We Must Abandon the Religion of Growth

mercredi 26 août 2009, par Serge LATOUCHE

In the place of the current dominant system, Latouche argues for « a society of assumed sobriety ; to work less in order to live better lives, to consume less products but of better quality, to produce less waste and recycle more. ». The new society would mean « recuperating a sense of measure and a sustainable ecological footprint, » Latouche says, « and finding happiness in living together with the others rather than in the frantic accumulation of gadgets. »

Author of many books and articles on Western rationality, the myth of progress, colonialism and post-development, Serge Latouche described the main principles of the degrowth society in his books “Le pari de la décroissance” (2006) and “Petit traité de la décroissance sereine” (2007). In the latter book, he presented what could be considered a “political programme” for degrowth : humanity working its way back to an ecological footprint that is sustainable by the planet ; including the damages caused by transportation in the calculation of transportation costs ; relocating industrial and agricultural activities ; reviving peasant agriculture ; transforming productivity increases into reduction of working time and job creation ; stimulating the creation of “relational commodities” such as friendship and knowledge ; reducing energy waste ; penalizing advertising expenses ; orienting technical and scientific research towards the goals of the new society, e.g. a focus on ecology and improving quality of life quality rather on stimulating massive production.

Serge Latouche spoke to IPS correspondent Claudia Ciobanu about what a degrowth society means and how it can be brought about.

IPS : What are the features of the society of degrowth and are any practices in the world today compatible with this vision ?

Serge Latouche : Degrowth does not mean negative growth. Negative growth is a self-contradictory expression, which just proves the domination of the collective imaginary by the idea of growth. A better term to use is a-growth, in the same way that we say atheism, because it means precisely that, giving up a faith — in the economy, in growth, in progress and in development. On the other hand, degrowth is not the alternative to growth, but rather, a matrix of alternatives which would open up the space for human creativity again, once the cast of economist totalitarianism is removed. The degrowth society would not be the same in Texas and in the Chiapas, in Senegal and in Portugal. Degrowth would open up anew the human adventure to the plurality of its possible destinies.

Principles of degrowth can already be found in theoretical thought and in practical efforts in both the global North and the South. For example, the attempt to create an autonomous region by the neo-Zapatistas in Chiapas ; and many South American experiences, indigenous or others, such as in Ecuador, which has just introduced in its constitution the objective of Sumak Kausai (“harmonious life” in Quechua, which encompasses the rights of nature). All sorts of initiatives promoting degrowth and solidarity are starting to spread in the global North too : AMAP (The Association for the Preservation of Peasant Agriculture — France), allotments, the self-rehabilitation of housing, self-production according to the example of PADES (the Programme for Self-Production and Social Development). The movement of Transition Towns started in Ireland and spreading in England could be a form of production from below which closest resembles a society of degrowth. These towns are seeking firstly energetic self-sufficiency in the face of depleting resources and, more generally, promote the principle of community resilience.

IPS : What would be the role of markets in the degrowth society ?

SL : The capitalist system is a market economy, but markets are not an institution which belongs exclusively to capitalism. Escaping development, the economy and growth does not mean giving up markets. It means to inscribe markets in a new logic. It is important to distinguish between “the Market” and markets. The latter do not obey the law of perfect competition, and that is for the best. They always incorporate elements of the culture of the gift, which the degrowth society is trying to rediscover. They involve living in communion with the others, developing a human relationship between the buyer and the seller.

IPS : What types of strategies could the global South countries pursue in order to eliminate poverty in a different way than the North has (at the expense of the environment and producing poverty in the South) ?

SL : For African countries, decreasing the ecological footprint and the GDP are neither neccesary nor desirable. But from this we must not conclude that a society of growth must be built there. Firstly, it is clear that degrowth in the North is a precondition for opening up of alternatives for the South. As long as Ethiopia and Somalia are forced, during the worst food shortage, to export feed for our domestic animals, as long as we fatten our cattle with soya obtained after destroying the Amazonian forest, we are asphixiating any attempt at real autonomy in the South. To dare degrowth in the South means to launch a virtuous cycle made up of : breaking economic and cultural dependency of the North ; reconnecting with a historical line interrupted by colonization ; reintroducing specific products which have been abandoned or forgotten as well as „antieconomic” values linked to the past of those countries ; recuperating traditional techniques and know-how. These are to be combined with other principles, valid worldwide : reconceptualizing (what we understand by poverty, scarcity and development for instance) ; restructuring society and economy ; restoring non-industrial practices, especially in agriculture ; redistributing ; relocating ; reusing ; recycling ; reducing the footprint.

IPS : The degrowth society involves a radical change in human consciousness. How is this radical change going to come about ? Can it happen on time ?

SL : It is difficult to break out of this addiction (to growth) especially because it is in the interest of the “dealers” (multinational corporations and the political powers serving them) to keep us enslaved. Alternative experiences and dissident groups – such as cooperatives, syndicates, the associations for the preservation of peasant agriculture, certain NGOs, local exchange systems, networks for knowledge exchange – represent pedagogical laboratories for the creation of “the new human being” demanded by the new society. They represent popular universities which can create resistance and help decolonize the imaginary. Certainly, we do not have much time, but the turn of events can help accelerate the transformation. The ecological crisis together with the financial and economic crisis we are experiencing can constitute a salutary shock.

IPS : Can conventional political actors play a role in this transformation ?

SL : All governments are, whether they want it or not, functionaries of capitalism. In the best of cases, the governments can at most slow down or soften processes over which they do not have control any more. We consider the process of self-transformation of society and of citizens more important than electoral politics. Even so, the recent relative electoral success of French and Belgian ecologists, who have adopted some of the degrowth agenda, seems like a positive sign.

Links :
Transition Towns
Via Campesina