Degrowth as transition

5 09 2008

« Sustainable degrowth vis-a-vis the question of “how?”
    An overview of prospects for transition and their conditions for realization »

Paper for the International Conference « Economic degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity », Paris, 18-19 April 2008.


There are numerous reflections which stress that the logics of actual development are not “sustainable”. Logically, the concerns and dissatisfactions raised often lead to the search for an alternative. From this point of view, the idea of “degrowth” arouses a growing interest, even though it remains rather peripheral compared to other discussions, in particular those developed from the concept of “sustainable development”. The available proposals provide a view of a new horizon, although the vision presented is generally rather vague.

This concept in effect appears to be more easily defined by what it does not want than by what it wants. At its core, it proposes the need to leave obsession with economic growth, transformed to an ultimate objective, almost self referential to the detriment of other considerations, in particular ecological and social considerations. It places the schemes of permanent and infinite accumulation in contrast to the limits of the planet, with the idea of promoting the search for a model of social organization which would make it possible to ensure, in an equitable and democratic way, subsistence and activities of the public [populations] without degrading the natural substrata. Such a project should then pass via a “regular reduction in material and energy consumption, in countries and for those populations which consume more than their acceptable ecological impact”.

Around this core, the visions suggested in fact remain diverse, more or less formalized according to their proponents (associations, academics …) and we are still waiting for clarifications. However, beyond the difficulties of definition, proposals on “degrowth” seem to find it all the more difficult to be considered in the debates as the ways of getting there seem even more vague. It is this problem (almost ignored) that this paper wishes to examine. In order to pass from one state to another, with different characteristics, a transition is needed. While the point of arrival might be more clearly defined, which transition would be necessary for sustainable degrowth? The question is all the more important as the obstacles on this path are numerous. And all the more numerous as it would involve major change, on a broad scale and intended to last in time. The transition envisioned in this perspective turns on an inclusive process, supposed to intervene across a whole system in order to make it evolve right to its roots. Touching at the same time rationale, practices, institutions, cultural bases. In other words, if the aim is sustainable degrowth, this transition is similar to the search for means of extrication (“paths of extrication”), to take again (by diverting it somewhat) an expression used in the study of “democratic transitions”, in order to indicate the exit points from authoritarian modes.

Beyond this analogy, this idea of extrication is interesting in the sense that the objective of degrowth in effect presupposes that it is necessary to leave those trajectories considered to be damaging. Adopting this perspective encourages movement of the analysis toward the identification of possible paths and, in continuation, to re-situate these paths in relation to the collective choices to be carried out and with the more or less same weight as the previous structures. This extrication implies passage through a period of reorganization, which itself can have us envisage various stages, various sequences. What it is then necessary to explore, is the installation of a process of transformation, which is a matter of consciously realizing, over the long term, a nearly general adaptation combining multiple intermingled adjustments, in a plurality of dimensions (economic, technological, cultural, institutional). However, from this point of view, the proposals for degrowth do not appear truly articulated in a theory of the change.

Such an imposing transforming perspective effectively assumes one collective intention as to the direction to be considered, but also raises the stakes in finding the means of organizing or “managing” such a transition. In fact, a project, especially one with such vast ambition, can only be carried out with difficulty if the conditions under which it can apply are thought through. It raises interdependent problems, and whatever the entry point, leads to a pass through a cascade of subjects which can hardly be treated without an overall picture. What it also means is that one has to find a plurality of levers whose actions are coherent amongst themselves. As much on the analytical level as the pragmatic, it then becomes preferable to have a systemic overview of the situation and its possible evolution. But that leads at the same time to the question of complexity (because of a multitude of potentially heterogeneous variables to take into account) and the possibility of dealing with it within a logic of change.

Beyond the question of “what to do?”, this paper aims especially at “how to make?”. Indeed, the difficulties evoked above encourage us to take more seriously the transitional dimension, and to reflect more on the adaptation of the idea of transition. In particular it will be a question of examining their bases and the implications of them, acting in particular on the design of the transition as a process to be managed, of the capacity to correct trajectories considered to be problematic, and conditions of collective action vis-a-vis a project aiming at the social whole.

Thus reconsidered, in the end the prospect for the “sustainable degrowth” would have the intent to reflect on:
– the terms of diffusion and acceptance of ideas (like those of sobriety in consumption, of criticism of materialist satisfaction, of revision in the manner of thinking of work…);
– the possibilities of generalizing practices and capitalization of experiences (such as those aimed at revising the links with goods, the modes of use of products, or using innovative forms of economic solidarity like recycling shops…) ;
– the work of coordination to be engaged between existing initiatives (like those seeking to restore short circuits, to create buying co-operatives, to bring consumers and producers closer together…).

These are the three axes that this paper proposes to explore more deeply. In effect, these three axes are less avoidable as they correspond to three fields of confrontation.

The first confronts the project of “sustainable degrowth” with the need to consider standard schemes and vested interests. How to make dominant interests evolve, in particular economic interests? Is it enough to attack advertising as the Ad Busters try to do? If the public is to be sensitized, can conferences and marches for degrowth be enough?

Another important question is that of confrontation with those practices (modes of consumption, modes of transport…), whose anchors reveal the multiple dependences suffered by the public. From which range of proposals to draw to start the adaptation of practices? Is it necessary to support community practices, for example in energy production, housing or transport? Is it necessary to develop a “do it yourself” culture, to restore markets for second hand products?

The final ambition of the project puts it fundamentally on the level of structures, at the same time institutional, economic, technological in their dimensions, etc. The difficulty is to release these capacities, to put intervening actions in synergy, in plans or in different styles? How to structurally create the conditions for collective participation? The dynamics of networks, and more particularly setting up networks of various experiments (like Local Exchange Trading Schemes [LETS], Community-Supported Agriculture [CSA], etc.), which appear to offer one track and their joint development thus deserves more attention.

The paper can be downloaded in French.




6 responses

27 11 2008
Jaime Lagunez

The phrase sustainable degrowth makes much sense…allow me to send you something about the price of gas – it should actually be 15 a gal.


Unfortunately the number of lives lost in oil derived wars are not factored in this otherwise very reasonable calculation.
– Jaime Lagunez

The market has some fundamental weaknesses, however. It does not incorporate into prices the indirect costs of producing goods. It does not value nature’s services properly. And it does not respect the sustainable yield thresholds of natural systems. It also favors the near term over the long term, showing little concern for future generations.

One of the best examples of this massive market failure can be seen in the United States, where the gasoline pump price in mid-2007 was $3 per gallon. But this price reflects only the cost of discovering the oil, pumping it to the surface, refining it into gasoline, and delivering the gas to service stations. It overlooks the costs of climate change as well as the costs of tax subsidies to the oil industry (such as the oil depletion allowance), the burgeoning military costs of protecting access to oil in the politically unstable Middle East, and the health care costs for treating respiratory illnesses from breathing polluted air.

Based on a study by the International Center for Technology Assessment, these costs now total nearly $12 per gallon of gasoline burned in the United States. If these were added to the $3 cost of the gasoline itself, motorists would pay $15 a gallon for gas at the pump. In reality, burning gasoline is very costly, but the market tells us it is cheap, thus grossly distorting the structure of the economy. The challenge facing governments is to restructure tax systems by systematically incorporating indirect costs as a tax to make sure the price of products reflects their full costs to society and by offsetting this with a reduction in income taxes.

Lester Brown, « Plan B »

16 12 2008
ronan FEREY

I think it doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s pretty straight forward…let’s just start being REALLY sustainable and stop consuming all that CRAP. It’s fairly simple. The markets will follow. We vote/act everytime we use our wallet!

16 12 2008

I’m not sure it’s so simple. That’s why the paper is about the problem of transition. I will try to find a way to translate the whole paper in English.

11 08 2013
Patrick S

I’d also like to see an English translation of this paper ….

11 08 2013
Yannick Rumpala

A complete paper will be presented this month at the European Sociological Association 11th Conference in Torino (Panel “Practices of Transformation Beyond Growth and Paths of Transition”). I can send it if you want.

11 08 2013
Patrick S

Thanks Yannick – p.sunter AT – that’d be great.

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