Radio Canada: Eric Pineault – Is degrowth possible?

Radio Canada interview translated via Google translate

Photo: La planète Terre vue de l’espace.
Earth seen from space

The degrowth revolution could well end up happening

Interview by Laurence Niosi
Posted December 26 2022 at 4:06 a.m.

Degrowth. The concept is not new, but experts and the public are increasingly interested in it. In an economy based on all-out growth, is downsizing possible? In the middle of the holiday season – and of overconsumption – we put the question to sociologist Éric Pineault, professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

Laurence Niosi: How to define degrowth?

Éric Pineault: There are two levels. The de means to go out, to undo something. We want to undo hegemony, the domination of economic growth as an obligatory way of addressing our societal challenges. This is something that was installed in the context of the cold war, it is a straitjacket that must be broken.

The second idea is that there must be a reduction in the matter that we extract, in the land that we transform and occupy, and there must be a reduction in the energy that we produce in the rich countries. We know that betting on technological changes does not work: we need changes in behavior, changes in institutions and a modification of the basic economic rules.

L.N. : Do you have concrete examples?

E.P.: Me, I don’t ask people anything in their daily behavior, I’m not a preacher, but as a collective, I ask a lot of things. There are people who can’t buy less because they just buy the basics they need to live on. But let’s take the example of a toaster. Let’s say I want a toaster that I can repair myself. There, it will take me days of research to find one that does not have the famous screws that burst as soon as you touch them. So I’m stuck with toasters that I throw away every two years. So what I would like is for there to be a law in Quebec on the repairability of everyday objects.

L.N. And what about overconsumption around Boxing Day?

E.P.: Of course, it still takes people who give themselves handmade or second-hand gifts that resist Boxing Day; so yes to individual initiative. Exemplarity is important: every little gesture counts in the field of the environment. But it mainly involves public policies, changes in institutions.

However, it will upset us, it will be revolutionary, there will be conflict. For example, for me, Walmart or large corporations are not compatible with degrowth. Our pension plans are based on growing, large financial institutions. It’s big, it’s a radical change. It’s like communism in the 1920s, it’s the scarecrow that scares. But this time the change must be democratic, there must be support. We cannot impose that. So the change will not be made by arms, but there will be demonstrations, strikes. We saw the mini-debate around the Horne Foundry in Quebec. And we’re going to see that more and more.

L.N. : What do we do to decrease when we don’t have access to wealth? Wouldn’t that increase inequality?

E.P.: No, it reduces inequalities. Degrowth comes with an idea of maximum income and wealth. After World War II, in North America, we saw marginal taxation – the top income tax bracket – increase to 94%. This corresponded to the reduction of inequalities. It lasted until the 1980s. And now, inequalities are coming back. We are starting to look like the 1920s, just before fascism and the political instabilities created by inequality.

L.N. : Can we slow down our growth while maintaining our quality of life?

E.P. Yes, but it depends on how we define quality of life. When we measure the quality of life, we have several indicators. We can take GDP per capita, and there we say that there is a strong link between growth and well-being. But, for years, we have had studies in economics that have taken other indicators, and we always end up with the same curve. If we take health, and on another axis the GDP, well, after a while, there are no more gains, economic growth no longer gives anything in terms of health. Same thing with the subjective feeling of happiness. We surveyed the populations: we arrive with the same curve. Then there, the question must be asked: what is it after that that can increase or decrease well-being if it is not growth?

L.N. : We are talking more and more about degrowth, especially at COP15 in Montreal this month.

E.P.: It is present. It’s not part of political negotiations, but in the sidelines, it’s ubiquitous much more than in years before. Why? It corresponds to the trajectory of degrowth as a field that has changed a lot in the last 15 years. It went from a spontaneous social criticism of a mode of development and it became anchored in the work, and it was taken up in official reports. That’s what changed.

And that refers to a key notion, that of decoupling: it is a concept in environmental science, promoted by large companies and governments even today, that it is possible to detach economic growth from environmental impacts, and even that growth can benefit nature. But in the scientific field, no one defends that anymore. Over the past 10 years, we have witnessed a paradigm shift, from decoupling to downsizing.

The society may not be there yet, but the science is there. And it’s like many ideas, if you had told a man in 1910 that women were going to participate in politics, he would have said “impossible”. There are tipping points at some point, and it’s accelerating.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Also to read and listen (in French)

La décroissance est-elle possible?
La décroissance pour sortir de la crise écologique? | Décroissance | Rad (Nouvelle fenêtre)
Les concepts de « décroissance » et de « mode de vie sobre » s’invitent à la COP15

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