Degrowth is on the agenda as a set of theories increasingly encountered in scholarly articles and books as well as activist journalism. Yet degrowth is a much maligned and misinterpreted concept and approach, and is especially difficult for economists to handle. Is that because using money to produce and exchange inevitably, intrinsically, leads to growth economies? Or, perhaps, economists find the non-monetary akin to nudity?
My 2020 was dominated by work on two recently published degrowth works — Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide by Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson and Food for Degrowth: Perspectives and Practices, a collection edited by Anitra Nelson and Ferne Edwards.
These books are complimentary. Exploring Degrowth offers an analysis of degrowth as an activist movement and theoretical explanations of degrowth. In a nutshell degrowth is about minimising the use of Earth’s materials and energy in all forms of production and human practices more generally, including matters referred to as ‘waste’.
Advocates have developed a range of terms to reorient attention and practices around degrowth values. A first principle of degrowth is to minimise inequities between people. For instance, ‘open relocalisation’ refers to forms of localising economies and regional autarky while encouraging the universal sharing of ideas and techniques for achieving sustainability.
In ‘frugal abundance’ simple living meets a communal cornucopia of ‘good life’ benefits. Frugal abundance highlights degrowth’s focus on diverse qualities in contrast to the highly comparative and competitive obsessions of growth economies associated with capitalism’s reliance on strongly quantitative criteria expressed purely and simplistically in money.
Theories constituting degrowth as a concept evolved during the latter decades of the last century in works by physical and social scientists, such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Ivan Illich, André Gorz and Serge Latouche. Yet degrowth only really took off as a movement this century, starting in France and spreading through Europe to become international. Current degrowth activists draw eclectically from the works of political philosophers such as Cornelius Castoriadis and John Holloway.
Even more concerned with practical matters, Food for Degrowth follows the model set by another collection, published in 2018, that I co-edited with François Schneider — Housing For Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities. Both international collections highlight chapters focusing on degrowth cases studies from four continents and key degrowth themes by activist scholars.
Degrowth elicits questions around settlement design, typically presenting as a citification and decentralisation debate. Food for Degrowth includes a chapter arguing that current growth plans for Melbourne preclude the possibility of a city that is sustainable and collectively sufficient even in the basic need of food, as such pointing towards decentralised settlements.
Food for Degrowth engages with care economies, community supported agriculture and First Nations food sovereignty. One chapter critiques circular economies while another introduces ‘belonging economies’. The part on degrowth networks evaluates collaborations, technologies and institutions to facilitate communication and multilevel food governance.
Exploring Degrowth delves into ways activists express and experiment with degrowth in their everyday lives as members of households, and of collectives and cooperatives, as protesters, and within a decentralised, horizontally organised network. We identify key political and practical challenges for the movement, and constructively examine a popular cluster of policies and practices strategically combined into a degrowth project, a degrowth future.
Among these holistic approaches to visions of sustainable and equitable futures are nonmonetary forms of achieving modest levels of collective sufficiency. Instead of a guaranteed minimum income within a capitalist economy, Exploring Degrowth argues for an ‘unconditional autonomy allowance’ to mobilise a postgrowth transition. Local co-governance and a direct hands-on-approach to what is produced, for everyone’s basic needs, in both human and Earth caring ways, substitutes for extensive trade, monetary calculations, market forces of supply and demand, and overriding concerns with profit and growth.
Register to hear and engage with the co-editors of Food For Degrowth, Anitra Nelson and Ferne Edwards, and contributor Terry Leahy, at a free National Sustainable Living Festival Food for Degrowth online event at 4pm (AEST) 23 February 2021, hosted by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (University of Melbourne).