Serge Latouche, ideologist of degrowth

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    Born in Vannes, Brittany, on January 12, 1940, Serge Latouche is a trained economist and philosopher, and an experienced anthropologist – he studied economics, political science and philosophy at Lille and Paris universities– and currently serves as professor emeritus of economics at the University of Paris-Sud (XI-Sceau/Orsay), which he combines with the Presidency of the Ligne Horizon and Institud and Economic Studies Association for Sustainable De-growth, founded by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, where they publish, together with Casseurs du Pub, the Journal La Décroissance (journal of the joy of life), which is also published in Italy.

    In the last twenty five years, this «growth objector» –as he likes to define himself– has contributed, unlike many other intellectuals, to the clarification and maturation of this central concept for the new global movements. During the seventies he spent many years in western Africa where he developed his thought, and from the standpoint of traditional Marxism he made a radical critique of the ideology of «progress» and «development», even within left-wing politics. This maturation took him, in 1981, to publish with Allain Caillé the Revue de Mauss (Anti-utilitarian Movement in the Social Sciences) and the journal Homonima (which also has an Italian edition).
    Among his extensive work stands out L’Occidentalisation du monde (La Découverte, 1989); La Planète des naufragés (La Découverte, 1991); L’Autre Afrique, entre don et marché (Albin Michel, 1998); Justice sans limites (Fayard, 2003), and, Survivre au développement (Mille et Une Nuits, 2004).

    We wonder how it is possible that the thought and work of this Breton is so unknown in our country. The answer was given not long ago by philosopher Ramon Alcoberro, while speaking about thinkers like Latouche, Ellul, Castoriadis, or Rist: “They are names which hardly get spoken of in Universities – at best they are plagiarised when someone wants to flatter anti-globalists.”

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    THE INTERVIEW

    How do you explain the “De-Growth” concept?

    The term degrowth has appeared only recently in the economic, politic and social debate, although the origin of the notions implied have a longer history. Until recent years, the term was not listed in any economic dictionary, whereas entries could be found with related terms such as «zero growth», «sustainable development», and, of course, «stationary state».

    Even so, it has a complex history and an indisputable analytical and political weight in economy, yet it is still necessary to fully understand its meaning. The most malevolent commentators and critics point to the antiquity of this concept in order to diminish the subversive nature of its proposals. We want to stress that it’s not about the idea of maintaining a stationary state as in the old classics, or promoting a movement towards regression, recession, «negative growth», or «zero growth», although we could find some affinities in all of these concepts. Degrowth is not a single concept and, in any case, it’s not symmetrical to the concept of growth. It is a political slogan with theoretical implications. It aims to break the deceiving language employed by those who worship productivity.

    «Degrowth is not a concept and, in any case, it’s not symmetrical to growth. It is a political slogan with theoretical implications»

    The core idea of this movement is, above all, the abandonment of the goal of growth for growth´s sake, the motor of which is none other than the search for profit by those who control the capital with disastrous consequences for the environment. Strictly speaking, we should be talking about ‘a-growth’, in the sense in which we speak of ‘a-theism’, rather than “ de-growth”. Ultimately it is about the abandonment of a faith or religion: that of the economy, growth, progress and development.

    What is the difference between de-growth and the so called sustainable development?

    If we trace the history of the concept of development, we find its origin in evolutionary biology, which places it, therefore, in the context of western science wherein it was born. Long before Darwin, biologists distinguished growth from development in the life of living organisms. An organism is born and grows, and as it grows it changes: a seed does not become a big seed but an oak tree, for instance, and that’s what we call development. Growth is not an infinite process, it has a definite scope and at the end of a limited period of time the organism dies.

    Economists have taken this image in a metaphorical sense and applied it to economic organisms, but they forgot about death! It is clear then that from this point onwards the concept is twisted because it embeds in itself what the Greeks called hubris, the excessive. We have entered in a vicious cycle of unlimited growth: growth of consumption in order to sustain growth of production which, in turn, increases consumption and so on and so forth. It is not about reaching a certain state of well–being or comfort. On the contrary, this comfort is always rejected and postponed ad infinitum. It’s all nonsensical of course, it could only be considered within the sphere of mathematics. Indeed, a continuous 2 to 3% of annual growth rate would lead the economic organism to grow seven hundred times within a century – counting the compound interests. This is clearly not possible since we live in a finite planet.

    Here we face the famous «water lily theorem» which states that if a water lily colonizes a pond doubling its surface every year it might take fifty years to colonize half of the pond, but it will only take one year to colonize the remaining half. We are at this point in our own process of growth, it is quite clear from looking at the situation of oil, forests, fishing and climate change. We have been led to believe that we can colonize everything without any problems but today we have come to understand that our resource will disappear in a short period of time.

    The notion of sustainable development is not, then, a viable solution. On the contrary, it is an oxymoron par excellence. The model of development we have seen so far is fundamentally not sustainable. It could be compared with theoretical socialism and applied socialism: theoretical development is not the same as applied development. Development, the only one that we know of, can be summed up as: «always produce more of the same thing». In my thirty years of personal participation in third world projects, mainly in Africa, I have seen development– branded under the various categories of socialist, participatory, cooperative, autonomous, popular etc.– having the same catastrophic results.

    It should be remembered that, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen put it, «Sustainable development can not be separated from economic growth» in the same way that the development of a plant relies on the growth of the seed, and this logic of growth is incompatible with our limited planet. Development in this context cannot be lasting or sustainable. If we want a sustainable and durable society, we need to break out of this idea of development and therefore of economy since this incorporates, in its own essence, the principle of excess.

    Who are and have been the de-growth theorists ?

    The idea of an autonomous and economically viable society is not new or recent. Without having to go back to certain utopias from the first socialism or to the anarchist tradition renewed by situation-ism, this idea has been formulated during the seventies by people like Ivan Illich, André Gorz and Cornelius Castoriadis. The failure of development in the South of the world and the loss of referents in the North has prompted many thinkers to question consumerist society and its fallacious foundations: progress, science and the technology. The raising of awareness about the environmental crisis that happened at the same time, provided a new dimension to this critical view.

    The authors of the Rome’s Club report (Meadows, Randers and Behrens) were already convinced, in 1972, that the raising of awareness about the material limits of the environment and the tragic consequences its irrational exploitation is essential for the emergence of new ways of thinking which should lead to a fundamental review of human behavior, and consequently, of society’s structure as a whole.

    The notion of de–growth therefore, has a double strand: on one hand the raising of awareness about the ecological crisis, and on the other the critical view of technology and development.

    Could it be said that there is a relation between de–growth and Buddhism?

    Certainly yes, in the sense that the paradigm of de–growth involves a decolonization of the collective imaginary and a move away from the current western paradigm.

    Is the radical simplicity proposed, among others, by Jim Merkel, from the United States, similar to the de–growth paradigm of Serge Latouche? That is, could we speak about an ideology and therefore of a global de-growth movement?

    Yes and no. In his book Tools for Conviviality (Cuaderno CIDOC, Cuernavaca, Mèxic, 1972; Joaquín Mortiz ed., Planeta, 1985), Ivan Illich speaks of the «sober drunkenness of life». Illich says that the contemporary human condition, in which technology has become so invasive, he could not find more joy than in what he calls a tecno-adolescent. The necessary limitation of the cycle of production and consumption, the ceasing of the exploitation of nature and labour by capital, does not imply a return to a life of deprivation and of work. On the contrary, if it is possible to renounce to the material comfort, there can be a liberation of creativity, a renewal of conviviality, and the possibility to have a dignified life.

    «It is a path that requires us to conquer our own fears, the fear of nothingness, fear of shortage, fear of the future, fear also of disagreeing with the current trends and accepted models

     

    The search for voluntary simplicity, or if it is preferred, for a austere life, has nothing to do with the prejudice of masochistic frustration. Is the choice to live differently, better actually, in harmony with our own convictions, replacing the race for material assets with the search for the most fulfilling values. The unusual families that choose to live without television are not to be sorry about. Instead of the joys offered by the magic box, they prefer others: family or social life, reading, games, artistic activities, spare time for daydreaming or simply enjoying life…this path is evidently progressive, even though the pressures of society are strong. It is a path which requires to conquer our own fears, fear of nothingness, fear of shortage, fear of the future, fear also of disagreeing with the current trends and accepted models. It is the choice of living the present moment rather than sacrificing it to consumerism, to a system of values without value, to the creation of a saving plan or pension for addressing the fear of not having enough. A more profound reflection about the economic footprint allows us to understand the systemic character of «overconsumption» and the context of voluntary simplicity.

    In 1961, the ecological footprint of France was equal to 1 planet’s worth of resources, today it equals to 3. Does this mean that French households ate three times less meat, drank three times less water and wine, used three times less electricity or gasoline? Probably not. Only that small yogurt with strawberries we eat today, did not include then the 8,000 km of transportation, when we consider all it’s ingredients! This is true also for the clothes we wear, and the beef also in those days ate less synthetic fats, pesticides, imported soy etc.

    Either way, this paradigm shift which we talk about, will need to be initiated by a quantum leap in the mentality of people, we are kind of trapped in a “chicken and egg” scenario and if we don’t start somewhere it will be the main stream propaganda which will determine how things go.

    Should it take some sort of natural disaster or accidental in order for governments to take seriously the idea of ​​de-growing?

    Unfortunately it is possible. I don’t know if the end of oil, for instance, could be called a catastrophe. To me it would be good news.

    Oil will be considered a catastrophe when people will take in to account all the blood and tears it has costed. There is a limit and the end of resources is one of them. Also, there are natural disasters that can happen because of climate changes: floods, low temperatures etc. all of which can generate a massive emigration movement

    It’s not spoken about but the industrialization of China will cause (just like Britain did, with its massive emigration of more than 3 million people towards Australia, New Zealand and the United States) the exodus of about 500 million Chinese, or their revolt or suicide.

    We will witness the biggest global uprooting in history, and this could have very serious effects indeed.

    If start to add up environmental damage, social unrest and economic crisis we start to see that we live in a “casino economy”, in a bubble which is kept alive artificially by a constant push forward, a credit economy, of anticipation – American economy for example only has a 3 years ahead life span. It’s like a cyclist’s equilibrium: one has to keep pedaling in order to stay up, even if you know that this will drive you to your own ruin. The best we can hope for is that the catastrophes will be sufficiently strong to wake people up, make them change the way they see things but not strong enough to be fatal nightmare, of which we will be victims and creators.

    What practical steps can be taken by citizens of the first world, here and now, to move towards de-growth?

    Simple measures, which might be deceptively subtle, have the potential of starting a cycle of de-growth. We could think of a period of transition which is based on certain fundamental points, for example:

        Aim to reduce the carbon footprint of production processes to the same size it was in the 60s and 70s.

     

        Power transport with local energy

     

        Relocate production activities

     

        Adopt the program proposed by the Confederation of Farmers (José Bové)

     

        Promote the production of “relational goods”

     

        Implement the Negawatt proposal which asks to reduce the wastage of energy to factor 4.

     

        Penalize advertisement expenses.

     

      Establish a moratorium of all technological innovation, conduct a serious investigation on the benefits and disadvantages of all aspects of technology and orient all scientific and technological research towards the new framework set by this research.

    The internalization of foreign economies, in principle and according to an orthodox view, would allow, if taken to its ultimate consequences, to implement the transition towards de-growth.
    All the damage incurred by society and the environment, would be amended by the corporations and business which are responsible for it.
    We only have to imagine the impact that the internalization of the costs of transportation would have on the environment, health etc. Obviously those businesses which are obeying the capitalism’s logic would be very unwilling to do so. In the first instance, a lot of business wouldn’t be viable and the whole system would come to a halt. But wouldn’t this be exactly the proof that it is imperative to end this system and find a new way towards a different kind of society?
    Local utopia is possible much more realistic than we think, because it comes directly from the living experiences of citizens, their needs and hopes»[/quote_box_right]
    What is the response of the green parties in France to the idea of ​​de-growth?
    The idea is making its own way. The French greens have put de-growth in their program with a 60% of votes.

    How is it possible to influence local politics to extend this idea?

    A local utopia is possible much more realistic than we think, because it comes directly from the living experiences of citizens, their needs and hopes . Takis Fotopòlus says that to present oneself in local elections gives the possibility to try and start changing things from the bottom up, which is the only democratic strategy, unlike all the State’s methods which impose changes from the top or the endeavors of the so called “civil society” which generally are not aiming at changing the system.

    It’s a multifaceted vision, where the relationship between the various proposals that have emerged from people all over the world can really be seen as a “democracy of cultures”. Far from a centralized Global Government, it would mean a way of creating a network of mutual support between different territories.

    Raimon Panikkar says that the alternative which he’s trying to offer to a global state, is the idea of bio regionalism, which is to say, the natural regions where animals, plants and people create an organic whole… It would mean coming to a solution which could proclaim a Universal republic, without the need for state, control or police. This would need a different kind of relationship between the different bio regions. In any case, the creation of local initiatives of a democratic nature is far more realistic than the idea of a global democracy.

    If you exclude the possibility of toppling the capitalist system, the only thing left is dissidence, which is also the strategy of movements like th Zapatistas. The reclaiming or re invention of “commons” (communal spaces and resources) and the self organization of the Chiapas bio region, are a model of how to create local dissidence, as Gustavo Esteva also proposed.

    Can Internet play a role in the face of these challenges ?
    There is an intrinsic power in the new technologies which asks for a reflexion on the new ways of doing politics and democracy. Certainly these cannot unfold within the paradigm of the new market, which has been able to use Internet for the global electronic supermarket. We can be ambivalent about technology.Chico Mendez was assassinated on the 22nd of September 1988 in the heart of the Amazon, in Xapuri. As if by coincidence, the phone stopped working for the hours following his death and mobiles didn’t exist yet. It was necessary to walk for hours in the jungle to bring news around, even so, the news of his death was instantly communicated in Brasil and the world.

    If the web itself did not exist, Internet, which was invented by Paul Baran in 1964 to safeguard military communications during the cold war, was used since the 70s by scientists to exchange information and the American ONG , very active in the region, already operated through a network. That is why the international response was very swift. In its Saturday edition, on the 24th on December, the Jornal do Brasil published and entire page with an interview given by Mendez 3 weeks before. In this way, thanks to a technology invented by the CIA to exercise control on a planetary level, the awful murder of an opponent to the oppression of global economy, could not go silenced and turned to be a global icon of awakening. In Chiapas they used a sort of “technological guerrilla” to fight the “masters of the world”.

    It is, therefore, indisputable that certain new technologies can be tools for the struggle towards emancipation. At the same time, in the light of what happened following the examples mentioned above (the surge of expropriations of land in the Amazon, under the Lula regime, and the surreptitious disappearance of the indigenous leaders in Chiapas) should we not concur with the philosopher Jacques Poulain, that while we are waiting that the system change, we have the unprecedented possibility to keep a diligent record of our powerless protests and share it on a global network

    Do you think that the idea of de-growth could be manipulated by the system in the same way that it happened with the idea of sustainable development?

    Hard but not impossible, as can be seen with the geopolitical projects of the elitist and semi secret organization Bilderberg. A mechanistic analysis consists in underlying how global population has exploded since the advent of thermo-industrialized capitalism. The availability of cheap and abundant energy, oil, has made possible an incredible jump from 600 to 6.000 million people. The demise of this no renewable source of energy will condemn us to return to a sustainable figure for the planet, if not the same one we had before industrialization.

    «The aspiration for justice, coupled with a sense of sobriety, will engage humanity in a reasonable quest for ecological democracy»

     

    This is the thesis promulgated, in particular, by William Stanton in his book The Rapid growth of Human Population 1750-2000. This thesis is taken very seriously and discussed on a global scale in contexts such as ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas), together with the eco-totalitarian views which the author presents. Stanton says that the population reduction scenario,has to be completely Darwinian in its approach in order to succeed, without the “sensibilities” which have plagued the second half of the xx century, in the thick mess of being politically correct. This scenario, presented as a voluntary and gradual process, is aiming for progressive reduction of the population directly proportioned to the disappearance of oil. This is to avoid a brutal reduction of numbers through wars, starvation, massacres etc. The ingredients for this recipe, according to Stanton, are:

    • Immigration is prohibited and those who come without papers will be treated like criminals.
    • Abortion or infanticide are compulsory if the fetus or the baby show signs of dis-capacity (Darwinian selection eliminates the weakest)
    • If, for old age, an accident or an illness an individual become more of a burden then a benefit to society his or her life will be ended humanely.
    • Imprisonment is rare, it is replaced by corporal punishment for small crimes and for death penalty without pain in case of grave crimes

    The author is aware of the opposition this proposal triggers in people and affirms that, in his opinion, the greatest obstacle to the realization of this plan is the un intelligent obsession that people in the first world have with what is politically correct. The response is as cruel as the diagnosis: to the sentimentalists who cannot understand the need to reduce the population of Great Britain from 60 millions to 2 millions in the next 150 years , and who feel indignant towards this proposition of substituting human rights with cold logic, William Stanton affirms that it should be said: « You have had your moment» and to measure it he says that the acts of violent protest, like those perpetrated by animal rights activists or anti abortion groups, could, in a Darwinian model, incur in the capital penalty. This reference, almost obsessive, to the Darwinian model, is common in many analysis of coming from America. The aim of our de-growth is different and it is that the aspiration for justice, coupled with a sense of sobriety, will engage humanity in a reasonable quest for ecological democracy instead of a collective suicide.

    200510[This interview made by journalist Xavier Borràs, was published in no. 15 Magazine alfalfa, 17 October 2005. Due to its interest, and the figure Latouche, have seen fit to re-post it here.]
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