Furthest Right

For a Society of Declining Growth (Serge Latouche)

For a Society of Declining Growth

Serge Latouche   


“Declining growth is a pure necessity..The volumes of worldwide traffic of persons and goods with its negative consequences could be put in question (relocalization). The loud sensational advertising with its disastrous consequences could be put in question. Finally, the vast amount of throwaway products and gadgets could be put in question,, We must alight from the logic of the economy..”

[The French sociologist and philosopher of technology Jacques Ellul was an optimist: “It will be a satisfaction”, he said in an interview, “when we eat healthy food, endure less noise, live in a balanced environment and no longer have to tolerate all the street- and freight traffic.” A first prerequisite for this reorientation would be the general insight of a policy of declining growth. The fatal belief that nothing happens without growth still prevails among the right and the left, neoliberals and social democrats.

On February 14, 2002 George W. Bush declared in a speech before meteorologists: “Growth is the solution, not the problem. Growth is the key to progress in environmental protection and makes possible investments in clean technology.” (1) Many leftists share this position. Some advocates of another globalization think that growth will also ultimately solve the social question by creating jobs and a balanced income distribution.

For example, Fabrice Nicolino who wrote an ecology column for the Paris weekly Politis left the paper after an editorial conflict over pension reform. (2) The subsequent discussion revealed a current uneasiness of the left. A reader’s letter to the editor rejoiced, “Someone dared write against a standardized thinking shared by France’s whole political class. This uniform thinking starts from the idea that our happiness come what may depends on more growth, more productivity, more purchasing power and therefore more consumption.” (3)

After decades of uncontrolled waste, we have obviously fallen into a cyclone. Climate change and belligerent conflicts around oil arise. Wars around water resources are imminent. (4) Biogenetic catastrophes are foreseeable and could represent the end for important plant- and animal species. Thus the growth society is neither future-friendly nor desirable. A society of “declining growth” could solve existing problems convivially.

The growth society has the tendency to be only defined by a growth-oriented economy. The growth society is not future-friendly because it will strike the limits of the biosphere sooner or later. If environmental encumbrance is measured by the “ecological footprint” left behind on the earth by our way of life, our land consumption is neither socially balanced nor mindful of the regeneration capacity of the biosphere. A US citizen on an average consumes 9.6 hectares of land to maintain his living standard, a Canadian 7.2 hectares and the average European 4.5 hectares. Thus we are far from equal rights worldwide and from a culture of sustainability requiring 1.4 hectares per person with a constant world population. (5)

With “eco-efficiency”, the central term of sustainable development, the experts now believe they have found the magical formula for reconciling the contradictory interests of economic growth and environmental protection. The goal is the reduction of environmental burdens and resource consumption to a level below the maximum load of our planet. (6)

The eco-efficiency of our mode of production has noticeably risen. At the same time global environmental conditions have worsened with a largely unbridled growth. The declining environmental pollution per produced unit is systematically shattered, a fact known as “negative feedback”. The new economy is clearly less material than the traditional economy. However the traditional economy is supplemented, not replaced. Resource consumption is even increasing. (7) Only rigid neoliberals insist that the science of the future will solve all problems and artificially produced substitutes can be developed for everything natural.

For the culture critic Ivan Illich, the programmed end of the growth society is not unconditionally bad news. “The Good News is that we need not renounced on our lifestyle to avoid the negative effects – as though we had to choose between the enjoyment of an excellent food and the risks bound with that food. No, this food itself is bad. Turning away would be good for us. Living differently is a way of living better.” (6)

The growth society is not desirable for at least three reasons. The growth society leads to growing income disparities and more injustice. It produces a largely illusory prosperity. A convivial society among the better off is not created but an anti-society sick in its own wealth.

The increasing standard of living from which most citizens of the North think they can profit increasingly proves to be an illusion. Certainly, they can buy more goods and services with their money but they repress the partly monetary and partly non-monetary costs that rise even more quickly. The quality of life (air, water and environment) is clearly worse. The modern way of life inflicts massive compensation- and reparation-costs (medicines, transportation, leisure-time pleasure). Scarce goods become constantly more expensive (mineral water, energy, green spaces).

The Established Left Condemned to Social Liberalism

With the “Genuine Progress Indicator” (GPI), the environmental economist Herman Daly developed a synthetic index that corrects the gross domestic product (GDP) with the losses caused by pollution and encumbrance of the environment. In the US, the index has stagnated since the beginning of the 70s although the GDP has risen. (9) Thus growth is a myth even within the affluent- or consumer society since ever- greater environmental losses occur.

To prevent any misunderstandings, declining growth isn’t an ideal in itself, the only goal of a society beyond growth or the only goal of another possible world. Declining growth is a pure necessity. We should make a virtue out of distress and regard declining growth in the societies of the North as a worthwhile and useful good. (10) The motto “declining growth” calls us to bid farewell to growth for growth’s sake. However declining growth isn’t synonymous with “negative growth”, an absurd compound word that only shows how much the notion of eternal growth rules our thinking.

As everybody knows, our societies fall into distress with slackening growth. This leads to unemployment and cuts in social spending, culture and environmental protection that assure people of a minimum quality of life. Thus the catastrophic effects of negative growth rates can be easily imagined. As there is nothing worse for the work society than the ending of work, there is nothing worse for the growth society than growth that doesn’t arrive. Therefore the established left is condemned to social liberalism and doesn’t tackle the de-colonization of our conceptual world. Declining growth can only be envisioned in a “society of declining growth”. The contours of this society should be sketched.

A policy of declining growth first consists in reducing environmentally harmful encumbrances that do not satisfy any need. The established volumes of the worldwide traffic of persons and goods with its negative consequences could be put in question (slogan “re-localization” of the economy). The loud sensational advertising with its disastrous consequences could be put in question. Finally, the vast amount of throwaway products and gadgets could be put in question. All this would considerably reduce consumption of material resources in the sense of declining growth.

Seen this way, declining growth does not automatically mean lower prosperity. For Karl Marx, 1848 was the time of social revolution. Marx believed the system was ripe for the transition to the communist surplus society. The incredible over-production of cotton products and industrial goods seem more than adequate to feed, clothe and house at least the western population after the abolition of the capital monopoly. The material “wealth” at that time was far less than today. There were neither cars nor airplanes, neither plastics nor washing machines, neither refrigerators nor computers, to say nothing of biotechnologies, pesticides, fertilizers or nuclear energy. Despite enormous upheavals through industrialization, needs were still modest and their satisfaction was possible. You7 could almost touch happiness.

To strive for a society of declining growth, we must alight from the logic of the economy and put in question the primacy of the economy in our heads. One precondition for that transformation would be a drastic reduction of paid or gainful working hours to assure satisfactory employment for everyone. Jacques Ellul, one of the pioneering thinkers of a society of declining growth, set the upper limit at two hours in 1981. (11)

The programmatic can be summarized in six terms relying on the charter “Consumer Habits and Lifestyles” presented at the forum of non-governmental organizations in Rio: reassessing, restructuring, redistributing, reducing, reusing and recycling. These six interwoven goals could set in motion a circulus virtuous of calm, convivial and future-friendly declining growth.

Values must change: altruism instead of egoism, cooperation instead of unrestrained competition, leisure instead of obsessive work, joy in the beautiful outcome instead of productivist efficiency and reason instead of rationality. The problem is that the values have a system character. They are produced and stimulated by the system and contribute to strengthening the system. The personal decision for another value orientation like a simple life may dodge the dominant trend and undermine the ideological foundations of the system. This personal decision remains without consequences without a radical questioning of the whole.

What an immense, utopian program! Is this transition possible without revolution? Is the spiritual or intellectual revolution possible without social authority? The drastic reduction of environmental encumbrance, the production of exchange values, requires a limitation of the production of practical values…

Market and profit may have their justification as indicators for scarce goods. They have abdicated as foundations of the system. Step-by-step goals can be imagined. Whether they will be simply accepted by the “privileged” is as hard to answer as the question whether the present victims of the system who depend intellectually and physically “on the needle” of this system will accept them. The heat wave that afflicted southwest Europe in the summer of 2003 contributed more than all our arguments to planting in the general consciousness the necessity of a society of declining growth. The educative effect of catastrophes will help in the future to the de-colonization of our conceptual world.


Serge Latouche is an emeritus professor of the University of Paris. This article originally published in: die tageszeitung, November 14, 2003, is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]


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