Book Club

The Chair read for you Ralentir ou périr, L’économie de la décroissance by Timothée Parrique

Published on 19 April 2023

Degrowth is a subject that gives rise to much debate and around which there is no scientific consensus. Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen began working on the theoretical foundations of degrowth in the 1960s and is recognized as one of the first researchers to do so. In 1972, the Meadows Report, published under the title The Limits to Growth, completed these first theoretical works by providing empirical evidence on degrowth. The authors of this report showed that a growth economy in a finite world will inevitably have negative impacts on the environment and the stock of natural resources, and will additionally not be compatible with demographic growth. However, despite the publication of this report in the 1970s, the first book dedicated to degrowth was not published before 2003 and the first scientific paper before 2007. To date, 600 scientific papers on degrowth have been published. Although several politicians and economists are hostile to degrowth, T. Parrique considers it the only possible alternative for safeguarding ecosystems and limiting global warming – this is the thesis he defends. The book Ralentir ou périr, L’économie de la décroissance [1]  is not, however, a guide to “putting degrowth into practice”, but rather describes the foundations of this movement in eight chapters.

The main idea of this book, and of degrowth more broadly, is that planetary limits will not allow our economy to grow perpetually. The current system has reached its limits (degradation of ecosystems, global warming, social and democratic crises, etc.). Thus, the shift to degrowth, a transitional phase, would be necessary to reach a post-growth economy. The latter would be characterized by a stationary state (in the sense of Herman Daly) which would allow us to live in harmony with nature, respect the ecological budget of our planet, improve social conditions, and reduce inequalities between individuals and between countries.

To argue his point, T. Parrique returns to the very definition of an economy: a collective organization that makes it possible to meet needs, and in particular basic needs, that individuals cannot satisfy by themselves. The way of thinking about and of measuring the economy have substantially evolved since the 1930s, when the concept of the GNP (Gross National Product) was invented as an accounting tool by Kuznets. The aim of this tool was to measure economic activity in the context of the Great Depression. The GNP was intended to assess the effectiveness of American public stimulus policies. Initially designed for a temporary usage, the GNP (which later became GDP, Gross Domestic Product) was generalized as an international accounting tool in the 1950s by the United Nations. As a reminder, GDP measures all market activities, whether these are harmful to well-being, ecology, social and human values or not. Today, the growth of an economy is almost always measured using this accounting tool.

The problem is that only measuring the evolution of an economy with this accounting tool has created a “collective obsession” to continuously increase GDP. This obsession comes from the myth of growth that states that there is a negative correlation between growth and the ills of an economy. In other words, an increase in GDP would reduce unemployment, inequality, poverty, and public debt and improve the well-being of individuals. This is true, but only up to a certain wealth threshold. Indeed, according to Easterlin’s theory, beyond a certain threshold, increased growth no longer improves welfare. The idea that growth reduces inequality (via trickle-down theory) is misleading and has never been proven empirically. The author points out that “between 1983 and 2015, the poorest 50% of French people only captured 20% of total growth, a share equivalent to that of the richest 1%”. Growth thus only benefits a minority of individuals who get richer thanks to it – wealth is hardly shared. For T. Parrique, trying to solve socio-economic problems “by pressing the GDP button is a bit like hoping to fix a computer by hitting it with a hammer”.

Like the growth of all living things, economic growth must eventually come to an end. Indeed, no living organism grows perpetually. The author therefore writes that green growth is a promise that will likely never be fulfilled. Green growth implies that it is possible to decouple GDP from ecology, i.e., to develop one without harming the other. The book shows that, to date, this has virtually never been observed, and that decoupling phases that did occur took place during periods of very low GDP growth, or even during periods of economic stagnation. Growth always means more production, more consumption of final products and therefore more consumption of raw materials. Even if new low-carbon technologies allow us to control our carbon footprint, we must not neglect the material footprint of our societies. Increasing growth means asking more and more of nature in terms of ecosystem services. However, our ecosystem is already reaching its limits. Even if recycling improves and grows exponentially, we cannot indefinitely recycle a material that has already been recycled. Thus, to limit our ecological footprint, we must reduce the size of our economy and adopt more sober behaviors.

To achieve this, T. Parrique argues that we must move towards a post-growth economy. This type of an economy would not increase poverty, but instead allow for a better distribution of wealth. To reach this state, the first step is to decrease – what is known as degrowth, i.e., a decrease in consumption and in production. This decrease needs to be something that people choose rather than it being imposed. It calls for moderation rather than frugality. It would allow for the reduction of the economy’s ecological footprint. The author insists on the fact that it is important to understand and communicate on the organized aspect of degrowth. It is not a recession; it is chosen and planned democratically. Degrowth puts equity at the heart of its process and favors quality over quantity. Finally, degrowth also means reducing the size of an economy to respect ecological limits, all the while generating a “triple social dividend”: a participatory economy, reduced inequality and poverty, and a better quality of life. Once the degrowth phase is over, the post-growth economy begins. This economy is characterized by a stationary state in harmony with nature, where decisions are taken collectively and where the notion of prosperity is no longer limited to the value of GDP. The transition to a post-growth economy would be beneficial to most individuals and only depends on political will according to T. Parrique. However, to achieve this, we must fight against the myth of growth, thus “disbelieving to decrease”.

This book offers new reflections on the economic, social, and democratic organization of our societies. What we can be sure of is that ecological and climate challenges force us to rethink the way our economy works. Degrowth is a serious alternative to the current system and has even been mentioned on several occasions by the IPCC in its latest reports. However, even though it would be beneficial to most according to the author, with such a change there will necessarily be losers and winners. How can citizens and politicians be convinced to make this change in order for it to be democratic? How can we transform an economy that has functioned according to the principle of growth for decades and move towards its polar opposite? How can we disbelieve? Nothing is impossible, but these questions will likely give rise to hours of debate between politicians, economists, and citizens.

Lou Wander, PhD student, The role of investor expectations and financial regulation in the low-carbon transition

[1] Parrique, T. (2022). Ralentir ou périr, L’économie de la décroissance. Edition Seuil