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The Biggest Shift from North to South: 'Time to De-Grow'

Q&A: Claudia Ciobanu interviews economist Serge Latouche


Serge Latouche. He calls for "abandoning the objective of growth for growth's sake, an insane objective, with disastrous consequences for the environment." The need for a 'de-growth' society stems from the certainty, he says, that the earth's resources and natural cycles cannot sustain the economic growth which is the essence of capitalism and modernity. (IPS File)

BUCHAREST - Serge Latouche, professor emeritus of economic science at the University of
Paris-Sud, is one of the main proponents of "the society of de-growth".

He calls for "abandoning the objective of growth for growth's sake, an insane
objective, with disastrous consequences for the environment." The need for a
'de-growth' society stems from the certainty, he says, that the earth's
resources and natural cycles cannot sustain the economic growth which is the
essence of capitalism and modernity.

In place of the current dominant system, Latouche argues for "a society of
assumed sobriety; to work less in order to live better lives, to consume less
products but of better quality, to produce less waste and recycle more."

The new society would mean "recuperating a sense of measure and a
sustainable ecological footprint," Latouche says, "and finding happiness in
living together with others rather than in the frantic accumulation of

Author of many books and articles on Western rationality, the myth of
progress, colonialism and post-development, Serge Latouche describes the
main principles of the de-growth society in his books 'Le Pari de la
Décroissance'(The Bet of De-Growth) and 'Petit Traité de la Décroissance
Sereine" (Small Treaty of Peaceful De-Growth) published in 2006 and 2007.

Serge Latouche spoke to IPS correspondent Claudia Ciobanu about de-growth

IPS: What are the features of the society of de-growth, and are any practices
in the world today compatible with this vision?

Serge Latouche: De-growth does not mean negative growth. Negative growth
is a self-contradictory expression, which just proves the domination of the
collective imagination by the idea of growth.

On the other hand, de-growth is not the alternative to growth, but rather, a
matrix of alternatives which would open up the space for human creativity
again, once the cast of economic totalitarianism is removed. The de-growth
society would not be the same in Texas and in the Chiapas, in Senegal and in
Portugal. De-growth would open up anew the human adventure to the
plurality of its possible destinies.

Principles of de-growth can already be found in theoretical thought and in
practical efforts in both the global North and the South. For example, the
attempt to create an autonomous region by the neo-Zapatistas in Chiapas;
and many South American experiences, indigenous or others, such as in
Ecuador, which has just introduced in its constitution the objective of Sumak
Kausai (harmonious life).

All sorts of initiatives promoting de-growth and solidarity are starting to
spread in the global North too: AMAP (The Associations for the Preservation
of Peasant Agriculture in France, that promote direct links between producers
and consumers, and organic agriculture), self-production according to the
example of PADES (the Programme for Self-Production and Social
Development, developed in France to help individuals and communities
produce goods for themselves and others, eliminating monetary

The movement of Transition Towns started in Ireland and spreading in
England could be a form of production from below which closest resembles a
society of de-growth. These towns are seeking firstly energy self-sufficiency
in the face of depleting resources and, more generally, promote the principle
of community resilience.

IPS: What would be the role of markets in the de-growth society?

SL: The capitalist system is a market economy, but markets are not an
institution which belongs exclusively to capitalism. It is important to
distinguish between the Market and markets. The latter do not obey the law
of perfect competition, and that is for the best. They always incorporate
elements of the culture of the gift, which the de-growth society is trying to
rediscover. They involve living in communion with the others, developing a
human relationship between the buyer and the seller.

IPS: What strategies could the global South pursue in order to eliminate
poverty in a different way than the North has, at the expense of the
environment and producing poverty in the South?

SL: For African countries, decreasing the ecological footprint and the GDP are
neither necessary nor desirable. But from this we must not conclude that a
society of growth must be built there.

Firstly, it is clear that de-growth in the North is a precondition for opening
up of alternatives for the South. As long as Ethiopia and Somalia are forced,
during the worst food shortage, to export feed for our domestic animals, as
long as we fatten our cattle with soya obtained after destroying the
Amazonian forest, we are asphyxiating any attempt at real autonomy in the

To dare de-growth in the South means to launch a virtuous cycle made up of
breaking economic and cultural dependency on the North; reconnecting with
a historical line interrupted by colonisation; reintroducing specific products
which have been abandoned or forgotten as well as "anti-economic" values
linked to the past of those countries; recuperating traditional techniques and

These are to be combined with other principles, valid worldwide: re-
conceptualising what we understand by poverty, scarcity and development for
instance; restructuring society and the economy; restoring non-industrial
practices, especially in agriculture; redistributing; re-localising; reusing;

IPS: The de-growth society involves a radical change in human
consciousness. How is this radical change going to come about? Can it
happen in time?

SL: It is difficult to break out of this addiction to growth especially because it
is in the interest of the "dealers" - the multinational corporations and the
political powers serving them - to keep us enslaved.

Alternative experiences and dissident groups - such as cooperatives,
syndicates, the associations for the preservation of peasant agriculture,
certain NGOs, local exchange systems, networks for knowledge exchange -
represent pedagogical laboratories for the creation of "the new human being"
demanded by the new society. They represent popular universities which can
foster resistance and help decolonise the imaginary.

Certainly, we do not have much time, but the turn of events can help
accelerate the transformation. The ecological crisis together with the financial
and economic crisis we are experiencing can constitute a salutary shock.

IPS: Can conventional political actors play a role in this transformation?

SL: All governments are, whether they want it or not, functionaries of
capitalism. In the best of cases, the governments can at most slow down or
smoothen processes over which they do not have control any more.

We consider the process of self-transformation of society and of citizens
more important than electoral politics. Even so, the recent relative electoral
success of French and Belgian ecologists, who have adopted some of the de-
growth agenda, seems like a positive sign. 

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