We scare people off by talking about 'degrowth'

Molly Scott Cato
The French have a much better word for it: 'decroissance'. Using ugly and frightening terms like 'degrowth' won't help pave the way for a new and exciting economics

For an orthodox economist, ‘growth’ is an article of faith. In his book The Growth Illusion, Richard Douthwaite reveals the almost religious awe in which this holy of holies of capitalist economics is held. Its conceptual power is so all-encompassing that an economist would have to call a decline in economic activity, such as that seen in 2009, an example of ‘negative growth’ rather than shrinkage or recession.

Plotting economic growth since 1955 on a graph makes clear how extraordinary is the situation in which we now find ourselves. It shows the consistently upward trend of economic activity in the UK since the end of the Second World War. Economic growth has been increasing exponentially since then. The recession following the financial crisis of 2008 is a dramatic break in the trend, clearly demonstrating a sudden reverse of the continuous series.

Cash = carbon

Although it is apparent to any economist who also has an interest in the environment that all economic activity has a carbon impact, this decline in production is not greeted with delight amongst our policy-makers—quite the reverse. Adair Turner cautioned against celebrating the 8.6 per cent fall in GHG emissions calculated for the second report from Climate Change Committee, of which he is the chairman, since these were only the consequence of the recession and so could not really count. I was reminded of my wicked temptation during the election period to encourage people  to vote Tory, since their chainsaw attack on the economy would inevitably push us back into recession.

Turner and his ilk, true believers in the neoclassical way, simply cannot see this from the other end of the telescope and realise that, not only is there an inevitable relationship between economic activity and carbon emissions, but that this means we have to move into a new economic paradigm where we can thrive without being in a state of perpetual expansion.

Fortunately, we are not all wedded to the capitalist growth model. A recent conference in Leeds held a practical working session on developing the alternative, a series of workshops where we revisioned key aspects of life—consumer behaviour, money, employment and population—in a no-growth world.

A nicer turn of phrase

What we are seeking is a managed descent or what Howard Odum referred to as ‘a prosperous way down’. Abandoning the true faith of capitalist economics is a good step. Another would be to find a cheerful phrase to sum up where we are going. The phrase ‘steady state economy’ (coined by Herman Daly) is ambiguous in terms of economic theory, as well as implying a state of stagnation that is neither appealing nor compatible with nature’s way of creative evolution. Daly’s teacher Nicolae Georgescu-Roegen used the word ‘degrowth’, whose French variant, 'decroissance', has spawned a whole political movement. In spite of these elegant associations, in English it is ugly and has unhelpful implications of a return to the horse and cart. At the Leeds conference, New Economics Foundation director Andrew Simms suggested we use the phrase ‘dynamic equilibrium’ for the central principle of the new economic paradigm, a suggestion that was met with warm murmers of approval.

Growth is a concept which has unfortunate associations of its own, being symptomatic of both cancer and obesity, diseases that are increasingly prevalent and stand as symbols of the destructive proliferation to which capitalist economies give rise. As we co-create the new paradigm we are learning that less really can be more. So next time you hear somebody saying how important it is that we return rapidly to the growth path so that we can ‘grow our way of the recession’ you could try proposing to them instead that they imagine a world where we flourish within limits while living in a dynamic equilibrium with our planet.

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