The Birth of ‘Décroissance’ and of the Degrowth Tradition

141 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2017

See all articles by Andrew J. Sutter

Andrew J. Sutter

Lyra Pacific Group; Akita International University; Keio University - Faculty of Law; Sutter International Law Office

Date Written: July 28, 2017


The degrowth literature contains several narratives about the “first use” of the term ‘décroissance.’ This literature usually dates the word’s origin to the early or late 1970s. Both the quest to find the “first use” and the narratives around that supposed use are considered here from several perspectives.

First, the history of the word ‘décroissance’ is examined from its earliest roots up to around 1980. Then, after broadly characterizing what constitutes ‘décroissance’ in the sense used by the degrowth movement today (the “Political Denotation”), the paper analyzes the substance of the various published “first use” narratives. It turns out that none of the published narratives is correct, even if limited to the first use of the Political Denotation.

Next, the paper steps back and considers why the question of “first use” has attracted so many narratives at all. It suggests that this is part of an ongoing process of reflexivity within the degrowth movement that is giving rise to an “invented tradition” in the sense of Hobsbawm (1983). It proposes that various elements of an invented tradition, such as the identification of intellectual “precursors”/patriarchs, are already visible in the degrowth literature. The reception of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen as a “father” of degrowth is considered in some detail.

A frequent element in creating such a tradition is the establishment of an orthodoxy by means of a restricted canon. The establishment of such an orthodoxy is not necessarily dependent on an intention to do so. The paper examines the role of such works as the recent degrowth “Vocabulary” edited by D’Alisa et al. (2015a) in establishing a canon de facto by means that include, but are not limited to, a radical under-representation of the Francophone and other degrowth literatures. In this context, the diffusion of the Vocabulary’s “first use” narrative in the degrowth literature serves as an indicator of the work’s potential influence as a canonical reference.

From the totality of these perspectives, the topic of the “first use” of ‘décroissance’ can be seen not as a mere retrospective philological curiosity, but as calling our attention to matters of some significance for future of the degrowth movement and the politics of degrowth. Possible futures to be avoided include (i) the premature establishment of orthodoxy in the degrowth movement, and (ii) the prolonged use of ‘degrowth’ as a political slogan, in the expectation that this term will reverse connotations associated with it for more than a millennium of Western history.

Keywords: Degrowth, Gorz, Georgescu-Roegen, Bioeconomics, Koselleck, Philology, Invented Tradition

JEL Classification: A13, B12, B22, B50, O49, Q57

Suggested Citation

Sutter, Andrew J. and Sutter, Andrew J., The Birth of ‘Décroissance’ and of the Degrowth Tradition (July 28, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Andrew J. Sutter (Contact Author)

Lyra Pacific Group ( email )

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Akita International University ( email )

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