Social Innovations for Economic Degrowth

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This post originally appeared on Solutions Online.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a
peculiar situation: although hardly anyone would deny the deep
ecological crisis facing humankind, we seem to be caught in a net of
assumptions that impede a practical solution. Having acknowledged that
we need to reduce consumption of energy and materials drastically,1,2
we still often think that adjustments within the current system of
production and consumption will accomplish this formidable task.

At the same time, it is widely recognized that the results of the
dominant approaches to solving the ecological crisis are far from
satisfying. Thus, a growing community of scientists and social
activists, sharing the basic insight that a reduction of energy and
material use implies a reduction of gross domestic product (GDP), is
gathering under the heading of sustainable degrowth.3 Degrowth obviously entails a fundamental transformation of economic structures. But what precisely are the necessary steps?

A Paradigmatic Shift: Radical Social Innovations from the Bottom Up

In contrast to the illusion that we can do more of the same–that is,
new market or state solutions to alleviate a crisis caused by market and
state solutions–it is more reasonable to start looking for a new way
around this stalemate. Such paths are being explored in solidarity
economics and the commons, both discussed below. These allow a shift in
the trajectory of our economy from endless growth to degrowth–the
voluntary reduction of energy and material use while increasing leisure
and well-being.

Yet how can the paradigm of a good life for all replace the growth
paradigm? What we clearly need is a great social transformation. And, in
fact, we can already find social innovations that might function as the
basic units of this transformation. They start from the bottom and
flourish in protected spaces where shared perspectives are developed,
experiments and learning take place, and links to wider power networks
are forged. Two outstanding examples are the solidarity economy in
Brazil and the global information commons.

The Solidarity Economy

The solidarity economy appeared in Brazil in the late 1990s as the
country was hit by an economic crisis caused by the liberalization of
capital markets.4,5 In the ensuing recession, many
enterprises went bankrupt and poverty increased. Unemployment rose,
while the prospects for reentering the formal economic sector shrank for
a broad portion of society.

In this deplorable situation, a small group of socially concerned
academics acted as change agents. They were engaged in a national
campaign against hunger and had teaching positions at the National
School for Public Health. This allowed them to support poor people’s
cooperatives by creating solidarity economy incubators where
cooperatives could learn to organize their workflow based on relations
of equality and reciprocal support. Cooperatives were also supported in
resolving the technical challenges they encountered. A considerable part
of the learning process in the solidarity economy took place within
incubators, in which experiences with cooperative success were assessed,
shared, and further developed.

In addition, social networking between trade unions, universities,
and cooperative associations strengthened the power links between this
niche and the wider society and state. Finally, the solidarity economy
even managed to establish a state secretariat that was instituted within
the Ministry of Labor. The state secretariat further supported the
cooperatives by starting a national mapping project to assess the state
of solidarity economics in Brazil and allow for the specific allocation
of resources and legal reforms.

In the case of the solidarity economy, we see a radical social
innovation in the making. Wage labor is replaced by self-management,
which is the solidarity economy’s core innovation–and not a small one.
Indeed, cooperative self-management is a precondition for ecologically
responsible production. There are two reasons for this: First, it is
only through self-management that production can become oriented toward
concrete needs (which are limited and can be satisfied), instead of
shareholder value and profit (which are unlimited, can never be fully
satisfied, and thus entail growing consumption of energy and materials).
Second, equal cooperation within an enterprise is a starting point for
cooperation with other stakeholders and society at large, further
reducing the competitive compulsion to grow. For instance, a recent
study found that members of cooperative enterprises are more socially
and democratically oriented than the average worker. According to the
authors of this study, this trend is not the result of selectively
employing people who are already socially oriented, but is rather the
effect of egalitarian labor relations on individual workers.6

Thus, it is no surprise that in Brazil solidarity economy units often
cooperate as networks by, for example, collectively marketing what has
been produced independently. Solidarity economy chains that directly
link different producers that depend on each other have been developed
in some cases. The most prominent example is the textile cooperative Justa Trama.7
There, monetary income that is earned at the end of the chain is shared
by all members who contributed to the production process according to
their needs and living conditions. Because a solidarity economy is not
primarily geared toward profits and often replaces monetary relations
with direct cooperation, it does not promote growth but acts as an
increasingly important safety net for people excluded from the
capitalist sector.

Information Commons

Within enterprises of the solidarity economy, workers share
machinery, buildings, raw materials, and products equally. Means of
production, then, are commons. One might argue that, worldwide, commons
are rare; they are, indeed, subordinated to market economics in most
cases. However, on the level of information, they are already an
important part of our daily lives. The best-known example of an
information commons might be the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Founded in 2001, Wikipedia has become not just a reliable but also the
most important source of encyclopedic information in the world. It
currently contains 21 million articles read by about 365 million users
in 285 different languages.8 Unlike traditional
encyclopedias, Wikipedia neither involves wage labor nor is organized by
the state. Instead, a global community of voluntary, self-organized
writers collectively creates Wikipedia. Its use is not restricted by the
market or the state, but is open to anyone with a computer and Internet
access. In this sense, Wikipedia is a perfect example of a radical
social innovation that overcomes the basic structures of
capitalism–markets, wage labor, and state intervention–and does not rely
on material growth.

Wikipedia is only one example of a much larger group of goods in the
information technology sphere that share a common feature: they are not
produced on the basis of wage labor or with the primary aim of deriving
profits from their sale, but on the basis of collectively organized,
voluntary work. As a result, they create products that anyone can access
for free without the constraints of the market. Most prominently, these
include software products such as Firefox, Linux, and MeeGo, which have
increasingly become serious rivals to commercial counterparts like
Microsoft Internet Explorer. Beyond software, examples of information
commons include projects such as Ronen Kadushin (,
with its open furniture designs; the Open Architecture Network
(; Arduino (, with its open
electronic hardware designs; and many more. The One Laptop per Child
Initiative ( also uses an open design.

Intellectual property law provides the legal possibility of
protecting the information commons from commodification through
“copyleft” licenses, the most widely used of which are the GNU General
Public License for free software and diverse Creative Commons licenses
for other information commons. Products that are distributed under one
of these licenses are explicitly free for use, copying, and
distribution, sometimes under certain conditions, such as noncommercial
use and distribution. These patents therefore try to prevent what James
Boyle called “enclosing the commons of the mind.”9 The
development of copyleft licenses is just one example of the complex
learning processes that took place within the open-source movement.

The success of information commons, like Wikipedia and others,
indicates that, although money remains a necessity for survival in
modern societies, it is not necessarily money that motivates people to
create; rather, they can also be motivated by the enjoyment of creation
itself, in connection with confidence in reciprocity. When someone
decides to write or improve an article on Wikipedia, this person relies
on compensation through thousands of complementary and additional
improvements made by others at the same time. Wikipedia also shows that
there is no need for central management–rather, a useful product can
result from collectively organized work.

It is only one further step–and that step is not nearly so great as
one might imagine–to expand the principle of commons into the realm of
material technology and production, as already described in the section
about solidarity economies. Recent, open-source software products
include 3-D printers, such as RepRap (, Fab@Home
(, and MakerBot (, which are able to produce
small plastic objects of any form, bringing the factory to the consumer.
The 3-D printer RepRap is even able to produce some of its own
components, making it a self-replicating machine. It is certainly
questionable whether each person should be provided with his or her own
small factory. Nonetheless, these are astonishing examples that show how
a completely different mode of production that bypasses wage labor and
markets is potentially within reach.

Such an economy without money would not be compelled to grow but could do what an economy in the Greek sense of oikonomia was originally meant to do: efficiently satisfy human needs for food, shelter, and cultural development.

How to Get to a Great Transformation

Diffusion of innovations starts when the dominant system comes into
crisis. A crisis is an opportunity for a better future, a truth evident
in the recent spread of solidarity economics and commons worldwide.
Another reason for the acceleration of the debate on the commons is the
late Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work on models of organizing
resource use beyond state intervention and market economics.

Cooperation is not restricted to the local, as information commons
best illustrate. The Mondragon corporation in the Basque country, which
employs more than 85,000 members and comprises 256 companies and bodies,
of which approximately half are cooperatives, is another good example.
These companies are not coordinated by monetary relations or state
regulations but–within clear limitations–by democratic governance.10
Another example is the kibbutzim of the 1960s, which were characterized
by complex cooperation both internally and externally within the
overarching institutional network of kibbutz settlements.11

Such cooperative networks act like super-commons, linking different
systems and smaller communities through collaborative decision making
procedures. Insofar as those networks replace monetary relations with a
direct focus on concrete human needs, they are not oriented toward
profit making and thus enable degrowth. In market economies, livelihoods
are bound to wage labor, which depends on profits and growth; in
solidarity economies and the commons, production is determined by need
only and can be voluntarily reduced. Social safety could be guaranteed
by distributing products equally and by developing public
infrastructures, from communal gardening and free sports facilities run
by neighborhoods to open libraries. If production harms the environment,
reducing it will contribute to society’s overall well being, instead of
exacerbating the social crisis of the growth economy.

An economy that is able to degrow can also enter a steady state of
constant production and consumption with low-level, highly efficient
resource use. This could fulfill the very goal that the capitalist
economy increasingly fails to serve: a good life for all.


  1. Haberl, H, Fischer-Kowalski, M, Krausmann, F, Martinez-Alier, J
    & Winiwarter, V. A socio-metabolic transition towards
    sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation. Sustainable Development 19, 1-14 (2011).
  2. Gordon, RB, Bertram, M & Graedel, TE. Metal stocks and sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 1209-1214 (2006).
  3. Martínez-Alier, J, Pascual, U, Vivien, F-D & Zaccai, E.
    Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future
    prospects of an emergent paradigm. Ecological Economics 69, 1741-1747 (2010).
  4. Singer, P in Universities and Rio+10: Paths for Sustainability and Interdisciplinary Challenge
    (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst & Gesamthochschule Kassel,
    eds) 73-84 (Kassel University Press, Reihe Entwicklungsperspektiven,
  5. de Faria, MS & Cunha, GC. Self-management and solidarity economy: The challenges for worker-recovered companies in Brasil. Journal für Entwicklungspolitik 3, 22-42 (2009).
  6. Weber, WG, Unterrainer, C & Schmid, BE. The influence of
    organizational democracy on employees’ socio-moral climate and prosocial
    behavioral orientations. Journal of Organizational Behavior 30, 1127-1149 (2009).
  7. Justa Trama [online].
  8. Wikipedia [online].
  9. Boyle, J. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008).
  10. Mondragon [online].
  11. Dar, Y. Communality, rationalization and distributive justice: Changing evaluation of work in the Israeli kibbutz. International Sociology 17, 91-111 (2002).

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