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Suppose you’d been pedalling a bicycle your whole life and it turned out to be a completely degenerate ride: not only hell-bent on staying in motion forever, but one that needed to accelerate each year in order not to fall, create catastrophe, and take you down with it.

In the eyes of the ‘degrowth’ movement, we’re all stuck on this bicycle—it is the machine that drives our modern capitalist world, and its insatiable fetish for growth is killing us.

You probably haven’t heard much about degrowth in the mainstream press: the ‘d-word’ is a political death cry in most Western economies, where GDP and the free market remain worshipped deities. But in parts of Europe, particularly France, Spain and Germany, a strong degrowth movement is, ironically, growing—both as a concept and a dialogue. Author Naomi Klein has called it “the core conversation of our time”.

Last year, over 3000 activists and academics attended the Fourth International Conference on degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Leipzig, Germany. This annual event has fast become a pivotal convergence of alternative economic and social movements seeking solutions to the world’s crises.

It’s a big job. As the 2011 documentary “Economics of Happiness” expressed so profoundly, runaway globalisation is not only making us unhappy, but leading us into an overlapping storm of unprecedented crises: one of economics, the ecology, social inequity, and a crisis of the human spirit itself. The Pope seems to agree.

One only has to look at the IPCC forecasts and the pitiful floundering of our cardboard politicians; the gross reality of a system that lets 85 people own as much as the lower 50% of the entire population; or countless works like “Status Anxiety”, “Affluenza”, and Clive Hamilton’s “Growth Fetish” that underscore the existential stress we all endure from the vacuous and insatiable acquisition of material ‘stuff’.

As author and scholar, Dirk Philipsen puts:

GDP is a measure of quantity, not quality; of output, not development. It counts weapons as much as new toys, pornography as much as education, the crippling accident as much as the healing surgery. It never asks after the purpose of economic activity, much less measures its effectiveness: cars, not destinations; computers, not quality of education.

Degrowth calls for a new economy, a genuine one that measures success reflective of actual need. It accentuates what we’ve presumed for some time: growth is no longer sustainable, or desirable. It has become uneconomic, ecologically dangerous and intrinsically unjust. If we want our civilisation to continue, we need a new bicycle.

“Fundamentally, degrowth calls for a dramatic downscaling of unnecessary industrial production and consumption. “

The idea is not new: degrowth arches back to the anti-industrialist trends of the 19th century; Thoreau and Tolstoy championed it, Gandhi too. Off the back of the Club of Rome’s 1972 report Limits to Growth, ‘décroissance’—a word meaning ‘reduction’—became a policy buzzword right throughout France and other parts of Europe. It’s only in the past few years that we’ve seen the idea begin to spread internationally, even in Australia.

Fundamentally, degrowth calls for a dramatic downscaling of unnecessary industrial production and consumption. We must—in the words of writer and activist, Vincent Liegey—“decolonise our imaginations, our public discourse and beliefs”, about how economies ought to run, a wholesale rethink about what the ‘good life’ ought to look like in the 21st century.

The recent book “Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era” calls for simpler ways of living: steady-state economies based on moderation, frugality, appropriate technology and sufficiency. Though broad, it offers guiding keywords on how new societies might operate: ‘simplicity,’ ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘the commons’ and ‘dépense’—the social and ritual destruction of accumulated surplus. Addressing the 2014 Degrowth conference, Naomi Klein added:

We need a deliberate economy…(one) that grows in areas that are light on the Earth—the caring professions, care-giving, teaching, arts—that expands in how we treat each other and contracts when it comes to the mindless use of resources.”

Australian futurist-economist, Robert Theobald saw from a long view that the 21st century ought to be the “Healing Century”, as a necessary remedy to the previous one of economic rationalism and industrialisation.

All well and good, but how would ‘degrowth’ work practically? As Oxfam GB’s Duncan Green highlights, it’s one thing to diagnose the problem, another to offer a real solution: “as the word itself demonstrates, it is clear what it is against, but not what it is for and still less, how to get there.”

Degrowth still operates largely in the abstract; it’s not entirely clear how such an enormous transition would be made. As its advocates attest, there’s no single way to ‘degrow’: it’s a fluid proposition, a conversation in motion.

A key part of the transition could be an invigoration of sufficiency economics, an ethic of ‘local resources for local need’. Highly localised, zero-growth economies based on permaculture principles would see regions, counties, states, and even neighbourhoods invest in local resources to produce the bulk of their goods, services, food, and energy in turn, facilitating legitimate democracy while alleviating reliance on the oil economy. The Twin Oaks community of Virginia is a thriving exemplar.

“Despite its sound intentions, ‘degrowth’ remains, for many, a dirty if not confronting word.”

Around the world, urban gardens, local currencies, time banks and solidarity economies are already a reality—take Detroit’s Urban Gardening Movement; the Bristol Pound, a unit of currency that keeps wealth in the local economy. Or Santa Barbara’s SB Missions, which monetises volunteer activities to help residents cover basic needs.

Despite its sound intentions, ‘degrowth’ remains, for many, a dirty if not confronting word. Semantically, it seems to negate a quality that most of us have come to view as inherently positive—it’s not that growth is intrinsically bad, just growth for the sake of it. Nor does a lack of it equate to stagnation and decline, as Samuel Alexander at the University of Melbourne writes:

When one first hears calls for degrowth, it is easy to think that this new economic vision must be about hardship and deprivation; that it means going back to the stone age, resigning ourselves to a stagnant culture, or being anti-progress.

Alexander believes degrowth would simply liberate us from the burden of material excess: basic needs would still be met, albeit in low-impact ways, with high quality of life maintained.

This movement is still in its infancy, but it marks a significant leap in the collective dialogue—that it has come to bind a diversity of disparate academics, writers, activists and community leaders to incubate and share solutions to some of our epoch-defining problems is an achievement in of itself. The conversation is just beginning.

Meanwhile, as we wake each day to prop up our tired systems, the cliff face edge dawns ever closer. We already need 1.5 earths to cope with our current resource consumption; by 2050 it’ll be 30 times greater. Robert Theobald reminds that crisis bring both danger and opportunity:

Danger predominates when we ignore changing realities, as our dominant mass communication systems are doing today. Opportunity emerges when we commit to breaking the psychic trance that numbs us all.

Curbing our destructive ride—a leap in consciousness, the weaning of ingrained beliefs. It remains the challenge of our time.