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On Ecological Utopias

by Serge Latouche Saturday, Dec. 17, 2005 at 8:53 AM

The total commercialization of the world has triumphed..A dynamic of growth withdrawal could be initiated through a few simple measures..Internalizing costs would drastically change our societies..Democratic local initiatives are realistic.


Is There a Way out of the Growth Economy?

By Serge Latouche

[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique, November 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,,a0065.idx,13.]

Many sides share the goal of an autonomous frugal society even if believers describe it with different terms: growth withdrawal, anti-productivism, revaluation of development and sustainable development. For example, the productivism criticism of the greens is identical with what “growth refusers’ understand as growth withdrawal.

This is also true for the position of Attac. In one of its brochures, Attac pleads for a gradual, reasonable de-acceleration of material growth under socially compatible conditions. This is understood as a first stage of a growth withdrawal in all economic areas burdening the environment. (2)

The agreement with values in the necessary “reassessment” (3) extends far beyond the circle of believers in a growth withdrawal. Similar proposals are found among party-liners of sustainable or alternative development. (4) Reducing the “ecological footprint”, the human encroachment in the environment, is regarded as unavoidable.

These supporters would also agree with John Stuart Mill’s judgment in the middle of the 19th century: “All human activities that do not involve any unreasonable consumption of irreplaceable materials or irreversibly damage the environment could develop without restrictions. Those activities regarded by many as the most desirable and most satisfying – education, art, religion, basic research, sports and human relations – could blossom.” (5)

Who would dare plead against upkeep of the planet, against protection of the environment and against preservation of the animal- and plant worlds? Who in all seriousness could approve climate change and destruction of the ozone layer? No politicians could approve this. Supporters of a radical change of course preserving our species from ecological and social crises are found even among business leaders, top managers and decision-makers in the economy. We must try to determine who are the opponents of a policy of growth withdrawal, what are the obstacles to this program and finally what form of government could produce an eco-compatible society.


Giving a face to the antagonists is a very problematic undertaking because economic forces like transnational businesses do not exercise their power directly. According to Susan Strange, political authorities in the scope of a market economy no longer control individual persons in many areas.” (6) Thus on one side “Big Brother” remains anonymous. On the other side, people submit to “the economy” not only from their own free will since modern advertising works with far more sophisticated methods than the old propaganda.

Given this fact, how can the mega-machine be attacked “politically”? The traditional answer in the leftist-radical tradition is that “Capitalism is responsible for all the blockades and all powerlessness.” Thus is growth withdrawal possible without abolishing capitalism? (7) Every attempted answer must watch out for dogmatism so we do not misjudge the real obstacles.

The Wuppertal Institute plays through a whole series of win-win situations for the relation of nature and capital, for example the negawatt scenario that reduces energy consumption one-quarter. With earmarked taxes, norms, reimbursements, incentives and subsidies, desired behavior patters could be promoted and waste avoided in many areas. As an example, Germany has good experiences with a state building promotion that calculates its grants by the energy efficiency of the building, not by the construction costs. For some consumer goods – photocopiers, refrigerators and cars – acquisition through purchase could be replaced by rental contracts and constant new production through recycling. But can the “boomerang effect” be avoided, that is can the increased material end-consumption be stopped? This is completely uncertain.

An eco-compatible capitalism is theoretically conceivable but practically unrealistic. Strict regulatory measures would be necessary to slightly reduce the ecological footprint. The market economy dominated by transnational corporations would in no case move toward eco-capitalism. The anonymous-functionalist dividend machines would not get rid of their predatory conduct without pressure. Even entrepreneurs who support the goal of social self-regulation lack power to force this perspective. The large majority only focuses on the short-term maximization of the market value. An authority capable of social self-regulation – whether state, nation, union, non-governmental organization or the United Nations – would have to be very powerful to redefine the social rules of the game, that is “reconstitute” the society.

Certain state limitations of economic power as were effective in times of Keynesian-Fordist and social-democratic regulation would be conceivable and desirable. However the concept of class struggle does not seem appropriate because capital has not only won this class struggle but practically dominates all economic activity. We witness the last days of the western working class and accept this fact powerlessly and indifferently.

The “total commercialization” of the world has triumphed. Generalized capitalism cannot do anything other than ruin the earth and society since the basic invisible principles of the market society are boundlessness and unbridled rule. Thus a society of growth withdrawal is inconceivable without abolition of capitalism. “Capitalism” describes an historical development structured in a very complex way. An elimination of capitalists, the prohibition of private ownership of the means of production and abolition of paid work or money would plunge society into chaos and conjure a reign of terror without annulling the invisible market.

A way out of the trap of development, economy and growth does not necessitate renouncing on all social institutions that were monopolized by the economy (money, markets and paid work). Rather binding these institutions in another logic is vital.


A dynamic of growth withdrawal could be initiated through a few simple and seemingly harmless measures. (8) A reformist transition program need only draw the conclusion from this diagnosis suggested by common sense. For example, we must reduce the ecological footprint and refer material production back to the level of the 1960s. We must include the transportation costs in prices, shorten the steams of goods, revive rural agriculture, further the “production” of communication goods, reduce by a quarter the wasteful consumption of energy and strongly lessen advertising spending. Finally, we need a moratorium on technological innovations, a serious inventory of attained progress and reconsideration of scientific and technical research.

The correct inclusion of “external costs” caused by individuals and paid by society is in the center of this program. The goal of growth withdrawal can already be reached approximately, orthodox economics agrees. All ecological and social disturbances must be blamed on the responsible businesses according to the causation principle. “Internalizing” the costs for transportation, education, security and unemployment would change very drastically the functioning of our societies.

A “reform program” formulated by the liberal economist Arthur Cecil Pigou at the beginning of the 20th century could trigger a revolution. This would largely take the wind from the sails of businesses that follow the capitalist logic.

Today no insurance company will take any risks from nuclear e3nergy, climate change and genetically modified organisms. If industry were obligated to cover the risks caused by its activities in health, social and aesthetic regards, industry might not produce profitably any more. The system would be blocked immediately. Isn’t this any other evidence that there must be away out, that we need a practical strategy of transition to an alternative society?

Thus the political program of growth withdrawal is a paradoxical undertaking because realistic and sensible proposals have hardly any chance of being accepted, let alone realized, without a total subversion of society, without the realization of the utopia of an alternative society. However building an alternative society requires infinitely complex and detailed measures that Marx constantly rejected because he dismissed recipes for the future. The question what should come out of the mega-businesses is a good example. How large should they be, how great should their sales be and how large their personnel? How should technical macro-systems function in small production units? Should certain economic activities and production processes be prohibited altogether? (9)

Many awkward transition questions are raised. For example, the current auto factories could be changed into production sites for solar equipment through a gigantic conversion program. (10) In Germany, many rooming houses are already outfitted with solar panels that over the year feed electricity into the net. Thus solutions are not lacking but the conditions for their conversion.


Growth is an indispensable prerequisite for our consumer democracies because the existing inequality would be unbearable (and is actually unbearable in the course of the crisis of the growth economy). The tendency to level living conditions is the imaginary foundation of modern society. Inequality is only accepted as a temporary shortcoming because the goods that were yesterday a privilege of the rich are generally affordable today and the luxury of today will be there for everyone tomorrow.

Many doubt whether democratic societies can take the necessary measures to limit growth. Therefore they only see a way out of the current pressures in a kind of authoritarian economy, eco-fascism or eco-totalitarianism. There is already reflection about saving the system in the highest spheres of the empire. (11) If the “masses of the North” see their living standards threatened, they would willingly run behind demagogues who promise to preserve their freedom. (12)

The concept of growth withdrawal relies on a completely different perspective. The attraction of the convivial utopia – together with the irrevocable necessity of change – could favor a “de-colonialization of the imaginary” and provide impulses for developing behavior patterns and sensible solutions in the sense of a local eco-democracy.

The rediscovery and revival of the local dimension is much more promising than the problematic principle of universal democracy as a way to growth withdrawal. That the world can only function harmoniously under the condition of a “unity of all humankind” is one of the well-meaning but false ideas that the whole vulgar ethnocentrism of the West has spread.

The diversity of cultures is an indispensable prerequisite for a peaceful exchange between societies. (13) Democracy can probably only function if its basic unit as a modern “polis” is not overly large and can be established on the basis of common values. (14)

For example, Takis Fotopoulos argues that democracy for everyone is only conceivable as a “confederation of democracies”, that is of little homogeneous units of approximately 30,000 members. Most basic needs can only be totally satisfied this way: “Many modern cities given their gigantic size must be divided into several democracies.” (15)

These small “district republics” could be a kind of urban rearrangement that Alberto Magnaghi envisioned. In the course of a complex “redevelopment phase” lasting a hundred years, “the creation of a new geography” is imperative, the restoration of the environmental- and countryside systems destroyed by people. (16)

This sounds utopian. The utopia of the local may be much more realistic than generally assumed. Expectations and possibilities arise out of the concrete everyday life of citizens as Fotopoulos emphasizes. A candidacy in communal elections could help tackle the reconstruction of society from below. This is the only democratic strategy – unlike the budgetary methods (that strive for power in states to change society from above) and the so-called civil society initiatives (that do not want to generally change the system).” (17)

According to this model, the relations between the many “polis” would be regulated by a “democracy of the cultures.” A minimalist arbitration for settling conflicts between sovereign and very different poles is central in this “pluri-versalist” perspective, not a world government. As an alternative to a world government, Raimon Panikkar stresses the principles of bioregions, “regions of nature in which herds, plants, animals, water and people form a united and harmonious whole.” (18)

The emergence of “democratic” local initiatives is more realistic than the creation of a world democracy. If frontally overthrowing the hegemony of capital and economic powers is impossible, refusing this hegemony is still a possibility. This is also the strategy of the Zapatistas and their subcommandante Marcos. The reconquest or reinvention of the commons (the common land, common property, common space) and the self-organization of the bioregion Chiapas could be transplanted in other contexts. The central passion of the dissident localist initiative is clear. (19)

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