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Degrowth, postdevelopment, and transitions: a preliminary conversation


This paper seeks to initiate a conversation between degrowth (DG) and postdevelopment (PD) frameworks by placing them within the larger field of discourses for ecological and civilizational transitions and by bridging proposals emerging from the North with those from the Global South. Not only can this dialogue, it is argued, be mutually enriching for both movements but perhaps essential for an effective politics of transformation. Part I of the paper presents a brief panorama of transition discourses (TDs), particularly in the North. Part II discusses succinctly the main postdevelopment trends in Latin America, including Buen Vivir (BV), the rights of Nature, civilizational crisis, and the concept of ‘alternatives to development’. With these elements in hand, Part III attempts a preliminary dialogue between degrowth and postdevelopment, identifying points of convergence and tension; whereas they originate in somewhat different intellectual traditions and operate through different epistemic and political practices, they share closely connected imaginaries, goals, and predicaments, chiefly, a radical questioning of the core assumption of growth and economism, a vision of alternative worlds based on ecological integrity and social justice, and the ever present risk of cooptation. Important tensions remain, for instance, around the critique of modernity and the scope for dematerialization. This part ends by outlining areas of research on PD that could be of particular interest to degrowth scholars. The conclusion, finally, envisions the dissolution of the very binary of ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ by adopting a pluriversal perspective.

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  1. 1.

    Some of this conversation happened at the III International Conference of Degrowth, particularly around the work of Helena Norber-Hodge, Veronika Bennholt-Thomsen, Gilbert Rist, and the author of this paper. While authors such as Latouche (e.g., 2009) and Martinez Alier (2002a, b) have long incorporated views from the South, taken as a whole the DG field has not cultivated this line of inquiry. See the recent reviews by Muraca (2013) and Demaria et al. (2013) in which critiques of development are included.

  2. 2.

    I use the term ‘transition’ rather than ‘transformation’ since this is the actual term used by most of the frameworks discussed here. Some of the TDs can be criticized on many grounds (e.g., their lack of attention to questions of power and domination in terms of class, gender and race). However, it seems to me that most imply a radical notion of transformation at many levels. In some cases, ‘transition’ is very similar to ‘transformation’ (especially in the Polanyian sense), in others transition entails many types of transformation.

  3. 3.

    The TDs cited here represent a fraction of the literature. TDs range from the more spiritual to the openly political; they appeal to a broad array of concepts, such as ‘collapse’, ‘conscious evolution’, collective intelligence, sacredness, saving the planet and the humans, decline and descent, survival, apocalypse and utopia, and so forth. There are lots to be learned from these visions and proposals, which academics rarely consider. Works on ecologically-oriented design could also be considered in this light, but they will not be discussed here; see Escobar (2014) for a more exhaustive discussion of TDs and design.

  4. 4.

    See the work of the Center for Ecozoic Societies in Chapel Hill, directed by Herman Greene, http://www.ecozoicstudies.org/.

  5. 5.

    Berry actually posited a definition of the anthropocene avant la lettre; in a beautiful essay from 1988, he wrote: “The anthropogenic shock that is overwhelming the earth is of an order of magnitude beyond anything previously known in human historical or cultural development…. We are acting on a geological and biological order of magnitude. We are changing the chemistry of the planet” (1988, p. 211, 206).

  6. 6.

    This is an exciting, and growing area, even in some critical strands of the academy. Within the West, it has predecessors in the works of Vernadsky and Teilhard de Chardin, among others, but also in traditions of immanence, vitalism, and process thought. It should be emphasized that a sentient universe is a core idea—indeed, a reality—of many indigenous cosmologies.

  7. 7.

    The transition town approach is a remarkable concept and set of tools. Initiated in the town of Totnes, Devon, UK (also home to Schumacher College), it has spread rapidly. There are close to 500 communities world-wide (largely in the North) engaged in transition plans inspired by the approach. The primer for transition initiatives is detailed and feasible. See the TTI’s website, http://www.transitionnetwork.org/blogs/rob-hopkins.

  8. 8.

    For recent statements and critiques of postdevelopment in English, see Dar and Cooke (2008), McGregor (2009), Mosse and Lewis (2005), Zai (2007) and Simon (2007).

  9. 9.

    For analyses of the notions of Buen Vivir and rights of Nature, see the useful short volumes by Acosta (2010), Acosta and Martínez (2009a, b) and Gudynas (2009, 2011a, 2015a). There is a considerable literature on these topics; see Escobar (2011; 2014) for a list of pertinent references. The monthly journal América Latina en Movimiento is an excellent source of intellectual-activist writings on these subjects, with special issues on Buen Vivir (452, 462), transitions (473), postdevelopment (445), and so forth (alainet.org).

  10. 10.

    There are related notions in the South, such as the Southern Africa notion of ubuntu, which cannot be discussed here.

  11. 11.

    See issue no. 453 of América Latina en Movimiento (March 2010) devoted to “Alternativas civilizatorias”, http://alainet.org/publica/453.phtml. A Forum on “perspectives on the ‘Crisis of Civilization’ as the Focus of Movements” was held at the World Social Forum in Dakar (February 6–11, 2011), coordinated by Roberto Espinoza, Janet Conway, Jai Sen, and Carlos Torres.

  12. 12.

    A more systematic comparison would have to include analysis of the respective genealogies, practices, goals, and strategies of DG and PD.

  13. 13.

    A recent study of alternative economic practices in Barcelona proposes an insightful typology of actors: those ‘culturally adapted’ to the status quo (what is called ‘business as usual’ in a number of scenarios, such as the GTI); ‘culturally transformative’ (radical innovators); and ‘alternative practitioners’ (in between). See Conill et al. (2012a, b).

  14. 14.

    Rather than voluntary simplicity, which has proven controversial, the notion of ‘conviviality’ preferred by the ICTA group seems to me more apt to convey the range of domains associated with DG (tools, commons, economies etc.). DG’s goal thus becomes “a transition to convivial societies who live simply, in common and with less” (Kallis et al. 2015: 11). This could buttress the critique of over-consumption among the Latin American middles classes, which has barely started. DG also deals with population, although somewhat obliquely, and often emphasizing the need to link population issues to feminist emancipatory politics.

  15. 15.

    However, the sources of the thought of autonomy are partially different in both cases, with Latin American perspectives having a more openly political orientation emphasizing communal logics, cultural difference, and non-liberal and non-State forms of social organization (Escobar 2014). Autonomy is another fruitful dialogue to be had between DG and PD, albeit beyond the scope of this chapter.

  16. 16.

    Lander’s edited volume (2000) is the most cited collective work within this perspective. For a recent set of papers in English, see Mignolo and Escobar (2009), which includes a succinct presentation of the perspective (Escobar’s chapter). There is already a vast oeuvre stemming from this perspective—both collective and by individual authors—largely in Spanish, with some translations into other languages.

  17. 17.

    A recent volume bridges ‘crisis of civilization’ and critiques of development from decolonial perspectives (Quintero 2014).

  18. 18.

    This is a very inadequate statement about the ESS field. See the useful ESS dictionary (Coraggio et al. 2013), and special issues of Iconos (Quito, No. 33, 2009), and América Latina en Movimiento (No. 482, 2013).

  19. 19.

    This section on relationality and the pluriverse is based on current work by Mario Blaser, Marisol de la Cadena, and the author of this paper. The perspective is broadly defined as political ontology. See, e.g., Blaser (2010, 2013), de la Cadena (2010) and Escobar (2014).

  20. 20.

    I believe there are synergies to be drawn between Castoriadis’ notion of autonomy, which has been important in some DG perspectives (Asara et al. 2013; Latouche 2009), self-organization, and Latin American approaches to autonomy. Works on autonomy by Esteva, Zibechi, and Gutiérrez Aguilar and by movements such as Zapatismo and the Nasa struggle in Colombia’s south west (see http://www.nasaacin.org/) should be particularly useful.


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Correspondence to Arturo Escobar.

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Handled by Iago Otero, IRI THESys, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany, and Research & Degrowth, Spain.

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Escobar, A. Degrowth, postdevelopment, and transitions: a preliminary conversation. Sustain Sci 10, 451–462 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0297-5

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  • Degrowth
  • Postdevelopment
  • Transitions
  • Civilizational crisis
  • Global South