Do Less with Less, and Love It

That's the message of Vancouver's Degrowth advocates, who scoff at city hall's 'greenest city' pledge.

By Justin Ritchie 12 Dec 2011 |

Justin Ritchie covers energy, ecology and human behavior on The Extraenvironmentalist, which airs on CiTR 101.9 FM and in podcast form online. He works at UBC as the Sustainability Coordinator for the Alma Mater Society where he'll soon be finishing his MASc in Materials Engineering.

Unless you attended a debate, snatched up an inaugural copy of the Vancouver Degrowth newspaper, or caught sight of one the few Degrowth flyers around town, you might have missed Vancouver's newest political party this past municipal election.

Running under the Degrowth banner, Chris Masson, Ian Gregson and Chris Shaw lost out in an election dominated by Vision Vancouver. With a budget of $1,300 to cover the cost of the newspaper and election registration fees, the three collectively received just over 20,000 votes -- less than half of what the candidate with the lowest number of votes elected, Adriane Carr, received.

Yet the party doesn't see their candidacy as failed. As Degrowth council candidate Chris Shaw puts it, "What we wanted to do was to start a discussion about how reliant our economic system is on economic growth -- a reliance that will impact everyone harshly in the near future." 

The newly-minted Degrowth Party is the newest incarnation of the Work Less Party, which received over 12,000 votes in the 2008 municipal election. The party, notorious for its "Work Less Party parties" on Commercial Drive, moved to rebrand late this September.

"'Work Less' seemed frivolous to a lot of people, as if all we wanted to do was just bang on the drum all day," says Degrowth council candidate Shaw. "It didn't convey the image that we wanted to provide... more quality time for the people you love and freedom to engage in civic activities. The terms 'Degrowth' and 'Work Less' embrace truly green principles that contrast with what the term 'green' has become -- empty and meaningless."

Based on a movement with roots in Europe, the Degrowth Party is taking their message beyond the election with the hopes of debunking Vancouver's image of being a sustainable, green city. They hope to convince citizens that a new economic vision is possible -- however difficult that may be.

"We intended the term Degrowth to be challenging," says Shaw, "because it gives us an opening that allows a discussion of the limits to growth."

Degrowing Vancouver 

Conrad Schmidt, a local filmmaker and author of Workers of the World Relax and Efficiency Shifting, collaborated with Work Less Party members and local critics of economic growth to hold the first Vancouver Degrowth Conference in 2010 and a follow-up conference in May 2011. At both events, talks were given by advocates of Degrowth, like UBC professor and inventor of the ecological footprint Bill Rees and French Degrowth activist Jean-Claude Besson-Girard, director of the Journal of Theoretical and Political Study of Degrowth.

"The first reaction [to Degrowth] is usually hostile; the follow-up reaction will likely be extremely hostile," says Schmidt, of the city's general reception of the party. "Yet we were able to speak the truth which other candidates were unable to. Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver are putting forward a green fairy tale. We can say that we're becoming greener and greener, but we have to look at the numbers."

Shaw adds, "It takes a lot more than a few chickens in our backyards to be truly sustainable."

"Vancouver is becoming the greenwashiest city in the world, and no one is challenging the notions of green that are being put forward," Schmidt continues. "Vancouverites really want to believe that they are living in the greenest city, but our ecological footprint is growing faster than at any time in the city's history."

He admits the party is faced with a tough audience.

"Vancouver is probably the worst place in the world to introduce the concept of Degrowth. Our city's social fabric is all about social status, and the streets are filled with BMWs and Porches while expensive condos tower overhead." 

La Décroissance!

What exactly is Degrowth? The modern concept started in the early 1970s, when a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to model the interplay between global economics and global ecology. 

Out of this work, the World3 model was developed to examine the global economic system's ability to cope with five variables: industrialization, pollution, food production, world population and resource depletion. In 1972, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William Behrens published the results, The Limits to Growth. 

The study claimed that if our planet's economic and political systems were reliant on exponential growth, it would collapse in the first few decades of the early 21st century. Critics of the study pointed out that the World3 model failed to include the potential for human technological adaptation and ingenuity, and many in the mainstream conversation considered the study sufficiently debunked. Still, after reading The Limits to Growth, others felt the importance of finding an alternative economic paradigm.

As MIT scientists were using computer models to explore the consequences of economic growth, Romanian mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen published The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in 1971 while at the University of Vanderbilt in Tennessee. Georgescu-Roegen tied economics to the Laws of Thermodynamics by reformulating the assumptions of modern economic thought in terms of "bioeconomics," the precursor to today's field of ecological economics. 

He argued that the economics of infinite growth would be subject to the limitations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; every time energy from coal, oil, wood or other sources was burned to run an industrial process, the entropy induced would yield a portion of that energy useless to the economy. As the process of exponential economic growth continued, it would face depleted energy availability on a finite planet, causing economies to fail. 

When Gorgescu-Roegen's articles were translated into French in 1979 under the title Demain la décroissance, they sparked the creation of the French Degrowth movement. 

Now, the monthly paper La Décroissance, published by the French equivalent of Vancouver's Degrowth party, has reached a circulation of roughly 60,000 in its 10th year of publication. Articles regularly target consumerist values and the tenets of sustainable development. Regular features include tips to embrace simplicité volontaire by identifying the piece of junk to avoid buying each month. 

Fred Collay attended the recent Vancouver Degrowth conferences and was involved in French Décroissance efforts before moving to Vancouver. On the focus of the French Degrowth paper, Collay says, "What is amazing about their articles is they don't just target the SUV or the usual consumer goods, but they go after the bicycle and the train." La Décroissance challenges mainstream environmental impulses by saying that fancy bikes tailored to very rich people and that shiny new trains do not result in saving the environment. 

As well, to highlight special achievements in environmental hypocrisy, the paper designates a particular individual as an eco-tartuffe, referring to Moliére's 1664 play about a man named Tartuffe who uses his reputed religious holiness and zeal to gain the confidence of others before defrauding and seducing.

Collay explained, "The writers of La Décroissance have recently targeted photographers like Yann-Arthus Bertrand, who published beautiful pictures of our planet in The Earth From Above and directed the film Home with the stated intention of raising environmental awareness through beautiful imagery of our planet." The editors of La Décroissance designate Bertrand an eco-tartuffe because he regularly uses a helicopter funded by multinational corporations that oppose measures to reduce environmental harm to capture images of Earth. In addition to highlighting the hypocrisy of individuals, the French Degrowth paper closely tracks promises from members of the sustainable development community, to see if they are delivering on stated claims.

Other European nations such as Spain and Italy have Degrowth movements based on similar principles. Spain's Basque region is the centre of a corresponding decrecimiento movement, which finds support in an area with a long history of resistance to the model of modern capitalism. Italy's Decrescita works to organize conferences and publish articles about the values of Degrowth. 

Vancouver Degrowth's Shaw pointed out the importance of allying with the international aspects of Degrowth.

"Re-designating Vancouver's Work Less Party under the banner of Degrowth brings it in line with the Degrowth movements already underway in Europe," he says.

The limits to degrowth

Though Spain, Italy and France may have movements that promote the idea of Degrowth, they are all considered to be on the political fringe.

Vancouver's Degrowth Party faces a similar challenge. UBC's Rees has been challenging economic growth throughout his 40-year teaching career. He acknowledges Degrowth is hard to accept.

"People aren't prepared to make major changes to their lifestyles unless they are compelled to do so, and so far in this country we don't have that compelling evidence." 

But, he adds, household debt is at an all time high in Canada. 

"People are beholden to the existing system, because it is the only means by which they can continue to pay down the indebtedness the system has induced them into."


At the Post Carbon Institute in Santa Rosa, California, Richard Heinberg has been writing about the dynamics of energy and resource depletion since publishing The Party's Over, his first book on the topic in 2003. His most recent book, The End of Growth, proposes that the current global economic crisis is occurring because we've reached the Limits to Growth predicted back in the 1972 study. 

Heinberg explains: "Our current economic crisis began in the early 20th century as our economies used cheap fossil fuel to make stuff faster than people could buy it, so we invented advertising to convince people to buy things they didn't need and consumer credit so they could buy things they couldn't afford."   He added that through recognizing our reality, we have the potential to create a positive outcome from the end of growth. 

"The end of growth isn't the end of the world, it is just the end of a certain kind of world. Planning for contraction can lead us to a brighter future than we could have imagined."  While technology has advanced dramatically since the original publication of Limits to Growth, our ability to innovate growth-based economic systems has been ignored. Now, economies dependent on growth are stalling, demonstrated by the European debt crisis, soaring American debt, and sputtering GDP growth rates (2.3 per cent in Q3 2011) at or below the rate of inflation (3.9 per cent in September 2011).

Indeed, Canadian GDP is slowing and contracting along with the rest of the world as domestic job creation falters. -- Justin Ritchie

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