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Degrowth transformations – an empirical study

How may the book’s theoretical perspective inspire empirical studies into degrowth transformations? Previous chapters have identified eco-social policies as a key mechanism for degrowth transformations. Thus, the chapter applies a part of the book’s theoretical perspective in an analysis of the support for such policies. Specifically, it reinterprets recent quantitative and qualitative data from research projects in which Max Koch was involved in Sweden and relates these data to the various planes of social being. After a descriptive analysis of the support in the Swedish population towards selected eco-social policies, a more in-depth analysis of the social groups in favour of and opposed to degrowth transformations is provided. Finally, the chapter shows how the knowledge of researchers can be combined with the practical knowledge of citizens in initiating transformative change and presents corresponding qualitative data from deliberative citizen forums on needs satisfaction.

Though the main contribution of this book is theoretical, it is important to indicate how our approach may inspire empirical studies into degrowth transformations. Much theorising would indeed be in vain if it could not illuminate the gap between theory and practice, which is especially obvious in the case of the climate emergency. For decades, scientists have predicted climate disaster, without this provoking much change in dominant production and consumption patterns or social practices. Social scientists are well positioned to shed light on this inertia of social structures, which, despite all their connections to the natural system, are different from natural structures. Worse still, remaining on the theoretical terrain risks reproducing what Bourdieu (2000: 51) called the ‘scholastic fallacy’: projecting one’s ‘theoretical thinking into the heads of acting agents’, theorists have too often mixed up the world as an ‘object of contemplation, a representation, a spectacle’ with the world as it ‘presents itself to those who do not have the leisure (or the desire) to withdraw from it in order to think it’.1 In a political and strategic perspective, too, an empirical investigation into the type and share of people susceptible and opposed to degrowth transformations may be an important contribution to such change.

Previous chapters have identified eco-social policies as a key mechanism for degrowth transformations. Thus, in this chapter, a part of the book’s theoretical perspective is applied in an analysis of the support for such policies. Specifically, we reinterpret recent quantitative and qualitative data from research projects in which Max Koch was involved in Sweden and relate these data to the four planes of social being. We start with a description of the support in the Swedish population2 towards selected eco-social policies that degrowth and sustainable welfare scholars identified as important mechanisms of transformational change (see Hirvilammi et al. 2023 for an overview). This is followed by a more in-depth view into the kind of social groups in favour of and opposed to degrowth transformations. Finally, we introduce a method that we regard as helpful for the expansion of alternative societal spaces and thus the support for degrowth. We show how the codified knowledge of researchers can be combined with the practical knowledge of citizens in the perspective of initiating transformative change, and present corresponding qualitative data from deliberative citizen forums on needs satisfaction.

How popular are transformational eco-social policies?

To assess the popularity of key eco-social policies, the present chapter presents and interprets representative survey data from the projects Sustainable Welfare for a New Generation of Social Policy collected in 20213 and The New Urban Challenge: Models of Sustainable Welfare in Swedish Metropolitan Cities (2020).4 Six policy items in Table 2 operationalise the policies regulating maximum levels of needs satisfaction. These are designed to respect the ‘ceilings’ or ecological boundaries of the ‘safe and just operating space’ (Chapter 5; Gough 2020; Khan et al. 2022). They include limiting living space per person, limiting the number of flights per person per year, introducing a cap on incomes from work and wealth (‘maximum income’), a tax on wealth and meat consumption, and working time reduction. Five further items operationalise critical minimum levels or sufficiency ‘floors’ of needs satisfaction. These include an unconditional basic income (UBI) and the introduction or expansion of universal basic services (UBS) in the areas of water, public transport, electricity and internet provision.

Policy items regulating maximum levels of needs satisfaction Policy items regulating critical minimum levels of needs satisfaction
living space (2021)
number of flights
(maximum) income
Tax on wealth (2020) Tax on meat consumption
Working time reduction (2020) UBI: Basic income (2020) UBS: Water
low fee
UBS: Public transport in nascent area
low fee
UBS: Electricity
low fee
low fee
Against 70.4 59.7 50.7 42.7 52.7 31.4 71.1 25.1 22.6 25.9 24.6
Undecided 21.1 18.8 22.1 14.8 17.1 17.0 17.6 24.7 22.7 25.4 29.0
In favour 8.4 21.4 27.2 42.5 30.3 51.6 11.3 50.2 54.7 48.8 46.5

Most of the policies designed to limit production and consumption patterns are rather unpopular. Over 70% are against limitations of living space and almost 60% are against limiting the number of flights a citizen can take during a year. Over half of the sample is against a tax on meat and a cap on incomes.5 The somewhat less radical alternative of a wealth tax is, however, quite popular at 42.5%, and about the same percentage against. This policy was previously in place and is apparently still part of the Swedish collective memory. The most popular of the policy items regulating maximum levels of needs satisfaction is the reduction of working time. This policy enjoys support from over half of the population, whereas about a third is against it.

The selected policy items regulating critical minimum levels of needs satisfaction via the provision of universal basic services at low fees are very popular. About 50% are in favour of basic provision of water, 48% of electricity, 45% of internet and 54% of local public transportation. By contrast, the introduction of a universal basic income is by far the least popular policy suggestion, with over 70% against it. This should be seen together with the rather high approval rates for the different universal basic services proposals, indicating path dependency in a country with a tradition of universal services within a social-democratic welfare regime, especially in the health and care sectors. Further contributing factors include the rather articulated work ethic in Sweden, according to which full-time employment is expected for men and women. It seems indeed easier to expand universal basic services in these institutional circumstances than to implement a universal basic income system with unclear consequences for service provision. However, in countries with a liberal welfare tradition and correspondingly rudimentary universal welfare provision, universal basic incomes may well be the quickest and easiest way forward to safeguard basic needs satisfaction (see Koch 2022b and Khan et al. 2022 for more detailed discussions).

Taken together, the survey results point to a considerable gap between most of the far-reaching measures that sustainability researchers consider necessary to address the climate emergency and the measures that Swedish citizens presently support.6 However, approval rates for guaranteeing minimum needs satisfaction levels – universal basic services schemes in particular – are much higher than for measures oriented at introducing maximum levels. Explanation for the hesitation to implement policies targeting maximum levels of needs satisfaction may include normalisation and naturalisation of the growth imperative in people’s minds and day-to-day social practices (Koch 2018a). As a corollary, the ‘trickle-down effect’, celebrated by neoliberal economists, according to which policymakers should not target the revenues of the rich because some of their gains will automatically benefit the greater good, is deeply anchored in the consciousness of many people. Welfare systems and multiple other institutions (legal, educational) historically co-developed with the provision of economic growth and remain coupled to it. The existence of this link is engrained in collective consciousness, as a result of which any political move beyond the capitalist growth economy needs to reckon with concerns about wellbeing loss and social exclusion (Büchs and Koch 2017).

However, not all people are equally disposed to the normalisation of the capitalist growth imperative. In what follows, we provide an analysis of how attitudes on eco-social policies and transformational change are linked to the four planes of transactions with nature, social interactions, social structures and inner being.

Eco-social dispositions and habitus types

Sociological understandings of the relationship of inertia and change are linked to positionings in the ‘structure–agency’ debate. The challenge is to explain how societal structures result as intended and often unintended consequences of individual practices. Different sociologists have emphasised either ‘objective’ structures or ‘subjective’ action, or positioned themselves at different points in a corresponding structure–action continuum (Koch 2020a). At one extreme of this continuum are positions which examine the whole of society and its institutions as interrelated systems first and then make their way down to address individuals and small-scale interactions.7 At the opposite end of the spectrum are interactionist approaches that work their way up from the analysis of individual intentions and small-scale relationships to institutions and entire societies.8

We are drawn to intermediate positions in the structure–agency debate, represented for example by Marx, Bourdieu, critical realism and ‘social practice’ approaches (Røpke 2009; Shove et al. 2012; Bhaskar 2016; Büchs and Koch 2017). These take the position that social structures are – mostly unintended – results of individual actions. Bourdieu’s theory of practice (understood as repeated, regular and routinised forms of individual action) simultaneously distances itself from structuralist (or objectivist) and interactionist (or subjectivist) positions (Bourdieu 1990). He introduces the habitus as a system of structured and structuring dispositions in terms of thoughts, perceptions, expressions and actions. Social agents are thought to be capable of making a difference, but always within the limits set by the historical period and the social conditions in which they live (Bourdieu 1993; Koch 2020a). This notion recognises that social structures are ‘not literally internalized by individuals, but only metaphorically, through the influence they have on our subjectivity’ (Elder-Vass 2007: 345). Following Bourdieu, it may be assumed that the dispositions of the habitus, acquired during socialisation in the family and the education system, are durable and for the most part subconscious. As such it constitutes an objective limitation to our capabilities and possibilities of creating societal alternatives. Yet human beings should also be considered reflexive and ‘able to critically evaluate and thus modify our dispositions in the light of our experience, our reasoning capacities, and our value commitments’ (Elder-Vass 2007: 345). The possibility of carrying out such reflexive choices is, however, unequally distributed in a structurally unequal society. In exploring the links between objective positions and subjective position-takings (Bourdieu 1998), we aim to understand why positive attitudes towards degrowth transformations are more likely within certain social contexts and groups than within others.9 While the possibility of acting and initiating social change is generally limited by the socio-historical conditions of habitus formation, it also varies with one’s position in society. People with more economic and cultural capital generally have greater impacts than others (Atkinson 2019: 954). Habitus types are combinations of ‘traits’ (Adorno et al. 1950) or ‘dispositions’ that are developed and occur in specific social contexts (Bremer and Teiwes-Kügler 2013: 161). It is essential not to schematically apply theoretically constructed habitus types but to generate them from the empirical material. Fritz et al. (2021) identify the dispositions and the habitus types in which they appear in the emerging Swedish eco-social field. The study also relates these dispositions to position-taking on various eco-social policies. In what follows, we refer to some of the study’s main findings and reinterpret these in relation to people’s susceptibility to degrowth transformations along the four planes of being.

Fritz et al. (2021) empirically identify eight dispositions that structure the eco-social field: state redistribution versus liberal market orientation, trust, self-transcendence versus self-enhancement, sustainable welfare, individualised environmentalism versus preference for traditional welfare policies (‘red crowding-out’), neoliberal carelessness versus caring responsibility, ‘fossilism’, and power and control.10 Differing significantly with respect to age, education, gender, income, occupation, religiosity, political orientation, climate and welfare policy preferences and practices such as flying or eating meat, seven clusters constituting typical combinations of these dispositions are identified below. We elaborate on the characterisation of the seven groups in Fritz et al. (2021) by commenting on their proximity and distance from degrowth transformations along the four planes.

The first habitus type, passive anti-ecological conservativism, is prevalent in about 10% of the sample, especially in the lower regions of social space and among older and retired persons. Among the employed respondents in this group, jobs with either a technical or an interpersonal work logic are frequent. Incomes are the lowest of all respondents, and education levels are lower than average. While men and women are about equally represented, religiosity is above average. Passive anti-ecological conservativism features anti-welfare attitudes and a more general ‘neoliberal carelessness’ (Fritz et al. 2021), which is reflected on all planes of social being, albeit in somewhat unique ways: in relation to transactions with nature, the view predominates that environmental protection should not be prioritised over economic growth. This is related to the perception of oneself as not being affected by climate change. Regarding social structure, benefits, services and social policies as means to address structural inequalities are rejected, and this is embedded in a more general scepticism towards the idea of a potentially positive role of the state in societal development. However, on the individual and social interaction planes, people with this habitus display the highest scores for ‘self-transcendence’ of an ecological kind, expressing concern and care for future generations as well as other human beings and species – a sort of care that takes an individualised and anti-collective form. Political ‘position-takings’ in terms of voting preferences reflect a deeply anchored reluctance towards societal change: the ‘red-green’ parties and the Liberals are rarely mentioned as preferred options, while the Sweden Democrats (a populist right-wing party) are overrepresented. The conservative trait of this habitus manifests itself in very high rejection rates of the statement that one’s municipality should become ‘more modern’ 15 years from now. The ‘passive’ element – meaning a low involvement and interest in public affairs and civil society – is expressed by a low incidence of memberships in organisations and a reluctance to become active in improving welfare and the climate. For instance, three-quarters of this cluster ate meat and would not stop eating meat or flying, and would not join a demonstration.

The habitus trait of self-centred privatism is prevalent in about 8% of the sample, particularly among those with lower educational degrees and slightly below-average incomes. It is predominated by older persons, men, and skilled and unskilled workers. This group distinguishes itself by the highest scores for ‘self-enhancement’ (the opposite to ‘self-transcendence’). That is, respondents are concerned with their personal and private matters and do not demonstrate much interest in broader political or societal issues, let alone transactions with nature, future generations or other human beings and species. Though this habitus type features a clear political tendency toward the right, with a preference for the Sweden Democrats, the Social Democrats are nevertheless also mentioned more often than average as preferred party. The evaluation of climate policies is a bit more negative than average, but not the worst among all clusters, while opinions about welfare policies do not differ much from the average. Similar to passive anti-ecological conservativism, the habitus of self-centred privatism involves a reluctance to become active in ecological and social matters. For example, over 70% would not stop eating meat or join a demonstration.

Environmental centralism is prevalent in a relatively large cluster (21% of the sample) and widespread among persons of average age, born in Sweden. It enjoys the uppermost socio-economic status due to typical work positions in the higher service class. Awareness of climate change is greater than average, indicating an acknowledgement that nature is a necessary precondition for any kind of social life. State action in this policy area is appreciated. Yet this is combined with laissez-faire views in relation to inequality and social structures more generally, whereby public welfare policies, particularly directed at economic inequality such as income tax and maximum and basic incomes, are rejected. There is also a liberal trait dominating perceptions of social interaction with others, expressed in moderate approval rates of an inclusive multiculturalism. In correspondence with the predominating upper locations in social space, people with this habitus feel immune when it comes to environmental risks and display low care for others. Yet in contrast to a plain market liberalism, environmental centralism is characterised by the highest trust for established institutions such as the government, political parties and trade unions. The unique combination of moderate and liberal habitus traits makes this cluster strategically central and contested. This is reflected in party preferences for the Centre and Liberal parties, which have in different political constellations joined the centre-left and centre-right blocs. While there is also some support for the Social Democrats and Greens, the political extremes (Left party and Sweden Democrats) are largely rejected. Concerning climate-related political practices, this cluster actively supports environment-friendly lifestyles, indicated by a greater than average approval of reduced meat consumption and flying.

The relatively large habitus group (16%) of eco-modernist conservativism assembles people of average education, income and socio-economic status. It consists of slightly older than average people, usually born in Sweden and living in rural areas. Sixty per cent are women. Employment in the lower service class is widespread, with over 40% having jobs with an interpersonal work logic. This corresponds to relatively high ‘self-transcendence’ scores: people in this group care for nature (also indicated by an advanced climate-change awareness and a rejection of fossil energy solutions), as well as other human beings and species. Yet, in relation to social structure, this is paired with a rather strong liberal market orientation and distrust in institutions, particularly the state. Inequality is, in other words, mostly seen as just and following from natural and meritocratic differences. Politically, this group is located on the right, with voting preferences for the Christian Democrats, Moderates and Sweden Democrats. The support for climate policies is average when it comes to personal contributions like increased taxes, but rather high concerning renewable energy and green electricity – measures that do not financially hurt directly and are compatible with ‘ecological modernisation’ and ‘green growth’, that is, market-driven ideas. Ideas about the ‘autonomous individual’ that should be left in peace by state and society in the interest of the common good are correspondingly popular and predominate imaginaries of the inner being.

The trait fossil liberalism is dominant in about 10% of the sample and typically found among male (over 70%) and urban people with higher incomes. Self-employment and independent and technical work predominate. The most distinctive disposition of this habitus type is what Fritz et al. (2021) call ‘fossilism’, the structural opposition to ‘sustainable welfare’, combining liberal market orientations, an animosity towards all kinds of climate and welfare policies, and a general lack of trust in institutions, particularly the state. Rejecting climate policies more than any other group, transactions with nature are interpreted in an almost exclusively instrumental way. Policies towards limiting inequalities within the social structure are likewise rejected. The individual’s place in society and nature is regarded as justly deriving from one’s own previous investments in work and educational system. One can conclude that ‘others’, human beings and species, are seen as mainly means to the end of individual achievement. Politically, this cluster holds views closest to the right, with party preferences split across the Christian Democrats, Moderates and Sweden Democrats.

About 19% of the sample feature the habitus of active sustainable welfare, in particular highly educated young people in urban areas, with an over-representation of women (57%) and non-religious persons (42%). With incomes somewhat below average and employment most often in interpersonal work contexts, and disposing of a maximum of cultural capital but merely average amounts of economic capital, this is the social group that is most receptive to degrowth transformations. It features high scores on ‘self-transcendence’, that is, environmental values indicating non-instrumental views on transactions with nature, and an advanced feeling of care responsibilities, be it towards other human beings or other species. The high regard of others and equality is also reflected in the imaginary of the social structure: the group displays the strongest support of egalitarian values and for welfare via state redistributive policies. As a corollary, the individual self is here typically perceived as embedded in the social and environmental context. Not surprisingly, this group tends to take political positions at the opposite pole from ‘fossil liberalism’ and ‘passive anti-ecological conservativism’, with clear preferences for the Greens and the Left Party. It features not only the strongest support for all kinds of climate and welfare policies but also the most frequent actual activities (from stopping flying and eating meat, demonstrating and social media posts, to lobbying politicians).

In contrast, the habitus type moderate traditional welfare includes persons with below average education and slightly below average incomes and socio-economic statuses (16% overall). It also features the highest share of persons not born in Sweden (25%) and of people who belong to some official religion (80%). Though welfare concerns are held in higher regard than environmental concerns, this group is largely in support of both (the exception being taxation of meat), featuring the highest scores for caring responsibility and slightly above average self-transcendence values. Hence, most people in this cluster neither prioritise economic growth over the environment nor present individual wants over future needs, indicating transformational potential both on the planes of material transactions with nature and inner being. Yet in relation to social structure, the support for welfare policies and state redistribution is average. Regarding interaction with others, this group submits to traditional hierarchical social relations and structures. Interestingly, people in this group hold individuals to be responsible for welfare and ecological degradation. It is politically drawn to the Social Democrats in combination with a dislike of Christian Democrats and the Left, taking positions somewhat left of the environmental centralists.

The seven habitus groups described and reinterpreted above in relation to their susceptibility to degrowth transformations are the empirical results of a relational approach in which political position-takings in the emerging eco-social field are assumed to be the products of the intersection of habitus, field and capital. What becomes apparent is the structural habitus traits that lie behind the attitudes towards policy suggestions that normally remain unconsidered and/or naturalised. Not only do the objective positions of the seven groups within society become intelligible, so do their relative distances, tensions and rupture lines, as well as their structural proximities and commonalities that complicate or facilitate the formation of political cross-group coalitions for and against degrowth transformations.

Understood in this relational way, the social structure displays somewhat contradictory features. On the one hand, climate change and related ecological threats have hitherto been picked up in rather classical and expected ways, the result being the reproduction rather than transformation of traditional social hierarchies (Fritz et al. 2021). The most ‘progressive’ social groups, featuring a maximum of cultural capital but finding themselves, in Bourdieu’s terminology, at the ‘dominated’ end of the ‘dominant’ class, are at the forefront of degrowth and transformational change (‘active sustainable welfare’). Meanwhile, the liberal right, characterised by a predominance of economic capital, is located at the opposite pole, resisting eco-social efforts (‘fossil liberalism’). Not only do these two groups occupy opposite positions within the upper regions of social space and share correspondingly different dispositions and political position-takings (see Figure 2 in Fritz et al. 2021), they also differ fundamentally in relation to the four planes of social being, indicating different degrees of susceptibility to degrowth transformations (Table 3). In fact, these two groups are the only ones that display largely consistent habitus traits in their diametrically opposed perceptions of material transactions with nature, interactions with others, social structures and inner being. It is safe to say that a political convergence of the two structural poles can largely be excluded. Given the long-term inertia of habitus traits, people with the habitus of fossil liberalism are unlikely to be convinced by the degrowth movement anytime soon. Fortunately, this is a rather small group comprising about a tenth of the population.11

Passive anti-ecological conservatism Self-centred privatism Environmental centralism Eco-modernist conservativism Fossil liberalism Active sustainable welfare Moderate traditional welfare
Material transactions with nature S S O O S O O
Interaction with others O S O O S O S
Social structures S O O S S O S
Inner being O S S S S O O

On the other hand, the vast majority of people today feature habitus structures of an inconsistent kind, displaying varying degrees of susceptibility to degrowth on different planes. This makes new coalitions for socio-ecological transformations at least conceivable. Fritz et al. (2021) consider the example of a political alliance between representatives of active sustainable welfare and environmental centralism. Such an alliance would not only be structurally possible, it would also be capable of mobilising sufficient symbolic and material capital to achieve cultural and political hegemony. Differences that would need to be overcome lie in the respective views on the roles of business and social justice in socio-ecological transformations. Moreover, they lie in the planes of inner being and interactions with others (see Table 3). Proponents of ‘active sustainable welfare’ envision individuals as embedded in wider natural and social webs in combination with exhibiting a feeling of care and responsibility towards them, while the liberal trait within ‘environmental centralism’ produces a tendency towards individualism and low levels of care. Nevertheless, on three of the four planes there is at least some degree of agreement between the two groups, which political activism could try to enhance.

Beyond the two just-mentioned habitus groups, people are not entirely against degrowth. To varying degrees on the different planes of social being they show some support for it. At this point it is worth remembering that habitus merely makes certain views and practices more likely than others. That is, it does not exclude the existence of other causal mechanisms behind practice, such as rational reasoning. The social sciences can generate knowledge that makes it possible to target specific habitus groups in different ways, considering their current positions and position-takings relative to the four planes of being. For example, when engaging with people characterised by habitus traits of ‘moderate traditional welfare’, one would need to think of ways to encourage them to contemplate their views on hierarchies and power. People in the habitus group of ‘passive anti-ecological conservatism’ could be encouraged to reflect on the way they view humanity’s material transactions with nature. In the next section, we introduce a deliberative method of interaction between citizens, activists and researchers capable of facilitating such exchanges.

Deliberating degrowth transformations via citizen forums

Most people feature inconsistent habitus traits, making them more or less susceptible to degrowth transformations. This susceptibility may well increase in the current multidimensional crisis of capitalism. Yet whether the capitalist growth economy will eventually be overcome via a socio-ecological transformation and degrowth is far from certain. More often than not, the crisis of an established order has resulted in a new kind of orthodoxy where dominant interests are defended by replacing democratic rule by authoritarian rule and the use of force. New types of right-wing populist movements combine a conservative critique of finance-driven capitalism with chauvinistic and xenophobic slogans and provide the popular basis for an authoritarian solution to the crisis; that is, one in which the prevalent way of life in the rich countries is defended by, for instance, using military power and closing borders (Koch 2020a).

At this juncture, strategies for bottom-up mobilisations are critical. Such strategies also become possible due to a margin of freedom for political actions, projects and policies opening up at a time of crisis (Bourdieu 2000). These political actions and projects could rely on the dispositions of the habitus that are already susceptible to degrowth transformations, and be assisted by heterodox centres within academia. Academia can play a role in the processes of ‘counter training’ (Bourdieu 2000). This entails creation and expansion of spaces where the growth imperative ceases to occupy people’s minds. Examples of existing spaces include degrowth conferences, associated local events, and larger-scale initiatives such as Transition towns (Chapter 4). An additional attempt of collaboration between researchers and other citizens are deliberative citizen forums, in which the knowledge of researchers, citizens and local stakeholders is combined to identify the goods and services necessary for sustainable needs satisfaction within a particular social context.

A framework for imagining and boosting transformational change is provided by the Human Scale Development methodology (Max-Neef 1991). It introduces a distinction between fundamental human needs, which are understood as largely universal across time and space, and needs satisfiers, which differ depending on specific historic, social and cultural contexts. Needs satisfiers may range from characteristics, attitudes, actions and norms to institutions, policies, physical environment or infrastructures and be operationalised at different scales and sites (including business, civil society and the state). Eleven citizen forums were carried out in 2020 on sustainable needs satisfaction in Sweden.12 In total 84 individuals participated in discussions about how fundamental needs are satisfied today, and how this could be done in more sustainable ways. Forum participants discussed and distinguished between positive and negative needs satisfiers and then deliberated on linking satisfiers oriented at actions and measures to achieve an alternative future. In what follows, we relate selected forum data to our theoretical framework for degrowth transformations. Table 4 displays selected negative and Table 5 presents positive needs satisfiers as highlighted in the citizen forums in relation to the four planes of social being and the three sites of degrowth transformations: business, civil society and state. It is essential to recognise that any needs satisfier will exist simultaneously on all the four planes. Yet, it can also be argued that specific needs satisfiers feature more prominently on selected planes. Thus, in Tables 4 and 5 we assign specific needs satisfiers to one plane only to serve as examples.

Civil society State Business
Material transactions with nature Fossil fuel dependent and profit-driven transport system Overall policy priority of economic growth
Transport policies that complicate fossil-free ways of travelling
Social interactions between people Limits of representative democracy undermining social participation Reinforces representative democratic systems Competitiveness
Social structures Privatisation of core infrastructures/basic services
Standardised teaching practices in education system
Pension policies based on employment records Growth imperative
Inner being Corporate social media Anthropocentrism
Illusion of social differences as following from meritocratic principles
Perfectionism and productivity
Civil society State Business
Material transactions with nature Advertisement-free zones Infrastructure for cycling and walking Sufficiency
Sharing, repair and recycling economy
Social interactions between people Democratic renewal via deliberative citizen forums Introduce/strengthen deliberative elements in democratic institutions Participatory budgeting
Social structures Socialised/public and localised system of non-commercial basic welfare provision
Local currencies
Life-long learning opportunities for all
Universal basic income and universal basic services
Working time reduction
Inner being Life-long learning
Mindfulness, meditation
Decommodify/socialise social media Care

In the site of civil society, participants highlight negative needs satisfiers such as fossil fuel dependency in transportations systems, limits to participation in democratic processes, privatisation of core infrastructures and services, and the corporate character of social media. The state is seen by the participants as prioritising economic growth, reinforcing representative democratic systems, pursuing employment-based pension policies and promoting anthropocentrism. Finally, as regards business, participants identified negative needs satisfiers such as producing food via monoculture and promoting the culture of competitiveness, growth orientation, perfectionism, productivity and anthropocentrism.

In contrast to the negative needs satisfiers, the positive needs satisfiers identified by the participants in the site of civil society include advertisement-free spaces, renewal of democracy via deliberative citizen forums, public and localised systems of non-commercial basic welfare provision, local currencies, and life-long learning. The state was envisioned by the participants as able to provide infrastructure for cycling and walking and life-long learning opportunities for all, and strengthen deliberative elements in democratic institutions and socialise social media. Positive needs satisfiers discussed by forum participants in relation to the site of business include sufficiency, localisation, participatory budgeting, reduction in working time and the ethic of care.

In conclusion

A considerable gap exists between what sustainability researchers regard as necessary behavioural changes to bring production and consumption patterns within planetary and social limits and what large portions of the Swedish population are currently prepared to undertake. Reforms designed to introduce/expand basic services are far more popular than reforms targeting the excessive lifestyles of the rich. This supports previous studies that have dealt with the ideological effect inherent in the capitalist mode of production. Not only economic categories but also social structures appear as natural and just (Koch 2018a). Targeting the wealth of rich citizens tends to be regarded as motivated by envy and is consequently rejected. This attitude is, however, not equally featured across social groups. Most people exhibit rather inconsistent habitus structures. Only a small minority is against degrowth transformations; a larger share of the Swedish population welcomes such change outright, whereas the vast majority is susceptible to some elements of bottom-up degrowth strategies while refusing others.

Future research could further explore group-specific habitus formations in relation to various aspects of degrowth transformations along the four planes of being in the sites of civil society, state and business. Such theoretically guided empirical contributions potentially constitute important pursuits in addressing different segments of the population in ‘tailor-made’ ways. Such studies could also be relevant in other countries and provide comparative data.

Citizen forums and similar deliberative methods are useful in bringing academic and practical knowledge together. The experiences of the Swedish forums suggest that it is possible to create conditions where people feel free to critically reflect on their life, nature, economy and society and share their thoughts. Even a superficial consideration of the positive needs satisfiers in Table 5 indicates the arrogance of the idea of leaving core societal tasks such as policymaking and planning exclusively to experts. The practical knowledge of the dwellers of local communities is indispensable when co-creating livelihoods with the potential of bringing production and consumption patterns within planetary boundaries while satisfying human needs. We can only speculate as to whether the public support for the suggested eco-social policies in Table 2 would increase if a significantly greater share of the population partook in similar deliberative forums and had a chance to collectively reflect. Governments could support such participatory exercises by enhancing the status of citizen forums and giving them advisory character. This would echo a range of degrowth proposals for more direct democracy.


1 Conversely, environmental and social activists sometimes underestimate the structural power asymmetries they are up against. The results may include extreme stress and burn-out experiences.
2 The percentage of Swedish residents who are concerned about both welfare and environmental issues is comparatively high. More than in other EU countries, they tend to be supportive of sustainable welfare and eco-social policies (Fritz and Koch 2019; Otto and Gugushvili 2020; Zimmermann and Graziano 2020; Emilsson 2022). We therefore consider Sweden an appropriate case to study people’s susceptibility to degrowth transformations.
3 The final response rate of the survey study was 32% (951 out of 3,000 respondents). See Lee et al. (2023) for more detailed information on data material and representativity, survey methodology and additional results.
4 The overall response rate in this survey was 31%, that is, 1,529 out of 5,000 (see Fritz et al. 2021, Emilsson 2022 and Khan et al. 2022 for more details on data material and representativity, survey strategy and additional results).
5 In the 2021 survey the maximum income was set at 2 million euros per year and person, beyond which 100% taxation would kick in.
6 There are sizeable shares of respondents that neither consider the proposals positively nor negatively (‘undecided’). One possible explanation is a lack of more detailed information as to how these policy reforms are to be applied – how they would be funded, which regulatory frameworks may be used/created among many other issues – and with what outcomes. Another possibility is that some of these proposals are simply too novel and/or radical for the respondents to take any stance. The idea of a maximum income, for example, is not promoted by any political party in Sweden. If this situation changed, it is conceivable that support rates would increase.
7 This position is typically represented by Louis Althusser’s Marxist and Lévy-Strauss’s anthropological structuralisms, Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons’ functionalisms and Niklas Luhmann’s system theory.
8 For this ‘bottom-up’ approach stand sociologists as different as Erving Goffman, George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer, as well as Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy.
9 Hence, the insistence on social structures and, as a corollary, statistical likelihoods for certain preferences to be expressed by certain groups, does not at all deny the distinct existences of human beings within these structures, nor the empirical cases where individuals develop different subjectivities within the same social background (Archer 2003).
10 Some of these dimensions have clear-cut literal oppositions that we made explicit such as ‘self-transcendence’ versus ‘self-enhancement’. In relation to other dimensions such as ‘power and control’ there are no direct oppositional terms. Habitus types were constructed according to the combined scores on these dimensions.
11 This share may of course be somewhat larger or smaller in other countries but is unlikely to be a majority.
12 For methodological details and further forum results from the project Sustainable Welfare for a New Generation of Social Policy, see Lindellee et al. (2021), Koch et al. (2021) and Lee et al. (2023).
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Deep transformations

A theory of degrowth


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