Degrowth and colonialism

| 21st December 2021 |

Protester at Extinction Rebellion points out that there is 'no growth on a dead planet'. 

The Ecologist
'Degrowth' is central to the reversing of flows of natural resources from the global south to the global north.

Degrowth shares with progressive thought a placing of the satisfaction of needs as the priority of economic planning, reducing pressure on the biosphere

Degrowth advocates for a reduction in certain areas of production to limit the detrimental effects it has on the environment.

More broadly, degrowth is the concept that our economic system should shift away from the pursuit of ever more growth and profit making.

This article is an adapted extract from We Only Want the Earth, a new pamphlet on environmentalism, left-wing politics, and climate justice strategy by Gus Woody. Copies can be ordered online.

This relates to the wider issue of the way our societies use natural resources, and also the narrow way in which economic 'success' is measured using Gross Domestic Product (GDP).


Some environmentalists have accused people advocating degrowth of being mystical, anti-technology, or advocating an austerity that could never gain enough support to succeed.

The argument goes that rather than being interested in the potential of renewable technologies, or the capacity of humans to overcome limits, degrowth advocates are suggesting we should retreat and abandon many of the gains made by societies in the pursuit of rapid emissions reduction. Such arguments are clearly in bad faith.

While there are certainly some advocating a version of degrowth that is deeply problematic - such as calling for a massive reduction in global population or for all technology to be destroyed - there are others who are attempting to articulate what a radical degrowth might look like.

Rather than attempt a full exploration of the topic, there are two aspects of a radical degrowth which stand out and make the concept fruitful to those who identify as radical environmentalists, such as ecosocialists.

Degrowth shares with progressive thought a placing of the satisfaction of needs as the priority of economic planning, reducing pressure on the biosphere

The first reason degrowth should be crucial to any radical environmentalist is that it can be understood as central the reversing of flows of resources from the global south to the global north. Europe, as Walter Rodney explained, underdeveloped Africa, and the same goes for the rest of the global south.


Nations in the global south are not simply passively lacking something those in the global north have: they have been made to lack resources, prevented from developing their own means of production, and generally kept underdeveloped.

In this context, degrowth means reducing the extraction, and unnecessary use of global south resources within production for the global north, through a reorganisation of production globally.

By reducing global north production and pollution, space is made for the global south to develop its own living standards, without breaching global emissions thresholds.

In doing so, degrowth opens up the economic space for true international cooperation between working people, not on the basis of uneven exchange, where resources are taken from the global south with minimal compensation for the benefit of the wealthy in the global north, but in the interests of global development, of the satisfaction of global needs, and the paying of climate debts.

Capitalists in the global north got rich through the robberies of colonialism, imperialism and burning fossil fuels, while the global south bears the brunt of the resultant climate impacts.


Degrowth - if linked to the payment of the debt to the south that has resulted from this - means the restructuring of the world system to finally develop the global working class collectively.

Degrowth in the north opens the space for the payment of climate reparations and the ability to meet the needs of everyone without runaway climate change.

As indicated above, degrowth, in asking whether we truly need to be producing current products, comes close to getting to the core of what progressives have long wanted the economic system to look like.

Radical degrowth aims for the abundant production of objects for their use, rather than the current piling up of junk for profit. By focusing on what is necessary, degrowth allows us to ask the wider question of what a society which satisfies all needs looks like.

For example, capitalism encourages the rapid expansion of car use, by encouraging not only the purchase of a wide variety of vehicles, but also their regular replacement, the ownership of multiple cars within a family, and the wider system of underfunded public transport in favour of road building.


A degrowth approach to transport would look at the practical transport needs of the community and how best to satisfy them efficiently. Rather than proliferating cars, it would likely result in collective forms of transport such as trains, buses, even the sharing of cars within communities.

In doing so, rather than thinking of the maximisation of profits, degrowth shares with progressive thought a placing of the satisfaction of needs as the priority of economic planning, reducing pressure on the biosphere.

Radical degrowth, in this way, consists of moving away from production to accumulate ever greater amounts of capital, and instead looks a the satisfaction of human needs.

In attempting to reformulate the ways in which world capitalism is built on uneven extraction for the satisfaction of irrational production and consumption, degrowth in its most progressive form converges with the goals of the radical environmentalist movement.

It is not simply a crude demand to shrink the economy, in the face of the absurdity of GDP measurements, but a transition to a different way of organising society which looks at what we need, rather than what our growth percentage is.

By linking degrowth to traditional concerns of the left – the uneven extraction of resources from workers in the global south and the problems of capital accumulation – a radical vision of degrowth can be extremely useful for organising as a global climate justice movement.

This Author

Gus Woody is an organiser within rs21, a British ecosocialist group. They are the author of We Only Want the Earth: Anti-capitalism against the climate crisis'. Copies can be ordered online.


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