THE ELEPHANT AND THE SNAIL: Imagining Better Political Economies through Degrowth

Hongyi Shen • 2021 Issue


From The Editors:

Economic growth has long been a central priority for mainstream economic policymakers. In the face of intensified inequality and environmental crisis, critiques of the existing growth-driven and capitalistic economic structure have been gaining attention. In THE ELEPHANT AND THE SNAIL, Shen explores the concept of degrowth as a fundamental reimagination of modern, industrial societies. Instead of pursuing an endless increase in material and energy consumption, degrowth seeks to cultivate more sustainable economic practices and transform the consumerist mindset. Shen reflects on the core values of degrowth through examples of decentralized initiatives, inviting us to rethink the basis on which our economic and social relations are defined.


How do we deal with the problems of the world—climate change, widening inequalities, back-bending labor, and psychologically-tormenting work? Amidst many proposed solutions, one snail hopes to change it all. The concept of degrowth is the banner behind which ecological, social and decolonial critics unite to attack the cornerstones of growth-centered political economies. The snail is its symbol. Degrowth pushes for a “planned reduction of energy and resource use,” in order to “bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being” [1]. Like a snail, degrowth strives to be “less and different” [2].

This article invites you to join the degrowth movement in questioning axioms taken for granted in our growth-centric society. While there are no exact models for how degrowth may look, the ensuing discussion hopes to hold up a light to the possibilities and obstacles presented by degrowth.

I. Scope of Degrowth

Unlike the ashes that make their home with hot coals, snails prefer moist earth. Go on: they advance while gluing themselves to it with their entire bodies.” – Francis Ponge

Degrowth has two goals: to reduce the economy’s size so as to bring it into balance with ecological and human flourishing, and fundamentally rethink the bases on which the political economy is built (such as the primacy of financial growth and productivity).

The current growth economy is conceived as an elephant—large, unwieldy and possibly destructive. The snail, on the other hand, is smaller, and a completely different animal. A degrowth political economy is to be “an animal with a smaller metabolism, smaller because it is a very differently organised body” [2]. The snail became the symbol because, for around half a century, degrowth has evaded definition due to wildly different interpretations of degrowth and varying diagnoses of contemporary society. “So the consensus we arrived at,” said Giorgos Kallis in 2017, “was this elephant-snail picture—we captured it graphically… Art lets us explain ourselves a little bit better. Degrowth is a snail, though I am not sure you can quote this in an academic paper” [2].

The elephant and the snail. Adapted from "The vocabulary of degrowth: A roundtable debate" by B. C. Urio, 2017. Ephemera Journal.

The snail captures the degrowth spirit of understanding limits, while privileging balance and well-being:

A snail, after adding a number of widening rings to the delicate structure of its shell, suddenly brings its accustomed building activities to a stop. A single additional ring would increase the size of the shell sixteen times. Instead of contributing to the welfare of the snail, it would burden the creature with such an excess of weight that an increase in its productivity would henceforth be literally outweighed by the task of coping with the difficulties created by enlarging the shell beyond the limits set by its purpose [3].

For degrowth, reducing the economy’s size is not about directly reducing Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Proponents of degrowth recognize that growth is not pursued just to inflate an abstract number, but because the current system needs people to produce and consume more, which requires more materials and energy. People are encouraged to want a better house, a bigger car, or simply a tastier burger, and this increase in material consumption ultimately results in an ever-increasing GDP. Growth is the endless increase of materials and energy running through the economy. Degrowth is to reduce this throughput, after we appreciate our limits to do, want, consume and enjoy things [4]. Of course, one must accept that reducing material and energy throughput will probably lead to slowed GDP growth, or even a decline in GDP itself. In a growth-centered system, where our safety nets are premised on future economic growth for example, one must be prepared to manage that outcome in a safe and just way. This is exactly what degrowth sets out to do [1].

Degrowth hopes to re-center economies away from growth to alignment with the earth’s balance and human well-being. How this is done is by establishing the economy upon a new set of values. The precise values upon which a degrowth economy should be built are still to be decided, but some interesting themes include “conviviality” and “non-capitalist relations,” which will be explored in the final section.

How close is degrowth to reality? As the world sinks into pandemic-driven recessions, some academics suggest the crisis could be an opportunity for resetting and restructuring the economy for degrowth’s benefit [5]. However, given the lack of fundamental overhaul in assumptions about how our political economy works, that seems unlikely. As long as the primacy of businesses, markets, finance and economy maintain their precedence over social aims, the economy is unlikely to move into degrowth scenarios [6]. Observing current trends, even as people may have gotten used to a different, even occasionally slower, pace of life, the collective effort seems to be encouraging the economy back on its feet rather than rethinking the bases we want to build our economy upon. The impetus for degrowth must start from our reflection. Thus, we begin.

II. Degrowth vs. the Free Market

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” – Adam Smith

It is challenging to overhaul current systems for degrowth because growth is supposedly good. The mechanism by which growth leads to ideal outcomes is the free market. Those who believe in the free market typically find a change as drastic as degrowth unnecessary.

The free market, with its theories of supply and demand, is a fairly well-tested mechanism with a rich empirical background. Take a room of students, arbitrarily divide them into buyers and sellers, and run a simple market experiment: each time, the free market almost exactly predicts the final sale prices [7]. Free market principles thus permeate all discussions about the political economy today. The free market mechanism is something acknowledged by degrowth scholars as a significant theoretical challenge, because of its potential resource efficiency [8]. This section takes on this challenge and fleshes out some of its debates.

Ostensibly, the free market is eventually able to move human society to a state of maximum resource efficiency, zero waste, and no profit. The simple outline of the mechanism is as follows: under conditions of perfect competition, as long as there is profit to be made, more firms are drawn to enter the market. This lowers the prices for consumers. Firms that survive must produce more efficiently at lower costs, as any additional cost incurred from a more wasteful production can mean a firms’ bankruptcy due to the competition in prices. As long as there is profit, this cycle repeats to lower prices and drive out inefficient firms. In the long-run, prices are so low that no profit is made and the firms left standing are the most efficient ones.

This benign theoretical result frequently contrasts with real-life outcomes of the free market, where profit and waste are persistent. The reason is that the conditions of perfect competition are so rare that most markets are somewhat oligopolistic or monopolistic, as firms are fundamentally incentivized to turn profit and create non-competitive conditions. Business school gospel, like Porter’s Five Forces, advocates for firms to take advantage of industries with weak competitive forces—such as high barriers to entry, numerous supply chains—to make profit [9]. Thus, despite its promise, the free market almost consistently creates oligopolistic and monopolistic outcomes, making perfect competition a Sisyphean dream.

Furthermore, although the free market claims to generate maximum resource efficiency, there is a leap between economic efficiency—as accounted for in the market—and actual resource efficiency. For example, in hydraulic engineering, economists will claim it “efficient” to let water pipes leak some percentage of the water, if paying for leak fixes is more expensive than the cost of water saved. There is no reason for markets to lead to resource efficiency or zero waste. Markets will lead to as much resource efficiency or waste as it is profitable; if it is profitable to waste or be inefficient, that will be the outcome.

Defenders of the free market try to patch this gap between economic and actual efficiency with the Coase Theorem. They suggest that problems, such as waste and pollution, can be fixed just by accounting for more costs in the market’s pricing mechanism. For instance, firms do not pay for pollution, which is a cost. This cost also does not factor into the sale price, so the harm proliferates at no cost to both buyers and sellers, and thus does not get competed away. Actively introducing these costs for firms, such as through carbon taxation, can make firms directly account for pollution and compete for carbon efficiency as they strive to turn maximum profit. Other Coasean solutions include accounting for air pollution into air-travel costs. For its gross carbon footprint, air-travel should perhaps retail at luxury prices, leading to much fewer participants. Therefore, without resorting to foundational upheavals, free market supporters believe a good accounting of costs in the market is sufficient.

However, there are two practical challenges to applying the Coase Theorem. First, it is unclear how a price can be placed—theoretically and politically—on ecological or ethical values. What is the price of clean air, biodiversity, human dignity, safe working conditions, emotional support, or pure goodness? These are values that degrowth—or anyone—cares about, but they are problematic to account for in the market. Values are at best indirectly incorporated into the market through consumer power, where consumers exert pressure on businesses by preferring and purchasing from ethical brands. But even that is mediated by calculated marketing. Furthermore, consumers are fickle. The same consumers may decide a ski-resort’s utility trumps a pristine nature [4]. When ethical goods are not usually more attractive to consumers than traditional goods, businesses have no incentive to kickstart ethical practices [10]. Secondly, regardless of the accounting of cost, firms will persistently engage in cost shifting. They may spend money lobbying regulators when this is profitable, compared to being regulated. Cost shifting is a pervasive effect of business activity, observed over and over [11].

Some people use the rise of impact investing and corporate social responsibility to vindicate the free market and the effectiveness of consumer power, supporting the ideal of “green growth.” However, whether green growth works is controversial. One reason is that “clean” economic activities usually depend on “dirtier” activities, but in invisible parts of the supply chain [10]. People also criticize green growth as a pretext for unfettered growth under the guise of change [10]. Instead of these mediated, theoretical methods towards a better society, degrowth seeks to incorporate values, ecological or otherwise, from the get go, and center the political economy decisively around them.

The dream for a better political economy that is moral, or good, is not a new one. Adam Smith, before being the father of modern economics and developing the free market theory, was a moral philosopher pursuing exactly that goal, writing the Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. Smith arrived at the free market as his conclusion of the search for a better political economy. He saw the free market as the way for the moral sentiments of human beings to be aggregated, without a top-down central authority. However, given the free market’s flaws, how else can one build a normative political economy—while protecting the embedded freedom in the ideal of a free market? We look to real life and literary hints of degrowth societies.

III. Imagining Degrowth

“... (There is more to be said about snails. First of all their immaculate clamminess. Their sangfroid. Their stretchiness.)” – Francis Ponge

There are no current models of degrowth political economies, but there have been examples in real life and fiction that offer a glimpse. This section aims not to evaluate their environmental or social effects, but to explore the ideas they represent and contribute to the plurality of legitimate perspectives one may have inadvertently denied themselves. For more serious discussions of policies, you are encouraged to read The Case for Degrowth. This ensuing discussion instead explores two abstract ideas embodied in a bicycle kitchen in Sweden and an anarchic society from Ursula K Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. With these examples, you are invited to imagine what degrowth means or looks like to you. For their distance, they might be unexpectedly familiar.


The Malmö Bicycle Kitchen is part of a larger maker space house called STPLN located in the Western Harbour area in Sweden [12]. Bike kitchens, which emerged in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, are DIY bicycle repair studios, with all necessary tools and knowledgeable volunteers, where citizens can borrow tools and space for repairing or even building their own bikes from donated materials [12]. Maia, the manager of STPLN, explains the idea of the whole house:

The house is intended to act as infrastructure for people to develop production, a project or an idea, small or big. […] We want the house to be this infrastructure, the workspace you wish that you had in your garage or the textile printing space that you cannot fit into your living room. […] An open house. [12, emphasis added]

The rules posted at the Bicycle Kitchen, stating: 1. “Hello, hello. Nice that you are here. Do you want to repair, change … build?”, 2. “Here are the tools you need. And here and here and here are used spare parts.” 3. “You are welcome to ask if you need help. And help the one tinkering next to you.” Adapted from "Bike Kitchens – Spaces for convivial tools” by K. Bradley, 2017. Journal of Cleaner Production.

Stepping into this space, one might feel transported into a different world. On an ordinary evening, one hears around five different languages here [12]. Compared to the hubbub of the city, “[t]here is no time pressure. We are all calm.” While the Bike Kitchen in Malmö is situated in an affluent societal context, it was organized so as to cater to underserved communities, socioeconomically or otherwise marginalized societal groups [12]. Middle-aged high-income earners might be underrepresented, but based on on-site observations, people of various ages and backgrounds come to the space [12].

The Bicycle Kitchen embodies the degrowth concept of conviviality—a blend of autonomy and creativity, independent of industrial production. Convivial tools, a popular concept in degrowth scholarship today, are tools that help citizens to reconquer practical knowledge for autonomy and creativity rather than being confined to commercial relations. These tools can be easily used by anybody as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user [13]. The value of conviviality is reflected in the philosophy of Malmö Bicycle Kitchen, “to empower people to see that they can actually fix things themselves and become less dependent on buying products or services” [14].

Conviviality is attractive as a degrowth value for upholding autonomy, in contrast to the machinery of industrial production. Le Guin in 1974 describes the lack of agency in industrial processes perfectly: “He was not working. He was being worked. Centering a society around conviviality means prioritizing user understanding of systems and technologies, and enabling them to influence or make use of it. The bicycle, the sewing machine, and the telephone are examples of convivial tools, as they empower individuals and increase the freedom to transport themselves, produce, and communicate in a fairly autonomous way. A degrowth world based on conviviality will promote such autonomy and creativity in tools and organization.

It should be noted that conviviality is not too far from home. In the pandemic era, many people have begun to bake more bread or sew their own clothes—all instantiations of conviviality. Conviviality naturally takes place when industrial processes and businesses recede, and people take creativity and production into their own hands. Connecting with one’s creations and productivity can be therapeutic. In the words of an interviewee from a mental health study, “Baking gives you confidence” [15]. Integrating conviviality in our lives is also not a recent development. Illich's work on conviviality was an important source of inspiration for the early generation of hardware hackers and PC developers, which allowed individuals to tinker with and customize their computers from the command line [16].

Non-capitalist relations

The Bicycle Kitchen is an interesting example of non-capitalist relations. One aspect is “commoning,” where the community is based on contributions (rather than the notion of equivalent exchange), focused on meeting needs or the desire to work or create together (rather than making profit), conducted as peers (rather than in hierarchical structures), and based on an ethic of sharing and building commons (rather than private property) [17]. This idea is given an interesting life in The Dispossessed by Le Guin in 1974, where she highlights the simple language change in a society organized for commoning:

“Mine!” he said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”
“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle inexorable hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.
“I do not have a handkerchief,” he apologized, wiping his eyes.
“Take mine,” said Atro, and produced a snowy handkerchief from one of his many pockets. Shevek took it, and as he did so an importunate memory wrung his heart. He thought of his daughter Sadik, a little dark-eyed girl, saying, “You can share the handkerchief I use.” [18, emphases added]

Useful to degrowth as a non-capitalist model, Bike Kitchens are surprisingly functional in its self-contained community. To sustain operations, instead of paying fees, users “pay” with their own time and engagement [12]. A non-commercial credo applies to preventing the commodification of repair and maintenance services needed for the bike [12].

The Bike Kitchen is also impressive in its ability to fill one’s life. When Esteban arrived at STPLN, he did not have a residence permit, so he was not allowed to work or have an income. Typifying the human impulse for meaningful activity, he said, “I wanted to do things and work,” but it was impossible to do so as he “couldn't get money for it.” The Bike Kitchen replaced the role a salaried employment would have played in Esteban’s life. Esteban explained:

It was a bit boring at first, but then [when I found the Bicycle Kitchen] it was super fun, it was a new way of working—to give resources and to get from others. […] Everyone has something they can give but they don't always know how and when. [12, emphasis added]

IV. Conclusion

"In the present climate of opinion... its widespread aversion to ‘capitalism,’ ‘profits,’ the ‘soulless corporation’ and so on..." This statement was published in the New York Times 50 years ago [19]. The anxiety with the free market and our current political economy is a surprisingly old and constant one. While this may be comforting, it should also be alarming—how minimally have we changed since then? Should the free market have worked by now? If history has taught us anything, it is that we cannot wait for our problems to disappear on their own. The world needs our intervention. Consider degrowth. Consider the snail. Consider possible alternatives, and even read up on serious degrowth policies that have been proposed. Let us have the courage to imagine something better.



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