The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s desire to return to ‘normality’ following the worldwide disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak is understandable, but also fantastical. Contemplating the ‘promised land called Normal’ which Johnson refers to, George Monbiot queries — ‘if such a land existed, would we want to live there?’ He writes:
Normality is a concept used to limit our moral imaginations. There is no normal to which we can return, or should wish to return. We live in abnormal times. They demand an abnormal response.
As the authors of a new book Exploring Degrowth, we also believe that the ideal, liberating and morally responsible response to the pandemic is not a return to normal, but rather a new normal, by following the principles of ‘degrowth’.
But what is degrowth? Fundamentally it is a movement of activists riding on the ideas of theorists such as André Gorz, Ivan Illich, Serge Latouche, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin — a movement committed to forging a world in which we respect Earth’s limits and become more fully human. In this article, we introduce degrowth by unpacking four key terms developed and used within the movement: ‘frugal abundance’, ‘decolonising of the (growth) imaginary’, ‘conviviality’ and ‘open relocalisation’.
The Covid-19 pandemic is already introducing people to the notion and practice of ‘frugal abundance’. Across the world, people and governments are asking: ‘what is really essential?’, ‘what really matters?’ and ‘how might we most easily satisfy our basic needs?’ This pandemic has highlighted the failures and weaknesses of capitalist economies harnessed to profit and growth, where production via long supply chains rupture, leading to unmet demand and widespread uncertainty and anxiety.
In contrast, ‘frugal abundance’ is a key goal and characteristic of degrowth economies specifically oriented to ensuring that all basic needs — food, clothing, housing and health —are securely met. The only abundance for degrowth activists is frugal, reversing the overconsumption and poverty of capitalist growth economies. Through economies of solidarity oriented around collective sufficiency in localised production and exchange, degrowth economies aim to meet every single person’s basic needs. This means that the first principle of degrowth reduction is a reduction in inequality.
Degrowth is a provocation that questions growth economies’ contradictory focus on quantity and scarcity to orient our economies, instead, to enhance our quality of life. Degrowth practices focus on achieving the real abundance that results from solidarity and working with nature. This is achieved through respecting Earth’s limits and engaging in its regeneration. Degrowth culture seeks a personal and society-wide ‘decolonisation’ of the omnipotent and multi-pronged growth ‘imaginary’.
In contrast to the false security sought through ‘bigger, better and faster’, degrowth nurtures a transformative culture of minimalism, of slowing down and valuing diverse human and ecological qualities and the perpetually cyclical dynamics of life. That is why the snail is a symbol of degrowth. In the process imperial, expansive and exploitative managerial and hierarchical drives wither under horizontalist approaches applied to collective governance, collective reliance and collective autonomy.
The term ‘conviviality’ has a broad and deep connotation in degrowth. It functions in both social and technical dimensions. In Tools for Conviviality (1973), Ivan Illich applies a cooperative, mutual and sociable approach in the technical sphere to refer to societies where citizens are not just experts and technocrats. Instead, he evaluates technologies for development on the basis of serving the common good.
Illich showed how capitalist technologies can be inefficient by breaching a ‘counter-productivity threshold’. In Exploring Degrowth we discuss his holistic cost-benefit calculations of the average ‘speed’ of a car. Taking a step back from the normal calculations of how long it takes to walk, cycle or drive between two points, Illich took into account the number of hours one might need to work to purchase and operate a car, the costs of the public infrastructure required for driving a car, and the ecological and social costs of dealing with the waste of ‘dead’ cars as well as injuries and deaths caused by car accidents.
This sophisticated approach to assessing the time that a car ‘saves’ showed it falling far short of a seemingly powerful device that travels 100 kph, to a device that actually achieves an average speed of 5 kph. In short, Illich’s calculations indicated that it is as quick to go on foot and even quicker to cycle. Therefore the conviviality of degrowth not only refers to enjoying other people’s company in deep and holistic ways but also applies the same approach to tools, so we surround ourselves with convivial tools rather than with the relatively useless devices that pour out of factories to be advertised and sold as commodities.
The degrowth approach to the economy is also characterised by ‘open relocalisation’, which is a three-pronged — economic, political and cultural — strategy. Beyond localising production and distributing the collective product, and sharing the knowledge and skills required for low-tech and ethical local decision-making within a polity of direct democracy, open relocalisation calls for ‘glocalisation’.
In short, glocalisation is the reverse of globalisation, as it favours celebrating diverse cultures and environments to enrich life and biodiversity. In doing so, open relocalisation acts as a strong countervailing force against the reactionary protectionism of capitalism’s closed borders and cultural suspicion.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that there would be great advantages to locally accessible goods and services, sharing knowledge and skills that can readily applied in solidarity, direct democracy and an economy oriented around needs not money, profit, debts and growth. If all this sounds ‘abnormal’ it is the purpose of degrowth to be so. In short, the movement is concentrated on realising a politically novel, economically secure, environmentally feasible and culturally comfortable world.
Anitra Nelson and Vincent Liegey are the authors of Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide (Pluto, 2020) which is out now.
Anitra Nelson is Honorary Principal Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet (Pluto, 2018) and is co-editor of Food for Degrowth (Routledge, 2020) with Ferne Edwards. You can visit her website here.
Vincent Liegey is an engineer, interdisciplinary researcher, spokesperson for the French degrowth movement and co-author of Un Projet de Décroissance (Editions Utopia, 2013). He is also the coordinator of Cargonomia — a centre for research and experimentation on degrowth, a social cooperative for sustainable logistical solutions and local food distribution using cargo-bikes in Budapest. You can visit his website here.
You can also watch a video of the authors introducing the book here.