Degrowth: A Movement That Anticipates The World Of The Future ?

How the “Degrowth” Movement Anticipated What We Are Experiencing In The World Today

Article written by Maria Fonseca and Paula Newton

It is no news to anyone that a growth-based economic and social system as the one we inherited from the past cannot and will not have a future anymore. Inequality, global warming and the destruction of nature are significantly on the rise. Some businesses are also changing and in their transformations they evoke innovative models that seek alternatives to the exclusive paradigm of material growth.

“Degrowth” is an interesting concept that pioneered the search for alternative economic systems. It was launched as an activist ideal in 2001, with the main concept being to challenge materialistic growth.

What is Degrowth and what can degrowth teach a social business ?

The word “degrowth” is taken from the French word “decroissance”, which literally means “reduction”. The concept is starting to take hold in academic literature and focuses on the re-politicising of discussion around socio-environmental issues. Degrowth is a subject discussed by Federico DeMaria, Francois Schneider, Filka Sekulova and Joan Martinez-Alier in 2013 in their paper: What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement. The paper by DeMaria et al. has an aim of improving the definition and understanding of degrowth.

Explaining degrowth, the authors acknowledge how: “during its short life, degrowth has been subjected to diverging and often reductionist interpretations.” Eager to put this problem straight, the authors argue that while degrowth does share some commonalities with sustainable development, people advocating degrowth do not wish it to become taken on by supra national organisations such as the United Nations or the OECD. Rather, degrowth proponents initially wanted to drive radical change, specifically in the area of socio-ecological transformation.  According to the authors this makes degrowth “a critique of the current development hegemony”.

To better understand degrowth, the authors explain that commonly the subject is seen as trying to bring about the downscaling of production and consumption in industrialised countries. The reason for doing this is given to be achieving environmental sustainability as well as social justice and improving peoples’ well-being in society. It is considered to be a “noneconomic concept” which is difficult to understand in some ways, since reducing production and consumption would indeed be an economic concept.

However, degrowth is perceived as requiring the cutting back of energy and materials throughout to reduce the demand on natural resources and the ecosystem. At the same time, the concept aims to “challenge the omnipresence of market based relations in society”. According to those pushing for degrowth this would require a much more solid type of democracy which would deal with issues that are currently not addressed by democracies in societies.

Degrowth also requires a redistribution of money between north and south, as well as between present and future generations. There have been questions raised about how good Baby Boomers have had it, and how this has caused problems for upcoming generations that will be working much longer to support the aging population. Additionally, degrowth supports concepts such as that raised in Ecuador where there was a campaign to save the Yasuni area of the Amazon rainforest, where the president of the country asked for money from other countries and if this money was delivered then the oil would remain “in the soil”.

Degrowth is becoming attractive to a diverse range of people, argue DeMaria et al. (2013). This makes it able to generate a wide range of different ideas and provides it with the ability to come up with strategies at all levels. The usefulness of the concept is that it looks at areas as different as urban planning and housing, financial systems, food systems and agro ecology, climate justice, cooperatives, meaningful employment, alternative energy and international trade. It does not just focus on economic growth per se, and nor is it considered by the authors to be a simple suggestion to decrease GDP.

Degrowth is also appealing to many because it does not merely accept commonly held beliefs such as that which suggests that in order to pay back debts it is necessary to grow. Nor does it suggest that “everyone is in the same boat”. Rather it does hone in on the differences and conflicts between people and at different levels. Activists in this area are focusing on trying to get the issues back into the political arena to drive a new level of debate on the subject. Overall, DeMaria et al. see the subject as being innovative and coherent despite the widely varying strands of focus, because all of the areas of emphasis are compatible and complementary, in their view. The diversity of people interested in this area leads to debate that is constructive and able to drive continuous improvement both at the theoretical and practical level, in their opinion. They believe that the differences, diversity and conflict in the subject are what will keep it alive and continuously evolving into the future.

Millennials and meaningful employment

One of the main concepts of the degrowth movement when it first appeared in 2001, was the need to downscale the production and consumption in industrialised countries. One decade after its launch, that downscaling is not any more an empty concept, but a reality to many of us, particularly to the millennial generation. Recent data has already shown us how in the West, millennials, that form the major part of the working force nowadays, are less wealthy than their parents’ generation.

In an article published in 2013 in The New York Times, Annie Lowrie writes :

“The millennials’ relationship with money seems quite simple. They do not have a lot of it, and what they do have, they seem reluctant to spend. Millennials are buying fewer cars and houses, and despite their immersion in consumer culture, particularly electronics, they are not really spending beyond their limited means.”

As we all seem to be experiencing one way or another, we are already living “degrowth”. What is interesting  though, is that even though “material degrowth” comes as a painful reality to many of us, particularly the millennial generation, as Adam Smiley Poswolsky says, writing for fastcoexist  “millennials want to work- and despite being shackled by debt, recession, and the jobs crisis-they aren’t motivated by money”. As he says, “young people today want to do work with purpose”.

“Degrowth” and post developmental economical models

How to deal with this reality ? Nowadays it is important  to understand what kind of new economical possibilities are possible beyond the materialistic growth model of doing business. What the concept of “degrowth” brings us,  as Kristin Laufenberg has highlighted in an essay entitled “Degrowth through a Post-Development Lens” is that:

“degrowth is in direct contrast to economic systems such as capitalism or sustainable growth”. Degrowth, she writes, shares more common ground with a “post-development perspective in advocating for a fundamental transformation of society that will challenge the very notion of what an ‘economy’ is, as well as the dominant discourses which shape our perception of reality.”


quote about degrowth by Kristin Laufenberg Intelligenthq


What are the conclusions to be taken when appropriating the concepts of “degrowth” to the landscape of social businesses ?  The digital darwinist reality of the business world of nowadays, brought to us by the digital environment, is that no one will ever grow in the sense of before anymore. The business models that used to work in the past, have changed radically, particularly in the west. Social Businesses though, are operating in the real field, a field with a mixed reality where different economic models coexist.

A possible way to deal with this conundrum, is on one hand to find the true meaning behind your wish of doing “business” and on the other hand trying to innovate by experimenting with new models of doing business, that involve collaboration and sharing.