Embracing degrowth

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Serge Latouche is a French philosopher and economist. An outspoken critic of globalisation and what he calls the westernisation of the world, he also denounces consumer society and the illusions fuelled by current economic theories. Southworld met him.

lat2“Like the Bible’s prodigal son, we are living more on our assets than on our income. It cannot last long! According to well-known experts ‘the party will end’ in 2070, maybe even 2030”. Monsieur Latouche, a 73-year-old professor emeritus from the University of Paris, sometimes walks using a cane, but he still has enough energy and enthusiasm to defend his firm beliefs. “Even babies understand that infinite economic growth on a finite planet is impossible! And yet, our society seeks growth for growth’s sake, not to make us happy,” he often tells the audiences of his much-attended lectures.
The world-famous academic has plenty of scientific data to support his thesis. “Our ecological footprint [the biologically productive land and sea needed to supply the resources a human population consumes – ed.] is already far greater than we can afford”, he says. “If in 2005 everyone had lived as the French – he adds – we would have needed two planets to make this affordable. With a US lifestyle, we would have needed six.” Today, we are no better off.
Latouche says the only way to abandon this road to disaster is downscaling, which means embracing degrowth. “Degrowth – he explains – is a banner that we set up in 2001, to contest the idea of ‘sustainable development’, which is an oxymoron.” Development, from the professor’s point of view, can never be sustainable, as it implies growth. However, according to him, downscaling does not mean becoming poorer, but changing one’s lifestyle.
“We do not have to go back to the Stone Age, but if we do not limit our needs we will never know what true plenty is,” he states. He calls this ‘frugal abundance’ and goes even further: “African countries are virtuous, and southern countries are currently helping the North, not the other way around,” because their low consumption levels allow their rich neighbours to consume more. That is where Latouche’s talk with Southworld begins.

We usually speak of degrowth as necessary for the richer economies of our planet. What does it mean for the developing countries of the south?

lat5This subject is often a ground for misunderstandings and disputes: degrowth is good for countries in the North, which are already overdeveloped. The ones in the South have never known growth. Degrowth is not for southern countries. That’s why the few South American countries that began a path of ‘frugal abundance’ use another term, a better one, which comes from Native American traditions. It is sumak kawsay: translated into Spanish, it becomes buen vivir (‘good living’). When I met the head of CONAI – the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador – the very first thing he said was, “You call degrowth what we call buen vivir”.

On the other hand, what do the world’s North and South have in common?

Obviously, it would not be a good solution, for instance, to go to Africa preaching degrowth. Nevertheless, we in the West experienced the logic of infinite growth and it proved to be grievous. It will prove to be equally grievous for them: it is a mathematical law that equally affects both! However, their ecological footprint has not reached its limit. One should think about a convergence: the North should reduce its ecological footprint, the South could increase it, without passing the limit! We must both reach a reasonable level.

What about newly industrialised countries with economies on the rise?

lat4It is no longer possible to talk about them as we did in the sixties, when we simply spoke about underdeveloped countries. Nowadays, two new groups of countries have emerged: the first one is the BRICS; then there are other Latin American countries – Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela – which have made a different choice, as I recounted earlier.

Can Africa play a role in degrowth, too?

Africa is an interesting case: some years ago, I wrote a book called The other Africa. Between gift and market. Actually, we could ask some Africans to give us advice – they are real experts in frugality, and in recycling and recovering, too. In this age of globalisation, we have spread the virus of infinite growth to Africa. Africans are increasingly abandoning frugality, and looking for more and more ways to consume…


(D. M.)


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