Degrowth: the Radical (Re)Action Needed to Avoid Total Economic and Environmental Collapse

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Courtesy of Otherothers. ImageOtherothers' installation at the 2015 Chicago Biennial looked at the impact of the standard suburban Australian home. Their installation proposed a shrinkage of the typology's spatial impact

Courtesy of Otherothers. ImageOtherothers' installation at the 2015 Chicago Biennial looked at the impact of the standard suburban Australian home. Their installation proposed a shrinkage of the typology's spatial impact

The world faces some significant challenges. The UN climate change report released last month, which explained that we may have just 12 years and need “unprecedented changes” to avoid devastating effects from climate change, was released into a world that seemed to be plenty busy processing other things, such as rising economic inequality, increasingly partisan politics, escalating conflicts, and refugee crises, to name a few.

According to the curators of the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale, our economic and climate-related challenges (and perhaps more challenges besides) are underpinned by a single unifying cause: the expectation for continuous economic growth. With their theme for next year’s Triennale, they highlight the concept of “degrowth,” a growing movement to overturn our economic assumptions and establish a managed contraction of our economies and resource consumption, with the eventual goal that society will become calmer, less focused on productivity, and more focused on quality of life. And, as they see it, the architects of this retooled society could be—well, architects.

One of the Triennale’s four curators, Phineas Harper, tells me that “the previous Oslo Triennale has been accused of being high-minded, and not particularly relevant to the ‘jobbing architect.’ We are trying to find ways to be much more pragmatic—even though we’re coming in with this big, heavy, futuristic theme we want it to touch the everyday lives of normal people, politicians, and architectural practitioners as well.” In this wide-ranging interview, Harper and fellow curator Maria Smith discuss why degrowth will be such an important tool in navigating an almost inevitable economic and environmental collapse, and why architects, in particular, could be the necessary agent of change.


© <a href='https://pixabay.com/en/degrowth-sustainability-growth-594870/'>Pixabay user kamiel79</a>

© <a href='https://pixabay.com/en/degrowth-sustainability-growth-594870/'>Pixabay user kamiel79</a>

Rory Stott: Where did the germ of this idea come from? Why have you been interested in degrowth and what made you think of that as an idea for a Triennale?

Maria Smith: I like the way you put it, as a “germ”—I think the germ first landed in my body through frustration, seeing all the things that architects whinge about all the time: it’s long hours, the pay, how you sort out fee proposals, why don’t we share knowledge between practices better, why don’t we know how to value our own time, why do we do so much work for free. You know, I feel that frustration in running a business. But also, it didn’t feel right just to be whingeing about it. In my RIBA Journal columns, I tried to come at it from a different angle. Then as I was learning about degrowth it really just captured my imagination, and I realized there’s a systemic problem here. All of these little whinges are actually part of something much larger and that’s why you can’t deal with any of these single whinges.

If you start to read more about degrowth and read more about this addiction to increasing GDP no matter the cost to the environment or human well-being, and if you can imagine a world in which that isn’t the number one goal, then all of these little things start to loosen. This is something really important to talk about more generally, but also it’s something that architects could contribute to, because architects are people who tend to be idealistic, especially in the earlier stages of their careers. At university they really care about communities and creating social spaces and all of this stuff, but then they end up on the frontline of capitalism working for property developers, and this duality is perhaps quite fueling a debate about degrowth.

Phineas Harper: It’s really interesting to think about the stuff that attracts people to architecture in the first place—and it’s not the same for everybody—for a lot of people it’s a mix of wanting to make stuff, wanting to make a positive impact on other people’s lives, and… something about a fear of death and wanting to leave a mark on the world [laughs]. But fundamentally it’s something to do with craft and social craft. And yet, that world is just a billion miles away from what actually happens once you’re in practice. You hear all of these architects talking about how their mission is “to deliver a service that adds value” as if that’s how they go around talking about architecture. I’ve never seen an architecture student say “well I really wanted to add value to a developer’s portfolio and that’s why I’m becoming an architect.” There is this bizarre gulf between the stuff that brings us into architecture and the stuff that we do as architects, and that is extremely frustrating for people. I think in a way, to deal with those frustrations they just get used to it, they talk themselves into thinking that actually they really do want to add value, and that is what gets them up in the morning.

MS: You do, you sort of decide you’ve got to “man up,” and tell yourself you were naive in what you understood about business…

PH: …You reassess your values. And so you end up running small, stressful businesses slogging through spreadsheets and emails with snotty solicitors—none of the things that you really set out to do in your life.


Much of the work done by her previous firm, Studio Weave, would fit within the degrowth paradigm, says Maria Smith. Shown here is <a href='https://www.archdaily.com/457272/ecology-of-colour-studio-weave'>Ecology of Colour</a>, a community arts studio, bird-watching hide, and park shelter located in Dartford, UK. Image © Jim Stephenson

Much of the work done by her previous firm, Studio Weave, would fit within the degrowth paradigm, says Maria Smith. Shown here is <a href='https://www.archdaily.com/457272/ecology-of-colour-studio-weave'>Ecology of Colour</a>, a community arts studio, bird-watching hide, and park shelter located in Dartford, UK. Image © Jim Stephenson

RS: Maria, as an architect would you say that there’s any way that you have attempted or even succeeded to incorporate this idea into your own practice so far?

MS: I think most of what Studio Weave did was pretty “degrowth” actually! Very little of that was ever for any ongoing productive use. I’ve always been attracted to projects where it’s not just profit for profit’s sake, although sometimes obviously profit is involved. I’m doing projects now where I’m refurbishing an art deco cinema that’s been derelict for the last 30 years and turning it into a music venue, which is all about creating festivity which is absolutely dépense, it’s about diffusing excess energy rather than using that excess energy and folding it back into the economy. It’s about doing things that just diffuse that energy. I think I’ve always naturally been—and I think most architects are—attracted to those kinds of projects.

PH: Have you encountered this term, dépense? In our lives we spend a certain amount of energy looking after ourselves, which might be finding food, finding shelter; and we have a chunk of our time which is basic social care, raising children or maintaining a relationship. Then there’s this surplus of potential energy, and in a growth economy they would say, well why don’t you use that surplus energy to do something like refurbish your house, decorate and add value to it, or you could take up a new hobby and spend money on something like “hot yoga” class. Dépense is a counter to that narrative which says actually what you should do with your excess energy is waste it—but waste it in ways that are culturally and socially enriching, so if we went on a walk into a forest, that would be a very simple example of dépense because we haven’t grown the economy in any way. We’ve had a nice time…

MS: And the energy is gone, it is no longer productive. It’s not necessarily things you can’t spend money on, it’s that act of wasting—it might be wasting money as well. It’s things you can do outside of the economy. Stopping the endless monetization of everything is also an important topic in degrowth. But I think dépense is really interesting for architecture because when you think about the things that we make together, and things that we make for festivities—from opera houses to places where you can have barn dances—this is all good, wasteful behavior that’s also really communally and spiritually nourishing stuff. It’s good to waste things but it goes against the contemporary grain of what we “should” be doing.


Courtesy of Wikimedia.. ImageThe Oslo Opera

Courtesy of Wikimedia.. ImageThe Oslo Opera

RS: It’s interesting that you put that kind of waste contrary to the idea of constant growth fueling the environmental crisis we have now. So there are things you can waste which are harmless waste and then very harmful waste which is caused distinctly by growth.

MS: The language here is really interesting, that you can have “good waste” and “bad waste” and you can have “good growth” and “bad growth.” It just goes to show how endemic this is in our thinking that growth is always good, that all waste is bad, that those things are diametrically opposed, and that’s just rubbish that our language is built around this. That’s also why it’s so difficult to imagine it differently rather than just get trapped in that rhetoric.

RS: So the idea of degrowth, on a macro scale at least, is still pretty radical in terms of politics. There are no serious politicians, I think, talking about things like this. So what role do you see for architecture in pushing that idea in a world where politics isn’t yet pushing it?

MS: The cynical thing to say is that politicians don’t do anything unless they think that people already want it to be done. Don’t wait for politicians to lead us into a better future. Not necessarily as architects, but just as humans, we should be pushing for what ideas we think are worth exploring in more detail. In terms of what architecture can do, we talked about why architects are probably sympathetic candidates because we live in this weird dichotomy, but we do still shape so much of what the world is like that we are still the custodians of typology. So if we’re going to think about what this world actually looks like, what it actually feels like to be there, how is it organized, how is it masterplanned, all of that, architects are really very well equipped. The politicians, when they do start talking about this, they’re going to want to cite something and say, “it could be like this.”

PH: You’re right, politicians are the wrong people to look to—I don’t think that anything good has ever really happened without the people making it happen and then eventually politicians will fall in line. That’s their job, they follow our impetus.

MS: Yeah, that’s not their failing, that’s their job.

PH: If you look at Norway, where we’re doing all of this, they have obviously got a lot of money from oil, but they now have some quite promising movements in terms of how to move away from the oil economy. For example, they want not just electric cars but they want no growth in car use. That’s part of their transport policy; no growth in this one sector. So there are encouraging signs in the political sphere that I think architects can really help with because it’s quite hard to imagine what no growth in car use might mean for urbanism, especially if you’re not an urban designer.


Courtesy of Otherothers. ImageOtherothers' installation at the 2015 Chicago Biennial looked at the impact of the standard suburban Australian home. Their installation proposed a shrinkage of the typology's spatial impact

Courtesy of Otherothers. ImageOtherothers' installation at the 2015 Chicago Biennial looked at the impact of the standard suburban Australian home. Their installation proposed a shrinkage of the typology's spatial impact

I actually see degrowth as an emergent movement in the sense that there are signs of it everywhere, in daily choices that we make. A key one is the way people are choosing to live with each other—there’s a discernible shift here, after trying after decades of being told that nuclear families are the way to go, people are reaching out for more communal models, sharing spaces, sharing facilities, sharing each others’ lives. I see that as a fundamentally degrowth idea, right? So I think architects have a huge role to play there in helping not politicians but ordinary people to be able to get the degrowth future that they already want for themselves. The way people live is weirdly constrained by these incredibly specific flat layouts that were laid down in law, to an extent. Architects have a role now in helping people to reshape their homes, but they also have a role to play in, say, lobbying the Mayor to get the space standards changed so it’s easier to live communally.

RS: You’re 4 curators all from either Northern Europe or North America—do you think there’s a risk in discussing degrowth and anti-growth ideas, and the way that that’s going to be received globally and particularly in developing countries? Where do you see the role of degrowth for countries that aren’t Norway, aren’t the UK?

MS: Yeah, we’re really aware of that, and our personal provenance. But we are making sure we will be inviting contributors from the global south. There are a lot of people whose first question about degrowth is “yeah, ok, but that’s just for the North right? The North needs to stop growing and the South needs the opportunity to grow in the way that the North has had, then they’ll also be rich.” But that’s actually quite problematic to think that just because the Global North or the West grew in a particular way, and there was a particular trajectory and impetus that let that happen, that doesn’t mean that it was the best way. That doesn’t mean that is the model by which developing countries or the Global South should go forward. We want to make sure that we give voice to and give a platform to people who have those perspectives and to give voice to other options as to how you might develop or change or flourish that aren’t solely based on GDP growth.

PH: It’s an interesting question because I think it is inherently colonial, no offense. I think that the idea of saying that the West got it right for hundreds of years, and now we have an environmental problem that we have to deal with so the West has to stop but the rest of the world has to continue in the Western model is completely disrespectful to the indigenous wisdom of millions and millions of people.


The Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Image © Rory Gardiner

The Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Image © Rory Gardiner

The growth paradigm is a fairly modern, and very violent way of expanding Western economies. Kwame Anthony Appiah writes about how slavery can’t really be separated from economic goals, in that the whole idea of race was constructed in order to justify this enslavement of people in order to grow the economy. So growth is deeply complicit in the North-South power imbalance.

I guess the takeaway is that the idea that the South needs to grow is a Northern con, and that actually we need to learn from the South.

RS: For the architects who might be skeptical or even politically opposed to this idea of degrowth—because there are certainly still a lot of architects who are capitalist-minded—what do you consider your approach to bridging the gap and making this Triennale relevant to them, even if it’s something that initially they are very skeptical about?

PH: One thing is that even the most bullish of capitalists is not blind to some of the ways that growth affects their life. You might love the accumulation of wealth in theory but really wish you could spend more time with your kids and are sick of really long office hours.

I would prefer to be pragmatic and talk about some fundamental truths about how much stuff we’ve got. There is space within this Triennale to critique the statement that we must find a way to degrow, but I’m only really interested in those critiques when they’re coming with a pretty bold alternative such as asteroid mining because otherwise you’re just living in this fantasy where we have resources forever, which we don’t.


In recent years architects have increasingly been involved in proposals to expand human environments (and human resource extraction) into extraterrestrial environments, which Harper and Smith argue is symptomatic of the extreme technological developments needed to continue our growth paradigm. Shown here is TEST LAB, the <a href='https://www.archdaily.com/803985/9-visions-for-lunar-colonies-selected-as-winners-in-moontopia-competition'>winning entry to Eleven Magazine's Moontopia competition</a> from 2017. Image Courtesy of Eleven-Magazine.com

In recent years architects have increasingly been involved in proposals to expand human environments (and human resource extraction) into extraterrestrial environments, which Harper and Smith argue is symptomatic of the extreme technological developments needed to continue our growth paradigm. Shown here is TEST LAB, the <a href='https://www.archdaily.com/803985/9-visions-for-lunar-colonies-selected-as-winners-in-moontopia-competition'>winning entry to Eleven Magazine's Moontopia competition</a> from 2017. Image Courtesy of Eleven-Magazine.com

MS: I mean asteroid mining is a good talking point because it’s illustrative of the scale of innovation that we need if we’re going to avoid degrowth, basically. If you look at the graphs, you look at the correlation between the growth of GDP and the use of fossil fuels, these two things are so interlinked that you can’t argue with that fact at this point. And if you then project the continuing growth of GDP, we need to decouple GDP growth and the use of natural resources. The thing is, this is theoretically possible, this could be done, but the level of scientific and technological innovation and the speed at which that would have to happen in order to enable that is just so unlikely, it’s absolutely preposterously unlikely. We need to be pragmatic and look at other options.

PH: Fundamentally, degrowth is coming sooner or later. The challenge we’re putting to designers is let’s get there by design rather than just by collapsing into it when our current economy falls apart.

Alongside Maria Smith and Phineas Harper, the curatorial team for the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale includes Matthew Dalziel and Cecilie Sachs Olsen.


The curatorial team for the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale. Clockwise from top: Maria Smith, Matthew Dalziel, Cecilie Sachs Olsen, and Phineas Harper. Image Courtesy of Oslo Architecture Triennale

The curatorial team for the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale. Clockwise from top: Maria Smith, Matthew Dalziel, Cecilie Sachs Olsen, and Phineas Harper. Image Courtesy of Oslo Architecture Triennale