Activating degrowth: lessons from Barcelona

By Sally Hett

“If you are not going to degrow your business or industry, nature will come and degrow it for you either way. The question is when. It will happen.”

Should a university in Aotearoa start a degrowth Masters? How are we activating influential people who ‘get’ degrowth? One of our members, Sally Hett, spoke with Maiko Mathiesen, Viktor Humpert and Margot Tjolle from Research and Degrowth, a dedicated degrowth research and training association in Barcelona about these topics and more. What follows are nuggets from their conversation (Q&A style) that might support work here in Aotearoa.

When did ‘Degrowth’ start being used in Barcelona?

Degrowth arrived through the second international degrowth conference in Barcelona in 2010 and was partly campaigned for during the anti-austerity protest (movimiento 15-M), yet still remained niche. The only way degrowth as a term has reached people in public discourse is in relation to tourism, the idea of ‘degrowing’ tourism in Barcelona. Tourism is seen as a big problem here; social issues, rent prices, noise, crowds, pushing out local shops, there was talk of expanding the airport, the port. The ‘degrow tourism’ campaign pushed the previous Barcelona government to regulate tourism as much as possible. Other activist campaigns, where the goals or activities align to degrowth, still don’t use the term (much like here in Aotearoa).


People, generally, don’t like the term. Don’t want the word in grant applications, conference headings, project briefs. Their view was that it’s sometimes beneficial to use the language of ‘post growth’ or ‘beyond growth’ to be more palatable to more people. ‘Beyond growth’ is something the government is more likely to listen to in the current climate. However, be mindful that the true message is still evident. Degrowth is a radical message.


Who might get behind degrowth?

Look for alignment and allies. Convince those most closely aligned, for example green growth advocates. Ask them why is it that they want to grow? Then you’ll learn the root of their narrative and can have a more productive discussion.


What about businesses?

Our advice when talking to business leaders is that ‘if you are not going to degrow your business or industry, nature will come and degrow it for you either way. The question is when. It will happen. We need to react and change now.’ This advice is sometimes met with resistance around staying competitive when they don’t know if other businesses will operate this way too. In the current system, downscaling a business - losing market share - can mean bankruptcy. ‘That’s where policy making comes in to make a level playing field for businesses as they don’t trust each other.’

What about everyday people?

Our strategy for spreading the word has been education. Rather, the ‘consistent production of new professionals and teachers who will spread this information’. We started with a summer school programme that has been spun into Masters programmes. An online (90 person) and an in-person (35 person) course, now in its sixth year.


To spread the knowledge even wider, the programme is supportive of creating additional courses in other countries. For example, Maiko after having done the course, adapted the content to fit the Estonia context, where he helped start a Masters subject, a degrowth organisation, which hopefully ignites a movement. Could we do the same in Aotearoa? Are we ready?

How did you get the university on board?

We were part of the existing network of people who would be interested in teaching. Many of whom were at UAB’s Institute of Environmental Science and Technology. Some of them were already teaching similar content, for example, people teaching sustainability. UAB agreed in collaboration with the association to start the masters. In Estonia, we approached different universities with the objective to create an academic programme that appeals to the new generations and called it ‘slow improvement’. The Estonian programme benefited from the bulk of the resources having already been developed although much was designed on-the-go to best align with students’ needs.


What’s a project you’re working on that’s exciting you?

We’ve started the Barcelona Action Circles. These Action Circles are 10 month facilitated programmes that bring together influential people in a given industry or movement. Together, they strategise about what steps to take to transform their industry to a beyond growth future as well as considering how their industry can influence wider society change. It’s important that the people in the circle are already on board with the concepts of degrowth, the programme is not about convincing them, rather focusing on what’s next. The first three circles are with feminists leaders, political leaders, and global financial leaders. If the programme is successful, journalists or classical economists might be next.


You can learn more about the work of Research and Degrowth here - 


Degrowth Aotearoa NZ (DANZ) continue to actively promoting community preparedness and efforts towards true resiliency in the face of multiple existencial threats. A strong focus for 2024 continues to be education, networking, and collaboration through organising events and workshopping. Please email if you would like to be more actively involved.


1. Universities are allowed to collaborate with private entities to design curriculum for masters programmes.

2. This project's approach of targeting the most influential people is what they call a ‘top town’ project, compared to a ‘town top’ project for more grassroots - bottom up - projects.