He looks like a 70-year-old former professor from the Université de Paris Sud. But the grizzled economist is one of Europe’s leading critics of economic growth and consumerism. Serge Latouche was a late convert to the anti-growth debate. It wasn’t until 2001 that he spoke for the first time at a UNESCO conference in Paris of ‘de-growth’, calling for selective economic contraction to stop environmental decay, using the French word – décroissance.
‘The English translation, “de-growth”, pleased most of the audience, so I stuck with it,’ Latouche recalls. ‘But I would rather speak of “a-growth”, much like we speak of “a-theism”.
“De-growth” is only a catchword.’
Maybe – but in the 10 years since the UNESCO conference, ‘de-growth’ has become a hot idea in France. Even French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy got the bug, asking Nobel prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen in 2008 to look into new ways of measuring prosperity without relying on the traditional measure of growth, GDP.
Two magazines, La Décroissance and Entropia, help spread the de-growth gospel. And journalists like Le Monde’s Hervé Kempf endorse the idea. Several farmer and consumer organizations rally behind the movement – from the association for organic agriculture to ‘locavores’, people who want to eat seasonal food from their own region.
But Latouche’s influence goes beyond France’s borders. In Italy, the monthly magazine Carta spreads his critique of development and economic growth. And the ‘slow food’ movement is also on the same page. In Spain, several university professors teach courses on de-growth. In the run-up to last December’s Copenhagen climate summit, activists and grassroots environment networks formed Climate Justice Action (CJA), which aims to take ‘the urgent actions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change’, including embracing de-growth as an alternative. There have also been numerous international conferences on de-growth – the last one took place in Barcelona in March 2010. Smaller gatherings recently took place in Vancouver and in Leeds.
The idea is spreading quickly. Ana Esther Ceceña from the National Autonomous University of Mexico says de-growth has also taken root in Latin America where popular movements understand that it is possible to lead a good life not driven by consumerism.
‘We know capitalism leads to large-scale catastrophe and we need to confront it with radical change in our way of life,’ Ceceña notes. She points to the widespread opposition to mining projects in Guatemala, Peru, Chile and other Latin American countries – and to the growing resistance in Brazil to deforestation of the Amazon. ‘People realize that obliterating the rainforest to grow soybeans or sugarcane for biofuels destroys the environment. They understand it’s too high a price to pay for projects which mostly benefit foreign companies and local oligarchies.’
Despite Sarkozy’s blue ribbon panel on GDP, France, like the rest of Europe, still clings to conventional growth as the only way to fight unemployment. (The number of working hours in France has actually been slowly increasing since 1997.) According to La Décroissance editor, Vincent Cheynet, political parties and unions in the country are ‘prisoners of the paradigm of growth – even more so in the current global crisis’.
‘We have to change our values. We need to replace egoism with altruism, competition with co-operation and obsessive performance with leisure. But values are systemic – they are both cause and effect. Without a radical questioning of the system, the value change will remain limited.’
No small task, for sure. But consider the alternatives.
See also, in French, La Décroissance, le mensuel des objecteurs de croissance, www.ladecroissance.net. ‘The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ report is available in English at www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais.pdf
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