The depths of degrowth

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Philosophical reflections on degrowth

Degrowth has enjoyed considerable momentum in recent times, resulting in a growing, diverse, and vibrant field of research. In a recent publication [1], we note that the time is ripe for taking a step back and considering what sort of science degrowth aspires to be: what type of knowledge do degrowth researchers aim to produce and what does the world need to be like for this type of knowledge to be possible and relevant? Degrowth scholarship has yet to explicitly address such questions. This is a problem as it risks making our collective research efforts inconsistent and directionless.

A serious reflection on our scientific practices includes contemplating the nature of being (ontology), considering the nature of, and our relationship with, knowledge (epistemology) and thinking about the place of normativity in research. Normativity is already widely embraced in the degrowth discourse in the form of visions of a better future in which our societies exist in harmony with nature, and in which our relationships with each other, non-human beings, and our own selves are characterised by care. However, if the other elements (ontology and epistemology) are not also considered, such a future may remain on paper and in the pockets and niches of capitalist societies.

The ontology of critical realism

Fortunately, in reflecting on these matters we do not have to start from scratch. The philosophy of science provides a treasury of concepts, ideas and perspectives that can inform and constellate our reflections. Degrowth research is not and should not aim to become consistent with only one such perspective. Yet we see major benefits in bringing together degrowth with so-called ‘critical realism’, a philosophy of science perspective developed by Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer and others [2].

According to the ontology of critical realism, (social) reality is deep. That is, it is stratified, and it contains underlying structures that are not readily available to our senses or even noticed. According to Bhaskar [3], social being can be seen to exist on four interconnected planes: (1) material transactions with nature, (2) social interactions between people, (3) social structure, and (4) embodied personality/intra-subjectivity. Any social phenomenon exists and unfolds at once on all four planes. When contemplating a phenomenon such as degrowth it is thus important to adopt a holistic, anti-reductionist perspective. Far from ‘merely’ involving changes pertaining to consumption and production, the transformative journeys towards degrowth societies would involve deep changes on all planes.

Efforts to fit the economy within the limits of the planet (improving our transactions with nature) entail transforming our social structures and reimagining our relationships (and thus ways of interacting) with fellow humans. A different way of running our economies will also impact our personalities and pursuits in life (the plane of embodied personality). The latter is exemplified in Fromm’s mode of being (as opposed to the mode of having): focusing on who we are as humans and our capacities (for learning, loving, caring, altruism, solidarity, forgiveness, presence, joyfulness and so on) rather than what we can have (profit, possessions, status and so on) [4]. Importantly, changes directed at one plane of being may have unintended consequences on other planes. For example, while deviating from fossil fuel energy production entails better transactions with nature, it may simultaneously have negative consequences relating to, say, employment and mental health for the communities involved in these industries.

Underpinning degrowth research by critical realism

Further to its deep ontology, critical realism advocates the view that social scientific practice should illuminate causal mechanisms, including underlying social structures, cultures and agency. Degrowth research underpinned by critical realism, then, would aspire to illuminate both the mechanisms that make current societies in the rich countries grossly unsustainable, and the mechanisms needed to bring about degrowth transitions in specific settings. Critical realism emphasises the need for science to be useful, inclusive, practically applicable and emancipating. Seen from the vantage point of critical realism, no individual theory or discipline can on its own capture the nature of multidimensional degrowth transformations. Psychology, sociology, political economy, ecology, geography, and other disciplines thus all need to participate in the uncovering of possibilities for (time and space sensitive) transformations.

Philosophical reflections may seem remote from – and thus unnecessary to – the practices needed for degrowth to materialise. Yet we are not faced with an either-or choice here: we can engage both in philosophical reflection and in other practices promoting degrowth, including activism. And the one can and should inform the other. Further to this, scientific practices which recognise the multi-dimensionality of reality and which are open to dialogues can be useful far beyond the realm of academia. For example, in efforts to design effective and realistic eco-social policies and programmes that can assist degrowth transformations it is surely highly relevant to consider the various interrelated planes of social being.



[1] Buch-Hansen, H. and Nesterova, I. (2021) Towards a science of deep transformations: Initiating a dialogue between degrowth and critical realism. Ecological Economics, 190.

You are more than welcome to contact us – or – if you do not have access and would like to read it.

[2] For an introduction to critical realism which also relates to degrowth, see Buch-Hansen, H. and Nielsen, P. (2020) Critical Realism. Basics and Beyond.

[3] Bhaskar, R. (1993) Dialectic. The pulse of freedom. London: Verso, pp. 160-161.

[4] Fromm, E. (2013) To have or to be? London: Bloomsbury.

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