The idea of degrowth where economic growth is put to a halt or slowed down in order to respect planetary boundaries is becoming increasingly popular and indeed bears resemblance to recent calls to redefine the concept of sustainable development.
The difference between the two perspectives though is how they get to the desired future. Degrowth is radical because it wants the end of capitalism while supporters of redefined sustainable development call for a "growth within limits", not growth without limits.
Enter the paradox: degrowth cannot be realised from within a capitalist society, since growth is the sine qua non for capitalism. But societies and systems are not built from scratch.
Adding social sciences
In a new article published in the journal Environmental Values centre researcher Wijnand Boonstra together with Sofie Joosse from Uppsala University argue that current discussions on degrowth fail to see how the process of degrowth indeed has to originate from a capitalist system rather than being born entirely on its own.
In fact, degrowth comes into existence and gains shape in reaction to capitalism.
"For social scientists like us, the complete break with capitalism that is implied in the idea of degrowth constitutes something of a paradox since it is a classic sociological insight that societies never start with a blank slate"
Wijnand Boonstra, lead author
In their paper Boonstra and Joosse try to explain if and how a process of degrowth can materialise from within capitalism.
Changing the establishment
They note that sociological insights and ideas have been remarkably absent from current discussions, when in fact they can help structuring thinking about the many possible and impossible ways in which degrowth can develop.
By using examples from the food industry and individual consumption patterns, Boonstra and Joosse describe how mechanisms for change take place within the established regime (capitalism), not outside it.
Take food consumption, for instance. For some groups of consumers the buying and eating of mass-produced food creates a feeling of distance and lack of control when it comes to consuming healthy, safe and 'good' food.
People's reactions to these feelings include changing their consumption patterns by buying more locally produced food that is not mass produced on a national or global scale.
We are bricoleurs
The question is: do these changes in consumption patterns indicate a break with capitalist mass consumption patterns?
A study of everyday life shows a more complex picture.
"People are 'bricoleurs' who arrange their food from a range of different and diverse sources. People often have one foot in the capitalist economy and the other in an urban garden or buying club," Sofie Joosse says.
Change will come
Based on their findings, Joosse and Boonstra conclude that the key to a social transition lies in the inherent variety of social life and the unexpected outcomes of social interactions.
"Changes never start from a blank slate. Sooner or later an established regime will create opportunities for alternative trajectories", the authors conclude.
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