by Dustin Mulvaney
What will it take for human civilization to thrive in a more equitable and sustainable existence on Earth? The enormous violence we see directed at the planet and amongst its inhabitants adds a tremendous sense of urgency to this question. There are many answers that seem compelling. Some answers are technological—we need to be more innovative and use science and technology to solve global problems. Other answers are economic—better pricing will be our ecological salvation. While others still suggest we build and maintain institutions and movements to regulate industries and the environmental bads that flow from the economy.
Too few look more fundamental answers or probe for deeper questions about solutions. Why do we extract and produce so much? Do we need all the consumer products that are produced from natural resources to live a happy life? What kind of economy can we build that allows us to live with better relations to each other and our planet?
Degrowth, by Dr. Giorgos Kallis of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, is an introduction to the ideas and genesis of a namesake concept in environmental studies that emphasizes dematerialization of the economy, but that also embodies a lot more. Kallis’ interdisciplinary scholarship contributes to the fields of political ecology and ecological economics, two fields that are heavily influential in shaping the main arguments of the book. I have used Kallis’ articles on degrowth in my courses for many years now, so it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to review this longer-form work.
The basic idea of degrowth is that there are laws of physics that dictate certain physical and natural resource limits on the economy. Most important are the laws of thermodynamics, notably the second law, which asserts that the quality of energy or its ability to do work in a closed system always declines with each transformation.
Accordingly, production—the material basis of the economy and economic growth—is entropic. The more we produce, the more we degrade our natural resources. This means there is an inherent contradiction between economic growth and ecological sustainability because eventually the energy in a system degrades in quality and there is none left that is capable of doing work. According to this theory, while resource efficiency and technological change are important to improving some environmental issues, economic growth ultimately has limitations. Either economic growth hits natural resource limitations that lead to its decline, or, eventually, as the global population begins to decline, the economy could contract.
Degrowth is just as much a prescription for scholar-activism to examine pathways towards sustainability and environmental justice, as it is a pathway for positive environmental change. In other words, when people hear degrowth, many only think only of the pathway from the material sense, as in degrowth means using less or dematerialization. But as Kallis clearly articulates degrowth embodies more than just the dematerialized pathway to sustainability, but as normative precepts that center values such as justice, equity, race, gender, and living wage work.
Degrowth as it refers to the material throughput of human civilization is a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead and the lack of progress on many environmental issues. There are examples of decarbonization of some electricity sectors around the world, for example in California. But the overall use of natural resource impacts from human civilization continues to increase.
Overview of the book
Degrowth was coined in French scholarship in the early 1970s, where the ideas were brought into contact with theories of social change that emphasize autonomy and appropriate technology. Chapter 1 one describes these origins of degrowth as a topic of investigation and debate in environmental research. It opens with a short intellectual history of ecological economics and the emergence of the concept degrowth, drawing on contributions from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Serge Latouche, Cornelius Castoriadus, to contemporary work done with colleagues at ICTA.
Kallis’ narrative weaves together a number of influential social scientists, philosophers, and writers that offer insights on the ultimate roots of social and environmental problems such as Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Gibson-Graham, David Harvey, Hannah Arendt, Karl Polyani, Ivan Illich, André Gorz, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Joan Martinez-Alier, to name a few. The articulation of ideas from these thinkers and integration into the motivation and rationale for degrowth, illustrates the breadth of Kallis’ scholarship and quality of writing.
Tracing the intellectual roots of degrowth to The Limits To Growth, Kallis shows how several key themes emerged as ideas underlying ecological economics were read alongside theories of social change, anthropology, development studies, and interpreted through the lens of environmental justice and post-colonial theory. The resulting vision for degrowth is of social relations with reduced the extraction and pollution, that maintains diverse economies, that values leisure over growth for its own sake, and is based on strong empathetic socio-ecological ties.
What is the economy? Chapter 2 grapples with the idea of a socially-constructed economy. The chapter revisits the origins of the ideas underlying how we imagine the health of economy, for example the Dow Jones Index or gross domestic product (GDP). How did it come to be that the imperative of economic growth became a core motivation of nation states in modern capitalist economies?
One core contention is that economic policies that use gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of well-being should be abandoned. The most widely known illustration of this general point is Daniel Kahneman’s “happiness-income paradox,” where people’s happiness is not linked to the amount of money they make. This finding, which garnered a Nobel prize in economics, was a challenge to Western ideas of progress, which have long used economic growth as a yardstick of development. GDP has some glaring problems including the fact that it includes spending on activities that are negative—storm damage, deforestation, hospital visits, asthma inhalers, for example. There are other indices attempting to move beyond GDP, including the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and Human Development Index, but these too are not without gaps and shortcomings. Also challenging is the commensuration of complex, undifferentiated social processes into numbers in the first place, as Kallis notes.
Chapter 3 recounts the emergence of economic growth in the 20th century phenomena and puts it in the context of an increase in socio-ecological metabolism, i.e., the total use of materials and energy of society, which has ushered in extinction and climate crises. As economic growth marched on, so did ecological degradation and labor exploitation.
Are growth and ecological sustainability compatible? The case for degrowth is laid out in chapter 4 starting from the basic premise that material extraction and pollution increase with economic growth. Some environmental scholars, such as economists or sociologists adhering to ecological modernization, hold that we could maximize resource efficiency through technological change and/or accurate pricing (internalizing externalities). If this were possible, growth and ecological sustainability could be compatible.
Degrowth advocates like Kallis, instead argue that the two are incompatible. This is not to argue against trends towards resource efficiency. They are not against, for example, recycling solar panels, to utilize more sustainable materials use. Instead, they argue that much more than resource efficiency and technological change is needed to avoid the worst of our relations between the economy and its environmental impacts. For example, recycling solar panels would embody certain principles of a circular economy, but so would reusing old solar panels, which is not about technology, but instead requires building new institutions, policies, and practices. Transitioning to a sustainable economy according to the theory of degrowth will require changes to wants, values, institutions, and behaviors.
Chapter 5 presents the utopian vision that motivates degrowth, its ambitions and engagements with the material world. Kallis admits that degrowth is aspirational, but nonetheless believes these utopian ideals are critical to meeting the objectives in the policy and praxis of degrowth. The precepts of degrowth include (1) end to exploitation of nature, people, gender, (2) direct democracy, (3) localized production, (4) a sharing economy, (5) good socio-ecological relationships, (6) investments in unproductive expenditures (e.g., natural capital), (7) an ethics of care, alongside the redistribution of care work.
These appear to be radical reorientations from framings that say little about social change beyond changes to technologies. Table 5.1 lists policies for degrowth, revealing that while some of the policies and practices advocated are in fact transformative, but many are similar to those advocated by the environmental and climate action communities already—tax reforms, polluter pays principle, ethical banking, green jobs investments, environmental justice. So while degrowth seeks more wholesale social and personal change, its basket of policy options reflects much of the mainstream tools used in environmental policy-making. Degrowth seems to have some agnosticism to environmental policy tools, based on the list of policies in table 5.1, except of course those policies that involve green washing, commodification, dispossession, or land grabs.
Chapter 6 explores some of the key challenges to degrowth. It offers a response to some of the critics that suggest that degrowth would lead to decreased well-being. Kallis’ contention is that degrowth means capping resource use in some way, and does not advocate income loss or declines in well-being. The idea is that a radical shift in values and motivations will change the way that happiness and well-being is measured in the first place. Kallis brings together the foundation of ecological economics with a Gramscian model—using grassroots activism to use the tools of the state to benefit the population—of social change. Is degrowth compatible with capitalism? Liberal democracy? Is it Eurocentric? These tensions are discussed as Kallis summarizes arguments of critics of degrowth.
The main contention of critics of degrowth is the issue of decoupling. The green growth perspective argues that economic growth can be decoupled from natural resource use. So unlimited growth in this view is possible if there are ways to dissociate economic growth from any material basis. Kallis contends that there is still no evidence for decoupling, suggesting that substitutionism seen in the electricity sector (most notably coal to natural gas and renewables) involves a lot of one-offs that will lead to short-term reductions in greenhouse gases, but do not clearly show a sustained rate of decline overall, and do not consider other environmental issues (land, extractive industries, waste, etc.). Critics may still say, but what if evidence of decoupling did emerge? This is the question degrowth scholars will have to continue to contend with.
Conclusion: read the book, make your students read and think about it
Irrespective of whether the reader agrees with degrowth as a normative goal, one cannot ignore the observation that there are no real world examples of decoupling. Until examples of decoupling economic growth from natural resource impact can be demonstrated, ideas embraced by degrowth for how to enagage in a just transition deserve real engagement. Furthermore, given how growth depends on natural resources, and control over natural resources figures in geopolitical contests, the pursuit of growth will necessitate the continuation of militarized capitalism, with all of the tortured and unequal socio-ecological relations that tends to reproduce.
Degrowth is an important contribution to the environmental studies canon. It synthesizes an important strand of the intellectual history of degrowth and ecological economics and integrates ideas from development studies, political ecology, cultural studies. The book is highly accessible for college students or readers with an interest in society and the environment. Each chapter ends with a summary of the argument, which is helpful for many of us who will use the book in the classroom. Degrowth is essential reading for environmental studies, political ecology, and energy transition studies courses. I commend Kallis for producing such a concise and readable book on such a critical topic, and look forward to discussing its contents with my students.
Dustin Mulvaney is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San José State University. His research is on just transitions in the solar industry.
Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis is available from Agenda Publishing.