domingo, 23 de setembro de 2012

A critique of degrowthism / Uma crítica do decrescimentismo

Pôr as ideias em ordem. Manter a racionalidade. Procurar entender o mundo em que vivemos através da "leitura" das "novas" tendências ideológicas. Evitar cair em simplismos redutores. Evitar cair em armadilhas. Entender porque motivo, a partir de certo momento, a dívida pública deixou de ser considerada um indicador chave de desenvolvimento sustentável, nomeadamente em Portugal. Tudo razões suficientes para estudar e escrever o artigo com o título acima que irei, se tudo correr bem, apresentar brevemente numa conferência internacional a ter lugar na cidade do Porto.
A Referência deste artigo, enviado na sua forma completa e aceite pelor referees internacionais designados pela Organização da Conferência, é a seguinte:
Rodrigues, V.J. (2012) - A critique of degrowthism. International Congress LIC'12, Porto, 8-10 Nov. Prog. available at:

A critique of degrowthism

Valdemar J. Rodrigues
CIDESTEC, Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Portugal

Extended Abstract

Degrowthism – the ideology of sustainable economic degrowth, as I argue hereafter – has received unusual attention in recent years, in particular after the financial earthquake initiated in 2008 in the USA. But it was just a few months before the political recognition of the financial crisis, in April 2008, that about 140 researchers in economics, environmental and social sciences from 30 countries met in Paris for the first international conference on “Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity" [1]. The event would be reissued later in Barcelona (in 2010), Montreal and Venice (both in 2012), always organized by a meanwhile constituted association of academics and scholars, the Research & Degrowth [2], a group led by the economists Joan Martinez-Alier and Serge Latouche, two of the most widely known contemporary degrowthists.

With important roots on ecological economics, one could easily date the origins of degrowthism to the late sixties when the Club of Rome decided to commission the research that culminated in the famous book The Limits of Growth, of Donella Meadows and colleagues. But that is just a plausible possibility. As such, the very first interrogation relates the nature and the historical grounds of degrowthist ideas. After this done, I believe we are properly equipped to understand the step back verified in 1992 with the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), when the concept of sustainable development was included in the agenda of the major world governments and economic leaders.

An interesting aspect of degrowthism is its unbalanced reliance on GDP, a macroeconomic indicator which is not accepted as a valid measure of human well-being and of wealth of a society. The existence of a positive relation between real GDP (or GNP) and the use of materials, energy and land is clearly assumed by degrwthists when economic growth is at stake. But when addressing economic degrowth, they are much less affirmative about the necessity, or desirability, of a real GDP degrowth. This probably explains the apparent indifference of degrowthists to the economic recession that hit several national economies of the EU in recent years. And the absence of exaltation with, and celebration of the positive environmental effects of recession. In Portugal, for instance, such effects have been since 2008 quite significant, namely in terms of waste generation reduction and lowering of greenhouse gas emissions.

The second part of this research consisted in a critical examination of the ideas of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, one of the major references of sustainable degrowth theorists. As timely noticed by Andrew Dobson, ecologism differs substantially from environmentalism since the former is an ideology – providing us a world view (weltanschauung) through which we can interpret, spontaneously, our lifeworld and daily experiences – while the latter is not. Being ecologism, or at least some of its core values, a key element of the thought of degrowthists, then its worth looking critically at such crucial issues as the intrinsic value of nature and the value of human life. This part highlights sustainable degrowth as an ideology, based on the idea that conventional theories of economic growth (theories that seek the growth of production and consumption and therefore GDP growth), are hopelessly unsustainable. And explains why degrowthism is fundamentally incompatible with the hitherto dominant conceptions of sustainable development, since those conceptions assume GDP growth as a good, and thus a desirable thing.

The third and last part of this research points out some of its preliminary conclusions. Degrowthist ideology is not so uniform, or homogeneous, as one might have expected at a first glance. When a deeper analysis is undertaken, one can identify different categories of green thinkers for whom sustainable degrowth is, at least, a political option that is worth considering. Proponents of natural capitalism, deep ecologists, social ecologists and traditional pantheists are in the list, alongside with shallower environmentalists disillusioned with the prospects of sustainable development. Degrowthism is becoming increasingly attractive for a growing number of green thinkers, and this may not be a good thing, I finally argue. The ideology advocates that we must live with less consumption of material resources and energy, without this representing a downgrade in our quality of life. It means however a deep change in our culture, habits and lifestyles, agreed to be the only effective way to reduce human ecological footprint on the planet in an acceptable term. This may be true, but the point is how can we achieve such an ambitious goal peacefully, and in time to prevent the exhaustion of the planet's limited resources? Any reasonable answer to this can hardly avoid the reference to a set of constrictive policies (e.g. demographic control policies, deindustrialization policies, policies aimed at phasing out of industrial agriculture), that is, policies that for present societies imply a real GDP degrowth.

But if GDP degrowth is neither explicitly required nor celebrated by degrowthists, then we are left with an alternative which would be rather time consuming and hardly effective: the promotion of self-discipline through proper education. Furthermore, such alternative will interfere with individual beliefs and reasonable preferences, which is always somehow an illegitimate interference, no matter how contingent those beliefs and preferences might be [3]. This way we come to a seemingly dead end. On the one side, the very idea of forcing someone to live according to their supposed needs (and not according to their legitimate expectations) is something that has already been tested by many governments of marxist inspiration, and that had the results that we all know; and, on the other, try to persuade people to live according to such principle is something that pressuposes a slow process of social readjustment, for example, based on the fair valuation of individual merits and of genuine altruism, something that for many people is nothing but a mirage. It follows that degrowthism basically desires the disacceleration of economic activity through GDP degrowth, although it avoids to publicly assume so. The reason for this attitude seems obvious: it would be quite unwise to publicly celebrate things like the reduction of productive investment, rising unemployment or the disappearance of the most vulnerable strata of the population. Degrowthers are very unclear about the strategies they foresee to a sustainable and peaceful process of GDP degrowth.

Despite the possible anomalies, and dangers, of degrowthist ideology, the question is that since 1992 only one of the many possible interpretations of sustainable development was in fact put into practice by governments and international organizations, namely in the developed world. The concept of sustainable development is still far from being exhausted. One alternative conception of sustainable development that for some time I've been advocating proposes sustainability as a comprehensive moral ideal politically achievable through the simultaneous and cooperative development in societies of environmental care and protection; of democracy as authonomy and subsidiarity, and of justice as fairness and dignity for present and future generations. Rather than a scientific or technical demand imposed by some sort of aliens, sustainable development is regarded as a socially constructed process and, to that extent, sustainability emerges as a matter of excellence for social contract [4]. Degrowthism is not necessarily incompatible with such a contractualist sustainability approach. However, it seems reasonable to assume that social contractants – the people – can agree on the necessity of living with less but not with the necessity of living worse or living less. So this very fundamental constraint should always be kept in mind in any voluntary process of economic downturn.

The post-Rio dominant conception of sustainable development, in this regard, gave little or no attention to some crucial aspects of sustainability. As strange as it may now seem, the fact is that many EU countries, as was the case of Portugal, ignored public debt as a key indicator of sustainable development [5]. On the other hand, democracy or its quality; the social and economic dimensions of subsidiarity, or justice as fairness and human dignity in the light of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights; hardly ever such determinants of sustainable development deserved any kind of attention and systematic appraisal, as one can see in the myriad of sustainability reports produced by national states and supranational organizations in the last two decades. After the UNCED in 1992, the concept of sustainable development underwent a growing process of depoliticization and selective reductionism, a still ongoing process promoted by many Western countries and organizations, up to a point where it stands now, completely reduced to a techno-environmental dimension. I think therein lies the main problem of the concept of sustainable development, a concept that could well be rehabilitated for the benefit of people and their environment. Degrowthism may well represent, in this sense, a civilizational throwback whose consequences are still largely uncleared. The theory that fewer people means more peace, more justice in the distribution of opportunities and resources, and less likelihood of wars and conflicts, is a theory that has not been demonstrated and that can be completely wrong. It is up to social sciences more than to Physics the clarification of this urgent and paramount issue.

Key Words: Economic degrowth, sustainalbility, degrowthism, degrowthist ideology.
[1] Conference proceedings available at
[3] Rawls, J. (1997: 70 et seq.) – O liberalismo político. Lisboa: Editorial Presença.
[4] This alternative  conception of sustainable development is exposed in Rodrigues, V. (2009) – Desenvolvimento sustentável: uma introdução crítica. Lisboa: Principia.
[5] A detailed analysis of this anomaly will be available soon in  Rodrigues, V. (2012) – Sustainability, security and national defense (forthcoming book).