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The anti-colonial politics of degrowth
London School of Economics and Political Science, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
As degrowth ideas speed their way into social movements and aca-
demic research, they have encountered some interesting critiques. In a
recent contribution to this Virtual Forum, Huber (2021) dismissed
degrowth as a preoccupation of middle-class environmentalists in the
global North who feel “anxiety” about excess consumption. Such a
movement, he argues, can never hope to connect with the working class,
who are struggling to get by, and certainly cannot connect with social
movements in the global South, where mass poverty is widespread and
where, he claims, the concept of degrowth is largely unknown. These
claims constitute a signicant misrepresentation of degrowth politics.
Let me begin by noting a few facts. High-income countries are the
primary drivers of global ecological breakdown. The global North is
responsible for 92 percent of emissions in excess of the planetary
boundary (Hickel, 2020a), while the consequences of climate break-
down fall disproportionately upon the global South. The South already
suffers the vast majority of the damage inicted by climate breakdown,
and if temperatures exceed 1.5 degrees centigrade, much of the tropics
could experience heat events that exceed the limits of human survival
(Zhang, Held, & Fueglistaler, 2021). Likewise, high-income countries
are responsible for the majority of excess global resource use, with an
average material footprint of 28 tons per capita per year – four times
over the sustainable level (Bringezu, 2015). Crucially, these high levels
of consumption depend on a signicant net appropriation from the
global South through unequal exchange, including 10.1 billion tons of
embodied raw materials and 379 billion hours of embodied labor per
year (Dorninger et al., 2021).
In other words, economic growth in the North relies on patterns of
colonization: the appropriation of atmospheric commons, and the
appropriation of Southern resources and labour. In terms of both emis-
sions and resource use, the global ecological crisis is playing out along
colonial lines. This is often framed as a problem of “ecological debt”, but
this language – while useful – hardly captures the violence at stake.
Just as Northern growth is colonial in character, so too “green
growth” visions tend to presuppose the perpetuation of colonial ar-
rangements. Transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy should be
done as rapidly as possible, but scaling solar panels, wind turbines and
batteries requires enormous material extraction, and this will come
overwhelmingly from the global South. Continued growth in the North
means rising nal energy demand, which will in turn require rising
levels of extractivism. Complicating matters further, decarbonization
cannot be accomplished fast enough to respect Paris targets as long as
energy use in the global North remains so high (Hickel & Kallis, 2020).
To compensate for this problem, IPCC models rely heavily on bioenergy
with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to get us out of trouble. But
deploying BECCS at scale would require land for biofuel plantations up
to three times the size of India, which would almost certainly be
appropriated from the South. This is not an acceptable future, and is
incompatible with socialist values (Hickel, 2020b).
Degrowth calls for rich nations to scale down throughput to sus-
tainable levels, reducing aggregate energy use to enable a sufciently
rapid transition to renewables, and reducing aggregate resource use to
reverse ecological breakdown. This demand is not just about ecology;
rather, it is rooted in anti-colonial principles. Degrowth scholars and
activists explicitly recognize the reality of ecological debt and call for an
end to the colonial patterns of appropriation that underpin Northern
growth, in order to release the South from the grip of extractivism and a
future of catastrophic climate breakdown. Degrowth is, in other words, a
demand for decolonization. Southern countries should be free to orga-
nize their resources and labor around meeting human needs rather than
around servicing Northern growth.
Decolonization along these lines is a crucial precondition for suc-
cessful development in the South. Dependency theorists have pointed
out that “catch-up” development is impossible within a system predi-
cated on appropriation and polarized accumulation. This is true also
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Political Geography xxx (xxxx) xxx
from an ecological perspective. The alternative is to pursue a strategy of
convergence: throughput should decline in the North to get back within
sustainable levels while increasing in the South to meet human needs,
converging at a level consistent with ecological stability and universal
This much is straightforward. But there are further implications of
degrowth that are worth drawing out here. For degrowth, the problem is
not ultimately the behavior of individual “consumers” (as in mainstream
environmentalist thought) but rather the structure and logic of the un-
derlying economic system, namely, capitalism. We know that capitalism
is predicated on surplus extraction and accumulation; it must take more
from labor and nature than it gives back. As Marxist ecologists have
pointed out, such a system necessarily generates inequalities and
ecological breakdown. But many economic systems have been extractive
in the past; what makes capitalism distinctive, and uniquely problem-
atic, is that it is organized around, and dependent on, perpetual growth.
In other words, capital seeks not only surplus, but an exponentially
To understand why this is a problem, we have to grasp what
“growth” means. People commonly assume that GDP growth is an in-
crease in value (or provisioning, or well-being), when, in fact, it is pri-
marily an increase in commodity production, represented in terms of
price. This distinction between value and price is important. In order to
realize surplus value, capital seeks to enclose and commodify free
commons in order extract payment for access, or, in the realm of pro-
duction, to depress the prices of inputs to below the value that is actually
derived from them. Both tendencies require appropriation from colonial
or neo-colonial “frontiers”, where labor and nature can be taken for free,
or close to free, and where costs can be “externalized”. In this sense,
capitalist growth is intrinsically colonial in character, and has been for
500 years. Enclosure, colonization, mass enslavement, extractivism,
sweatshops, ecological breakdown – all of this has been propelled by the
growth imperative and its demand for cheap labor and nature.
Of course, there is nothing “naturally” cheap about labor and nature
at the frontier. On the contrary, they have to be actively cheapened. To do
this, European capitalists advanced a dualist ontology that cast humans
as subjects with mind and agency, and nature as an object to be
exploited and controlled for human ends. Into the category of “nature”
they shunted not only all nonhuman beings, but also Black and Indige-
nous people, and most women, all of whom were cast as not-quite-fully-
human, in order to legitimize dispossession, enslavement and exploita-
tion (Federici, 2004; Patel & Moore, 2017). Racist discourses were
leveraged to cheapen the lives of others for the sake of growth. Similar
discourses are used today to justify wages in the South that remain
below the level of subsistence (Hickel, 2020d).
Degrowth, then, is not just a critique of excess throughput in the
global North; it is a critique of the mechanisms of colonial appropriation,
enclosure and cheapening that underpin capitalist growth itself. If
growthism seeks to organize the economy around the interests of capital
(exchange-value) through accumulation, enclosure, and commodica-
tion, degrowth calls for the economy to be organized instead around
provisioning for human needs (use-value) through de-accumulation, de-
enclosure and de-commodication. Degrowth also rejects the cheap-
ening of labour and resources, and the racist ideologies that are
deployed toward that end. In all of these ways, degrowth is about
decolonization (Hickel, 2020b; Tyberg, 2020).
These demands align strongly with those of social movements in the
global South. This is clear, for instance, in the People’s Agreement of
Cochabamba, drafted in 2010 by thousands of grassroots organizations
from more than 130 countries. The Cochabamba statement explicitly
attacks the economics and ideology of growthism and explicitly critiques
excess resource use in the global North (“hyper-consumption”) as the
driver of “overexploitation and unequal appropriation of the planet’s
commons” (WPCC, 2010). It calls for rich nations to address their
ecological debt by reducing resource use to sustainable levels,
“decolonizing” the atmosphere, and ending the exploitation of poorer
countries. It also calls for a different model of development, one that is
focused on human wellbeing within ecological boundaries, rather than
on perpetual growth. In other words, the Cochabamba statement artic-
ulated degrowth demands from the South well before the concept gained
traction in the North.
These ideas have a long history in anti-colonial thought. Fanon
(1963:314–315) critiqued Europe’s growthist model, lamenting that
Europe had “shaken off all guidance and all reason” and was “running
headlong into the abyss.” “Let us be clear”, he wrote: “what matters is to
stop talking about output, and intensication … Humanity is waiting for
something other from us than such an imitation.” Gandhi (1965:51–53)
noted that the industrial growth of Europe and the US depended on
plundering the South. He called for Southern countries to collectively
refuse this arrangement, thus forcibly reducing the “surfeit” of rich
countries. He rejected growthism and argued that production should be
organized instead around human needs and sufciency, enabling people
to pursue the “art of living nobly” rather than “a complicated material
life based on high speed”. Julius Nyerere (1960s) and Thomas Sankara
(1980s) likewise championed a sufciency-oriented approach to devel-
opment, which they saw as key to national self-reliance and thus to
throwing off neo-colonial power.
The critique of growth was in large part pioneered by thinkers in the
global South, including Rabindranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy,
and the economists Radhakamal Mukurjee and J.C Kumarappa (Gerber
& Raina, 2018). These perspectives have been developed further by
gures such as Amin (1987), ¨
Ocalan (2015), Shiva (2013), Shrivastava
and Kothari (2012). Critiques of growth are represented in the envi-
ronmental justice movement (Martinez-Alier, 2012), within movements
such as the Zapatistas and in Rojava (Nirmal & Rocheleau, 2019), in the
buen vivir movement (Acosta, 2020), in the food sovereignty movement
(e.g., Campesina, 2018), and in the broader post-development literature
(e.g., Escobar, 2015; Kothari et al., 2014; Kothari et al., 2019), all of
which have their roots in the global South. Degrowth scholarship and
activism is aligned with these movements, with demands directed spe-
cically at the North. It is the sharp edge of anti-colonial struggle within
So what about the class politics of degrowth in the North? How do we
reconcile degrowth with the reality of working-class poverty? Degrowth
scholarship points out that energy and resource use in high-income
nations is vastly in excess of what is required to end poverty and to
deliver high levels of wellbeing for all, including universal public
healthcare, education, transportation, computing, communication,
housing, and healthy food (Millward-Hopkins, Steinberger, Rao, &
Oswald, 2020). In other words, high-income nations could scale down
aggregate throughput while at the same time improving people’s lives by
organizing the economy around human needs rather than around capital
accumulation—that is, by distributing income and wealth more fairly,
while decommodifying and expanding public goods (Hickel, 2020b).
These are core degrowth demands. After all, degrowth is part of the
broader ecosocialist movement. What degrowth adds is the assertion
that growth in high-income nations is not required in order to achieve a
ourishing society. What is required is justice. Recognizing this is part of
building class consciousness against the ideology of capital (Hickel,
2020c). But even more importantly, what is the point of a progressive
politics in the North that is not aligned with the struggle for decoloni-
zation in the South? Ecosocialism without anti-imperialism is not an
ecosocialism worth having. And in the face of ecological breakdown,
solidarity with the South requires degrowth in the North.
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