Farewell to Growth

Latouche, Serge (2009), Malden MA & Cambridge: Polity Press.

Of the various criticisms of the excesses of capitalism, there is something particularly refreshing and cogent to be found in the ideas summarised by this short but highly engaging introduction to degrowth. Latouche is one of the key figures of the degrowth movement that has slowly been gaining momentum throughout continental Europe, providing a framework for reconciling ecology and economics by ensuring the limitations of the planet’s ecosystems form an integral part of the logic of the economic models used to manage increasingly scarce resources.

Degrowth is fundamentally based around the eight Rs: re-evaluate, reconceptualise, restructure, redistribute, relocalise, reduce, reuse and recycle. Readers may by now be familiar with certain elements of this group of interdependent concepts that have already begun to percolate our everyday lives. Examples include a critique of ‘travelitis’ and the ‘kilometric consumption’ inherent to modern tourism, the concept of food miles, typified by shipping Scottish langoustines to Thailand for processing before they return to the British Isles for consumption, and the development of intelligent materials that can be reused in different contexts. Yet what is perhaps most engaging from a practical perspective is how the degrowth model links the eight Rs together to provide a pragmatic basis for improving the way we live.

In a nutshell, the wisdom of degrowth is the wisdom of the snail: an animal that grows its shell until the extra weight of a larger structure would result in an additional burden for the animal. At the heart of the concept lies the aim of applying this lesson to the logic that drives our political and economic systems to create more convivial societies that both work less and consume less, in turn allowing us to refocus our efforts on constructive leisure; it is, in Latouche’s own words, a sort of ‘concrete utopia.’

The book is highly critical on a number of levels. Degrowth calls out the West’s anthropocentric and ethnocentric ‘cult of growth’ that has constituted our transcendental and unquestionable ideal for all too long, the limitations of which are now becoming all too clear. Hence, the reader meets the usual observations regarding the problems inherent in globalisation and the damage wrought by predatory, neoliberal capitalism. However on this occasion, and somewhat refreshingly, we see a response more motivated by a desire to transcend than reject modernity, a discourse rooted less in engrained or embittered notions of class struggle and instead firmly grounded in a critique of the unsustainability of the West’s current economic model and an awareness of the ecological limitations that are increasingly coming to mark the boundaries of the activities of the human species (Latouche cites an interesting statistic on the number of planets that would be required should we all aspire to the material standards of living enjoyed by the United States).

Somewhat refreshingly, we see a response more motivated by a desire to transcend than reject modernity

Attention is also paid to discontents with what Latouche describes as the ‘suicidal logic of development’ in the context of its application to third world countries. By way of reference to unsuccessful Western intervention in Africa, which he berates for having resulted in “corruption, incoherence and structural adjustment plans that have turned poverty into misery” we are introduced to the ideas of post-development, which have attempted to deal with the failings of the Western model of development and its successor, sustainable development.

However, if this is a book that is conscious of and attempts to deal with challenges that exist on a global scale, for Latouche, the problem and its solution lie squarely with the West. We have, he acknowledges, an outstanding debt to the developing world, and he goes on to place our ability to react to the difficulties we are now facing in doubt. By and large, this is attributed to the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the concomitant transition from solidarity to individualism, fuelling the formation of “satisfied majorities” (Latouche borrows the term from John Kenneth Galbraith) and leaving us suffering from the sort of paralysis that now afflicts the political classes, their role gradually being reduced to mere politicking and technocratic management.

Finally, there is an acknowledgement of the limitations of Marx’s theories insofar as they are applicable to the world at the outset of the twenty-first century. In this respect, Latouche sustains that to solve the problems we face and build better and more equal societies, we must move beyond a mere critique of capitalism to a critique of the logic of growth itself.

To his credit, Latouche is very much a reformist, and provides a number of good reasons to justify his stance, not least the chaos and terror that would ensue from any kind of violent revolution (he cites Allende’s Chile as a case in point). Moreover, he is all too quick to recognise the counterproductive nature of throwing the market baby out with the capitalist bathwater, acknowledging that the left is all too quick to identify mechanisms such as money, markets, profits and the wage system with the ills of capitalism since they can, if used correctly, be a force for good.

The ideas contained in this book offer great potential to reinvigorate stagnant political debate. In his closing remarks, Latouche credits the French writer, Thierry Paquot, as having identified the paradigm shift at play: a shift from right vs left to the ecological consciousness vs the predators. Just as the anthropocentrism of the Enlightenment and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations captured a zeitgeist and embedded a certain logic in the core of economic and political systems that have perdured to this day, the ecocentrism of the ideas summarised in this book have a similar potential, offering history a plausible and refreshing alternative from the impending sense of catastrophe.