Incidentally I am writing this short introduction so that some of you who read it might mention aspects I forgot, or sections which are way to brief or even confusing. Drop me a line.
This is the first blog on “décroissance”. What is it?
I arrived in France in 2001 and became a thoughtful, active, well person in 2002 after my second kidney transplant. According to a recent history of “décroissance” (de-growth in English), the notion was first used in 1972 by André Gorz, although it did not really catch on. It was about when I arrived in France that the “decroissance movement” began to emerge in France, although to this day the concept and the movement are still being refined and actively discussed. The strange thing is that when I found out what décroissance was, it seemed like, in England and the USA anyway, the matters discussed had already been under serious debated and actively pursued for decades. Many of the key texts were written or translated into English at the same time as Gorz was writing. I recently checked with a friend who is right in the middle of such matters, and has been since 1973. He agreed that, although he had never heard of either decroissance or “de-growth”, “we” had been dealing with these matters long before the beginning of the 21st century. So in my mind, none of the questions brought forward by de-growth are questions well-rooted in the late 20th century. But, it has to be said that “naming” something, giving a label to a wide variety of intuitively related subjects, is important. My hope is that some less ugly word, in either French or English, will evolve in the next years.
So what are the issues that are collected under this slightly awkward French concept. They seem to be roughly the following, in no particular order. A life of voluntary simplicity. Measuring success not by quantitative increases of overall production and consumption, but by less production and less consumption by the rich and comfortable, “sustainable de-growth”. Creating methods of health care that are not focussed on high technology and Big Pharma. Questioning whether contemporary global finance capitalism is the only or best way to organise human life. Acute awareness of the environmental impact of waste produced by our life-style. Avidly questioning the efficacy and intelligence of a nuclear family, single dwelling based social life. Inventing locally based organisational forms to increase solidarity, sharing, convivial, intergenerational living and trying to “live the utopia” now, “prefiguration”. Not doing less of the same thing, but doing things redically differently. How to make the “transition” from fossil fuel dependance to an alternative energy use. Increasing awareness of the excessive inequalities of consumption globally. Respecting and increasing “the commons”. There are more.
We learned about these things by our experience in co-ops, communes, communities, networks in the diverse movements that emerged form the 1960s. We also learned and were inspired by various writers. The history of the precursors of de-growth are some of the writers we read from the 1970s onwards, but which are now considered the “forefathers and mothers” of the decroissance movement. Important French writers were Gorz, Castoriadis and Latouche, but only Gorz has been translated widely. English language writers like Georgescu-Roegen, Odum, Mishan, Illich, Schumacher, Meadows were among those who were read by many. Perhaps later I will try to summarize each these writers, but that will be rather hard work, and require a detailed re-reading of their important texts. It would be better to simply talk about the issues they raise, without saying exactly which writers, in which ways, said what first.
A short note about “the origins in France”. In terms of creating a movement, it is quite clear that the editors of both Decroissance and the monthly journal Silence (Alternatives, Non-violence and Ecology) were responsible, through special issues of the latter and the creation of the former, were very crucial in boosting the profile of the movement. It should be also added, that many others, in France and particularly elsewhere, had been “doing” decroissance long before it got a name.
By now you get the general idea of the kinds of writers and ideas there are within the large and fuzzily bounded notion of decroissance. The major point of de-growth, from which many of the other practices emerge is simple. Nearly every political party on earth, nearly every learned pundit and certainly nearly every economist believe is that the key to a happy life is to grow the economy, consume lots of stuff, use the earth’s “resources” to meet our alleged “needs”, and to measure the richness of life by the increase of the GNP. The basic notion of de-growth movements is something like finding a way to consume less, exploit and destroy the earth less, distribute wealth and living needs more equitably, slow down, co-operate to live together in peace, to claim that by NOT growing the GNP, by paying more attention to quality, not quantity, to “flourish”, we can be better off and so will our environment. There are theorists who try to take account of the systemic effect of our practices by seeing the earth (or even the universe) as a living, natural system that must be respected and understood, at least sometimes, as a whole system. Narrow closed minded thinking based on a simplistic view of humans as rational, choosing, self-interested individuals is seen as a disaster. A recent summary of the panorama of decroissance claims that there are five major themes. No doubt there could be four, or six, but this gives an indication of the breadth of the movement, both in actin and in reflection. The themes the describe are limits to growth, de-growth and autonomy, de-growth as re-politicisation, de-growth and capitalism and proposal for a de-growth transition. I imagine that in future blog iMight take one of these for a subject and go on about it.
There are extremists in this movement, as in any other movement. In the modern world, to say anything other than growing economies, producing goods for anyone, anywhere who has the money to buy them, with paying jobs (even if low-paid) of some sort for everyone, is to be an extremist. In my mind, to be in favour of, to promote, and even to mention decroissance is to immediately become an extremist. Just a word on “going back to live in caves”, and “using candles as light”. There ARE, and always will be, quite extreme practitioners and theorists who say something a bit like this. It may be that being able to ignore or mock diverse movements is easiest by taking the extremes as the essence of the movement. So viewing the actual daily life of the truly rich, taking religious terrorists as representing the complexities of a world religion, urging everyone to give up computers and information technology, believing that science and technology will always find “the answer”, or claiming that all our food should be produced locally by local labour make a much more sophisticated and complex argument easy to dismiss. Overall, the vast majority of de-growth practitioners have never advocated candles and caves as the end result of de-growth. If you ever find caves and candles being discussed, leave the room or wait for that part of the conversation to end. Or possibly wait for the words joyful or flourishing or resilience to appear.
It is worth saying that décroissance has a number of levels that attract individuals, although few are so committed as to act at all the levels. The first is the individual level. Here, individuals or families decide they are going to do something in their personal lives to support, by concrete actions, some aspect of décroissance. This might be to recycle household waste, create a vegetable or fruit garden, build a windmill, simplify their lives, look carefully at what they buy, give up a car. All these actions can be done without anyone else noticing, by individual choice. These actions give a sense of satisfaction and the knowledge that however small, those actions help move things in the right direction. The second level is to act in a way that requires the active co-operation of others, a social or cultural action. Set up an organic veg box scheme, share some sort of renewable energy generation scheme, organise an allotment where previously there had been no such option, organise support for a particular organic local producer of food; all actions which can only be done collectively in a shared local space. The third level is to try to change the structures of the world so that they move in the direction of décroissance. This involves direct confrontation or some sort of political activity (probably conflictual) which tries to alter the power balance, the alternatives debated or the nature of the decision-making in the world at large. Without going into details, each individual makes their choices about the level of activity that suits their needs and capacities. It should go without saying that examples of such activities are legion and long preceded the invention of the concept décroissance.
Some would say that the realisations of the whole earth (NASA photos), the rise of ecological thinking, peak oil (later development), discovery of systematic global pollution, the destructive nature of contemporary warfare, were all external factors which contributed to the rise of de-growth ideas. No doubt this is true. Probably when writers already mentioned began to try to convince more materialist or leftist people that they should take account of ecological matters, the beginnings of de-growth became more popular. So environmental concerns, or “ecological realism” could be an important cause of of this movement.
To this day, decroissance is an extremely hot issue within the “alternative” community, those diverse movements and groups who are working to make décroissance a reality, not a fantasy. You can easily fill a room by making “decroissance” part of the title of a lecture, film or discussion, at least in France. On the other hand, to talk of décroissance with any mainstream political or economic group is nearly impossible, and is dismissed immediately as a foolish, unrealistic, impossible or silly idea. How can such deep divisions be so solidly anchored? Are people who are “growth resisters or objectors” (another formulation of the movements) seriously disconnected from the realities of modern life? If it is such an intelligent response to the rape of the earth, why do so many people in power all over the world find it absurd, almost beyond serious discussion?