Academic journal article Environmental Values

What Is Degrowth? from an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement

Academic journal article Environmental Values

What Is Degrowth? from an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement

Article excerpt


Degrowth is the literal translation of 'decroissance', a French word meaning reduction. Launched by activists in 2001 as a challenge to growth, it became a missile word that sparks a contentious debate on the diagnosis and prognosis of our society. 'Degrowth' became an interpretative frame for a new (and old) social movement where numerous streams of critical ideas and political actions converge. It is an attempt to re-politicise debates about desired socio-environmental futures and an example of an activist-led science now consolidating into a concept in academic literature. This article discusses the definition, origins, evolution, practices and construction of degrowth. The main objective is to explain degrowth's multiple sources and strategies in order to improve its basic definition and avoid reductionist criticisms and misconceptions. To this end, the article presents degrowth's main intellectual sources as well as its diverse strategies (oppositional activism, building of alternatives and political proposals) and actors (practitioners, activists and scientists). Finally, the article argues that the movement's diversity does not detract from the existence of a common path.


Degrowth, social movements, activist-led science, political strategies, limits to growth, post-growth


Degrowth ('decroissance' in French) was launched in the beginning of the 21st century as a project of voluntary societal shrinking of production and consumption aimed at social and ecological sustainability. It quickly became a slogan against economic growth (Bernard et al., 2003) and developed into a social movement. The term in English has also entered academic journals (Fournier, 2008; Martinez-Alier et al., 2010; Victor, 2010; Schneider et al., 2011) and at least five Special Issues or Special Sections have been dedicated to the topic over the last four years (Kallis et al. 2010; Cattaneo et al 2012; Saed 2012; Sekulova et al 2013; Kallis et al. 2012). Degrowth has also been quoted and analysed by French and Italian politicians and many renowned newspapers, (1) including Le Monde, (2) Le Monde Diplomatique, (3) El Pais, the Wall Street Journal (4,) and Financial Times. (5) During its short life, degrowth has been subjected to diverging and often reductionist interpretations. This article aims to improve the basic definition of degrowth while clarifying possible misconceptions regarding the term. To this end, we provide a short history of degrowth and a comprehensive description of its sources and strategies, meanwhile stressing its relevance as a social movement.

Unlike sustainable development, which is a concept based on false consensus (Hornborg 2009), degrowth does not aspire to be adopted as a common goal by the United Nations, the OECD or the European Commission. The idea of 'socially sustainable degrowth' (Schneider et al. 2010), or simply degrowth was born as a proposal for radical change. The contemporary context of neo-liberal capitalism appears as a post-political condition, meaning a political formation that forecloses the political and prevents the politicisation of particular demands (Swyngedouw 2007). Within this context, degrowth is an attempt to re-politicise the debate on the much needed socio-ecological transformation, affirming dissidence with the current world representations and searching for alternative ones. Along these lines, degrowth is a critique of the current development hegemony (Rist 2008). The first critiques of the Western notion of development (universal uniform development) began with writers such as Arturo Escobar and Wolfgang Sachs, amongst a few others, in the 1980s. Degrowth also challenges the ideas of 'green growth' or 'green economy' and the associated belief in economic growth as a desirable path in political agendas.

Degrowth confronts dominant paradigms in social sciences, such as neo-classical economics and also Keynesian economics, but is not a paradigm in the sense of 'universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of researchers' (Kuhn 1962: x). …

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