5 Dec 2010

Décroissance for breakfast, dinner and tea?


Excellent as always John Bellemy Foster writing in Red Pepper examines the 'degrowth' movement in an era of economic stagnation.

Must read stuff as usual.


Degrow or die?

John Bellamy Foster opens a debate on ‘degrowth’, climate crisis and capitalism

In the opening paragraph to his 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren, James Hansen, the leading US climatologist and the world’s foremost scientific authority on global warming, declared: ‘Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril . . . The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself – and the timetable is shorter than we thought.’

In making this declaration, however, Hansen was only speaking of a part of the global environmental crisis currently threatening the planet: namely, climate change. Recently, leading scientists (including Hansen) have proposed nine planetary boundaries, which mark the safe operating space for the planet. Three of these boundaries (climate change, biodiversity, and the nitrogen cycle) have already been crossed, while others, such as fresh water use and ocean accidification, are emerging planetary rifts. In ecological terms, the economy has now grown to such a scale and intrusiveness that it is both overshooting planetary boundaries and tearing apart the biogeochemical cycles of the planet.

Hence, almost four decades after the Club of Rome raised the issue of ‘the limits to growth’, the economic growth idol of modern society is again facing a formidable challenge. What is known as ‘degrowth economics’, associated with the work of Serge Latouche in particular, emerged as a major European intellectual movement with the historic conference on ‘economic de-growth for ecological sustainability and social equity’ in Paris in 2008, and has since inspired a revival of radical green thought, as epitomised by the ‘Degrowth Declaration’ in Barcelona in 2010.

Ironically, the meteoric rise of degrowth (décroissance in French) as a concept has coincided over the last three years with the reappearance of economic crisis and stagnation on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The degrowth concept therefore forces us to confront the question of whether degrowth is feasible in a capitalist grow-or-die society – and if not, what it says about the transition to a new society.

According to the website of the European degrowth project (www.degrowth.eu), ‘Degrowth carries the idea of a voluntary reduction of the size of the economic system, which implies a reduction of the GDP.’ ‘Voluntary’ here points to the emphasis on voluntaristic solutions – though not as individualistic and unplanned in the European conception as the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement in the US, where individuals (usually well-to-do) simply choose to opt out of the high-consumption market model. For Latouche the concept of degrowth signifies a major social change: a radical shift from growth as the main objective of the modern economy, towards its opposite (contraction, downshifting).

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