Green economy and the ‘growth fetish’: what are the alternatives?

Guest blog by Kathleen McAfee (San Francisco State University)

Many advocates of ‘green economy’ thinking endorse carbon-offset trading and other markets in nature both to foster conservation and to stimulate economic growth. Some green economists, sensitive to ‘underdevelopment’ and the asymmetric causes and effects of climate change, emphasize the environmental costs of poverty and inequality but are no less wedded to the goal of growth.

Why this fixation on growth? Are there alternatives?

Growth is a core requirement in conventional green economics because sustainability would otherwise entail the sacrifice of ‘development’ and because growth is the context in which private investments in greening can be profitable.

Growth and scarcity

Another reason why green-growth strategies seem ‘naturally’ fit for managing environmental problems is that neoclassical economics is about the administration of scarcity: markets manage human wants and desires (supposedly unlimited) for goods and resources (assumed to be in finite supply).

This set of premises resonates with the beliefs in resource shortages and ‘overpopulation’ that have long framed environmentalist discourse in the Anglophone global North. Concepts and metaphors such as ‘tragedy of the commons’, ‘Spaceship Earth’, ‘carrying capacity’, ‘peak oil’, ‘overpopulation’, and the I=PAT formula connote absolute ecological limits. International environmental negotiations were influenced from the start by warnings about such limits and the consequent need for constraints on economic development.

In international environmental negotiations today, concepts of unequal ecological exchange of environmental imperialism add new dimensions to resurgent global-South demands for compensatory aid, trade, and environmental policies. However, the growth fixation blocks potential alternatives to neoliberalism in state development policy and catches would-be redistributive regimes in contradictions. The same governments that have been the most vocal opponents of Northern-origin green economy are pursing ‘neoextractivist’ development policies that depend on environmentally and socially destructive mining and petroleum investments (as well as biofuels and industrial-agriculture exports, big dams, wind farms, etc.).

At the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit, members of the ALBA alliance of Latin American and Caribbean governments explicitly condemned ‘neoliberalism’, ‘green economy’, ‘commodification of nature’, and ‘market-based conservation’ schemes such as carbon trading and REDD+ on the grounds that they impoverish people and ecosystems. But just as forcefully, the same delegations rejected calls for reduced production and exporting of fossil fuels, arguing that such limits would worsen poverty by stifling economic growth.

Alternative visions and strategies

Buen vivir

The implicit equations of development with growth, well-being with consumption, and conservation with market rationality are being challenged by movements and discourses of buen vivir (‘living well’, henceforth BV), mainly in the global South, and degrowth (DG), mainly in the global North. To GDP growth, Latin American social movements and their intellectual allies counterpose BV, the Ecuadorian ‘sumak kawsay’, the Mayan idea of ‘lek’il kuxlejal’, and other concepts that connote living well and living cooperatively, both socially and ecologically.

These movements draw on post-colonial and anti-imperialist critiques of development and/or indigenous and peasant cosmovisions. Their discourses are at odds with the competitive individualism and instrumental rationality of conventional economics and the conceptual separation of nature and society that is fundamental to market-based conservation. “Nature becomes part of the social world….” (Gudynas 2011, p 445 in Development 54:4). In place of standardized scientific categories and putatively universal commensurables, they recognize the plurality of ways of being and knowing. In Escobar’s 2014 account in Cultural Studies, they are informed by relational ontologies: understandings of human-nature codependencies that are diverse, dynamic, and specific to particular territories, times, and eco-social systems.

Buen vivir, land and territory
In the context of intensified global competition for land and natural resources – land grabbing and green grabbing – movements such as these are struggling to defend or regain peasant and indigenous territories, recreating them conceptually while reconstructing them materially. Their visions do not exclude trade, much less the reduction of material poverty, but they reject narrow productivism that is blind to ecological consequences and distributive outcomes. Instead, they endorse endogenous strategies aimed at territorial and cultural autonomy, equitable urban-rural relationships, and reduced dependence on external markets and capital.

Among them are promising movements for food sovereignty and cultural and economic autonomy affiliated with La Via Campesina (on five continents), the Zapatista caracoles in Southern Mexico and other indigenous and peasant organizations in the Americas, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

For many of them, agroecology serves both as a source of principles for material practice and as a social process of political empowerment, horizontal learning, and diálogos de saberes with modern sciences and/or other indigenous knowledges, with tangible successes in many places. For these movements, biodiversity conservation and climate-change mitigation, rather than being burdens limiting development, are integral aspects of eco-social sustainability and prosperity.

BV has been adopted – and arguably, coopted – by the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador, where BV features prominently in both constitutions, and probably no two groups interpret BV in the same way. Nevertheless, ideas about what BV means and how it can be achieved or maintained are now ricocheting between continents, sometimes in communication with DG and with discourses arising elsewhere in the global South: lok swaraj or aparigraha in India, ubuntu in East and Southern Africa, among others.


DG – or decroissance, decrecimiento, decrescita, decreixement, Wachstumsrüchnahme, etc. – calls for ‘different, not less’: “a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet” (Research and Degrowth 2014).To its advocates, limitless economic growth is not only impossible but also undesirable.

DG stands “against the assumption of endlessness underlying neoclassical growth economics, but also against green Keynesian attempts to bring the crisis-ridden Western economies on a new growth curve through a Green New Deal or a Green Economy” (Schmeizer 2014).

Versions of DG have been articulated by European public intellectuals and academics such as Serge Latouche, Barbara Muraca, Francois Schneider, Adelheid Biesecker, Mauro Bonaiuti, and Niko Paech. One thread (e.g., Meinhard Miegel) is a conservative reaction to perceived resource limits, human migration, and the welfare state.

However, the most prominent degrowth stream traces its intellectual roots to leftist, late-20th-Century critics of capitalist modernity including Ivan Illich, André Gorz, and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegan, whose work on ‘bioeconomics’ and thermodynamics inspired Gorz and is an important source for those degrowthers who identify as political ecologists. This version of DG emphasizes global environmental justice and has been nurtured by Joan Martinez Alier and a younger generation of scholar-activists affiliated with the L’Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals in Barcelona: Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Viviana Asara, Giorgos Kallis, Filka Sekulova, and others.

That said, DG is less a meta-theory than a loosely organized intellectual and social network, often overlapping with other anti-capitalist, post-capitalist, or ‘alternative’ ideas and activism for ‘recommoning’, ecofeminism and other struggles against heteropatriarchy, worker-directed enterprises, the social and solidarity economy movements, movements for ‘diverse economies’ (inspired by J.K. Gibson-Graham), debt audits, global-justice and right-to-the-city movements, urban and community-supported agriculture, eco-villages and transition towns, anti-coal and anti-fracking struggles, campaigns for guaranteed minimum income, and offshoots of the indignados and Occupy movements in Europe and North America.

Resonances and tensions

Some critics contend that degrowth has little relevance for the South, where the ‘right to development’ must take precedence, and where development requires at least some economic growth. Some claim that buen vivir is a utopian dream that connotes a lost, pastoral past and cannot address the crises of urban, industrial societies.

Do DG’s calls for conviviality and voluntary simplicity seem absurd to societies less thoroughly imbued with commodity relations? Will members of the expanding precariate in the North react to DG’s proposals for economic downsizing as threats to their own marginal security?

There are certainly differences in emphasis between these two schools of thought and action and perhaps significant tensions between them. Here are some very brief and superficial observations that don’t begin to do justice to either trend:

Social movements

A key commonality is that both BV and DG are closely linked to social movements and both see such movements as the key agents of resistance and of the construction of alternatives to current social and economic arrangements and ideas. The connection of ecological survival to social justice is a foundational premise of both.

Denouncing neoliberalism

Also in common, BV and DG denounce neoliberalism as an immediate cause of accelerating social and environmental destruction. Both reject formerly-existing ‘socialism’ but both are clearly incompatible with capitalism, as seen in their common condemnation of GDP growth, imperialism, the commodification of life forms and social relations, labor exploitation and in many cases, wage labor altogether. However, many BV and DG statements avoid specifying capitalism as the root cause of today’s multi-crisis, partly for tactical reasons, but also because anti-capitalist discourse appears too narrow in its frequent failures to address the more-than-human, the indigenous, and the sphere of reproductivity.

‘Nature’ and ‘society’

Another commonality is explicit rejection of nature-society dualism, although BV perhaps has more to say about multispecies relationships and DG puts forward a more modernist analysis of ecological crisis.

Scarcity and plenitude

In various ways, both DG and BV emphasis sufficiency, abundance, or plentitude as opposed to scarcity. Some BV sources reject the construction of ecological limits as absolute scarcity, focusing less on the finitude of resources and scarce carbon sinks than on the anti-entropic, life-giving relationships among human labor, water, soil, and sun, and the activities of other species. Traditional or new forms of spiritual practices are significant in many BV movements and same DG communities.

Some DG accounts refer to natural resource limits or even ‘planetary boundaries’, but stress that the more important limits are social and that DG strategy is based on social choices to self-limit. Both have called for wealth redistribution and cancellation or repudiation of international and illegitimate debts. Some DG proponents say that reduced resource consumption in the North can free ‘ecological space’ for increased resource use in the South but not in ways that replicate conventional models.

Technology and knowledge

Both BV and DG are highly skeptical of technological solutions to environmental problems and are critical of elite expertise and complex technological systems and bureaucracies. Both call for democratization of knowledge-making, or post-normal science, and stress the situatedness and plurality of epistemologies. Many BV sources insist on multiple, place- and culture-specific ontologies. Both, in different ways, envision an open-ended ‘pluriverse’ of heterogeneous communities and societies: what the Zapatistas describe as ‘a world of many worlds’.

Against discrimination

BV and DG both oppose race, gender and other forms of discrimination and take heed of feminist analysis in some way. Perhaps DG has more explicit emphasis on care and reproductivity, although better-informed Latin American feminists might want to correct me on that point. Both espouse the autonomy of place- and culture-specific human collectivities, which may include other-than-human species and geophysical entities.


A major area of ambiguity and differences between and within the BV and DG movements has to do with forms and norms of political organization and the state.

Both trends advocate some type of political devolution, autonomy, and as-local-as-possible systems of production and self-government. Territorial and/or cultural sovereignty is a central goal of most of the indigenous movements that contribute to BV discourse. At the same time, many Latin America peasant, indigenous, and Afrodescendant movements are making demands on the state for redistributive policies and/or national or local social services. Others, such as the Zapatistas, insist on full political autonomy and socio-economic self-reliance, although they do accept ‘solidarity’ aid and engage in come commerce beyond their borders.

DG movements, too, comprise a range of opinions and approaches to governance and the state and differ about whether to take part in electoral politics. Campaigns for guaranteed minimum income and shared work are important to many DG activists as ‘non-reformist reforms’ and as educational and organizing methods. A key, DG-related goal is democratic control of social surplus (dépense). Many DG advocates are working to build autonomous or democratically managed political and economic institutions such as digital commons, enterprises owned and run by workers, non-profit financial and insurance systems, and community currencies, gardens, squatter settlements, crèches, repair cafes, etc.

Clashing visions?

Are DG and BV two distinct visions for two separate worlds?

To the contrary, I argue that both approaches are raising similar, vital questions about human-nature relations, the purpose of ‘the economy’, and the sources of sustenance, value, and meaning in ecosocial systems anywhere.

Can these visions and strategies overcome the apparent conflict between the need for greater material well-being and the impoverishing, diversity-destroying results of economic growth? Can they prefigure, create, and begin to empower alternatives to the capitalist world system? That remains to be seen.

Kathleen McAfee
August 2015

The author is the convenor of the panel “Green Economy and its others: Challenges to scarcity and green economy – Buen Vivir, abundance, affective ecologies, degrowth” on Tuesday 8 September. She is also commenting on ‘Social justice and citizenship’ in the final conference plenary on Wednesday 9 September.

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