Scotland’s Degrowth Commission

On Thursday we launched Scotland’s Degrowth Commission at the venerable Pearce Institute in Govan.

With a delicious irony and timing that can’t be ignored, that very day saw New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put out a national budget where spending is dictated by what best encourages the “well-being” of citizens, rather than focussing on traditional bottom-line measures like productivity and economic growth.

As George MacLeod used to say “if you think that’s a coincidence, you’re not paying attention”.

The fact that Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission drew heavily on the old New Zealand model, that is now being abandoned was not lost to participants at the event.

As the economist Richard Murphy last year noted:

“New Zealand looked to a market-based model of growth. The result was low government debt and investment, but high personal debt as a consequence. The result is a country denied the infrastructure it needs, poorer government services than are required to meet the needs of all and a potentially fragile banking system if there were to be any financial crisis.”

What is Degrowth?

Degrowth is a challenging idea that goes against the grain of everything we’ve been led to believe; that we could and should produce more, buy more, consume more relentlessly, and that such activity creates wealth. Supporters of the growth model (previously everyone) have suggested somewhat miraculously that this idea is also compatible with “sustainability”.

In light of the IPCC climate realities this seems at best implausible.

In simple terms, growth is incompatible with our survival.

As Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor and Peter Victor write in Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era: “The foundational theses of degrowth are that growth is uneconomic and unjust, that it is ecologically unsustainable and that it will never be enough.”

Wikipedia tells us that the contemporary degrowth movement can trace its roots back to the anti-industrialist trends of the 19th century, developed in Great Britain by John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement (1819–1900), in the United States by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and in Russia by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910).

The concept of “degrowth” proper appeared during the 1970s, proposed by André Gorz (1972) and intellectuals such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Jean Baudrillard, Edward Goldsmith and Ivan Illich, whose ideas reflect those of earlier thinkers, such as the economist E. J. Mishan, the industrial historian Tom Rolt, and the radical socialist Tony Turner. The writings of Mahatma Gandhi and J. C. Kumarappa also contain similar philosophies, particularly regarding his support of voluntary simplicity.

Other advocates are Serge Latouche and Cornelius Castoriadis.

So far so far-out, but now degrowth, once the preserve of anarchists and iconoclasts has entered the mainstream by virtue of the pressing matter of mass-extinction.

As the anthropologist writer Jason Hickel explains:

1. Growing the economy means growing energy demand. This makes the task of transitioning to renewable energy much more difficult. In fact, the IPCC indicates it is not feasible to transition fast enough to stay under 2C while continuing to grow the economy at normal rates.

2. Even if we *could* transition fast enough, if we keep growing the economy we will need to keep growing clean energy too: ever-more panels, turbines, batteries. This will require enormous material extraction, which has ecological and social impact, particularly in the South.

3. The ecological crisis is not just about emissions. It’s also about deforestation, soil depletion, ocean dead zones, and mass extinction. Clean energy alone will not reverse these trends. A clean-powered economy obsessed with growth will keep chewing through our living planet.

Degrowth is a framework for understanding the way forwards in the era of a new climate reality which we are only beginning to understand the consequences of. The protest of Extinction Rebellion is good and vital, but we also need to repair, re-invent and restructure our politics.

What is the Degrowth Commission?

The Degrowth Commission invites you to re-imagine how our economy should work in a survivable zero-carbon future.

It is part of  Enough! which is a new experimental project responding to the climate crisis.

We will be hosting large-scale participatory events to develop these ideas, commissioning research about what this will mean in our lives and in different sectors of our society and looking forward to a world where we buy less, consume less and stop the process of accumulation and extraction that have destablilised our natural world.

Many people will find these ideas difficult and challenging: “Every society clings to a myth by which it lives,” Tim Jackson wrote in 2004, and “ours is the myth of economic growth.”





Comments (21)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. John Bryden says:

    Of course growth of the conventional type involving production of mamufactured commoditites involves the simultaneous production of bad outcomes like climate gases, inequalities, etc. But growth can be achieved in orher ways, for ex. By expanding output and consumption of cultural services that do not produce such bad outcomes. For ex. Music and art. Peoples welfare is improved, but they do not destroy the environment or create greater inequalities. We need to think about ‘benign growth models’ as well as non growth.

    1. Yes John – degrowth doesnt assume “degrowing” everything – but reducing those elements that are destructive and “growing” those elements that are positive/restorative

      1. alasdairB says:

        As long as Scotland is tied to Westminster it is difficult to move away from the current GDP of accounting, but arguably ScotGov with its hands tied by Westminster & the Flawed Brnett formula has
        little room for manoeuvre as we only receive the bare minimum which Westminster grants via The Scotland Office.
        Within this , ScotGov does its best to address the inequalities existing in Scotland and has led the way in childcare, baby baskets, school meals, ameliorated the iniquitous bedroom tax, building more affordable homes, undertaken & competed BordersRail, New Forth crossing, Aberdeen bi-pass, Dualing the A9, introduced a twice yearly bonus for the severely disabled, maintained free University fees & tackled the problem of the least well off in society moving into further education,, encouraged off & on shore wind power whilst thumbing its collective nose at fracking, introduced minimum pricing on alcohol
        What it has not yet addressed is pensioner poverty with the U.K. State Pension the lowest of the EU28. This is a burning injustice
        Strikes me the SNP/Green ScotGov administrations have already made a good fist of “Focussing on thevWellfare of a Nation”

        1. milgram says:

          The examples you give there: a new road bridge (shorn of initially mooted public transport / rail deck) and the dualling (plus electrification) of the A90 (while leaving the parallel train track single and diesel-powered). You could add a road bypass for Aberdeen, a roundabout for Edinburgh (at a bargain £120 million).
          The SNP are wedded to old economic models. They need to shift position.

      2. Alastair McIntosh says:

        This short discussion between John Bryden (who for those who don’t know him, pioneered alternative thinking about the Scottish Highlands around the 1990s when new frameworks for land reform thinking we’re kicking off) and Bella, nails the point about “degrowth”.

        The point, as I understand it and leaning heavily on Illich’s essay “Tools for Conviviality”, is not that you bring on austerity, but that you substitute what is outwardly measurable in money terms with inner values/worth. You cease giving the upper hand to measuring the worth of everything and knowing the value of nothing.

        Illich if I remember rightly compares buying a load of LPs with learning to play the guitar. Our current economic system counts wealth in LPs purchased. (My example is deliberately dated.) The future lies in learning to make music.

        1. John Bryden says:

          Thanks for that good example from Illich, Alastair. It makes the point well. Another is Adam Smith’s Water- Diamond paradox. Water is essential – if we dont drink it at least every three days, we die. Yet it has no- or a very low – price. Diamonds are mainly useless, but have a high market price.
          There are really two points in this discussion. One is about how we measure ‘progress’; the other is about how we spend our money. We can do something about both and make a better world.

  2. Mike Fenwick says:

    GDP gives us numbers, but those numbers fall far short of showing how any wealth generated is distributed, and as part of “degrowth” we need to analyse deeper into what are called “Distributional National Accounts”. How is any wealth distributed, and to whom?

    The question of who currently benefits from increasing growth – who stands still – and who loses – is a part of much of our current debate on economic inequality, but perhaps becomes even more important in a world of “degrowth”? A drop in the numbers which are enumerated in a diminished/re-structured GDP still leaves enduring questions – who benefits – who stands still – and who loses – those are the battle lines over which any debate occurs, just as they do now.

  3. Graeme McCormick says:

    The amount of taxation depends on economic growth. However if Scotland introduced a model of Annual Ground Rent to replace all other forms of taxation then the amount of public funding would have no direct relationship with economic growth. This “ Degrowth” need not undermine public services.

    Globotics will also have a major impact on this. Robots could increase economic growth but government will require to ensure that the benefits of globotics provide a means of income and a fulfilling life despite the resultant reduction in employment.

  4. Mark Bevis says:

    God to see Degrowth on the agenda. if only it could be got onto the MSM agenda, every day, it might get some traction.
    The thing is, I think degrowth is going to happen regardless of what we do. Given the vectors in climate change, pollution, resource depletion, soil degredation, ozone depletion, burgeoning radiation leaks and species extinction, the whole planet is going to have degrowth imposed on it sooner or later. Far better for that degrowth to be managed in a humane way than to let it happen in a neo-liberal way.

    We are going to have to get used to living with less stuff, more importantly with less energy, in an unstable climate. Having a stable society, where all needs are met, might just give us the resilience to retain some kind of civilisation going forward.

    Degrowth, with a capital D, to me, doesn’t mean diminishing art, creativity, skills and doing. It means diminishing dehumanising work, but maximising doing, whatever your doing happens to be. It will probably see the removal of money as a concept.

    As proof this is possible, I noted in a Times atlas a while back, a photo of a piece of art, an ornament, that was 20,000 years old. When you think about that, that was before farming, before organised civilisation, before money – and yet people were doing art before all the modern interdicts of slavery (which is what all economies are) and before the need to make money from art. I’d think then, that an outcome of Degrowth would be a growth in creativity.

    1. Muttiah Yogananthan says:

      Degrowth gives us the possibility to exit an object-centered society and become human at last.
      The growth of nationalism all over the world is a sign of collapse.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    To be fair, concepts of:
    “living beyond one’s means” (prodigal son)
    “fouling one’s nest” (many obvious examples)
    “failing to plan ahead” (say, storing resources for winter in temperate zones)
    are not only as old as human civilization, they were almost certainly accepted common sense throughout most of it, when humans thought and planned in cycles inspired by observations of nature. Calendars were often round (now they are square?).

    I think the article is right to describe a falling-off from this orthodoxy of infinite growth, which will seem to future generations like a belief in a magical fairyland of plenty, a mass psychosis, and of course deliberate mind-manipulation through trial and error as much as dark psychological conditioning.

  6. Clive Scott says:

    Good luck persuading people to vote for an independent Scotland on a prospectus of reducing material wealth for all. It ain’t going to happen. Seems to me the parlous state of High Streets up and down the country has the look and feel of Degrowth without the help of a Commission.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Clive Scott, an interesting framing, yet:
      When we consider the “more” of indefinite growth, we are not generally talking about “material wealth” but excess, luxury, over-indulgence, waste: all things that have provoked successful revolutions in the past, often by a ‘puritan’ backlash. Indeed, early political scientist Ibn Khaldun observed a cycle of corrupt, luxuriant rulers being periodically swept aside by purer desert nomads, only for the new rulers to become successively corrupt over the next generations. We don’t have to see this as a straightforward prophecy of our times to understand the tendency of the underlying pattern to recur in politics.

      This “material wealth” is currently extremely unequally distributed. It is a redistribution that is proposed, not a fall in everyone’s “material wealth” that negatively affects the destitute, who could easily benefit up to a good living standard and still achieve degrowth.

      It is, anyway, not “material wealth” needful for a good life that would be targeted, but unneedful riches; exploitative, unjust, unsustainable and harmful practices; the false idols our society currently worships (including “keeping up with the Joneses”). As Doctor Seuss brilliantly demonstrates in the Sneetches on the Beaches, status symbols does not relate to the material or use value of the symbols, and these can swiftly change due to fashion, technology, exclusivity and so forth.

      If you see a shop-shaped-hole as a problem, there is a tendency to see another shop as the solution. A politics which steps back and looks at our society, environmental and global problems and opportunities from a wider angle is available, as are different solutions. Our electorate are as capable of rebelling against the status quo as all those past examples, and for similar reasons. This is why so much effort (in propaganda, bribery, fear-mongering, misinformation, myth-making and so on) is put into keeping them quiescent or apathetic, why our corporate-friendly governments are in such a dither about non-violent extremism and radicalisation (while conducting nuclear terrorism and participating in ecocide).

      At some point, unless the political system changes, this will go beyond voting. The one political system in the world that seems most resistant to change is the UK’s, so that becomes a pressure point. Some of that pressure may be released by/result in a popular swing towards Scottish Independence, although perhaps fast-moving events will make such predictions difficult.

  7. Muttiah Yogananthan says:

    The degrowth movement is also taking shape in France and I was on the list of candidates of the electoral list ” Decroissance2019″ headed by Therese Delfel for the European elections. At the theoretical level there is a link with writers who think that we are already in the collapse, like Pablo Servigne. The concept of well-being is inadequate. We need to move to that of “Living well” which implies responsibility towards the non-human . We have reduced nature to “ressources”.

    1. Frank Reid says:

      We do need to encourage as many individuals as possible to acknowledge the necessity, adapt accordingly, and prepare the receptive to take and encourage others taking responsibility for protecting the survival of human and the non human species. The human cannot survive without the non humans, but non humans do not require us for them to survive. No fanaticism required , only communicating fact and common sense.
      Any species/country/continent can only survive by changing or stopping destructive and irresponsible activities or lifestyles. Even then there is a fair bit of chance that could be involved in order to survive. However you give yourself a fighting chance by playing russian roulette with less or no bullets in the gun. Many species of human have become extinct over the eons, some simply by bad luck. However those that did survive were adaptible rather than conservative, same old, same old types.
      Our present day blinkered eco- negligence needs to stop, non-growth and other radical changes would be a start, mentalities need to be persuaded and convinced that present norms are very lemming like. Maybe the entire populace needs educated in how our ancestors survived evolution and ice ages etc, whereas neanderthals and other predecessor proto- humans did’nt, while various ape species were fortunate like us and our ancestors.
      No reason why an Independant Scotland cannot be brave enough to encourage open frank discussion, development of possible plans and ultimately to try alternative enlightening lifestyle outlooks like degrowth and similar. Measuring our societal progress or health on growth is ultimately extinction flavoured stupidity.

  8. Malcolm Henry says:

    The intention is right but the language is all wrong.

    Growth, in this context, means GDP growth.
    GDP is a measure of the total value of financial transactions, that’s all.
    Growth in GDP might include growth in things that are bad for us and the planet.
    It might also include growth in things that are good for us and the planet.
    If we’re serious about doing more of what’s good and less of what’s bad we have to be much better at communicating the difference between these.
    “Degrowth” doesn’t differentiate, which is bad enough, but even worse it implies a contraction in productive activity, which people equate with fewer jobs, fewer opportunities to make their lives better.

    We need the very opposite of degrowth. We desperately need a huge increase in the quantity productive activity of the right kind.
    We need a Circular Economy Commission, or a Universal Sustainable Prosperity Commission, not a Degrowth Commission.
    We need to use language that accurately describes the right objective and encourages people to see the positive consequences of pursuing that objective.
    “Degrowth” fails on both counts.

  9. Pegs says:

    This sounds fascinating and i would like to find out more.


  10. Christine Dann says:

    As a long time (40 years) New Zealand environmentalist (in the critical tradition of Gorz, Roszak and Illich from the 1970s and 80s and latterly Bruno Latour, Charles Eisenstein and Arturo Escobar ) may I sound a BIG note of caution about believing the hype around NZ’s ‘wellbeing’ budget. I have just started a systematic analysis of the environment-related spending in it and am struggling to see how some of it could be seen as pro-wellbeing from a Terrestrial (Latour’s term) as opposed to a Modern (also his term) perspective. For example, here is the expenditure item for toxic chemical tallying –
    “Implementation of the Global Harmonised System of Chemical Classifications and a New Hazardous Substances Database, $1.1 million operating    $2.4 million capital.
    This initiative will improve the safe use of chemicals in workplaces and by consumers, through providing funding to align New Zealand’s chemicals classification and labelling system with international practices and create a new hazardous substances database.”

    How is anyone’s wellbeing enhanced by this? If the government really cared about our wellbeing would it not be banning the production and importation of toxic chemicals for consumer use, and imposing incredibly strict standards on their workplace use (and I include in ‘workplace’ not just factories but also hotels, hospitals, schools, shopping malls, etc. where toxic cleaning products, flame retardants, volatile plastics and so on are currently omnipresent). I can care for my wellbing at home very well by keeping the house and garden toxin-free – but shouldn’t the government be doing a LOT more to protect me and every other living being – wherever we are?

  11. Ann Millar-Boyland says:

    A really interesting set of references to initiate debate. I assume this was the purpose of the article, and not to offer a solution. I’d very much like to get further involved. The biggest challenge I see is psychological and cultural shift. It’s been over 200 years since the start of industrialisation and the economic models built around it. The roots of belief system in the Gods of Capitalism at the alter of GDP are very deep. Although the NZ model may not be the full answer, it’s at least and attempt. I’m going to research public and professional reaction to it within NZ. If you have any info on this please share.

  12. Chris Cook says:

    It’s pretty clear that the problem cannot be resolved within the deficit-based and centralised financial system which caused it. That’s why a truly complementary approach is needed, based on risk, cost, surplus and data sharing agreements between people and organisations. The key is the use of the innovative funding instruments – (prepay) credit obligations – which predated modern financial capital and banks. The ‘Energy Fintech’ innovation is for energy credit obligations to be based directly on useful energy delivered to consumers within a distributed and networked system of local energy companies.

  13. Ailsa Clark says:

    Time for change and a different approach, Scottish Governments approach of ‘inclusive growth’ is a step in the right direction, but we need to change the focus on growth to ‘depth and sustainability’. Social Enterprises in rural communities across Scotland have a broad spectrum of examples where this ‘depth and sustainability’ model has been used alongside those extra important factors ‘community’ & ‘cohesion’ to sustain vibrant rural communities. Alas we still face significant challenges, such as depopulation (the city roads are paved with gold – and student loans to tie the next generation in to the pursuit of £ to pay debt and excell…’
    Very glad to see this focus by Bella. I wonder if we have much to learn from other Countries and cultures, as i beleive the NZ context is informed by the wisdom of indiginous culture, as is much of the sustainability focus in North America. I beleive we could also learn a great deal from our own indiginous communities.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.