You’re wrong Kate. Degrowth is a compelling word

Giorgos Kallis responds to yesterday’s post on degrowth by Kate Raworth, plus you get a chance to voteGiorgis

My friend Kate Raworth ‘cannot bring herself to use the word’ degrowth. Here are nine reasons why I use it.

1. Clear definition. ‘Degrowth’ is as clear as it gets. Definitely no less clear than ‘equality’; or ‘economic growth’ for that matter (is it growth of welfare or activity? monetised or all activity? if only monetised, why would we care?). Beyond a critique of the absurdity of perpetual growth, degrowth signifies a decrease of global carbon and material footprint, starting from the wealthy.

The ‘green growth camp’ also wants such a decrease, but it argues that GDP growth is necessary for – or compatible with – it. Degrowth, not: in all likelihood GDP will decrease too. If we do the right things to thrive, such as capping carbon, if we transform the profit economy to one of care and solidarity, the GDP economy will shrink. Kate too calls for ‘an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows’ and to ‘free ourselves’ from the growth ‘lock-in’. The Germans named this ‘post-growth’ and I am fine with it. But somehow it beautifies the scale of the challenge: reducing our energy or material use in half and transforming and stabilizing a shrinking (not simply ‘not growing’) economy. With its shock element ‘de’-growth reminds that we won’t have our cake and eat it all.

degrowth 52. Right conversations with the right people. Know this feeling ‘what am I doing with these people in the same room’? Hearing the words ‘win-win’ and looking at graphs where society, environment and economy embrace one another in loving triangles as markets internalize ‘externalities’ (sic)? Well, you won’t be invited to these rooms if you throw the missile of degrowth. And this is good. Marx wouldn’t be concerned with sitting at the table with capitalists to convince them about communism.

Why pretend we agree? I’ve never had a boring or confusing conversation about degrowth (witness the present one). Passions run high, core questions are raised (did we loose something with progress? what is in the past for the future? is system change possible and how?). But to have these conversations you need to know about – and defend – degrowth.

3. Mission un-accomplished. Kate asks us to imagine that the ‘missile’ ‘has landed and it has worked’. Problem is the missile has landed, but it hasn’t worked, so it is not yet ‘the time to move on’. Microsoft spellcheck keeps correcting degrowth into ‘regrowth’. Degrowth is anathema to the right and left. Economists turn ash-faced when they hear ‘degrowth’. Eco-modernists capture the headlines with a cornucopian future powered by nuclear and fed by GMOs. A recent book calls degrowthers ‘Malthusians’, eco-austerians and ‘collapse porn addicts’. A radical party like Syriza had as slogan ‘growth or austerity’. The ideology of growth is stronger than ever. In the 70s its critique was widespread, politicians entertained it and at least economists felt they had to respond.

4. There is a vibrant community and this is an irreversible fact. In Barcelona 20-30 of us meet frequently to read and discuss degrowth, cook and drink, go to forests and to protests. We disagree in almost everything other than that degrowth brings us together. In the fourth international conference in Leipzig, there were 3500 participants. Most of them were students. After the closing plenary, they took to the shopping streets with a music band, raised placards against consumerism and blocked a coal factory. Young people from all over the world want to study degrowth in Barcelona. If you experience this incredible energy, you find that degrowth is a beautiful word. But I understand the difficulty of using it in a different context: half a year a visitor in London and I feel I am the odd and awkward one insisting on degrowth.

5. I come from the Mediterranean. Progress looks different; civilization there peaked centuries ago. Serge degrowth 4Latouche says that ‘degrowth is seen as negative, something unpardonable in a society where at all costs one must ‘‘think positively’’’. ‘Be positive’ is a North-American invention. Please, let us be ‘negative’. I can’t take all that happiness. Grief, sacrifice, care, honour: life is not all about feeling ‘better’.

For Southerners at heart – be it from the Global North or South, East or West – this idea of constant betterment and improvement has always seemed awkward. Wasting ourselves and our products irrationally, refusing to improve and be ‘useful’, has its allure. Denying our self-importance is an antidote to a Protestant ethic at the heart of growth. Let’s resist the demand to be positive!

6. I am not a linguist. Who am I to question Professor Lakoff that we can’t tell people ‘don’t think of an elephant!’ because they will think of one? Then again, a-theists did pretty well in their battle against gods. And so did those who wanted to abolish slavery. Or, unfortunately, conservatives for ‘deregulation’. By turning something negative into their rallying cry, they disarmed the taken-for-granted goodness of the claim of their enemy. The queer movement turned an insult into pride. This is the art of subversion. Is there a linguistic theory for it?

This is different from what Lakoff criticized US democrats for. Democrats accept the frame of Republicans, providing softer alternatives (‘less austerity’). ‘Green growth’ is that; degrowth is a subversive negation of growth: a snail, not a leaner elephant. Guardian’s language columnist Steven Poole finds degrowth ‘cute’. When most people agree with him, and find the snail cute, we will be on the path of a ‘great transition’.

7. Cannot be co-opted. Buen vivir sounds great. Who wouldn’t like to ‘live well’? And indeed Latin Americans took it at heart: the Brazil-Ecuador inter-Amazonian highway with implanted ‘creative cities’ in-between; Bolivia’s nuclear degrowthpower programme; and a credit card in Venezuela. All in the name of ‘buen vivir’. Which reminds me of ‘Ubuntu Cola’. No one would build a highway, a nuclear reactor, issue more credit or sell colas in the name of degrowth. As George Monbiot put it capitalism can sell everything, but not less.

Could degrowth be coopted by austerians? Plausible, but unlikely; austerity is always justified for the sake of growth. Capitalism looses legitimacy without growth. By anti-immigrants? Scary, but not impossible, it has been tried in France. This is why we cannot abandon the term: we have to develop and defend its content.

8. It is not an end. It is as absurd to degrow ad infinitum as it is to grow. The point is to abolish the god of Growth and construct a different society with low footprints. There is a ‘lighthouse’ for this: the Commons. A downscaled commons though. Peer-to-peer production or the sharing economy use materials and electricity too. Degrowth reminds that you cannot have your cake and eat it all, even if it’s a digitally fabricated one.

9. Focuses my research. I spend effort arguing with eco-modernists, green growthers, growth economists, or Marxist developmentalists about the (un)sustainability of growth. This persistence to defend degrowth is productive: it forces to research questions that no one else asks. Sure, we can in theory use fewer materials; but then why do material footprints still grow? What would work, social security, money, look like in an economy that contracts? One who is convinced of green growth won’t ask these questions.

Kate is not; she agrees with our 10 degrowth policy proposals: work-sharing, debt jubilee, public money, basic income. Why in the name of degrowth though she asks? Because we cannot afford to be agnostic. It makes a huge difference, both for research and design, whether you approach these as means of stimulus and growth anew or of managing and stabilizing degrowth.

Degrowth remains a necessary word.

Giorgos Kallis is ICREA professor of ecological economics in Barcelona and Leverhulme visiting professor at SOAS, London. He is the editor of Degrowth. A vocabulary for a new era (Routledge).

OK, so let’s have a vote (if only to get rid of the existing poll, which is out of date). Do you think degrowth is a) a good idea, but a bad word (Kate), b) a good idea and a good word (Giorgos) or c) not a good idea so the word is immaterial (me plus not sure about the politics of zero/negative growth)

Do you think degrowth is:

  • a good idea and a good word (Giorgos) (42%, 189 Votes)
  • a good idea, but a bad word (Kate) (38%, 169 Votes)
  • not a good idea so the word is immaterial (me) (21%, 93 Votes)

Total Voters: 449

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25 Responses to “You’re wrong Kate. Degrowth is a compelling word”
  1. Giorgos, many thanks for this response – it is a privilege and pleasure to debate with friends!

    Three thoughts from me in reply to your reply.

    First, I like your point about the art of subversion and I agree it can be very powerful, as with the example of reclaiming the word ‘queer’. No doubt there is a linguistic theory for it – and I’d love the chance to ask George Lakoff for his take on it. But still I suspect that ‘degrowth’ counts as negation not subversion. Other people’s views on that?…

    Second, I agree that the power of ‘degrowth’ lies in the fact that – unlike buen vivir or prosperity – it is very unlikely to be co-opted as a cover for the current economic system. Yes we have seen that happen all too often, and the positive frame that I am proposing – whatever it turns out to be – would indeed be vulnerable to being co-opted too. But, ironically, I think the very same defiant tone that will save ‘degrowth’ from being co-opted will also bar it from being widely adopted. My guess is that it will remain a resilient but inevitably niche movement – and we need to go far beyond niche.

    Which brings me to the last. I love the sound of your community in Barcelona that draws 20 or 30 people together to talk degrowth, drink wine and walk in the forest – next time I make it over there I would love to tag along. But let’s all set our sights on building a critical mass of 20 to 30 million people worldwide who are inspired by an alternative to the current economic system. And for that – as you know – I think we need a positive vision.

    That’s why I still believe the hunt for a new frame is on. And it is probably the most important game of Word Search that will be played in the 21st century…

  2. I actually think you are both right. We need a dialectical approach to building counter-hegemony. Kate is right in saying that “degrowth” doesn’t/have wide appeal. Giorgos is right in saying it is precise enough and acts as an organising principle for a growing movement.
    So what do we do?
    I think we continue to use “degrowth” but do that alongside other general and specific terms.
    I’ll continue to use the twitter #tag “degrowth” because that helps the regrowth community to interconnect. I’ll continue to refer to degrowth because we need that “missile” just like “ban the bomb” and “stop the war”.
    I’ll promote our general concept of the Viable Community because that resonates with our allies who don’t (yet) accept all the argument.
    And I’ll endeavour to be specific by calling attention to the more technical arguments and policy questions: decoupling/and rebound, “green Keynesianism”, resource caps, working time etc.

  3. Giorgos Kallis

    Thanks Kate.

    while we are having our civilized conversation, the twitter is on fire about the ‘degrowth movement’. A conservative radio talk show host in the US ‘revealed’ the secret plan behind the Paris talks and ‘exposed’ Obama’s ‘Marxist conspiracy’ to bring degrowth to America. I would laugh out loud if he wasnt dead serious. You will get the feeling (if not chills like me) if you hear a few minutes of his rant (basically quoting from our book, but with a voice that gives it a different twist):

    If you throw a missile word you can well expect back a nuclear bomb. Makes me wonder: should we have opted for a less ‘in your face’ word that wouldn’t have animated such passions and hatred? By my nature I am not a confrontational type, and the anger I see on the web against ‘the degrowth movement’ does make me feel uncomfortable. But I would feel equally uncomfortable with hiding the differences below the carpet, so as to get as much people as possible on board, only to find later on and while we are on the same board that we don’t agree at all. ‘Degrowth’ makes the conflict visible, and this way it might help us work through it. ‘Consensual’ words are more passive aggressive.

    I am also a chemist and an ecological economist, not a linguist and definitely a bad psychologist. My reading of the data, and my guess, as informed as it can be by someone who has spent most of his adult life reading on such stuff, is that to avoid climate change and environmental destruction, we need to reduce footprints and economic activity. I would like it to be otherwise, but it isn’t (and I know you agree with me on this). So, even if degrowth were to be a bad slogan, I still think it is a necessary word analytically and scientifically. Terms such as ‘sustainability’ or ‘wellbeing’ do not capture neither the nature of what has to been done, nor the scale of the challenge.

    Finally: I can’t see what is the point of trying to convince the few people and the small niche community that is animated by the word ‘degrowth’ to abandon it. It is not as if the word is putting an obstacle to something, or that it is diverting energies to the wrong cause. Most of the ‘degrowthers’ I know are involved in their personal, political and professional lives in many other causes. They were in the front lines of movements such as the Indignados and the Climate Justice movement, they live in the way they ‘preach’, and they work the way they talk. What’s the point of convincing them that they are mislead and use the wrong word?

    Yours friendly,

  4. Samuel Cumpsty

    Two very stimulating posts, thank you Kate & Giorgos. I appreciate the arguments and passion on both sides.

    Having come in as agnostic on the usefulness of the term, I’m now convinced that it is not a useful one for what we need to achieve.

    Giorgos’ 2nd reason sums it up best for me: if we’re not able to engage constructively with the pro-growthers, many of whom are, as the degrowth arguments point out, running the show, then I’m not clear how we’re expecting things will change.

    ‘Right conversation with the right people’ sounds dangerously cliquish. It would be cynical to level the charge of navel-gazing and self-approving behaviours to those passionate for the term and concepts of degrowth, I don’t doubt that most if not all feel a real sense of urgency and desire for change. But unless we create platforms for dialogue where alternative models can be co-created with those attached to growth (which aren’t just the rich, by the way), then we’re wasting time, which is possibly the scarcest resource of all.

  5. Giorgos Kallis

    Thanks Samuel:

    we can engage constructively with pro-growthers, but by setting clearly our terrain and marking out our difference, not by trying to use terms that do not offend their cosmovision. Politics is about negotiation among antagonistic and irreducible visions of the future (my vulgar interpretation of Chantal Mouffe ‘On the political’). I have no problem debating with pro-growth economists, or even Mark Levin, the conservative radio talk-host that rants about degrowth as if it is some type of existential threat. I have presented degrowth in Greek villages and debated it with people that their views were far from critical of growth. I do not have problem sitting at the table, if the other side is willing to listen and debate (which is not the case, normally the only ones willing to debate are people like Kate, who are sympathetic but not totally convinced of the idea). But I am not willing to water down the message (especially since I believe in its scientific validity), as part of a tactic of getting heard or ‘convincing people’. I would like people to get ‘convinced’ for the right reasons, and not because the message was adapted to what we assumed could convince them.

  6. Claudio

    Thanks for the interesting debate and the possibility to vote, i am curious on what the result will be

    I have voted for Giorgos and need to add that degrowth is a good word as long as it stays out of the electoral debate: for an oppositional movement, an oppositional word is a good word indeed.
    However, as Giorgos writes for the New Internationalist (, it would be an electoral suicide to run on a degrowth platform.

  7. Angelos Varvarousis

    I would like to thank both authors for their nice argumentation and attach some comments below.
    Firstly I would like to make clear that as I am member of the Research & Degrowth Group of Barcelona I am in favor of degrowth. The majority of the comments are linked with Giorgos response but I think that they may resonate to some of the Kate’s arguments as well.

    1) at your 7th point where you argue that degrowth is not co-optable. I would put it better as such “degrowth is not co-optable by the capitalism as we know it” which is reasonable for me. But to be honest I don’t think that degrowth (only as a term and not with the broad content that we give to this) cannot be co-opted by ANY exploitative, unjust and conservative social system. And this doesn’t only refer to austericians (for them it is indeed very unlikely to use the term) but I am referring more to extreme rights and eco-fascists who in the name of a “state of emergency” can convince people to abandon their democratic rights in order to secure their lives. We saw very recently that in the name of ISIS french people with one of the longest tradition in democracy and in human rights, very easily accepted to abolish their rights in exchange for their safety (See also Judith Butler for this here Given the fact that they are the countries of the global North the ones that should primarirly degrow I can see clearly a possibility that degrowth (only as a term) can constitute the core of a future declaration of a new “State of emergency”.

    2) You refer to the commons as it is the main “lighthouse” of degrowth. Again while everybody knows in this list that I totally agree that the discource around the commons is one of the most prominent source of inspiration for social change, I tend to disagree that we should use it above all the others. Firstly, I am really in favor of insisting on what Latouche says “a matrix of solutions and strategies”. Secondly, commons exactly such as buen vivir, ubuntu, degrowth and EVERY other created social signification can be co-opted and tranformed into something conservative. In the name of buen vivir in Latin America build highways, but in the name of commons also (common fix) capitalism tries to ensure its reproduction and elites build “gated communities”. There is always a struggle around the social significations. Social movements, theorists and common people use, transform and may abandon significations which they think they don’t fit anymore to their lifestyles and strategies.

    3) I liked very much your 5th comment about positivity. Nevertheless what is positive and what is not is also a matter of struggle and it may worth to stress this point too. Degrowth is opposite to growth and for this reason is regarded as oppositional and negative. Commons on the other hand is opposite to enclosure and privacy or even statism but is has gained a positive signification. This means that in world which merely is constructed on dualisms everything is partially oposite to something else and gains a meaning because of this juxtaposition. This is to say that even I agree that tacticaly may is a suicide to enter elections now as degrowthers (not sure for me but indeed possible) but the main “battle” that we have is to transform growth into a negative signification and degrowth into a positive one (rather than insisting that degrowth is primarilly a missile word). And growth is not a negative word “per se” but within the given historical context. In order to chnage the world towards a more sustanble and equal one, its people MUST change their habits. Its not a trick, it cannot happen without some sacrifices and radical changes only with nice unifying words. If people cannot accept not even a word like “degrowth” then is is impossible to accept to change their habits, established identities and lifestyles intentionally and consiously. This is is where the aforementioned “battle” over what is positive and what is not enters the picture. Degrowth propells in my opinion this process of abolishing the fear of changing and this is what I like more on the concept……

    Thank you again

  8. Hi there,
    here it’s Federico, one of Giorgos’s colleague at Research & Degrowth (

    This debate is as old as the word itself, and looks like an endless one. Despite this, I see it as constructive and worthwhile.
    Thanks Kate and Giorgos for sharing your views.

    I want to reinforce the point 6 on the ‘art of subversion’ made by Giorgos.

    Degrowth, I argue, it’s an act of détournement (French for “rerouting”, “hijacking”), a technique developed in the 1950s by the Situationist International -an later retaken by the Punk- consisting in turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.

    Few degrowth authors, such as Serge Latouche (2009), Timothée Duverger (2011) and Barbara Muraca (2013), have recognized the influence of Situationists in particular for their denounce of the harmfull effects of growth in terms of deculturation and depoliticization as well to unmask and attack the techno-bureaucratic management of our relation to the environment.

    Situationists made interesting and controversial arguments, but let us focus on ‘détournement’, and more generally on their ambitious project of writing a completely new dictionary as outlined in the 1966 text titled ‘Captive words’ (Preface to a Situationist Dictionary) by (supposedly) the Tunisian intellectual Mustapha Khayati (Internationale Situationniste #10)1. Right from the start he argues that:

    “[…] every critique of the old world has been made in the language of that world, yet directed against it and therefore automatically in a different language. Every revolutionary theory has had to invent its own terms, to destroy the dominant sense of other terms and establish new meanings in the “world of meanings” corresponding to the new embryonic reality needing to be liberated from the dominant trash heap.” In fact, “It is impossible to get rid of a world without getting rid of the language that conceals and protects it, without laying bare its true nature. […] Every revolutionary praxis has felt the need for a new semantic field and for expressing a new truth; […] because language is the house of power, the refuge of its police violence. Any dialogue with power is violence, whether passively suffered or actively provoked. When power wants to avoid resorting to its material arms, it relies on language to guard the oppressive order. This collaboration is in fact the most natural expression of all power.”

    Thus, first of all, we need to develop new meanings, narratives and discourses. We should not be afraid of ‘degrowth’ not sounding well, all the contrary, because also in this case we need to be uncivil actors, defined as those who refuse to be “governmentalized” (D’Alisa et al. 2013).

    Yes, degrowth is an ugly slogan, and we are proud of it. 🙂


    NB Despite the dated language, I think it’s worth reading the complete “Preface to a Situationist Dictionary”. For those interested:

    • Kate Raworth

      Hi Federico, good to be in touch.
      Thanks for this link to Mustapha Khayati. I would have loved to hear him in debate with George Lakoff…

      As Khayati says, “It is impossible to get rid of a world without getting rid of the language that conceals and protects it”
      Khayati then proposes to get rid of that language by inverting its key words, hence degrowth.
      Lakoff says: by using the word degrowth, you are not getting rid of the language, you are simply reinforcing it through our neural pathways.
      Does this difference in view lie in cognitive science or political strategy, or something else?
      Does détournement simply work for some, and positive framing for others?

      The charming degrowth cartoon is clearly spilt between the two theories.
      (as shown on this page)

      The elephant turns into a snail: classic Lakoff reframing.
      But the word stays the same. Khayati would cheer. Lakoff would weep.
      Surely Khayati would have said the new cartoon should be an elephant standing on its head?…

      Here’s to good debate that will no doubt never end.
      All best Kate

  9. Jenny Yamamoto

    Dear all,

    The conversations have been very interesting – this question of “degrowth” is fundamental to how we should imagine the future. But that’s the problem – I can’t quite visualize what “degrowth” looks like (but I promise to read up further…). I would like to take this opportunity to draw people’s attention to discussions in Japan, where the shrinking population and rural-urban migration are accelerating the disappearance of rural communities. To attract young people to these communities, local governments and community leaders are trying to “foster” social capital (through cultural programmes) as well as find innovative ways to stimulate their local economies. But their aim is to survive, so interestingly they are not really talking about “growth” as much as “maintaining a reasonable standard of living”. In other words, there is a values shift towards self-sustainability.

    At the same time, the national government is still pushing export-oriented growth, as there are not enough consumers left in Japan. Its main concerns are to provide enough jobs for the rest of the population who live in cities as well as raise enough tax to finance the burgeoning health and welfare budget. In their view, it is not possible to “degrowth” without threatening jobs and income.

    I don’t know if the two discourses will ever converge, but there is a chance they might if people take a more philosophical (or spiritual?!) view on life. I recently read an interview with a Japanese entrepreneur who runs a hair dressing salon chain. He said “I once learned from an elderly person over eighty years old that the Japanese people have long lived their lives according to the criterion of whether it is beautiful or not, rather than whether it is good or not. Even in the case when we talk about economic growth, it is a matter of whether it is beautiful or not. It is not beautiful if one becomes too greedy.” (the organisation who interviewed this person is Japan for Sustainability,

    Best, Jenny

  10. Brendan Richardson

    Dear all,
    I read both blog posts with great interest and sent a comment via email which I was then asked to post as a comment here – I’m very happy to do so (thanks Kate!) so here it is, slightly edited. As well as finding both of the original posts of interest, I enjoyed considering the options for the vote as suggested by Giorgos, but then realised
    I had to abstain!
    I hope this doesn’t sound like the choice of someone unwilling to commit. I would have preferred instead to have had another option on the ‘ballot paper’ –
    one that said, let’s do more research into people’s perceptions of the term – and other terms – first. Please let me explain my thinking.

    In my own research on consumer engagement/ disengagement with brand narratives and so on (up til two to three years ago, I was not really
    doing research on sustainability, instead I was researching consumer resistance and consumer tribes) I have found that there are almost
    always different clusters, engaging differently with narratives and constructing their own version of the narrative – complete with
    accompanying vocabularies, carefully differentiated from the narratives of other clusters (so far so basic, I’m sure you are all familiar
    with this sort of thing)

    What’s my point? Well I would suggest that something similar could be applicable here. Some people will (rightly) embrace the principles of degrowth but will find it difficult to engage with the term itself. The term might even throw them (as it has Kate?). They might respond better to a different term.

    Others are very happy with the term, find it easy to relate to, and feel that it is best to embrace the potentially confrontational nature of the word
    and use it, as a way to present the real message immediately so that people understand the consequences – here’s the truth!

    My concern is that while there is clearly a rapidly-spreading community that are happy to embrace the term ‘degrowth’, this doesn’t necessarily prove that it is the optimal term for appealing to all the other clusters out there. So, for me – neither Kate nor Giorgos are necessarily incorrect. It’s not necessarily an either/ or situation.

    I would like to ideally see more research first, to explore people’s perceptions of the term ‘degrowth’, and to explore which terms work
    best with which clusters (or tribes, if you prefer) of people, before contemplating any change. Might ‘post-growth’ be a better
    term than degrowth? I genuinely don’t know. ‘Degrowth’ is a very clear, evocative and easy to communicate term.
    Before reading Kate’s post, it had occurred to me that it might not be a term that appealed to everyone and Kate’s
    post helped me to better understand why. But against that, maybe the answer could lie in how we try to create positive
    associations in people’s minds around the word. Some qualitative, exploratory research might help to identify both
    existing perceptions of the term ‘degrowth’ and possible positive associations that could be built on, or
    negative ones that may be possible to avoid.

    I have currently given my Master’s students an assignment –

    identify the experiences people have had that made them want to behave sustainably (such as epiphany experiences);

    identify the barriers they experienced when they tried to do so;

    outline proposed solutions (including experiential events that could help to trigger ethical/ sustainability-related epiphanies,
    AND frameworks that can help to make sustainable behaviours easier to implement) that create and reinforce positive associations with sustainability,
    including reduced consumption

    (Professor Lakoff’s point about frames remains valid – but things can be re-framed by the cultivation of association.
    De-regulation is a negative but unfortunately has positive connotations, for instance. It has been re-framed by associating it with cultural narratives
    of success and freedom)

    Maybe there is a way to reinforce positive associations with either the term ‘degrowth’ or another term such as post-growth – or both?
    I would be very glad to hear what people think of this; certainly the assignment seems to have helped my students to become far
    more aware of the need to take an alternative approach to ‘business as usual’; I think they now better understand the need to actually reduce
    consumption and change our practices and values, rather than just ‘consume, sustainably’. At least, I hope so!
    (they are not due to submit their assignments til next week, so I’ll know more at that point)

    My thanks to Kate and Giorgos for the interesting blog posts and to everyone for this ongoing discussion!
    best wishes,

  11. Renee Ho

    Hi Giorgos,

    Long time no see (maybe since Berkeley c.2006?); glad to see your face appear in my inbox through this blog. To the debate on language, the Lakoff-elephant cognitive science point is only useful if you don’t want people to think of something. (In the act of naming something, you surface something with all of its existing mental associations). But it seems that you DO want people to think of growth as you can only challenge/negate something you are first able to identify, no?

    I’m not a linguist but you can look to J.L. Austin (performative utterances, speech acts, illocutionary act) and Judith Butler.


  12. I think there’s some confusion here about framing – and about what Lakoff says. It goes much deeper than language and it’s not really about whether a label sounds “negative” or not. There are good reasons why we don’t want to activate the “growth” frame in economics. I’ve summarised them in an OpenDemocracy article here: – but it boils down to the fact (documented in various studies) that “growth” is a deeply engrained conceptual metaphor which is almost impossible for us to not conceive of, primarily, as “good” and “natural”. In this respect it’s a little like, say, “love”.

    And while we can all cite cases of destructive love (in the same way we can conceive of cases of destructive growth), we’re not going to overturn anything at the deep conceptual level by putting the “de-” prefix in front of it. The “deregulation” example cited above is an inappropriate comparison – because, unlike “growth” and “love”, “regulation” is not a concept that’s been deeply engrained over centuries as something naturally and primarily “good”. On the contrary, in the dominant (market) economic ideology, regulation already tends to be viewed as an interference with “natural” competition – ie “bad”. So negating “regulation” with the addition of “de-” is just going to reinforce an already common conceptual worldview.

    • Giorgos Kallis

      Thanks Brian.

      what about the comment immediately above yours though? De-growth does not want to de-activate thinking about growth, it actually wants to activate it, precisely because the taken-for-grantedness of growth as something good is the problem. As a commentator to Kate’s blogpost put it: ‘the fact that you “cannot” talk about degrowth because it scares people away, shows exactly why it is (still) a highly relevant and needed term/word.’


      • But my point is that the “taken-for-grantedness of growth as something good” is not going to change at the level we’re talking about (the deeply engrained conceptual metaphor). This is what the research (that I’ve cited in my blog and OD article) seems to suggest, and this is why I think “degrowth” will never get far beyond “preaching to the converted”. It’s a good label for uniting those who already see the problems inherent in the economic “growth” worldview, but not for changing thinking on a wider, deeper level, society-wide. For that we need to replace the focus on “growth” with a different conceptual framing altogether – one that has a general appeal, but which naturally promotes ways to save the planet.

  13. Katherine Trebeck

    Thanks to both Kate and Giorgos for bringing this important issue to a wider audience.
    My thinking is that if the first reaction to something is negative, that’s problematic – even/especially in those circles who most need to hear the message and are furthest from accepting its principles. With a negative reaction comes defensiveness, resisting, blocking – when we need curiously, openness, exploration, and experimentation.
    The negative reaction deliberately (deliberately) elicits also shows how far there is to go, just how much people hold onto ‘growth’ as a goal – as opposed to the suggestion in the title of Kate’s blog that ‘degrowth’ has, as a term, become outgrown.
    But more importantly, getting past the term degrowth – the growth or note debate is not helpful. It is a false binary and masks important nuance of a more important conversation of what we want and need more or less of (eg more quality jobs, less coal power plants; more worker owned cooperatives, less plastic rubbish in the bin; more public transport, less soul-less shopping centres; etc). Jeremy Williams ( and I are exploring a concept that tries to grapple with that challenge – stay tuned!
    Plus, the blogs reinforce the importance of a more complicated (hence less amenable to slogans) discussion about what gets counted as good and what proxies of success we need to shift policy makers’ attention in the direction of a good economy for everyone rather than the consumption orientated and distribution blind GDP.
    Thanks again!

  14. Andrew Watt

    As I was asked (on twitter) by Prof. Kallis to make some comments on the text here, I will do so. I don’t have time for a full analysis. I will just focus on the first paragraph and show why I find it problematic.
    A preliminary remark is that authors are, in principle, free to define terms in the way they see fit, provided they indicate rigorously what definition it is they are using. Having said that, most terms have a generally accepted usage from which one should not normally depart for, fear of creating confusion. A second preliminary remark is to those who might accuse me of splitting hairs. We should not forget that this article is not a chat in the pub, but a piece written by a Professor of ecological economics, and one that purports precisely to engage seriously with definitional issues.
    Para. 1., as short as it is, provides many examples of the sort of either sloppy expression or muddled thinking that I find “unprofessorial”.
    “Economic growth” is almost always defined as GDP growth. No sensible person thinks GDP growth is equal to “growth of welfare”. It is well-known that GDP growth is – to use your term – a count of “monetised activity”. No sensible person thinks it is a measure of all “activity” (indeed it is hard to imagine how one would even think of doing that.) There are plenty of reasons why people might care about the volume of monetized activity and changes in it. Of course Prof. Kallis is at liberty not to do so, but it would seem reasonable to ask him to at least acknowledge the fact that many people do find it interesting and relevant (i.e. they care) that, say, real GDP in Greece has fallen by more than 20% in recent years. Does Prof. Kallis really believe that this fact is completely without interest?
    Then there is the phrase “absurdity of perpetual growth”. This is, at best, a very loose way of phrasing things and, on certain definitions, wrong. Given the context, it would appear that the author is using growth here to mean GDP growth (i.e. monetized activity). But it is certainly not “absurd” to imagine that the real monetary value of activity could conceivably continue increasing without a continuing increase in carbon emissions and the material footprint. And this is simply because monetized activity has throughout history taken different forms and continues to change as we speak, in response to technical changes, changing preferences and, yes, ecological and resource constraints. Note, please, that this does not mean that “there is no problem”. But the statement as it stands is wrong. It presupposes knowledge about future developments that we do not possess.
    Then we come to the last bit of the paragraph: degrowth signifies a decrease of global carbon and material footprint, starting from the wealthy. I find this very puzzling. It is ok to say something like “my strategy for degrowth would start with the wealthy and would decrease carbon emissions and material footprint”, but that is not what prof. Kallis has written. It is very odd to say the term “signifies” these things. On the face of it “degrowth” (and growth for that matter) is compatible with any distributional outcome one might imagine. The term itself does not have a distributional component. And as I have said, the link between (de)growth as monetized activity and carbon emissions/material consumption is indirect. There are intervening variables. For instance carbon emissions might decrease although GDP rises. Conceivably emissions could also rise although GDP growth is negative (this could be due to technical reasons or because a fall in “monetized activity” could be accompanied by a rise in non-GDP activity that also causes emissions. (In other words the emissions: GDP ratio rises). So it is wrong or at least misleading to say that degrowth “signifies” falling emissions.
    My contention is that the first paragraph of this text is riddled with problems. Without going further here I see problems of a similar nature in other parts of this text. Hence my surprise, expressed on twitter that work of this quality is produced and published by a professor in the field. I have not read Prof. Kallis’ other work. Maybe it is very good. Maybe not. My remark referred to this text only.
    Andrew Watt

    • Giorgos Kallis

      Dear Dr Watt,

      Thank you for your message.

      Let me note that my post was about the discursive aspects of degrowth as a slogan; not the ecological economics of (de)growth. I had 1000 words to respond to the -mostly linguistic and political – critique of Kate, out of which I devoted 50 to the case for degrowth that you are picking up and you need 720 words to criticize. In my full paper ‘In defense of degrowth’, published in Ecological Economics, I respond to the set of issues you raise here on the occasion of a similar critique by Prof van den Bergh.

      As far as the substance of your comment is concerned:

      1. The point of my first sentence was that there is no such thing as a perfect definition. ‘Economic growth’ as the term suggests means growth of the economy. Yet this is not what its operational definition, that of ‘GDP growth’, measures. GDP counts only what can be counted. It is anyone’s guess if the economy is really growing, given unaccounted for household activity, unaccounted for aspects of the digital and sharing economy, and the unaccounted for destruction of natural capital. So, yes, there is an operational definition of ‘growth’, but one that does not capture the phenomenon that it purports to represent (growth of the economy). And yet, more often that not, it is used as equivalent.

      2. One might argue for definitional purposes as you suggest that economic growth is not growth of the economy, but growth of GDP. Definitional clarity then comes at the expense of relevance. ‘Why care’ if an imperfect indicator that we have devised grows or not, if it does not correspond to a relevant growth in the useful output of the economy, i.e. welfare? (My reading of Kuznet’s initial work is that he envisioned an indicator of welfare and not simply of the part of economic activity that can be counted; and unlike what you claim, GDP is defended as a good proxy of welfare by many economists and textbooks). Studies of objective and subjective wellbeing suggest that above a certain level it does not increase with GDP growth. Herman Daly speaks of ‘uneconomic growth’.

      3. In that sense ‘growth’ either has a clear but irrelevant definition (GDP growth) or a relevant but harder to pin down one (growth of the economy, or of the useful part of the economy, i.e. welfare).

      4. About ‘absurdity’. As you know well, the growth of any quantity at a constant compound rate (2-3% per year) quickly tends to infinity. To think that the economy (or GDP for that matter) can and should grow to infinity is absurd. If instead you think it should grow only up to a certain level that would satisfy some ultimate end, then I would ask what is this end, and how much GDP will be enough to serve it (the title of a book by prominent economist, and biographer of Keynes, Robert Skidelsky), how will we manage without growth when we reach this level, and why and how will we be able to do this then, but not now. Note that my use of the term ‘absurd’ is inspired by Skidelsky who characterizes growth as a ‘senseless’ goal (i.e. it does not serve an ultimate end other than its own perpetuation), actually using much stronger words than mine (‘the endless pursuit of wealth is pure madness’).

      5. About the environment: you claim that we can ‘imagine that the real monetary value of activity could conceivably continue increasing without a continuing increase in carbon emissions and the material footprint.’ Of course, we can imagine anything. But I thought economists were ‘real world philosophers’ and rather than only ‘imagining’, they looked also at the data. If you plot the rates of GDP change versus rates of carbon emission change for a panel of countries for all years available, controlling as well as possible for other factors, you will find a near 1:1 statistically significant correlation, which is as good as it gets in econometrics. In my recent work I find that the single most important (and actually ONLY statistically significant) factor that explains a reduction in the rate of increase of carbon emissions is recession. Now, you might want to argue that this was the past, and the future will be different. I do have sympathy for utopian thinking. But if this was to be applied to the rest of the corpus of your discipline, then there is no use for econometrics or statistical research whatsoever, since the past is not a guide for the future and we can ‘imagine’ that the causal relations of the past change in the future.

      6. Monetized activity has taken different forms and does change dramatically, indeed. Technical and structural change, especially in advanced economies, has been phenomenal in the last 30 years. And yet, their material and energy requirements keep growing (only slightly less than the pace of their overall economy). I refer here to studies of consumption-based material flows and energy that take into account the energy and materials embodied in imports. The relevant question then is: why isn’t dematerialization occurring even though we had imagined it would have happened? This seems to me to suggest a fundamental link between growth in GDP and growth in energy and resource use, which after all is confirmed by the econometric data. And yet, you suggest that we shouldn’t make any definite statements on this because we do not have enough ‘knowledge about future developments that we do not possess’. Well, then we cannot make any definitive statements about anything, since there will always be future developments that we do not possess.

      7. If growth characterizes a pattern whereby GDP and energy/resource use increases, then degrowth refers to a pattern where the two decline. You are right to call me for the ‘starting from the wealthy’ bid. I confused here indeed two definitions, the descriptive of ‘degrowth’ (a decline which might be welfare improving or not) and what Martinez-Alier calls ‘socially sustainable economic degrowth’. The latter is defined as a pattern of degrowth which secures the basic wellbeing of the weaker strata of society through redistribution from the wealthy. You may be right here that there is a definitional confusion, in so far as the term ‘degrowth’ is used as a shorthand for both the descriptive and the normative concept.

      Giorgos Kallis

  15. Nicholoas Colloff

    Since I am a ‘bear of little brain’, my contribution to what is a fascinating debate is to simply to note that the (poetic) power of the word growth is that it is rooted in a natural process that everyone recognises. It is a word of which we cannot help approve because it is rooted in our own cycle of development. I grow and when I cease to grow, I do not ‘degrow’, I shrivel and die. A positive often carries its own shadow so the most common negative use of the word ‘growth’ is in cancer (used as a noun, though interestingly we usually refer to cancer as ‘spreading’ rather than ‘growing’ and the illness going into ‘remission’ (rather than disappearing, shrivelling or dismantling). Now since I am a better psychologist (than political theorist, linguist or economist), you can probably aim to be as cleverly subversive as one wishes on a conscious level but the unconscious resonance of not growing (however packaged) is likely to be negative. It is an implied existential threat on a non-rational level. Good luck with overcoming that!

  16. I regularly moderate weeklong workshops that convene 80 executives for a week. They typically come from around 30 different countries and as many industries (government, finance, creative, philanthropic, and so forth). During this week, I help them to learn about emergent technologies that are likely to reshape everything from industry to politics to the environment. The program is well run; so people’s minds tend to become quite open and we get people talking together and even planning how to start initiatives together that have a positive difference in the world.

    And if I were to drop the term “degrowth” into the conversation, it would cause an audible and enduring toxic reaction. A group that was coming together in generative exercises that take as their starting point a need for change would split into two or more camps and become threatened and hostile. People who were proud of their ability to bring their abilities and resources to the impoverished billions would recoil, slapped into reactivity by a vocabularistic power play.

    Richard Rorty who reinvigorated pragmatist philosophy helped to explain in “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity” why fixating on the lenses through which you see the world (whether religious, economic or ideological) is rarely the most effective way to advance humanity or her planet. He proposed that helping people to empathize more is one of the only things that we can do that won’t backfire.

    My projects work with deeply poor communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, I have a permaculture design certificate, I’ve gone through trainings from Transition Network, I have lots of cultural affinities (punk rock and otherwise) with the degrowth narrative and a justice-drive that can make me feel oppositional towards entrenched financial power. But once something becomes polarizing, it becomes dangerous. It becomes a tool for people whose intention is to polarize humanity. Even if one of our favorite tools is co-opted in this fashion (as Giorgios shared Fox News has done), it’s not a useful tool anymore. Using it invites and amplifies opposition.

    I can only imagine engaging in a discussion about “degrowth” to try and convince supporters of it that their good intentions and coalition building (at the million scale) will proceed much smoother when they let it go. Supplanting the dominant, global economic paradigm will not be accomplished by force of any kind.

  17. piyush

    I see the degrowth definition from says below:

    “Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet”

    Firstly can there cannot be anything like sustainable degrowth just like there cannot be anything like sustainable growth on a finite planet. If you keep trying to sustain degrowth, it will cross a point where human species will disappear, then who will manage further degrowth and of what when there is nothing left to degrow “production and consumption”, would we have to appeal to the plants and animals to continue to decrease their activity until life disappears after we cross that threshold?. So I think the definition should remove “sustainable degrowth” and just say “degrowth” and further mention degrowth is a downscaling of …, until a time when no further degrowth or growth is necessary for human and non-human well being and a steady state is reached when there can be healthy fluctuations about such a steady state (refer to”.

    Another thing missing in the definition is population vector. It is not sufficient to simply keep reducing production and consumption without addressing population growth, it is a form of population injustice to keep telling everyone who has bred responsibly to keep living in tinier and tinier boxes for example so that many others can continue with their bad habits of having large families. Almost 200,000 people (net births minus deaths) enter the planet every day, many produced by people who already have 1-2 children and want more, it is population greed, no different from consumption greed and it is fed by religious organizations on one hand and conventional growthist economists and other cornucopians on the other hand. One need not resort to political correctness and give a message to the man in Africa who has 14 children that his decisions have no implications and the rest of the world will continue to degrow materially to guarantee food, shelter, education and other basic needs for his children and he can continue to advise them of the joys of having larger families and to follow the religious leaders by the book on their bans on contraception etc, same applies to those in developed nations who want to promote large families in the name of religion, which have an ever greater impact on the consumption vector than the poorer countries.

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