a broad front to counteract growth and crises. We can effectively
counteract hierarchically structured growth by organising in horizontal ways that
readily achieve Earth’s regeneration and convivial satisfaction of human needs.
Meanwhile, there is a feeling within our movement that we should keep ‘a loose
network’ and that any structure will cause conflicts — without any concern that an
absence of structure, absence of commonly devised and commonly agreed ways to
work cooperatively, leads to hidden power manipulated by some individual or a given
group so that ‘structurelessness’ is often simply a cover for poor structure (Freeman
undated). For this reason, we elaborate more on the problems of our current loose
network and the advantages of a formal horizontal organisation.
Obstacles to collective action within degrowth
Horizontal organisation requires participative democracy, solidarity, fair and equitable
decision-making so objections are fully considered and resolved.
Open localisation is a degrowth imperative (Nelson and Schneider 2018: 223–30).
The impacts of many actions are local and do not need broader degrowth movement
input. According to the principle of subsidiarity, local management is important to
enhance collective and participatory democratic decision making. For actions and
groups with impacts at a larger scale, broader horizontal organisation is needed.
Working groups operate semi-autonomously with respect to the general assembly. A
general body, a general assembly or other structure, enables all working groups
within the movement to share relevant information and proposals and to address
There are several obstacles to such collective action to achieve the collective good of
degrowth. To illustrate, a few examples follow.
Horizontal organisation works on the principle that solidarity will create more
opportunities for all. Currently, there is a tendency amongst members to enjoy a ‘free
ride’. Opportunists work almost completely autonomously, instead of establishing
horizontal organisational responses that acknowledge and build on the wide array of
significant degrowth participants, activities and history.
People do great work within degrowth but work with little coordination, even on
aspects that concern the movement at large. For instance, Research & Degrowth
and other research groups tend to work quite independently developing and
conducting their research — similarly with the IT group (mainly Ecobyte). There is no
policy group, which is rather mainly represented by a few spokepersons. With
respect to information, is fantastic at gathering information but still has
been functioning more-or-less independently. Despite the good intentions of the
organiser, this was clear in the way the so-called group assembly process (GAP)
functioned at the Malmö conference. Instead of working groups that build proposals
that benefit from taking into account objections from the assembly (as in genuine
GAPs), in Malmö our groups functioned more like typical small commissions: groups
that are quite independent and simply share their results by reporting at the end. In
this context, the Malmö assembly was not the emanation of the whole conference
and too few people participated in the groups, whose meetings competed with at
least 15 simultaneous conference events.
In past collective processes within the degrowth movement, several games have
been played to test our capacity to cooperate. Playing such games can be useful if
we learn from them. For this reason, we decided to share the following. The ‘squirrel
game’, played at the Research & Degrowth seminar in May 2018 (Catalonia), was
based on simple principles. Players had a piece of string attached to their back (a
‘tail’) that one could easily pull. If your tail was pulled, you died. Forty players divided
into five teams with nuts clustered at the centre. The game’s objective was for each
team to get as many nuts as possible. In the case of our seminar group, the nuts
explicitly symbolised research funding. Each team had time to elaborate a strategy.
Having played the squirrel game several times, co-author Schneider decided to be a
‘conscientious objector’ and didn’t play. In past experience, he had unsuccessfully
attempted to convince others to cooperate; the ‘game’ ended up in enormous fights
that amused many people as they pulled tails to kill people, rushing for and robbing
other teams of as many nuts as possible. Some people wanted to cooperate, one
woman ending up in tears because no-one listened to her advice to pass the nuts
(funds) around, sharing them in circles. In fact, if people cooperated, more nuts
(funding) could be allocated, or even passed-on to each team.
The set-up of the game makes it easy for someone to decide not to cooperate and
pull tails — mimicking capitalism. Indeed, many people find capitalism very funny, but
not all. While Kropotkin (1902) showed that humans are inclined to mutual aid, in the
context of games like musical chairs, the prisoner’s dilemma or capitalism, many
people do not act in solidarity. Yet, competing for funding instead of developing
solidarity and sharing news of, and work for, financial opportunities is
counterproductive to the general cause of degrowth. We need genuine horizontal
structures and a motivating collective narrative for everyone to follow rules for the
common good. We argue for a horizontal structure to ensure that no individual or
group has an unfair advantage and because horizontalism responds to our needs.
No isolated group or individual can make good decisions for the whole movement.
Activists can make elaborate proposals but need to integrate objections and
improvements from the movement.
We offer an example of solidarity in action in a successful process of consensus
decision-making that even involved people with no previous experience, so they
learned these skills through the political action. The anti-car March for Degrowth from
Lyon to the racing circuit Magny-court in mid-2005 took place almost every day from
around 9:00 to 17:00 for a month before the great race. It took a lot of organisation
but became a vibrant gathering place and hub of activity. The first aim was first to
show degrowth in action, everyone travelling car-free — walking, cycling or carried by
a donkey. Participants talked as they walked, avoiding mobile phone and audio
devices. The second aim was to show popular support for degrowth. The march
started with around 100 people and ended up after a month growing to 500, at which
point it even became too unwieldy.
One simple and practical form of cooperation involves transport to activities such as
conferences. We need to create positive incentives for people to travel in trains or on
bicycles together, in solidarity, instead of individualistically by plane or car. For
instance, we instituted an ‘ecotax’ for a small conference in Gaillac in 2006 by
collecting 50 Euros for every car used to come to the conference. Consequently,
most participants came car-free and tax was used to buy a collective yurt which,
however, ended up being re-privatised due to lack of strong collective management!
We need to act with confidence and conviction. During the 6th International Degrowth
Conference in Malmö (21–25 August 2018) we sometimes heard dispiriting speakers
who referred to being overwhelmed by growth proponents, environmental crises and
lack of mainstream support. In fact, those of us discussing degrowth ideas in the
street and on public transport, are not so concerned. When talking to people outside
closed degrowth circles most people tell us that they are in favour of degrowth while
imagining that ‘all the others’ are not. Schneider (2008) reported of his experiences in
the 13-month degrowth march (2004–2005) that:
Young ones would accuse old ones of not believing in degrowth, while the
old ones would accuse the young ones of being too much into growth. All
seemed reticent in voicing their support because they were afraid that the
others would not follow. Are we in degrowth still guilty of the same lack of
Obviously, degrowth convictions and actions are blocked or diminished by lack of
confidence, the assurance of solidarity and cooperative activities.
Another tendency of deep concern is that, even within degrowth, some support
closure and walled-in segregation and are ready to create a situation favourable to
ethnic wars. This minority tendency is represented by De Benoist and his
ethnopluralism stance and indirectly supported by Daly (2015) writing against
immigration and undermining our degrowth discourse within pro-growth movements.
Without a cohesive degrowth movement that could counter such statements with
open debates on a general associational response, such statements ward off
potential members of degrowth and give ammunition to our opposition.
A narrative approach to cohesion
In our book Housing for Degrowth (Nelson and Schneider (eds) 2018) we argue for a
narrative approach where top-down meets bottom-up to advance housing for
degrowth. We iterate here this narrative approach as a theory of collective action to
develop and expand the degrowth movement, especially in relation to matters of
policy and regulation.
A narrative approach aims to give confidence and guide action. Where there is an
absence of constructive narratives, discouraging narratives breed easily, leading to
apathy. For instance, there is a strong narrative of degrowth being a ‘tiny’ and
marginal social group and, therefore, incapable of creating the necessary impact for
post-growth change. How can we create a bicycle-friendly environment while society
is organised around car-use? Obviously degrowth is possible: some individuals,
households and communities have reduced their impacts tremendously and there is
no reason that their practices cannot be applied at larger scale. We need to create
narratives based on small scale successes in order to generalise them.
Mayer (2014, P) has written:
Humans are story telling animals who use narratives as a powerful
cognitive tool to interpret the cacophony of raw stimuli that bombard us,
helping us to remember, to understand, to give meaning to our existence,
but even to establish our identity, and script our actions … we can be
moved emotionally by narratives told by others, leading us to modify our
beliefs, construct our interests, establishing our values, and framing issues
according to those values. Since stories are designed to be shared, they
have the power to align individual beliefs and interests, constructing
collective goods.
In short, narratives can offer confidence that other futures are possible, integrating
constructive perspectives, motivating us to act, and creating types of coalitions
necessary for success by interlinking all actors, all strategies, at all scales of action.
Degrowth has been successful in undermining the growth narrative, but less
successful in offering an alternative narrative. To move from diversity to collective
action, we propose that narratives can be a powerful strategy. Indeed, we are
members of the new narrative group which formed within the so-called GAP at the 6th
International Degrowth Conference in Malmö August 2018.
Group assembly processes need to become key elements of structuring the
degrowth movement as long as they follow characteristics evident from the start in
Gaillac in 2006, or in Barcelona in 2010, i.e. with open groups (not independent
commissions) functioning efficiently, debating and building proposals, and
continuously engaging with other groups and addressing objections and integrating
improvements arising from the assembly.
Temporarily stuck in a growth system, blocked by powerful growth structures at many
scales, neither structurelessness nor hierarchical structures are an option. We need
a transparent horizontal structure, an organisation that supports the integration of
actors, strategies, limits to growth and degrowth values. If we want degrowth to be
institutionalised, we need to cooperate to create coherent proposals and learn from
practical degrowth experiences.
We have a fantastic legacy of trial and errors in horizontal practice that we need to
valorise and learn from. We need to try and apply successful syntheses of lessons
from horizontal organising, the most promising models being based on ‘living
systems’ and multi-level systems with strong communication and continuous
adaptation. Sociocracy and holocracy are very promising (greatly better than
structurelessness, showing the gains of our own progresses in horizontal organising
both in efficiency and in work relations) but retain some hierarchical characteristics.
First, we need to expand our dialogues and debates. We need more than diversity,
i.e. ‘diversality’ creating living laboratories of other realities and interlinking such
realities within our dialogues and debates. Second, we need to appreciate the
importance of cooperation, coordination and trust and build narratives that motivate
us to trust in cooperative and coordinated ways of working together. Third, we need
to develop, describe and defend degrowth narratives, as in Nelson and Schneider
(2018). Fourth, building on our past experiments, and the wide experience of other
social movements, we need to develop degrowth living systems further, to show that
both capitalist and state-interventionist hegemonies (and their closed or conquering
paradigms) can be countered by different practices, relations and values. Finally, we
suggest that well-established horizontal organisation is crucial to successfully
approach the mainstreaming and institutionalisation of degrowth.
Daly H. (2015) ‘Mass migration and border policy’, Real-World Economics Review
Demaria F., Schneider F., Sekulova F. and Martinez-Alier, J. (2013) ‘What is
degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement’, Environmental Values
22(2): 191–215.
Freeman, J. (undated) ‘The tyranny of structurelessness’, Jo Freeman site (accessed
6 September 2018) —
Kropotkin, P. ([1902] 2009) Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. London: Freedom
Mayer F.W. (2014) Narrative Politics, Stories and Collective Action. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Nelson A. and Schneider F. (eds) (2018) Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models,
Challenges and Opportunities. London: Routledge.
Schneider F. (2008) ‘Une expérience d'itinérance militante : colporter la
décroissance’, in Berthelot L. and Corneloup J. (eds) Itinérance, du Tour aux
Détours. Figure Contemporaine des Pratiques Récréatives de Nature. L’Argentière la
Bessée: Editions du Fournel: 121–24.
Schneider, F. (2010) ‘Degrowth of production and consumption capacities for social
justice, wellbeing and ecological sustainability’, Proceedings of the Second
conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity,
University of Barcelona, 26–29 March 2010 —
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Degrowth is the literal translation of 'décroissance', a French word meaning reduction. Launched by activists in 2001 as a challenge to growth, it became a missile word that sparks a contentious debate on the diagnosis and prognosis of our society. 'Degrowth' became an interpretative frame for a new (and old) social movement where numerous streams of critical ideas and political actions converge. It is an attempt to re-politicise debates about desired socio-environmental futures and an example of an activist-led science now consolidating into a concept in academic literature. This article discusses the definition, origins, evolution, practices and construction of degrowth. The main objective is to explain degrowth's multiple sources and strategies in order to improve its basic definition and avoid reductionist criticisms and misconceptions. To this end, the article presents degrowth's main intellectual sources as well as its diverse strategies (oppositional activism, building of alternatives and political proposals) and actors (practitioners, activists and scientists). Finally, the article argues that the movement's diversity does not detract from the existence of a common path.
During the years in which the women's liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the overstructured society in which most of us found ourselves, the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this over-structuredness. The idea of structurelessness, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women's liberation ideology. For the early development of the movement this did not much matter. It early defined its main method as consciousness raising, and the structureless rap group was an excellent means to this end. Its looseness and informality encouraged participation in discussion and the often supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight. If nothing more concrete than personal insight ever resulted from these groups, that did not much matter, because their purpose did not really extend beyond this.
Mass migration and border policy
  • H Daly
Daly H. (2015) 'Mass migration and border policy', Real-World Economics Review 73.
Une expérience d'itinérance militante : colporter la décroissance
  • F Schneider
Schneider F. (2008) 'Une expérience d'itinérance militante : colporter la décroissance', in Berthelot L. and Corneloup J. (eds) Itinérance, du Tour aux
Degrowth of production and consumption capacities for social justice, wellbeing and ecological sustainability
  • F Schneider
Schneider, F. (2010) 'Degrowth of production and consumption capacities for social justice, wellbeing and ecological sustainability', Proceedings of the Second conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, University of Barcelona, 26-29 March 2010 -