Debating the degrowth alternative

Giorgos Kallis, a prominent scholar on ‘degrowth’, recently wrote an essay that was the subject of debate among members of the Great Transition Initiative network. Below is a comment from STWR’s Rajesh Makwana that responded to the following theme of discussion: is degrowth, as currently formulated, sufficiently rigorous and inclusive to offer the theoretical legitimacy and political unity for a system shift?

To read Giorgos Kallis's essay along with other selected comments from the discussion, as well as Kallis's response to the debate, please visit: http://www.greattransition.org/publication/the-degrowth-alternative


This is an excellent article on the immensely important issue of degrowth, with a comprehensive overview that avoids focusing only on local-scale solutions to global-scale problems. Clearly, the vision and principles underpinning the degrowth perspective can contribute much to the discourse on planetary limits and the urgent need for a new paradigm for economic development—especially since it is inherently a political perspective that directly challenges neoclassical economics.

However, in relation to the debate on how to facilitate a great transition, I think the issue of degrowth is likely to be a red herring. As a popular framing that can mobilize a global citizens movement or enable system change on the scale needed, degrowth is limited. Apart from concerns around what might (paradoxically) still need to grow in a degrowth society, which might even include GDP, a key concern is its negative and unappealing framing.

In an interconnected world, any great transition can only happen if it is underpinned by broad principles that have real transformative potential and can mobilize support on a scale never before achieved. Almost half the planet still lives in two-dollar-a-day poverty, and this number increases dramatically if we shift the poverty line upwards. The demand for degrowth is not likely to appeal to the poorest and most disenfranchised—those who will benefit the most from a great transition, and whose support is therefore essential in the creation of a “movement of movements.”

I suggest that the concept and practice of sharing could be used to reframe the degrowth debate, as it embodies critical concepts such as redistribution and participation while also alluding to the need to live within the constraints of “one-planet living.” For example, we could talk about the creation of a “sharing society,” “sharing the Earth,” or even “shared planet economics.” This more positive framing lends itself to an important debate on sufficiency—the ethic of “enough” versus the materialistic culture of “more.” It also speaks to the many sharing-related reforms that must be part of any transition to a degrowth society (some of which Kallis mentions in his essay)—from redistributing wealth, power, and jobs to sharing knowledge, land, and natural resources. In particular, the frame of global sharing lends itself to the growing recognition that humanity must work together on an international scale if we are to create the conditions to thrive peacefully on a planet with finite resources.

As for the central problem of economic growth, rather than promoting degrowth as a policy framework or a collective demand, the aim should perhaps be for governments to simply deprioritize the pursuit of GDP growth so that it is no longer considered a panacea for prosperity. Instead, public policy should be geared towards more appropriate goals and indicators that focus on the attainment of economic, social, and cultural rights within an overarching global framework of planetary limits. But as Kallis rightly points out, this paradigm shift will not be possible until governments find more effective ways of cooperating on global issues and reforming systems of global governance so that they are far more inclusive and democratic than is currently the case.


Rajesh Makwana is STWR's director and he can be contacted at rajesh [at] sharing.org