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De-Growth or Other Growth? Francine Mestrum, PhD Www.globalsocialjustice.com

De-Growth or Other Growth? Francine Mestrum, PhD Www.globalsocialjustice.com

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Published by mestrum
The idea of de-growth is far from new. The emergent ecological crisis has given the concept a new impetus and its content has been somewhat updated. However, the idea of stopping growth altogether remains very controversial and it even seems that some advocates of ‘de-growth’ do not want to stop it.
The idea of de-growth is far from new. The emergent ecological crisis has given the concept a new impetus and its content has been somewhat updated. However, the idea of stopping growth altogether remains very controversial and it even seems that some advocates of ‘de-growth’ do not want to stop it.

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Published by: mestrum on Nov 29, 2009
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De-growth or other growth?Francine Mestrum, PhDwww.globalsocialjustice.com
 The idea of de-growth is far from new. The emergent ecological crisis has giventhe concept a new impetus and its content has been somewhat updated.However, the idea of stopping growth altogether remains very controversial andit even seems that some advocates of ‘de-growth’ do not want to stop it. In thisarticle, I will give the major arguments against the concept and propose analternative approach. We should limit our ecological footprint, which is differentfrom ‘de-growing’. For some, this is a semantic debate, for others, afundamentally different view on our future.
Science and economy 
 The idea of de-growth has first been promoted by the Romanian economistGeorgescu-Roegen. His thesis was that western economic thinking isfundamentally wrong and he applied the principles of thermodynamics to theeconomy. This is how he introduced the idea of ‘entropy’ which indicates thatinfinite growth is impossible and that we should take into account ourconsumption of natural capital when developing economic theories. Naturalresources are being exploited without their cost ever being measured whereas areturn to an original situation is totally excluded. A comparison with financialcapital is relevant here: using one’s capital to live from is perfectly possible butone knows this capital is finite and bankruptcy is the only possible final exit.Bankruptcy of the planet however will be final and irrevocable. It means we haveto stop growing and to significantly reduce our economic activities.Several authors have developed this concept of de-growth. In France, the mostfamous one certainly is Serge Latouche. He considers de-growth to beincompatible with humanism. Latouche opposes modernity, development andtechnological ‘progress’. In the United States, Herman Daly is a former follower of Georgescu-Roegen. He promotes a steady-state economy and makes adistinction between ‘economic growth’ and ‘uneconomic growth’ that causesmore damage than it produces benefits. Today, the idea of de-growth is mainly promoted by ‘green’ thinkers andactivists, sometimes in a rather radical way, sometimes in a more relative way. The ‘New Green Deal’ that speaks of ‘prosperity without growth’ of the NewEconomics Foundation is a good example of this last version. But it also showsthat the ideas need more clarification and that it is all too easy to create wrongimpressions.1
De-growth remains controversial and the arguments in favor of it have neverconvinced me. Therefore, I want to develop a couple of ideas that lead to a lesspessimistic world view. Even if the advocates of ‘de-growth’ promise more‘happiness’, this seems to me to be a rather easy promise to make and a difficultone to realize.
 Alternative indicators
 The discussion on de-growth often takes place in a confusing context. Severalideas are being put forward that may be correct but that do not necessarily leadto ‘de-growth’. Let me therefore start with two statements. The first one concerns the indicators that are used to measure our prosperity. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has long been criticized, for very goodreasons. GDP measures all our economic activities, independently from theirpositive or negative impact on our wellbeing or on our environment. Adevastating natural catastrophe can produce more activities and thus moregrowth than a village party that contributes to social cohesion. Industrialactivities with high carbon emissions are better to enhance GDP than the work of a craftsman. Environmental services, such as clean air and clean water arecrucial for all life but they are delivered for ‘free’ and thus are not measured inthe GDP, in the same way as the non-paid labor of mainly women is totallyignored. This is the reason why many scholars propose a new set of indicators.For poor countries, the UNDP has measured a ‘human development index’ thatmeasures GDP in combination with literacy and life expectancy. In rich countries,an indicator for sustainable economic welfare (ISEW) is often introduced in orderto measure the sustainability and the loss of natural capital of our activities. Thisindicator tells us when economic growth becomes ‘uneconomic’. These indicatorsare of the utmost importance in order to get a more or less correct idea of thereal ‘progress’ of our societies. But this has nothing to do with the question of theslowing down of our economic activities. If we can produce more economicgrowth and less uneconomic growth, we are on the right track.A second statement concerns the western unsustainable patterns of productionand consumption. It is clear that this pattern cannot possibly be generalized allover the world. If the whole of world society were able to ‘develop’ and weregoing to use as many cars as we in Western Europe, were able to buy as manyair tickets and to eat as much meat, we would need 2,5 planets in order to makeit possible. The allowable ecological footprint in Western Europe has been largelyexceeded and it will necessarily have to be reduced. How we have to do this isanother question but the answer is not necessarily ‘less growth’.Our way of life in the North is clearly unsustainable and we have to measure our‘progress’ in a different way. This being said, de-growth is not necessarily theanswer and I want to explain my arguments.2
 Another way of life
My first reason is totally prohibitive for the advocates of de-growth: technologicalprogress. It does not mean that I unconditionally believe in the qualities andpossibilities of technological progress, but I do think that it can solve certainproblems. The ecological houses are a good example. Cars can drive with asubstantial minor amount of petrol. Maybe there are possibilities for thesequestration or stocking of carbon emissions. Meat can be produced inlaboratories. These are not panaceas, but it would be unreasonable to notexamine the technological possibilities, especially in circumstances wheresolutions become very urgent and where changes in attitudes are particularlyslow to emerge. The ‘rebound-effect’ that leads to higher consumption preciselybecause one knows there are less negative environmental consequences, willalso have to be taken into account.A second argument is also linked to technological progress and concerns therecycling of waste. ‘Cradle-to-cradle’ solutions do not offer total solutions and arenever totally possible, but they do offer a possibility to significantly reduce ourresource consumption. Moreover these activities lead to more economic growth.A third argument is a consequence of the former ones. The most important thingto achieve is economic growth that causes no environmental damage and thatneeds fewer natural resources. Recycling and services are two possiblealternatives. The ‘knowledge economy’ is not necessarily environment-friendlybut some activities – translations and conference interpreting, e.g. – will not bemore damaging that the costs for the transport of their workers or the use of acomputer. I do not understand why growth in these sectors would have to beprohibited.A fourth reason is obviously the ‘under-development’ in the South. TheNorthern/Western pattern of life is unsustainable but it is also unacceptable todeny Africans or Asians the material comfort that we enjoy. Growth is not apanacea to solve poverty, but how to reduce poverty without growth remains tobe seen. To me, it seems obvious that poor countries will have to develop theirproductive capacities in order to satisfy the needs of their people. It means thatthird world countries need growth, growth that should try to limit as far aspossible environmental damage. In order to limit the worldwide ecologicalfootprint, it means we should also talk of a distribution of industrial activities and,consequently start to plan in the way that transnational companies are alreadyplanning their activities. They do it in function of costs; we should do it in functionof a fair distribution of incomes and of environmental damage. This redistributionof activities is also the easiest and most direct way to realize a redistribution of incomes. Moreover, it allows for a significant reduction of international trade andtransport and thus for less environmental damage.My last argument against de-growth is a consequence of all former points. Theadvocates of de-growth only rarely make a distinction between different types of activities and growth. Their approach is too general, as if all growth necessarilyimplies the consumption of finite natural resources. This is not correct and I think3

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