London, our city, has for centuries been at the heart of the UK’s political and economic power. Its reach transcends our own borders; a financial mega-machine at the steering wheel of much of the world’s fortunes, banging the drum for a system where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. London’s diverse cultures, webs of communities, and history of radical politics all face down the city’s complicity as the centre of colonialism, past and present, its housing of a ruthless ruling class, and calls for more, faster, and more.
Despite the fabulous riches of London’s wealthy, despite the insistence that we live at the beating heart of the ‘liberal world’, and despite the promises of progress and a better tomorrow, our city is not serving the majority. Despite the stacks of cash sitting in the safes of penthouses, members of our communities spend their nights on the street. Our neighbours lie in bed at night and can see their breath in their cold and damp bedrooms, wondering whether tomorrow the landlord will hike their rent. Despite all the rhetoric of “sustainable development”, tank-like cars still clog our streets. Our rivers are lifeless and our air is deadly. Despite promises of ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, and ‘fairness’, our system favours some, and marginalises others. Despite the fact that the basic needs of the most vulnerable in our city aren’t met, economic growth continues to funnel more wealth to those at the top, while costing us the Earth. The super-rich and corporate elites in our city - as around the world - have an insatiable appetite for energy and resources which is destroying the ecological systems we all rely on.
What humanity our city does possess is clouded by a smog of advertisements. Our high streets are bursting with companies selling both cheap shirts and diamond watches, all on the backs of exploited labourers around the world. Our “hustle” culture promises us the world, but we end up working longer hours for less pay, forking out more for the bus, coughing up more for food, saving up in vain for a house; but be sure not to complain about that rent hike, remember to tighten your belts, don’t worry about that homeless person, and try not to think about ecological collapse. It’s not so easy to come together to support our communities when our neighbours are served eviction notices, and places to gather as communities are squeezed out by private property.
These intersecting crises are all products of capitalism, colonialism, and a ruling class which pursues endless economic growth. Capitalism locks in ever-expanding inequality, colonialism perpetuates exploitation of the Global South, and economic growth promises to ‘raise all boats’ while quality of life for the majority declines and our natural life support systems are degraded to breaking point. In a system where we would need over three Earths to sustain humanity’s resource use - driven by the world’s wealthiest - the time has come to imagine, explore, and build alternatives.
The degrowth alternative
Degrowth London is a collective of people based in London who are organising to challenge the status quo outlined above and build a just and sustainable alternative future for our city, from the grassroots up. We believe that a good life for all - in London and worldwide - is achievable within planetary boundaries. To achieve this, wealthy societies - like the UK - must reduce the amount of production and consumption they are responsible for, so that they use no more than their fair share of Earth’s natural resources. If such a reduction is made alongside an enhancing of people’s wellbeing, it is known as ‘degrowth’. In other words, degrowth is a call for abundance, prosperity and justice for all the world’s population, within a stable and thriving planetary environment. A system where we meet the needs of everyone whilst producing and consuming less pointless stuff allows us to prioritise pursuing our vision of the good life, like spending time with friends and family, pursuing our hobbies, and building meaningful connections with our communities.
Degrowth London is firmly place-based, yet also part of a broader, international movement of degrowth activists that spans continents. This degrowth movement itself is embedded within a larger, global web of social movements fighting for a just and sustainable future for all the world’s population. We believe that bringing about such a transformation at the global scale requires grounded action in local communities, and so we emphasise solidarity with our counterparts around the world, recognising that together we are stronger. We also recognise the historical and ongoing impacts of our society and economy that stretch far beyond London and the UK’s borders. Degrowth is required across much of the world, but will need to take different forms in different geographical contexts. Here, we present eleven areas of society which are central to our vision for a degrowth transformation in London.
The right to food is fundamental - a right increasingly threatened by a fragile climate. We demand food sovereignty. Food sovereignty allows communities to control the way food is produced, traded and consumed. The UK currently throws away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in a single year – even though 8.4 million people in the UK are in food poverty. A sustainable, locally rooted agriculture seeks to serve the needs of communities and not multinational food corporations. Widespread urban community gardens not only offer food, but also a convivial experience enjoyed in common and educational opportunities to gain agricultural skills and experiences which are often out of reach to those in cities. A sustainable and abundant food system in London requires coordination with our rural neighbours for that which can’t be grown in the city itself, and a fair system of trade for that which can’t be grown in the UK.
Housing must be seen as somewhere to live and a human right, not a cash cow for the already-wealthy to extract huge sums of money from ordinary people struggling to cover all their basic living costs. Control over housing provision must therefore be removedfrom the hands of private capital and operated in the interests of the many. Housing justice demands that everyone has access to safe, affordable, comfortable and sustainable housing. Rent controls, expropriation of landlords, housing co-operatives, and retrofitting old housing stock rather than building new luxury homes are all crucial avenues towards fixing London’s broken housing system.
Degrowth in London would involve expanding hugely the proportion of public and commonly held space in the city, particularly biologically-diverse green spaces which enhance carbon absorption, benefit people’s health, provide areas for wildlife to flourish, and enable food to be grown. Recent decades have seen ever greater amounts of public space transferred into private hands, much of it dedicated to industries and activities whose main goal is to accumulate profits, causing significant ecological destruction around the world whilst doing so. Local governments should provide priority access to land and property for community groups seeking to establish cooperatives or commons, which are organised around enhancing social and environmental wellbeing, whether in relation to housing, food, care work, or other needs. Corporate advertising should be removed from public space, to diminish the pressure on people to keep buying more things we don't need.
Degrowth aims to reorganise the systems of energy production and provision so that everyone can live good and sustainable lives. This means dismantling our current corporate, for-profit energy systems, designed to fuel the expansion of mindless resource extraction and consumption. Instead, energy provision should be decentralised where possible and operated by and for local communities. We must end the reliance on markets and the channelling of public subsidies to private pockets. Crucial to degrowth is collectively reflecting on how much energy and resource consumption is a fair and sufficient share, so that everyone in the world can access enough energy for a good life, without degrading the ecological systems we need to survive. A degrowth energy agenda is therefore one that tackles energy poverty and brings together decarbonisation with decolonisation and environmental justice. Through this reorganisation, a ‘public abundance’ can be achieved.
A municipal degrowth transformation would drastically scale down the amount of space in London dedicated to cars and their associated infrastructure, transforming this into community meeting places, green spaces, and pedestrian and cycle ways. For journeys beyond a short walk or cycle, the horizon must be a municipal transport infrastructure centred around low-carbon and free at the point of delivery public transport. London may be better served by public transport than anywhere else in the UK – an incredibly low bar – but it is still very much a city dominated by cars. Low emission zones are an insufficient solution, merely prompting the rich to swap their Range Rovers for Teslas, which continue to stake an excessive claim on public space and pose a dangerous threat to pedestrians and cyclists. Globally, the ramping up of electric vehicle production - largely for Global North consumers - means an expansion of ‘sacrifice zones’ where the materials required for their manufacture are extracted, largely in the Global South.
Care is a core aspect of degrowth. It not only refers to work in the health and care sector, but also to everyone’s responsibility to care about, for and with others - a responsibility that, today, falls disproportionately on women and other marginalised groups. Care is about compassion, cooperation, trust and reciprocity. While jobs in the care sector must be revalued as central to a flourishing society, degrowth aspires for a world in which care is a fundamental value shaping the way we all live and interact with one another. In recent years, an epidemic of lonliness and isolation in our society has been growing larger and larger. Around 1 in 6 people in the UK have symptoms of depression , disproportionately falling on women, young adults and poor classes. Through centering the value and practices of care in our lives, degrowth seeks to build strong communities in which nobody is left behind.
Everyone should be entitled to fair and meaningful work that has a positive impact on society. We won’t accept being forced to work for greedy corporations for meagre wages. Fairer models of working life and a qualitative shift of the role of work in society is an essential part of any degrowth transformation. Over half of all workers in the UK feel overworked, and 88% have experienced burnout in the past two years. Degrowth stands for economic democracy, seeking to build a future where people manage their own workplaces, set their own wages, and decide what they want their work to achieve. We all have the right to socially useful and ecologically sustainable employment that serves the needs of our communities and not the interests of profit-hungry corporations. We also need work-time reduction, so that we can spend more of our time with our communities, friends and families, taking needed rest, or doing what we enjoy, whether that be gardening, reading or fixing bikes.
Degrowth aims to unleash creativity and create “a world in which many worlds fit”, in the words of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation . We support actions such as giving back colonial pieces from museums to the communities from which they were taken, removing monuments to figures responsible for grave harms and “decolonising the curriculum”, but recognise that these are not enough on their own. We must work towards the much harder objectives of abolishing consumer culture, and colonialism, in all their forms. The consumer culture promoted by capitalism has led to ecologically destructive use of natural resources and has persuaded us “to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about” . Colonialism has destroyed the cultures of others and dictates what is considered desirable, morally good and aesthetically beautiful. Because the UK and London have historically been one of the major centres of colonialism, capitalism and consumerism, it is vital that our culture be massively transformed. The details of such transformation will inevitably be complex and should not be dictated by any one group, but through far-reaching public discussions.
A degrowth transformation would mean a shift towards direct democracy, which refers to forms of governance where citizens hold direct powers to deliberate and make political decisions in relation to their communities, rather than through representatives from political parties. Local citizens’ assemblies should be established in neighbourhoods across the city, and appointed with concrete powers such as how to distribute local budgets over different domains, and vetoes over developments. Over recent decades, transnational corporations and investors have amassed more and more power within London, hoarding assets such as land and property and extracting wealth from the city. This has been facilitated by national governments and borough councils alike - led by both major political parties - who have sold off public assets for short term gain. The increasing grip of the international super rich over London can only be reversed by transferring power to local communities, so they have the ability to shape their own environments and futures.
Degrowth stands for justice across various domains: economic, environmental, social. In the legal sense of the concept, a degrowth transformation in London requires the development of entirely new models of community safety, and dispute resolution, developed with the explicit input and consent of local communities. London’s police force, the Metropolitan Police, is - like others around the world - structurally racist, sexist, and homophobic. It has an ongoing record of violence, particularly against people of colour, women and LGBTQIA+ people, including murder and sexual violence. It is also a vital agent in aggressively carrying out an authoritarian Home Office regime. Members of our communities who have come to the UK to escape conflicts or poverty are dragged from their homes in immigration raids, while people taking to the streets to call for action against climate breakdown, or police brutality, are brutally handled, arrested and even prosecuted. The Met Police has evidenced over decades its unwillingness to change, and so alternatives are urgently needed.
Many of the visions outlined above will require money for the creation of new jobs, infrastructures and public services which improve people’s wellbeing and environmental sustainability. The dominant narrative from politicians of both major parties is that no such money exists without economic growth. This narrative has been used to justify huge slashes to the budgets that local councils use to provide public services. In reality, the notion that the UK government must treat its spending like a household is purely a political choice to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. The reality is that our national government has the ability to create as much money as it needs (and has powers like taxation to reduce any inflationary effects that might cause), to fund things like a green energy transition or create universal public services which are free at the point of use. Building a just and sustainable future for London will require discussions and education which break down the myth that growth is needed to provide a good life for all, and build public pressure for an equitable decentralisation of economic resources and power to local communities.