For anyone who recently attended the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth in Leipzig, Germany, listening in on conference talk, surrounded by the ecologically savvy, one quickly noticed that no one was singing the praises of sustainable development.
Nonetheless, development per se and all that this entails did take center stage, as a crowd of three thousand participants and speakers debated ongoing trends in the fields of environment, politics, economics and social justice.
Given that it may not be immediately clear why a rallying cry anchored to ecological principles would call for the demise of sustainable development – which in generic terms could be described as the environmentalist program dating back several decades – it seems that a clarification or two would be in order.
As is the case with social movements, they evolve and go through periods of transformation like anything else does. When the term sustainable development came into use in the 1970s and 1980s, it did support the assumption that general environmental principles and minimum ecological limits should be respected when going about the everyday business of development.
From the vantage point of economic realism, development is inextricably connected to economic growth. However, degrowthers carry the deeply-held belief that economic growth simply does not deliver what it promises: increased human welfareThe term sustainable development rapidly gained wide-scale acceptance, with the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development just one of the many (inter)governmental or top-down bodies that have set up in the past three decades to include environmental goals in planning and policy.
However, according to Federico Demaria, author and member of Research & Degrowth in Barcelona, the idea of sustainable development is based on a false consensus. Once this term and its underlying situations are properly deconstructed, Demaria tells IPS, “we discover that sustainable development is still all about development. And that is where the problem lies.”
Development is indeed a dirty word in degrowth circles. From the vantage point of economic realism, development is inextricably connected to economic growth. However, degrowthers carry the deeply-held belief that economic growth simply does not deliver what it promises: increased human welfare.
“Thus we find ourselves at a place where we need to readdress the flaws of sustainable development with a fresh perspective,” says Demaria.
It is with the hopes to do just that in a clear and powerful way that Demaria, along with Giorgos Kallis and Giacomo D’Alisa, have produced the new book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, which has just been released by Routledge.
This volume includes 50 entries that all touch on specific aspects of degrowth and go a long way towards elucidating the distinguishing factors of degrowth, as well as properly defining concepts ranging from conviviality to bioeconomics, societal metabolism and many others.
The historical development of the degrowth movement is also spelled out. Thus we learn that in the 1970s, at the time of the first phase of the degrowth debate, when The Limits to Growth by Dennis and Donella Meadows and others was published, resource limits was the talk of the town. Yet now, in what can be called the second stage, criticism of the hegemonic idea of sustainable development has come to the forefront.
It was Serge Latouche, an economic anthropologist, who defined sustainable development as an oxymoron in A bas le développement durable! Vive la décroissance conviviale! (‘Down with sustainable development! Long live convivial degrowth!’) at a conference in Paris in 2002, affiliated with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and concerned with the issues of development.
Latouche and others in the French-speaking world began to give shape to the French movement, which called itself décroissance and eventually spread to other countries, entering Italy as decrescita and Spain as decrecimiento. Eventually, by 2010, degrowth emerged as the English-language term, well suited for universal applicability.