U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Degrowth: Igniting a Political Imagination of Joy (Guest post by Luis I. Prádanos)

Editor's Note

Today’s guest post comes from Luis I. Prádanos, Associate Professor of Contemporary Spanish Culture at Miami University. Professor Prádanos’s research focuses on degrowth and environmental humanities in relation to Contemporary Iberian and Latin-American cultures. His forthcoming book, Postgrowth Imaginaries, combines environmental cultural studies, critical theory, and postgrowth economics.

My last post offered an outsider’s response to degrowth, and I wanted the readers at S-USIH to have an introduction to the topic from an expert source. Prádanos–who invites readers to know him as by his middle name, Iñaki–kindly provides this in the post below, which includes numerous hyperlinks to supplementary degrowth readings. Some of Iñaki’s recent publications focus on “The Pedagogy of Degrowth.” In 2017, he edited a special section on “Contemporary Iberian Ecocriticism and New Materialisms” and co-edited a special number on “South Atlantic Ecocriticism.”

Constant economic growth in the context of a limited biosphere is a biophysical impossibility that leads to biological annihilation. The faster growth-oriented societies appropriate planetary ecological space by expanding their economic metabolism, the faster the living systems of the planet collapse. It should not come as a surprise that a social system designed for constant expansion and growth becomes more entropic, necrotic, and carcinogenic over time.

The globalization of an economic culture that pursues growth as an ideal obeys a suicidal inclination. Actually, all existential problems faced by humanity today are caused or exacerbated by the ongoing globalization of an economic culture addicted to constant growth. The growth ideal justifies itself with a host of social promises. Constant growth destroys the ecological systems that support life on Earth while failing to keep those promises.

Our systemic addiction to growth also significantly damages our creative potential. By maintaining a dominant imaginary deeply ingrained in the logic of growth, societies’ energy and creativity are funneled toward a destructive task.

Degrowth aims to funnel that energy and creativity in a different direction. As its provocative name indicates, degrowth dares to challenge the dominant imaginary at its core by showing the many negative consequences of the growth paradigm. Despite its promises to the contrary, the growth paradigm’s actual tendency is to impoverish most human communities while depleting the socioecological conditions needed for sustaining their future livelihoods.

Luis I. Prádanos’s book, Postgrowth Imaginaries, will be published in October by Liverpool University Press.

The fact that humanity is currently facing the ecological limits to growth at a global scale is certainly bad news. But it’s bad only if we maintain our society’s affective, material, and semiotic attachment to the growth paradigm, as well as to its associated violence, inequalities, asymmetries of power, and exploitative socioecological relations.

Degrowth reminds us that we do not have to perpetuate this toxic, growth-oriented inertia. It opens the possibility for a joyful way out that entails a reactivation of our political imagination beyond the stale debates about how to grow the economy at all costs. A desirable degrowth calls for a much better option for all: an “equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions” (Schneider, Kallis, Martinez-Alier).

Degrowth promotes a repoliticization of economic, social, cultural, and environmental issues and an activation of a new set of values, vocabularies, and priorities. Given that the paradigm of growth is doubly destructive: semiotically and biophysically—for it’s destroying both our political imagination as well as the possibility of our biological survival—a postgrowth imaginary “engages not only our material but also our semiotic modes,” as Anthony Chaney rightly noticed in his recent post. Thinking in terms of prosperity without growth ignites our political imagination as it opens semiotic pathways that overwhelm and overcome what the dominant imaginary considers thinkable and debatable (the only meaningful political act, according to Jacques Rancière).

Within the dominant imaginary, politics has become confused with a kind of dead-end race to maintain the agonized order of things for just a little bit longer. Postgrowth imaginaries, which I call the emerging cultural sensibilities that delink themselves from the growth paradigm, abandon this race. They liberate our political imagination from the fearful and obsessive task of doing better or smarter within the same pathological game. Free of the problem of how to feed a destructive economy, postgrowth imaginaries invest their political energies in changing the dominant ways of organizing socioecological relations.

This repoliticization entails inserting several questions into the public domain: How do we live better with smaller economic metabolisms? What exactly needs to grow and what needs to de-grow in an environmentally sound and socially desirable economic culture? How much growth, how much degrowth, and for the benefit of whom? What are we, as a society, supposed to collectively guarantee, the accumulation of capital or the reproduction of sane and fair socioecological relations? What kind of economic culture can promote social and environmental enhancement?

In my forthcoming book I claim that, to be socially desirable, the ongoing global rise of postgrowth imaginaries is to be overtly postcapitalist, decolonial, feminist, and posthumanist. But more importantly, it has to facilitate a cultural transition from the boring, destructive, cruel, fear-infused mindset of the growth imaginary to a much more playful, proactive, convivial, and joyful politics of degrowth. As Chaney suggested in his post, a joyful political imagination will certainty possess a light touch.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Last night over dinner I was telling my wife and fourteen-year-old daughter about this guest post on degrowth. As I laid out the basic ideas, I noticed the two of them becoming increasingly uncomfortable. It was if as I were telling them about some exciting new religious cult or about the latest radio messages I’d received through the fillings in my teeth.

    I explored their reaction a little. “Does degrowth mean,” my daughter finally asked, “that there wouldn’t be any more technological innovation?” (She’s very attached to her smartphone.) Would anyone like to handle that one? Iñaki?

    • Technological innovation does not need to be embedded in a growth-oriented society. Actually, it seems to me that in growth-oriented societies technological innovation is severely restricted by the growth imperative. In a degrowth society, technological innovation would probably decouple from economic growth and would be liberated from the mandate of accelerating consumption and production. Under contemporary circumstances, technological innovation tends to by funded and guided by corporate and market criteria and, as such, makes the accumulation of capital more efficient and the asymmetries of power more acute. A degrowth-oriented technological innovation would try to design the tools needed for empowering communities and living better with less material intensity (Convivial tools, as Ivan Illich called them). In a desirable postgrowth society, the logic guiding technological innovation would change, ideally, from targeting symptoms to dealing with structural root problems: from making more innovative cars to designing urban models that do not require cars for daily mobility; from more sophisticated ways of producing industrial food that deplete the soil, the water, and annihilate biodiversity to innovative food systems that enhance soils and nourish humans, and so on. All these innovations that, when apply, generate a cascade of beneficial sociological dynamics already exist, but they are often ignored, underfunded or undermined by the dominant growth paradigm because they do not spur growth. So I guess the question remains: how do we define technological innovation and for the benefit of whom?

  2. Thank you for the post. I’m not v. familiar with the degrowth literature (or that of steady-state economics, which may be related). However, the claim that “the growth paradigm’s actual tendency is to impoverish most human communities while depleting the socioecological conditions needed for sustaining their future livelihoods” seems to me perhaps half-right, but not necessarily completely right. The ‘depletion of [some] socioecological conditions for sustaining future livelihoods’ part of the claim is more plausible than ‘the impoverishment of most human communities’ part of the claim.

    I’d probably be more inclined to criticize growth under a set of specific conditions shaped to a large extent by the power of corporate interests, than to criticize growth, period. Is an environmentally sustainable, economically equitable model of economic growth, either in a national or a global context, impossible? Demonstrating that the answer is yes, irrespective of surrounding political conditions, seems like a tall order.

    The last quarter-century or so on a global level has seen certain positive developments — e.g., significant declines in infant and child mortality and progress in combating epidemic/infectious disease, and reductions in poverty in particular parts of the global South — concurrent with negative trends such as worsening intra-national (i.e., within-country) inequalities, increasing concentration of vast sums of wealth in relatively few hands, ecological degradation, runaway urbanization, and persistence of unacceptably high levels of absolute poverty and everything that entails. The mixed character of this picture probably should be acknowledged, lest one set up a likely false choice between everything-is-heading-toward-disaster and everything-is-improving. An approach calling for a postgrowth “imaginary” would seem less than well-equipped to confront the concrete policy questions that likely have to be addressed before a wholesale shift in “paradigms” or “imaginaries” has a chance of making it onto the radar screens of people who exist outside the academy and some pockets of real-world experimentation.

    One last thought: the very existence of the degrowth movement, at least in the academy and a few places outside, tends to qualify the claim that the “paradigm of growth” is “destroying our political imagination.” If the paradigm of growth were really destroying “our political imagination” and making it impossible to think about, or ‘theorize’, alternatives, then this blog post, and the resources and publications to which it links, would be unlikely to exist.

    • Thank you, Louis, for your thoughtful comment.
      An economic model based on constant growth cannot be environmentally sustainable at a global level. At a regional or national level, such model could be sustained–I guess–by externalizing its associated social and environmental externalities to other regions. Some ecological economists have studied the possibility of decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation and an absolute decoupling never happened so far. Actually, improvements in eco-efficiency may increase, rather than decrease, the overall consumption of material and energy due to the rebound effect. The conclusion seems to be that for technology to really help solving problems, it should be embedded in a non growth-oriented logic.
      There are actually many concrete policies proposed and/or discussed by degrowthers. Here are 10 of them: https://theleapblog.org/yes-we-can-prosper-without-growth-10-policy-proposals-for-the-new-left/

  3. I appreciate these considerations very much, Louis. Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi are not formally associated with the degrowth community, as far as I know, but they agree with degrowthers on the basic premise concerning “the illusion that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet.” More to the point, they think through some of the issues you raise in their book The Systems View of Life (2014), especially pages 362-72.

    Capra and Luisi make various distinctions between economic growth, corporate growth, and population growth and their current impacts. They also discuss “quantitative”/bad growth versus “qualitative”/good growth. Quantitative growth is favored by economists and concerns the linear maximization of measurable values crudely measured by the GDP. Qualitative growth is “balanced” and non-linear, resembles non-human natural systems, and includes social, ecological, cultural, and spiritual dimensions.

    Capra and Luisi arrive at this straightforward construction: “Bad growth is growth of production processes and services that externalize social and environmental costs, are based on fossil fuels, involve toxic substances, deplete our natural resources, and degrade the Earth’s ecosystems. Good growth is growth of more efficient production processes and services that fully internalize costs and involve renewable energies, zero emissions, continual recycling of natural resources, and restoration of the Earth’s ecosystems” (372).

    • Thanks, Anthony. It sounds like I’d largely agree with Capra and Luisi’s discussion there.

      There has long been dissatisfaction, even among some economists, with a single-minded, quasi-obsessive focus on GDP and ‘quantitative’ growth, to the use Capra/Luisi term. But that dissatisfaction has never really gotten much of a hold on mainstream economics.

      Nonetheless, an intellectual history (of which some have already been written) of trends in thinking about ‘development’ would show, for ex., that in the ’70s there were efforts to expand the focus beyond GDP to ‘basic human needs’, distributive and quality-of-life measures, etc. The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI), developed by an economist named Morris D. Morris if I recall correctly (hard to forget that kind of a name), was in some ways a precursor of the indexes used today by e.g. the UN Human Development Report. These represent attempts to measure things related to welfare that GDP does not capture and that are not necessarily correlated with GDP growth at all, and may often be negatively correlated with it.

      But Capra/Luisi probably add in a fuller range of considerations and put the discussion in a broader context tied to their view of ‘systems theory’ — and that’s fine. I’ll try to take a look at their book.

      • I agree, to me degrowth and systems theory are part of the same paradigm shift. Both criticize reductionist approaches to economic, social, and environmental issues.

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