ON ECOLOGICAL UTOPIAS
Is There a Way out of the Growth Economy?
By Serge Latouche
[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique, November 2005 is translated from the
Many sides share the goal of an autonomous frugal society even if believers describe it with different terms: growth withdrawal, anti-productivism, revaluation of development and sustainable development. For example, the productivism criticism of the greens is identical with what \u201cgrowth refusers\u2019 understand as growth withdrawal.
This is also true for the position of Attac. In one of its brochures, Attac pleads for a
gradual, reasonable de-acceleration of material growth under socially compatible
conditions. This is understood as a first stage of a growth withdrawal in all economic
areas burdening the environment. (2)
The agreement with values in the necessary \u201creassessment\u201d (3) extends far beyond the
circle of believers in a growth withdrawal. Similar proposals are found among party-
liners of sustainable or alternative development. (4) Reducing the \u201cecological footprint\u201d,
the human encroachment in the environment, is regarded as unavoidable.
These supporters would also agree with John Stuart Mill\u2019s judgment in the middle of the 19th century: \u201cAll human activities that do not involve any unreasonable consumption of irreplaceable materials or irreversibly damage the environment could develop without restrictions. Those activities regarded by many as the most desirable and most satisfying \u2013 education, art, religion, basic research, sports and human relations \u2013 could blossom.\u201d (5)
Who would dare plead against upkeep of the planet, against protection of the
environment and against preservation of the animal- and plant worlds? Who in all
seriousness could approve climate change and destruction of the ozone layer? No
politicians could approve this. Supporters of a radical change of course preserving our
species from ecological and social crises are found even among business leaders, top
managers and decision-makers in the economy. We must try to determine who are the
opponents of a policy of growth withdrawal, what are the obstacles to this program and
finally what form of government could produce an eco-compatible society.
Giving a face to the antagonists is a very problematic undertaking because economic
forces like transnational businesses do not exercise their power directly. According to
Susan Strange, political authorities in the scope of a market economy no longer control
individual persons in many areas.\u201d (6) Thus on one side \u201cBig Brother\u201d remains
anonymous. On the other side, people submit to \u201cthe economy\u201d not only from their own
free will since modern advertising works with far more sophisticated methods than the
Given this fact, how can the mega-machine be attacked \u201cpolitically\u201d? The traditional
answer in the leftist-radical tradition is that \u201cCapitalism is responsible for all the
blockades and all powerlessness.\u201d Thus is growth withdrawal possible without abolishing
capitalism? (7) Every attempted answer must watch out for dogmatism so we do not
misjudge the real obstacles.
The Wuppertal Institute plays through a whole series of win-win situations for the
relation of nature and capital, for example the negawatt scenario that reduces energy
consumption one-quarter. With earmarked taxes, norms, reimbursements, incentives and
subsidies, desired behavior patters could be promoted and waste avoided in many areas.
As an example, Germany has good experiences with a state building promotion that
calculates its grants by the energy efficiency of the building, not by the construction
costs. For some consumer goods \u2013 photocopiers, refrigerators and cars \u2013 acquisition
through purchase could be replaced by rental contracts and constant new production
through recycling. But can the \u201cboomerang effect\u201d be avoided, that is can the increased
material end-consumption be stopped? This is completely uncertain.
An eco-compatible capitalism is theoretically conceivable but practically unrealistic.
Strict regulatory measures would be necessary to slightly reduce the ecological footprint.
The market economy dominated by transnational corporations would in no case move
toward eco-capitalism. The anonymous-functionalist dividend machines would not get rid
of their predatory conduct without pressure. Even entrepreneurs who support the goal of
social self-regulation lack power to force this perspective. The large majority only
focuses on the short-term maximization of the market value. An authority capable of
social self-regulation \u2013 whether state, nation, union, non-governmental organization or
the United Nations \u2013 would have to be very powerful to redefine the social rules of the
game, that is \u201creconstitute\u201d the society.
Certain state limitations of economic power as were effective in times of Keynesian-
Fordist and social-democratic regulation would be conceivable and desirable. However
the concept of class struggle does not seem appropriate because capital has not only won
this class struggle but practically dominates all economic activity. We witness the last
days of the western working class and accept this fact powerlessly and indifferently.
The \u201ctotal commercialization\u201d of the world has triumphed. Generalized capitalism cannot
do anything other than ruin the earth and society since the basic invisible principles of the
market society are boundlessness and unbridled rule. Thus a society of growth
withdrawal is inconceivable without abolition of capitalism. \u201cCapitalism\u201d describes an
historical development structured in a very complex way. An elimination of capitalists,
the prohibition of private ownership of the means of production and abolition of paid
work or money would plunge society into chaos and conjure a reign of terror without
A way out of the trap of development, economy and growth does not necessitate
renouncing on all social institutions that were monopolized by the economy (money,
markets and paid work). Rather binding these institutions in another logic is vital.
A dynamic of growth withdrawal could be initiated through a few simple and seemingly
harmless measures. (8) A reformist transition program need only draw the conclusion
from this diagnosis suggested by common sense. For example, we must reduce the
ecological footprint and refer material production back to the level of the 1960s. We must
include the transportation costs in prices, shorten the steams of goods, revive rural
agriculture, further the \u201cproduction\u201d of communication goods, reduce by a quarter the
wasteful consumption of energy and strongly lessen advertising spending. Finally, we
need a moratorium on technological innovations, a serious inventory of attained progress
and reconsideration of scientific and technical research.
The correct inclusion of \u201cexternal costs\u201d caused by individuals and paid by society is in
the center of this program. The goal of growth withdrawal can already be reached
approximately, orthodox economics agrees. All ecological and social disturbances must
be blamed on the responsible businesses according to the causation principle.
\u201cInternalizing\u201d the costs for transportation, education, security and unemployment would
change very drastically the functioning of our societies.
A \u201creform program\u201d formulated by the liberal economist Arthur Cecil Pigou at the
beginning of the 20th century could trigger a revolution. This would largely take the wind
from the sails of businesses that follow the capitalist logic.
Today no insurance company will take any risks from nuclear e3nergy, climate change
and genetically modified organisms. If industry were obligated to cover the risks caused
by its activities in health, social and aesthetic regards, industry might not produce
profitably any more. The system would be blocked immediately. Isn\u2019t this any other
evidence that there must be away out, that we need a practical strategy of transition to an
Thus the political program of growth withdrawal is a paradoxical undertaking because
realistic and sensible proposals have hardly any chance of being accepted, let alone
realized, without a total subversion of society, without the realization of the utopia of an
alternative society. However building an alternative society requires infinitely complex
and detailed measures that Marx constantly rejected because he dismissed recipes for the
future. The question what should come out of the mega-businesses is a good example.
How large should they be, how great should their sales be and how large their personnel?
How should technical macro-systems function in small production units? Should certain
economic activities and production processes be prohibited altogether? (9)
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?