What is degrowth?

Degrowth carries the idea of a voluntary reduction of the size of the economic system, which implies a reduction of the GDP.


However degrowth is not simply about challenging the centrality of GDP as the overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level and mode of production and consumption.


Degrowth is about finding a path or a transition to social justice, well being and ecological sustainability. It involves a range of actions at the individual and collective level based on a change of values and democratization of societies.


Degrowth is about people rather than technology deciding on the direction of societal evolution. It is also about giving meaning to human life which is not per se associated with conspicuous consumption and materialism.



Below we have pasted part of a document elaborated by Joan Martinez-Alier.

The content is extracted from a previous work elaborated by Martinez-Alier, Hali Healy, Leah Temper, Mariana Walter from ICTA, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. AAAS, San Diego, California, 19-23 February 2010, session 1347


The expression, Beyond GDP, is in fashion in Brussels among some European civil servants and politicians, 40 years after Commission President Sicco Mansholt had already criticized GDP, and had proposed an end to economic growth in rich countries. The slogan in Brussels is “the greening of the economy: beyond GDP”.

But there is no official acceptance of “Economic Degrowth leading to a Steady-State Economy” if not (yet) as a plausible political programme at least as an interesting field for research.

GDP growth goes together with increasing pressure on biodiversity, climate change, and the destruction of human livelihoods at the “commodity frontiers”. Environmental activists are comforted by the academic critiques of GDP. Actually, feminist activists and academics (Waring, 1988) made a convicing argument a long time ago against GDP
accounting because it “forgot” not only to count nature’s services but also unpaid domestic work. Moreover, another type of critique against GDP accounting is now surfacing socially, the so-called Easterlin Paradox as updated by work by social psychologists (with Nobel Prizes in economics). It seems that increases in happiness do not correlate with increases in income above a certain level of per capita income (e.g. 10,000€ per year). Such criticisms against GDP accounting go much beyond the introduction of complementary measurements of social performance such as the HDI (human development index) that correlates closely across countries with GDP per capita. They also go beyond the idea of simply “greening the GDP”, or introducing  satellite accounts (in physical or money figures).

Among the physical indices of sustainability, the best known is the Ecological Footprint (EF) that made its debut in 1992 at an Ecological Economics conference (Rees and Wackernagel, 1994). It has been successful with conservationist organizations, the WWF publishes its results regularly. The EF translates into a single number in hectares
the use per capita of land for food, fibre, wood, plus the build environment (paved space for houses and roads), plus the hypothetical land that would be used to absorb the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. For rich industrial economies, the total comes to 4 or more hectares per capita, of which more than half is the hypothetical carbon dioxide absorption land.

Going beyond GDP accounting in Europe should mean something different from “greening the GDP” or that, at the other extreme, genuflecting before one single environmental index such as the EF. It should mean to go into a multicriteria assessment of the economy, working with eight, ten, twelve indicators of social, cultural, economic and environmental performance (Shmelev and Rodriguez-Labajos, 2009). Perhaps all the indicators improve together in some period of history or, more likely, some improve while some deteriorate. For instance, the economic crisis of 2008-09 implies in Spain a very substantial decrease in emissions of carbon dioxide, less accidents at the work place, less would-be immigrants drowning at sea, and a sudden slowing down in the rate of soil sealing, while it also means much increased unemployment and perhaps an increase in some forms of crime. Are we better off now than in 2007? Or rather, previous to this, could be agree on a methodology for macroeconomic participatory multi-criteria evaluation with a set of socially agreed indicators?

“Beyond GDP” should mean to go beyond the single imperative of economic growth in the rich countries. The décroissance movement in France, the decrescita movement in Italy, have one of their roots in ecological economics, namely in Georgescu-Roegen’s work. Some articles of his were translated and published thirty years ago (by Grinevald and Rens, 1979) with the title Démain la décroissance with which he explicitly agreed. This seems to have been the first time that “economic degrowth” was put forward as a slogan. The bulk of French and Italian activists in the décroissance and decrescita movements have perhaps read a few articles by Georgescu-Roegen but not his books on energy, materials and the economy (1966 - introduction, and  
1971). They are not available in French or Italian, and they are anyway hard to digest. Nevetheless, this does not stop them, as activists, from singing the praises of Georgescu-Roegen. Nothing to criticize in all this - painful to scholars but in the nature of social movements.

The Degrowth activists in France and Italy are keen on one concept of industrial ecology: the Jevons’ paradox or “rebound effect” (Polimeni et al, 2009). They have read economic anthropologists such as Serge Latouche (2007), they are inspired by environmental thinkers of the 1970s such as André Gorz and Ivan Illich. But Degrowth is not based on iconic writings. It is a social movement born from experiences of co-housing, squatting, neo-ruralism, reclaiming the streets, alternative energies, waste prevention and recycling. It is a new slogan, a new movement, and very soon now a new research programme. This is a case of activist-led science, towards a new branch in the sustainability social sciences that could be called “economic degrowth studies” closely related to academic “socio-ecological transition studies” (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, eds., 2007, Haberl et al, 2009, Krausmann et al, 2008, Krausmann et al, 2009).

There is no similar Degrowth movement (yet?) in Germany, the U.K., the United States, and Japan but the convergence of Degrowth activists with ecological economists and industrial ecologists has produced already two scholarly conferences in Europe (Paris, April 2008, Barcelona, March 2010). The words “economic degrowth” have successfully been introduced into academic journals. A variety of topics in the  degrowth research programme are listed in the call for papers for the Barcelona conference, while a collection of papers from the first conference (edited by Schneider, Kallis and Martinez-Alier, 2010) has been published in an academic publication, the Journal of Cleaner Production (a journal of industrial ecology) including a remarkable article by Christian Kerschner explaining Georgescu-Roegen’s criticism of Daly’s “steady-state economy” (Daly, 1973, 1991, 2007). Kerschner looks at “degrowth” as a stage towards a steady-state economy. An excellent book with papers from the Paris 2008 Degrowth conference has been published in French (Mylondo, 2009).

Perhaps DG Research of the EC will soon make a call for research proposals under the description, “Beyond GDP: Socially Sustainable Economic Degrowth. Environmental, social, technological, financial, socio-psychological and demographic aspects of economic degrowth leading to a steady-state economy in Europe and other rich economies”. Once again, activist-led science.



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