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Degrowth—What’s in a Name? Assessing Degrowth’s Political Implications


'THE ONLY SUSTAINABLE GROWTH IS DEGROWTH.' Credit: Paul Sableman - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Link.

Ying Chen is an assistant professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research in New York.

The discovery of oil in Namibia in 2022 quickly led to the government’s approval of oil drilling for economic development, despite strong objections from some activists and local residents. ReconAfrica, a Canadian-owned company, has been exploring natural resources in this part of the African region with a license issued by the local government. The discovery is good news for global capital to diversify oil providers. Yet, it seems the government is also eager for this opportunity, with their response that “it had a responsibility to develop the country’s natural resources for the benefit of its people.”1

This is a classic example both degrowth critics and proponents can use to make their cases. For the critics, this case shows the urgent need for development and growth from the Global South, and hence, they argue that imposing a low-growth or no-growth scenario on the South is inhuman. Following this logic, since the Global South needs to grow regardless, it is preferable to equip them with renewable energy alternatives so that the growth and development process will be less carbon intensive. At the other end of the debate, the degrowth proponents would stress that, it is precisely this obsession with GDP growth, imposed by the West initially as the equivalent measure to modernity and civilization, that compels the South to choose policies that are detrimental to ecological sustainability. Hence, a counterhegemonic challenge to the growth paradigm should be in place so that countries in the Global South can actually “afford” to lose this shortcut opportunity for growth and development through exploiting their own natural resources.

Both the critics and proponents appear to be holding a grain of truth in their respective points of view. This essay aims to show the term degrowth can have political implications from the extremely conservative Malthusian to the most radical revolutionary ones. The interpretation largely depends on its narratives, and particularly the thoroughness in presenting the alternative visions. The essay highlights that, to avoid degrowth having to retreat to a defensive position, theorists should place the analytical concept of the economic system at the center of the narrative.

Conservative Implications of the Degrowth Narratives

Perhaps the most serious challenge to the degrowth narratives comes from the progressive critique on its lack of clear elaborations of the policy implications for the Global South, when extreme poverty still denies hundreds of millions of people the access to basic necessities.2 In response, degrowth proponents point out that degrowth policy does not have to be implemented universally, since its focus on “reducing excess resource and energy use” will result in these policies being largely applied to wealthy economies only, and not “economies that are not characterized by excess resource and energy use”—namely, the Global South.3

As straightforward as the response appears, one has to acknowledge that the degrowth concept originates from the context of the Global North and hence lacks a coherent analytical framework that is immediately applicable to the Global South context. Although the earlier critique to unlimited growth can be traced back to at least the Limits to Growth report in 1972, the slogan of “degrowth” was initiated in the early 2000s during a period of climate activism in France, and later began to be widely used in other parts of Europe.4 Interestingly, a parallel movement of “postdevelopment” took place in the Global South starting in the late 1980s. This movement also questions growth as one of the core assumptions of development.5 The renowned Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar argues that both Northern degrowth and Southern postdevelopment should be situated under the ensemble of “Transition Discourses,” which “call for a significant paradigmatic or civilizational transformation.”6 Although he details some earlier influences of postdevelopment ideas on degrowth theorizations, he highlights the “uneven and differentiated characters” between how transition discourses manifest themselves in the Northern and Southern contexts. The variations of transition discourses in the form of degrowth and postdevelopment largely result from the different experiences with the crises of capitalism. In the North, these come in the form of “downsizing of the welfare State and the financial crisis” and the South, in the form of “extractive policies and the vagaries of commodity prices.”7 Hence, the distinction between the two movements derives from the contexts they originated in and their respective focuses.

Such a distinction suggests the problem of application of degrowth theories in the Global South: oftentimes, progressive degrowth policies in the North could imply conservative politics if adopted uncritically in the South. Take the population limit in Herman Daly’s steady-state economy theory for instance, one will see that the theory from which later degrowth theories draw much inspiration contains a problematic Malthusian implication when implemented in the context of the Global South.

In Daly’s description, a constant population (that is, the rate of births plus in-migrants equals the rate of deaths plus out-migrants) is highlighted as one of the crucial features of a steady-state economy.8,9 The rationale of the population limit is consistent with what degrowth calls for, namely, to reduce the resource and energy throughput of an economy. Daly provides an analogy between people and products, stating that shifting to producing more durable goods could reduce the rates of throughput in the economy, and that the same logic applies to limiting population growth.10 That is to say, in an economy with non-growing population, people are expected to live longer and have higher-quality lives, just like the durable goods.

However, describing what a no-growth economy will look like is not the same as discussing what changes need to be made from the current state, to reach the future scenario. In the development literature, the position that population growth ultimately explains poverty is considered Malthusian. This is because such reasoning echoes with what Thomas Robert Malthus argued two centuries ago regarding the relationship between population growth and poverty. After presenting a dismal picture of how a moderate welfare increase may lead to higher fertility rate, which led to the decline of average income per capita and hence, poverty, he concludes that starvation is “the most natural and obvious check” on a growing population.11

The reason that population control has always been controversial in the development literature is that, at the current uneven development status of capitalism, high fertility rates usually occur in poorer countries. Therefore, promoting population control, even at the world level, is likely to become a policy targeting these poor countries. Generally, high fertility is associated with low life expectancy, higher infant mortality, low level of education of women, and lack of social welfare for elderly, all of which often occur in the poor economies.12,13 A liberal approach aiming to reduce fertility rate is to invest in human capital so as indirectly to induce the choice of having fewer children, particularly on the part of women. The opposite is to command women directly to conform to a particular fertility rate, an approach that has been criticized by many feminists as authoritarian.

Even though Daly and most of the later degrowth scholars have not explicitly targeted poorer economies, the application of the Malthusian view in the ecological context has inevitably added to racist and xenophobic discourses, prevalent mostly in the Western mainstream media. Such a discourse constantly incites fear with regard to the development of populous emerging economies. In the case of the stagnating underdeveloped economies, it emphasizes the strain that is likely to be imposed on the West if people from these economies become climate refugees.14 This is a politically dangerous position to which the progressive faction of degrowth scholars should be alert, as it could potentially lead to fascist implications—especially given the rise of extreme-right politics today.

In sum, degrowth is innately a product of the Global North and, to some extent, it resembles the Global New Deal in its Northern origin and the lack of perspective from the Global South.15 It follows that the defense by progressive degrowth proponents that its implementations will simply skip the South is insufficient, since the global division of labor between the North and South means that any policy implemented in the North will have repercussions in the South. Hence, to consolidate degrowth narratives, a framework that is applicable to both the North and the South must be in place. This is why the Marxist framework, with clear elaborations on the working of the economic mode of production (that is, the economic system), could play a key role of integrating a Global South perspective into degrowth narratives.

Progressive Implications of Degrowth Narratives

Degrowth proponents vary in their visions of a degrowth or a no-growth economy, yet they all share a common critique to the growth paradigm that mainstream environmental economics—a subdiscipline in economics that has strong policy influences—takes for granted.

One of the earlier proposals from environmental economics is the Environmental Kuznets Curve, which is a hypothesis that pollution and economic development takes an inverted U-shaped relationship. In other words, pollution will naturally go up when economic development is taking off, but will eventually peak and come down as the economy further develops.16 The hypothesis is named after the renowned economist Simon Kuznets who had portrayed a similar pattern between economic growth and income inequality.17 What is rarely discussed is that Kuznets himself was very conscious of the data limitation problem when presenting his empirical findings. He had a lengthy discussion on how the observation that inequality will peak and decline after economic growth continues, based on the historical data of a few early industrializers, suggesting that this should not be taken mechanically and may not apply to a more contemporary context. However, neoclassical economists ignored his warnings and went ahead to use his work to justify unlimited growth, promoting the belief that as long as the economy keeps growing, any problems will be resolved automatically. Sometimes the solutions are new technologies, such as those used to address pollution, but in most cases, one just needs to believe fully in the omnipotence of the market, according to the neoclassical doctrine.

Another major proposal from environmental economics to address the planetary crisis is a set of market-based solutions, such as the cap-and-trade mechanism. The reasoning starts with treating environmental destruction as an externality of economic activities. As the logic goes, the externality occurs because firms are making decisions based on cost-benefit analysis while the environmental costs (for instance, pollution or carbon emissions) are not correctly priced. Therefore, the solution would be to find the correct price for the emission of carbon or other types of pollutants.

The focus on finding the correct carbon price in environmental economics originated from, and is therefore compatible with, the neoclassical economic school of thought that can be traced back to earlier works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and became the dominant economic thought since the 1980s.18 To early neoclassical theorists, the economy is about market exchanges and the market should be the only focus of analysis. The labor process (that is, how labor is treated and exploited) is dismissed as irrelevant, which is a direct confrontation with the labor theory of value in the classical political economy tradition. In neoclassical theory, individuals coming to the market for exchanges are considered to be equally powerful, rational calculators who only exchange when the price matches their preference. According to this reasoning, the results of such market exchanges are always efficient. Furthermore, capitalism, as a system heavily based on market exchanges, is an efficient system. By ignoring the social power dynamics of people engaging in the exchange process and dismissing the fact that everyone enters the exchange process with a completely different set of endowments (for example, some can only sell their labor power, while others are blessed with capital), the neoclassical theory is extremely ideological and serves as an apologetic discourse for capitalism.19 Therefore, in response, a radical critique of all the market-based solutions in the climate change debate should be explicit about the fundamental theoretical underpinning of these solutions (that is, neoclassical economics) and the ideology it is defending (that is, capitalism).

As a result of a solid theoretical core based on neoclassical economics, which is innately apologetic for capitalist ideology, there is no space for degrowth in the environmental economics paradigm. In comparison, ecological economics takes a much more pragmatic and progressive stance. For ecological economists, degrowth means “an equitable downscaling of throughput, with a concomitant securing of wellbeing.”20 In this strand of degrowth narratives, the critique does not originate from a critique of capitalism per se but rather a pragmatic observation that a realistic climate mitigation scenario does not involve growth measured by GDP. Some stylized facts that ecological economics uses to derive their degrowth conclusions include the following: First, they acknowledge that global GDP growth of 1 percent is always accompanied with 0.6–0.8 percent growth in carbon emissions and 0.8 percent growth in resource use. Second, they point out that the successful decoupling recorded in some developed OECD economies are largely the result of carbon leakage (that is, outsourcing carbon-intensive production to other countries, but importing the goods back for consumption) and in fact, if imports are factored into the calculation, OECD economies have not achieved decoupling. Third, even to use renewables as a substitute for fossil fuel energy, the low energy returns on energy investment of renewable energies will restrain economic growth, still leading the economy to a no-growth state.21

All of this reasoning is strong and well-evidenced. However, without a thorough critique of the capitalist mode of production and its internal drive leading to environmental destruction, as well as a clear vision of an alternative economy that operates with principles that negate the features of capitalism, the ecological economics version of degrowth retreats to a defensive position. These theorists criticize growth, occasionally using capitalism interchangeably with growth, yet ultimately the discussion avoids a detailed discussion of what mechanisms of capitalism are responsible for creating and intensifying the planetary crisis. In their reasoning, capitalism and growth imply increasing material abundance, contradicting what climate mitigation requires: lowering throughput and resource use. Although logically valid, such analysis is also solely focused on the material aspect of capitalism, or, in Marxist terms, it focuses only on the productive forces of capitalism without mentioning of the social relations of production. Therefore, there is no mention of the capitalist competition that compels capital to seek places with loose environmental regulations, so it can expropriate natural resources and destroy the local ecology at negligible costs. There is no discussion of uneven development of capitalism that divides nation-states into center, semi-periphery, and periphery camps that allows global capital to arbitrage on labor and carbon costs. There is no historical understanding of ecological imperialism and no engagement with the contemporary form of ecological imperialism that intensifies the climate change crisis.

As a result of attributing ecological destruction simply to the high level of throughput associated with capitalism, their proposals for alternatives share the same narrow focus with the key argument being that high level of human well-being does not rely on material abundance. This is, of course, another empirically sound point. As presented in a report by Giorgos Kallis and others, studies have shown that living standards measured by indices such as the Genuine Progress Indicator and Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare will stagnate going beyond certain level of GDP. This is to say, a permanent pursuit for growth, especially in the already wealthy nations, does not lead to further welfare improvement.22

However, very little has been said about what the social relations of production underlying the alternative system will look at and how it will allow that lower material abundance to be universally applicable and acceptable. If capitalism is still the dominant logic, a lower level of material abundance means not only a lower consumption level (which could reduce carbon consumption) but also a lower production level, which will have implications on investment incentives and may lead to unemployment and recession.

To this problem, degrowth proponents retreat to a defensive, yet insufficient, response. In their own words, “this is not the same as saying that the Degrowth goal is to reduce GDP; slowing down the economy is not an end but a likely outcome in a transition toward equitable wellbeing and environmental sustainability.”23 This is a crucial stance and a reasonable response, but more details need to be provided to address the link between no-growth and recession under capitalism. Degrowth proponents need to be more explicit about the what the alternative economic system is that will make their vision (that is, lower material throughput associated with enhanced human well-being) possible.

Economic System Needs to Be in the Degrowth Narrative

Although degrowth proponents from the ecological economics subdiscipline progressively challenge the growth and market obsession prevalent in the mainstream environmental economics, their proposals have little analytical engagement with the capitalist contradictions. The insufficient response to the possible recession (low investment and high unemployment) as a result of a lower level of production is one of the examples.

Degrowth proponents argue that unemployment does not necessarily have to go up with a low production level because those who were previously employed can still be on the job—they just need to work fewer hours than before and instead will have more free time to enjoy “nonmaterial relational goods.”24 For those familiar with the Marxist literature, this vision of the future society sounds close enough to what Karl Marx depicted as a “society [that] regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”25

In this Marxist reasoning, rising productivity and the resulting reduction of the work hours does not jeopardize workers’ ability to reproduce their labor power under the socialist mode of production. The same process cannot be taken for granted under capitalism. In fact, under capitalism, reducing work hours leads to insufficient wage-income since there is no guarantee the lost work hours will be compensated to ensure reproduction of the labor power. In the Global South, reduction of work hours is a strategy used by capitalists to cut costs, reducing the hours for which they actually need to pay workers, and compelling workers to “voluntarily” work overtime simply because workers need the extra income to make ends meet.26 The missing link here is clearly the economic system, since the implications of reduced work hours on workers will be diametrically opposite under capitalism versus under socialism.

Under capitalism, even an increase in productivity does not necessarily lead to the same in wages, as shown by the real wage stagnation in the decades of neoliberalism, when the benefits of increasing productivity could be largely or completely reaped by capitalists in the form of profits. Moreover, the degrowth literature admits that labor productivity may decline as a result of declining energy returns on investment of the renewable energy. Hence, it is questionable whether a capitalist economy in a low productivity scenario is capable of maintaining sufficient compensation for reproducing labor power and fulfilling after-work recreational activities with reduced work hours. This point should be more directly addressed by degrowth proponents.

Placing the economic system at the center of the degrowth narrative could also complement the missing Global South perspective, and could work to bridge the gaps between the degrowth movement in the North and the postdevelopment movement in the South. As Escobar pointed out, traditions of thought that are crucial to the postdevelopment narrative, such as postcolonial and decolonial theories and critiques of modernity and development, are largely missing from the degrowth narrative.27 Without a sufficient analysis of how colonialism and neocolonialism have impacted the Global South in the name of civilization, modernity, and development, the degrowth framework reveals the Eurocentric weakness that the Global Green New Deal also manifests. It is not enough to say Global South only needs to be supplied with technological and financial support in order for them to be incorporated into the Global Green New Deal project, just as it is not enough to claim that the degrowth project will excuse the Global South because they do not consume extra energy and resources.28 There needs to be a Southern-centered approach to a world-level degrowth project, and the South cannot once again play the role of a passive recipient of any consequences resulting from a North-initiated movement. Escobar suggests several important considerations to consolidate the parallel movements: “First, it is important to resist falling into the trap, from northern perspectives, of thinking that while the North needs to degrow, the South needs ‘development’; conversely, from southern perspectives, it is important to avoid the idea that Degrowth is ‘okay for the North’ but that the South needs rapid growth, whether to catch up with rich countries, satisfy the needs of the poor, or reduce inequalities; while acknowledging the need for real improvements in people’s livelihoods, public services, and so forth, it is imperative for groups in the South to avoid endorsing growth as the basis for these improvements.”29

What is at stake here is explicitly to name the system that both the North and the South suffer from and needs to be replaced with an alternative socialist system. In contrast to the broad yet vague term degrowth that can be used across the political spectrum, planned degrowth is a necessarily specific term consistent with radical politics. The term planned avoids the vagueness about what the alternative looks like. “Planned” is reminiscent of “planned economy,” a negation of the anarchy of production resulting from relying solely on the market as a coordination mechanism. It also avoids the confusion as to what kind of “growth” needs to be curtailed. It is not just any material growth, but the kind of growth paradigm serving the purpose for endless accumulation of capital that should be challenged. Such a focused critique to capitalist accumulation explains why planned degrowth and deaccumulation are the preferred terms used by the more radical faction of degrowth scholars and activists.

Some radical degrowth proponents are sympathetic to the socialist alternatives, but tend to refrain from mentioning the word “planning” since it is associated with the stigmatized, top-down central planning system or a “command economy” as it is often called, the weaknesses of which were weaponized as one of the crucial ideological critiques of socialism. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was also highlighted as the example of the failure of actually existed socialist countries to tackle environmental issues.

The response to such stigmatization is to both re-examine the past and to look to the future. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, debate on whether socialism can do away with planning (the market socialism debate) has shown that market socialism (in its various forms) is unstable and will lead—without another radical shift—to capitalist social relations of production intruding and dominating the economy in a matter of time.30 With regard to the rigidities and limits of economic planning, alternative models such as participatory planning has been proposed and debated, as well as feasibilities of planning with the current technology.31 The radical degrowth proponents should take advantage of these theoretical works so as not to fall into the problematic view that planning is an outdated concept and is no longer an indispensable feature for future socialism.

More importantly, radical degrowth proponents should highlight that it is the principles of organizing socialist economy that matter here. Planning should be seen as a negation of the anarchy of production that is innate with capitalism dominated by the market as the coordination mechanism. Under capitalism, decisions on what is to be produced are profit-driven, and how the goods and services are produced are also subject to the logic of capital. It should be pointed out that competition as the core of capitalism compels capitalists to drive down the production costs in whatever form they are capable of, so one should expect to see capitalists move to places with loose labor regulation and environmental laws in order to take advantage of the low production costs. In other words, as economist Anwar Shaikh points out, environmental destruction should be seen as the “internality” of capitalism, not its “externality,” as neoclassical economics often claims.32 In contrast, under a planned system, what is to be produced is planned based on essential needs of the society, and how things are going to be produced must take into consideration the remaining amount of the carbon budget. A look into the future requires an understanding that the principles of socialist production are more feasible than capitalism with respect to organizing economic production that is ecologically conscious. A different priority is possible under a socialist planned economy, even though (and almost certainly) its concrete forms may be dramatically different from the twentieth-century socialist economies.


  1. Lebo Diseko, “COP 27: The Namibia-Botswana Oil Project Being Called a Sin,” BBC News, November 10, 2022.
  2. Robert Pollin, “De-growth vs a Green New Deal,” New Left Review 112 (2018): 5–25.
  3. Jason Hickel, “What Does Degrowth Mean?: A Few Points of Clarification,” Globalizations 18, no. 7 (2021): 1105–11.
  4. Giorgos Kallis et al., “Research on Degrowth,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 43 (2018): 291–316.
  5. Arturo Escobar, “Degrowth, Postdevelopment, and Transitions,” Sustainability Science 10 (2015): 451–62.
  6. Escobar, “Degrowth, Postdevelopment, and Transitions.”
  7. Escobar, “Degrowth, Postdevelopment, and Transitions.”
  8. Herman E. Daly, “The Economics of the Steady State,” American Economic Review 64, no. 2 (1974): 15–21.
  9. Herman E. Daly, The Steady-State Economy (London: Sustainable Development Commission, 2008).
  10. Daly, The Steady-State Economy.
  11. Thomas Robert Malthus, “An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798),” The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1986), 1–139.
  12. Amartya Sen, “Population Policy: Authoritarianism versus Cooperation,” Journal of Population Economics 10 (1997): 3–22.
  13. Mukesh Eswaran, “Fertility in Developing Countries,” Understanding Poverty, eds. Abhijit Vinayark Banerjee, Roland Bénabou, and Dilip Mookerjee, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 143–60.
  14. Ying Chen, “How Has Ecological Imperialism Persisted?,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 81, no. 3 (2022): 473–501.
  15. Ying Chen and An Li, “Global Green New Deal: A Global South Perspective,” Economic and Labour Relations Review 32, no. 2 (2021): 170–89.
  16. Gene M. Grossman and Alan B. Krueger, “Economic Growth and the Environment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 110, no. 2 (1995): 353–77; Susmita Dasgupta, Benoit Laplante, Hua Wang, and David Wheeler, “Confronting the Environmental Kuznets Curve,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 16, no. 1 (2002): 147–68.
  17. Simon Kuznets, “Economic Growth and Income Inequality,” American Economic Review 45, no. 1 (1955): 1–28.
  18. Emery K. Hunt and Mark Lautzenheiser, History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  19. Hunt and Lautzenheiser, History of Economic Thought.
  20. Kallis et al., “Research on Degrowth.”
  21. Kallis et al., “Research on Degrowth.”
  22. Kallis et al., “Research on Degrowth.”
  23. Kallis et al., “Research on Degrowth.”
  24. Kallis et al., “Research on Degrowth.”
  25. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology in Collected Works, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 47.
  26. Zhongjin Li and Hao Qi, “Labor Process and the Social Structure of Accumulation in China,” Review of Radical Political Economics 46, no. 4 (2014): 481–88.
  27. Escobar, “Degrowth, Postdevelopment, and Transitions.”
  28. Chen and Li, “Global Green New Deal”; Hickel, “What Does Degrowth Mean?”
  29. Escobar, “Degrowth, Postdevelopment, and Transitions.”
  30. Ernest Mandel, “The Myth of Market Socialism,” New Left Review 169 (1988): 108–20; Diane Flaherty, “Self-Management and the Future of Socialism: Lessons from Yugoslavia,” Science & Society 56, no. 1 (1992): 92–108; David M. Kotz, “What Economic Structure for Socialism?,” paper presented at the Fourth International Conference, Havana, Cuba, May 2008, 5–8.
  31. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, “Participatory Planning,” Science & Society 56, no. 1 (1992): 39–59; Güney Işikara, and Özgür Narin, “The Potentials and Limits of Computing Technologies for Socialist Planning,” Science & Society 86, no. 2 (2022): 269–90.
  32. Anwar Shaikh, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
2023, Volume 75, Number 03 (July-August 2023)
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