The disintegration of growth is irreversible. Roxana Bobulescu explains.
I was born in Romania in 1972 when the country was a socialist republic. It was the year of the Meadows Report, Limits to growth, the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm and the year the concept of degrowth was proposed in France by André Gorz. Nearly 50 years later I am teaching degrowth at a business school. The journey was not direct.
I received a Marxist education in Bucharest and just as I began classes with a very competent teacher, everything changed. The communist regime in Romania collapsed in December 1989 and completely shook up the lives of millions of citizens and also my bearings.
“Our teacher declared to the class: “You have ten minutes to insult me.” There was an incredulous silence.”
During a lesson after the regime’s fall, our teacher declared to the class: “You have ten minutes to insult me.” There was an incredulous silence. She then announced the new programme: “We will study the Confessions of St Augustine.” She reframed our minds and changed our vocabulary to prepare us for the post-communist era. This made me extremely suspicious of all forms of indoctrination.
Arriving very soon after in France as a student, I discovered heterodox economic thinking at Grenoble University. I was lucky to land not in a neoclassical faculty but to join one offering Marxist economics, Regulation theory, Institutionalism, Development economics and Post-Keynesianism. This pluralist approach paved the way to a shattering encounter by nourishing my interest for eclectic readings.
In 2008, I read a book that changed my vision of the economy forever: Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971). In my training as an economist, I had Environmental Economics courses but I had never heard about degrowth.
The book was a revelation. Before reading it, I did not imagine how the laws of physics could undermine my whole vision of the economy. According to the second law of thermodynamics (the entropy law) all processes increase disorder (generate greater entropy).
Economic processes contribute to the increase in entropy in many ways including global warming and pollution. The only way for humans to escape those consequences of this law is to limit our production – a huge slap in the face to all sophisticated growth-based models.
After completing my doctorate my profile did not appeal to university economics departments. Left with no alternative, I turned to business schools, organisations that many fellows at my left-wing university abhorred as capitalist indoctrinators.
A business school in France recruited me as an associate professor in economics based on my good publications record which would help their ratings. At first I experienced a clash of mentalities. The fierce competition, selfishness and ambition to achieve money and status that characterise business education culture seemed unbearable to me.
“I did not imagine how the laws of physics could undermine my whole vision of the economy.”
At the beginning, I was wondering what was wrong with them. In fact, there was nothing wrong; they had internalised the economic man behaviour – the fully rational, self-interested that all economic textbooks start with. So how could I fit into this business environment where I was expected to deliver mainly micro- and macroeconomic courses?
Luckily there was a certain pluralism in economic teaching in French preparatory classes where many of my students were educated before admission to the business school in which I taught. Some of them were open to different ideas that clashed with their milieu mentality. One such idea was degrowth.
During a coffee break in the faculty lounge, my colleague Claudio and I started to discuss degrowth issues and we decided to offer an elective course that was a compromise between degrowth and the business-oriented culture of the school. We invited activists, philosophers and ecovillage members to speak about their experience to our students. The “slow management course,” as we dubbed it, was a success during its first years, attracting about 25 students to each class. That met the performance requirements to continue offering it. It was however only 3% of the total student population of the school.
At the request of the students, I then introduced a degrowth course and the Education Board of the school accepted it in 2014. I received particular support and interest from an association of students in our school called Impact that promoted sustainability in business. It was involved with local Community-Supported Agriculture and delivered organic food to students and staff.
I had managed to achieve something that I could never imagine at the university, where economics departments offered common, narrow curricula. Topics like degrowth were, at best, left to philosophy or policy departments. The reason for my success seemed to be down to the voice of students counting more and a surprisingly favourable internal culture.
Now the Covid lockdown has moved my classes online, I have invited the students to do introspective work coupled with research on the economic consequences of the pandemic. The interaction online was not as easy as face to face discussion. Many students returned to their families, some in the countryside, far from the campus. As a result, the sharing of opinions was mainly through writing, and the students commented on each-other’s ideas.
“The growth paradigm is an old way to see the future.”
It is too early to take stock of the Covid crisis, but from what I have seen the situation has strengthened the students’ apprehension about the future and their appetite for collapse theories. One student said they lived a “projection crisis” because they worried about future internships and employment after graduation.
Being in the countryside has helped many students to avoid the panic linked to the pandemic in mega-cities. Moving back to land, maybe in an ecovillage, is an option for many of them. As they told me, “If everything is screwed, why not live our own way, as farmers, artists or artisans?” I am afraid their future seems often set by their parents’ desires of achievement and status, or by the heavy burden of student debt asking them to get a well-paid job (see box).
Had I only one takeaway idea to share about my experience, it would be this: try to find your own way. Going back and forth from Marxism to free-market capitalism, I have experienced many twists, which forced me to question my old ways every time. Today, I think the growth paradigm is an old way to see the future. Time has come to question it in depth. And, as far as I am concerned, there is no way back to “normal” economics teaching.