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  • 1. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy http://ejournal.nbii.orgBOOK REVIEW PERSPECTIVESSerge Latouche, Farewell to GrowthPolity Press, 2010, 180pp, ISBN: 0745646174François Diaz Maurin spite all the “new and damning reports [that] are published every day,” we continue to ignore theDegrowthPedia, Cambridge, MA 02139 USA (email: “common sense diagnosis” that “the earth’s capacitycontact@degrowthpedia.org) for regeneration can no longer keep up with de- What emerges from Serge Latouche’s book, mand.” Latouche’s statement is true: there is no otherFarewell to Growth, is that the global crisis of the option than a crisis when throughput-consumptionmodern world is first and foremost a crisis of civili- flow overcomes the biosphere’s capacity for regener-zation. Indeed, the “Western” view of humanism ation. The problem is not only that we do not under-brought forth the concept that “humans are superior stand the fact that this situation is unsustainable, but,beings who have natural rights over other species and as he argues, that we refuse to recognize the inevita-over nature.” This perspective has led us to base our ble effects of such incompatibility on our consump-societies on the paradigm of economic growth that tion and production practices because it would meannow controls each and every aspect of our lives. For questioning our way of life, and so, our human na-that reason, growth can be considered as the main ture.cause of the global crisis. Therefore, renouncing On the social aspect, both growth and degrowthgrowth requires us to relinquish some aspects of our share the goal of living better. However, one has tohuman nature; in other words, to change to another admit that this does not occur anymore in the societyway of being (Ehrenfeld, 2008). This is obviously not of growth, even if we always consume and producethe easiest thing for us to do, especially when we more. Latouche goes further by adding that “growthrealize that our imaginaries are deeply “colonized” by has become humanity’s cancer” which reminds onethe growth paradigm. of the American novelist Edward Abbey’s (1977) Latouche, a French economist, is regarded as a observation that “growth for the sake of growth is the“prominent defender of [the degrowth] school of ideology of a cancer cell.” Trying to break our addic-thought” (Schneider et al. 2010) and here he does not tion to this “human-generated illness” requires us tomince words. His intent is clear from the very start: “decolonize our imaginaries” dominated by growth,“[T]hose of us who live in the North already consume in which growth means progress and no growthtoo much.” Shortly afterward, he provokes us directly means going backward. What is needed clearly is aby adding that “we would be healthier if we went on cultural revolution, even though Latouche admits thata diet,” as if we were suffering from obesity. This “it will certainly require another 30 years” to achieve.ironic and provocative tone is second nature for According to Latouche, the current economicLatouche who supports the idea that we can learn a system is actually a consumer society based on thelot from ecological and social disasters. For instance, idea that “there are no limits to our so-called ‘needs’”he frequently speaks of the “pedagogy of the disas- and it is this feature that makes “the sys-ter” (pédagogie de la catastrophe). The author uses tem...condemned to grow.” He adds that the currentthis approach to “decolonize our imaginaries” from economic system, which had been in a “virtuous cir-the growth paradigm. But above all, he aims to dem- cle,” has ultimately become a “hellish circle.” Now,onstrate that the degrowth project is at once “desir- only degrowth can break this spiral.able, necessary, and possible” if we want to tackle the In the arena of battle over words and ideas, it isglobal crisis. important to have a word that cannot be reduced to Degrowth appears to be desirable because market logic when dealing with sustainability. There-growth really is undesirable. Indeed, as Latouche fore, degrowth, which is like “a UFO in the micro-reminds us, “there are physical limits to growth.” As cosm of politicking,” represents a clear distinctionthe Club of Rome was already pointing out in 1972, with other lazy ideas such as “sustainable develop-and quoted by Latouche, “the never-ending pursuit of ment” that are simply “patching things up so as togrowth is incompatible with the planet’s ‘basics.’” In avoid having to change them.” According toone word, growth is unsustainable. Nowadays, de- Latouche, it is also important to break the “confusion© 2010 Copyright held by author Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 1
  • 2. Book Review Perspectives: Latouche, Farewell to Growthbetween ‘development’ and ‘growth’ that is delibe- Latouche addresses in his book, it is possible to pro-rately sustained by the dominant ideology.” vide the example of what the author says about em- Latouche then explains that although “capitalism ployment: “If we change our lives, we can solve theis not the source of all problems and all our power- problem of unemployment, but if we focus on thelessness... a generalized capitalism cannot but destroy problem of jobs for the sake of jobs there is a dangerthe planet in the same way that it is destroying so- that we will never change society and that we willciety and anything else that is collective.” However, head straight for disaster.” This sentence perfectlyhe adds that a critique of capitalism is not enough illustrates the approach we should have when tryingsince “capitalism, neo-liberal or otherwise, and pro- to “decolonize our imaginaries” from the paradigm ofductivist socialism are both variants on the same growth.project for a growth society.” The very problem is Lastly, I would like to use the opportunity of thisthat “growth, seen in terms of the production/ review to urge readers to take up Latouche’s remark-jobs/consumption trio, is held responsible for every able book because it represents a milestone in under-scourge.” Therefore, a critique of any growth society standing what is at stake when evocating the “D-is needed, and for that reason degrowth is necessary. word” of degrowth. For that reason, this volume is Fortunately, this book is not limited to just ex- not only of interest to policy makers and activists, butplaining why a critique of the current socioeconomic for the general public as well. I finish with a quotesystem—whether capitalist or socialist—is necessary from the Spanish ecological economist Juanto achieve sustainability and equity. What the volume Martinez-Alier during the Second International De-actually suggests is another way to see our societies growth Conference in Barcelona in March 2010:and even ourselves. Although Latouche admits that “Degrowth will become the major current of eco-“de-growth is conceivable only in a de-growth so- nomics” (quoted in Kempf, 2010). Believe it or not,ciety,” he shows how to exit from the chicken-and- this observation demonstrates the growing influenceegg dilemma. In other words, the book demonstrates in Western countries of the degrowth movement as athat a degrowth society that is sustainable and self- “concrete utopia” for ecological sustainability andsufficient is possible. social equity. Indeed, Latouche provides an argument to under-stand how to “realize the utopia” of the degrowthproject. He aims to give policy makers and activists About the Authortools for a political program, not necessarily in theelectoral sense of the term, but in its strong sense. François Diaz Maurin is an engineer with expertise in large-scale infrastructure projects in civil engineering andThis “means giving politics new foundations” as the the nuclear industries. He is an unaffiliated scholar whobook shows before pointing out the depth of the po- works on sustainability and is the founder of DegrowthPe-litical crisis. The author stresses the fact that it is ne- dia (http://degrowthpedia.org), a new collaborative plat-cessary to outline “the contours of what a non-growth form for information and education about economic de-society might look like” prior to any program for po- growth.litical action. He logically adds that “the precondi-tions of a degrowth society have yet to be estab-lished.” References As a basis of a cultural revolution, Latouche of- Ehrenfeld, J. 2008. Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategyfers “virtuous circles of eight R’s: re-evaluate, recon- for Transforming Our Consumer Culture, New Haven, CT:ceptualize, restructure, redistribute, relocalize, re- Yale University Press.duce, re-use and recycle.” These principles corres- Kempf, H. 2010. Objecteur de croissance. Le Monde March 30.pond to a series of eight interdependent changes that Schneider, F., Kallis, G., & Martinez-Alier, J. 2010. Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and eco-“can trigger a process of de-growth” and represent “a logical sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Productionreaction to the system’s ‘overs,’” in one word, how to 18(6):511–518.resist. What then gives the book its full added value isprobably Latouche’s argument to address questions Philip J. Vergragtand objections arising in people’s minds when con-fronted by the idea of degrowth for the first time. Tellus Institute, 11 Arlington Street, Boston, MA 02116 USAThis is all the more important since there is still a lot (email: pvergragt@tellus.org)of confusion in the media that “decided for or against Farewell to Growth is written to provide con-[degrowth] without taking the trouble to find out ceptual underpinning for the “degrowth” concept,what was at stake.” Although there is insufficient philosophy, and strategy: with exponential growthspace to enumerate all of the misconceptions thatSustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | http://ejournal.nbii.org Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 2
  • 3. Book Review Perspectives: Latouche, Farewell to Growthand a finite earth, we are heading for disaster. Noth- With respect to labor and full employment, thereing new here, of course, since Rachel Carson’s Silent is a mix of job creation by introducing elements of aSpring and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. green economy, by reducing the working week, andWhat is new is that degrowth is suddenly hitting the by revaluing the work ethos itself. As Latouche con-media, especially in France and Spain. tends, “[t]he basic question is therefore not the pre- Latouche contends that degrowth is “a political cise number of hours we need to work, but the work’sslogan with theoretical implications…an explosive role as a social ‘value.’” Degrowth implies both aword…it is designed to make it perfectly clear that quantitative reduction in working hours and a qualita-we must abandon the goal of exponential growth.” It tive transformation of work. “Unless life is re-is not negative growth; it could be characterized as enchanted, the degrowth project is, too, doomed to“a-growth,” in the sense to say farewell to a faith or failure. We still need to give liberated time a mean-religion (like atheism). It is definitively not the same ing.” However, free time is becoming more and moreas “sustainable development,” which Latouche criti- professionalized and industrialized.cizes as a pleonasm and an oxymoron at the same As Latouche describes it, degrowth is incom-time. patible with capitalism, although it does not need to The roots of degrowth go back to Thomas get do away entirely with money, markets, profits,Malthus, and especially to Nicholas Georgescu- and the wage system. Degrowth is not right or leftRoegen who applied the Second Law of Thermo- wing and, at least at this point, we do not need a de-dynamics to economics. Contemporary society, how- growth political party. It is far more important atever, is addicted to growth. “Development is sacri- present to transform ideas and to educate.ficing populations and their concrete, local well- The final chapter of the volume poses the ques-being on the altar of an abstract, deterritorialized tion: Is degrowth a humanist mode of thinking? Thiswell-being.” To build a degrowth society, we need discussion goes more deeply into the philosophicaleight interdependent changes: re-evaluate (harmony questions at the root of degrowth. Latouche writeswith nature); reconceptualize (new values); re- that degrowth “is probably not a humanism, becausestructure (the productive apparatus); redistribute; re- it is based upon a critique of development, growth,localize (local basis); reduce; and reuse/recycle. progress, technology, and, ultimately, modernity, andThese changes point toward a concrete utopia. because it implies a break with Western centralism.”Latouche especially emphasizes relocalize, meaning However, it is not anti-humanist or anti-universalist.reinforcing local communities and local economies. The critique of modernity means that we should tran-He cites various real-world examples of communities scend it, not simply reject it. There is room for eco-that have embarked on this path, though not all of anthropocentrism, meaning “that ecological concernsthem—in particular the Bedford Zero Energy Devel- must be a central part of our social, political, cultural,opment (BedZED) project near London—are con- and spiritual preoccupation with human life.”vincing. This book provides a powerful ideological basis The degrowth idea, ironically, was born in the for degrowth. It certainly offers provocative insightsera of post-colonial Africa and stems from critiques about the philosophical and historical foundations ofof the failed development models of the last 50 years. the degrowth movement. Although the author is reas-Degrowth can “prevent them [Southern countries] onably convincing on the level of ideas, he fails com-from being trapped in the blind alley.” The solution pletely at the practical and political levels. His ana-should be self-sufficiency at the village level. How- lyses may be true globally, but when you try toever, a precondition for degrowth in the South is de- translate these concepts to your street, your family,growth in the North. your friends, your workplace, or your political party, In the third part of the book Latouche proposes the flaws become clearly evident. The only place in“a quasi-electoral political programme.” He recom- the book where Latouche is fairly concrete is whenmends that we “[g]et back to an ecological footprint he discusses localism. However, no one to date hasequal to or smaller than a planet.” To do so will entail been able to explain effectively how localized solu-using ecological taxes; relocating activities; revital- tions can effectively reverse the powerful forces ofizing peasant agriculture; reducing working hours for globalization.job creation; encouraging the production of relational There are also some less prominent flaws in thegoods (friendships and neighborliness); cutting book. I do not only mean the “coal-fired nuclearenergy wastes by a factor of four; and declaring a power station” [sic] that appears in the early pages,moratorium on technoscientific innovation. In addi- an observation (or perhaps a translation error?) thattion, he proposes a global tax on financial transac- illustrates the author’s lack of familiarity with any-tions and various other taxes. This is a strange mix of thing related to technology. Moreover, Latoucheutopian and ecological policies. never says anything explicit about two of the majorSustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | http://ejournal.nbii.org Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 3
  • 4. Book Review Perspectives: Latouche, Farewell to Growthdrivers of growth: the global financial sector and the neoliberal market ideology. Yes, we should address(at least until recently) veneration of neoclassical dominant power relationships. Yes, we should ex-economics as a “science.” I find omission of any dis- plore how to frame a social movement that couldcussion about global financial markets in this book to address these issues. Unfortunately, this book doesbe telling. One of the reasons for this situation is that not lead us in the right direction. Rather, efforts dedi-the authors cited in the book are fairly dated and har- cated to working to change lifestyles and values andken back to times before the current era of financial to motivate systemic changes would more effectivelydomination (i.e., Andre Gorz, Ivan Illich, Jacques move us down the necessary road. We are still wait-Ellul). A critique of neoclassical economics as it is ing for the appropriate articulation and structuring oftaught at all major universities around the world such a project.should not have been excluded in a book such asFarewell to Growth. I am not personally convinced that “degrowth” is About the Authorthe way to go. Yes, we should be critical of grossdomestic product and replace it with an alternative Philip J. Vergragt is a Senior Associate at the Tellus Insti- tute and a Research Fellow at Clark University. Beforeindex that more appropriately assesses human and moving to the United States, he was Professor of Technol-ecological well being. Yes, we should develop small- ogy Assessment at TU Delft in the Netherlands and Deputyscale alternatives in sustainable production and con- Director of the Dutch government’s Sustainable Technolo-sumption, and learn from them. Yes, we should think gical Development Program.about how to confront the growth ideology and theSustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | http://ejournal.nbii.org Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 4