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Getting to the root of degrowth in a South African context (Part One)

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Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

What exactly does ‘degrowth’ mean and what is its relevance in a South African context? This two-part essay explores the origins, definition and praxis of degrowth, notably in South Africa. The first part focuses on definitions.

The term ‘degrowth’ has become quite a buzzword over the past few years. It has gained traction as more and more people debate the failures of Washington Consensus policies and the corollary non-trickle-down economics they have engendered, with billionaires now owning more wealth than 4.6 billion people while huge swathes of the global population wallow in poverty, very often in communities located within or next to collapsing ecosystems. Some thought leaders have also started calling for degrowth in South Africa. 

The term ‘degrowth’ was first coined by French radical ecosocialists in the early 2000s as a response to rising free market economic policies. This was the period when the full impacts of Reaganomics (tax cuts, deregulation, social spending cuts), Thatcherism (small state, free markets) and the Washington Consensus policies (trade liberalisation, financial liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation, property rights, foreign direct investment, tax reforms, competitive exchange rates, positive real interest rates, public expenditure reprioritisation and fiscal discipline) were really starting to be felt in many countries in the global North, with ever shrinking public investment, accompanied by rapid globalisation pushing an ever-growing number of people into precarity. 

Manufacturing communities were collapsing as new world system value chains shifted production lines to low-wage, low regulation, pre-industrial countries, which also inherited the externalities of cheap mass production in the process, ie, pollution (air, water, soil), diseases, environmental destruction, wildlife extinction, urbanisation with high poverty levels, etc. It is within this context of stagnation and rising inequalities that activists first started using the word “degrowth” to champion a new kind of economics characterised by a return to slower, more managed development. The concept first spread within Latin countries (France, Spain, Italy, Portugal) before being embraced by a growing number of other countries around the world. 

The word ‘degrowth’ comes from the French décroissance, which means to slow down the growth rate, and here we are talking about the economic growth rate of course. Two key French words that we need to define here are croissance, which means growth (croissance économique = economic growth) and the verb décroître, which means to reduce in volume, according to the Larousse dictionary. If you fuse the words décroître (or the prefix de-) and croissance, you get décroissance, ie, degrowth. The Larousse dictionary goes on to define degrowth as a policy that recommends a reduction of the growth rate in order to prioritise sustainable development.    

While the current dominant economic orthodoxy is that relentless growth is possible and even desirable, degrowth calls for a reversal of that mindset. Richard Easterlin demonstrated in the 1970s, for example, that when a society achieves a certain level of wealth, the population’s general wellbeing does not necessarily continue to keep pace with GDP numbers as the economy continues to grow. It is for this reason that Serge Latouche, one of the most prominent proponents of the degrowth movement in France argues that degrowth is really about moving away from a fixation on GDP numbers and productivity (productivism) to focus on individual wellbeing, good eating, good health and general happiness in a clean, healthy environment. He adds that degrowth does not refer only to an economic project, but rather to a holistic political, economic and social concept – a new way of life, if you will. Similarly, Romain Gaspar talks about quitting the GDP religion (sortir de la religion PIB) to save the planet, which is struggling under the weight of overproduction and overconsumption. What we should ask ourselves therefore, as we assess the relevance of the term, is what we should spend less time growing, and where we should focus our energies instead. 

A number of South Africans have also written on the topic. Patrick Bond argues that degrowth is necessary because man’s ecological footprint already far exceeds the Earth’s regenerative capacity. South Africa is the world’s 14th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). In a country beset by rising temperatures and multiyear droughts, GHG emissions should be dropping rather than increasing. A degrowth economy would focus more public and even private investment on building more schools, cooperatives, hospitals, community centres, parks and playgrounds to offer people a better quality of life. Similarly, Glenn Ashton argues that the market has failed to deliver on the promises of its supporters and that the pursuit of endless growth generates a plethora of unintentional manifestations such as pollution and shortages (food, water). When Dr Mamphela Ramphele made the following statement at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference on October 13 2020, she was alluding to a degrowth economy in South Africa:

“We also need to move away from GDP as a measure of progress. GDP is an inadequate measure given that it largely accounts for, and values, only consumption. GDP does not take into account the ecological costs in the production of goods and services that have a major impact on the wellbeing of people and our planet.”

In an earlier opinion piece titled Africa’s Unique Opportunity for Post-Pandemic Rejuvenation, which appeared in Daily Maverick, she wrote that: 

“There is no wisdom in hankering after the old socio-economic development models that brought us to the multilayered global crises (climate, health and socio-economic) we face today… We need to transform our economic and social relationships to build an inclusive prosperous democracy where wellbeing for all people and the planet are sustainably promoted.”

So what exactly would a degrowth economy look like? What do degrowthers want? Here are a few changes being promoted by the advocates of the concept:

  • Better management of our limited natural resources. In 2019, young people from across the world took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to call for precisely this. 
  • Prioritisation of commons in some areas (water, electricity, healthcare, education) rather than privatised services. 
  • Elimination of tax havens. 
  • Greater transparency in financial transactions to stop illicit financial flows, short selling and other perceived harmful practices. 
  • Greater investment in human capital as well as in care-givers. The people who take care of our communities (teachers, police officers, firemen) and our children are often underpaid. 
  • Reduction of consumption, eg, less throwaway fashion and technology. 
  • Promotion of short value chains and greater production of goods and services in the immediate vicinity where they are consumed.
  • Promotion of organic farming and elimination of most pesticides that are harmful to vital bee colonies. 

Although the degrowth movement is fairly new, its core principles have obviously been with us for thousands of years and the points listed above should appear reasonable to most people. I’m certain that you have wondered about some of these things at some stage – why you have to replace your mobile phone so often, for example. If people have the feeling that cars, appliances and gadgets are breaking down much faster than they used to a few decades ago, that is because they actually are. Due to built-in obsolescence, we have grown accustomed to changing our appliances and gadgets every few years. We no longer question why it is so. Rotary dial telephones used to last a lifetime. Nowadays, if something on our mobile phone, TV or laptop breaks down, we throw the entire thing out and go for a new one, instead of replacing the faulty component. 

This is how manufacturers, advertisers and economists want it. They are constantly urging you to go out and spend, spend, spend. The more you consume, the greater the feeling that the economy is on the right path. Every day, your smartphones are flooded with text messages and calls about new product offerings. Sometimes, we fall for these adverts, and buy things that we do not need. 

When you go out shopping, you see that everything is made in China – and that makes you wonder why more things cannot be manufactured closer to home. This type of metabolic rift, ie, the distance between where products are manufactured and where they are consumed, is making it harder and harder for the Earth to regenerate itself.

To some sceptics, degrowth conjures up images of the entire economy grinding to a complete halt, with no production, no commerce, no activity. They wonder why anybody would want that. That is why the concept is regarded by some as heresy and sacrilege, the latest shiny object of bored academics and Marxists. Serge Latouche acknowledges that the advocates of the term almost committed epistemic suicide, sacrilege if you will, with the word because it creates misunderstanding and can be misinterpreted as stagnation, regression and backwardness. However, when deconstructed and applied to our daily lives, some of the ideas behind the movement start to make sense. Many communities around the world that espouse slow living are known for good health and longevity. That is the reason why countries like Nepal have shifted their focus from GDP growth to the happiness index. 

They say that money cannot buy you happiness in some situations. The Gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement in France was started by people who have nine-to-five jobs but whose salaries can no longer cover their monthly expenses. They cannot afford food, hospital bills (and hospital visits kept being postponed), holidays, etc. In some instances, they were borrowing money from family members to buy train tickets to get to and from their workplace. Farms were collapsing because supermarkets were unilaterally imposing purchasing prices on farmers, in many cases well below production costs. 

Many of the conditions that gave rise to the yellow vests movement in France are present in South Africa: hunger, inadequate access to clean water, unsustainable debt levels, poverty, unemployment, multi-year droughts, environmental destruction and so on. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed or exacerbated some of these challenges, and so it is not unreasonable to expect that the calls for degrowth in South Africa will only continue to grow. In the next section of this essay, we look at the necessity and praxis of degrowth in South Africa. DM

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  • Sam van Coller says:

    Degrowth is an unfortunate choice of nomenclature – it makes the selling of the thinking behind the word much more difficult. Why not stick to words such a social progress, regenerative business and agricultural practices, sustainability/

  • Christine Cameron-Dow says:

    Marvellous concept. Unfortunately, it can only work if there is a concomitant reduction in population growth. As long as there are hot, hungry masses crowding closer and closer together, there remains a need for high production levels. Sort that out first, then we have something to talk about.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Just another cliche. I suggest the only change that should be made to the present system of economics is to ensure that GDP and Per Capita GDP are always quoted together. I believe that is what the DA will press for.

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