Why Degrowth has out-grown its own name. Guest post by Kate Raworth

December 1, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

My much-missed Exfam colleague Kate Raworth, now writing the book of her brilliant ‘Doughnut Economics’ Kate Raworth mugshot 2015paper and blog, returns to discuss degrowth. Tomorrow, Giorgos Kallis, the world’s leading academic on degrowth, responds.

Here’s what troubles me about degrowth: I just can’t bring myself to use the word.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the degrowth movement is addressing the most profound economic questions of our day. I believe that economies geared to pursue unending GDP growth will undermine the planetary life-support systems on which we fundamentally depend. That is why we need to transform the growth-addicted design of government, business and finance at the heart of our economies. From this standpoint, I share much of the degrowth movement’s analysis, and back its core policy recommendations.

It’s not the intellectual position I have a problem with. It’s the name.

Here are five reasons why.

  1. Getting beyond missiles. My degrowth friends tell me that the word was chosen intentionally and provocatively as a ‘missile word’ to create debate. I get that, and agree that shock and dissonance can be valuable advocacy tools.

But in my experience of talking about possible economic futures with a wide range of people, the term ‘degrowth’ turns out to be a very particular kind of missile: a smoke bomb. Throw it into a conversation and it causes widespread confusion and mistaken assumptions.

Banksy says: choose your missile wisely

Banksy says: choose your missile wisely

If you are trying to persuade someone that their growth-centric worldview is more than a little out of date, then it takes careful argument. But whenever the word ‘degrowth’ pops up, I find the rest of the conversation is spent clearing up misunderstandings about what it does or doesn’t mean. This is not an effective advocacy strategy for change. If we are serious about overturning the dominance of growth-centric economic thought, the word ‘degrowth’ just ain’t up to the task.

  1. Defining degrowth. I have to admit I have never quite managed to pin down what the word means. According to degrowth.org, the term means ‘a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet.’ Sounding good, but that’s not clear enough.

Are we talking about degrowth of the economy’s material volume – the tonnes of stuff consumed – or degrowth of its monetary value, measured as GDP? That difference really matters, but it is too rarely spelled out.

If we are talking about downscaling material throughput, then even people in the ‘green growth’ camp would agree with that goal too, so degrowth needs to get more specific to mark itself out.

If it is downscaling GDP that we are talking about (and here, green growth and degrowth clearly part company), then does degrowth mean a freeze in GDP, a decrease in GDP, being indifferent about what happens to GDP, or in fact declaring that GDP should not be measured at all? I have heard all of these arguments made under the banner of degrowth, but they are very different, with very different strategic consequences. Without greater clarity, I don’t know how to use the word.

  1. Learn from Lakoff: negative frames don’t win. The cognitive scientist George Lakoff is an authority on the nature and power of frames – the worldviews that we activate (usually without realizing it) through the words and metaphors we choose. As he has documented over many decades, we are unlikely to win a debate if we try to do so while still using our opponent’s frames. The title of his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, makes this very point because it immediately makes you think of a you know what.

How does this work in politics? Take debates about taxes, for example. It’s hard to argue against ‘tax relief’ (aka tax cuts for the rich), since the positive frame of ‘relief’ sounds so very desirable: arguing against it just reinforces the frame that tax is a burden. Far wiser is to recast the issue in your own positive terms instead, say, by advocating for ‘tax justice’.

Does degrowth fall into this trap? I had the chance to put this question to George Lakoff himself in a recent webinar. He was criticizing the dominant economic frame of ‘growth’ so I asked him whether ‘degrowth’ was a useful alternative. “No it isn’t”, was his immediate reply, “First of all it’s like ‘Don’t think of an elephant!’ – ‘Don’t think of growth!’  It means we are going to activate the notion of growth. When you negate something you strengthen the concept.”

Just to be clear, I know that the degrowth movement stands for many positive and empowering things. The richly

Lakoff: “When you negate something you strengthen the concept”

Lakoff: “When you negate something you strengthen the concept”

nuanced book Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era edited by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis, is packed full of great entries on Environmental justice, Conviviality, Co-operatives, Simplicity, Autonomy, and Care – every one of them a positive frame. It’s not the contents but the ‘degrowth’ label on the jar that makes me baulk. I’ll adopt the rest of the vocabulary, just not the headline.

  1. It’s time to clear the air. Just for a moment let’s give the word ‘degrowth’ the benefit of the doubt and suppose that the missile has landed and it has worked. The movement is growing and has websites, books and conferences dedicated to furthering its ideas. That’s great. These debates and alternative economic ideas are desperately needed. But there comes a time for the smoke to clear, and for a beacon to guide us all through the haze: something positive to aim for. Not a missile but a lighthouse. And we need to name the lighthouse.

In Latin America they call it buen vivir which literally translates as living well, but means so much more than that too. In Southern Africa they speak of Ubuntu, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Surely the English-speaking world – whose language has more than one million words – can have a crack at finding something equally inspiring. Of course this is not easy, but this is where the work is.

Tim Jackson has suggested prosperity, which literally means ‘things turning out as we hope for’. The new economics foundation – and many others – frame it as wellbeing. Christian Felber suggests Economy for the Common Good. Others (starting with Aristotle) go for human flourishing. I don’t think any of these have completely nailed it yet, but they are certainly heading in the right direction.

  1. There’s too much at stake, and much to discuss. The debates currently being had under the banner of degrowth are among the most important economic debates for the 21st century. But most people don’t realize that because the name puts them off. We urgently need to articulate an alternative, positive vision of an economy in a way that is widely engaging. Here’s the best way I have come up with so far to say it:

We have an economy that needs to grow, whether or not it makes us thrive.

We need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows.

Is that ‘degrowth’? I don’t actually know. But what I do know is that whenever I frame it like this in debates, lots of people nod, and the discussion soon moves on to identifying how we are currently locked into a must-grow economy – through the current design of government, business, finance, and politics – and what it would take to free ourselves from that lock-in so that we can pursue social justice with ecological integrity instead.

We need to reframe this debate in a way that tempts many more people to get involved if we are ever to build the critical mass needed to change the dominant economic narrative.

So those are five reasons why I think degrowth has outgrown its own name.

I’m guessing that some of my degrowth friends will respond to this blog (my own little missile) with irritation, frustration or a sigh. Here we go again – we’ve got to explain the basics once more.

If so, take note. Because when you find yourself continually having to explain the basics and clear up repeated misunderstandings, it means there is something wrong with the way the ideas are being presented.

Believe me, the answer is in the name. It’s time for a new frame.

Kate Raworth is a renegade economist teaching at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. She is currently writing Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, to be published by Random House.

December 1, 2015
Duncan Green