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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

“Degrowth” – a problematic economic frame

degrowth-mixJan 15, 2015 – The term, “degrowth”, is increasingly used to designate a sort of environmental movement. And while it may be an effective label to unite people with similar views, it ignores pretty much all the advice from the field of cognitive framing on building popular alternatives to conservatively-framed “common sense”.

[M]any people engaged in environmentalism still have the old, false view of reason and language. (George Lakoff)

I touched on this in an earlier post on economic “growth” framing. Reaction to that post was mixed – some people “got” it; others seemed to think I was talking just about language. We have to remind ourselves that cognitive framing is about how we think – how we form worldviews. Ideas, beliefs and impressions which have been reinforced in our neural circuitry over decades, thanks to constant cultural repetition, cannot be undone simply by using a language of opposition (with some exceptions*).

With that in mind, here are some pointers on the problems with “degrowth”, starting with “growth” basics:-

“Growth” frame basics

“Growth” of “the economy” is what George Lakoff calls an ontological metaphor. In plain English, this means we think about the unthinkable (eg immeasurable complexity) in terms of “entities or substances of a uniform kind” (Metaphors we live by, Lakoff & Johnson, p25). Thus, the diverse activities of millions of people are aggregated into a single entity called “the economy”, with a uniform attribute of “growth”.

This metaphorical framing has some important downsides (as some economists have realised, at least since the establishment of Gross Domestic Product as a “measure”). For example, the crude binary logic of “growth”/”no-growth”, as if “the economy” has only two ways to go. Also, the dangerous illusion of uniformity in the aggregate measure of “growth”, as if different “economic activities” (with irreconcilable measures) can meaningfully be lumped together in a single quantitative measure.

“Growth”, as metaphor for the increasing “sum” of diverse human activities, excludes qualitative differences. It thus conflates life-nurturing and life-destroying activities (both of which may count as “growth”). Qualitative frames (eg for differentiating types of activity creating well-being or environmental damage, etc) are diminished in cognitive importance by a repeated focus on “growth”.

“Growth” overwhelmingly tends to be conceptualised as natural and good, while lack of growth is seen as bad and unnatural. This is universal, deep-rooted, and unlikely to be reversed by promoting “degrowth” as a good, or by analogies with special cases where growth is seen as bad – eg growth of disease. (See my earlier post for details, including cited research).

Market ideology and the Protestant work ethic mutually reinforce the notion of “growth” as outcome of (and moral reward for) “efficiency”, “discipline”, “productivity”, “hard work”, etc. This moral framing system is deeply rooted in our culture.

Problems with “degrowth”

“Degrowth” isn’t a different frame from “growth” – it entails the same set of conceptual metaphors: an entity (“the economy”) with a single aggregate measure (“growth”), and the implication of a top-down policy whose primary objective is to increase or decrease/stabilise “it”. Both “growth” and “degrowth” are single, quantitative ends for “the economy”.

Although direct negation (eg as “degrowth” negates “growth”) may appear to logically undermine a frame, it activates the frame in our brains, strengthening its physical, neural basis. And, by a process which cognitive linguists call “mutual inhibition”, alternatives to the frame are inhibited by continual focus on its reinforcement/negation.

The “growth”/”degrowth” frame of an aggregate quantitative measure, usually at a national level, reinforces both market capitalist and conservative nationalist conceptual schemas. (See my earlier post for details on reinforcement of the former.)

Nationalist schemas include the Nation as Person metaphor in thinking about “national interest”. In conservative framing, this means competition between nations, in which “national interest” (ie economic health and military strength) is about aggregate maximisation of wealth and power. This ties in with (mutually reinforces) national economic “growth” (ie “growth”/”degrowth” framing).

In short, the way we think about “the economy” in terms of “growth” is reinforced in important respects by the “degrowth” vs “growth” narrative – including inhibition of alternative frames. And in what might be called  conservative “felt” common sense (which is widespread as a result of cultural repetition of the economic “growth” and market frames over decades), “degrowth” will be “felt” as deeply unnatural, nefarious and weakening to the nation.

If the penny still hasn’t dropped for “degrowth” campaigners, I recommend they read, and carefully ponder, Lakoff’s paper, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.

Never accept the right’s frames – don’t negate them, or repeat them, or structure your arguments to counter them. That just activates their frames in the brain and helps them. (George Lakoff)

*In some cases, direct opposition seems the only way to go. When slavery (for example) is directly opposed, the slavery frame is, of course, activated and reinforced in our brains. Does that undermine the anti-slavery cause? Clearly not when slavery is already widely conceived as immoral and unacceptable. But what about before that point in a given society? You might want to ponder the differences between something like slavery and something like “growth” of “the economy” – in terms of conceptual metaphor and level of abstraction. Also, consider my article on Antiwork. Am I contradicting myself by using a term that opposes work? Or is the idea of negating all work so obviously ludicrous, that I must be attempting some sort of “guerilla ontology”, simply to provoke thought/debate?

Written by NewsFrames

January 15, 2015 at 12:05 am

12 Responses

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  1. Some feedback (on Twitter) from the folks behind Research & Degrowth, who say that “degrowth” is “a provocative slogan and should not be interpreted literally”, and that it’s a “subversive slogan: an act of détournement!”

    That’s an interesting take. I’ve been modestly engaged in “détournement” myself, since the early 1990s (the Antiwork thing I linked to is the most recent example). All the stuff I’ve read on “degrowth” (there seems to be a lot of it) has a completely different ring to it, for me. It’s typically presented in a way that seems to aim for respectability (with all the academic trappings), and it’s taken earnestly as a “real” policy-type proposal by many of its advocates.

    (In contrast, I remember a subversive – and funny – group called Decadent Action, who used to campaign for excessive consumer spending [as a way of bringing down capitalism!]. It “promoted the idea of irresponsible credit and excessive spending on hedonistic pursuits to achieve its goals”. The idea was that “bringing about excessive inflation” through “unrestrained consumer spending” was the “sole lever which could precipitate the economic collapse upon which any revolutionary action is predicated”.)


    January 15, 2015 at 11:35 am

  2. Useful pointers, thanks. I see a lot of this “Degrowth” framing used by anti-consumerist, environmentalists, ecological economists, etc. It fits into the more general “mainstream” opposition to market fundamentalism. Unfortunately it just serves to reify the concept of “growth” further, and probably alienates everyone outside the circle already converted to the “shrink the economy” cause.

    Lakoff says little about economic “growth” (except that we should adopt alternatives to the growth frame). Reading between the lines, I think he’s aware that talking about it, even from a point of opposition, just reinforces it.

    Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

    January 15, 2015 at 11:58 am

  3. There’s a throwback to the pop-ecologists of old in degrowth ideology. I think it’s anti-technology, anti-progress at core. “Shrinking the economy”, looking backwards to a golden age of ruralism, when people died of smallpox (as the vaccine hadn’t yet been developed). Why would you want a vaccine? That would be “growth” – exactly what they don’t want. Because they don’t differentiate between types of progress. They see human civilisation as a giant dustbin, and they want it cleared up. Why else would they promote this top-down ‘aggregrate’ as something to shrink at all costs?

    We can attempt to combat global warming, pollution and misuse of resources only with a more intelligent, differentiating policy strategy. It’s a complete nonsense to total all human enterprise and creativity under the heading “growth” and then seek to shrink that.

    Gino F

    January 15, 2015 at 1:13 pm

  4. This is an interesting article. The term “degrowth” is quite revealing. As stated in the article, it accepts the “growth” frame and then presents the equally morally loaded – non-alternative, “alternative” – opposite. I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with growth: it could refer to increasing preventative healthcare, or building basketball courts near a deprived housing estate.

    The article also touches on a wider point, which is that “progressives” increasingly use the language of protest, rather than that of alternatives. I agree with the final words of the article about slavery. There certainly are valuable protest movements, and a modern example is the anti-FGM movement. There is no need for an alternative to FGM – it should simply be eradicated. However when one talks about “anti-capitalism”, “anti-corporate”, and “anti-globalisation”, it makes it much harder to articulate an alternative.

    On the subject of “degrowth” specifically, I will add one thing. As I see it, the environmental movement is – crudely speaking – two movements: one which wishes to improve the planet’s environment, and contains a diverse number of theories on how this could be done, and another which is ideologically infatuated by a romantic, anti-civilisation mentality. While I confess I know little about “degrowth”, I would not be surprised if it embodied the aforementioned “primitivist” urges. Since growth is a word connected to “the economy”, and “the economy” is the quintessence of civilisation, then “degrowth” could be considered a more diluted form of “anti-civilisation”.

    The article gets to the heart of the problem with so-called “progressive” movements, such as the primitivist sections of the environmental movement. They largely ignore that it is human nature to try to enjoy and improve life, and instead try to constantly restrict things: don’t fly, don’t leave your phone charger on, don’t eat GMO, don’t turn your heating too high. Yet – I believe – people are by nature affirmative, and enjoy creating things, traveling, dancing, learning, sex, new technology, building a home etc – all of which are things that can be distinguished from the artificial and endless desires of consumerism. A non-affirmative frame can only go so far in my view, hence why recycling has been a success: it is affirmative, and, had it been framed as “anti-waste”, I am sure would not have been nearly so successful.


    January 15, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    • Great points. I certainly see many examples of the ideological tendencies that you (and also Gino, above) refer to. It sometimes seems like a view that sees human civilisation as fundamentally tainted and separate from the ‘pure’ realm of nature. It’s almost like the religious notion of Original Sin – the puritanical finger-wagging about human behaviours/desires seems common to both. “Thou shalt not…”

      I try to separate that tendency (in what I read) from genuine concerns about remedying specific environmental problems. Also agree with you about “consumerism”. Like “growth” it’s at too high a level to have a blanket opposition to. Alarms bells always start to ring for me when environmentalists start talking as if they know how everyone should *shop*, what they should and shouldn’t desire to buy, etc.


      January 15, 2015 at 8:03 pm

  5. Yes, good points in both the above article and comments here.

    Just as the conventional market-growth-business adherents have their own frames, which they stick to relentlessly, so do environmentalist groups have their own preferred frames. In *both* cases they think only in these frames, and it becomes restrictive and distorting. They only have one way of seeing things, it seems.

    You can stereotype both, quite validly. The stereotypes oppose each other like mirror images in many respects. They’ve both been around for a long time (even if the degrowth term itself appears new). It’s surely time to break out of this conceptual straitjacket. I’ve heard all the cliched parables and analogies from environmentalists about scarcity on a finite planet, just as I’ve heard all the cliches about growth and wealth creation from the businesspeople. The environmentalists think they’re on a roll because of the attention given to climate change at present, but they’re just as stuck in backward thinking as their opponents.

    But the Lakoff inspired frames material does appear to be a genuinely new way of thinking, a way out of the stereotypical identity based frames of the past.

    Jan Lubrano

    January 15, 2015 at 8:58 pm

  6. Degrowth is one those terms that people claim different meanings for, so you’ll probably have people arguing with you based on their own idiosyncratic definitions. Of course, one can’t get around the word itself, “de-” “growth” – which obviously denotes a reversal or removal of growth.

    That idea of a reversal or reduction of growth (in economic terms the contraction or shrinkage of the economy) seems to be the generally accepted meaning, judging from degrowth’s Wiki, which says: “Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies”.

    In this sense, then, I think you are right to criticise its reinforcement of the growth metaphor and “inhibition” of alternative concepts.


    January 16, 2015 at 12:05 pm

  7. This is Giorgos Kallis, one of the editors of a recent book on Degrowth (vocabulary.degrowth.org). Thanks for the thoughtful article. My response:

    1. Many of us involved in the degrowth debates are well aware of the tensions and dangers in reproducing the very idea that we want to oppose (growth), by the mere fact of over-referring to it, or taking its assumptions (the presence of a system called “the economy”) as a given. However, if you want to tear down something that you think it is at the heart of the problem, in our case Growth, then you have to call it by its name. Would you ever consider telling “atheists” that they shouldn’t talk about God?

    2. Degrowth is first and foremost a ruthless critique of the ideology of growth. Perpetual growth is an absurd idea. 2% growth per year, multiples an entity every 30 years. It is simply impossible for anything to continue growing like this for a prolonged period of time. Yet, this is what for some strange reason “has to happen” to this mystified system called “the economy”. It doesn’t just have to become bigger every year. It has to increase every year more than it increased the year before. Why?

    3. Degrowth is subversive. I am not sure what you have read. Probably you have read the Anglo-saxon steady-state literature, which indeed accepts some of the assumptions of the standard model (for sure the presence of a thing called “the economy”). Degrowth however comes from the Francophone literature of decroissance – and names such as Serge Latouche, an economic anthropologist, who rejected not just growth, but economism per se, and the idea of an independent system called the economy, whose laws we should obey (like an ancient god). Latouche claims he is an atheist of growth.

    4. For the subversiveness of growth, read my article which links degrowth to the science fiction of Ursula Le Guin – http://www.humansandnature.org/economy—giorgos-kallis-response-37.php

    5. Some people, even in the comments above, still claim that there can be “good growth”. You also claim that most people are geared to think that growth is good and this is hard to change. This is precisely why we can’t abandon the god of growth and talk about something different, because people still believe in it! They don’t see its absurdity and destructiveness. Once no one believes in the God (even the good merciful god, and not the one that kills and punishes), then we can talk also about other positive alternatives (see 7 below, for some such alternatives)

    6. I haven’t read Lakoff but I had the pleasure to hear him talk at Berkeley. I understood him very differently. He was criticizing Democrats for falling in the frames set up by Republicans, e.g. “there are to many immigrants”, so let’s discuss options for border control, or “there are too many people”, so let’s discuss options for slashing social security. The equivalent for growth is the greens who talk about “green growth” or about “sustainable development”. They fall in the frame of economists and reproduce it, debating options WITHIN the contours of the frame, already set-up for them. With Degrowth, you call upon and critique the frame itself. It is like saying “no, there are not too many immigrants or old people”. If Democrats were doing this, things would be much more different in the US…(and anyways this is not what Lakoff was criticising them for doing, he was criticizing them for accepting the frame, not for subverting it).

    7. I won’t claim that Lakoff was proposing to Democrats to subvert or oppose the dominant frames. He said indeed that Democrats should come up with their own frames and be proactive in setting the agenda. If you read our version of degrowth closely, you will see that this is what we do. Our book on degrowth is presented as a web of key-words. Many of them are “constructive” (commons, buen vivir, ubuntu, conviviality), keywords that can replace growth, once the totem is gone.

    Giorgos Kallis

    January 16, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    • Many thanks for that. I do appreciate there are different interpretations of “degrowth”, and I’ve read some of the material from both yourself and Federico Demaria, etc. There are also core agreements, however, and I think the commenter, Catherine (directly above your comment) makes some good points on that.

      One of the frustrations for me in reading comments like yours (esp points 2 & 5) (and a few made to my earlier, longer, post) is that people say they are criticising the very idea of economic “growth”, but seem unaware that their terms and arguments (eg “degrowth”) reproduce the conceptual metaphors which that idea entails. This is what Lakoff means when he talks about the negation of a frame reinforcing a frame.

      You say you haven’t read Lakoff, but have heard him speak (on Democrats vs Republicans, etc). One of the problems here is conveying the insights from Lakoff, Johnson, et al, on conceptual metaphor (which is really central to understanding cognitive framing) in a short article. This is usually the area where misunderstandings of what I’ve written arise (particularly, in the past, with people whose reading of Lakoff is, by their own admission, limited to newspaper articles in which he discusses Democratic strategy, etc).

      If you’re interested in this important strand of Lakoff’s thinking, I can recommend his books, Metaphors we live by and Philosophy in the Flesh. I’ve written about this area myself (summarising Lakoff’s ideas on conceptual metaphor) in a few pieces. In order of increasing length/detail:


      Please also have a look at my longer piece on economic framing, to get a better insight into the background (the above piece was really no more than a bullet point summary of it): https://newsframes.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/economic-growth/


      January 16, 2015 at 8:38 pm

      • Agreed, conceptual metaphor is the stumbling block. Most people don’t get it at all. That’s not surprising, however, because it overturns much of what was believed about reason and language coming from Enlightenment assumptions. We’ve addressed this area before, I recall – and probably will again.

        Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

        January 16, 2015 at 9:04 pm

      • And, of course, “Green Growth” and “Degrowth” make the same mistake in conceptual-metaphor terms (although at odds with each other in logic).

        Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

        January 16, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    • Giorgos – The atheist/God analogy is a good one, but not in the way you think. Mainstream debate on religion seems trapped in the God/atheism dichotomy – as witness the Richard Dawkins vs monotheist squabbles.

      The result of such a dichotomy is that many people don’t consider alternative frames at all. They are stuck in archaic God vs Godless materialism. Those who avoid talking in terms of “God” promote alternative frames (eg consider Buckminster Fuller’s notion of “Universe” – neither theist nor atheist).

      Growth vs Degrowth, God vs Godless atheism – mutually reinforcing dichotomies, both.

      I also think you’re wrong about commenters here claiming there can be “good growth”. Nobody here is claiming that. You’re illustrating precisely the kind of problem which constant talk of growth/degrowth encourages. You can’t stop thinking in terms of a meaningless (outside of statistical abstraction) aggregrate. Humanity may benefit greatly by expansion of some areas of activity/productivity (non-polluting, no misuse of resources). That’s not a promotion of “good growth”, unless you happen to be stuck in the growth/degrowth frame.


      January 16, 2015 at 11:42 pm

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