Serge Latouche, professor emeritus of economic science at the University of Paris-Sud, is one of the main proponents of "the society of de-growth". I was recently engaged in an animated debate about the merits of his vision, which prompted me to translate some key passages of his books 'Le Pari de la Décroissance' (The Bet of De-Growth) and 'Petit Traité de la Décroissance Sereine" (Small Treaty of Peaceful De-Growth) published in 2006 and 2007. Here i will offer some of his arguments.
De-growth does not mean negative growth. Negative growth is a self-contradictory expression, which just proves the domination of the collective imagination by the idea of growth.
On the other hand, de-growth is not the alternative to growth, but rather, a matrix of alternatives which would open up the space for human creativity again, once the cast of economic totalitarianism is removed. The de-growth society would not be the same in Texas and in the Chiapas, in Senegal and in Portugal. De-growth would open up anew the human adventure to the plurality of its possible destinies.
Growth for growth's sake is an insane objective, with disastrous consequences for the environment. The need for a 'de-growth' society stems from the certainty that the earth's resources and natural cycles cannot sustain the economic growth which is the essence of capitalism.
In place of the current dominant system, a new society is possible, one of assumed sobriety, where we all work less in order to live better lives, we consume less products but of better quality, we produce less waste and recycle more.
The new society would mean recuperating a sense of measure and a sustainable ecological footprint, and finding happiness in living together with others rather than in the frantic accumulation of gadgets.
It is difficult to break out of this addiction to growth especially because it is in the interest of the "dealers" – the multinational corporations and the political powers serving them - to keep us enslaved.
Alternative experiences and dissident groups - such as cooperatives, syndicates, the associations for the preservation of peasant agriculture, certain NGOs, local exchange systems, networks for knowledge exchange - represent pedagogical laboratories for the creation of "the new human being" demanded by the new society. They represent popular universities which can foster resistance and help decolonise the imaginary.
We should start re- conceptualising what we understand by poverty, scarcity and development for instance; restructuring society and the economy; restoring non-industrial practices, especially in agriculture; redistributing; re-localising; reusing; recycling.
As regards poor countries, Latouche proposes the virtuous cycle of the eight “Rs”: RECONCEPTUALIZING (i.e., redefining the concepts of wealth and poverty, scarcity and abundance); RESTRUCTURING (adapting society and economy to degrowth); RESTORING (first and foremost, peasant agriculture); REDISTRIBUTING; RELOCATING; REDUCING (i.e., limiting the impact of human beings on the environment); REUSING; RECYCLING.
In his book "Petit traité de la décroissance sereine" he proposes a political program of sorts, which can be summarized in the following points:
1) working our way back to an ecological footprint that is equal or inferior to a planet;
2) including in transportation costs the damages caused by transportation;
3) relocating industrial and agricultural activities;
4) reviving peasant agriculture;
5) converting productivity increases into reduction of working time and job creation;
6) stimulating the production of “relational commodities” such as friendship and knowledge;
7) reducing energy waste;
8) strongly penalizing advertising expenses;
9) taxing stock transactions, the profits of multinational companies, carbon emissions, and nuclear waste.
Having travelled to places regarded as poor (because of their GDP) i have come to question Western definitions of poverty.
Who is poor? The farmer who produces, sells and eats his fresh products, works 4 hours a day and spends the rest of the time with his family, socializing with his friends, playing music, making handcrafts, breathing clean air, and going for a walk whenever he likes or the white-collar worker, trapped in his office for 8-10 hours a day, then trapped in traffic to go home, where he eats junk food in front of his high-definition TV, surrounded by consumer products that will make him more miserable as soon as they become outdated and need replacing with new, 'state-of-the-art' ones?
And if someone argues that the white-collar worker might actually be happy to be chained to his gadgets, then i would reply that the white-collar worker's lifestyle is threatening the health and well-being of those who are losing their land because of global warming, those who are forced to breath polluted air, drink polluted water, eat contaminated crops, whose children develop cancer or are born with congenital deformities. The disappearance of animal species, local cultures and languages, the trashing and degradation of the environment, the use of war to secure resources, famine wages, etc. this is the price developing countries are paying so that he can happily consume. Someone has to start putting a price tag on the ravages of global consumerism.
In the past capitalist accumulation relied on slavery, but then discovered a much more effective way of enslaving people, consumerism. Now millions of people work long hours to be able to afford goods they don't need, and shop till they drop to achieve 'status' because 'having' has replaced 'being'. A major shift is needed in our consciousness, otherwise we will all go down together, rich and poor.