books growth

Book review: The Case for Degrowth

Polity Books has created a series of short books called ‘the case for‘, each one presenting the arguments for a particular policy. I reviewed The Case for Universal Basic Services last year. Each one is a brief introduction to a political idea, written by relevant experts.

In this one you get four authors for your money, with Giorgos Kallis, Giacomo d’Alisa and Federico Demaria in Spain and Susan Paulson in the US. The Spain connection is interesting, because the three authors here are based in Barcelona. It’s one of the few places where the wave of protests in 2011 actually bedded in and translated into political power. The city has been governed on commons principles by the citizens’ platform Barcelona En Comu since 2015, and while it’s not explicitly degrowth, it’s perhaps as close as anyone has got to delivering on the movement’s objectives.

What are the objectives of degrowth? It’s not shrinking the economy for the sake of it. The aim is to get GDP growth out of the driving seat and then steer towards “what really matters: not GDP, but the health and wellbeing of our people and our planet.”

As things currently stand, the drive for growth constantly stands in the way of good ideas. We know that fossil fuels should be left in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change, but growth says dig them up and sell them. We know that rising house prices are driving a wedge between the rich and the poor and the old and the young, but economic growth says don’t you dare intervene. And if it’s not delivering for you, if you’re one of those young people priced out of decent housing, then there’s a solution for you: more growth. It will trickle down to you, apparently, if you’re hard working and eternally patient.

Or there’s the alternative, which is to stop taking growth as the primary measure of progress and get on with delivering what people need. So many political directions open up when GDP growth takes a back seat and we get on with delivering what people need more directly.

Naturally this is an option for developed countries, as Katherine Trebeck and I describe in our book The Economics of Arrival. Growth has a purpose when it actually does lift people out of poverty, and when it is used to build the infrastructure and the institutions that a healthy society depends on. When it’s just feathering the nests of the already rich, and destroying the living world in the process, it’s time to move on to more qualitative forms of progress.

In fact, downsizing in the rich world may be a key enabler of flourishing elsewhere. “There is no technological or policy fix that can generalize to nine billion people the material standard of living currently enjoyed by a minority at high cost to others.” Instead, “high-consumption nations and people must degrow to free space for low-consumption ones.”

The Case for Degrowth explores these issues in concise terms, and presents five ‘path-breaking’ policies that would forge a new direction:

  • A Green New Deal
  • universal incomes and services
  • policies to reclaim the commons
  • shorter working hours
  • public finance that supports the first four

Being a short book, it no doubt opens up lots of other questions that the authors don’t cover, though the frequently asked questions at the end captures many of them. Perhaps the one that still sticks out for me is the word ‘degrowth’ itself. In my opinion it doesn’t capture the positivity of a vision for qualitative progress, for improvement rather than enlargement. I know it’s an old debate. We had it when founding the Postgrowth Institute ten years ago, and it doesn’t feel resolved today.

Still, The Case for Degrowth is a brief and straightforward explainer, and a good starting point for anyone who wants to get their head around the degrowth movement and what it wants to acheive.


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