Hubert Buch-Hansen
Search for other papers by Hubert Buch-Hansen in
Current site
Google Scholar
Max Koch
Search for other papers by Max Koch in
Current site
Google Scholar
, and
Iana Nesterova
Search for other papers by Iana Nesterova in
Current site
Google Scholar
Leaving the path towards eco-social collapse

Contemporary societies face multiple crises, most of which have the capitalist growth imperative as their root cause. Against this background, a fast-growing community of scholars and activists call for degrowth. The chapter accounts for the crises and notes that while the general idea of degrowth points in the right overall direction, it still lacks a solid foundation in the social sciences and their underpinning philosophies. Further to this, it highlights that degrowth transformations have yet to be theorised in a holistic manner, that is, in a manner systematically taking into consideration various interrelated and overlapping planes of social being, scales and sites on which transformations would have to unfold. The chapter proposes that the critical realist philosophy of science can underpin a theory of the deep transformations required for degrowth to materialise. The theory accounts for transformations on various planes (social interactions, social structures and transactions with nature and inner being), on multiple scales (local, national and global) and in different sites (civil society, states and business).

Contemporary societies face several deep and intertwined crises. The level of economic inequality has reached staggering heights. While a small elite has accumulated wealth on an unprecedented scale, many people lack the means to satisfy even their basic human needs. Economic and financial downturns only further these inequalities and divides. At the same time, democratic institutions are increasingly being undermined. Social scientists now contemplate how democracy will end (Runciman 2018), they speak of the rise of authoritarian forms of neoliberalism (Bruff 2014; Wigger 2019), and suggest that even in countries where democracy used to be strongly established, we find ourselves on the path towards post-democracy (Crouch 2016).

On top of social, health and political crises come the catastrophic ecological and biodiversity crises (Ceballos et al. 2015). A number of planetary boundaries, including climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and biogeochemical cycles, are being transgressed (Steffen et al. 2015). Overall, then, contemporary societies exist within a complex constellation of deeply interrelated and mutually intensifying crises spanning multiple dimensions of being. An outcome of these crises is that the preconditions for human beings and other species to thrive – and indeed live – are rapidly being undermined.

The root cause of the crises, whether directly or indirectly, is the capitalist organisation of societies and the capitalist growth imperative central to this organisation (Foster et al. 2010). Capitalism is a system of human organisation which orientates all human activities and pursuits towards valorisation of capital (Gorz 2012). The engine of capitalism is the process of capital accumulation, that is, the microeconomic activity of reinvestment of past profits motivated by the desire to make more profits. This process translates into economic growth, upon which capitalism is structurally reliant for its functioning. The accumulate-or-die logic defining capitalism as an economic system creates a constant pressure to expand market relations into new domains and to intensify such relations where they already exist. The result is both the geographical spread of the capital relation, which has reached its culmination in globalised capitalism, and the ever-deeper exploitation of human beings and nature. Even spiritual traditions and practices such as mindfulness and meditation are not immune to commercialisation and utilisation for the purpose of increased labour productivity (Purser 2019).

Seen in a historical perspective, the climate and biodiversity crises are inevitable outcomes of the functioning of capitalism. The global economy’s long-term exponential growth has resulted in an economy that is far too large relative to the biosphere and thus grossly unsustainable (Koch 2012). While capitalism is pervaded by several contradictions (Harvey 2014), today the main contradiction in the capital relation is that between capital and nature (Jessop and Morgan 2022). Latouche (2009: 2) observes that we find ourselves in ‘a performance car that has no driver, no reverse gear and no brakes and it is going to slam into the limitations of the planet’. One would perhaps think that this situation would prompt large electoral majorities, policymakers, economists, investors, business associations and labour unions to seriously take stock of the situation and consider whether the time has come to replace the ‘car’ (capitalism) with an altogether different model. Yet, while awareness of the looming ecological collapse has increased in recent times, the pro-growth discourse remains hegemonic. According to the currently prevailing perception, the only viable way forward is to pursue so-called green growth, that is, continued economic growth combined with protection of ‘environmental services’. Underlying this notion is a fundamental optimism as to what technologies and capitalist markets can accomplish. New innovations coupled with various forms of market-based solutions are expected to lead to greener production, greener jobs, greener consumption and greener growth, all of which will reduce inequalities and environmental impacts – not least CO2 emissions.1

Appealing as this vision may seem, the available evidence does not suggest that it is in fact possible, in the available time and on a global scale, to combine economic growth with rapidly declining CO2 emissions (Haberl et al. 2020; Jackson 2016). The developments thus far certainly give no reason for optimism: for all the green innovations that have appeared and despite political pledges to halt emissions, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have continued to break new records (Buller 2022). Little suggests that this is about to change in any fundamental way, let alone in good time: in 2018, an IPCC report suggested that we had 12 years to initiate far-reaching change (IPCC 2018). With no profound shift having occurred, this ‘window of opportunity’ has narrowed to seven years. The main achievement of the green growth idea has been to greenwash, and thus contribute to the reproduction of, the capitalist economy and mode of living. All the while capitalism is being ‘green-growth washed’ by the powers that be at the level of discourse; business as, by and large, usual continues at the level of material reality.

The great paradox of our times is this: on one hand it is increasingly unlikely that capitalism can survive the multiple crises confronting it (Streeck 2016). One aspect of this is that, in its destruction and degradation of nature, it is ultimately endangering its own continued existence because it is but a subsystem of nature.2 On the other hand, while the level of awareness of the climate and biodiversity crises is now relatively high (Brand and Wissen 2013), capitalist ideology is so prevalent that most people continue to find it impossible to conceive of a world without capitalism and exponential economic growth, let alone imagine that another economic system could work better. And those who can imagine a different system, one in which capital is not akin to a deity and humans are not reduced to mere consumers, may struggle to envision how such a system could come into being.

In this situation, critical scholarship has crucial roles to play. These roles include, for instance, showing how there’s nothing natural or inevitable about current socio-economic arrangements, developing visions of different socio-economic orders and theorising how they may materialise.

The present book concerns one important vision of a different type of society, a vision that involves leaving the path towards eco-social collapse that humanity is currently heading down. This vision, which goes by the name of degrowth, has gained considerable momentum among scholars, activists and practitioners in recent times. Degrowth entails societies in which much is different – including, for example, work, production, consumption, housing, prevailing values, gender roles, the distribution of resources and decision-making processes (Buch-Hansen and Nesterova 2023). A mushrooming literature revolves around the degrowth vision and countless policies and other initiatives that can move current societies in the direction of degrowth are being discussed in recent years. This literature often paints a picture of a better future, where human needs are satisfied, where community replaces commerce (Klitgaard 2013), where humans participate in creative, meaningful and fulfilling activities (Trainer 2012) and where nature and non-humans thrive. While such a future appears highly attractive compared to what we are currently heading towards, the question remains: how do we get there? Various ideas exist, but degrowth transformations have yet to be theorised in a manner taking into account the complexity and depth of reality.

The present book contributes to filling this gap. It develops a theory of deep transformations for degrowth via a combination of insights from political economy, feminism, human geography, anarchism and sociology, among other perspectives, and grounds this emerging theory in the ontology of critical realist philosophy. From a critical realist perspective, the purpose of theory is to bring to the surface constellations of mechanisms which cause, or have a potential to cause, specific outcomes and phenomena. An interdisciplinary and holistic theorisation is required due to the enormous diversity and complexity that characterises modern societies and that would therefore also characterise degrowth transformations. The theory thus considers the multiple and overlapping planes, scales and sites on which degrowth transformations would need to unfold. The planes include humanity’s transactions with nature, social interactions, social structures and peoples’ inner being (Bhaskar 2016). The scales include the local, the national and the transnational levels on which political struggles alongside other processes would take place. The sites include civil society, business and the state.

Before expanding on the content of the book, the next two sections unfold the notion of degrowth and introduce the critical realist ontology underpinning the theory.

What is degrowth?

The ideas explored by degrowth scholars have long intellectual heritages and stories. For instance, calls for simpler and more harmonious living, deviation from consumerism and seeing non-humans as neighbours can readily be found in the nineteenth century (see e.g., Thoreau 2016). Likewise, the need to live harmoniously in and with nature was highlighted (Emerson 2009a, 2009b) and the ‘hunger for wealth, which reduces the planet to a garden’ was noticed in the same century (Emerson 2009b: 161). Going even further back in history, in ancient China the obligation of the government to ensure that human needs are met and for the people to develop human qualities such as benevolence and moral agency were outlined (Mote 1989).

The end of economic growth was an issue considered by several of the classical political economists. Among these, John Stuart Mill stood out by believing that the emergence of a non-growing economy could be ‘a very considerable improvement on our present condition’ and that ‘there would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on’ (Mill 1848: book IV, chapter VI).

The notion of degrowth (décroissance) is more recent. It was coined by French political ecologist André Gorz in the early 1970s. In a later work he observes that ‘today a lack of realism no longer consists in advocating greater well-being through the inversion of growth and the subversion of the prevailing way of life. Lack of realism consists in imagining that economic growth can still bring about increased human welfare, and indeed that it is still physically possible’ (Gorz 1980: 14). From the outset, then, degrowth formed part of a critique, an opposition, a discourse of deviation from the pursuit of economic growth and hence from the destruction of life on earth. It opposed capitalism with its growth imperative, its ever-increasing production and consumption, its overuse of material and energy resources, its exploitation of human and non-human life and beings, its commercialisation of almost everything. Having laid dormant for many years, the concept of degrowth was revived in the new millennium. This happened in France where Serge Latouche emerged as a leading proponent of degrowth and where the first international degrowth conference took place in 2008. Over the past decade or so, degrowth has become a concept around which both the works of a fast-growing number of researchers and the activities of an international social movement have come to revolve.

The concept of degrowth does not have a single definition or meaning that all advocates of it equally accept. However, there is broad consensus that the energy and matter throughput of the rich countries is to decrease significantly, and that this shrinking process would need to be organised democratically and without undermining critical levels of wellbeing. One matter that deserves to be highlighted is that degrowth, despite its (perhaps unfortunate) name, is not opposed to growth per se (Buch-Hansen and Nesterova 2023). Degrowth is consistent with certain forms of non-material growth. These include growth in everything that can be associated with the goodness of human nature, such as care, solidarity, mutual aid, empathy, creativity and imagination, cooperation, connectedness, consciousness and attention, concern for others, and benevolence. Some forms of material growth also resonate with degrowth, the reason being that degrowth targets aggregate growth. For instance, selective growth in desirable industries (such as in renewable energy provision, organic agriculture and permaculture) is necessary. So are improvements in material conditions, material consumption and access to infrastructure for those whose genuine needs are not met. Such needs include basic needs as well as needs for education, self-realisation and even spirituality. Yet another type of growth that does not go against degrowth is growth in alternatives and in the diversity of forms of production. This is something diverse economies scholars have researched and described extensively throughout recent decades (e.g., Gibson-Graham 2006; Gibson-Graham and Dombroski 2020). The diverse economies approach identifies a wide variety of non-capitalist options which currently exist in, and even sustain, capitalist societies, and which can become essential parts of the landscape of degrowth societies. In terms of the forms of production, for instance, they may include cooperatives, artisanal production and foraging.

Further to these reflections, degrowth can be seen to imply a reduction in humanity’s use of the material and energy resources wherever it can be done, growth in their use where necessary, growth in diversity and growth in human qualities in pursuit of harmonious coexistence. Naturally, when such equal access to resources (material and immaterial) and satisfaction of needs are pursued and when growth in the non-material is encouraged, it precludes capitalistic strivings. By definition, then, degrowth cannot be capitalist. Apart from being anti-capitalist in seeking to transform all capitalist forms of social being and human organisation, degrowth is also a process which does not define itself purely in terms of being against, but also in terms of continuously and adventurously being for. Throughout the book we emphasise this processual and fundamentally hopeful and positive character of degrowth. Finally, we perceive degrowth as a phenomenon that, far from merely involving less and different consumption and production, involves deep change on all planes of social being. We return to this matter in the next section when we outline the ontology underpinning the theory of degrowth transformations.

As noted above, a growing field of research revolves around the concept of degrowth. Initially, the main scientific base of this field was political ecology and especially ecological economics. In contrast to mainstream neoclassical economics, ecological economics regards the economy to be a subsystem of society, which in turn is a subsystem of nature (Spangenberg 2016). As a result, there are natural limits as to how big the economy can grow. To ecological economists, economic growth denotes ‘an increase in the physical scale of matter/energy throughput that sustains the economic activities of production and consumption of commodities’ (Daly 1996: 31). Considering that throughput has grown far too big relative to the capacity of the biosphere, they argue that it is necessary to drastically reduce throughput in the rich countries. While it is the expectation that doing so will mean a reduction of GDP (the standard measure of economic activity), the goal is not a GDP reduction (Kallis 2018).

These insights of ecological economics are widely embraced by degrowth scholars. Yet with the growth of the degrowth research field, its scientific base has broadened considerably. Sociologists (e.g., Koch 2022a), political economists (e.g., Buch-Hansen 2014; Chertkovskaya et al. 2019), geographers (see e.g., Schmid 2018) and scholars from many other disciplines now work with the concept of degrowth, resulting in a highly diverse and interdisciplinary body of scholarship. Degrowth has been put in conversations with a wide range of perspectives, including, for instance, feminism (Dengler and Seebacher 2019), historical materialism (Leonardi 2019), diverse economies thinking (Schmid 2020), existentialism (Nesterova 2021a) and critical realism (Bhaskar et al. 2012; Buch-Hansen and Nesterova 2021, 2023; see also Morgan 2021 and Schoppek 2020). Moreover, degrowth thinking has been applied to and related with multiple phenomena, such as business and organisation (Hankammer et al. 2021; Nesterova 2020a, 2021a; Schmid 2018, 2020), housing (Mete and Xue 2021), social policy (Koch 2022b), urban planning (Xue 2021) and technology (Heikkurinen 2018).3

A social movement calling for degrowth emerged in the context of the first international degrowth conferences. The conferences, which continue to take place regularly, bring together activists, artists and academics – and conference contributions span both conventional presentations of research and various forms of activism. More generally, a wide variety of movements can be seen as degrowth compatible (Burkhart et al. 2020). Implicitly degrowth-compatible movements such as voluntary simplicity, the tiny house movement and the zero-waste movement have many commonalities with degrowth, but do not identify themselves as degrowth, though some of the people within those movements might do or generally share degrowth sentiments, arguments and pursuits.

Degrowth can also be regarded as a diverse political project. It is diverse because despite sharing the critique of capitalism and having a desire to achieve harmonious coexistence, views as regards the means by which such coexistence can be achieved differ. Some perceive degrowth to be an eco-socialist project (Swift 2014). Others advocate anarchism (Trainer 2014) and call for change in individuals’ values and worldviews first and foremost (Nesterova 2021a, 2021b). Still others do not propose a single political ideology but rather highlight the variety of political systems, and hence propose a variety of pathways through which degrowth can be achieved in practice, which include both top-down and bottom-up strategies or a combination of eco-socialist and anarchist means.

The journey(s) of degrowth as a field of research, a social movement and a political project is ongoing. It is motivated by a shared desire for a better future, for a lasting, harmonious, peaceful co-existence between humanity and nature, between humans and non-humans, and within humanity, which includes one’s own self (Bonnedahl and Heikkurinen 2019; Nesterova 2021a). In the field of research, the collection of knowledge is deepening and becoming broader. Yet degrowth scholarship also remains a collection of often dispersed and contradictory knowledge and it still lacks a solid foundation in the social sciences. Deepening of degrowth knowledge is done from a variety of philosophical standpoints (whether explicit or implicit), which, while not being bad in itself, often makes degrowth knowledge(s) incompatible. The breadth of degrowth knowledge makes it increasingly challenging to know what degrowth is and what it is not. Without a solid foundation in the social sciences, degrowth risks going down the path of remaining a mostly academic social movement rather than becoming at once an established and influential academic paradigm, a successful and attractive political project and, of course, an inclusive and effective social movement. For the social scientific foundations to be solid, philosophical underpinnings need to be explicated.

The planes of social being

Any social scientific theory incorporates a set of ontological assumptions, that is, assumptions about the general nature of social being. The social ontology accompanying a theory regulates the type of explanations we can provide when applying it. For example, a structuralist ontology precludes agency-oriented explanations. It is thus crucially important that a theory aspiring to provide a holistic perspective on degrowth transformations is underpinned by a comprehensive and anti-reductionist ontology, that is, an ontology that recognises social being in its entirety, including its relation to nature, and which reduces no aspect of social reality (say, the activities of agents) to a by-product of another (say, culture). We contend that the critical realist perspective in the philosophy of science, and specifically Roy Bhaskar’s four planes of social being model (Bhaskar 1986, 1993, 2016), offers precisely such an ontology. Indeed, Bhaskar’s philosophy of science perspective is distinct in that it starts out from deep ontological reflections based on which it subsequently develops its perspective on the form and purpose of (social) scientific knowledge. The reason why this specific sequence is advocated is that it makes little sense to take a position on what forms knowledge should take without having first reflected on the overall nature of the reality that this knowledge concerns (Bhaskar 2008). In what follows, we briefly outline the ontology underpinning our theory of degrowth transformations (for a general introduction to critical realism, see Buch-Hansen and Nielsen 2020).

Critical realist ontology covers both physical and social realities, considering them to be deep and layered. In the present context, we focus on social ontology as we consider it particularly relevant in relation to degrowth. After all, transformations need to happen in social reality, whereas nature needs to become subject to transformation as little as possible. The conceptualisation of the relationship between structure and agency is of crucial importance to the analysis of social change and stability. It has thus attracted attention ever since the beginning of the social sciences and is also at the heart of critical realist social ontology (Bhaskar 1998; Archer 1995). Reductionist approaches that privilege structure over agency or vice versa have traditionally prevailed. Yet several social theorists, including, for example, Marx, Giddens and Bourdieu, occupy various types of middle positions in the social structures/individual actions continuum (Koch 2020a).

Critical realism also advocates a specific type of middle position, according to which the social structures confronting human beings are never made in the present by those same human beings, but are the outcome of human activities undertaken in the past. In the words of Bhaskar (1998: 45–46), ‘people do not create society. For it always pre-exists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce or transform, but which would not exist unless they did so’. The social structures of today face us as an objective reality and they are not going to disappear so that new structures can be created. The implication for a theoretically informed analysis of degrowth transformations is that it needs to start out from currently existing structures. Not only do these structures condition agency, future degrowth societies would also evolve from them.

Burkhart et al. (2020: 18) note that degrowth movements generally ‘share a holistic image of human beings, which they express either explicitly or implicitly. People are not seen as rational utility maximisers à la homo oeconomicus, but rather as social and emotional beings living in relationships with and depending on each other.’ This view of human beings is consistent with the ontology of critical realism. The latter emphasises that while agency is conditioned by structure, it is never determined by it. Although they are ontologically dependent, social structures and people are fundamentally different from each other (Bhaskar 1998: 42). Like structures, people are different. But unlike structures, people have identities, emotions, intentions and reasons. Unlike structures, people can be reflexive, creative, loving, aggressive and impatient. And unlike structures, people have the capacity to exercise agency, understood as intentional causality (Bhaskar 1998). These are important insights in relation to degrowth transformations as they suggest that human beings – through concerted actions – are able to change currently existing social structures. A key task of the theoretical perspective to be outlined in this book is to fill this and other ontological statements with sociological content to render more concrete the nature of, and pathways to, change. For example, drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, we propose that some groups are more likely to be in favour of degrowth than are others.

Whereas Bhaskar’s initial thinking on social ontology to a large extent centred on the agency–structure relationship, subsequently he expanded it and proposed that social being – that is, any social phenomenon, event or person – exists (is and is in becoming) simultaneously on four social planes (Bhaskar 1986: 128–130, 2016: 53). The planes are interconnected and include (a) material transactions with nature, (b) social interactions between people/inter-subjectivities, (c) social structure and (d) the inner being of individuals. Viewing social being as existing and unfolding on the four planes at once is valuable for degrowth because it provides a holistic and, by definition, anti-reductionist perspective. It precludes simple answers and unsustainable or unrealistic solutions. Degrowth transformations will concern all planes of social being. Transactions with nature (a) need to be improved via a (selective and equitable) reduction in matter and energy throughout. Social interactions between people (b) need to become more humane (involving for instance caring, empathy, solidarity, kindness, generosity and tolerance of diversity) as opposed to taking capitalist forms (exploitation, competition). Social structures (c) need to undergo a significant transformation, for instance involving redistribution of resources to massively reduce economic inequality. Human selves (d) are where unprecedented growth needs to happen. After all, transformation arises from human agents: ‘agency provides the effective causes for what happens in society – only human beings can act’ (Danermark et al. 2002: 12).

Human agents are cultural beings (Tuan 2001). Culture is often defined in opposition to nature (Benton 2001). In the words of Benton (2001: 137), such ‘opposition renders literally unthinkable the complex processes of interaction, interpenetration and mutual constitution which link together the items which are misleadingly dissociated from one another and allocated abstractly to one side or other of the Nature/Culture great divide’. In the course of degrowth transformation(s), one task is to overcome this opposition which permeates all four planes of social beings. Currently, nature is seen as a collection of resources (plane a), social interactions and structures (planes b and c) are seen as separate from nature or human-made, while the embodiment of personality is viewed through the lens of mind–body (Cartesian) dualism. Degrowth should aim to transcend such dualism by recognising our ultimate dependence on nature and a deep interconnection with it. Even as individual humans we are not only em-bodied, but also em-placed, and the nature of the place co-creates our subjectivity (Næss 2016). Such em-placement refers not only to a person’s immediate location, but also to the cosmos at large (Tuan 2013), that is, nature includes existence far beyond the nature in one’s region or even the earth.

As Bhaskar pointed out, one immediate virtue of the four-planar model ‘is that it pinpoints the ecological dimension of social being that social theorists have been prone to ignore’ (2016: 83). Displacing human beings from the central position in ontology and incorporating the human being as well as humanity as a whole into nature indicates transcending anthropocentrism. Critical realism taken seriously and to its latest stage (the philosophy of metaReality; see Bhaskar 2012a, 2012b) calls for and can effectively underpin a holistic and processual theory of transformation. The four-planar model is, as is ontology in general, formulated at a high (philosophical) level of abstraction. It is the task of substantive theory to render concrete the nature of the structures, agents, interactions, cultures etc. on the various planes that matter in relation to whatever phenomenon the theory concerns.

As noted above, the theory to be developed in this book proposes that degrowth transformations will unfold on various planes, scales and sites. As the four planes encompass social being in its totality, both the scales and sites exist within each of them. For instance, material transactions with nature concern the local, the regional, the national and the international scales. Improving material transactions with nature on the local scale while causing damage elsewhere is not a degrowth transformation. Likewise, policies which improve the state of affairs for the local population while destroying livelihoods elsewhere should not be considered degrowth compatible. The concept of a site brings our attention to places which may be small and otherwise overlooked when theorising planes, scales and places with their own lasting constellation of structures and relationships. For instance, a human individual can be a site of transformation where a different mode of being can be nurtured and a different way of relating with the world can be encouraged. We identify and theorise three interconnected but relatively well-defined sites of transformation: civil society (including human individuals), state and business. Naturally, such sites can take different forms, and degrowth journeys will depend on this form.

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. An analysis of degrowth transformations underpinned by critical realism should thus 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. No individual 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 place-sensitive) transformations.

A final feature of the critical realist philosophy of science perspective to be mentioned here is that it views normativity as a necessary and significant part of scientific practice (Bhaskar et al. 2010). In Bhaskar’s view, social science can come to be emancipatory by illuminating constraining social structures that sustain various ills in social life, structures that people may be unaware of (Bhaskar 1998: 32). For example, while some aspects of social being across the four planes are clear to people, others may be less obvious. A human being may have a sense of selfhood or individuality, but may find it less clear which social structures influence his/her life and how. It becomes a responsibility of social scientists to explicate such structures and look deeply into social phenomena while critiquing oppressive structures and false knowledge, including capitalist myths. Cases in point are the myths that one is poor because of laziness and that consumption makes one happy. Degrowth is also orientated towards emancipation, including liberation from the constraints imposed onto human beings and non-humans by capitalism. Thus, degrowth research in general – and the theory of transformation outlined in the chapters that follow – has much to gain from being rooted in a philosophy of science perspective that can bolster such critical aspirations, legitimising them as constituting a key feature of scientific practice.

On the content of this book

The purpose of this book is to propose a scientifically and philosophically informed, holistic account of degrowth-inspired change: a theory of deep transformations. By introducing the reader to the four planes of social being, we hope to encourage the academic community, policymakers, activists and practitioners to become attentive to the depths and connectedness of social reality both within itself and with nature, and when facing complexity to go beyond labelling something as ‘complex’, attempting instead to disentangle and theoretically structure complexity. When contemplating transformations, this involves, for instance, avoiding placing hope, resources and efforts into any single policy, pursuit or place, and when indeed targeting any particular aspects of social reality, to ask oneself, what does it mean for other planes, scales and sites?

The book starts out from an account of capitalism both in its general and specific forms (Chapters 1 and 2). In Chapter 1, drawing mainly on Marx but also on other social theorists, we consider the growth imperative and the nature of work and consumption in capitalism. Moreover, we reflect upon capitalism in relation to (human) nature. Chapter 2 introduces the notion of institutional forms to consider capitalism as it actually manifests itself in concrete places and time periods. The notion is subsequently used to reflect upon possible features of degrowth societies and economies. In Chapter 3 we initiate the theorisation of deep transformations. Drawing inspiration mainly from contemporary political economy scholarship, we distil various prerequisites for transformative change, including a deep crisis, the articulation of a political project, the mobilisation of a comprehensive coalition of social forces and the building of consent.

The following three chapters enrich the theorisation by zooming in on the sites of civil society, the state and business (Chapters 4 to 6). Chapter 4 conceptualises civil society and reflects on its diversity and scales in degrowth transformations, paying attention to individuals and their self-transformation. Chapter 5 considers the state’s roles in capitalist economies and its potential roles in degrowth transformations, bringing into focus various forms and scales of state intervention. Chapter 6 reflects on the role of business in degrowth transformations, addressing questions related to scale, diversity and business practices. Chapter 7 then provides an illustration of how a part of the book’s theorisation of degrowth transformations can be applied empirically. The chapter relates data from empirical research on Sweden to the four planes of being, contemplating the potential uptake of degrowth ideas by different groups of people. Finally, in the Conclusion of the book, we synthesise the main arguments of the book, considering degrowth transformations in relation to the various planes of being and presenting our definition of degrowth. Further to this, we outline some key areas and focus points for future degrowth research and practice.


1 The notion that sustainability and growth can be reconciled can be seen, for instance, in the United Nations’ 17 ‘sustainable development’ goals. On one hand these concern, for instance, clean water, climate action, sustainable use of the seas and ecosystem protection, while on the other hand Goal 8 is to promote economic growth (UN 2015).
2 Only in the long run is capitalism itself in danger as a result of the climate breakdown. In the words of Malm (2018: 194), it is only likely to happen long after this breakdown ‘has killed those at the greatest distance from the bourgeoisie’.
3 Many other strands within academia share degrowth advocates’ desire of a good and harmonious life for all, including humans, nature and non-human beings. Such strands include diverse economies (Gibson-Graham and Dombroski 2020), deep ecology (Næss 2016), and scholarship on technological scepticism and pessimism (Heikkurinen and Ruuska 2021).
  • Collapse
  • Expand

All of MUP's digital content including Open Access books and journals is now available on manchesterhive.


Deep transformations

A theory of degrowth


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 172 172 125
PDF Downloads 290 290 227