Work and degrowth

Since reaching its 2000th entry, the onwork repository has continued to expand at rapid pace, thanks to Tom’s great work ethic and efficiency.

One of the themes where a number of new references have been entered is that of degrowth.

The degrowth movement is one of the chief critical alternatives to mainstream economic thinking concerned with addressing the unsustainability of current economic organisation.

Economists and political theorists advocating degrowth believe that mainstream economic models are inherently flawed, as they fail to consider economic activity within the overall “metabolic” exchanges between nature and society, which constrain how far the latter can expand. At the heart of the dysfunctions of contemporary economic systems, particularly their damaging impact on the environments that sustain them, is the false assumption that a never-ending increase in production and consumption of commodities is possible and is indeed a necessary condition of modern social systems. The degrowth movement challenges this dogma of growth.

Beyond economic arguments, the movement considers also the social, cultural and political aspects involved in transitioning from the current status quo to a society of zero or even negative growth. Some like Mario Giampetro and Alevgühl Sorman are pessimistic about the possibility of transitioning to a degrowth society in a planned manner. A major proponent of degrowth economics like Giorgos Kallis objects that it is plausible to present degrowth as a political platform that could be embraced by a majority and implemented as a set of policies. This would make it possible to plan changes so that the degrowth trajectory occurs in a way that ensures prosperity for all.

In the debates about “degrowth”, work issues feature centrally and intersect with a number of other areas of work scholarship.

An influential proposal by Peter Victor argues that a reduction in working time and sharing jobs would allow for an increase in productivity that could ensure increase in leisure time, and through this, prosperity for the majority without environmentally-damaging growth. Research on work sharing by Juliet Schor buttress this case. Johannes Bull and Jose Acosta show that a decrease in working time could have positive “rebound effects”, such as the transition from resource-intensive to time-intensive activities and increased social engagement. Sorman and Giampetro on the other hand find that the social-economic shocks triggered environmental crises, as well as other factors of developed economies, such as ageing of the population or the necessity to increase security in geopolitical uncertain times, will in fact demand more work to even hope to maintain current levels of productivity.

B. Unti argues that a job guarantee would sever the link between employment and economic profitability and avoid the “trade-off between ecological and economic prosperity”. In turn, this would allow degrowth policies to avoid mass unemployment. This argument ties in with the arguments by Linda Nierling who draws on Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition to insist on the importance of the decommodification of work in a degrowth economy.

In "Labouring the Earth”, Stefania Barca brings compelling historical and cultural dimensions to the canvassing of alternative conceptions of work in the framework of degrowth. Through analyses of landscapes as “evidence of past human labor”, of workplaces in their relationships with local communities, and of working-class environmental activism, she advocates an “environmental history of work” that demonstrates how the labor/environment dichotomy can change over time. This opens up the possibility of labour-friendly sustainability.


Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), “Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley” (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of Art.