We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
Native American Proverb
Every time the economy contributes to the development of the world, it also takes one step closer to deteriorating the overall status quo of the environment. This paper analyses the concept of degrowth, its challenges and benefits from different perspectives and in different aspects. It highlights the way economic, legal, and political approaches address degrowth and the existing suggestions on this subject. Additionally, the paper notes the European Union’s perspectives on degrowth and its potential influence on the Eastern Partnership countries. An example of degrowth inherited from 1970 is presented and analysed with recommendations on further implementation. Finally, the paper ends with proposals and beneficial actions that can be undertaken in order to save the planet and secure a future for the next generations.
Degrowth: introductory remarks
In order for a society to keep in touch with the world and be modern, it needs to become more and more technically sophisticated and urbanised. Modernity is based on the firm idea that economic growth is not just possible but absolutely essential for humankind. Politicians and economists insist that growth is vital for three main fundamental reasons (Harari, 2017). First, when humans produce more, they consume more, and by doing so they raise their standard of living and allegedly enjoy a happier life. Second, as long as humankind multiplies, economic growth is indispensable merely for staying alive. Third, even if humankind stops multiplying, the economy still has to grow, otherwise the only way of giving to the poor will be by taking something from the rich.
In contrast, David Harvey has always insisted on the theory of devaluation of capital as an answer to overaccumulation: «Surplus capital and labour may be absorbed by investments in infrastructures and the built environment, but the results may be the creation of excess productive capacity. The result is devaluation» (Harvey, 2016).
However, how can humankind assure growth without generating pollution and damaging technologies, facilitating urbanisation, unravelling traditional societies and creating the conditions for an octopus-capitalist system? One answer to this question is the broadly discussed and debated concept of degrowth.
At its core, degrowth revolves around alternatives to growth and economic development (rather than alternative growth paths), a re-politicisation of economic debates, and the claim that global environmental justice requires a reduction of the economic output in high-income countries and a fundamental socio-economic transformation aimed at achieving a good life for all (Borowy, Schmelzer, 2017).
The degrowth movement claims that future societies cannot be sustainable without new institutions, technologies, and mentalities that go «beyond the logic of capitalist efficiency enhancement, commodification, and economic growth» (Adloff, Neckel, 2018). Thus, according to Brossmann, «degrowth develops an alternative imaginary of an economy of care and commons, and endorses new forms of living and producing like eco-communities and cooperatives» (Brossmann, Islar, 2017).
The degrowth approach is inclined to believe that capitalism is, «by its very nature,» in conflict with respect for the environment. Faced with the risk of environmental and social collapse, this approach highlights the huge gap between environmental urgency on the one hand and regulatory inertia and the tyranny of «business as usual» on the other.
What should definitely be borne in mind about degrowth is that it does not represent a stagnation of the economy, but rather assists in deciphering which approach is better for the improvement of the overall well-being and prosperity of the world.
Analysis from the economic point of view: Sortir de l’èconomie (escaping from the economy)
Nowadays it is generally accepted that some version of free-market capitalism is a much more efficient way of assuring long-term growth; therefore, ecological habitats, eco-friendly products, actions, and practices that support the environment but stand in the way of free-market capitalism are dismantled and destroyed (UN, 2020).
Ecological economists define degrowth as an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials (Schneider, 2010). These measures affect a country’s metabolism, which is its ability to face capitalism, adapt to it and develop immunity or some kind of reaction that can deal with economic growth without working to the detriment of its sustainability. In economic theory, the idea of «natural» capitalism was reinforced by the famous Environmental Kuznets Curve, according to which, from a certain point onwards, growth is increasingly less harmful to the environment (Borowy, Schmelzer, 2017).
Since the 1970s, however, the «free-market environmentalism» has come to succeed, based on Ronald Coase’s theory that it is economically beneficial to attribute marketable rights to pollute and leave actors to negotiate among themselves the price for all the damage they produce. In various manifestations, the «law and economics school,» the «new resource economics» or «green economics,» «solutions» were endorsed by depending on market instruments: markets in emissions rights for sulphur dioxide and CO2, markets in fishing quotas or the extraction of groundwater, even markets in «eco-systemic services» for biodiversity (Heynen, 2007).
However, the degrowth approach argues that it is necessary to refrain from this obsession with continued economic growth and to focus on policies that substantially improve living conditions and reduce inequalities. Consequently, one possibility would be to have an acceptable job but work fewer hours in order to have enough free time for spending quality time with our loved ones within a friendly and sustainable environment. Thus, humans must insist on cultural and institutional decolonisation from economism and the religion of growth, investing in nature and the alteration of our consciousness, to take matters under our control.
Analysis from the legal point of view: De jure following the law, de facto destroying lives
Pursuant to the principles and concepts of entropy law, the energy found in nature in its original stage, once corrupted and destroyed, can never return back to how it was. Accordingly, a continuous process of growth conducted at the expense of natural resources can pave the path to their end, which creates a «physical aberration» (Fournier, 2008).
Economic growth and unsustainable social and ecological consumption breach the main values of the legal system: justice, equality, democracy, human and ecosystemic health, quality of life, social relations, thus interfering with human rights. Hence, if humanity does not start a smooth and confident legal transition to empower the protection of natural resources, natural habitat, natural ecosystem, and climate with global legal and judicial recognition, all the acts and measures undertaken so far have been in vain (Bloom et al., 2016).
Consequently, the negative impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events or the spread of infectious diseases, violates the basic rights of the population, the right to life that is enshrined in most of international conventions, such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 3); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 6); Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Article 4); European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Article 2).
Legally speaking, citizens could and should, for instance, demand institutional or legal frameworks that privilege human rights (such as the universal right to fare-free public transit) above the rights of consumers who choose cheap throw-away products, or of producers to advertise. Yet a legal regime that accords with ecological economics, degrowth and global ecological boundaries will undoubtedly impose limitations on human activities that do not exist under the current legal regimes in most if not all of the «developed world» (Garver, 2016).
Additionally, the legal approach has created the institutionalised theory of degrowth (Klitgaard, Krall, 2012). It gained a lot of popularity among ecological economists due to the fact that it aims to enable legislative or political institutions that have a certain power to get involved in the degrowth process, either its development or its stagnation. Institutional theory is dedicated to understanding how and why organisations tend to «behave in ways that defy degrowth logic or norms of rational behaviour» and «adopt processes and structures that destroy the surrounding environment» (Suddaby, 2010).
Most importantly, the approach of a radical institutional change might have some success (Joutsenvirta, 2016). Its main aim would be to create a super-agency that could supervise and monitor the degrowth process from a legal perspective. Despite the fact that degrowth is a rather decentralised and autonomous movement that argues against superstructures and «the state» as an enabler of capitalism (D’Alisa, Kallis, 2020). The main ideas and recommendations towards a transition to a degrowth society have to be implemented top-down at the level of state and national policies (Cosme, 2017).
First, an approach of radical institutional change would assist in understanding the practices that can advance the interference of current institutional arrangements. It could acknowledge that the exploration of alternative initiatives can lead to focusing too optimistically on creating new institutions and disrupting the existing ones. Second, a super-agency would enable people to deal with issues of power and social justice in a way that avoids both over-optimism and over-determinism. It would be based on a situated, dynamic, and balanced vision of institutional agency which takes into consideration power inequalities and privileging structures (Lawrence, 2009).
Hence, the legal approach is an invisible hand of the market which, in contrast to Adam Smith’s hand, can keep the economy from environmentally damaging actions while assisting with its progress.
Analysis from the political point of view: Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell (Edward Abbey)
The environmental politics and the degrowth movements can improve their collaboration if they tackle the question of the actual degrowth of advanced capitalist societies, i.e. the deterioration of daily life conditions, devaluation of economic values, and degradation of social, cultural, and institutional fabric (Exner, 2008).
As a challenging minority and scattered community, degrowth would perish in inner conflicts and face political debates if it were to present a full political proposal by establishing a coherent and comprehensive set of policies for a new society. Degrowth has begun to inspire a «new left» political party to challenge the growth-led model of the recent Latin American left-wing government experiences. However, the construction of a full-fledged prerogative or the political agenda of a minority party supporting degrowth is not yet a priority for many countries, especially for the small and developing ones.
At first, it was the French Degrowth Party that made its way into politics and declared that they would not seek power and would remain in opposition until certain changes to the environmental policies of the French Republic are made (Baykan, 2007). Hence, the Party’s strategy was clear from the very beginning: certain alliances can and will be made only on the condition that the debates and the final outcome of the discussion will lead to the creation and promotion of policies for enhancing degrowth and environmentally friendly practices. However, neither the alliances nor the discussion are made for the sake of gaining political power or influence (ibid., 515).
An additional aspect of the political movement is the nature-state approach. Thus, one cannot fully agree to include degrowth in the political marathon if the nature-state approach has never been on the table. This approach can be enhanced only by focusing on various uses of nature as means of contesting the consolidation of the state. Accordingly, the moment of contestation—when nature is used as a way of challenging state forms and ideologies—structures and is structured by the forms of political and ecological domination that are prevalent in that specific state.
Major political and economic goals, including the correct application and redistribution of tax revenue, get altered by the counter-interests of lobbyists, corruption, and illegal production activities (Nemeskeri, 2008). This can result in the loss of environmental and social policy targets. However, in order to keep the main and initial principles of these targets on the menu, certain values must be sufficiently encouraged and spread, such as «resilience, justice and fairness, ecological integrity,» which can be accomplished pretty easily once the political class consolidates its powers and goals for the common good (ibid.).
European Union policies for implementation in the Eastern Partnership countries
Although the transition from a growth-insistent economy heading toward environmental collapse to an economy based on the rule of ecological law might seem abstract, the European Union can be a useful structural model. Through its directives and regulations, the EU has found democratic motivation to transform social practices in line with environmental sustainability, which includes some form of degrowth strategies (in the sense of degrowth broader than the simple economistic approach). It is certainly true that some large-scale effects can be achieved by political action, even if it is paid for. Accordingly, working within the EU and its institutions on reducing matter/energy throughput can certainly be worthwhile.
If adopted on a worldwide scale and in a way that takes into consideration the multilevel nature of universal environmental change, the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality that form part of the bedrock of the European Union treaties could provide strong structural support (Young, 2009). This support may help in maintaining local autonomy and eco-cultural identity and ensuring that localities or regions do not unfairly reap the benefits of the degrowth process.
Starting from November 2019, by issuing the Regulation on sustainability-related disclosures in the financial services sector, the EU approached an even more consistent way of promoting degrowth. The Regulation allows only sustainable investment in the EU territory (EU Regulation 2019/2088). This means changing and adjusting new investments in economic activities that contribute to an environmental objective, as measured. For example, it can be comprised by key resource efficiency indicators on the use of energy, renewable energy, raw materials, water, and land, on the production of waste and greenhouse gas emissions, or on the impact on biodiversity and the circular economy, or an investment in an economic activity that contributes to a social objective, in particular an investment that contributes to tackling inequality or fosters social cohesion, social integration, and labour relations, or an investment in human capital or economically or socially disadvantaged communities, provided that such «investments do not significantly harm any of those objectives and that the investee companies follow good governance practices, in particular with respect to sound management structures, employee relations, remuneration of staff and tax compliance» (EU Regulation 2019/2088).
Moreover, the current requirements set out within the EU and its legislative provisions demand disclosure, to a certain degree, of the information about the sustainability-related impact of others’ investments in financial products with environmental or social characteristics or financial products which pursue sustainability objectives. Therefore, these provisions set out more specific and standardised disclosure requirements with regard to more approachable degrowth. Thus, even if the investment is made, it should only be allowed if it follows certain strict standards. Failure to meet the established standards means failure to place an investment, which leads to a step forward towards degrowth.
For instance, one of the main goals of the Regulation claims that the «overall sustainability‐related impact of the financial products should be reported regularly by means of indicators relevant for measuring the chosen sustainable investment target» (EU Regulation 2019/2088). Where an appropriate index has been designated as a reference benchmark, that information should also be provided for the designated index as well as for a broad market index to allow for comparison. This means that once the index is exceeded, the investment cannot take place, thus facilitating the degrowth process. Things like these, taken into consideration and put into practice, may help the supporters of degrowth to demonstrate the benefits of a slow sustainable economy.
In regards to the EaP countries, as stated in the European Council Declaration of May 2009, the EU should extend its offer to Eastern neighbours; therefore, it proposes to accelerate political association and further economic integration between the EU and its Eastern neighbours. Following this statement, the EaP countries should adjust their policies (both political and economic) in line with the EU policies. Consequently, the EU policies that refer to degrowth and encourage its implementation should largely be adopted by the EaP countries for better cooperation with the EU.
Georgescu-Roegen’s project: Sustainable development in practice or back to basics
The substance of the degrowth movement is the call to reduce the matter/energy throughput. At its simplest, this means that the non-human inputs (often referred to as resources) that enter human society, as well as the non-human outputs (often referred to as waste) that exit human society, must be reduced (Kallis, 2011).
The main motive behind this appeal is the finding that the biospherical metabolism cannot deal with this much human intervention in biological processes. In other words, humans are using too many resources, that is, they are using them faster than they can renew them, and emitting too much waste, in that they are creating a mass of waste that cannot be absorbed into the Earth’s ecosystems (Lilleb, 2017). The main driver of the increased matter/energy throughput is economic growth.
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a famous Romanian economist, was the first one to point out that, even at zero growth, the continued use of scarce resources will inevitably result in consuming them completely. He emphasised that the point was not to refrain from consuming more and more, but to consume less and less: there is no other means of conserving the existing reserves for the generations to come.
Thus, his proposal to renew economics is built as a three-dimensional coherent paradigm with the first set of epistemological foundations, the second set of analytical tools, and the third set of practical measures (Missemer, 2017).
Many feasible technologies exist, such as solar panels, but these technologies are not viable since they rest upon fossil materials (for example, rare earth metals). For Georgescu-Roegen, it is unreasonable to ignore the entropy law and its main principles, as their outcomes are rather truly and fully material in both the physical world and the economic fluctuations and consumer preferences (Fournier, 2008). His project did not only consist of describing economic processes in an ecological manner, it also aims at proposing actions to reconcile human activities and natural constraints. Distinguishing between feasible and viable technologies, Georgescu-Roegen sheds light on the limits to technical progress (Missemer, 2017).
One of his considerations was to focus more on farming and farmers. Thus he suggested to analyse the behaviour of peasant farmers with respect to production and consumption and to assess the extent to which economic decisions of farmers are made on the basis of considerations other than market prices or exchange value. Additionally, Georgescu-Roegen stressed the strategic importance of agricultural development as opposed to industrialisation-minded theories and policies, with a special reference to economic development problems (Georgescu-Roegen’s letter).
In this respect, the economist mentioned that it would be possible for states to maintain balanced growth paths; however, it would be more beneficial to do so from the viewpoint of agricultural policy. In most countries, the government plays an important role in encouraging the technical progress of agriculture; and in particular, in the countries where peasant economy is dominant in agriculture, this has strategic importance for economic development (Suprinyak, 2018). The nature of technical progress thus required under the condition of a constant stock of land available to agriculture must be land-saving. The land is the factor that can enable sustainable degrowth by getting people closer to nature and its perks. This is possible through the means of agriculture and farming, which are the key solutions for involving human beings in land activities. This strategy can help save the labour market as well. If we assume that the amount of labour force in agriculture is kept unchanged throughout the (de)growth process, it should also be labour-saving to the same degree.
In a nutshell, the key idea of Georgescu-Roegen is that the economic realm is a subsystem of the natural environment, and it should be developed in that direction only (Georgescu-Roegen’s letter). As a consequence, economic practices have to obey certain indisputable laws that cannot be avoided. For instance, the entropy law, which stipulates, on the one hand, that the quantity of available energy in a system necessarily tends to decrease, and on the other hand, that rebooting agriculture is the only way of contributing to the economy without deteriorating the surrounding world. Without natural resources, fossil fuel energy and scarce matter, no economic activity is ever possible.
His final words on this subject were that if the economy disregards the sustainable aspects and continues on the destructive path, the profession of economists will undergo a curious change: instead of being exclusively concerned with economic growth, economists will be looking for the optimal criteria to plan degrowth (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971).
Degrowth: smaller can be beautiful. Patterns of everyday alternatives to the growth imaginary
The destructive practices undertaken by humanity are not that surprising in an era of incessant development and competition of economic rather than sustainable aspects. It is also not at all surprising that all these unanalyzed practices have begun to generate drastic outcomes, from the lack or total exhaustion of certain natural resources and to the confusion regarding what is truly sustainable and what just claims to fight for sustainability. A good practice to follow and implement is the concept of renewable resources and energy, which are already being implemented in numerous states such as Iceland, Sweden, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The renewable supplies that these countries use are generated by wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and solar sources. A transition towards following the practices of these states can be beneficial not only to the current world, but also to the generations to come. There are also certain patterns of everyday alternatives that go beyond the market economy:
- eco-communities and eco-villages;
- reclamation of agricultural land;
- occupation of uninhabited buildings;
- producer-consumer cooperatives;
- communal self-managed farms and orchards;
- permaculture and organic biodynamic cultivation;
- ethical banks;
- self-managed social centres;
- local exchange networks of products and services without money;
- alternative educational and cultural structures;
- public assemblies and participatory budgets at community level (Rigon, 2017).
Nonetheless, there is a strong need to gradually create a society beyond the market and the state. The growth of an alternative society begins, on the one hand, with local initiatives and projects that develop existing neighbourhoods with collective elements, such as the joint use of tools, common kitchens, or networks of social self-help. On the other hand, it continues with the formation of an increasing number of experimental communities where new ways of living could be confirmed and illustrated by example. Therefore, public authorities should not just organise these joint activities, but encourage their development facilitated by an appropriate legal and political framework. This could include the creation of funds that strengthen experimental communities or the distribution of available buildings.
The concept of degrowth has become more articulated and vocal in recent years because of the contemporary industrial growth-led society. Since the goal of endless economic growth is an integral part of capitalism, the likelihood of the degrowth process may not seem very high. However, this does not mean that all attempts to realise this process are hopeless. The current overarching goal of humanity should be to contribute to the degrowth attempts by offering a hopeful, inspiring vision of how living in harmony with nature can also be harmonious with humankind.
Although the concept of degrowth has been analysed as a long-term beneficial development, it is indeed challenging to promote it to everyone, because its short-term outcomes are difficult to prove. However, this does not mean that attempts to implement degrowth on a larger scale should stop.
From the perspective of the EU, if adapted to the global scale in a way that takes into consideration the multilevel nature of universal environmental change, the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality that form the foundation of the EU treaties could provide strong structural support to the degrowth process. This perspective, as well as its legislative background support, should be continuously encouraged and implemented.
Degrowth is an international challenge from many perspectives of analysis, as it has certain consequences that humans are not yet ready to adapt to. However, the benefits of adopting the practices of degrowth and its sustainable developments can provide durable and successful progress once the policies supporting degrowth are clearly defined. Institutions can and should address these aspects, as well as spread awareness about this topic so that people could be ready and look forward to implementing these practices.
We should also focus more on projects related to farming and farmers (the back to basics approach) by analyzing the behaviour of peasant farmers with respect to production and consumption, as well as assessing the extent to which farmers’ economic decisions are based on considerations other than market prices or exchange value. This could bring people closer to land, open their eyes and give them more respect for nature.
Finally, a better understanding and implementation of degrowth are the key to conceiving alternatives to the concept of self-sufficiency. Exploring the alternatives could contribute to formulating a degrowth practice that can free the world from self-imposed capitalist sanctions and other limitations. Mutual assistance between individuals is of pivotal significance, and debates and collaborations around degrowth should not be restricted or stopped anytime soon.
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The paper is part of the «Eastern European Cities: Degrowth vs Right to Develop» project, supported by FES Regional Office «Dialogue Eastern Europe». The views expressed in the paper belong to the author and do not necessarily coincide with those of the Cedos think tank or Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
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During the war in Ukraine, we collect and analyse data on its impact on the civilian population, especially in the areas of migration, housing, education and social protection