CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

This article covers ideas that are developed in more detail in Dominique Méda, La mystique de la croissance: Comment s’en libérer (Flammarion, 2013), and in Florence Jany-Catrice and Dominique Méda, Faut-il attendre la croissance? (La Documentation française, 2022).

1 Our societies are founded on growth. This is not unrelated to the ambition of Modernity to “enlarge the bounds of human empire” [1] and to make humans “like masters and possessors of Nature.” [2] In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was this drive to humanize nature that resulted in an unprecedented expansion of production and consumption that has paradoxically made the Earth increasingly inhospitable for humans. If we want to ensure what the philosopher Hans Jonas refers to as “the permanence of genuine human life” [3] on Earth, then we must break definitively, if not with the modern humanist project, then at least with the form it has taken over the last few centuries.

Societies founded on growth

2 Ours are societies founded on growth: for several centuries, increasing production and revenue has been central to our concerns and objectives. The expression of this ambition can be traced back to the economist Adam Smith, who in his famous An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, stated that “it is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.” [4] In France, a few years earlier, legal scholar Georges-Marie Butel-Dumont had argued in his Théorie du luxe that prosperity stemmed from “the capacity of a great state to encourage production beyond the satisfaction of essential needs, and thus ever more intense consumption.” [5]

3 The Western societies in which these theories originated then spread them all over the world. It was in the mid-twentieth century that they were precisely formalized in accounting systems: in 1934, the American economist Simon Kuznets published an initial estimate of US national income in response to the US Senate’s wish to estimate losses due to the Great Depression, and in 1939 the System of National Accounts (SNA) was created in the United States. In France, work was done before and after the Second World War to develop the French SNA, the major aggregate of which is gross domestic product (GDP).

4 The production of GDP per capita was rapidly standardized at the international level, and it quickly became the universal indicator of performance and progress. In Les comptes de la puissance: Histoire de la comptabilité nationale et du plan, François Fourquet describes what motivated the inventors of the French SNA, with one of their key drivers being the pursuit of power. [6] The expression “Trente Glorieuses,” coined by Jean Fourastié for France’s postwar boom in his 1979 book of the same name, clearly illustrates the enthusiastic response to unprecedented growth rates at the time: for Fourastié, “glorious” was the obvious word to describe a thirty-year period in which France leaped from age-old poverty and traditional subsistence living to contemporary standards of living and lifestyles.

5 In the early 2000s, however, an entirely different view began to emerge. In Une autre histoire des Trente Glorieuses, [7] historians revealed the other side of the story, renaming the period as a disastrous “Trente Calamiteuses” characterized by unbridled productivism, major pollution, and more broadly by what is now called the “Great Acceleration.” As the spearhead of the Anthropocene—the new epoch in which humans have become a geological force—the Great Acceleration has resulted in both an exponential increase in growth and in advanced damage to the Earth’s systems and the crossing of planetary boundaries. It is time, therefore, to reconsider growth for growth’s sake. But what should it be replaced with? Numerous ideas have found a place in the public debate, from green growth to degrowth and postgrowth.

The harm done by growth

6 Critiques of growth are nothing new. As early as the 1960s, Bertrand de Jouvenel had already outlined in Arcadie: Essais sur le mieux-vivre[8] most of the critiques that would be put forward two decades later, in terms of both GDP as an indicator and the process of growth. In the 1970s, a whole host of analyses were published questioning the benefits of growth. The 1972 report Limits to Growth highlighted the harm done by growth and argued that if things continued as they were, our societies would collapse. [9] Their report was read around the world, but its diagnosis and recommendations were discredited by economists, notably William Nordhaus, who criticized the authors for not considering price in their thinking. The 1970s was also the decade of Jean Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society, [10] which drew on the work of Thorstein Veblen in its observation that consumption is not solely designed to satisfy needs but is increasingly a means to distinguish and differentiate the self. It is therefore difficult to constrain. The 1973 oil crisis could have been an opportunity to break with our dependence on fossil fuels, but instead merely reinforced it and resulted in critiques of growth falling on deaf ears. It was not until the late 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century that such critiques were voiced again, now on several levels.

7 In the late 1990s, it was in relation to indicators and highlighting the inadequacies of GDP that things began to happen. In 1990, the Human Development Index—which combines GDP per capita with life expectancy and level of education—was proposed by the United Nations Development Programme. In France, in the late 1990s, the question was taken up by the advocates of what some called “new wealth indicators.” In Qu’est-ce que la richesse?, I examined what had led us to equate the wealth of a society with its rate of growth or GDP per capita, [11] and summarized the well-known limitations of this indicator. [12]

8 GDP captures only a slice of reality, and offers an extremely reductive and inaccurate picture of it. It leaves out and assigns no value to numerous activities and realities that are essential to social reproduction, including all those that do not result in products destined for trade or even in products at all, such as “domestic work,” and family, voluntary, civic, political, leisure, and personal development activities. Failing to take their existence into consideration means ignoring the potentially negative effects of an increase in production, which include a decrease in leisure time or time spent with friends and family, in time spent exercising citizenship, or a deterioration in the quality of these activities.

9 By recording products at their exchange value, GDP also assigns a positive value to all products, whether they are useful or useless, in the traditional sense of the word. Neoclassical economics, which remains the basis of national accounting systems, considers a good or service to be useful as soon as it is appropriated by someone. National accounts may thus count as an increase in wealth an increase in goods and services that have questionable or non-existent social utility. GDP is also unaffected by inequalities in participation in production (the same GDP can be produced with a small number of unemployed people or with five million unemployed) or by inequalities in consumption.

10 Finally, and most importantly, national accounts only record positive flows and, unlike business accounts, have no balance sheet on which to offset increases with depreciations, subtractions, and negative values. By depreciations here, I mean the decrease in the reserves of both renewable and non-renewable natural resources; the damage to health caused by production (and due to work or pollution); and the decrease in the quality of air, water, soil, social relations, the climate, the beauty of natural features or landscapes, civility, and the capacity for peace: all of which are priceless and cannot be appropriated by a unit but constitute a common heritage essential to life. Our national accounts do not enable us to track the changes in this natural, social, and health heritage, from which we draw in order to achieve the sum of added value that is represented by GDP.

11 It is because of these numerous limitations that I, along with my colleagues Jean Gadrey and Florence Jany-Catrice, have since been working to develop new wealth indicators that might provide a more accurate picture of the wealth of society and, in particular, of the critical assets that enable it to live: natural resources and social health. Despite all our efforts, and despite the establishment of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission and the unanimous adoption of the New Wealth Indicators Act by France’s National Assembly, we have been unsuccessful in counterbalancing the influence of GDP with new indicators.

12 Yet while (GDP) growth has been partly able to sweep under the carpet the harm done by growth, the latter is becoming increasingly difficult to hide. Other studies are now highlighting the link between growth and pollution, but also and most importantly between growth and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy. The graphs speak for themselves: there is a clear correlation between GDP growth and energy consumption. There is little doubt about this link, which challenges the idea that we might be able to decouple economic growth from the consumption of energy, minerals, and raw materials.

Green growth, degrowth, and postgrowth

13 The principal argument that enables the defenders of growth to continue to believe in it is that brown, dirty growth can be replaced with green, clean growth: that we simply need enough technological innovations to decouple growth from GHG emissions and environmental damage. Unfortunately, a growing body of research shows that green growth is a myth, and that decoupling is at best relative (or absolute in special circumstances). This means that there is no hope of us reducing GHG emissions in sufficient measure to remain within the two-degree limit by relying on technological innovations alone.

14 If green growth is a myth, where do we go from here? More and more people are now advocating degrowth, arguing that production and consumption must decrease in order for us to reduce emissions, energy use, and the extraction of raw materials in turn, and for us to stay within planetary boundaries. The use of this somewhat provocative term is intended to emphasize that we need to be willing to commit to a genuine break with the past. Personally, however, I prefer the term postgrowth, which implies that we need to move away entirely from the idea of growth and the target of increasing GDP in favor of meeting everyone’s needs while respecting planetary boundaries.

15 This requires huge changes to our economy, which is why I use the term green conversion. We need to commit to a true conversion and change our cosmology (reintegrating humans into nature), our paradigm (from a paradigm of conquest and exploitation to one of care), and our indicators (replacing GDP with a carbon footprint and a social health index). But we will also need to anticipate and support the movement of labor that will result from the closure of certain companies in the sectors that consume the most fossil fuels and generate the most GHGs. The impact on employment and on the economy will depend on the agreed investments and on our ability to bring about a just transition.

16 The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report [13] confirms what we already knew: we must break with the unbridled productivism that characterized the Trente Glorieuses and adopt more frugal lifestyles, or (to adopt the term used in the report) reestablish “sufficiency.” If politicians are reluctant to call for frugality, it is no doubt because they fear that a part of the population is not ready to hear it. Let’s not forget George Bush’s 1992 assertion that: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Those on the lowest incomes in particular are unable to see how they could consume less when they do not have the means to live decently now. The response to these doubts and questions is crucial: it consists of a reminder that those who emit the most GHGs today are the wealthiest, whether they are countries or individuals within countries. Frugality or sufficiency policies are not designed to proportionally reduce the consumption of the whole population, but rather to bring the consumption and carbon footprints of the richest closer to those of the most frugal. It is therefore down to the wealthiest—frequent fliers, SUV drivers, those who own multiple homes with all the mod cons, and those who practice conspicuous consumption—to adopt new practices.

17 It is the West that invented the means to vastly increase production and consumption, and it is the West that sent into the atmosphere quantities of CO2 that now directly threaten the world’s poorest countries and their most vulnerable populations. It is therefore down to Western countries, who owe this environmental debt, to do everything they can not only to put a stop to this process but also to help others respond to the disasters that are making the Earth increasingly inhospitable for large parts of humanity.


  • [1]
    Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).
  • [2]
    Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985).
  • [3]
    Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. David Herr and Hans Jonas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  • [4]
    Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 [1776])
  • [5]
    Georges-Marie Butel-Dumont, Théorie du luxe: Traité dans lequel on entreprend d’établir que le luxe est un ressort (Hachette Livre, 2018 [1771]). Translator’s note: Our translation. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
  • [6]
    François Fourquet, Les comptes de la puissance: Histoire de la comptabilité nationale et du plan (Paris: Recherches, 1980).
  • [7]
    Une autre histoire des Trente Glorieuses, eds. Céline Pessis, Sezin Topçu, and Christophe Bonneuil (Paris: La Découverte, 2013).
  • [8]
    Bertrand de Jouvenel, Arcadie: Essais sur le mieux-vivre (Paris : SEDEIS, 1968).
  • [9]
    Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972).
  • [10]
    Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, trans. Chris Turner (London: Sage, 1998 [1970]).
  • [11]
    Growth is the volume of growth in GDP, the sum of market and non-market GDP.
  • [12]
    Dominique Méda, Qu’est-ce que la richesse? (Paris: Aubier, 1999).
  • [13]
    IPPC, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Summary for Policymakers (Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2022), accessed January 11, 2022
Dominique Méda
Professor of sociology and director of the Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire en sciences sociales (Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in the Social Sciences)
Latest publication on cairn or another partner portal
Uploaded on on 16/03/2023
Distribution électronique pour Grand Orient de France © Grand Orient de France. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait