Putting a pig on the tracks

A pig eating an old car, from the film Black Cat White Cat
A pig eating an old car, from the film Black Cat White Cat

La versión castellano está disponible aquí.

by Giorgos Kallis

Sustainable development and its more recent reincarnation, green growth, promise the impossible goal of perpetuating economic growth without harming the environment. Degrowthers argue that economic change is not about implementing better or greener development. It is about imagining and enacting alternative visions to modern growth-based development.

Degrowth unsettles the commonsensical gaze which sees growth as good. To quote Ursula Le Guin, the intention is to “put a pig on the tracks of a one-way future consisting only of growth.” Or, in other words, degrowth is a “missile concept” to open up a debate silenced by the “sustainable development” consensus.

Here I will respond to five common  critiques of Degrowth, which I hope can clarify and advance the case for the concept . For a detailed explanation of Degrowth, you can read our book here or a set of policy proposals derived from our book here.

1. Degrowth is subversive 

The first critique is that degrowth signifies a limited and negative viewpoint;  a nightmare, rather than a dream. This depends on the eyes of the beholder. For the 3,500 participants in the latest degrowth conference, growth is a living nightmare and degrowth, the dream. Growth has more social costs than benefits, as Herman Daly has documented. It brings us closer to climate disaster, as Kevin Anderson and Naomi Klein show. Then why do we still have to protect it as a positive vision?

For two reasons. The first is that degrowth scares many people who still think that growth is good. The second is that degrowth will be impossible to implement in a system that is against it. Well, if our role as scientists and educators were to please the public opinion and cater to the powers that be, then the earth would still be flat. Degrowth, as Serge Latouche puts it, is an atheist claim against the god of Growth. Growth has substituted for religion in modern societies, providing meaning to all collective endeavours. Degrowth is intentionally subversive; it inverts what is seen as good and what as bad. “Degrowth” initially may not sound nice in this or that language. The point is to make it sound nice. If I judge by a recent article in The Guardian, which argues that degrowth is a “cute word,” then we are succeeding.

Degrowth is not an ultimate objective. “Sharing,” “commons,” or “conviviality” are positive visions used by the degrowth community. Yet if these futures are to come, they will come with a dramatic reduction of material and energy throughput and a radically “simpler way” of living. The fixation with Growth is the main obstacle to a Great Transition. Overcoming the fear of degrowth, and turning the grief of living with less into joy, is a first step.

chalk degrowth

2. Fewer of the bad things + more of the good ones = Degrowth

The second criticism is that it is not growth per se that is bad, but the current un-economic growth. Care, renewables, and organically-grown food will need to grow in a Great Transition; we need “fewer of the ‘bad’ things…and more of the ‘good’ things,” as one commentator has argued. Who would disagree? Problems start when what we think is good, others think is bad. Liberalism, embodied in consensual notions such as “sustainability,” professes an apolitical neutrality to competing interests. Degrowth, instead, is a partisan claim: these things that typically count as “Growth” (highways, bridges, armies, dams) are bad for “us” degrowthers. Things that are considered anachronisms in the arrow of progress—communal institutions, fresh local food, small cooperatives, or windmills—are good. Perhaps degrowth is an imperfect term for signaling this. Still, it is better than neutral terms like “sustainability,” or “transition”.
Another problem with “the good things argument” is that it is couched in growth terms. 2% annual growth doubles a “thing” every 35 years. If Egypt started with one cubic metre of possessions and grew them by 4.5% per year, by the end of its 3,000-year civilization, it would need 2.5 billion solar systems to store its stuff. Perpetual growth, even of organic food, is an absurdity. It is time to abandon the idiom of growth and focus on good things that need to flourish to a quantity and quality sufficient for satisfying basic needs.

I doubt that transitioning to a “good things” economy could sustain growth.  But if  it could, then it would  mean that absolute decoupling—whereby the growth of economic activity continues and resource use declines—would be possible, as Paul Krugman has recently argued. Let me list three reasons why this is unlikely.

First, a renewable economy will produce less energy surplus (energy return on energy investment) than the fossil fuel economy. An economy with lower energy surpluses will be more labor-intensive, and hence smaller.
Second, a static, disaggregated snapshot of the economy is misleading. It might appear that more GDP from renewables, education, and health and less from the military will equal net GDP growth. This is wrong. Solar panels, hospitals, or university labs are end-products in long chains utilizing primary and intermediate inputs that are energy and resource-intensive. With the danger of overstretching my examples, Britain’s emblematic National Health Service was subsidized by oil secured with arms through the Suez.
Third, a transition from, say, a resource-intensive economy of SUVs to a “weightless” economy of Priuses and Kindles would reduce throughput, but only for a while. Once the transition is complete, any further growth of the Prius-Kindle economy, however resource-light, will still grow throughput. In other words, even if we attempt to ‘grow’ our supply of Priuses, we will still need to increase material and energy use.


There is definitely room for empirical work here. I am willing to consider that a shift to “more good things” may increase GDP, especially if we devise and count a ‘greener’ GDP. I would like to be even more agnostic: I agree that we should simply ‘ignore GDP’, doing “more good things” independent of whatever effect they might have on GDP.

The problem however is that the current system is not “agnostic”. Without GDP growth it collapses (witness Greece). And the vested interests that govern the system are dead against falls in GDP (witness the reaction to climate regulation by lobbies or conservative forums such as ‘the Club for Growth‘ in the U.S).

In other words, we cannot afford to be agnostic in a system that does depend on GDP growth: we have to actively change the institutions of the system so that it no longer depends on GDP growth. We need new institutions to make the inevitable degrowth socially stable and sustainable.

3. Beyond GDP means beyond Growth

The third critique is that the problem is GDP, not growth. If we could only measure the goods an economy provides, say “massages,” and count out the bads, say “oil spills,” then there would be no reason not to want growth.
First, perpetual growth, of whatever, even of a “perfected ” GDP, is an absurd objective. I do not look forward to an Earth with people frantically giving enough massages to satisfy 2.5 billion solar systems. Quantifying success through a set of reliable indicators is one thing, but demanding that they grow perpetually will always be a pointless undertaking.
Second, GDP counts what counts for the current economic system: capital circulation, whatever its source. The decision of the EU to count drugs and prostitution in GDP, but not unpaid care work, is illustrative. GDP counts total monetized value. This is what feeds corporate profits and public coffers, and this is what governments want to secure and stabilize. The metric is an epiphenomenon; it is the result of the social system, not its cause. This is why GDP persists despite criticisms from prominent economists.
Many argue that mainstream economics with its reductionist obsession with maximizing a homogeneous quantity called utility (aka “money”) is part of the problem. I would go further. The emergence and entrenchment of the neoclassical orthodoxy has to be situated within its social context: the triumph, first, of growthism and, then, of neoliberalism. Maximizing money is what the system cares about. As Serge Latouche puts it—tellingly, if somewhat exaggeratedly—”economists are the priests of the religion of growth.” A different type of economics will be part and parcel of a transition to a different social system.

"We" need to degrow so that "Southern" cosmologies and political alternatives can flourish. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/30/yasuni-campaigners-oil-drilling-petition-results-referendum
“We” need to degrow so that “Southern” cosmologies and political alternatives can flourish. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/30/yasuni-campaigners-oil-drilling-petition-results-referendum

4. “We” should degrow, but not so that “they” grow.

It is often argued that degrowth is irrelevant for the great part of the world still living in poverty. The argument is that while “we” (wealthy, overfed Northerners) may have to degrow, “they” (poor, underfed Southerners) still want and need to grow. This is the most powerful discourse that perpetuates the ideology of growthism. It has to be discarded.
We all—to some degree, or at some periods—feel like “Southerners.” My Greek compatriots tell me degrowth is not for us, for we are now poor and in crisis. The 99% in the US has good reasons to believe that it is the 1% that has to degrow so that it can grow. Even when millionaires are surveyed on how much money they need in order to feel economically secure, they typically state twice what they already have, irrespective of their actual income. Positional comparisons drive and perpetuate the quest for growth. Economic insecurity, at all levels of income, makes everyone run faster and faster so as not to fall. And economic crises, when standards of living suddenly fall and insecurity intensifies, are the moments where the quest for growth reappears most forcefully, as a progressive cause this time. There will never be a time for degrowth.
The people on this planet, perhaps a majority, who lack access to basic goods, such as water or public health, deserve them, and this might entail higher energy and resource use. This need not be couched though in the absurd terms of growth. It is a matter of redistribution and sufficiency. “We” need to degrow so that “Southern” cosmologies and political alternatives closer to the spirit of sufficiency (such as Sumak Kawsay or Ubuntu) can flourish. Southern alternatives are colonized intellectually by developmentalism and materially through the extractive industries that in the name of growth bring destruction and poverty.
I propose the same logic for countries in economic crisis. We do not need to grow our way out of economic crisis in Greece. We need to come up with alternative models of sufficiency rooted in Greek tradition, materialized into institutions that will let us prosper without growth.
I am wary of those talking in the name of others reminding me that unlike what I—an elite intellectual—think, “poor people” (sic) dream of plasma TVs and Ferraris and we can’t deny them their dreams. Most people that I know, including myself, do indeed have materialistic dreams: our positional societies force those on us if we are to remain its dignified and secured members. Fortunately, we also have a longing for a simpler life, for community, friendship, and many other needs that collide with the imaginary of growth. The question is how to change social structures and institutional contexts so that it is these latter aspirations that come to be fulfilled and not our worst acquisitive desires.

"Capitalism can sell many things, but it can't sell less." -George Monbiot
“Capitalism can sell many things, but it can’t sell less.” -George Monbiot

5. A transition beyond growth is a transition beyond capitalism

Capitalism is an ensemble of property, financial, and exchange institutions that create relentless competition, forcing enterprises to grow or die. The surpluses generated by this dynamic are constantly reinvested into further growth. A society without growth may still have markets, forms of private property, or money. But as Edward and Robert Skidelsky argue, an economic system which does not grow and in which capital no longer accumulates is no longer capitalism, whatever one might want to call it. Property, credit, or employment institutions will have to be reconfigured in radical ways so to make the system stable without growth. Proposals such as a basic citizen’s income or the public control of money are such radical reforms.
Benign enterprises such as Mondragon or Novo Nordisk, which combine economic with social and environmental considerations are rare exceptions for a reason. In a capitalist economy, the bottom line is profit. Environmental and social concerns can be accommodated by few players who can increase their market share by cashing on socially-responsible consumers. As George Monbiot put it, “capitalism can sell many things, but it can’t sell less.”
If the corporation signifies the globalized growth economy, the sharing cooperative is the emblem of a localized, degrowth economy. In an economy that will no longer grow, worker or consumer cooperatives, which do not depend on perpetually growing profits, have a natural advantage. Of course, not all sharing enterprises have features that make them apt for a degrowth transition. I distinguish the sharing economy from the “rental economy” of AirBnB and similar capitalistic corporations, which, however innovative, reproduces rent-seeking and the dynamics of perpetual surplus creation.

In conclusion

It is appropriate here to invoke Tim Jackson’s dictum that “growth is environmentally unsustainable, but degrowth is socially unstable.” Curiously, this dictum is often invoked against degrowth, insisting on a one-way future where we will make growth sustainable, by a technological, or social miracle. Adherents of this techno-paradise often appeal to innovations like smart housing, hydroponics, robotics, fusion, and supercomputers. Count me out. The point is that such a future is unsustainable, unnecessary, and undesirable (at least by those of us who consider ourselves proponents of degrowth ). Technological fixes shift costs to others, to the environment, and to future generations, at an ever-grander scale. Climate change is the legacy of our past technological achievements. I read Tim Jackson differently. Given that further growth is unsustainable, we have to bring forward the systemic and institutional changes that will make degrowth stable.


Giorgos Kallis is an ecological economist, political ecologist, and professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Barcelona. He is the coordinator of the European Network of Political Ecology and editor of the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. His research is motivated by a quest to cross conceptual divides between the social and the natural domains, with particular focus on the political-economic roots of environmental degradation and its uneven distribution along lines of power, income, and class.


The binge economy past and present

Images taken from Richard Wilk's chapter in Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change
Images taken from Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change

by Aaron Vansintjan 

Recently Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University and director of their Food Studies program, was studying 19th century newspaper advertisements and cargo records of sailing ships in Belize—a major source of mahogany at the time. Wilk noticed that advertisements of luxury products—liqueurs, expensive fabrics, pickled oysters, and champagne—weren’t just targeted to the rich.

Those employed to cut down the lumber in the bush would often, when they received their pay and came back to port, blow all of their money on festivities and  luxury products. Wilk calls this the ‘binge economy’: men who work in extractive industries, surviving on cheap rations designed to last long voyages, go on binges with their ‘mates’ whenever they get paid off.

The development of the binge economy, according to Wilk, is an extreme example of how colonialism brought about a change in both the food system and inter-personal relationships. On the one hand, a system based on preservatives, industrialized food processing, and rationing could support a large standing army without relying on pillaging. This system of rations was then extended to support a navy, and eventually a proletariat class sent to the New World, Africa and Asia to extract resources.

On the other hand, this change in how people eat food was also extremely gendered. Food systems in Western Europe were initially based on complex relationships of reciprocity and redistribution, where every member of the rural household contributed in some way to ensure an adequate diet through hunting, farming, or foraging.

But the privatization of common lands through measures like the enclosure movement that saw its greatest increase in the 18th century also caused the erosion of the availability of subsistence-based food. When land no longer became accessible to hunt or farm, masses of pauperized peasants filled the cities, uprooted from the social structuxre that previously sustained them. This led to a large surplus of labor, leading countless indebted European men to board ships, cross the ocean, and eventually work in extractive labor projects or on ships.

With the erosion of household structures and the advent of an increasingly industrialized and processed food system, these men were forced to take care of their own needs and rely on cheap and easy-to-prepare food.

Wilk’s work challenges two common arguments in today’s environmental and food movements. First, we often hear that our traditional food systems are increasingly becoming eroded. While this may be true, Wilk’s research, along with a growing field exploring the history of today’s food system, illustrates how the industrial-military food system has been a cornerstone of many traditional food systems.

Second, the idea that globalization has recently caused an unprecedented proliferation of luxury and exotic food products, allowing even lower-class Westerners to access foods originally reserved for the rich. In fact, Wilk’s research suggests that the proletariat has had access to rare luxury products from around the world for a much longer time than we often imagine. As a result we need to consider, not just the distance our food travels, but how a kind of ‘binge economy’ has been institutionalized.

In this interview, Wilk gives us a glimpse of how ‘binge economies’ can still define our lives today, and the kind of social delinking that continues to make this possible.


I read your article about the food system in extractive economies. You start the article putting it in context, saying that for people who are now working on food issues, we often hear this idea that we are erasing traditional food cultures, seasonal food cultures, but that actually if you look at the history of the food system, that argument  goes way, way back.

Here’s one example. Native Americans have frybread [bannock]. No Indian festivity is complete if you don’t have frybread. It is traditional. That’s just basically taking a pork ration and rendering the fat and then taking your flour ration making dough with it and frying it. If you look into it, it’s the same food that was used to feed Native Americans when they were driven off their lands and could no longer get their own subsistence.

belize 3
“The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations.”

I think in some ways the global division of labor would not have been possible if we didn’t have cheap food. Because cheap food, as we know, enables a lot of other things. For one thing, it frees up money for people to spend on other things, but also it makes it possible to squeeze wage labor much harder than they ever had before. This idea of ‘ration’ became a substitute for a whole food system, a large complex network of different kinds of food where all kinds of collaboration and cooperation was involved. And instead they take the unit of collaboration, the household–often formed around a marriage–and they split it.

The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations. And at the same time women are flooding into the labor market and everybody is hiring them as maids… it becomes the great age of servitude. By commercializing the things that people have traditionally gotten from households and families and making them into commodities, it was possible to turn the proletariat into a new kind of market.

Now, rations make standing armies and large navies possible. It turns an army from a horde of people looting and raping through the countryside, stripping everything of food into a more disciplined group of people who are being fed by the military.

Once you’ve got cheap protein and cheap calories down, it’s possible to send men on board of ships for much longer periods of time.


Luxury goods like reindeer tongue and beaver hats were often targeted at impoverished extractive workers such as those in the mahogany industry in Belize. Wilk argues that such behavior still defines our food system today

What was life like for these early extractive workers?

If you’re on a work gang, or engaged in any kind of extractive industry–logging, mining, whaling, and things that are kind of like extractive industries like herding sheep and cattle on large open parts of the countryside–all of those things are men being self-sufficient, subsisting on a ration of food that doesn’t really require any elaborate cooking. And the work is inherently dangerous, and always badly paid, usually at the end of a season or a voyage.

This new food system also made people sick, which led to a huge industry making patent medicines. You know, if you think of any service that is provided by the household system, by the collaboration of men, women, children, and all the members of the household, you can see in this era, single men learning to do those sorts of things. Sailors and loggers are all learning to sew; some of them are even knitting. They washed their own clothes. They sometimes made their own clothes.

What else do you get from being in a family? You get companionship, you get sex. There’s a lot of disagreement of how much these men were having sex with each other, and amongst historians it’s kind of a volatile issue, because the absence of evidence can never give you evidence for abstinence. They get their companionship from their buddies on board the ship, and they form a very tight male grouping.

Today if you look at gangs, if you look at drinking cultures, there’s still a lot of extractive industries out there, a  lot of mining and fishing. What you see is that the qualities and characteristics of masculine binge culture are still there. I think what we’ve done is kind of made it into a stage of life. In your late teens and early twenties, nobody’s expecting you to be particularly hard-working, and if you go out and binge on the weekends, you’re kind of excused. But then you’re supposed to grow up and become responsible.


Could you talk a bit about how these binge economies informed relationships between genders?

I think there’s a degree to which these binge economies nurture a kind of combative and competitive relationship between men and women. I saw this really clearly in urban Belize, where women are always trying to get men to support them, and men are always trying to get more sex while shirking their responsibility for children. So you’ve got this kind of game that goes on, which you also saw amongst loggers and miners when they were in town. When I was younger I hung around with a lot of Belizean men who talk about women in a hostile way. They have something we want, but they’re going to make me pay for it. And women say horrible things about men as well. That is not to say there are no functioning marriages and households in Belize, but infidelity is common too.


How do you think an extractive culture causes that kind of relationship to happen?

It tears people apart and makes them compete. I’m not so sure it’s just the extractive industries that cause that to happen. You see it in a very exaggerated way in extractive industries, but I think you see something similar amongst young people who are single. In the sense that they don’t belong to a household and there’s no obligatory relationship, there’s no contract. These are called “implicit contracts” … it’s an unspoken agreement that if you’re living with somebody, you’re going to be collaborating. It turns out that much of our life is guided by these implicit contracts. You raise kids, you send them through college, and then if you become destitute you expect them to help take care of you. And if you’re living without those kinds of contracts, itmakes you to do things in a very different way.

You don’t have to save money, why would you save money? The thing about extractive workers is that they did have relationships but mostly  with other men, and they did not put their money together. You’d call that person your ‘mate.’ Which is interesting. And ‘mates’ would often stick together for their whole lives. Because they needed somebody they could count on and somebody they could trust. The lack of obligation helps people form binge cultures.


We were discussing the gendered nature of binge economies. How is our current food system gendered and how does that have reflections from the past food system?

At one level you have men and women often eating completely different diets. At a more global level, fast food and convenience foods mean you really don’t need a family in order to have a comfortable life.  Personal independence shortens your time horizon so you’re not thinking so much about keeping your family going into the future.

If you have no reason to invest, why not spend it freely or run up debts on your credit card? If you think about how many Americans have no personal savings, it’s astounding 76% of the adults in the country don’t have anything in the bank for retirement. That’s really weird. It’s what I call a grasshopper logic rather than an ant logic. The ants are industrious and denying their immediate pleasures for the sake of the future.


Something I found interesting in your article was that you said that, on the one hand, people were reliant on these basic goods, like staples, that you can easily transport, at the same time you have these luxury food goods that also were developed and sold to the very same class that was extracting them across the world.

It’s kind of ironic.


So you have these luxury goods that are also made to be able to transport all across the world. It seems incredibly similar to what we have now. There’s this term, ‘food miles’, that people are using now to signify how the food we eat is more and more reliant on a global transportation system. But it seems at the same time that carrying exotic products on ships has always been a product of the extractive industry, except now we have even better technology to preserve those luxury products. It also seems to go against this idea that with the increase of globalization ‘everyone’ can now have these luxury goods… your work suggest that the proletarian class, especially the extractivist workers, has always been consuming these rare luxury products.

That’s such an interesting connection I had not made. The production of luxury goods was often done by those same extractive workers and slaves. The old money spent their money on giant houses; they were amassing durable things that were going to gain value over time. Whereas people with limited money often spend it on luxuries that have a short lifetime – what some call “populuxe” goods. They’re left with no value after they consume things.

When you look at the bills of lading for sailing ships, they’re carrying these rough fabrics, generic rums, barrels of flour and salted meat. They’re also carrying delicacies in little jars, liqueurs from all over Europe, and fortified wines, like Port. All over Europe there’s the beginnings of a popular luxury trade. They were bringing in processed foods like olives, salted tongue, cornichons. It wasn’t just the local elite that was consuming this. In Belize, when the mahogany workers who just came in from working in the bush got paid, luxuries meant a great deal to them. This is a point that I’m constantly having to make to people. People think that poor people don’t, or shouldn’t, buy expensive things. And the thing is that if you’re poor, luxury is much more meaningful than if you’re rich. If you’re rich, you have luxury all the time. It’s poor people who have to work and scrimp and save to have a big steak dinner. For those people it really means something to have a fancy meal.

During the gold rush merchants would haul these wagons full of ice imported from Alaska, oysters from the Pacific Northwest, champagne from France, and they’d carry it up the Sierra because if you struck gold you were going to take all your buddies and have champagne and oysters, and food cooked by a real French chef.

 We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you.

How do you see the food system that was developed in colonialism reflected today? And how has it changed since then?

Something that I’ve been looking at in the last couple of years is that extractive industries had a tendency to destroy  resources. They killed almost all the whales. Sometimes a whole industry would grow based on something like herring, but then the herring would disappear or move somewhere else. At the other end, because of fashion tastes are changing all the time. People who were hunting for alligators to make alligator-skin bags might be out of work 10 years later because tastes changed in Paris.

It’s similar now, but it’s just become more spatially dispersed and complicated. We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you. If you seek to go behind the brand and find out where things are really made, it’s really hard to find information.


Richard Wilk is the director of the Food Studies Program in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on consumer culture, past and present; gender; households; and the food culture in Belize. He has written over 140 papers and book chapters, demonstrating his ability to deftly weave together varying and complex issues—such as energy use, mass media, and local food movements—in a lucid, careful, and engaging manner.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change in Barcelona, Spain. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.