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

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If you are trying to persuade someone that their growth-centric worldview is more than a little out of date, then it takes careful argument.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.

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46 Responses to “Why Degrowth has out-grown its own name. Guest post by Kate Raworth”
  1. Hi Kate, The Green House think tank team thought long and hard about the terminology question while thinking and writing about these issues, and we decided to call our project ‘the Post-Growth Project’. The decisive factor was that – as you say – Degrowth has problems both of clarity and of negativity, whereas ‘Post-growth’ avoids those problems by implicitly accepting the current Queen term (‘growth’) but then pointing out that within its own terms the ‘growth’ imperative is failing. This means that policy makers everywhere have to face up to the fact (easily demonstrated using mainstream economic statistics) that growth as they define it, and as they pursue it, is almost certainly over for the early industrialised countries for the foreseeable future, and that to make economic and social policy on the assumption that it isn’t (e.g. The Chancellor’s about-turn last week) is reckless in the extreme. See http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/page.php?pageid=postgrowth Post-growth then has two great advantages: it doesn’t immediately put people off, and it doesn’t allow the mainstream to ignore our arguments.

    And on your Point 4: we already have at least two other powerful terms that frame the critical argument in a positive light, though we do need to be vigilant in protecting them from dilution and political misuse: one is Sustainability (see Ulrich Grober’s book on the cultural history of the term), and the other is Sufficiency.

  2. Kate Raworth

    Thanks Ray. I agree that Post-Growth is a better ‘holding term’ for describing the new economic thinking we want to inspire. But I still don’t think it is the final name! We are all on a search for the words we need, and it’s crucial work to do because – as you folks clearly agree – names matter.

  3. Whilst I understand the need for “missile words” to wake up a disinterested public, there is no doubt that the language of “degrowth” fails to differentiate between good (sustainable) growth vs historic industrial models based on excessive consumption of resources. This sadly continues a recent trend that is making parties of social justice unelectable. The coming age of “technology replacing workers” will make employment and growth increasingly critical voter issues. The answer to this threat is not to deconstruct the capitalist system, but to move to move away from 20th century nationalistic models of growth which have always been based on exploitation of others, infringement of human rights, and selfish consumption of resources. We need instead to move to a global circular economy, which is truly sustainable, and can offer economic opportunities to every Global citizen. In future this growth will have to be based on economic activities that can be made carbon-free, including entertainment, creative arts, sport, healthcare, education, sustainable agriculture, and local recycling industries, to name just a few.

    Robert P Bruce – author of “The Global Race”

  4. Yes the word Degrowth, while desirable to those of us in the “Green” community, may concern those in the business community as well as the unemployed and underemployed. I thought “sustainable” was a pretty good term until it became overused and corrupted. The word Degrowth may still work if the description were perhaps modified along the lines: a significant reduction of the consumption based economy where there is excess consumption; and growth in “soft” economic activities that have minimal to no negative environmental impact (or even perhaps environmental benefit). Very important in all this is a stop to the growth in urban and industrial footprint and impact on natures habitat; better still would be a reduction in urban and industrial footprint (rebuild up not sprawl out). I look forward to further comments on this issue (not an easy one). I applaud the contributions of the “Degrowth” community; much needs to be done for us humans to live responsibly and sustainably on Space Ship Earth.

  5. Robin Stafford

    Hi Kate – excellent piece with which I’d wholeheartedly agree. Lakoff’s point is telling – its rarely good to campaign on a negative. Too often I’ve had a sneaky suspicion that those arguing for de-growth come from a personal ‘hair-shirt’ agenda that is not widely shared, be it by those who have or more importantly, those who have-not. Some parallels with Green Economy where one can spend – and waste – more time arguing about the definition than getting on and making it happen

    I’d start from 2 basic points that you make. ‘We urgently need to articulate an alternative, positive vision of an economy in a way that is widely engaging’. It is that lack of an alternative that is freeing the space for the current model to run riot. The ‘TINA’ position. This is urgent
    And it does not need to be perfect – again as you say, ‘we need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows’. The mass of people whom we need to engage (and vote) will not be so nit-picky. They want to see something they can relate to and as importantly, where there are some believable steps towards making it happen.

    • Kate Raworth

      I very much agree Robin: the lack of an appealing alternative leaves the political space free for the current economic model and narrative to run riot. George Lakoff lambasts the ‘left’ for failing to get strategic about its frames, as the ‘right’ have done for decades. It’s time to get on with the hard but essential work of creating that alternative framing, and that includes coming up with a new name….

  6. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the stability, integrity, and beauty of a biota, a thing is wrong when it tends otherwise” – Aldo Leopold, the Land Ethic

    Why not call it “integrated” economics? Has a positive connotation, with the implicit assumption being that current economic models of growth are ignoring critical factors in their premises and assumptions, which seems to be the case.

  7. I agree broadly with you on this Kate. I’m pretty relaxed about the term degrowth, and do use it – in both the original Latouche sense of changing the subject from a fixation on growth, and in what I think is the emerging use, which is about an economy in whose scale is being managed down: that is both in terms of GDP and material demand (since decoupling hasn’t been demonstrated, the two are pretty much interchangeable). However, there is a difference between using the term “within the movement” and using it to communicate with the unconvinced. Perhaps part of the problem is that the term seems so much uglier in English. But we (Steady State Manchester) have encountered the same problem of communication when arguing that we cannot use growth as the criterion for economic (or social) success, wand that’s not using the term degrowth. So I think post-growth has the same problem. The problem is that, as you say, we need to offer a positive image/vision (or imaginary – in vogue social scientific terms). We hit on the term The Viable Economy, and while not fudging the issue of scale, or growth, of the need for caps, that works for us, and resonates well with people. We define it in terms of economic, social and ecological viability: nothing terribly new about that but it enables us to keep the agendas aligned.
    But like “sustainability”, and buen vivir/vivir bien (in the shameless appropriation by extractivist regimes in Bolivia and Ecuador) there is scope for co-optation of the term, so we need to beware, whatever we pick.

  8. gawain

    Kate – fantastic post and I completely agree. It’s fine for cantankerous academics and think tankers to insist on naming. But for those of use actually trying the advance reform agenda through the public and political systems, terms like “de-growth” are positively harmful. I’m much more of the mind to try to shift the definition or understanding of “growth” than to try to nullify the term. Why destroy the resilient edifice if you can rearrange the furniture and achieve the same result?

    The growing recognition of inequality has also helped to demonstrate that “growth” as such, isn’t beneficial to many – really the majority in many places. GDP grows, income grows, but people have no more buying power because it’s all captured at the tippy top of the pyramid. The public is recognizing inequality is a problem, but maybe the conventional definitions of growth are too.

    I’ll leave you with this:

    “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Edward Abbey

    • Hi Gawain, I agree that the visibility of inequality – in the data and in the streets – has helped to demonstrate the flaws of growth as a goal. But I doubt that we could reclaim the word ‘growth’ for good: the furniture currently occupying the resilient edifice of that concept seems very fixed in place to me. I think we need a different word altogether. Build anew so that the old becomes obsolete…

  9. Iris Borowy

    Hi Kate, hi all,
    I fully share your reservations about “degrowth”. According to its proponents it is a word that is deliberately provocative (“missile word”) and meant to turn a negative connocation into something positive. There is some sense in that, but it also locks the concept into a corner of being against rather than for something. Also, the “missile” idea tends to militarize a debate and give it a somewhat aggressive undertone. Why do we think the best strategy to win people to our side is to attack the way most of them – and we – have been living? So, I share your support for a more positive approach, something that is clearer about what we are for rather than what we are against. In addition, I dislike its general approach. If the point is to break out of an obsessive focus on growth, it is not helpful to focus on growth, even if it is negative growth. If life does not get automatically get better by increasing either material production or GDP, there is little reason to think that it will necessarily improve by decreasing material production or GDP. We should be interested in other things, and living well, prosperity, wellbeing all seem like good enough goals. Also, it is misleading to focus on economic growth when it is really the consequences of this form of growth (the inequality, the environmental degradation, the burden on future generations) that require change. I have always like “sustainable development” with its insistence on the need to reconcile economic, social and environmental factors. But I would happily support any other positive, reasonably comprehensive and nevertheless reasonably precise term as well.

  10. Luis R. Sanint

    First, they will steal the words and, then, they will steal its meaning. It happens with sustainability and sufficiency, as pointed out above. Its most damaging degradation ocurs with unemployment. ILO definition is a cover-up. One in two persons in the world do not have a quality employment; yet, they do not show up as unemployed, according to the spirit of ILO methodologies, crafted by politicians, because these people are doing something to survive. I fully agree that the focus of the message must be in finding goals that make us thrive, puts inclusive cooperation ahead and empowers people to seek wellbeing (this word, as “welfare” were also stolen many years ago). The effort to put people first must involve a broad, global perspective, while keeping an eye in the local immediate goals, activities and solutions. The basic human instinct mode to move ahead, without even knowing or caring in what direction we go, needs to be channeled into a social, humane perspective with inclusive meaning and purpose. What we have today is the result of never questionning the basic instinct and leaving matters up to Darwin. We can do better than that.

  11. KristofferW

    Dear Kate,

    interesting points! (Good points also by Mark Burton!)

    The worry regarding the term/word ‘degrowth’ is not a new phenomenon in the English speaking world. See for example Molly Scott Cato’s column from 2010 (and the comments):https://web.archive.org/web/20100924232254/http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/Molly_Scott_Cato/538745/we_scare_people_off_by_talking_about_degrowth.html

    The Lakoff-point “When you negate something you strengthen the concept.” is a thought-provoking one, and logically it seems correct – and fits quite nicely with your argument “Degrowth has out-grown its own name”. But still there is something that feels out of place in that particular broader discussion (Lakoff & framing), something which I cannot exactly put my finger on right now, maybe I’ll reply later when I’ve assembled my thoughts a bit better. Maybe it has something to do with that, even though e.g. Lakoff wants to talk about positive change, and wants to use a “positive language” in order to bring about this change, ‘growth’ still appears to be a holy word. You can talk about nice things like “happiness economics” or ‘buen vivir’ (which now later has been co-opted), but you cannot talk directly about growth: not so much because you might strengthen the concept, but because economic growth is still a holy thing and you might just scare people off by critiquing and questioning the ideology underlying it. So the main problem is still the growth-ideology, not the word ‘degrowth’. And as you probably are aware of, the function of the ‘de’ prefix in degrowth is to ’de-mask’, ’de-mystify’, ’de-familiarize’, ’de-construct’, ’de-colonize’ economic growth & the growth economy/society and the underlying ideologies and beliefs. The fact that you “cannot” talk about degrowth because it scares people away, shows exactly why it is (still) a highly relevant and needed term/word.

    Speaking in frames and images, ‘doughnut economics’, is far from unproblematic since…well, it is round, circular, and hence evokes the image of the “circular economy” (actually the headline of the Lakoff webinar you referred to earlier ‘The Values Behind a Circular Economy’). The word ‘circular economy’ might be “positive” one (whatever that means, depending on the person), but its an illusion, since from a biophysical and thermodynamic perspective the global economy and the industrial economic process is entropic i.e. linear (although equipped with small “eddies” or “loops”), not circular. (see e.g. Georgescu-Roegen) For me, the circular economy illusion is more scary than the word degrowth 🙂

    Thanks again for a great post! And sorry about these hastily written comments.

  12. Chris Roney

    Coming from a messaging background, I’ve thought a lot about framing a new economic model. I’m agreed with Kate and the Green House team that post-growth is a good holding word, but the core problem is that conversation is focused on instrumental process words like “growth,” “sustainability,” and “efficiency.” Every one of these words carries an implicit assumption “of what?” Fights around these terms are really about the carried assumptions of what that “of what” is. All this got mixed up in the first place when neoliberal economic thinking confused immediate process aims for ultimate goals, and growth and efficiency became unquestioned ends in themselves. Continuing to use the process language tacitly accepts the fallacy that growth, efficiency, and sustainability carry more than instrumental value.

    To me, the concept to be named (ie. de-growth) needs to reject that process language and get back to discussing its end goals. This gets to Kate’s point that we want an economy where people thrive, whether or not it grows. If the economy doesn’t care about growth for its own sake, why is growth the core of most proposed names? Of course, I don’t have alternative answer at the moment, but at least it’s a possible way to frame the conversation.

  13. I recently attended some seminars on Framing and Values by the Common Cause AU representative Mark Chenery. There’s a helpful handbook on the subject that will help people understand why Kate is right: http://www.commoncause.org.au

    I agree, Post Growth is a better term than degrowth, but as Kate observes, still reinforces the extrinsic frame of ‘growth’ where we need to be focused on reinforcing intrinsic frames instead (refer to the handbook to understand intrinsic vs extrinsic frames, ‘spillover’ where emphasising one part of a set of values strengthens the whole thing, and the see-saw effect where activating one side of the intrinsic / extrinsic dichotomy diminishes its counterpart).

  14. Robert Lindsay

    Good piece. As well as all the research on framing there is also psychological research showing people need to have a story. That means that in order to grasp a political concept, we need to hear both what it’s for and what it’s against. We need to know the departure point AND the destination. There has to be a “goodie” and a “baddie” in the story. You do have to name both as KristofferW points out above. De-growth is a verb: it’s just saying “kill the baddie” without really naming the goodie. Post-growth is an adjective. Talking about a post-growth economy or society is saying we need to move to a world after we’ve killed the baddie, it’s pointing to the sunlit uplands where the growth giant has been slain, so it is a lot better at telling the story, even though it doesn’t quite pin-down the goodie. The Green Parrty used to be called the “People Party” – (because it was about economics as though people matter) but that just named the goodie without naming the baddie so it didn’t work.
    By the way, just as Kate doesn’t like de-growth, I have a similar problem with “anti-austerity” for the same sort of reasons. We need to point out there is a need for frugality not austerity.

    • Kate Raworth

      I like these points, Robert, thanks – especially about the need to name the goodie and the baddie. I agree: we find change easier to take on board when we know where we are moving from and moving it.

  15. An insightful and much-needed post from Kate. (Previously, I’ve criticised “degrowth” & “post-growth” labels from a frames perspective, and discussed the issue with Rupert Read, Giorgos Kallis and others at my own blog – but it left me feeling in a small minority. So it’s great to see the intelligent debate above).

    In discussing these matters with “degrowth” enthusiasts, I’ve noticed a fundamental confusion. Deconstructing or subverting “growth” (the frame) is somewhat in contradiction to directly opposing growth (as policy) – because in the latter, one has reified growth, forgotten that it’s a metaphoric frame, and thus fallen into a trap (Lakoff’s point).

    Degrowth campaigners assure me that they are aware of this distinction, but when I read what they’ve actually written, it’s clear they are proposing opposition to “growth” itself (without the quotes, as it were – a believed reality, a reified abstraction). Whether this lapse or forgetfulness is an indication of a poor understanding of framing or not, I don’t know – but it’s akin to confusing the map with the territory. Of course, one can be precise about what one opposes (eg various forms of environmental destruction, pointless jobs, unhealthy aspects of “consumerism”, etc) whilst also subverting the metaphoric frame, “growth”. But it seems a bad idea to build a respectable movement whose aim is (or appears to be) to directly oppose growth – and which thus advertently reinforces the “growth” frame/worldview.

    It’s for the same reason that I’m not keen on “post-growth”. It may well be a “holding” term only, but the longer it’s held onto, the more it becomes difficult to detach ourselves from the “growth” metaphor in economics. Along with Lakoff, I favour the “wealth as wellbeing” frame. “[T]here is a crucial movement toward a new economics – an economics of well-being, in which the Gross Domestic Product is replaced by an overall indicator of well-being. This new perspective is directly counter, in many ways, to the narrowly imagined concept of economic growth.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)

    Promoting an economics based on well-being and its indicators has the advantage, from a cognitive frames perspective, that wealth as well-being is a very deeply rooted – and universal – metaphoric frame. Our original conceptions of “wealth” are inseparable from expressions of well-being (as Lakoff has pointed out in his work on conceptual metaphor).

    • Kate Raworth

      I agree, the longer we hold a holding term, the more it takes hold of us…
      Wealth as wellbeing works conceptually for me, I think (but need to think more…) – so we should move to finding the language that speaks to that metaphor. A very important game of Word Search is underway…

  16. Hi Kate,
    I agree! – especially the basic Lakoff-point (although Giorgos has some interesting and valid points from the southern European perspective).
    Mark Burton’s distinction is important, between what language we use among ‘ourselves’ and what language we use to engage ‘others’. The latter, ‘outreach’ process is vital, and it’s here where we particularly have to watch our framing. And here we do need a better name, I feel. So all of us who agree with you need to brainstorm a good, alternative name.
    My contribution would be to lob into the pot the idea of ‘maturity’. Saying that ‘growth is bad’ is just reinforcing the growth frame. But actually, we shouldn’t even *think* this. Because growth *isn’t* bad; it’s only the fanatical pursuit of eternal growth that’s crazy and destructive. Children grow, but adults don’t. Growth is holy (as KristofferW says), in the same way that children are precious. We shouldn’t dispute this. But adults progress beyond childhood, and anyone trying to cling to childish ways for too long (let alone forever) is to be pitied, not celebrated.
    So perhaps we should regard growth, in its place, with benign tolerance: it’s a phase some things have to go through. Not something to aspire to; but rather something we should aspire to *grow out of*, if we want to hold our heads up as mature adults. It seems to me we could do this – framing the ‘growthists’ as immature, childish even – without needing to demonise growth itself.

  17. Katherine Trebeck

    Thanks to both Kate and Giorgos for bringing this important issue to a wider audience.
    My thinking is that if the first reaction to something is negative, that’s problematic – even/especially in those circles who most need to hear the message and are furthest from accepting its principles. With a negative reaction comes defensiveness, resisting, blocking – when we need curiously, openness, exploration, and experimentation.
    The negative reaction deliberately (deliberately) elicits also shows how far there is to go, just how much people hold onto ‘growth’ as a goal – as opposed to the suggestion in the title of Kate’s blog that ‘degrowth’ has, as a term, become outgrown.
    But more importantly, getting past the term degrowth – the growth or note debate is not helpful. It is a false binary and masks important nuance of a more important conversation of what we want and need more or less of (eg more quality jobs, less coal power plants; more worker owned cooperatives, less plastic rubbish in the bin; more public transport, less soul-less shopping centres; etc). Jeremy Williams (http://makewealthhistory.org/) and I are exploring a concept that tries to grapple with that challenge – stay tuned!
    Plus, the blogs reinforce the importance of a more complicated (hence less amenable to slogans) discussion about what gets counted as good and what proxies of success we need to shift policy makers’ attention in the direction of good growth for everyone rather than the consumption orientated and distribution blind GDP.
    Thanks again!

  18. Kate Kilpatrick

    Great discussion. I also really dislike the word ‘degrowth’. Partly because I am not a fan of jargony-sounding neologisms generally, but more importantly because I think Good Growth is a Good Thing. We need to re-appropriate the idea of growth, turn it to good ends, and redefine it so that ‘good’ growth counts as genuine growth. GDP increases that are based on activities causing irreversible environmental degradation/climate change or that are based on production models that don’t t pay living wages or that are based on people working more and more hours – we need to challenge the idea that these can be called ‘growth’ at all. I want the word growth to mean something genuinely and holistically positive for society, just as we do when we talk about ‘personal growth’.

  19. Paul winsor


    Obviously we can t keep growing at 3% per year. The poor will live like trump in 500 years (i ve done the math) assuming pop growth levels off at 12b.

    The current growth culture can be defined by four amazingly powerful words…”the pursuit of happiness”.

    Compare to: ” downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet.’

    Clearly the degrowth statement needs expert wordsmithing…4 words…period! Live long, and prosper!


  20. Tom

    You folks talk to others too like yourselves too much. You’re inbred. Get out and talk to folk with different backgrounds and you will quickly see Kate is correct. But you should already know that because George Lakoff knows his stuff (that is only one of his books by the way). Degrowth. Its as if you searched to find a word that would immediately alienate and confuse people. And please, nothing with “common” in it. That’s pinko communism to ‘mericans. Actually, I think Kate already did it. Thrive. A thriving economy.

  21. Terry Moore

    Part of the problem is that no one seems want to actually name our current economic system – capitalism – let alone discuss how and why it is at the root of both our ecological and and economic crises. If we can’t even name the system we live under how can we expect to be clear about how it operates and what changes we need to make as we construct alternatives?

  22. To grow or not to grow is realy not the question. We need to establish conditions for human interaction, that allows all people worldwide, to live a good life according to their needs and potentials, that on the other hand does not undermine the social-ecological bacics of life. We need a globalsation of the ability to decide on what has to grow and what has to shrink in a way, that is ecologically reflected and reasonable for the society as a whole, Call it the common green growth-shrikage capability or what ever 😉 More of these thoughts ..https://oekohumanismus.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/hhh-proposals-on-degrowth.pdf

  23. Dear Duncan. I saw your recent post regarding Do Aid and Development needs a Trip Advisor type system. Welcome to AidHub.org

    I would very much appreciate an opportunity to discuss this with you further. Perhaps we could collaborate.

    Alan Morgan
    CEO & Founder
    AidHub International Ltd
    Ph:+61 3 9016 8991
    Hp:+62 82 147 244 339

  24. Great article Kate, and great comments all!!

    What a great community that is taking shape around building a real future!

    Points taken by all highlight the need to reshape discourse around ideas which are not commonly accepted by the wider community, whose combined actions due to ignorance, lack of care, and or lack of alternatives are causing great harm to ecology, and system chains.

    What is sure is that the following concepts need to be conveyed

    1. Finite world of real resources economy is being subsidized by a cheap fossil fuel elixir which is running short and change will occur to our current economic models due to the changing extraction availability of high EROEI carbon fossils

    2. Bank system has changed behaviours to rent seeking ways

    3. What current economists call negative externalities or the commons, or shared environmental or other assets that aren’t priced, need to be assigned value or they are taken as free lunch (the no free lunch myth – we have consumed free lunch carbon fossils for the past 200 years provided by other generations or father time!)

    4. The need to develop tools, systems of governance and new words that specifically get across new ideas without conflating with old ideas (ie sustainability at this stage falls into this sphere)

    Lets look at some words that Maths Party uses that are clearly defined by our team

    Circular Economy – quite clear to us that this means design of systems, products and behaviours that fit a circular flow
    Triple Bottom Line Accounting – accounting that includes pricing in “the commons”

    Carbon footprint -the Co2 consumed in production and lifecycle by a product, process or behavior (can be a negative value!)
    Water Footprint – the water consumed in production and lifecycle by a product, process or behaviour
    Energy Footprint – the energy consumed in production and lifecycle by a product, process or behavior
    Waste Footprint – waste output that is not part of the circular economy
    Biodiversity Footprint – impact on survival of other species
    Toxicity Footprint – the level of toxicity created by a product or behavior through life of that item
    Equality Footprint – the level of equality garnered by a product or behavior

    These ideas of footprint are very helpful to maths party as we like to measure outcomes.
    Most people don’t take the definition of footprint into all of these stacks, however it is very convenient for us to think in terms of these stacks, and then coordinate at a system level.

    At this stage what we really require is a survival mindset as well as a future oriented planning systems ethic – an world system that is able to survive adjusting modes of production, changing fossil carbon outputs, changing technology. We are aware that the short term planning function is usually ignored, and at our peril.

    When we hear terms such as post growth, neutral growth we understand that the idea is about shifting to a new normal, yet there still needs to be growth of the human mind. Ubuntu sounds like a linux computer operating system! However, an economy that deals with enlightenment is an interesting topic.

    At this stage we really need to focus on reality. That our finite resources are being stripped by a debt based extraction machine of these real resources, spin up and gamed by those with appetite for consuming now by leveraging, whether they can pay or not.

    So a smart system design for economy needs to be
    seeking balance with finite limits (anthropogenic step changes mean that humans may have more say on this balance in future times than currently exists)
    value ‘negative externalities’
    circular in design
    make people happy and allow them to have a meaningful life
    mathematically sound
    take into account that humans have a history of gaming any system, so for that reason it needs to be iterative and sound to deal with human and tech innovation and behaviour changes resultant of human desire to be apex controllers -ie authoritarian max rent, surplus optimising
    psychologically sound

    This sounds like utopia, yet what is for sure there are nuts and bolts on the road to getting closer that can be readily defined.

    Like most good projects there is generally a working title – for us it is called #mathsparty #bethemaths We are on twitter and look forward to discussing ideas with you all!

  25. Thanks Kate,

    I especially like your:
    “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.”
    pointing out that “degrowth” is really not about economic degrowth at all, but about increasing and equitable sharing of wellbeing.

    I also find it interesting that Giorgos indeed seems to believe that his 10 policy recommendations (http://www.thepressproject.net/article/71088 – which are all very sensible and in line with sustainable development) will imply economic degrowth, although seven of them (no.s 3 to 9) are about increasing equitable distribution and increasing economic efficiency, which will obviously increase GDP, i.e., the opposite of the degrowth definition of “downscaling of production and consumption”

    So not only is the word misleading, but the laudable policy ambitions do not fit the definition.

    Best regards

    Bo Weidema

  26. Yes, Kate. I agree on the need for reframing, the “smoke bomb” effect of degrowth, etcetera. I also think that degrowth should be a result of the changes brought on by the project, not the project in itself: an indicator, not a lighthouse or a compass.

    How about “the good economy” for a label that can point the way more clearly?

  27. Kate,
    Great article. I have been involved in this debate for decades by now. Between 2005 and 2007 I was a member of the “Beyond GDP” project, run by the OECD, the EU Commission, the World Bank, WWF and the Club of Rome. The focus was on quality, rather than quantity. We managed to mobilise quite significant support behind the notion that a quantitative growth model is a disaster for the ecology and for the climate. Furthermore, it does not say much about welfare.
    The problem is that no gvt – apart from the UK – has made a serious effort to replace – or, as int case of the UK, to complement – GDP as indicator.
    So in my view, that is where our focus ought to be: to agree on welfare indicators, where a halt to ecosystem decline and a stabilisation of the climate should be two of the indicators chosen, and thereby making it much easier for us all to judge whether gvt policies are leading us in the right direction.
    Degrowth as a concept is negative. We want many things to grow, like green energy, HQ education, cultural activities, care for the children and the elderly etc – but not the overall throughput of energy and materials; at least not as long as energy is 80% fossilbased and industrial metabolism is primarily made up of linear flows.
    But degrowth is a non-starter. Like you, Kate, I have never been able to successfully debate these issues if the entry-point is de-growth!
    Warm regards
    Anders Wijkman, co-president Club of Rome

  28. Dear all,
    What a fabulous discussion! Here at Furman, we use Kate’s doughnut economics model as the core of the curriculum for our undergraduate degree in sustainability science. The main reason is that the model articulates the grand challenge of sustainability science – finding a path forward that both improves the lives of people while shrinking our impact on the environment. Having been an Earth/environmental scientist for over 35 years, I have closely studied the trends of both resource extraction and transformation of the planet. Aspects of global change such as climate change or hypoxic zones in coastal oceans, or the exponential growth of the material footprint, clearly indicate an economy that is not in equilibrium with the resource or waste assimilation capacity of the planet. Thus, call it what you want, but degrowth of the economy in terms of material throughput, energy consumption, and waste production really needs to get smaller. This “degrowth” is not global, but would need to be concentrated within the 20% of the wealthiest of the planet. Perhaps the best articulation of this I’ve seen is Kitzes et al. (2008) shrink and share approach. So, although I agree that degrowth is not an optimal term, and I have been to several degrowth conferences and seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, degrowth probably does need to occur.
    Brannon Andersen
    Chair, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Furman University

  29. Raymond Richard Neutra MD

    How about using the concept of “sufficiency”. Degrowth is one ingredient toward a final delicious doughnut, but it is not the only ingredient. Sufficiency is the positive alternative to degrowth or to “excessiveness”. Sufficiency, thus is one ingredient, but it is not an end in itself, and without other ingredients it is no guarantee of a desirable doughnut. I assume that sufficiency relates to things and not to the size of the Wikipedia. Although even in the realm of ideas, home made videos, articles, there is a kind of decisional paralysis that occurs with a surfeit, even if ones carbon footprint is not affected, and the Pacific Gyre is not added to. Confuscius said “Do Everything in Moderation, even Moderation”

  30. I am desperate to contact Kate Raworth, hence my (forlorn?) attempt via this long since ended discussion.
    Will anyone who reads this – rather in the nature of a message in a bottle found on a beach – please read my blog post (www.clivelord.wordpress.com) ‘Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnunt Economics’ – What’s missing’, and the Page on my blog on ‘The Tragedy of the Commons.
    Kate is so near and yet so far, and I suggest a possible catalyst.
    Clive Lord
    ((Almost) a Founder Member of the Green Party)

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