Is degrowth in danger of being corrupted?
The other day I followed a seminar about EXALT DIALOGUES - Debating Degrowth: Can Degrowth Provide an Alternative to Extractivism? Towards the end of that seminar, the Beyond Growth Conference 2023 in Brussels was mentioned. One of the speakers stated that the degrowth movement looks towards this event with fear and enthusiasm at the same time. On the one hand, it received much attention, but on the other hand, it could be the start of the degrowth movement being corrupted by the mainstream political agenda and narrative.
That fear is not unfounded. Antonio Gramsci called such a process trasformismo or passive revolution. Such processes have gained more attention in academia in recent years with the publication of several papers (Ford & Newell, 2021; Newell, 2019; Szabo, 2022). These papers are mostly about the energy transition. Though it can be argued that this process can be found in many other areas. I would say that it happened to the sustainability discourse itself.
I have studied International Development. At the time I studied, we changed from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Over the years, my study focus also shifted from “developing countries” to sustainability issues in general and the role of “developed countries” in this story. Thus, my studies were about sustainability and transformations toward sustainability. Sustainability is a buzzword that has lost its meaning long ago. Many do not even know about the distinction between strong and weak sustainability. I recently inquired some students if they knew about the difference. I was rather shocked to learn that they had no idea what I was talking about. To me, this is clear evidence of the sustainability term and discourse having been corrupted by the mainstream narrative. In the book “Dynamic Sustainabilities” Leach, Stirling, and Scoones (2010) also discuss that usually, only the dominant transformation pathway narrative receives attention. Alternative ways of framing sustainability, as well as sustainability transitions, are marginalized, downplayed, trivialized, or remain unseen.
There are many different interpretations of sustainability, but to use the two main ones, one can differentiate between strong and weak sustainability. The sustainability concept itself often consists of three pillars (some say capitals); ecological, social, and economic. Have to emphasize that the following is an oversimplification, but I want to reduce the complexity of the matter. Strong sustainability claims that one cannot make tared-offs between the three pillars. Thus, one cannot destroy the planet and then use money to repair it. That is as the environment is understood as the fundamental basis of human existence and thus, economic activity. Once destroyed, it cannot be brought back. Weak sustainability, in contrast, argues that money can very well be used to bring nature back.
Many readers might agree with weak sustainability. Weak sustainability is the dominant narrative. We destroy nature through economic activity, but this activity allows us to earn money and invest in new technologies that we can then use to save the planet. Narratives around the energy transition and the switch to electric vehicles are built on weak sustainability. Politicians and businesses continuously talk about some innovation that will stop climate change.
Favoring strong sustainability would have many serious implications for how we, as a society, organize. That is as, strong sustainability attacks the logic of our economic system, which is built on the premise of continuous economic growth. This is why strong sustainability needed to disappear.
The distinction between weak and strong sustainability did not exist from the start. In the beginning, there was only strong sustainability. Weak sustainability was the answer from economists who had to defend economic growth (Cabeza Gutés, 1996; Solow, 1991, 1992). Weak sustainability permits infinite economic growth by framing man-made and natural capital as substitutes and by praising technological advancements. (Nordhaus, Houthakker, & Solow, 1973; R. Solow, 1974; R. M. Solow, 1974). Cabeza Gutés (1996) summarizes that “[t]he concept of weak sustainability can be presented as a direct application of the savings-investment rule from growth theory with exhaustible resources“ (Cabeza Gutés, 1996). Through the work of Solow and Hartwick (Hediger, 2000) a narrative was born that is still supported today: Technological innovations facilitating unlimited economic growth in a world of limited natural resources.
Economists were very successful in proliferating their ideas. This might be for several reasons. One is that weak sustainability was and is also an attack on prevalent economic theory. As Kuhn (2012) teaches us, scientific revolutions don’t happen overnight as intradisciplinary power struggles and mental lock-ins need to be overcome. Apart from this, maintaining economic growth was and is in the interest of those who profit from it. And those who profit from it proliferate narratives of the American Dream and of a just society in which everyone can make it if he just works hard enough.
Today, when we use the term sustainability, we usually mean weak sustainability. The sustainability term has been corrupted.
The voices that have continued to criticize unlimited economic growth might have been marginalized, but they have not been shut down. There are many voices, and the voices are getting louder, that criticize the dominant narrative. There are post-colonialism, feminist, queer, post-growth, anti-capitalism, etc., voices. I understand these voices as the continuous counterattack of the people who found their sustainability term corrupted.
Among the many movements, the de-growth movement is, as I perceive it, among the most influential ones. The more power the de-growth movement can generate, the more it is threatened by being corrupted. It is almost a compliment. It shows that it has gained momentum and influence. That one might not be able to neglect it anymore and that one can only fight it by swallowing it.
At the Beyond Growth conference, there was a striking difference between politicians' speeches and scientists' speeches. The politicians kept on talking about green growth and talked as if beyond growth was non-existent or not an option. The old narrative of growth as the motor for innovation and jobs, for prosperity, for fighting poverty, etc. was used over and over again. Clearly, this narrative does not convince the proponents of the degrowth movement. The green growth talk led to much frustration in the audience. One person from the audience asked during a plenary session if it was possible to inform policymakers that degrowth and green growth are not the same. However, if communicated in certain ways to others, it might be the beginning of corrupting the moment. An indication of that might be reporting about the event.
An ECEEE communication used the headline: “EU Commission chief: Growth model based on fossil fuels ‘simply obsolete.’” Having listened to the speech of von der Leyen, I know that she still supported growth, but green growth. However, the masses might not understand this difference and might interpret it as a real sea change. The ECEEE news item ends with: “Nevertheless, von der Leyen criticized the current focus on economic growth and the way it is commonly measured.“ Thus, I would argue that how the media will report on this event will be critical.
The danger that the degrowth movement being corrupted is reasonable, looking at the sustainability discourse and seeing politicians completely disregard the theme of the conference.
But as stated, the danger of being corrupted can be understood as an encouraging sign. It means that the movement has become a threat to the dominant narrative.
It will be seen whether or not the degrowth movement will become corrupted by the dominant narrative. I would argue that because of history, degrowth proponents are more aware of this risk and are thus better equipped to fight back.
During the conference, the notion of narratives that guide the transition was strong. It was highlighted over and over again that post-growth needs to provide palatable, actionable narratives about the future and how to get there. I think this is exactly correct. Degrowth needs to provide strong new narratives, and it needs to make sure that the narrative is not swallowed by the mainstream narrative. As stated, I think degrowth has consciously or unconsciously learned from the destiny of the sustainability discourse.
The success of the transformation will depend on many factors. Returning to the narrative, not only new ones need to be provided, but the old one needs to be dismantled. The scientific community has made great contributions in this regard. But a transition is not only won in scientific papers. Here Gramsic’s work comes into play once more. Science is not independent from society. Gramsci analytically distinguished between traditional and organic intellectuals. The former being classic researchers, who deem to be independent from society. Organic intellectuals are knowledgeable people who represent their class in the political arena. There is a dynamic relationship between these two groups, and I do not want to expand too much on it here.
Currently, there is much debate about the independence of scientists. I think scientists cannot really be independent. And the scientific trade is not independent. For sure, not in the current institutional settings. There is a political economy of science. Scientists are not, even if they want to, independent from the world. For example, research provides narratives that support the growth narrative, and there is research that does the contrary. Both feed into a political debate. Thus, science is political. Traditional and organic researchers are not separable.
Now that evidence is mounting that the predominant narrative does not deliver, this evidence needs to be shared with the public. Thus, the degrowth movement does not only need to dismantle the dominant narrative and provide new narratives, it also needs charismatic narrators. The Beyond Growth conference showed that there are several charismatic personalities who are willing to transcend the realm of science and present the new narratives to a wider audience.
The panels of the Beyond Growth Conference 2023 can be watched back on YouTube.
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