DeGrowth or Décroissance anyone? (not just for Xmas)

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Décroissance, or degrowth, is a story of hope amidst adversity. Just like Xmas.

Born of the adversities of a poisoned and plundered planet, degrowthers say “No! No More! Let’s get out of the Old National Market Hall of Sickly Scarcity and into the New Global Banquet Hall of Happy Abundance…

Yes, contrary to first impressions, Degrowth is not about less, but about less being more, about quality over quantity.

“By de-enclosing social goods and restoring the commons” , argues Jason Nickel, “we can ensure that people are able to access the things that they need to live a good life without having to generate piles of income in order to do so, and without feeding the never-ending growth machine. “Private riches” may shrink, as Lauderdale pointed out, but public wealth will increase. In this sense, degrowth is the very opposite of austerity. While austerity calls for scarcity in order to generate growth, degrowth calls for abundance in order to render growth unnecessary. Degrowth, at its core, is a demand for radical abundance.”  read the whole article here

“Degrowth… explores another direction for society, one where ecological and social justice become possible, along with more meaningful lives.” Write François Schneider and Joanna Pope of Uneven Earth.

“First, degrowth is … a rigorous objection to dominant ideas about how economies and societies function. … (It) challenges the the ideology of … (GDP) growth from a range of different perspectives, from political economy, sociology and happiness studies, to ecofeminism, social ecology and post-development theory. … (GDP-) Growth does not improve our lives. Instead, the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet has led to both vast social inequality and ecological destruction.

Degrowth also rejects claims (for which there is no empirical evidence or theoretical justification) that we would be able continue to pursue infinite … (GDP) growth without accelerating the global ecological crisis .. (and) challenges the pessimistic belief that ecological collapse is inevitable, that all we can do now in response to the global climate crisis (and many other crises) is to close our communities and borders to those in need.

Secondly, degrowth … is not a passive critique, but an active project of hope …  Degrowth is not afraid to envision a utopian future for our world. The degrowth society is just, ecological, sustainable, democratic, participatory, internationalist and localized with rich cultural, ethnic and ecological diversity in each locality, and simultaneously open and global. …

Thirdly, Degrowth offers a set of paths for societal transformation in order to make these utopias possible. … Rather than presenting a silver bullet solution, degrowth proposes a web of change  … (toward) an equitable, planned downscaling of production and consumption, … to shrink some sectors, while simultaneously expanding and transforming others for the better, while the sum is a move to the reduction of material and energy flow and to simpler and more meaningful lives. …

Degrowth … involves a fundamentally non-violent, … collective project in which we empathize with the deep needs of everyone. To this end we need highly democratic processes to give voice to what is not expressed in order to build degrowth narratives: narratives which make us realize that meeting the needs of all is part of the realm of what is possible.”   read the whole unevenearth article here

“How sweet and lovely!” you may say. “But what planet are they from?”

“This planet. That’s the whole point.” Degrowthers might reply.

There is something airily apolitical about DeGrowth at times. But this naivete needs to be put in perspective.

As Benedikt Schmitt  politely reminds us “Scholarship on transformation … is challenged to formulate how change beyond growth-dependent and “capitalist” modes of social organization might unfold. Trapped between the double utopia of the current situation:  While it is clearly an illusion that society can continue , fundamental change beyond capitalism seems equally implausible.”

Perhaps even more poignantly, the naiveties of alternative imagined futures should be compared to those of the present “realistic” status-quo-forever unfolding. Like imagine the existing global GDP economy progressing nicely and greenish along the present trajectory to eradicate poverty at $1.25 a day. Apparently it would take more than 100 years. And at a slightly more real $5 a day level, it would take 207 years.  “Global GDP would have to increase to 175 times its present size, ” writes  Jason Nickel, “…driving global per capita income up to $1.3 million. In other words, the average income would have to be $1.3 million per year simply so that the poorest two-thirds of humanity could earn $5 per day.” This “extremely optimistic scenario” is the best we can expect from the business-as-usual trajectory of the development industry.”

Naive or not, the money media have taken note. DeGrowth showed up on Bloomberg recently. Not a one off, either. There was John Cassidy‘s article in the NewYorker : “Can We Have Prosperity Without Growth?”  ,  Forbes recently declared that “The critique of economic growth, once a fringe position, is gaining widespread attention in the face of the climate crisis” and, perhaps setting it all off, was a an  HBR article by Thomas Roulet and Joel Bothello explaining Why Degrowth Shouldn’t Scare Businesses :

With today’s climate crisis, debates around degrowth have been reinvigorated: many major figures such as Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis and Anthony Giddens have expressed support for the idea. Others, especially business leaders, view degrowth as completely unthinkable, arguing that growth is an economic necessity and any threat to that not only undermines business, but basic societal functioning. The problem is, the degrowth movement has already begun: at a grassroots level, consumer demand is actively being transformed, despite political and corporate reticence. This opens new opportunities for firms, if they act now.”

“Beware the embrace of Capital!” David Harvey might frown, Wolfgang Streeck nodding, “Ja eben”.

“Yes Sir!” degrowthers might reply, “We are aware!”

Read here Why degrowth should scare business.  And as far George Kallis is concerned “… degrowth is an anti-capitalist approach to ecological sustainability”, writes  Stefania Barka  “Its focus is a radical shift in the dominant economic ideology and social imaginary: from growth to redistribution of the surplus, from production to reproduction and care, and from acquisitive to sharing and commoning values. As such, degrowth should be fully embraced by the Left, Kallis argues, abandoning once and for all the productivist and Keynesian credos which the climate crisis has made obsolete.”

Not sure that would convince those who argue that degrowthers fail to appreciate the full implications of a steady-state economy  being “… incompatible with the process of expansion and continual enlargement inherent to capitalism” or allay their suspicion that degrowth ultimately promotes “a vision of social pacification and … the preservation of capitalist power relations.”  (Maria Markantonatou : Growth Critique in the 1970s and Today )

In “The Degrowth Illusion”   Leigh Phillips  goes further : To abandon growth is to declare an end to progress. Socialists must reject the politics of eco-Thatcherism”

Others feel equally strongly that “It is very important for the left to reject Ecomodernism. The extreme technical implausibility of this faith … is also theoretically and strategically wrong-headed.” argues Ted Trainer. “It not only offers no guidance for revolutionary action, it advocates the capital-intensive tech-fixes such as nuclear energy and carbon capture that the corporations would be delighted to have us spend trillions on.”  read the whole article below

I like to think that much of the debate is about “conceptual (male) ego” rather than any fundamental difference? Certainly nothing as fundamental as the shared objection to the status quo.

Andrea Grainger  seems to agree. “Leigh’s article attacks some of the bad forms of the degrowth ideology but misses much of the positive parts of the movement. Rather than presenting degrowth and socialism as rivals, I believe a better approach is to try to synthesise socialist and degrowth ideas, and bring these communities together.”  read the whole article here

In his comprehensive review of the debate : “We-Are-All-Degrowthers_We-Are-All-Ecomodernists” Kevin Carson argues:

“The fighting over emotional imagery associated with the words “growth” and “degrowth” makes it difficult even to distinguish legitimate areas of disagreement from swatting at verbal phantasms. Although there are real areas of substantive disagreement, at least as much of the dispute can be traced to something of a “two cultures” problem.”  And Carson concludes his excellent article: “The actual “debate,” if there is one, comes down more to a rhetorical sleight of hand by which “degrowth” is associated with “Malthusianism,” “austerity,” or outright neoprimitivism than to disagreements in material terms. If there’s disagreement in material terms, it’s over secondary questions like whether degrowth in resource consumption can be decoupled from growth as measured by GDP, whether GDP is even a significant measure of anything but waste and resource consumption, or whether there’s sufficient waste production at present to reduce resource consumption without affecting real standards of living. So we are all agreed, or should be agreed, both that 1) resource extraction should be limited to sustainable levels, and 2) we should pursue both economic rationalization and technological development in order to use the specified level of resource inputs to generate the maximum possible quality of life. In this sense, we are all degrowthers and we are all ecomodernists.”  Read the whole paper here

There is an echo of the “productivist” versus “Malthusian” arguments within the wider degrowth umbrella. Having  reviewed Giorgos Kallis and Kate Raworth , Stefania Barka concludes: “Reading these two books together … gives a clear sense that degrowth and doughnut economics, as well as other radical concepts that they incorporate (environmental justice, Buen Vivir, community economies, and others), are not engaged in a battle of ideas against each other in the same fashion as different currents of Marxism were used to. The point is not to pick the right one, but rather to make use of them as different tools to create a global political strategy for tackling climate change – one that a majority of the world population might identify with and struggle for.”

Indeed, Beth Stratford  suggests in her article that these debates are missing the point altogether: “The question we should ask is: can those who care about economic and environmental justice on either side of this divide — growth optimists and growth sceptics — agree on a basic set of demands that can stop us hurtling toward ecological collapse? I believe that we are closer to a consensus than might immediately seem to be the case. …  Most green growth advocates will admit that GDP is a poor predictor of health, well-being, and other social outcomes. Nevertheless many recoil at the idea of a politics of ‘less’, arguing that it “has little capacity to speak to the needs of the vast majority of workers ravaged by neoliberal austerity”.

I’ve tried to show that the policies necessary to end our dependence on growth speak directly to the needs of those suffering precarity, exhaustion and exploitation under the current system. Ending our dependence on growth is about diffusing the power of rentiers, expanding economic democracy, and establishing entitlements to a basic share of our common wealth. It’s about freeing up time for leisure, caring for one another, arts, education and democratic deliberation. It’s about protecting people from extractivism, just as environmental regulations protect the Earth’s living systems from it.

Of course there will be people on both sides of green growth debate who will reject the possibility of consensus — those, as Gareth Dale puts it, whose positions become supercharged with morality and aesthetics – “on one hand a fetishism of technology and a dogma that ‘growth is good’; on the other, a zeal for frugality”.

But the vast majority should recognise the necessity and possibility of working side by side. Some of us will focus our energies on the case for technological/infrastructural change, some on the need for resource caps and environmental protections, and some on the fight for the economic justice that would end our growth dependence.

Given the scale of the challenge ahead, it is naive to think that any one of these tasks can be neglected. So, let us reach a truce and build a mass movement to take on the real enemies of environmental justice. The stakes are too high to do anything else.”

read the whole article here

I am all for building movements but not so sure about enemies. The enemy is The System. Aren’t individuals as-in-the-system just Charaktermasken? Positionholders. Nothing is more distracting than personal virtue positioning. The idea has to be to prioritise the goals and diversify the pathways.  The System needs to be re-analysed as the geo political economy it actually is, from the perspective of a global anyone. You could say the social sciences are trying. Ecologists have done more. They have succeeded in establishing a whole web of global but granular physical flow parameters and measurements. This could be very relevant to some future egalitarean objectification of value by something other than the market price. Money backed by the ultimate commoditiy of “Planet Earth”, perhaps, divided into 10 billion or so allotments?

But that’s money talk.

Happy as I am with the radical abundance of degrowth, I am missing the money.

As Alf_Hornborg  writes in his article “How to turn an ocean liner”:  “Although soon reduced to a heterodox and marginalized position, the critique of growth has continued to challenge mainstream dogmas of economics and policy for over four decades. Countless debates have raged on what exactly is the problem of sustainability, whether the design of taxes and subsidies, the choice of energy sources, the internal contradictions of capitalism, or even the biological essence of the human species. Considering the centrality of the focus on the economy, it is remarkable how little attention has been paid to the phenomenon of money. Mainstream economists certainly do not question money, but neither do most Marxists or ecological economists. Even Georgescu-Roegen (1971), who is recognized as the origin of both ecological economics and the proposal for degrowth, wrote a 457-page book on the contradiction between economics and thermodynamics without once asking if the cultural convention we know as money might in fact be the elephant in the room.”

The elephant, and how to morph it into a snail perhaps, will have to wait for a future blog on degrowth and money.

Just follow the money or watch Jason Nickel before you go

updated degrowth articles here

more on degrowth has a lot of articlesdegrowth.orgResearch and Degrowth (R&D)  An academic association dedicated to research, training, awareness raising and events organization around degrowth   WEAll is a collaboration of organisations, alliances, movements and individuals working towards a wellbeing economy, delivering human and ecological wellbeing.

see also

Antiglobalization Social MovementsDeGrowthDevelopment StudiesEconomicsEcological EconomicsEcologyEnvironmental SustainabilityFeminismFeminist EconomicsHeterodox EconomicsHistory of CapitalismKeynesian EconomicsMarxismMarxist theoryPolitical EcologyPolitical EconomyPostcolonial StudiesSocial MovementstSocial SciencesSociology