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Civil society in degrowth transformations

Civil society is where ideas challenging the growth paradigm could come to prevail and where a shift away from the current consumer culture could happen. Civil society is a space in which more citizens can experiment with alternative, sustainable forms of living. It is the site of degrowth activism, the site in which the degrowth movement can form alliances with other movements. And civil society is the realm in which broad consent to, and a demand for, profound eco-social transformations could arise, prompting policymakers to adopt more ambitious policies. In short, changes in – and emanating from – civil society are an essential part of degrowth transformations. Enriching the book’s theoretical perspective, the chapter conceptualises civil society and reflects on its scales and diversity in degrowth transformations. Moreover, it highlights the importance of individual self-transformation for civil society to become a sufficiently potent driving force towards degrowth.

Civil society is where ideas challenging the growth paradigm could come to prevail and where a shift away from the current consumer culture could happen. Civil society is a space in which more citizens could come to experiment with alternative, sustainable forms of living. Civil society is the site of degrowth activism, the site in which the degrowth movement can form alliances with other movements (Burkhart et al. 2020). And civil society is the realm in which broad consent to, and a demand for, profound eco-social transformations could arise, prompting policymakers to adopt more ambitious policies. Certainly actors in other sites are also of key importance if degrowth is to happen on a societal scale, states (Chapter 5) and businesses (Chapter 6) being cases in point. Yet on their own they cannot bring degrowth about. In short, then, changes in – and emanating from – civil society are an essential part of degrowth transformations. Enriching the theoretical perspective outlined in the previous chapters, in this chapter we conceptualise civil society and we reflect on its scales and diversity in degrowth transformations. Moreover, we highlight the importance of individual self-transformation for civil society to become a sufficiently potent driving force towards degrowth.

Conceptualising civil society

Civil society is a broad social domain rather than a ‘thing’. It can be defined negatively by what it is not: it excludes the state and business, though it is inherently interconnected with them.1 For example, members of civil society interact with businesses as businesspersons, employees, customers, activists, organisations and so on. The same person can run a business (and thus belong to the site of ‘business’) and be a member of, say, a degrowth network or volunteer for a charity (and thus belong to the site of the ‘civil society’). Some forms of business or organisations involved in production of goods and services belong to the sites of both civil society and business. This applies, for instance, to consumer-producer arrangements such as community-supported agriculture, politically inclined cooperatives and eco-social enterprises. Still, civil society as a site excludes business.

Civil society can also be defined positively by what it encompasses: a plenitude of relationships and commitments between humans and various social structures and entities (civil society organisations) outside the state and business. This implies that civil society refers to many very diverse formal and informal ‘social forms’, such as community organisations, networks, trade unions, voluntary associations, non-government organisations and academia. Often, then, civil society is ‘understood to refer to the realm of autonomous group action distinct from both corporate power and the state’ (Cox 1999: 19). Yet the associations, encounters, organisations, networks etc. of civil society rest on the voluntary actions of individuals (Adloff 2021: 151). As such it is important not to separate social forms in civil society from what makes them possible, namely individuals. Thus, we include human individuals in our contemplation of civil society transformations.

The concept of civil society has a long history. Cox (1999: 7–8) identifies two broad understandings of civil society in capitalist settings. The first is a top-down understanding in which civil society is regarded as a site in which the prevailing social forces form a hegemony, so as to secure the population’s consent to the social order. The other is a bottom-up understanding which views civil society as a site from which groups and classes can build a counter-hegemony that can challenge and ultimately replace the previous hegemonic order.

Further to this, in relation to degrowth transformations we propose viewing civil society as a site as well as a force of transformations. On one hand, civil society is a site of transformations due to its existing and potential role of being the space where diverse and multiple emancipatory transformations occur and where new ones begin. Civil society is ‘the realm of contesting ideas in which the intersubjective meanings upon which people’s sense of “reality” are based can become transformed and new concepts of the natural order of society can emerge’ (Cox 1999: 10). Transformations do not, of course, necessarily point in the direction of degrowth, and it should also be kept in mind that the activities of individuals and groups can contribute to reproducing existing ideas and social forms in civil society rather than transform them. The hegemony of particular ideologies, path dependencies and material interests are some of the mechanisms facilitating this outcome. Also, it should not be assumed that actors in civil society are civilised, democratically minded or tolerant. Forces in civil society can be uncivil, reactionary, violent etc., and more generally civil society is better understood as a plural, unequal and sometimes conflicting site than as an equal and harmonious public sphere (Gready and Robins 2017).

It is thus important not to romanticise civil society, seeing it as the domain of hope for degrowth while regarding, for example, the state and business as an enemy thereof. Instead, the ways in which existing civil society forms can and do contribute to the status quo and even deterioration rather than to emancipation and degrowth transformations should be recognised. For instance, academia to a large extent reproduces capitalist structures (M. Parker 2018). In a degrowth society it would undergo a significant transformation and would need to adopt a different approach to what it means and entails to educate and take part in people’s growth as human beings and citizens. Likewise, some networks and movements within civil society can organise for and pursue political agendas and worldviews which are incompatible with degrowth, right-wing ideologies being an example. Having said that, in civil society one can also find many examples of empowering, counter-hegemonic social forms (Gibson-Graham 2006; see also Ehrnström-Fuentes and Biese 2022). They include, for instance, various alternative social groups, intentional communities and alternative organisations of production.

Civil society is a force of transformation because humans not only reproduce, but also intentionally transform social structures (Bhaskar 1989; Buch-Hansen and Nielsen 2020; Hartwig 2007). Participation in civil society organisations can entail a step away from the assumption that transformations can be brought about merely individually (for example, by changing one’s consumption patterns) and exploring and strengthening various existing non-capitalist and anti-capitalist civil forms together with one’s fellow humans. Despite its relative separation from the state, civil society is political. That is, with their activities, civil society organisations, as well as individuals within civil society, support and manifest particular worldviews, ideologies, affiliations and visions of the future. Different social forms in civil society are forces aiming for different kinds and degrees of transformation. For example, trade unions for the most part operate within a pro-capitalist, pro-growth horizon and do not seek deep societal transformations. At the other end of the spectrum, the degrowth movement is an example of a force in civil society which repoliticises topics such as the primacy of economic growth while aiming for a post-capitalist social order.

The political nature of civil society can also be manifested in implicit political and ethical commitments such as in everyday and largely degrowth-compatible activism without an explicit reference to degrowth. For instance, the voluntary simplicity movement (Elgin 2013) is largely degrowth compatible but not explicitly degrowth oriented. Whether explicitly oriented towards degrowth or not, important principles for civil society to play a role in degrowth transformations are cooperation and organisation of, and in, alternative-to-capitalism arrangements and social forms (Trainer 2012) and realising their benefits for transforming the current society towards one co-existing harmoniously with nature and within itself. These alternatives may include networks which advocate degrowth, community organisations, trade unions and others. Importantly, such initiatives and forms do not have to be created from nothing. Degrowth-compatible alternatives already exist in society alongside capitalist structures (Gibson-Graham 2006), contributing to prefiguring a degrowth society.

A prerequisite for civil society coming to act as a stronger force of degrowth transformations may be that individuals in civil society seek out, learn about and participate more in such alternatives. Having said that, it remains essential not to assume that collective actions, though important and necessary, are suitable for everyone. Thus, some members of civil society may prefer to participate in degrowth transformations without actively participating in organisations by, for example, pursuing a different way of living focused on solitude or co-presence with non-humans and nature. Suggesting organising as the solution and organisation as the mode of participation in degrowth transformations may be alienating, and this is something degrowth cannot afford, considering the limited support the movement currently enjoys (Chapter 3).

Civil society never exists in a vacuum. Its nature, and the nature of the role different social forms in civil society can play in degrowth transformations, varies from one setting to the next. For instance, in countries characterised by the liberal form of capitalism, transformations would likely arise from social movements, while in countries with coordinated forms of capitalism, that is, where trade unions are strong and welfare provision ensured, ‘a process of “negotiated de-growth” – involving a societal compromise between governments and employers’ and employees’ organisations as well as various interest and expert groups – may be envisaged’ (Buch-Hansen 2014: 170). Finally, in countries where capitalism is state led, degrowth transformations are more likely to originate from the state while also being influenced by social movements and organisational practices (Buch-Hansen 2014).

Scales and diversity of civil society in degrowth transformations

Civil society varies across different scales as well as across different fields. Fields can be seen as relatively autonomous societal arenas characterised by particular activities, strategies, forms of capital and rules (Bourdieu 2014). What can be done by an individual on their own is different to what can be achieved by a larger social organisation. The change that can be implemented in, say, academia is different to change that can be manifested in, say, community organisations. Having said that, there are overlaps, common underlying principles as well as possibilities for different forms of civil society to work together. Seen from the vantage point of the theoretical perspective unfolded in the present book, then, no particular social form or scale of civil society should be given primacy in relation to degrowth transformations. Rather, a prerequisite for such transformations to occur are civil society activities spanning multiple scales and social forms.

Starting at the micro level, this is where initiatives appear to be potentially most in line with the eco-anarchist strand of thought within degrowth (e.g., Trainer 2012, 2014). Eco-anarchism advocates a highly localised and self-governing mode of social living. This strand of thought places hope in various small-scale community organisations and requires multiple civil society organisations. That is, the social life that eco-anarchism envisions must be practised collectively. Community gardens and orchards, reclaiming of previously industrial spaces, local currencies and repair workshops cannot be implemented by isolated individuals. Thus, as highlighted by eco-anarchists within degrowth, a high level of cooperation is required alongside participation and democratic decision-making (Trainer 2012). The eco-anarchist way of life, in other words, relies fully on civil society and not on the state or business. The only desired type of businesses are very small-scale, privately owned companies (Trainer 2012), most likely craft or artisanal producers.

While local initiatives such as community gardens and local currencies are by definition localised, movements do not have to be constrained to a certain town, urban space (Schmid 2022) or region. They can span the globe. As mentioned above, some movements are explicitly degrowth orientated while others are implicitly degrowth compatible. Degrowth itself is a broad movement within civil society (Buch-Hansen 2021), a movement embodying a plurality of, in some cases, conflicting views. For instance, the political alignment of the degrowth movement remains unclear if not contradictory: while some advocate for eco-socialism, others advocate eco-anarchism. This diversity has led to the suggestion that it makes sense to speak about degrowths in the plural rather than of a single degrowth movement (Nesterova 2022b).

Apart from the degrowth movement itself, there are multiple existing civil society movements which can be degrowth compatible (Burkhart et al. 2020). The Transition movement is a case in point. In the words of its co-founder Rob Hopkins, it constitutes ‘a social experiment on a massive scale’ (2011: 16). It was established in 2006 in the English town Totnes, and subsequently spread rapidly to several parts of the world. The core purpose of the Transition movement is to address climate change and peak oil by building community resilience. With a view to reducing carbon emissions and oil dependence significantly, those involved in Transition initiatives seek to make their communities self-reliant with respect to energy and food production, waste and transport. Like ecovillages, Transition initiatives differ substantially, owing to varying local conditions and because they build on community experience and knowledge instead of relying on external experts or one-size-fits-all recipes. For instance, there are Transition initiatives in villages, towns, cities, universities, neighbourhoods and districts. Everywhere they are rooted in local cultures. Consequently, ‘Transition in Brazil, emerging with a distinctly Brazilian flavour, will look very different from Transition in Edinburgh or in New Zealand’ (Hopkins 2011: 74).

Other movements which are generally degrowth compatible are, for instance, voluntary simplicity, zero-waste and minimalism. These movements are not without challenges both in terms of their practice and definition. For instance, minimalism can be viewed as a movement driven by aesthetics rather than by ethics, specific political or philosophical commitments, or respect towards nature. It does not require a non-anthropocentric philosophical perspective to be practised (on minimalism, see Nesterova 2023). The aspirational zero-waste movement likewise focuses on the level of personal consumption, though some adherents may participate in political actions and otherwise be involved in civil society organisations. Yet even in the sphere of personal consumption, the zero-waste movement faces issues. For instance, you can still practise a zero-waste lifestyle while flying, as long as you bring your own water bottle and plastic-free snacks with you. Moreover, such movements which primarily target individual consumption do not necessarily focus on some vision of a future, such as a society that exists differently in the world or a worldview which encourages gentleness and care towards the self, others and nature. In fact, attempting to achieve such lifestyles may take the attention of individuals away from political actions, making them focus instead on micromanaging their consumption. Despite these downsides, such movements remain important allies to the degrowth movement. They carry the potential of providing humans with a feeling of being active, of achievement and of hope in the face of ecological degradation. Moreover, since by definition movements such as voluntary simplicity (Elgin and Mitchell 1977) and zero waste deviate from consumerism, being part of them may allow more free time for other activities, such as participating in a community initiative or a trade union or connecting with nature.

On the large scale, civil society organisations may include NGOs and trade unions. One strength of an NGO is already implied in its definition: it is an organisation which operates independently of the government and which thus may be (but not necessarily is) critical of its ideology. In capitalist social formations, NGOs can create spaces for promoting degrowth-compatible ideas and transformations (Burkhart et al. 2020). To give but one example, the degrowth group of environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Denmark arranges seminars and summer schools about degrowth for the public and it makes podcasts and publishes books to increase awareness of what degrowth (in Danish: modvækst) is. However, NGOs may also be – and in many cases are – hierarchical and narrowly focused on a particular interest rather than on the deep transformations needed in every domain of societal being. Indeed, today many, if not most, NGOs are embedded in capitalist structures and do not stand in opposition to the growth imperative. In a degrowth society, many of the functions currently performed by NGOs, such as raising awareness and bringing to the surface inequalities and instances of social and ecological degradation, would become societal functions.

As regards unions, they are for the most part married to the idea that a green form of capitalism is possible and desirable. Their proposals of a Green New Deal are underpinned by the notion that it is possible to drastically reduce CO2 emissions while the economy grows, increasing the number of green jobs. Barca (2019: 212), however, also points to various cases exemplifying that ‘there exist, at this historical conjuncture, concrete possibilities for articulating degrowth and labor politics in new ways, via grassroots mobilizations in community unionism and social movement unionism, pushing labor organizations toward a radical critique of the growth paradigm’. While not degrowth oriented, unions can engage in degrowth-compatible struggles. For example, Bieler (2021) analyses how various coalitions between organised workers and other social forces at different scales have effectively waged struggles against the privatisation of water in Europe. The result of many of these struggles against the commodification of the commons have been that water companies have remained publicly owned. Another case is the International Labour Organization’s ‘just transition’ approach: workers in brown industries should be assisted in finding employment in greener sectors through reskilling programmes and financial support. Though originally married to the green growth mainstream, key organisations such as the European Social Observatory and the European Trade Union Institute have started to question the growth paradigm and engage with sustainable welfare and degrowth approaches,2 linking ‘just transition’ to these approaches (Sabato et al. 2021).

While trade unions could potentially come to play a role as a force of degrowth transformations, it is important to keep in mind that the political power of this type of civil society organisation has been drastically weakened, as a result of which its past achievements have to some extent been rolled back (Chapter 3). Increasingly, unions ‘appear like large but aging dinosaurs struggling to adapt as the climate changes. The proportion of workers who belong to unions is in decline. Centralized systems of wage-setting are breaking apart. Incentive pay schemes and profit-sharing arrangements subvert negotiated wage scales’ (Wallerstein and Western 2000: 355). The major unions, then, are far weaker potential allies of the degrowth movement than would have been the case in the heyday of the trade union movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Trade unions in many cases also have shortcomings in addition to those already mentioned. They may be bureaucratic, and they may have greater concern for their own interest as an entity than for the interests of their members (or nature). Here anarchist trade unions may provide an alternative, aimed at ‘working with communities rather than trying to take them over or lead them in instrumental manner’ (Wilkin and Boudeau 2015: 1338). It is also worth adding that while unions are in decline everywhere, they are stronger in some countries than in others. In the Scandinavian countries in particular, trade unions have better bargaining powers than in countries with liberal forms of capitalism. In the former countries, trade unions would thus be in a relatively better position to contribute to degrowth transformations should they come to be so inclined (Buch-Hansen 2014). For instance, they can advocate for better working conditions, contracts and wages, which would guarantee stability for the workers. Without such stability, it is difficult to imagine that humans would prioritise degrowth transformations.

Civil society organisations are diverse, spanning a wide variety of formal and informal organisation on various scales. Again, seen in relation to degrowth transformations, no particular civil society social form is superior to all others. To give but a few examples of social forms, within academia, groups and networks exist which promote the degrowth discourse as well as broader discourses such as post-growth. Various neighbourhood organisations are compatible with an eco-anarchist vision of degrowth transformations and degrowth society (Trainer 2012, 2014). Such small-scale organisations can contribute to degrowth transformations without waiting for a larger change and the end of capitalism. Organisations of production (see Chapter 6) such as cooperatives, not-for-profit businesses and eco-social enterprises may be, theoretically, at the border between civil society and business. Small-scale organisations of production can provide an answer to the call within the degrowth discourse for more localisations and place-sensitivity (Trainer 2012; Nesterova 2022b).

Multiple online communities which likewise can and do participate in degrowth transformations exist.3 The issue with such communities is their reliance on technology and the internet. The ever-increasing and intensifying use of technology is problematic for multiple reasons (Heikkurinen 2018). Technology is not neutral; one technology does not exist in isolation from others, the result being the creation of a technological society (Ruuska and Heikkurinen 2021). Ruuska and Heikkurinen (2021: 13) note that ‘the technological world is an atomized and detached world which often leaves people alone and feeling alienated with little or no sense of agency’. A technologically reliant mode of living is difficult to imagine in a world in which energy reduction is pursued: high technology requires energy. Still, some online spaces and organisations can indeed be helpful for transformations towards degrowth, for instance, in terms of organising political actions for degrowth transformations, sharing knowledge, and making more effective redistribution of existing goods and services possible. Currently, many initiatives which target waste reduction and redistribution are based on high technology. For instance, initiatives such as REKO rings (Hushållningssällskapet 2022), where producers and consumers come together without intermediaries, require the use of technology: they connect most often via a popular social media website. Payment is likewise done using apps.

It is important to stress that while no social form is ‘the best’ in relation to degrowth transformations, individuals are different and as such they will always be attracted to different types of civil society organisation depending on personal worldviews and political commitments (that is, provided they are at all attracted to such social forms). For instance, adherents of individualist anarchism or anarcho-primitivism are unlikely to be drawn to formal, bureaucratic and hierarchical organisations. For the adherents of socialism as a political ideology for a degrowth society, formal organisations such as trade unions may be more acceptable.

State policies can support civil society organisations, placing them in a better position to become driving forces in degrowth transformations. Owing to the wide variety of forms taken by civil society organisations, a diverse range of policies could be implemented to this end. Many civil society organisations operate on a voluntary basis. People who contribute their time, energy and skills are often not paid for their efforts. This excludes many individuals from participation. A suitable policy to increase participation in various civil society organisations is the provision of a universal basic income or universal basic services: without reliance on a job and an income, at least partially, people can familiarise themselves with the range of civil society organisations they can get involved with, or dedicate more time to the ones they are already part of. Apart from the universal basic income, increasing monetary support is required for multiple civil society organisations. For instance, this applies to NGOs, academic groups and networks involved in researching degrowth transformations, community initiatives and neighbourhood groups. Some organisations, such as those involved in the production of food, require policies which support access to land.

Individuals and their self-transformations

In discussing civil society as something singular (for example, as a site or an entity), it should be remembered that civil society, and everything within it, emerges from and through the causal powers and actions of individual human beings (Danermark et al. 2002). For their existence and operations, as well as their reproduction and transformation, organisations within civil society likewise rely on the involvement of individuals.

While placing causal powers within the domain of human agency, theorising human beings is essential. Otherwise, it may be asked, what lets us assume that civil society members would take part in transformations? First and foremost, it is important to reject the notion of a human being as a rational utility maximiser, otherwise known as the ‘economic man’ of neoclassical economics. It is difficult to imagine that degrowth transformations can be carried out by humans if humans are greedy, egocentric and narrowly self-interested (Chapter 1). It is likewise difficult to pursue degrowth transformations if such ideas of humans are promoted in society, such as in the system of education. After all, the ‘way in which we think of ourselves – the picture we form of our essential nature – directly affects the way we live’ (Midgley 2003: xvi). Neoclassical economics is notorious for misrepresenting human nature (Bhaskar 1998; Eskelinen and Wilen 2019; Gills and Morgan 2021; Lawson 2019; Schumacher 1993; Söderbaum 2008). In this school of thought, humans are reduced to materialistic and egocentric beings (Bhaskar 1998; Lawson 2015; Söderbaum 2008; Spash 2017). Even if human beings exhibit such characteristics, in reality they are much more complex than that (see Chapter 7). Moreover, human beings are always in the process of evolution, becoming and growing. That is, the self of humans is more akin to a journey than to a fixed entity (Polkinghorne 2015). Thus, instead of assuming that a human being is an ‘economic man’ with one or a few particular attributes (Lawson 2019), the notion of a real, unique, relational and complex human being, capable of transforming the world around her/himself as well as being capable of self-transformation, should be embraced. Seeing humans this way is not unusual. For instance, it is a feature of some strands of heterodox economics (Becker 2006; Spash 2012) as well as neighbouring sciences and humanities such as human geography (Tuan 1974, 1998), philosophy (Bhaskar 2012a) and psychology (Schneider et al. 2015).

Excluding ‘economic man’ as a member of civil society means looking into other disciplines which may assist in understanding who the members of civil society are. Human nature has traditionally been a major focus for philosophy and psychology (Boss 1988). In terms of philosophy, critical realism and existentialism may be helpful in understanding humans in relation to degrowth transformations (Heikkurinen 2018; Nesterova 2021c). The philosophy of metaReality (Bhaskar 2012c), which is the continuation of Bhaskar’s original philosophy of critical realism (Bhaskar 1989, 1998), has in recent times also become a feature of the degrowth literature landscape (e.g., Buch-Hansen and Nesterova 2021, 2023; Nesterova 2021c). Critical realism assumes that agents have causal powers and the ability to act on the world, including themselves (Buch-Hansen and Nielsen 2020; Collier 2003; Danermark et al. 2002). A better society is possible via this causation and human qualities (Nesterova 2021b). Critical realists contend that humans are naturally concerned about the state of the world around them (Sayer 2011) and are inherently capable of love, fellow-feeling, care, empathy, creativity and freedom (Bhaskar 2012a, 2012b). Love in this case does not simply refer to a feeling towards a particular individual. Rather, it signifies an overarching sense of interdependence and togetherness (Bhaskar 2012b). Naturally, being capable of something (such as fellow-feeling and care) does not mean that these qualities do not require nurturing. Indeed, wars, violence and exploitation provide evidence of humans being capable of suppressing or not exercising their humane capacities.

Existentialist philosophers whose works provided inspiration within the degrowth field include, for instance, Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger. Existentialist philosophy conceptually places humans into a concrete, but imperfect and complicated world (Boss 1988; Heidegger 2001; Sartre 2000). That is, while human nature itself is contentious, our being in and dwelling (belonging) in concrete locations and places is something that cannot be denied. This means that humans are always subject to certain natural and social structures such as topographies and social, cultural and political systems (Buch-Hansen 2014; Hägerstrand 2012). Humans’ experiences, circumstances and possibilities for actions differ depending on the constellation of structures within which they exist.

Existentialism views humans as embodied, that is, having a real, physical presence in the natural and the social worlds (Heidegger 2001; van Deurzen and Adams 2016). Being part of the social world means that even though humans are singular and unique, we are always co-present with other humans. Existentialism structures human existence around three or even four dimensions, hence presenting humans as relational beings. These relations concern the environment (Umwelt), the social dimension (Mitwelt) and the personal dimension (Eigenwelt) (Heidegger 2001; van Deurzen and Adams 2016). The spiritual dimension (Überwelt) can also be included (van Deurzen and Adams 2016). The nature of every person’s embeddedness in each and all of those dimensions or worlds is different, as is the experience of humans even within the same structures. For degrowth to come into being, transformations need to occur in each of these dimensions. That is to say that humans need to transform their relationship with the environment, within society and with themselves.

While navigating these dimensions or worlds, each human being infuses their own life with meaning (Camus 2005). Seeking meaning may be the core function of human consciousness (Frankl 2006). The meaning a human assigns to their own life and relationships within each of these worlds may direct their behaviour and the mode of being in the world. Under capitalism, the meaning of human existence tends to be reduced to the accumulation of material wealth. Yet various perspectives exist that are better aligned with human qualities and that emphasise genuine human experiences over materialism. This is reflected, for instance, in the mode of being of Erich Fromm. As noted in Chapter 1, Fromm (2013) identifies two modes in which a human being can be: the mode of having and the mode of being. The mode of having focuses on possessions, profit, status and the material. This mode is characterised by a utilitarian position towards nature, others and the self, that is, the self is imagined as a tool for achievement of status. In this mode, the engagement of humans with civil society organisations may be inauthentic and driven by the pursuit of status or material/financial benefits for example, rather than human emancipation, care and harmonious coexistence with nature. For instance, one may join a trade union for one’s own benefits rather than as a political act aimed at human emancipation.

The mode of being, conversely, is the mode of authentic existence, where empathy, solidarity and generosity are nurtured and thrive. To live in this mode ‘means to renew oneself, to grow, to flow out, to love, to transcend the prison of one’s isolated ego, to be interested, … to give’ (Fromm 2013: 76). In the mode of being, private property and having more generally is of little importance inasmuch as ownership is not the prerequisite for being able to use and enjoy something. As Fromm (2013: 99) writes, ‘Nothing unites people more (without restricting their individuality) than sharing their admiration and love for a person; sharing an idea, a piece of music, a painting, a symbol; sharing in a ritual – and sharing sorrow.’

While it is important that humans step onto the path of being rather than having, it is likewise important to recognise the uniqueness of everyone’s journey. In placing much value and hope in cooperation (e.g., Trainer 2012), the degrowth discourse overlooks the needs and inclinations of those who, while remaining part of the civil society, may not desire to organise with others (Nesterova 2022b). For instance, such individuals may find value in solitude and connectedness with the wider community of life (e.g., Thoreau 2016) and not necessarily strive to be part of formal organisations with their fellow humans. Adherents of deep ecology (Næss 2016) attempt to nurture fellow-feeling towards other beings beyond humans (Diehm 2007). This, by definition, widens one’s circle of connection and relationships. Trees, mountains, rivers and lakes, as well as other beings and features of nature, become morally and relationally significant. This may encourage individuals to seek to spend more time in and with nature, adopt an outdoors-based lifestyle, live in a sparsely populated or rural area and practise self-sufficiency.

This does not necessarily indicate withdrawal from society (this indeed would be impossible), but rather expanding the notion of who one’s fellow beings are far beyond humans. For such individuals, a more isolated mode of being or small eco-communities may be suitable. While such individuals may be in the minority (Leopold 1949), they still should be accounted for in the degrowth discourse. Apart from such cases of individuals who find the sense of connectedness and belonging in the wider community of life, others, due to their personalities, worldviews or ideological commitments, may actively strive to organise and participate in social forms in civil society such as social groups, charities, NGOs, trade unions and others.

In conclusion

In this chapter we have considered civil society in degrowth transformations. We conceptualised civil society as a site and force of transformations, noting that it constitutes a space where diverse and multiple transformations occur and in which a large variety of social forms (organisations, networks etc.) exist through which individuals can work collectively to pursue different kinds and degrees of transformation. The chapter also reflected on the scales and diversity of civil society, noting that degrowth transformations would require agency spanning multiple scales and social forms. Finally, further to the importance we ascribe to individuals in our consideration of civil society, we highlighted the importance of self-transformation. We include individuals in our contemplation of civil society because neither can civil society exist without individuals reproducing it individually and collectively (Bhaskar 1998), nor is any individual unaffected by civil society. The same observations can be made about the state and businesses, and for this reason we also touch upon individual self-transformation in these sites in the following two chapters. Still, we decided to devote particular attention to the matter in the present chapter for the simple reason that whereas individuals positioned in those other sites are members of civil society, the reverse is not necessarily the case.

Activism for degrowth may take very different forms in civil society and thus needs to be understood in broad terms. It does not need to be limited to participating in political campaigns, protests or strikes. It can take more personal and subtle, but still important, forms such as adopting different lifestyles and modes of being, creating music, poetry and art, and different approaches to teaching and knowledge sharing. Despite the focus on the ‘self’ in self-transformations, the journey and the acts of self-transformations are a social practice since one is always an inseparable part of society. Self-transformation is at its core an activity whose ultimate aim is to create a better world while realising that one’s agency is the best place to start. In this sense, self-transformation is a form of activism for degrowth. Since self-transformation requires and entails personal growth, it may enhance self-knowledge (Neisser 1988) and thus help the person to identify the other kinds of activism that, apart from self-transformation, are best suited for them as a unique human being.


1 Whereas in its modern use civil society is different from the state, it was synonymous with the state or political society up until the end of the eighteenth century (Kumar 1993). In Aristotle’s thinking, for example, civil society is synonymous with the ruling elites of the polis, the Athenian civic community.
2 An example is the commissioning of a chapter on ‘Sustainable welfare, degrowth and eco-social policies in Europe’ in the annual publication Social Policy in European Union: State of Play (Koch 2018b).
3 Schmelzer et al. (2022: 217) discuss Wikipedia as a case of global commoning: The world’s largest encyclopaedia developed on the grounds of ‘contribution rather than exchange’.
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Deep transformations

A theory of degrowth


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