Reversing the Growth Trend? Clearing up Misconceptions on Degrowth

By Gesine Höltmann

When I think about the bigger picture, the all-encompassing problems that our world is facing at the moment, I feel that the lack of sustainability is the one most underestimated. People may roll their eyes when hearing ‘sustainability’, but its not only about recycling and turning off the lights – it is about the fact that our current living standards cannot be continued indefinitely, that the resources we rely on only serve to maintain this living standard for a small fraction of the world’s population, and that even this small fraction will not be able to sustain it further than 2050 (The Guardian). To put it more boldly: “If all the world’s 7 billion people consumed as much as the average American, it would take the resources of 5 earths to support all of them” (World Population Balance). It would seem that such prospects would cause more alarm amongst our societies, seeing how difficult multiple earths are to come by.

But it is not a first priority issue, since humans tend to prioritize their short-term problems, as well as those that they can throw money at. Solving our resource shortage – as naïve as the word solving might sound in this context – requires psychological and material sacrifices for the upper 2 billion., Iit seems an almost impossible endeavor to convince people that living standards are abnormally high and must be lowered or at least changed significantly. Degrowth movements are an outcry to reduce consumer behavior and change mentalities from the need to constantly produce more, to producing less, reusing, and reverting to the community. Since Degrowth is not necessarily a widely known concept, or at least one often met with skepticism, the Transition Action Group Maastricht has volunteered two of their members to answer some fundamental questions on the topic of Degrowth.

Degrowth – “the aim of moving away from a growth-oriented society and economy, one that takes into account the limit of resources, and environmental capacities” – How would you personally define de-growth? What aspects of it do you see that you think are not generally mentioned, such as moral implications, living a more ‘fulfilled’ life? Or merely a necessary move because our current system is set for collapse?

Laura: For me, Degrowth is a movement that combines a realistic view on our planetary boundaries with moral and value-based aspects of how we should then design our living. It’s about how we can create a society that is based upon the limits of our planet, but in such a way that it also leads to a better life for everyone. Important hereby is that a better life, or a more fulfilled life if you like to call it that, is not – as it is understood most of the time nowadays – about more products, money, a growing economy. On the contrary, I see a society based on Degrowth principles as one which centers around community, is about being connected, sharing skills, which I think will at the end lead to much more fulfillment than any amount of money can do – and thereby also respects the limits of our earth.

Lukas: For me, Degrowth is about taking the fundamental human need for community, justice and most importantly a livable environment seriously. Doing that means getting rid of our obsession with economic growth and blind faith in eternal technological progress. It also means learning skills to produce things ourselves, it means liberating ourselves from all the excess stuff we have and consuming less, it means strengthening sustainable local economies, decelerating our lives. Degrowth is a “concrete utopia”. It doesn’t exist yet, but we can build such a society. One important hint to achieve that is to spend less time on shopping and instead on gardening, repairing radios and knitting jumpers, discussing, partying and chilling with people you love and regaining political control over our lives.
What are the aims of the Transition Action Group? How are you planning to implement them?

Aims of the Transition Action Group Maastricht (TAG Maastricht) as stated in founding document: to foster the development of a new economy that abandons the growth paradigm and evolves around cooperation and sharing. This new economy is one that revalues the care-sector, strengthens local economies and builds community- and individual resilience while respecting planetary boundaries. TAG Maastricht will promote these aims by, among others, learning and teaching skills, creating sustainable livelihoods and engaging in and shaping an alternative economic discourse through education and self-empowering discussion.

Laura: the founding document states quite clearly what our mission is, why we started this group. In order to achieve these goals, we set up two project-teams for the moment. One of them is our ‘’Events-team’’ that organizes everything related to spreading the ideas of DeGrowth. We had a knitting workshop (and more skills-workshops will come), monthly discussion-evenings on a topic related to Degrowth open to everyone, and there will be more workshops and lecture sessions in the future.
Next to that we have a team that works on a proposal for a Regional Currency. This group is recently working on the design of such a currency, to design it in such a way that it contributes to the values so important in the Degrowth movement, such as sufficiency and local community-building. Local currencies are not necessarily a Degrowth project, there are more groups in Maastricht working on it, so what we do is providing a Degrowth perspective on it.
How far should Degrowth go in your opinion? How far does it need to go to have an effect? Can it be merely a change of attitude/ a more widespread awareness and small changes? Can it take a middle way, where states reorient their environmental priorities, restrict trade to their regions, etc..? Or does it need to be more radical, a reversion to subsistence?

Laura: What is so essential to the Degrowth ideas is that it requires a change in thinking: one in which you go away from the idea that economic growth is a necessary condition for a successful society to one in which you start valuing different aspects as the most crucial foundation of a society. At the moment, the ‘’system’’ on which our society is based is closely linked to the growth model, and in that sense, it is hard to ‘’just’’ have a society that reorients its environmental priorities etc. The problem I see with these ‘’small’’ changes is one which we have often encountered already: where being more sustainable is incorporated within the growth paradigm, thereby resulting in a situation in which policies meant to ‘green-up’ a society or an economy do not have the desired result because of an equal or bigger increase in consumption at the same time.
In that sense, I tend to be a bit more radical, and say that the society as a whole should turn away from this growth-paradigm in order to make it work. However, I think that works closely together with an increase of awareness: it is exactly this wide-spread awareness that in my opinion can contribute to this change. It is important to realize that we are part of the system we are living in now, and therefore I also see the power of the people to bring change to that same system. And yes, I hope that awareness also will lead to a change in behavior from us, the people: a change that is very necessary. By reducing our consumer-behavior, by becoming more resilient.

Lukas: I also believe that a radical change is necessary. Radical means going to the roots, and in this case these roots are those of our economic system. The “Law of Accumulation”, aka Growth is in the DNA of capitalism. A lot has to change. However, sustainability efforts in the past have usually been coopted by business (CSR and “greenwashing”) but also by governments. Often, the state is part of the problem by preventing fundamental change. However, it is key to realise that, ironically as a side product of modern capitalism, individual empowerment and a strong civil society have huge potential to start transforming our economy and society without waiting for big business or the state. We are part of the “system”, but we can start building alternatives by simply ignoring it, where it hinders us.

Is the conception that Degrowth involves decentralization misconceived?

Lukas: Decentralisation does play a very important role in degrowth scenarios. Part of the problem are global economic chains that require insane transportation and make hyper-specialisation possible, resulting in an environmental and social “race to the bottom” – all in the name of stimulating growth. Instead, we need to strengthen local economies and build short economic chains. Another important aspect is a human scale in technology. Degrowth advocates do not condemn technological progress. On the contrary, we believe that the impressive human capabilities to innovate should be channeled into developing technology that is easy to reproduce, repair and to control. Why should every community not have their own open access printing press and weaving loom? This tendency to democratically controllable and controlled technology already evolves today: the fablab movement is only one example. (
Is it realistic to imagine de-growth on a large scale? Do you see Degrowth happening on a micro or macro level? Is the concept even designed to encompass entire states?

Laura: For me, the problems we are dealing with are problems that affect every person on this planet, and therefore there is a large-scale dimension to DeGrwoth. What is so nice about Degrowth is that it is a movement that clearly stresses certain values, ideas, conceptions etc. but it does not provide you with a detailed plan of how to live. This is very important, because in that way the values central in the DeGrowth movement can be used as guidelines for communities when designing their way of living, while their own culture, religion etc does not need to be abandoned. In that way, although different communities might implement the DeGrowth concepts differently, a large-scale implementation of Degrowth ideas is still highly possible.

Lukas: Talking about degrowth and large scale is a bit of a paradox. Degrowth is small-scale – but everywhere! As Laura pointed out, there is no one solution to fit all, but yes, an economy and society based on degrowth values is possible and appropriate for everyone. An interesting example of similar concepts that are from a Global South perspective are “buen vivir”, “ubuntu” and others. They aren’t the same, but the underlying values and many of the consequences are similar.
What will it take to change mentalities on a large scale? Is a top-down approach necessary? Can it be justified?

Laura: It’s actually funny, we just had a discussion evening on this theme called ‘’Transition: top down or bottom up?’’. I think it’s not an easy question to answer, especially because we do have to realize that the limits of our planet are coming closer and raising awareness takes time. However, at the end a Degrowth society will only work if people really stand behind it, so, although I sometimes wished I could just implement policies that would make people limit their flight-behavior etc., I do think that you have to be careful with a top-down approach. Moreover, I do believe that even without a top-down approach, people’s mindsets change. There are so many initiatives popping up at the moment, and especially because they are coming from ‘’the bottom’’ they are easily accessible for people and thereby have quite an influence.

Lukas: For me, a top-down approach is doomed to fail. You can’t change mentalities top-down. I think only by people organising spontaneously, meaning following their own impulse, we can achieve something. Government can certainly play a role in making the effects of our growth economy slightly less bad or prohibit or put taxes on certain practices. However, government as we know it today will not be at the heart of a fundamental transition, I think: the state as well as the political and business elite has a vested interest in the persistence of the status quo.
What can people (students especially) change in their everyday lives to make a difference? How do you make a difference?

Laura: There are so many little things that you can start doing already, like deciding to go by bus or train (instead of plane) to your favorite holiday destination, exchanging your clothes with your friends (or sewing or knitting your own!) instead of buying new ones, or sharing your leftovers with others. However, what I think is the most important step -from which the rest will follow hopefully automatically- is to realize that your behavior does have an influence and that changing it is not necessarily a sacrifice but something that is beneficial to all of us, including you. We are all part of this planet, and so do we all have to deal with the realities that exist – and changing your behavior accordingly is actually interesting: it will definitely make you discover and enjoy new things!

Lukas: Don’t fly, don’t eat meat, buy fresh and good food from your region and when it’s the right season. On a positive list: prioritize what makes you happy and simply don’t do the rest! Refuse to make career your top priority. Trash your TV and read books. Organize with other people, be political, learn new things.
What are your personal hopes for the Transition Action Group, and what are your hopes for the Degrowth movement overall?

Laura: For TAG Maastricht I mostly hope that we stay that motivated and enthusiastic as we are at the moment –and that, when part of our members have finished studying or are abroad, there will be others that take over because they see the importance of this as well. And of course I hope that we will have at least a small influence on the people here in Maastricht by fostering dialogue and discussions. In general, I actually also hope that the movement keeps growing (yes yes, so much is the growth ideal present everywhere) and that all together we can show that a change is possible.

*My thanks go out to Laura Meijer and Lukas Warning for their effort to so precisely and passionately answer my questions. The Transition Action Group initiates regular events and organizes discussion evenings where central problems to implementation of Degrowth are being debated (such as the top-down or bottom-up discussion ).
You can follow TAG on Facebook, or on their website


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