How could degrowth tackle environmental issues and social inequities?

Successful economies are characterised by growth, so how can “degrowth” in our cities and housing possibly be good for us? Urban academic Anitra Nelson explains.

The “degrowth” movement has recently picked up traction among academics and activists by advocating substantial cuts to production and consumption to address existing environmental issues and social inequities.

After nearly two months launching her new book in 21 cities across Europe, Associate Professor Anitra Nelson is back in Melbourne to explain how degrowth could work in Australia and to launch Housing for Degrowth as part of the 2019 National Sustainable Living Festival.

What exactly is “degrowth” and a degrowth approach to future sustainability?

The degrowth movement critiques market societies, where the dynamic of growth is essential to the way economies operate but results in substantial global environmental destruction, including dangerous levels of carbon emissions and climate change.

In response, degrowth advocates call for reductions in both production and consumption, i.e. diminished energy and material flows through our society. Such reduction is a common aim of all who aspire to planetary sustainability.

The degrowth approach is distinct because we focus on growth as a cultural, economic, political and social imperative of market societies and, therefore, the need for a holistic program to achieve degrowth.

Of course, we seek more efficient and less wasteful forms of production but, most significantly, we emphasise drastically cutting consumption in terms of materials and energy.

At the same time, degrowth incorporates the principles of environmental justice, improving the lives of severely disadvantaged people in the Global North and South, and grassroots participative democracy.

So, what exactly does degrowth look like?

For many of us in first world countries, degrowth means adopting modest “simple” living as individuals and households.

We work part-time, collectively shrinking the formal monetary economy in as much as we reduce our reliance on monetary incomes.

With more spare time we are able to grow more of our own food, take part in building and repairing houses using simple techniques and natural materials that demand little energy to construct and operate.

In these ways we can reduce environmental costs of transport, travel and waste.

We also have more time to regenerate landscapes and ecological systems eroded by a global population that is using planetary resources as if we had 1.7 Earths — in Australia we are effectively relying on more than four Earths at current levels of consumption.

What are the key challenges of housing today?

Perversely, during the 20th century, dwelling sizes grew as household sizes shrank — increasing housing costs and social isolation.

In Australia, and many other parts of the world, housing has become unaffordable, especially in expanding cities.

Australia’s home ownership levels have decreased, and both mortgagors and tenants have to reserve more of their income over a longer period of time to pay for their housing costs than in the past.

Developers have also established dwellings, which typically last 50 years, without sustainability in mind.

In response, in the last decade or two, building regulations for new builds and renovations have incorporated criteria such as insulation, energy efficient appliances and design for environmental sustainability.

We still have — and will continue for decades to have — a large stock of older housing that requires extensive retrofitting for sustainability.

How is degrowth addressing these housing challenges?

Housing for degrowth takes a holistic approach to this multi-headed monster of expensive, unsustainable and anti-social housing.

The book – made up of contributions from 25 international activist-scholars – offers numerous international case studies where people are advancing these types of principles in practice. They include:

  • citizens self-building simply designed, modest and low impact dwellings by reusing local, at-hand materials and benefiting from collective work parties
  • tenants campaigning for refurbishing and expanding social housing rather than demolition, reduced public housing and gentrification
  • squatting or occupying, preserving and enhancing empty, disused, and degraded housing
  • applying alternative collective neighbourhood-based off-grid water, sanitation and energy services
  • “tiny” and small houses and shared, eco-collaborative housing economising on material and energy use
  • grassroots production and distribution of local housing
  • locally ecologically-appropriate and affordable settlements.


How can the degrowth be applied to Australian cities by planners, government and policymakers?

Australia’s fastest growing capital city, Melbourne, is forecast to grow to a population of eight million by 2051. Everyone is tied to the juggernaut of environmentally unsustainable growth.

Home ownership is promoted as security even though mortgage debts burden householders and make them dependent on working for a growth economy.

In the book, we advocate alternative narratives to drive and interconnect agents for housing for degrowth.

Grassroots actors progressing housing for degrowth have found massive barriers in the form of council, state and national government regulations and policies.

The 25 contributors of the book all show the need for enabling mechanisms, instead of disabling hurdles, for degrowth housing activities.

This is the main message we delivered to policy makers, legislators and regulators at a European Union Parliament Postgrowth conference in mid-September 2018. Our recommendations included:

  • revising planning and building application processes to enable simple self-built dwellings and collective land settlements
  • enhancing social housing with sustainable renovations to preserve history and conserve nature
  • enabling alternative, ecologically sustainable, basic household services
  • applying maximum standards (such as space per capita) for homes, land and service use
  • flexibly applying planning conditions along ecological and affordability criteria.

As soon as top down policies meet grassroots efforts, residents will be able to perform and experience housing for degrowth, citizens can engage in satisfying affordable and sustainable housing needs, and households can live with one planet footprints.

Associate Professor Anitra Nelson is an academic and activist at the RMIT Centre for Urban Research. She will be launching her new book Housing for Degrowth at RMIT’s Swanston Academic Building on Thursday 21 February 2019. Register to attend

Story: Chanel Bearder

  • Header image: Author of "Housing for Degrowth" Associate Professor Anitra Nelson from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research. Image by Kristian Piccoli (Piccoli Portraits).