Degrowth: an invitation to explore and navigate

19 mei 2021

Vincent Liegey & Anitra Nelson (2020)

Exploring degrowth: a critical guide

Pluto Press, London
224 p.
ISBN 978-07-453-4202-3
€ 28,95

Degrowth and post-growth receive an increasing attention within geography and planning scholarship and practice. It has proponents across the globe, but also national advocates such as the ontgroei platform in the Netherlands. To date, articles, events, or online activities circle around the meaning of growth-independent thinking for spatial planning. The foreword by Jason Hickel sets the stage with “We know that a better world is not only possible; it is waiting to be born” (p. xviii). Within a maturing debate, Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson aim to provide a critical guide to the field, its history, its translation into practice and political strategy and potential future avenues. The book has been finalised in spring 2020 just after the first global COVID-19 wave and accelerating climate change impacts. The authors do not hide their ambition to foster a dialogue about radical alternatives.

The scene of preface and the first chapter is a world in crisis. Higher temperatures, bushfires, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity find their root causes in the globalised system of capitalism that is close to collapse. Liegey and Nelson position degrowth “as establishing secure and safe lives, fulfilling everyone’s needs in collaborative and collective ways, as celebratory and convivial” (p. 3). They trace the evolution of degrowth from the first use of the word in 1972 by André Gorz to the diverse network and complementary interpretations that are part of the movement today. The book makes clear that degrowth reaches as far as “the process of decolonising our imaginaries even challenges our concepts and daily practices around time, gender, death and democracy” (p. 12).

Chapter 2 shows the value of degrowth beyond a provocative slogan and advocates for a societal transformation based on accepting the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. Furthermore, “the degrowth movement invites governments to give up their addiction to GDP growth” (p. 27). Degrowth necessitates a radical and systemic change also in every one of us. It is not achieved through adopting a few new terms (such as smart growth, sustainable growth or inclusive growth) or searching for ‘sustainability fixes’.

Degrowth is decentralised, multidimensional and an open network in connection to practice, as chapter 3 explains. It embraces an idea of leadership as “a skill held by many, wielded temporarily and widely shared” (p. 56). Liegey and Nelson follow the strong belief in the ability of all people to organise collectively and to develop their own futures positively. We need to enable to do so, e g. by questioning private property and the catastrophes caused by capitalism. Happiness works best not in growthism and consumerism but in co-existence and ‘frugal abundance’.

Chapter 4 adds political strategies. Grassroots and anarchist understandings coexist with proposals that can be nested within existing political and policy discourses. Social and environmental movements gain their power as power to (create, change, make), instead of power over (someone or something). Liegey and Nelson summarise that degrowth is to be influential and “hypothesise, experiment with and co-create the conditions for change that ultimately leads to a critical mass supporting postgrowth” (pp. 93 f.).

The final chapter 5 starts with the aim to condense what ‘the degrowth project’ is without neglecting the multiplicity of ways and the pluriversity of it. The authors point to open questions e.g. in relation to the actual inclusiveness of degrowth activists themselves to then ask for re-politicising our society and the proposal for an unconditional autonomy allowance as “a monetary income and/or in-kind right for all” (p. 133). This goes hand in hand with relocalising decision-making, with co-production and sharing. A basic unconditional income would also be supplemented with an acceptable maximum income to make redistribution happening.

Overall, the book fulfils the promise evoked by its title. It takes the reader along an exploration into the field of degrowth from the perspective of two well-established scholars and their experience especially in Europe and Australia. The writing benefits from the close relation to activist practices and community initiatives. It outlines historical roots and contemporary contradictions as well as the positive value of degrowth for tackling a global crisis on a finite planet. It also includes a short glossary with key terms of the book from autonomy, commons, municipalism, post-development to transhumanism. However, it is also an activist book that takes a clear stance on the degrowth movement, positions it as a solution to manifold problems and locates the author’s own proposal – the ‘unconditional autonomy allowance’ as a core concern emerging from degrowth.

It is fair to say to a reader that the book does not deliver fixed answers. It begins with a rather catastrophic picture on crises that are altogether caused or speeded up by the global capitalist system. On the other side, it pictures a positive view on the potential of change with community, solidarity, and localised networks – once we start with providing minimum standards and setting clear maximums. It may be the weakest point of the book for an outside reader that she or he must engage with a new mindset to understand the inspiring message of the book clearly.

“Exploring Degrowth” does not give clear-cut advice, nor does it provide evidence in terms of place-based ‘best-practice’ examples that planners and politicians often attract. Instead, degrowth is positioned as developing simultaneously by debate and by action. At first sight, this does not fit an idea of systematic planning and making urban or rural futures. At a second look, it may well fit the reality of planners and decision-makers. If so, this is also the starting point to use the book for an individual exploration into degrowth – and to share the discoveries along the pathway.

Author profile
Christian is Universitair Docent Sustainable Transformation and Regional Planning aan de Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (afdeling Planologie)

Author profile
Christian is Universitair Docent Sustainable Transformation and Regional Planning aan de Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (afdeling Planologie)

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19 mei 2021

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