CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
“Why should I care about posterity?” Said Marx (Groucho, not Karl). “What’s posterity ever done for me?”

1By turning the title of Jean-Pierre Jaud’s film Nos enfants nous accuseront (Our Children Will Hold Us Responsible) into an interrogative, I intend to approach the question of the relationship between generations in the light of the ecological crisis. Inspired by the Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, Paul Crutzen, scholars have acknowledged the fact that we have entered a new era—the Anthropocene. Man has become a telluric power capable of interfering with the great planetary cycles. The impact of human activity is now reaching the point where it is disrupting and altering Earth’s ecosystems. Standard economics is blind to all this. It is sacrificing future generations by denying them the existence of an environment, or by undervaluing it, for example through the ingenious device of bogus discount rates. The direction taken in Jean-Pierre Jaud’s film reflects the French-language title given to the translation of Science and Survival, the first reflection on political ecology: Quelle Terre laisserons-nous à nos enfants? (What Sort of Earth Will We Leave Our Children?). [1] As Alexander Langer, the founder of the green movement in Italy, notes:

Never before has a generation had so much responsibility and so much power in terms of its actions as ours. And never has a previous generation had the responsibility for the very decision of allowing or cutting off the succession of subsequent generations or, at least, of putting it at risk. [2]
Given the fact that productivism is largely responsible for this threat, it is vital for us to escape from the economy and organize a society based on degrowth in order to guarantee a future for our children.

The Denial of Intergenerational Debt in a Growth Society

2Karl Marx wrote that

even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not the owners of the globe.. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition. [3]
Unfortunately, Marxists, no less than orthodox economists, have ignored this message. Economic development has been based on a disregard for the limitations of the planet and economists have built their discipline around a denial of nature.

The Domination of the Growth Economy in Society

3The growth society in which we are currently living rests on three essential freedoms: firstly, in terms of the production of commodities (and, thus, the withdrawal of renewable and nonrenewable resources); secondly, with regard to the production of necessities (and, thus, superfluous goods); and thirdly, in terms of the production of emissions (namely the generation of waste and air, earth, and water pollution). In the Anthropocene era, nature is forced to become a machine that both satisfies and absorbs human excess, something that it is no longer capable of doing. [4] The symptoms of the ecological crisis are obvious and include climatic change, ozone-layer depletion, rising sea levels, the end of cheap oil, the sixth mass extinction of species, and so forth.

Earth Overshoot Day, or the Planet on Credit

4A carbon footprint measures the extent of the effect of our lifestyle on Earth’s ecosystems. We have already greatly exceeded the capacity of the biosphere for regeneration. To the North-South ecological debt the debt to ensuing generations should be added. We are living on our inheritance and not only on our revenue. In short, we are not content to live off the fruit, but are destroying the very tree on which it is growing. And yet, we are not the owners of the planet; we merely have it on loan from our children. Will we pay back this loan? Clearly not. Certainly between 2010 and 2011, Earth Overshoot Day—that is to say the date on which we have exhausted our credit—was moved from August 21 to September 27, but this “good news” was only an otherwise-disastrous effect of the economic crisis of 2008.

The Catastrophe is Already Here

5We are experiencing what experts refer to as the sixth mass extinction of species. [5] The fifth, which occurred during the Cretaceous period sixty-five million years ago, saw the extinction of the dinosaurs and other huge creatures, probably owing to the impact of an asteroid. However, relative to the previous one our own mass extinction is different in three significant respects. Firstly, species (both plant and animal) are disappearing at the rate of fifty to two hundred every day, [6] that is at a rate one thousand to thirty thousand times higher than the extinctions that occurred during past geological eras. [7] Secondly, man is directly responsible for the current “depletion” of life. The sixth mass extinction of species is, in fact, due to the overexploitation of natural habitats, pollution, the breaking up of ecosystems, the invasion of new predators, and climate change. Our production methods are causing this phenomenon to become accelerated. Productivist agriculture, a symptomatic combination of a creative technoscientific vision and greed on the part of agribusiness, is the most obvious example of this, along with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, monoculture, genetic engineering, and the ability to patent living organisms. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), almost three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost during the last century. Thirdly, humanity could well fall victim to this. The very existence of future generations is compromised and their quality of life is in any case under threat. Our children, if they survive at all, will live much less well than we have and on a much more damaged planet.

Nature Denied in Economics

6The thinkers of the modern era prepared the ground for this by laying the foundations for a radical division between man and his natural environment, thereby justifying faith in technoscience and productivism in a world in the process of becoming artificialized. Nature, thus, became a formidable adversary to the human species. The most tangible expression of man’s common interest is the struggle against nature. “Nature,” wrote Frances Bacon, “is a public woman; we must subdue her, penetrate her secrets, and chain her to satisfy our desires.” [8] For his part, René Descartes entrusts modern man with the task of mastering and possessing nature.

7Economic science and economists have stepped into a relatively wide breach, arrogantly ignoring the limits of the ecosystem. They must bear a large part of the blame for the current catastrophe. They have justified, encouraged, and guided the productivist system, and are still continuing to do so. They are showing an extraordinary blindness that sometimes borders on criminal dishonesty.

Since the Very Beginnings of Political Economy, Nature Has Been Excluded from Economics

8Jean-Baptiste Say wrote: “Natural resources are inexhaustible, otherwise we could not obtain them for free. As they cannot be multiplied nor exhausted they are not the subject of economic science.” [9] My generation of economics students was taught, moreover, that air and water are unlimited resources and, as such, are not economic commodities. This idea of unlimited free natural resources persisted in economics text books at least up until 1980, when the Club of Rome sounded the alarm with regard to the exhaustion of natural resources. The Earth, we read in a text book from that period, “contains all the natural resources, all the free gifts of nature necessary in the production process.. .. The Earth does not entail production costs; it is a gift of nature that is free and not reproducible.” [10] We find similar statements being made by the great economists like Robert Solow, to whom the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences thought it a good idea to award the Nobel Prize. “The ancient concern about the depletion of natural resources,” he writes, “no longer rests on any firm theoretical basis.”

9It was by claiming in about 1880, under the influence of Philip Wicksteed, Knut Wicksell, and John Bates Clark, that the natural-resources production factor (earth in particular) was reducible to two other factors (capital and labor), that the neoclassical economists would finally sever ties with nature. “It is very easy,” Solow wasted no time in explaining, “to substitute other factors for natural resources.” In consequence, he was to conclude, “There is, in principle, no problem. The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe.” [11] The idea of the perfect substitution of capital and labor for nature has led to outrageous remarks on the part of economists, as is borne out by Mauro Bonaiuti’s pizza apologue. Can one really, he asks himself, obtain the same number of pizzas by always reducing the quantity of flour but by increasing the number of ovens or cooks? And even if we hope to harness new energies would it be reasonable to construct “skyscrapers without stairs or lifts based only on the hope that one day we will beat the law of gravity?” [12] Yet, this is just what we are doing with nuclear energy, amassing potentially dangerous emissions for the centuries to come with no solution in view, as well as with greenhouse gas emissions. We need all the (bad) faith of orthodox economists if we are to imagine that future science will resolve all our problems and that the ability to substitute nature by artifice might be limitless.

10Ignorance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics — Our premonitions concerning the limitations of economic growth undoubtedly go back to Malthus, but their scientific foundations date only as far back as 1824 with Sadi Carnot and his second law of thermodynamics. If the transformation of energy in its various forms (heat, movement, and so forth) is not completely reversible, there cannot fail to be consequences for an economy based on this transformation. It was only during the 1970s, however, that the ecological question in connection with economics was clearly formulated. The first person to do so was the great Romanian scholar and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. By adopting Newton’s model of classical mechanics, economics, he noted, excludes the arrow of time. It therefore ignores the entropy law, that is to say the nonreversibility of transformations with respect to energy and matter. Thus, emissions and pollution, in spite of the fact that they are produced by activities connected with economics, are not part of the functions of standard production. With any reference to biophysical substrates having been dispensed with, according to most neoclassical theoreticians, economic production is no longer confronted by any ecological limitations whatsoever. The result is a reckless waste of the scarce resources available and an under-utilization of the abundant flow of solar energy.

11“Contemporary neoclassical economic theory,” notes Yves Cochet, “conceals its indifference to the fundamental laws of biology, chemistry, and physics, and especially those of thermodynamics, under a cloak of mathematical elegance.” [13] This makes no ecological sense. Of course, we are told in the first law of thermodynamics that nothing is lost and that nothing is created. However, the extraordinary spontaneous regeneration of the biosphere, even if it is assisted by man, is unable to keep up with the frenetic pace. In any case, it does not enable all the products harmed by industrial activity to be restored in an identical manner. Not only are the processes involving the transformation of energy nonreversible (as per the second law of thermodynamics) but, in practice, the same goes for matter; unlike energy, the latter is potentially recyclable, but never wholly so. “We can recycle old metal coins,” writes Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, “but not the copper metal molecules dispersed by their use.” [14] This phenomenon, which he has christened “the fourth law of thermodynamics,” is debatable in terms of pure theory, but not from the point of view of concrete economics. We do not know how to coagulate the flow of atoms dispersed in the cosmos in order to reconstruct new mining deposits that can be exploited, a work that was accomplished by nature over billions of years of evolution. In short, the real economic process, unlike the theoretical model, is not a purely mechanical, reversible process; it is, therefore, entropic by nature. It takes place in a biosphere that functions according to time’s arrow. [15] It is from this, according to Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, that the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite world and the necessity for inventing a bioeconomy derive, that is to say, economic thinking under the auspices of the biosphere. [16]

12The Repudiation of the First Report to the Club of Rome On December 11, 1974, at a Nobel reception for economists, Friedrich Hayek made an extraordinary declaration:


The enormous publicity recently given by the media to a report pronouncing in the name of science on the Limits of Growth, and the silence of the same media about the devastating criticism this report has received from the competent experts, make one feel somewhat apprehensive about the use to which the prestige of science can be put. [17]

14Thus, Hayek, Beckerman, Solow, Summers, and others declared the remarkable work carried out by Denis Meadows and his team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) null and void. As a result, George W. Bush declared on February 14, 2002, at Silver Spring, in front of the American Meteorological Society, that “economic growth is key to environmental progress, because it is growth that provides the resources for investment in clean technologies.” [18] By appealing, in his 2005 vows, in an incantatory manner to “Growth! growth! growth!” President Chirac was not to be outdone, but with the crisis, it was a refrain taken up by a choir consisting of all the world powers. We must recognize that this position adheres to the strictest economic orthodoxy.

15For neoclassical economists development is almost naturally sustainable. We should remember that W. V. Rostow defined development as “self-sustaining growth.” Certain people, a tad provocatively, go as far as to say that it is they who are the true supporters of sustainable development, with the establishment of the “rights to pollute” and the commercialization of the environment—John Richard Hicks having defined national income as the annual revenue that capital (including natural capital) allows to be released without its being adversely affected. Stephan Schmidheiny, the founder of a body of industrial companies favorable to sustainable development (the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, WBCSD) and advisor to Maurice Strong, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for the organization of Rio 92, wrote: “The functioning of a system of free, competitive markets where prices include environmental costs along with other economic components constitutes the basis of sustainable development.” [19] However, this integration is carried out more or less naturally owing to the interplay of relative scarcity, the total substitution of capital and nature, and ecoefficiency. WBCSD documents are illuminating on this point: “Sustainable development is best achieved through open, competitive, rightly framed international markets that honor legitimate comparative advantages. Such markets encourage efficiency and innovation, both necessities for sustainable human progress.” [20] The green economy, which triumphed at the conference in Rio in 2012, accords with this perfectly.

16Once again, laissez-faire and confidence in the market would, in time, solve all the problems. “It is evident,” noted the economist Wilfred Beckerman, “that although economic growth usually leads to a deterioration in the environment first of all, ultimately the best—and probably the only—way for reasonable success as far as the environment in most countries is concerned is for them to get rich.” [21] This is the deception of the Kuznets Curve, applied to the environment. [22]

17The Discount-Rate Trick Ultimately, all this is based on unfailing trust. This is what the criticisms of Nicholas Stern’s review for the British government demonstrate. The extremely cautious evaluation made by the World Bank economist—and therefore a member of the inner circle—of the very high cost of climate imbalance if we wait before acting was considered as alarmist by negationist economists who, by choosing a more realistic future rate of depreciation, came to the conclusion that growth would enable the cost to be met painlessly. In this case, any future depreciation would point to the sacrifice of younger generations on the altar of growth. By turning reality into numerical abstraction through the skilful manipulation of figures, it is relatively easy for a specialist in econometrics to forecast miracles. If we reduce the damage to the ecosystem caused by our quest for growth to a cost, and if we assume an adequate rate of growth, an increased GDP would largely make up for external diseconomies, easily freeing up the finance necessary to remedy it. With a fairly high rate (5% for example), the net present value of harm to the environment becomes negligible. We can leave it, without any feelings of guilt, to our children, who will have become richer as a result of growth. This is current practice among experts with respect to the evaluation of projects involving any simulation models relating to the future in order to justify even the wildest investments. The tragedy is that reality is not an abstraction. The planet does not negotiate and our children will hold us responsible.

18And so successive American presidents have decided to do nothing to reduce the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. According to John Bellamy Foster:


The absence of clear causal ties between environmental damage and deterioration in the conditions of economic production has contributed, through standard cost-benefit analysis, to justifying the policy of adaptation to global warming, rather than to the adoption of a policy involving measures intended to slow down its progression (which would have increased production costs). [23]

Degrowth: The Source of a Sustainable Future

20The degrowth movement is focused primarily on avoiding the destruction of the ecosystem, thus enabling our species to survive. In order to do this, we must “escape from the economy” and organize a society of frugal abundance. The consequences of this metamorphosis in terms of intergenerational relations are very great.

Reducing our Carbon Footprint to Save the Future

21Reductions in the life cycle of products, the crushing of space-time, life on credit, and checks written out with no intention of honoring them cause stress and the consumption of psychotropic drugs on the one hand and man’s obsolescence on the other in a world threatened with collapse, according to Günther Anders.

22The proposal of a circular economy as opposed to the current practice of product life cycle and programmed obsolescence would be a first step in the direction of reducing our carbon footprint. Ecoefficiency and ecodesign constitute the foundations of this, certainly representing interesting avenues that might be encouraged. In terms of equipment, we might, for instance, show a preference for hire instead of purchase, as has already been tried in a certain number of cities. Vance Packard writes that:


Hiring cars, furniture, and household goods with maintenance guaranteed under the contract would probably be more expensive and would deprive the consumer of his vanity of ownership. This type of behavior would, however, deal a harsh blow to the current policy in which a limited product life cycle is advocated. The producer would quickly start to care about prolonging the life span of his products, simplifying their form so as to facilitate repair, as well as adopting a style that does not become out of date too quickly. [24]

24This policy has been encouraged in Germany owing to pressure from environmentalists. Since 1990, Rank Xerox—a firm specializing in photocopiers that are generally rented out—has developed a program thanks to which its products are thought of as a collection of parts that can be recycled when they have been finished with. When the machines are returned to Xerox, the firm takes the responsibility for reusing a large number of their constituent materials. [25] The Swiss company Rohner et Design Tex has designed and produced an upholstery fabric that biodegrades naturally at the end of its life. Other firms have created carpeting that, once it has been worn out, can be used for compost in gardens since it is made of organic materials. The German chemical giant, BASF, has developed a fabric made of indefinitely recyclable nylon fibers. After the product for which it has been used has worn out, it can be broken up into its essential components to be reused in new products. Professor Michael Braungart, a celebrated chemist and theoretician of industrial ecology, is advocating this type of solution. As far as he is concerned, production and consumption should be part of a virtuous cycle resembling natural cycles, in other words a circular economy. Nature does not in fact produce waste, in spite of the fact that it is not frugal! Everything is recycled. We must rationalize the ecodesign of products, only introducing into the process recyclable, biodegradable, and nontoxic materials. This is the triumph of sustainable chemistry, of bioplastics made out of potato starch, and so forth. The waste materials from one industry must be the “nutrients” of another. [26]

25The example that is generally put forward is that of the Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park in Denmark, which, according to its advocates, represents “a model industrial ecosystem.” Based on the model provided by decomposers (insects that eat dead organisms and so forth), the by-products and emissions from some businesses serve as primary materials used in the production processes of others. [27] A refinery uses heat from a thermal power station and sells the sulfur extracted from oil on to a chemical plant. It also supplies calcium sulfate to a wall-plate producer, while the excess steam from the power station heats the water used in aquaculture firms and domestic greenhouses. This results in economy in terms of resources as well as a significant reduction in final waste products.

26However, even if strategies of this type are sometimes implemented by businesses, they will not become widespread of their own accord in an accumulation-based economy founded on predation, consumerist wastefulness, and the massive production of waste. Contrary to what the followers of green capitalism, the green economy, and ecological economics would have us believe, there is unfortunately no “invisible green hand.” It is only when public policies are implemented that there are encouraging results in the sphere of the struggle against pollution. Without minimal financial encouragement and so on, positive changes remain only marginal. [28]

Escaping from the Economy

27We must, therefore, “escape from the economy.” “Partisans” of degrowth or “growth objectors” view the situation differently from other contemporary critics of the global economy (the antiglobalization movement or the movement connected with the solidarity economy), in that they do not locate the essence of the problem in neo- or ultraliberalism, or in what Karl Polanyi termed the “formal economy,” but in the logic of growth construed as the essence of economic efficiency. Their project is radical in this respect. It is not a matter of substituting a “good economy” for a “bad” one, good growth or good development for bad by rebranding them as green, or social, or equitable with a more or less strong dose of state regulation thrown in or of businesses being hybridized by the logic of giving and solidarity, but of escaping from the economy altogether. This idea is, generally speaking, misrepresented since it is hard for our contemporaries to wake up to the fact that the economy is a religion. When we say that strictly speaking we should speak of agrowth as we speak of atheism, that’s exactly what we mean: becoming the atheists of growth and the economy. Of course, as with every human society, a society built around degrowth must organize the production for its existence and, in order to do so, it must use its environmental resources reasonably, consuming them in material goods and services—only doing so in a manner somewhat similar to the abundance societies of the Stone Age described by Marshall Sahlins, which never engaged with economic matters. [29] This society would not operate within the strict confines imposed by scarcity, goods, economic calculation, and Homo economicus. These imaginary foundations for the economy as an institution must be called into question. A rediscovered frugality enables an affluent society to be reconstructed based on what Ivan Illich refers to as “modern subsistence.” Or to put it another way:

The style of life that prevails in a post-industrial economy in which people have succeeded in reducing their market dependence, and have done so by protecting—by political means—a social infrastructure in which techniques and tools are used primarily to generate use-values that are unmeasured and unmeasurable by political need-makers. [30]
Escaping the economic fantasy, therefore, necessitates some very tangible breaks and, primarily, the “decommodification” of the three imaginary commodities of labor, land, and currency. We know that Karl Polanyi saw the forced transformation of these pillars of society into commodities as the founding moment of the self-regulated market economy. Their withdrawal from the global market would mark the point of departure for a reincorporation and reintegration of the economic within the social. At the same time as a struggle against the spirit of capitalism, mixed enterprises should be promoted in which the spirit of giving and the quest for justice temper market-driven ruthlessness. It is in this respect, and in this respect only, that the supporters of degrowth lend their support to the concrete proposals suggested by the antiglobalists and advocates of the solidarity economy. Although theoretical rigor (Max Weber’s ethics of conviction) excludes compromise in terms of thinking, political realism (the ethics of responsibility) implies compromise. This is why, if the political project in question is revolutionary, the program of electoral transition is necessarily reformative.

Towards Intergenerational Justice

28The creation of a degrowth society is of the utmost importance so that we can reinhabit and rehabilitate time, reduce distances, reposition life, discover and promote slowness (slow food, slow cities, slow medicine, slow architecture, and so forth), reduce time spent at work, rediscover the vita contemplativa, and prolong the life cycles of material objects. [31] All this concerns, either directly or indirectly, our obligations with respect to the generations to come and their obligations to us. As far as our children are concerned, we must guarantee good health, good education, and the possibility of earning a living in a dignified manner. We must give back at least as much as we ourselves have received. We have borrowed the Earth from our children, as our parents borrowed it from us. In return, moreover, we are within our rights to expect our children to guarantee our health and decent conditions in which to end our lives in at least the same measure as we did for our parents.

29A considerable number of our current problems relate to the fact that the—perfectly understandable—fear of the future owing to the end of family solidarity and the crisis in the welfare state led the Reagan/Thatcher generation to invest its savings in pension funds or in other private insurance schemes, accelerating the demise of social welfare and contributory pension schemes, even though these in fact worked well.

30The degrowth project and program touch on these problems in a number of respects, especially in terms of reevaluating, redistributing, and reappropriating money. A change in values is linked to the restructuring of the system and to changes in current perceptions. The reintroduction of altruism, solidarity, and sharing would promote a noncommercial attitude to the problem of intergenerational giving. The redistribution of revenue between generations implies that we need, first of all, to find a solution to the question of retirement. The system of contributory pension schemes allows for the organization of a form of justice as it is, unlike capitalism, transparent and, in addition, less unpredictable. In our growth society today, growth is a political necessity to resolve this problem even if we know (as Jean-Marie Harribey has aptly demonstrated) [32] that the crux of the question of pensions is to be found in distribution rather than production. It is always our children who finance our retirement. It is true that this is easier when there is a growth economy in place, especially as the population of old people is increasing. Indeed, the slice is easier to take out as the size of the cake increases. But, should we not ask if the cake itself has, in fact, been poisoned? In which case, reducing the slice is strongly advisable. [33] In the future, growth—a comfortable short-term solution—will not be on the agenda even in a growth society. Capitalization is not an answer, but an abdication; it creates inequality, insecurity, and injustice. It is not, therefore, a question of making the system work as it is, something that would at best condemn us to a form of social liberalism à la Blair, Schröder, Jospin, Lula, or D’Alema in the past and like Hollande today. Over time, the solution put forward here involves changes to society and forms of wealth.

31The reappropriation of currency means, first of all, that we must break the infernal pattern of needing to release more money through a cycle involving production-destruction-predation in order to pay the dividends, interest, annuities, and profits demanded by capital (in the form of pension funds, banks, insurance companies, shareholders, and speculators). It is important to announce the split between society’s material process of reproduction and the geometric reasoning that is at the very heart of the addiction to growth. The euthanasia of the rentier once demanded by Keynes, who was nevertheless very far from the revolutionary idea of degrowth, would be a public-health measure.

32Money, which is a good servant but a bad master, must serve rather than enslave. [34] Managing the devaluation of the future is one of the important tasks facing a degrowth society. If, through misuse, money is able to contribute to the “banality of evil,” it is also generates a social commerce that is irreplaceable in human society as a whole. It is a common good that should not be privatized by banks or the state. Society must endeavor to reappropriate it. What does the reappropriation of money actually entail, though? We might attempt to reappropriate its use without reappropriating production, which is what is being done by the Banca Etica in Italy and the alternative financing systems—Cigales in France, MAG in Italy, and so forth. This is what is being done less consciously by the Grand Yoff Commune described in L’Autre Afrique. [35] We could try to reappropriate production, perhaps without reappropriating use, and this is what the LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems), SEL (systèmes d’échange locaux), and other systems involving a local currency (including demurrage currency or collective annuity schemes) do. Finally, a full reappropriation of money would imply the establishment of social and individual control over the whole process from start to finish, through direct or indirect saving schemes (contributions, deductions for pensions, and so forth), through investment, and expenditure. In short, it is, in fact, a matter of reinserting the whole of the economy into society and politics through this reappropriation of money.

33In the meantime, the immediate challenge facing us would involve stemming the tide of the crisis and finding a remedy for financial proliferation. [36] In order to do this it would be necessary to supervise banking activities and financial matters. We would also need to recompartmentalize the global financial market. The redivision of monetary zones would mean confidently reversing financial globalization by annulling credit securitzation or excessive leveraging (increasing the reserve ratio). Eventually, the markets would very definitely have to be suppressed with a return to more traditional forms of guarantee for importers and exporters (their activities would have to be brought back to more reasonable levels by the necessary reevaluation of the excesses of free-market exchange and offshoring). We might, as Frédéric Lordon suggests, also consider closing stock markets. [37] The first thing to be done in order to redivide monetary zones would be to reintroduce plurality (several types of not necessarily convertible currency). There would be one currency for local trade between stakeholders that recognize and, more or less, trust one another, on which it is possible to speculate, and one for anonymous external trade, the use of which would be restricted and subject to controls.

34Reappropriating currency possibly involves consciously uncovering something of the ancient meaning of money. For the anthropologist William S. Desmond primitive money “symbolized reciprocity between people, which connected them emotionally with their community.” [38]


35We are well and truly in an age of limitation. However, the prospect of collective suicide seems much less unbearable than a thorough overhaul of our practices and a change of model. Our children will very definitely call us to task, for we are all responsible—our political and economic elites, first and foremost, as they are quicker to save banking than ice floes, but also ordinary citizens, who care more for their standard of living than the life of the oceans. André Gorz predicted that: “When they reach maturity the children who we will bring into the world will no longer use aluminum or oil... the uranium deposits will have been used up during the implementation of contemporary nuclear programs.” [39] Or, as Alexander Lange said, “Destroying the present to save the future is not a convincing or winning option.” [40] So, if we want to avoid collapse and ensure a conceivably harmonious future for our children, we must first of all attack our economic system with its bottomless, exponential growth.


  • [1]
    Barry Commoner, Quelle Terre laisserons-nous à nos enfants?, trans. Chantal de Richemont (Paris: Le Seuil, 1969). Originally published as Science and Survival (New York: Viking, 1966).
  • [2]
    Alexander Langer, “Perdersi per trovarsi: la terra in prestito dai nostri figli,” in Conversione ecologica e stili di vita, ed. Giuseppina Ciuffreda and Alexander Langer (Bolzano, Italy: Edizioni dell’asino, 2012), 21. [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [3]
    Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore, Edward B. Aveling, and Ernest Untermann (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1906–1909), vol. 3, part 6.
  • [4]
    Jacques Testart, Agnès Sinaï, and Catherine Bourgain, Labo planète ou comment 2030 se prépare sans les citoyens (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2010), 37.
  • [5]
    Richard Leakey and Roger Levin, La Sixième extinction: évolution et catastrophes, trans. Vincent Fleury (Paris: Flammarion, 1997). Originally published as The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind (New York: Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, 1995).
  • [6]
    Edward O. Wilson believes that we are responsible for the disappearance of 27,000 to 63,000 species every year. See: Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (Harvard: Belknap Press, 1992).
  • [7]
    François Ramade, Le Grand massacre. L’avenir des espèces vivantes (Paris: Hachette, 1999).
  • [8]
    Cited in Norbert Rouland, Aux confins du droit (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1991), 249. [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [9]
    Jean-Baptiste Say, Cours d’économie politique (1828–1830), cited by René Passet (1990).
  • [10]
    Campbell McConnell, Economics (New York: McGraw Hill, 1970), 20 and 672. [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [11]
    Cited by Narendra Singh in “Robert Solow’s Growth Hickonomics,” Economic and Political Weekly 22, no. 45 (1987). In the early 1990s, Lawrence Summers, the vice-president of the World Bank, then secretary of the treasury under the Clinton administration, claimed that “There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the Earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.” (Lawrence Summers, quoted in Alexander Gillespie, The Illusion of Progress: Unsustainable Development in International Law and Policy (London: Earthscan, 2001), chapter 2). At about the same time, in a World Bank internal briefing, Summers expressed the desire that polluting industries should be transferred to less developed countries (Lawrence Summers, Background Briefings, Australian Broadcasting Company).
  • [12]
    Mauro Bonaiuti, La teoria bioeconomica. La “nuova economica” di Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (Rome: Carocci, 2001), 109 and 141. [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [13]
    Yves Cochet, Anti-manuel d’écologie (Montreal: Boréal, 2009), 147.
  • [14]
    Bonaiuti, La teoria bioeconomica, 140. [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.] “A nugget of pure gold,” notes Yves Cochet, “contains more free energy than the same number of gold atoms diluted one by one in sea water.” Anti-manuel d’écologie, 153
  • [15]
    “We cannot produce,” writes Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, “‘better and bigger’ refrigerators, automobiles, or jet planes, without producing also ‘better and bigger’ waste.” Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, “The Entropy Law and the Economic Problem,” in From Bioeconomics to Degrowth, Georgescu-Roegen’s ‘New Economics’ in Eight Essays, ed. Mauro Bonaiuti (New York: Routledge Studies in Ecological Economics, 2011), 54.
  • [16]
    Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, La Décroissance, trans. Jacques Grinevald, and Ivo Tens (Paris: Sang de la terre, 1994), 63. This is why the term “degrowth” has been used in French for the title of his collected essays.
  • [17]
    F. A. Hayek, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, vol. 15, The Market and Other Orders, ed. Bruce Caldwell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 369.
  • [18]
    “George Bush’s Global Warming Speech,” The Guardian, February 14, 2002,
  • [19]
    Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.
  • [20]
    “Sustainable development is best achieved through open, competitive, rightly framed international markets that honor legitimate comparative advantages. Such markets encourage efficiency and innovation, both necessities for sustainable human progress.” “The basic business contribution to sustainable development, one we have worked on for a decade, is ecoefficiency, a term we invented in 1992. The WBCSD defines ecoefficiency as being ‘achieved by the delivery of competitively priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life cycle, to a level at least in line with the Earth’s estimated carrying capacity’”(WBCSD, The Business Case for Sustainable Development (Geneva: WBCSD, n.d.)).
  • [21]
    Wilfred Beckerman, “Economic Growth and the Environment: Whose Growth, Whose Environment?” World Development 20, no. 4. (1992): 482. [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [22]
    While the growth of the GDP is linear, that of pollution follows a bell-shaped curve, with decreased growth occurring above a certain threshold.
  • [23]
    John Bellamy Foster ed., Marx écologiste, trans. Aurélien Blanchard, Joséphine Gross, and Charlotte Nordmann. (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2011), 99. Originally published as Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [24]
    Vance Packard, L’Art du gaspillage, trans. Roland Mehl (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1962), 266. Originally published as The Waste Makers (New York: D. McKay Co., 1960). [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [25]
    Piero Bevilacqua, La terra è finita. Breve storia dell’ambiente (Bari, Italy: Laterza, 2006), 129.
  • [26]
    William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to cradle. Créer et recycler à l’infini, trans. Alexandra Maillard (Paris: Éditions alternatives, 2011). Originally published as Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: New Point Press, 2002).
  • [27]
    Franck Dominque Vivien, Le Développement soutenable (Paris: La Découverte, 2005), 77.
  • [28]
    Jean-Paul Besset quite rightly points out that “the rare ‘victories’ obtained at the front in the battle concerning the crisis facing life have been achieved thanks to the political choices that have been determined, accompanied by ‘coercive’ measures similar to the ban on CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in aerosols and refrigerants or the implementation of mandatory standards in industry to prevent acid rainfall. The deterioration in air quality in European conurbations has only been contained since the European Union fixed norms obliging car manufacturers to comply (Jean-Paul Besset, Comment ne plus être progressiste. .. sans devenir réactionnaire (Paris: Fayard, 2005) 196).
  • [29]
    Marshall Sahlins, Âge de pierre, âge d’abondance. L’économie des sociétés primitives, trans. Tina Jolas (Paris: Gallimard, 1976). Originally published as Stone Age Economics (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1972).
  • [30]
    Ivan Illich, Toward a History of Needs (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 52.
  • [31]
    In terms of the fundamental tenets of any society that has been freed from the obsession with growth, we have suggested formalizing the break by a “virtuous circle” representative of our chosen austerity by eight Rs, namely, Reevaluate, Reconceptualize, Restructure, Reposition, Redistribute, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
  • [32]
    Jean-Marie Harribey, “Répartition ou capitalisation, on ne finance jamais sa propre retraite,” Le Monde, November 3, 1998.
  • [33]
    “But even if the fair division of a cake that is as big as possible is desirable, we should perhaps ask ourselves first of all if it has been poisoned” (Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Quand l’impossible est certain (Paris: Seuil, 2002), 80).
  • [34]
    On this point, see the last chapter of my book (Serge Latouche, Justice sans limites [Paris: Fayard, 2003].).
  • [35]
    Serge Latouche, L’autre Afrique. Entre don et marché (Paris: Albin Michel, 1998).
  • [36]
    With $100, for instance, it is possible to obtain $1,000 from a bank investment allowing for a position in the derivatives (futures) market worth $375,000.
  • [37]
    Frédéric Lordon, “Là-bas si j’y suis: ‘Et si on fermait la Bourse. ..’ avec Frédéric Lordon,” Le Monde diplomatique, March 2010,
  • [38]
    Cited in Bernard Lietaer and Margrit Kennedy, Monnaies régionales. De nouvelles voies vers une prospérité durable (Paris: Éditions Charles-Léopold Mayer, 2008), 204. [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
  • [39]
    André Gorz, Écologie et liberté (Paris: Galilée, 1977), 13.
  • [40]
    Langer, “Perdersi per trovarsi,” 22.

We have entered the Anthropocene era, a term which characterizes the geological era in which humanity interferes with the global geochemical cycles through the voluntary blindness of a minority. What are the effects of this? This article argues that regulating or socializing the economy is insufficient, that getting out of it is necessary. This perspective, which has often been misunderstood, implies an attack on the belief that the economic production of wealth is the only answer to the problems of our times. A series of breakdowns would ensue in both the spheres of production and consumption, which would involve a struggle against the infinite division of labor.

Serge Latouche
Uploaded on on 13/04/2015
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