The first time I heard the term “degrowth,” I felt unsettled and confused. I agree with Mike Degani’s assessment of the term in his recent post. Given the dreadful stakes of ceaseless growth, we should spend a few minutes pausing on the term and consider whether it may be possible to give degrowth a better chance by taking the “de” away and replacing with something more appealing.
I have been randomly asking friends about the term. While those who are familiar with it, like the concept, no one likes the term. If you think about it, some very important terms with “de” have not done well, the one that comes immediately to mind is “defund.” There is almost always something negative in these terms which is of course the very function of “de”—decompose, deform, derail…
One might argue that if choice of better considered terms and more broadly if the use of persuasive language were going to have an impact on ideas about the climate crisis, we would be in a better place by now. We need to think hard about the fact that in the last few decades, it seems as though language has been failing us—failing its crucial function of bringing people closer together, and in bridging ideological divides and positions toward science.
That may be, but I don’t think we can give up on language. It is just not an option. If we did, we would have to stop talking. Instead, let us ask ourselves what do we want the result of using a term to be? We want the term to attract, intrigue, and persuade. We want those who hear it to give it a chance and become interested without the form of the term itself being a distraction or worse a reason for aversion.
A recent review in The Guardian of Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene notes that “The mere mention of the word ‘degrowth’ conjures negative images of wealthy societies plunged into a dark age of shrinking economies and declining living standards.”
I would say that “degrowth” distracts and detracts.
Let us think of a few alternatives. I have not found one that is short and pithy and all around adequate. The first one that comes to mind is “post-growth” that is used by some authors. This term does not address the problems with degrowth except that it has gotten rid of “de.” It is equally confusing and not necessarily any more intriguing or attractive. In my field of Islamic Studies, it became fashionable for a while to talk about “post-Islamism.” No one ever quite understood what it meant and at the moment, it seems to have lost its appeal.
We want a term that is not being asked to do the job of explaining an entire school of thought just by uttering it. There should be room to follow up and a desire to know more — “What do you mean by…” — after hearing the term. Perhaps this is more likely with a term that confuses less and appeals more. Here are a few suggestions: slow growth; green growth; sound growth, mindful growth; wise growth, refined growth.