A (friendly) critique of the degrowth movement

Ted Trainer

For decades attempts by pioneers such as Georgescu-Roegen, Paul Ehrlich, Serge Latouche and Herman Daly to draw attention to the possibility that the pursuit of limitless growth and affluence might be problematic fell on deaf ears. In the early 1970s the book 'The Limits to Growth' made quite an impact but did not go into possible alternative social goals or forms. My book Abandon Affluence and Growth (1985) summarised the case and argued that the only solution has to be transition to a Simpler Way. For the following twenty years these few works had almost no impact on mainstream thinking about the commitment to growth. Given this context, the explosion of interest in Degrowth since 2000 has been astounding, now involving a
large literature, international conferences and many active groups spread around the

However, I see the movement as involving a number of confusions and mistaken initiatives. This is understandable given its early stage, and can be regarded as a healthy exploring of possibilities. The literature welcomes the “pluralism”, although I argue below that we should be trying to find unifying directions.



The main themes are:

The term Degrowth is not a good descriptor for the movement that has emerged. The movement is asserting a wild variety of criticisms of and alternatives to the present globalised, industrialised, urbanised, financialised, neo-liberal, sexist, grotesquely unequal, extractivist, imperialist etc. world order. Many of these actually have nothing to do with the reduction of economic growth, or could easily be implemented within an economy that continues to be about growth, such as monetary reform, making trade more equitable, housing justice, patriarchy, curbing advertising, fairer taxes, reducing debt, indigenous rights, and decolonisation.


Thus the term Degrowth has become “ ... a rag-tag of utopian dreams”. A more accurate title might be the “Finally Fed Up With Capitalism” movement. This is highly desirable because it shows that discontent with consumer-capitalist society is finally coming to the boil.


The literature does not recognise the magnitude of the degrowth required to achieve a sustainable and just society. There is a strong case that if we are to live in sustainable ways that all could share then rich world per capita rates of consumption must be reduced by perhaps 90%.


The common response is the “tech-fix” claim that technical advance will enable GDP growth to be “decoupled” from resource and environmental impact. But there is now overwhelming evidence that apart from in some limited areas this is not happening and is not going to happen.


The Degrowth literature does not recognise the stunning enormity of the task ... “The Degrowth Conundrum”. Degrowth of the magnitude argued above means phasing out, writing off, scrapping, most of the present amount of factories, corporations, transport, trade, investment, industry, financing, and profit-making. This in an economy, society and culture that is, firstly, fiercely and blindly committed to constant and limitless increases in production and consumption and “living standards”. Secondly it is an economy structured in such a way that it must have growth or it implodes.


The goal must therefore be transition to some form of Simpler Way. The literature reveals almost no recognition that the focus must be on getting to far simpler lifestyles and systems. The Simpler Way solution is outlined, along with the reasons why it would enable dramatic reductions in resource consumption.


Capitalism cannot possibly move in the degrowth direction. This is not clearly recognised by the movement. Marxists/Socialists get this right, but get the nature of the post-capitalist society wrong. It cannot be centralised, i.e., led by the state. It must be localised and Anarchist.


The issue of strategy is neglected. The magnitude of the predicament rules out most of the popular possibilities, including Marxist/socialist strategies. The task here and now is to change ideas and values, i.e., culture. This is best attempted by “prefiguring” the alternative ways, as the Anarchists advise. Here and now it is a mistake and waste of energy to try to get Degrowth policies implemented by governments, or to try to “take the state”.


This society is incapable of solving its problems. It is in the process of self-destruction. There is no possibility of avoiding a possibly terminal collapse, for a combination of bio-physical and social reasons. This could be the end of us but it will clear the way for transition as people realise that the old system is not going to provide for them and they must go local, self-sufficient, cooperative and frugal. Our task is to increase the numbers who will try to build the alternative as the old system crumbles.


What is to be done? Simply help to raise awareness of this perspective. Nothing can be achieved unless this is done. This does not require heroic sacrifice at the barricades. The capitalist class will resist furiously but their power will diminish as systems fail, and as their legitimacy fades. It could be a peaceful revolution. Its chances are not good, but TINA.