Degrowth : against sustainable development

Published on: Last updated:

Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

Décroissance Tokyo Shinjuku Arthus Bertrand
Reconciling infinite growth and limited resources? This is impossible for those in favour of degrowth. This way of thinking which came about in the 1970s therefore advocates an end to the concept of always striving for more and suggests other ways of conceiving social and economic progress other than by measuring the Gross domestic Product (GDP). But this theory has been heavily criticised.

The Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen created degrowth. By thinking about how exhaustible resources and by studying economy with physics tools, he created the bioeconomy concept in the 1970s. He thus laid down the foundations for degrowth. His ideas follow those of the Meadows report. The report is named after its author, a young economist who wrote the report in 1972 following a request from the Club of Rome. Its conclusions: economic growth will lead to a serious crisis at a due date that is yet to be determined. This report was criticised very early on for its apocalyptic vision.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s text was translated into French by Jacques Grimevald who was the first to use the word ‘degrowth’. About ten years ago, mainly in France, journals such as S!lence, Casseurs de pub and La Décroissance updated the concept and made it current. The Institute of Economic and Social Studies for sustainable degrowth* was created in 2002 (Institut d’études économiques et sociales pour la décroissance soutenable, IEESDS).

Against sustainable development

For those in favour of degrowth, sustainable development is an oxymoron: the two terms are opposites, contradict each other and lead one to believe that we can continue to develop in a sustainable way whilst the Earth’s resources are decreasing. They use degrowth as a « bombshell word » to call the consensus into question.

« Sustainable development, this contradiction in terms, is both terrifying and hopeless! At least with non-durable and non-sustainable development, one could keep hoping that this deadly process would come to an end, victim of its own contradictions, its failures, of its unbearable nature and the exhaustion of natural resources […] Sustainable development deprives us of any perspective of escape, it promises development for all eternity ! », writes Serge Latouche, one of the main thinkers on degrowth.

Against the GDP

The Gross Domestic Product, the archetypal symbol and one of the main measuring tools of the current economic system has been targeted by conscientious objectors. Because, according to them, it does not take important aspects of our societies into account: neither the informal sector, nor the well-being of populations, nor the health of ecosystems, etc. It sometimes leads to absurdities. Thus, a shipwreck like the Erika on the French coast in 1999 makes the GDP increase: it makes a certain number of companies that employ workers function. It therefore creates value. And volunteers who come from all over France to clean beaches do not create any value, simply because they are not paid.

Other indicators could replace the GDP : the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) calculates the Human Development Index (HDI), there is also the social health index, the ecological footprint, and even the Soft Domestic Product, imagined by a collective of citizens and economists from Quebec.

The rebound effect

Those who are against growth also question hopes that some have placed in technology to save the environment. For example, if technological progress allows cars to use less fuel, the process is compensated by an increase in the nuber of cars or their more widespread use. And if people do not move around more, the savings are reinvested in other consumer goods, which are not indispensable. This is the « rebound effect » : the potential savings that could be made through new technology are partly or completely compensated by changes in our behaviour.

Voluntary simplicity

Those in favour of degrowth advocate voluntary simplicity, that is to say, resisting consumer society. This would mean freeing oneself from television, cars, mobile phones, supermarkets, etc. It is not about going to live self-sufficiently in the countryside, but rather to be clear-sighted about one’s own needs, to consider one’s relationship with the world in a different way. To work for thirty hours a week instead of forty and live more simply, for example. And to take advantage of the extra time to blossom.

Main criticisms

« Those in favour of degrowth ask the right questions, but give the wrong answers », writes Denis Clerc, in Alternatives économiques. (1) He is thus voicing an idea shared by many of degrowth’s numerous critics.

According to him, it is not the whole of economic growth which threatens the planet and humanity, but « some of these components : cars and road transport, chemistry… Activities which, important as they are, account for between 10 % and 15 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), against more than two thirds for tertiary activities. » But some parts of economic activity « generate strong social utility » through low environmental consequences : services to people, companies, public services, , etc. For him, those against growth underestimate the renewable energy and technological progress which will make it possible to optimise energy consumption. He is betting on the market having a more important role, to make renewable energies attractive, and on the state to develop public transport, restructure urban space…

Other critics highlight the market’s self-regulation abilities ; the need for growth strategies to be controlled more – a widespread idea, especially amongst Marxists.

Finally, for some « third-worldists », degrowth is a concept that applies to rich countries which, under the guise of protecting the environment, are in fact trying to stop the development of emerging countries. (2)

(1) La décroissance ? Oui, mais pas pour tout, Denis Clers, Alternatives Economiques, hors série n°60, février 2004. source 1

(2) À qui profite le développement durable ?, Sylvie Brunel, Larousse, 2008, (p. 42).

Recherche et décroissance

Courrier international, dossier spécial décroissance « Travailler moins pour gagner moins et vivre mieux », janvier 2008 :

Entretien avec Serge Latouche, par Christophe Schoune. Interview publiée en partie dans Le Soir du 19 février 2007

Pour une société de décroissance, article de Serge Latouche paru dans Le Monde diplomatique de novembre 2003.

« L’effet rebond », article de François Schneider paru dans L’Écologiste en octobre 2003

Produit intérieur doux

La Décroissance

Casseurs de Pub

Institut d’études économiques et sociales pour la décroissance soutenable

Media Query: