Why Discards, Diverse Economies, and Degrowth? By Josh Lepawsky and Max Liboiron | Society and space

Why Discards, Diverse Economies, and Degrowth?

Since the last economic recession in the mid 2000s, there has been a surge in scholarly conversations around fundamentally changing how economies work and what they value. For example, Figure 1 charts the number of English-language articles using the keyword “degrowth,” one of the most radical positions to the current economic imperative that producing increasing amounts of money and products is the hallmark of healthy economic systems. is not a new idea to suggest that reimagining political economies is crucial to dealing with ecological, social, and economic crises in the 21st (Hawken, 1994; O’Connor, 1994). However, in keeping with our broad claim in this special collection for the Society & Space Open site, there is value in treating waste and pollution as core concerns, rather than as aftereffects, of imagining and enacting new economic politics.

Fig-1-Degrowth – Whole Network

Fig-1-Degrowth – Whole Network

Waste is an economic concept that signifies value or valueless (Gidwani, 2012),and has acute material agency. Our contention is that accounting for and with waste and pollution helps ground-truth new economic imaginaries: how do or will they deal with left overs, excess, externalities, and by-products? How do they manage toxicity that is already permanently on the planet, and how do they avoid creating new toxicants? At the same time, discussions of new systems of value and circulation can vitalize discussions already underway in discard studies around surplus, valuation, reuse, scale, and the social side of technical systems.

Yet to date, such discussions between the fields of discard studies, diverse economies, and degrowth remain inchoate. One simple illustration of this is through citation analysis of published peer review literature. Using Scopus, an online repository of English-language research across disciplines, we created a corpus of over 7,000 peer-reviewed citations in which the words ‘waste(s)’, ‘economic(s)’, ‘econom(y)(ies)’, or ‘degrowth’ appear in their title, abstract, or author-generated keywords. We then generated a network of linked authors and keywords to visualize patterns in how these terms do or do not intersect with one another. Overall, we find that discussions of waste are lacking in literature about degrowth and diverse economies, and that discussions about the economics of waste leave out degrowth (see Figure 2).

Fig-2-Number of Articles

Fig-2-Number of Articles

Our introduction to this special collection for the Society & Space Open site offers a brief introduction to the key terms of this collection, starting with diverse economies. We then offer a synopsis of how these keywords are (or are not) related to one another in the literature and the reasons discards should play a central role in emerging economic imaginaries.

Diverse economies:

Diverse economies is a term developed in the pioneering work of JK Gibson-Graham (e.g., 2006a, 2006b) to destabilize the axiomatic conflation of ‘the economy’ with ‘capitalism’. Their works, and that of many others in a similar vein (see North, 2015 for an excellent review), documents the massive variety of non-capitalist economic relations that exist within capitalism itself as well as outside of it – and even in spite of it. A key lesson of diverse economies research includes that there is far more going on within capitalism than just wage labor in the service of commodity production for exchange; another key lesson is that other ways of organizing economic action that support the flourishing of people and other earthbeings are not only possible, but already exist.


Degrowth is both a critique of productivist economies where producing more is the main goal, whether those economies be capitalist, socialist or otherwise, as well as a desire toward other ways of organizing social life (D’Alisa et al., 2014). The term is the not-quite perfect Anglophone translation of the French décroissance, the Spanish decrecimiento, and the Italian decrescita. It does not refer to a prefigured plan or mode of operationalization. Instead, it is an orientation toward inchoate, but desired pathways to other ways of organizing production, exchange, and consumption (Latouche, 2010). Its broad orientations are toward sufficiency, conviviality, and support of the commons. Degrowth might be thought of as a politics of economic diversity (Gibson-Graham et al., 2013), an attempt to open up a space of ethical negotiation over what counts as needs, what surplus is to be created, and how it is to be distributed and used.

Literature on degrowth is heavily associated with key terms such as ‘economic growth’, ‘voluntary simplicity’, ‘growth’, ‘democracy’, ‘ecological economics’ and ‘crisis’. These and other keywords just outside the top five ranking of our corpus of literature (e.g., ‘green new deal’, ‘well-being’, ‘working hours’) point to degrowth as a field in which political, social and economic realms cavort. However, the literature exhibits notable clustering that stems from the prominent themes, but which carry on as more-or-less independent islands of conversation unlinked to one another, except through the notion of degrowth (see Figure 2). Moreover, neither ‘waste,’ ‘discard,’ nor any of their iterations appear as author-generated keywords in the degrowth literature. The closest we come are ‘externalities’, which may have something to do with waste, discards, or pollution, but do not do so explicitly.

via Why Discards, Diverse Economies, and Degrowth? By Josh Lepawsky and Max Liboiron | Society and space.

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