Degrowth Is Coming

What libraries can do to contribute to the downscaling debate

August 4, 2017

Edgardo Civallero

Our planet is limited in its ability to supply resources and absorb waste from human activity. Exponential growth within these limitations places us on a collision course with biophysical reality—we will exceed capacity and be unable to sustain our activity.

Generally speaking, human beings have been aware of these boundaries throughout history, if only to protect existing resources. Our lives depended on it—and still do. But societies have come to view themselves as independent of that abstract entity known as “nature” and believe that human beings can handle their environment at their convenience, using and abusing it for their own benefit.

Environmental problems began to be openly addressed in the second half of the 20th century, with Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) considered one of the seminal writings on the issue. Research began to support the idea that societies were degrading, destabilizing, disrupting, and depleting natural systems, and new terms made their way into the mainstream: conservation, preservation, ecology, environmentalism, green economy, and sustainability.

These concepts draw attention to the urgent need to preserve existing resources and reduce waste. But why not address the causes of this socioecological crisis and propose solutions that are more than stopgap responses to mitigate damage?

That’s where degrowth comes in.

What is degrowth?

In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge, 2014), editors Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis define degrowth as an “equitable downscaling of production and consumption” that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions.

Degrowth is an approach that should not be confused with minimalism, the idea of learning to live simpler lives and live with less. Degrowth of industrialized countries involves the downsizing of production and consumption to reduce the use of natural resources and energy. Long-term viability requires reusing, recovering, and recycling as much as possible so that earth’s biophysical systems may continue to support societies and economies.

The degrowth movement has become a trend of thought and practice in the face of survival. Authors and researchers including Kallis and economics professors Serge Latouche and Federico Demaria are among its proponents.

Where do libraries come in?

If libraries wish to collaborate with communities in the fight against climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, natural resource depletion, and the ongoing mass extinction of species, they should actively contribute to the degrowth debate—and they should do so twice over.

First, libraries can degrow themselves. They can reduce energy consumption, revise administrative practices and policies to institutionalize energy downsizing, and choose renewable resources with their purchases of infrastructure and materials. Your library can reduce the monthly acquisition and use of plastics and paper, for instance, or design a plan to save electricity by limiting its use to essential operations.

In addition, libraries can help their communities make the urgent degrowth transition. This means curating information and resources for individuals, businesses, and government leaders. It means creating coworking spaces for collaborative learning and facilitating the necessary debate on the challenges ahead. For example, libraries can distribute annotated bibliographies or share environmental resources on their websites and social networks, as well as within their physical spaces. They can also create outreach programs in schools.

The problems confronting the planet are beyond dispute. Libraries are not impervious to these threats and will end up suffering from their effects as much as the rest of the world. Fortunately, they have the tools and skills to contribute efforts that will aid in the transition toward creating sustainable societies within finite planetary boundaries.