Degrowth: if not now, when?

By | 1 Jul 2023

HV Public Presentation by Anitra Nelson, University of Melbourne, at Balwyn Library Meeting Room on 25 May, also on Zoom

Report by Jennie Stuart

While the Degrowth, or Post-growth movement started more than fifty years ago, it has had a resurgence in the last twenty years, starting in Europe, but now widespread. Degrowth Network Australia (DNA) was launched in Melbourne earlier this year, and is rapidly expanding across the country. The snail is their emblem. The word ‘degrowth’ in English may seem negative, but in French ‘la décroissance’ and in Italian ‘la decrescita’ refer to a river being restored to its normal flow after a flood.

It is based on three tenets: firstly, that pursuing monetary growth is irrational; secondly, that our present pattern of consumption is almost double what our planet can provide, and far in excess of its capacity for regeneration, and thirdly, that we need to live equitably. The Degrowth movement and its advocates collaborate with many other campaigns, such as climate action, food security, climate justice, alter-globalisation, and the Union 4-day week.

While Degrowth may appear on the surface to be oriented towards austerity and deprivation, that is misleading. Degrowth calls for quality above quantity, and focusses on a lifestyle that offers social conviviality, economic security and ecological sustainability. It emphasizes economies that are localized, with unique terms such as ‘frugal abundance’ and the ‘imperial mode of living’ at the core. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, we all needed to re-order our priorities, and the imperative of ‘what really matters’ introduced the notion of ‘frugal abundance’ to many people. Frugal abundance aims to ensure that everyone’s needs for food, clothing, housing and health are met, while overconsumption and the waste that is built into the capitalist model, with its emphasis on growth at all costs, is avoided. It is often linked with the idea of collective sufficiency, a horizontalist style of governance and a close alignment with local production and exchange. Many books and articles explore these topics, including those by Giorgios Kallis, Julia Steinberger, Jason Hickel and Kohei Saito.

Ulrich Brand and Marcus Wissen coined the concept, ’the imperial mode of living’ several years ago. It refers to the standard of living in the Minority world, in which we live, with its heavy dependence on ‘under-priced’ goods from the ’Global South’ or the Majority world. Drastic social and ecological consequences are the result for workers in the Majority world, where complex economic and political structures are operating. Brand and Wissen maintain that degrowth principles and a greater emphasis on communal living would help reduce this injustice. 

Professor Anitra Nelson mentioned several communities that have been running on Degrowth principles, with collective governance, collective reliability and collective autonomy, for many years. They focus on collaborative re-use of materials for housing and the repurposing of buildings. Lilac in Leeds, Kalkbreite and Kraftwerk in Zurich, Mietshauser Syndikats throughout Germany are a few examples.

With respect to technology Anitra raised her concern that the drive for renewable energy will continue to make heavy demands on resources, for example, the need for rare-earth minerals for battery storage, and will also generate significant waste. By contrast, convivial technology, which harks back to the philosophy of Ivan Illich and his vision for a society based on co-operative and mutual value. The Angelus Eco Village in Los Angeles, and Cargonomia and Cyclinomia in Budapest are examples of this style of community enterprise.

Within the Degrowth movement there is a small group of people who argue for a non-monetary and non-market approach, and Anitra belongs to this. Her arguments are outlined in her recent book, Beyond Money, a post-capitalist strategy.

Degrowth has many parallels with the regenerative practices of Australian Indigenous clans. It is a provocative call to orient our economy towards working with nature and respecting Earth’s limits. Far from the pursuit of commodities that are bigger, better and faster, it nurtures minimalism, that is, doing more, or better, with less. And it focuses on the abundance achieved by solidarity and enhancing our quality of life.