Sunday, January 29, 2006

Learning to want less - a great article from La Monde

Thank you to Rainsmoke for forwarding the following article:

Le Monde diplomatique

January 2006


The globe downshifted

There are practical ways in which we could immediately start to
save our species from ecological and social crisis and our
planet from being destroyed by our greed. So why aren't we
adopting them? What prevents us from desiring a simpler and
better way of life?

by Serge Latouche

The dream of building a self-sufficient and economical
society is widely shared, even if under many names.
Décroissance (degrowth), downshifting, anti-productivism,
requalified development and even sustainable development all
evoke roughly the same goal. The French Greens, mean exactly
the same thing by anti-productivism as growth objectors (1)
mean by degrowth (2). The organisation Attac has appealed for
"a move towards progressive and reasoned deceleration in
world growth, under particular social conditions, as the
first step towards reducing predatory and devastating
production in all its forms".

Agreement on the re-evaluation our economic system needs, and
on the values that (3) we should bring to the fore, is not
confined to degrowth advocates thinking in terms of
post-development. A number of sustainable or alternative
development activists have made similar proposals (4). All
agree on the need for a drastic reduction of humanity's
ecological footprint. None would contradict John Stuart
Mill's Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848, in
which he wrote that all human activities that do not involve
unreasonable consumption of irreplaceable materials, or do
not damage the environment irrevocably, could be developed
indefinitely. He added that those activities many consider to
be the most desirable and satisfying - education, art,
religion, fundamental research, sports and human relations -
could flourish (5).

We could go further. For who would actually declare
themselves to be against saving the planet, preserving the
environment and looking after plants and animals? Who
actually advocates destroying the ozone layer and messing up
the climate? Not politicians. Even in the upper echelons of
the business world, there are company directors and economic
authorities who favour a radical change in orientation, to
save our species from ecological and social crisis.

So we need to identify the opponents of degrowth politics
more precisely, along with the obstacles to implementing such
a programme, and the political form that an eco-compatible
society ought to take.

I. Who are the enemies of the people?

The problem with trying to put a face on the adversary is
that the economic bodies that hold real power (for example
multinational companies) do not and inherently cannot
exercise that power directly. Susan Strange has noted that
some of the main responsibilities of the state in a market
economy are no longer borne by anyone today (6). While Big
Brother is now anonymous, his subjects' servitude is more
voluntary than ever. The manipulation achieved by advertising
is infinitely more insidious than that of propaganda. In
these conditions, how can the mega-machine possibly be
challenged politically?

For some on the far left, the stock answer is that capitalism
is the problem, leaving us stuck in a rut and powerless to
move towards a better society. Is economic contraction
compatible with capitalism? This is a key question, but one
that it is important to answer without resorting to dogma, if
the real obstacles are to be understood.

The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
has come up with a number of ingenious win-win frameworks for
nature's interaction with capital. The Negawatt scheme aims
to cut energy consumption by three-quarters without any
drastic reduction in needs. It proposes a system of taxes,
norms, bonuses, incitements and selective subsidies to make
virtuous behaviour an economically attractive option and to
avoid large-scale waste. In Germany there is a credits system
initiative that effectively makes energy-efficient houses
cheaper to build, despite the construction work being at
least 10% more expensive. Another proposal is that rental
rather than ownership should become the norm for such goods
as photocopiers, fridges and cars. This would create a
pattern of constant recycling that could slow our mad rush
for new production. But would that really avoid the rebound
effect: the economic principle whereby reduced material and
energy costs lead, via reduced financial costs, to increased
material consumption (7)? Nothing could be less certain.

Eco-compatible capitalism is conceivable in theory, but
unrealistic in practice. Capitalism would require a high
level of regulation to bring about the reduction of our
ecological footprint. The market system, dominated by huge
multinational corporations, will never set off down the
virtuous path of eco-capitalism of its own accord. It is a
system made of anonymous, utilitarian machines for generating
dividends. These will not give up their rapacious consumption
of resources unless they are forced to do so. Even where
company directors support self-regulation, they cannot impose
it upon the majority of free-riders who are guided by a
single principle: maximising the company's share value in the
short term. If the power to regulate were in the hands of an
external body (the state, the people, a union, an NGO, the
United Nations), then that power would be enormous. It could
rewrite the social rulebook. It could put society back in

Mechanisms for countering power with power, as existed under
the Keynes-Fordist regulations of the Social Democratic era,
are conceivable and desirable. But the class struggle seems
to have broken down. The problem is: capital won. We looked
on, powerless if not indifferent, as it swept away everything
in its path, including the western working class. We are
currently witnessing the steady commercialisation of
everything in the world. Applied to every domain in this way,
capitalism cannot help but destroy the planet much as it
destroys society, since the very idea of the market depends
on unlimited excess and domination.

A society based on economic contraction cannot exist under
capitalism. But capitalism is a deceptively simple word for a
long, complex history. Getting rid of the capitalists and
banning wage labour, currency and private ownership of the
means of production would plunge society into chaos. It would
bring large-scale terrorism. It would still not be enough to
destroy the market mentality. We need to find another way out
of development, economism (a belief in the primacy of
economic causes or factors) and growth: one that does not
mean forsaking the social institutions that have been annexed
by the economy (currency, markets, even wages) but reframes
them according to different principles.

II. Reforms or revolution

A number of simple, apparently anodyne measures would be
enough to set the virtuous circles of degrowth in motion (8).
A reformist transition programme, of just a few points, could
be arrived at simply by drawing some commonsense conclusions
from our diagnosis of the problem. We should:

- Reduce our ecological footprint so that it is equal to or
less than the sum of Earth's resources. That means bringing
material production back down to the levels of the 1960s and

- Internalise transport costs.

- Relocalise all forms of activity.

- Return to small-scale farming.

- Stimulate the production of "relational goods" -
activities that depend on strong interpersonal relationships,
such as babysitting, caring for the bereaved or terminally
ill, massage, even psychoanalysis, whether traded
commercially or not, rather than on the exploitation of

- Reduce energy waste by three-quarters.

- Heavily tax advertising expenditure.

- Decree a moratorium on technological innovation, pending
an in-depth assessment of its achievements and a
reorientation of scientific and technical research according
to new aspirations.

Key to this programme is the internalisation of external
diseconomies - those costs incurred by the activity of one
player but borne by the community at large (such as all those
related to pollution). This idea is ostensibly in full
keeping with orthodox economics. But it would clear the way
towards a degrowth society. It would place the costs of our
social and environmental problems on the books of the
companies responsible for them. Imagine the impact that this
would have: if businesses had to accept the costs of the
transport, security, unemployment and education that their
functioning requires (not to mention the costs of their
environmental impact), then our societies would start to
function differently. These reformist measures, whose
principles were outlined in the early 20th century by the
liberal economist Arthur Cecil Pigou, would bring about a

The reason for this is the scale of the disincentive that
these measures would represent for any business adhering to
capitalist logic. Already, no insurance company will provide
cover for risks associated with nuclear power, climate change
or genetically modified organisms. Imagine the paralysis that
would ensue if firms had to cover for health risks and social
risks (unemployment), or the aesthetic aspects of
environmental degradation. Countless activities would
suddenly no longer be viable. Initially, the system would
grind to a halt.

But that halt could be a transitional period on the path to
an alternative society; it would certainly be proof of the
urgent need for such change. For the proposals that might
make up a manifesto for degrowth politics stand little chance
of being adopted, and even less of being brought to fruition,
without total subversion of the current system. These
realistic and reasonable suggestions can only be enacted via
a utopian project: the construction of an alternative

Conceiving an alternative society requires attention to
detail. This is precisely what Marx refused to do: the dirty
dishes of the future. Take the necessary dismantling of large
companies. It immediately raises a host of questions: what
limit should be set on the size of a company? Should it be
measured in terms of turnover, or numbers of employees? How
could our vast technical systems be maintained without
mega-corporations to run them? Or should certain systems or
types of activity be abandoned (9)?

Any transition would have to answer tricky questions. But
some answers are available. A massive reconversion programme
could turn car factories into cogeneration power plants
(where heat and electricity are generated at the same time).
Such techniques have already turned many German homes into
net producers of electricity, rather than consumers.
Solutions exist: it is the conditions for their adoption that
are lacking.

III. Global dictatorship vs local democracy

Consumer democracies are dependent on growth, for without the
prospect of mass consumption, the inequalities would be
unbearable (and they are already getting that way, thanks to
the crisis in the growth economy). The foundation myth of
modern society is that the trend is towards more equal
conditions. Inequalities are provisionally accepted, since
many goods that were once reserved for the privileged are now
widespread, and the luxuries of today will be accessible to
all tomorrow.

For this reason, many doubt the capacity of democratic
societies to take the measures that our environment needs.
This view can see no other solution than a form of
authoritarian ecocracy: ecofascism or ecototalitarianism. In
the highest spheres of capital's empire (at the elite,
semi-secret Bilderberger Organisation, for example), thinkers
have been discussing this possibility. Faced with a serious
threat, the masses of the North might well hand over their
freedom to demagogues promising to preserve their lifestyles.
This plan would of course entail a drastic aggravation of
global injustice and, ultimately, the liquidation of a
substantial proportion of the species (10).

The strategy of degrowth economics is different. It wagers on
a stick-and-carrot combination: regulations designed to force
change, plus the ideal of a convivial utopia, will add up to
a decolonisation of minds and encourage enough virtuous
behaviour to produce a reasonable solution: local ecological

The revitalisation of the local opens up a far smoother and
less uncertain route to economic contraction than the
problematic notion of a universal democracy. It gives the lie
to the ideal of a unified humanity as the only way to achieve
harmony with the planet, one of the myriad false good ideas
thrown up by everyday western ethnocentrism. Cultural
diversity is surely the only way to achieve peaceful social
intercourse (11).

Democracy can probably only function where the polis is small
and firmly anchored to a set of values. For the economist
Takis Fotopoulos, the aim of universal democracy presupposes
a "confederation of demoi" made up of small, homogenous units
of around 30,000 people (12), a size at which most basic
needs could be provided for locally. "Given their huge size,
many modern cities would probably have to be divided into a
whole set of demoi," says Fotopoulos (13).

With our cities and towns restructured around little
neighbourhood republics, we could turn our attentions to the
more thorough reorganisation of human land use recommended by
the Italian town-planner Alberto Magnaghi. He suggests "a
long and complex period (50 to 100 years) of purification.
During this period people will no longer be engaged in
turning more and more fens and fallow land over to farming,
nor in pushing transport links through such areas. Instead,
we will set about cleaning up and rebuilding the
environmental and territorial systems that have been
destroyed and contaminated by human presence. In so doing, we
shall create a new geography" (14).

It may sound utopian. But the utopia based around local
community politics is more realistic than people think, since
expectations and possibilities grow out of citizens' hands-on
experiences. In Fotopoulos's view, "Standing in local
elections gives one the chance to change society from below,
which is the only truly democratic strategy. It is unlike
both state-based methods (which aim to change society from
above by taking control of the state) and `civil society'
activity (which doesn't try to change the system at
all)" (15).

The relationships between the polities within the global
village could be regulated by a democracy of cultures, in
what might be called a pluriversalist vision. This would not
be a world government, but merely an instance of minimal
arbitration between sovereign polities with highly divergent
systems. The philosopher and theologian Raimon Panikkar has
developed an alternative vision to that of a world
government, which he calls the bio-region: "natural regions
where livestock, plants, animals, water and men form a unique
and harmonious whole. We need to divorce the myth of the
universal republic from the notion of a world government or
system of control, or a world police. The way to do this is
by developing a different kind of relationship between
bioregions" (16).

Whatever one makes of these visions, one thing is certain:
the creation of democratic local initiatives is more
realistic than that of a democratic world government. Once we
have ruled out the idea of tackling the power of capital
head-on, what remains is the possibility of dissidence. This
is the strategy of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas in
Mexico. They have reinvented the notion of communal goods and
spaces - "commons" - and regained real popular control over
them. Their autonomous management of the Chiapas bioregion is
one illustration, in one context, of how localist dissidence
can work (17).

(1) Members of the ROCADe Network of Growth Objectors for
Post-development. See

(2) Décroissance, now a buzzword in French, means the
replacement of economic growth with a steady downscaling in
production levels to bring human use of the planet's
resources back within sustainable limits.

(3) See Serge Latouche, "The world downscaled", Le Monde
diplomatique, English language edition, December 2003.

(4) As early as 1975, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation
proposed the same self-limitation measures, for "endogenous,
self-reliant development", as degrowth advocates propose
today: "A ceiling on meat consumption, oil consumption . . .
more economical use of buildings . . . greater durability of
consumer goods ... no privately owned automobiles." Dag
Hammerskjöld report, 1975.

(5) Principles of Political Economy, Oxford World's Classics,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.

(6) Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of
Power in the World Economy, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, 1996.

(7) See

(8) Without affecting other healthy public measures such as
the taxation of financial transactions or the setting of an
upper limit on earnings.

(9) Ivan Illich believed that some technologies were
convivial and others were not and never could be. See Ivan
Illich, Tools for Conviviality, Calder and Boyars, London,
1973. Read Thierry Paquot, "The nonconformist", Le Monde
diplomatique, English language edition, January 2003, for a
profile of Illich.

(10) See William Stanton, The Rapid Growth of Human
Population 1750-2000: Nation by Nation, Multi-Science
Publishing, Brentwood, 2003.

(11) See the last chapter of Serge Latouche, Justice sans
limites, Paris, Fayard, 2003.

(12) In ancient Greece, the natural arena for politics was
the city-state, a grouping of neighbourhoods and villages.

(13) Takis Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy: the
Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New
Liberatory Project, Cassell, London, 1997.

(14) Alberto Magnaghi, Le projet local, Mardaga, Brussels,

(15) Fotopoulos, op cit.

(16) Raimon Pannikar, Politica e interculturalità,
L'Altrapagina, Città di Castello, 1995.

(17) According to Gustavo Esteva in Celebration of Zapatismo,
Multiversity and Citizens International, Penang, 2004.

Translated by Gulliver Cragg

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