Degrowth is usually translated into German as “Postwachstum” (post growth) or “Wachstumsrücknahme” (reversing growth), but it can also be translated as “ausgewachsen” (grown up). This captures two aspects: on the one hand the end of growth and on the other hand the entry into a stage of maturity, namely adulthood. Adults are expected to show increased maturity and responsibility for themselves and others.
While the “modern” understanding of history as permanent human progress is rightly criticized in many respects, the central concept of the enlightenment, namely maturity, remains both a point of orientation and challenge for democracies. In this sense, the process of growing up is not only considered for individuals but also for societies, in so far as the enlightenment embodies courageous steps from nonage to maturity in all of human history.
The anglo-saxon usage of the adjective “adult” relates to a grown-up person; in the German language “adult” is mainly used as a biological term for maturity. At the end of quantitative growth, the term in its neuterform “Adultum” could accentuate the emancipatory skills and knowledge of adulthood in social terms as a name for the coming age.
As a term rooted in the tradition of the enlightenment it would, as a name for an era, not compete with the “grand narratives” of modernity but become politically meaningful as a critical narrative of the post-growth society. Analogous to the individual coming of age, this would not only relate to the end of quantitative growth and the beginning of a change in values. It would just as much relate to the current global environmental and economic crises that require us to seriously take on responsibility for lifestyles and policy choices.
End of growth
A comparison between the growing-up of an individual (ontogeny) and social growth processes (phylogenesis) is problematic because of the risk of philosophical determinism. Viewed analogously, however, it is interesting to point out the similarities between the end of physical growth and the increasingly apparent social and ecological limits to growth. But also the comparable expectations towards the growing maturity of character after adolescence on one hand, and the growing understanding of the necessity for a qualitative change instead of economic growth on the other hand, make the term “Adultum” appear plausible to describe such a move into a mature, adult age of society.
Because the prevailing production-methods and lifestyles of industrialized societies overburden the ecological capacity of the earth, the transition from quantitative to qualitative growth in terms of social relations, values and well-being is widely demanded. In the opinion of Meinhard Miegel, the organism that grew steadily for many years, has now left this phase behind and has entered the phase of maturation, of modification and development.
Attac, an international movement working towards social, environmental and democratic alternatives in the globalisation process, describe that on a finite planet unlimited growth is coming to an end, and that the choice is merely between an end with catastrophic consequences or conscious political choices.
Belief in progress and theories of development in stages
Modern thinking is characterized by an optimistic view of progress and innovation, which relates to the progress of technology and science during certain stages in the development of mankind. Hegel, for example, defines history as progress in the consciousness of freedom, in a dialectical process, and distinguished three stages of development, which follow one another similar to the periods in a person’s life. Similar theories of development in stages were developed in different contexts and usually culminate in a state of “maturity”. Walt Rostow for example postulates that the “drive towards maturity” comes before the highest stage of economic growth, the “age of high mass consumption”.
While these social theories were increasingly criticised because of their determinism, theories discussing individual stages of development largely remained important. These include, for example, the stage models of psychosocial development by Erik Erikson, of cognitive development by Jean Piaget and of moral development by Lawrence Kohlberg. But even here the value of progress to the next stage became increasingly relativized in favour of the intrinsic value of the respective stage, and the limitations as an anthropological constituent were recognised.
Grown up people are mainly characterized by their ability to deal with experiences of weakness and failure intstead of remaining fixated on scenarios of progress or quantitative growth models.
The grand narrative of limitless progress that can be regarded as the defining characteristic of modernity, implies a belief in instrumental rationality and science. This “adolescent” thinking in terms of absolutes was questioned by the dialectic of enlightenment and disavowed not least by the horrors of the 20th century. Nevertheless, modernity was also strongly influenced by the courage to embrace the maturity of the enlightenment and, according to Jürgen Habermas, by subjectivity, individualism, the right to criticize, autonomy of action and idealistic philosophy.
This was not enough appreciated by the postmodern criticism, which put the possibilities of diversity against “progressive certainties”. Therefore, other terms such as “second modernity” or “reflexive modernity” were brought into play by Ulrich Beck. These not only express a break with the categorical framework of industrial society, the digital revolution and the irreversible globality, but also demonstrate that the characteristics of modernity have by now taken on a more radical form that generates large risks.
In the opinion of Hartmut Rosa, the project of modernity is coming to an end because of its compulsion for growth and acceleration. And yet, although it remained unclear to him who could be the political players of necessary policies of deceleration, he opposes any sociology that only argues in a deterministic, pessimistic or demoralizing manner.
A narrative for adults
In the opinion of Bodo von Borries, the insight that history means a mental construct in narrative structures and limitations of perspective, has not yet prevailed in everyday life. Just as past events, linked into a coherent narrative, are inevitably constructed and vary depending on the point of view and approach, the assessment of the present and the expectations for the future are also narratively structured and limited in their perspective. In the crisis of the old continent not only a new “European narrative” is required which integrates the national histories into a Pan-European narrative, but also narratives that take view of global factors.
In the face of the challenges of the 21st century, stories of hope are just as necessary as in-depth analyzes. Harald Welzer for example encourages to tell stories about successful projects against the mindless reality. In his opinion, those stories about real experiments of a different reality are more illustrative and may evoke more motivation to change than 42 books on climate change.
The latest report to the Club of Rome, “A global forecast for the next forty years” describes a threatening future scenario. According to this report the struggle for redistribution will increase. Further optimisations will take place but this will mainly benefit our generation and our children. It is predicted that already our grandchildren will have a harder time because growth is not stopped in time; for future generations disasters are predictable. Even though the report makes suggestions as to how the individual should respond to the emerging developments, it is for several reasons criticised as too pessimistic. For example, the current changes in values from a purely economic to a more sustainable thinking are referred to in the report. but not included in the calculations of the models.
Post growth and democracy
At the Degrowth Conferences in Leipzig and Budapest the need for a fundamental change in values was underpinned not only theoretically, but also through the presentation of successful experiments. In a large number of lectures and workshops, projects presented themselves and answered critical questions, for example initiatives like urban gardening, food cooperatives, car sharing, regional currencies, transition towns, unconditional basic income, sharing services, repair workshops. All these projects have in common their commitment to the good life along with the reduction of a resource hungry lifestyle, and their commitment to an economy of sharing and in particular to the re-appropriation of the commons.
The critics of growth primarily focus on the affluent countries of the global North, because their lifestyle exploits natural resources in unsustainable excess and is largely at the expense of people in poorer countries. As a representative of the so-called developing world, Alberto Acosta demanded a structural change in the global economy based on decentralization and redistribution of wealth and power which is supported by solidarity, reciprocity and democracy.
Jakob von Uexküll predicts that the global culture of consumption will be replaced by a common civic culture; not because anyone will prescribe it, but because there is no alternative except chaos, wars and the collapse of our societies. Such a culture, argues Oliver Marchart, would have to reflect the heterogeneity of its own identity and ask questions such as: “What kind of ‘we’ do we constitute? For whom do we speak? Who is in, who is missing? Who was forgotten? Who wasexcluded? Who wants, perhaps, for any reason, no longer be part of it? “
Claudia von Braunmühl is convinced that the way towards a post-growth society must be supported by extensive deliberation and participation. The citizen protests and civil society participation of recent times can therefore be seen in close connection to the degrowth movement and as a way out of its niche existence. Already, the political culture in Germany has changed and has become more participatory. According to a nationwide representative survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation more than three-quarters (76%) of people in Germany see a general right to active participation and inclusive discussion before their elected representatives make decisions as very important. More than two thirds (69%) would like citizens to directly decide on major issues.
For the historian Paul Nolte the participatory democracy of protests and movements is the historically probably most important innovation in the history of democracy of the past half century.
The narrative intended with the term “Adultum” as a description of an era can be described as “adult idealism” in so far as that it does not blank out the current crisis and the threats to the future, but faces these challenges. Instead of lapsing into alarmism or resignation, this “adult narrative” encourages us to participate in a civil society which pushes democratically for more sustainable and socially just conditions and supports and advocates for projects that enable a more humane life in dignity for all around the world while ensuring that this remains possible also for future generations.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josef Senft lives in Bonn, Germany. He worked as a lecturer in Religious Education and Christian Social Ethics at the University of Cologne. He can be contacted via email at Jo.Senft@mailbox.org.