What Is Economic Degrowth?

What Is Economic Degrowth?

Our economic system is premised on the notion of endless growth. Its unintentional manifestations include global warming, dwindling resources, proliferating pollution, the accelerating extinction of species, water and food shortages, all set against the backdrop of a burgeoning global population.

We live in an era that has generated more wealth than any previous known civilisation, yet remain surrounded by inequality. The market has failed to deliver on the promises of its supporters. In fact, we face an unresolved and deepening economic crisis. Ideologically driven geopolitical resource wars have further eroded the fragile reserves of the West.

The developed world’s accumulation of “stuff,” inherent to our consumer culture, has shifted wealth away from the historically dominant nations to the new emerging economies, led by China and India.

While pundits may dispute the scale and causes of our economic crisis, the politicians and economists fiddle at the fringes. Wealth continues to be generated for the select few, while the global system creaks under the strain of debt piled upon speculative instruments. This is propped up by an apparently healthy stock market driven by dollar printing presses running amok.

In light of all of the above, it would seem wise to propose, examine, explore and analyse other economic models, which are capable of sustaining both humanity and life on earth.

Perhaps the most revolutionary solution – revolutionary only because it challenges the foundations of our existing system, as any good revolutionary concept should – is that known in French as ‘décroissance,’ translated as degrowth.

Degrowth examines the flipside of an economy founded on growth. It emphasises putting a human face in how we transact and perhaps more importantly, interact. After its initial conceptualisation by Romanian economist, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, it has been elegantly expounded upon by many other articulate thinkers like Serge Latouche. Its roots lie in the Club of Rome report “The Limits of Growth” and can be traced back to other philosophers like Thoureau and Ghandi, who emphasised concepts like simplicity, justice and equality.

It is difficult to pin down exactly what degrowth is. It is not a model for an alternative economic system. It is more a tool for opening up a discussion on the failures of and alternatives to the status quo.

For instance we need to consider whether our primary reason to interact with strangers is to exploit and extract money from them. Surely happiness is more important than exploitation? Presently both rich and poor, exploited and exploiter alike are unhappy, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Degrowth supports ways to achieve a far more functional society than our present model, which externalises damage to both psyches and planet.

Degrowth is not so much a concept as a call to arms, the initiation of a cultural counter current. It is not a concept but a keyword to provide space for discourse. There is no textbook on degrowth. It is not the antithesis of “growth,” as communism is simplistically portrayed as the opposite of capitalism. Proponents reject polarised perspectives.

Instead, degrowth enables us to examine different ways of doing things, placing different emphases on what is important to us as humans and as society. It does not attempt to be a one size fits all prescription like capitalism, socialism or any other -ism. It is rather the promotion of a non-destructive, humanistic economy and society.

Surely a steady state economy and society, where we have enough but not too much, is far more satisfying than one in which competitive driven insecurity dominates?

The most rabid (and uniformed) critiques of degrowth inevitably dismiss proponents of degrowth as communists (or liberals in the USA!), who wish to take away from the rich to compensate the poor, consequently de-motivating everyone.

This is not at all what is proposed. Rather, degrowth is visualised as the birth of steering our technologically sophisticated world toward a balanced contraction or steady state system that recognises and values everyone’s worth, not one that devours everyone who fails, just as it devours resources in order to sustain itself.

We cannot continue to externalise the impacts of our present model. We cannot endlessly shift production to exploit poor workers in South Africa, Myanmar, China or anywhere else, in a competitive race to the bottom. Degrowth suggests that self-sufficient, participatory local economies are more effective and human than competitive, profit driven and globalised concepts of growth.

What prevents us from placing a true – not exploitative – value on the products and components of the world and the individuals that contribute the value? Proponents of degrowth are keenly observing the present economic crisis, where obscure financial instruments, controlled by young graduates driven by nothing more than greed and technical knowledge, inevitably shift the system towards an end-time entropy.

The reality is we are faced by two converging end-times. One is economic meltdown, the other a just as inevitable ecological meltdown. These two events are incontrovertibly linked if we continue down our existing path.

So what is the problem with creating a green economy based on reparation, whose core values are founded on restoration, not exploitation? Surely it makes far more sense to create a wetland than to destroy one? Even in capitalist terms, wetlands are worth anything between US$2000 and US$80,000 per hectare per year, through the value of natural services they provide.

Is it sufficient to place an economic value on natural services? Why not rather provide for and reward healthy ecosystems, such as wetlands that attenuate floods, provide clean water, fish, food, and fibre? By examining what really is valuable, constructive shifts in perspective can occur. Thus opportunities open to reclaim the humanity in how we transact, while including and redesigning the systems that sustain us.

Degrowth also forces us to re-examine how we use language. Words are all too often usurped and abused to the point of meaninglessness. Just what is sustainable about development? Is sustainable development even possible using the present model? What is green about subsidising fossil fuels, industrial fishing fleets and strip mining that destroy our planet, water and air? Greenwash has made greed interchangeable with green, turning the purity, logic and beauty of language on its head.

In a purportedly democratic world, embracing the alternative of degrowth enables us to question why and how democracy has been usurped by corporations with all of the rights of people but few of the responsibilities? Why are human rights allowed to be trumped by those of predatory corporates? Degrowth impels us to reclaim power from agents implicit in the corruption of democracy by profit driven anti-democratic principles and forces.

Many insist such lofty notions are but empty dreams. But what about the empty dreams built upon the empty promises of a failing economic system which devastates communities and environments?

Surely degrowth offers sweeter options than the bitter taste of poisoned water and the reek of acrid air. What of the abstraction of land exploited beyond its carrying capacity, where it has simply become a medium in which patented seeds are planted and chemicals applied to grow what we unthinkingly refer to as “food,” supplying a fast food culture which has more to do with kill than fill. The flipside is the slow food movement, epitomising the disparate attractions of degrowth.

Degrowth is more than simply the opposite of growth. It is an idea, a seed that allows us to reshape not only perceptions but also our world. Degrowth opens us up to possibilities far too complex to describe and analyse in such a brief exposition as this.

Through stimulating a more comprehensive discourse around the possibilities raised by considering degrowth – which will never be a one size fits all for both North and South, developed and undeveloped in the same way as the existing model claims to be – we can at least open ourselves to examine novel solutions to the daunting challenges we face.

Originally published 16 November 2010.

This article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service – http://www.sacsis.org.za
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The Tragedy of Equatorial Guinea – political slave to the resource curse

Note- this is an article I wrote ten years ago, back in June 2004. Since then the situation has deteriorated in this country with the Nguema family still firmly in control, politically and economically. It is not only the timber that is being stripped but the vast resources of oil being sold to western, mainly US, companies, without the slightest complaint about the political status quo; in fact the leadership attended the recent Africa US summit in Washington. It was originally published as a leader in the Cape Times.

Reposted 7 August 2014.


Follow the Money; Equatorial Guinea

by Glenn Ashton

27 June 2004

A decade ago, few people had even heard of Equatorial Guinea, let alone knew where it was. Guinea, Guinea-Bissau yes, perhaps; but Equatorial Guinea? That was, until the late 1990s, when large oil deposits were discovered off its coast and it was catapulted from its position as a sleepy, poorly run African backwater into the third biggest oil producer in Africa.


South Africans gained closer familiarity with Equatorial Guinea when a group of South African mercenaries were arrested in Harare, allegedly en route from South Africa to Equatorial Guinea to stage a coup on behalf of forces unknown, but said to come from opponents to the Nguema family. Obiang Nguema has run this impoverished country with an iron fist since the 1970s. He came to power by deposing his despised Uncle Francisco Macias.


Political accountability and democratic governance remains a distant dream for this blighted nation which could politely be referred to as a plutocracy but what could more plainly be called a kleptocracy. This kleptocracy is noteworthy given the beneficiaries of the oil boom and timber extraction, certainly not the populace of that nation. There have been elections, but there have also been hangings of opposition members, as well as allegations of torture and the extra-judicial killing of opponents. Over one third of the population of Equatorial Guinea lives in exile, with deep-seated opposition to the Nguema dynasty widespread both within and outside the country.


Recently the South African connection deepened when the son of Obiang Nguema, Teodoro (aka Teodorin) Nguema Obiang, bought two very pricey properties in Cape Town, one each in Clifton and Bishopscourt, at a combined price of over R50 million. Teodorin Nguema, besides being the son of the president, is also the minister of Forestry for Equatorial Guinea.


Most would consider this an unimportant post until one considers the importance of forestry to Equatorial Guinea. This tiny nation, nestled between Cameroon and Gabon on the Gulf of Guinea, is mostly swathed by lush tropical forest. Make that ‘was’.


Equatorial Guinea is comprised of a total area of around 28, 000 square kilometres, smaller than Lesotho but larger than Swaziland. Of this area, 22, 000 square kilometres of Equatorial Guinea was forested up to a decade ago. Of this, a total 15, 000 square kilometres has been allocated to industrial logging.


Wood is an increasingly valuable global commodity. Sustainable timber extraction is estimated at approximately 400, 000 cubic meters of timber annually. This level was reached in 1996, and in 1997 an estimated 757,173 cubic metres of timber was exported. Presently an estimated 1 million cubic meters of timber are being removed from these forests annually. The entire ecological balance of the region is being irretrievably damaged by this exploitation and EU and US based watchdog organisations have raised concerns at the highest levels about the present state of affairs. And Teodorin is the man in direct charge of this overexploitation of his nations’ resources.


Eighty to ninety percent of the total population of about half a million Equatorial Guineans rely on the forest for food, medicine, shelter, fuel and for other necessities of life. While there are laws that are supposed to protect the forests and limit overexploitation, these are reportedly widely ignored. Timber companies have failed to support even token projects that favour the forest dwellers. Encroachment on traditional lands is further increasing the pressures on rotations amongst small-scale farms in the remaining patches of forest, causing further overexploitation and unsustainable use.


Organisations like the World Rainforest Movement report that the forest resources are being depleted for the benefit of Trans-national corporations while local residents are deprived of their means to livelihood.


As in other places where logging has been allowed, it is not only the forest that suffers, it is the entire ecosystem. The bushmeat trade increases as access into pristine areas is enabled by logging roads moving ever further into the rainforests. Possibilities for exposure to haemorrhagic fevers, unknown viruses and other diseases are proven to increase when logging opens up wilderness areas. Guidelines on keeping slopes free from logging are evidently being ignored and experts warn that this overexploitation is an environmental disaster in the making, with ecological collapse as its inevitable result.


Teordorin is reputed to have close ties to Shimmer International, a subsidiary of the Malaysian Trans-national logging company Rimbunan Hijau. The World Rainforest Movement quotes Richard Wilcox’s study “Asian Economies Fuel Forest Meltdown”, saying that “Rimbunan Hijau has become one of the most ruthless logging companies in the world”, due to abuses of national laws and regulations, human rights violations and contractual breaches. Several other equally disreputable corporations are also involved in this pillage of the resource.


If only a fraction of this story were true, it would be incumbent upon the South African government to investigate this matter. What sort of people do we allow to purchase property here? Surely it is unacceptable to allow such questionably sourced funds to move freely into a legitimate marketplace? Is Financial Intelligence Act (FICA) not designed for precisely such extra-legal practices? Does SA, as a driver of NEPAD, not have an obligation to act in this case and more importantly, to be seen to act to promote democratic governance in Equatorial Guinea? A reasonable person would surely argue that there is little difference between controlling the illicit funds of drug barons and those in places of power who exploit and abuse agreed international standards for environmental governance for self-enrichment and who have acted against their national interest.


The amount of over R50 million appears to have a high likelihood of being tainted by environmental and human rights abuses. An important part of the tropical rainforest in Central Africa is rapidly being depleted to fund the undemocratic leadership of what is claimed to be one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa.


Just as FICA should be applied in this case, so too the principles of good governance as espoused by NEPAD should also be brought to bear in the form of African diplomatic pressure and sanction. Equatorial Guinea has recently gained the resources that should allow its people to be lifted from poverty en masse. To allow the wealth of a nation with a sixth of the population of Cape Town to be squandered on vulgar, opulent mansions, amongst the most expensive in Africa, appears bereft of any moral or ethical principle. Such a situation should not be countenanced by nations like South Africa that purport to promote good governance.


What is presently happening in Equatorial Guinea will inevitably have disastrous long-term effects on that nation. Just as its oil has been found to be monopolised by its tiny elite, so too is its timber. Are South Africans prepared to allow the reputation of their nation to be degraded by offering haven to such people? By all appearances Teodorin stands as an antithesis to the very tenets of freedom and democracy, so hard fought for and held so dear by South Africans. Can South Africans be seen to sell their soul for silver tainted by mud and blood? What sort of message does this send to the world?


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