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Growth, green growth or degrowth? New critical directions for India’s sustainability

This is the concept note for the first ever symposium on ‘de-growth’ in India, held in September 2014 in Delhi.

Rajeswari S. Raina (NISTADS-CSIR) & Julien-Francois Gerber (TERI University)

It has become common knowledge that GDP is a simplistic and even misleading measure for an economy’s health*. In fact, two-digit GDP growth is in many ways profoundly unsustainable and the ”side effects” of this growth are increasingly contested at the grassroots. Yet GDP growth still holds a sacrosanct place in the decision-making arena.

Six month ago, former finance Minister P. Chidambaram said that ”anything that comes in the way of growth must be stoutly opposed. And obstacles to growth must be removed. Unfortunately, we are our own enemies when it comes to growth. […] People say we want electricity, but don’t build dams across the river that runs in my district or build a thermal plant in my village. We want roads, but don’t build highways or railways that will cut into my land… Development always has a price and it has to be paid” (The Hindu, 6 February 2014).

This quote crystallizes the many paradoxes of growth. It is as if growth was a self-propelling force, as if democracy was powerless in front of it. The quote also acknowledges that many movements belonging to what has been called the ”environmentalism of the poor” are indeed fighting the impacts of growth. But is it appropriate to understand them merely as ”not in my backyard” (NIMBY) movements? They may in fact be NIABY movements (”Not In Anyone’s Backyard”)! But what alternatives do they embody then?

In the global North, evidence shows that economic growth does not correlate with an increased life satisfaction (see Fig. 1). In the United State, the percentage of the ”very happy” has even steadily decreased since 1945 while economic growth continues to take place. As Peter Victor (2009: 125) remarked, ”Americans have been more successful decoupling GDP from happiness than in decoupling it from material and energy”.

It seems clear by now that above a certain level, growth does not increase well‐being – and may even deteriorate it (Jackson 2009). In addition, Piketty (2014) showed that capitalist growth increases social and income inequalities along with new poverties and social exclusions.

This symposium intends to reflect on the pertinence – in the Indian context – of alternative conceptions of “economic growth”, whether they are envisioned as growth vs. development (ISI 2013), green growth (TERI 2012), ecological democracy (Shrivastava & Kothari 2012), village economy (Kumarappa 1946), prosperity without growth (Jackson 2009; Victor 2009), steady‐state economics (Daly 1996), eco‐socialism (Dhara 2013), post‐development (Rahnema 1997) or sustainable degrowth (Nigam 2013).

Let us take the radical example of “degrowth”. Degrowth has been called a “missile word” whose primary objective is to stimulate discussions. It does not simply advocate “negative GDP” but symbolizes a civilizational change. Degrowth has been defined as a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions (Martínez‐Alier et al. 2010). It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with democratic, equitable, and localized economies. In such societies, material accumulation no longer holds a prime position in the population’s cultural imaginary. The primacy of efficiency is substituted by a focus on sufficiency, and innovation no longer focuses on technology for selectively perceived efficiency or productivity outcomes, but concentrates on new socio‐ecologically desirable arrangements. “Sharing”, “simplicity”, “conviviality”, “care” and the “commons” are central features of how such a society might look like (D’Alisa et al. 2014).

Some of the degrowth ideas have been discussed and practiced in India for centuries. In the 20th century, the greatest Indian theoretician of “degrowth” was arguably J.C. Kumarappa (1892‐1960), the “green Gandhian”, who developed in the 1940s and 1950s the model of the “economy of permanence”. The latter was in fact a source of inspiration for some of the forefathers of the modern degrowth movement, including Ernst Schumacher and Ivan Illich. The word Décroissance (French for degrowth) appeared for the first time in the 1970s in different French publications (such as in a collection of articles by the great economist Nicholas Georgescu‐Roegen [1979]).

However, the word Décroissance only became an activist slogan and a social movement in France from 2001, in Italy from 2004, in Spain from 2006. The English term “degrowth” was accepted at the first Degrowth Conference in Paris in 2008, which also marked the initiation of “degrowth” as an academic research area (Demaria et al. 2013).

In this context, the present symposium would constitute an historical première: for the first time in the Global South, an academic conference would discuss (among other things) the relevance of “degrowth”. We would indeed very much welcome innovative reflection on the appropriate ways of applying the ideas of “green growth”, “degrowth” or “prosperity without growth” to the Indian context.

For example:

  • From a practical viewpoint, what may be needed in the Global South is selective degrowth together with selective green growth – what should degrow and what should grow?
  • From a global environmental justice perspective, only the degrowth of industrialized economies will leave enough environmental space and resources for the Global South to grow some more.
  • From an organizational angle, couldn’t “prosperity without growth” be a rallying slogan for myriads of grassroots alternatives that are already present and often isolated and under threat, especially in the rural world? Alliances have a great potential and may include the areas of agroecology, industrial ecology, environmental justice, international cooperation, solidarity economy, local currencies, urban gardening, feminism, pacifism, alternative medicine, etc.
  • Last but not least, the fundamental philosophical questions of “real needs vs. illusions”, “modernization vs. false consciousness”, “westernization vs. self‐identity”, “globalization vs. self‐reliance” will be difficult to eschew throughout the symposium.

*GDP says nothing about the distribution of growth, about unpaid social and environmental costs, about unpaid work (e.g. domestic or voluntary), and it mixes good and bad things (e.g. a bombing attack increases GDP).

View a report on the De-growth symposium


D’Alisa, G., F. Demaria & G. Kallis (2014) Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new paradigm. London: Routledge.

Daly, H. (1996) Beyond growth: the economics of sustainable development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Demaria, F., F. Schneider, F. Sekulova & J. Martínez‐Alier (2013) What is degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social

movement. Environmental Values 22: 191‐215.

Dhara, S. (2013) What is our share of energy in nature? How should we distribute it? Search for a roadmap to a

sustainable, equitable and peaceful human society. Unpublished document.

Georgescu‐Roegen, N. (1979) Demain la décroissance: entropieécologieéconomie, foreword and French translation by

  1. Grinevald & I. Rens. Lausanne: Favre.

Jackson, T. (2009) Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet. London: Earthscan.

Jackson, T., W. Jager & S. Stagl (2004) Beyond insatiability – Needs theory, consumption and sustainability. In: L. Reisch

& I. Ropke (eds) The ecological economics of consumption, pp. 79‐110. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Kumarappa, J.C. (1946) Economy of permanence. Varanasi: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan.

Martínez‐Alier, J., U. Pascual, F.‐D. Vivien & E. Zaccai (2010) Sustainable degrowth: mapping the context, criticisms and

future prospects of an emergent paradigm. Ecological Economics 69: 1741‐1747.

Nigam, A. (2013) Let us talk ‘degrowth’. http://kafila.org/2013/05/01/may‐day‐let‐us‐talk‐degrowth

Picketty, T. (2014) Capital in the twentyfirst century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rahnema, M. (ed.) (1997) The postdevelopment reader. London: Zed Books.

Shrivastava, A. &. A. Kothari (2012) Churning the Earth: the making of global India. New Delhi: Penguin.

TERI (2012) Green Growth and Development Quarterly 1(1).

Victor, P. (2009) Managing without growth: slower by design, not disaster. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.


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