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Degrowth, a natural path to enhance social progress 

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By Caroline Martin

· 7 min read

Degrowth came from the French word “décroissance” which was first formulated in 1972 in a magazine called Nouvel Observateur. More recently, it has been mainly used in debates regarding the damages caused by growth to ecology. However, as indicated in the Digital Encyclopedia of European History, degrowth also dwells on bio-economical, anthropological, democratic, and spiritual issues. 

Today, it is a concept that is simply rejected by a large number of Westerners who see it as a return to the Middle Ages or even the Stone Age.

Could they be confusing growth and progress?

Let us look at the definitions of both words based on the Cambridge Dictionary:

Growth (economics) : an increase in the ability of an economy or business to produce goods and services.

Progress: movement to an improved or more developed state, or to a forward position. 

So what about progress?

As such, technology and science have obviously contributed to progress. For example, when they are both applied to the medical world, one can see all the advances which have been made since the beginning of the twentieth century, from antibiotics to x-ray machines. In doing so they have helped the economy, therefore growth. 

But progress is not just technological or scientific.

What if we look at social progress?

Still with medical prowesses in mind, the creation of national health services for all across most western countries was a massive life improvement for the people living there. Undoubtedly, if only a handful of people had access to medicine, the industry would not be so prosperous, and would not account for more than 10% of GDP in many Western countries. It is also very likely that it would not have evolved as it has, as there would have been fewer funds for research. While the USA doesn’t have a health program for all its citizens, employers are often the ones insuring their staff with medical help that will cover most costs. The system generates a similar result compared to national health services as far as growth is concerned. 

Access to medicine, education, protection at work, minimum wages, the abolition of child labour, the right to vote for men and women, and human rights, are all social progress, some of which are not linked to technological or scientific development at all.  

While technology and science have obviously been improving human lives, as in medicine, what happens when the social costs outweigh the benefits? 

When technology and science stop being part of social progress

Digital technology has grown to become indispensable for most people. It is everywhere, at work, in the street, at home. It has assisted in communication from one place to another anywhere in the world without moving. However today it is destroying our social connexions and we find people increasingly alone, connected by machines, but with no real interaction with each other. The result of this de-socialisation is very visible as more people become depressed and mentally ill. The level of unhappiness is growing and often, the medical solutions are not helping. On the contrary, they can push people even deeper into distress as well as addiction.  

Technology and science are still adding to social progress today, even if some improvements only seem to be there to add to growth. For example, some specialists are starting to question the advantages of something like 5G. 

Could technological progress as social progress have reached its peak?

Or should we actually say that it has lost its way? 

To a certain extent, science also faces the same issues, with the difference that it deals with ethical dilemmas more often than technology. For example, what is the advantage for humanity to have “designer babies”?

The end of social progress?

In the twenty-first century, we have started to see the erosion of social progress in Western nations. National health programs are being dismantled to make way for privately owned services. The later will keep adding to growth but will leave the poorest of the population with very little to no health care at all, as is the case in the USA. Public education is becoming less qualitative. The poorest are being simply abandoned by the governments and pushed further into poverty. 

Could we go so far as to say that today, growth is inhibiting progress?

We can ask ourselves what growth can still provide humanity through technological and scientific progress? Many specialists are actually demanding a slowdown in the continuous development of our latest technological advance AI, including some of the engineers who are working on it. Medical professionals are requesting the limit of access to digital technologies for the youngest, and a decrease in usage for teenagers and adults. New mental and physical problems have appeared because of some of these technologies. In Western nations, people have become far too physically inactive, becoming more susceptible to diseases. 

Seemingly, while Westerners have accumulated more objects to make their lives more comfortable, they are suffering from a great unhappiness. 

If we are not ourselves depressed and taking antidepressants, we all know people who are. They are stressed, they are depressed and they consume an increasing number of drugs for all these problems; burn-outs are increasing as are suicides. It affects workers, young and old, children, teenagers, men, women, pensioners; in short, almost everyone. 

As indicated in an article from Richard Eckersley for the International Journal of Epidemiology, writing about materialism and individualism, “many psychological studies have shown that materialism is associated, not with happiness, but with dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, anger, isolation, and alienation.”

If growth cannot help us advance with social progress, what about degrowth?

Even more, could degrowth be the way to a new social progress? 

A growing number of people have already understood that more possessions do not mean contentment and they are looking elsewhere to find what they couldn’t buy –  happiness. 

YouTube shows many examples of individuals or families who decided to move out of cities; have a small house or build their own and enjoy life close to nature while producing their own food, and buying the strict minimum necessary to survive. One could imagine they cannot be happy, but on the contrary none of them would be prepared to go back to cities and consumerism.

For others, still struggling with the mainstream way of living, medical professionals are starting to look at new ways to treat patients with depression and other mental issues by not using medicine. 

The British NHS is now prescribing gardening and promoting the spending of time in nature to improve its patients’ well-being. New gardening gyms have appeared all over the country. 

While growth can benefit from this type of new service, it is one which will entice people to feel less obliged to participate into the consumerist society and in the long run it is likely to vindicate the people who are saying that degrowth is not synonymous with unhappiness. It could even become part of a new social progress.

Experience of a degrowth advocate

I want to finish this article with my own experience which has led me to promote degrowth not just as a necessary means to stop damaging our planet, but as a way to live a happier, more meaningful life. 

Without the help of medicine, I have eliminated insomnia and reduced my stress levels to nearly zero, by moving back to the countryside. Without knowing what it was, I have chosen degrowth, to live a more fulfilling life in my food garden and the forest around it. 

As I have discovered, gardening leads to relaxation and even meditation, as well as much better food. Sitting in the garden is a calming experience and an antidepressant which has no adverse effects. 

Working in the vegetable plot is very good for the body - a gardening session can burn off more calories than a visit to the gym. 

Producing one’s own food, watching it grow from seed through seedling to plant to a product which one can eat; taking the necessary time to let nature do its work through the seasons is a pleasure no purchasing session will ever beat. 


While mass consumerism is proving to be a failure in providing happiness to people, it is the one thing that seems to sustain growth. If people stop spending, recession looms and risks damaging growth. The idea of happiness is simply forgotten. Nevertheless, it is always mentioned as the holly grail to keep people addicted to purchasing. However, a growing number of consumers are questioning this marketing today based on their level of unhappiness. They feel deceived and are now looking elsewhere to reach their goal. 

It is a question of time before they realise that the dream they are still working towards is likely to become the nightmare they describe while rejecting degrowth. Indeed, it could send them back to a time before social progress was first invented


illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Caroline Martin is a degrowth practitioner who cultivates happiness in the food garden and in nature. A fervent advocate of resilience and quality local food, she writes about her experiences while questioning the current economical and political rhetoric

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