food and agriculture in the Green New Deal?
Our food system is inextricably linked with
the climate crisis in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Agriculture is responsible
for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the result, climate change, goes
on to disrupt reliable food production. To combat climate change, we must shift
how we produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. To adapt to climate
change, we must build agricultural systems that are resilient to disruption. The
timeliness of this move was evident recently as a national coalition of farmers
and ranchers endorsed
the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal mentions
food in broad strokes. Its focus is on consumers obtaining food, which the bill
says can be supported “by building a more sustainable food system that ensures
universal access to healthy food.” The bill’s strength is in its acknowledgement
of systemic injustices wrought on marginalized groups, and its goal for a “fair
and just transition” to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. If these strengths
are built into eventual policy mechanisms, they should influence not only food
quality and access, but all levels of the food chain.
Green New Deal must address capitalism’s food problems through goal-oriented,
Underlying many ills of our food system is
the sometimes unexpected truth that a rational agricultural system is incompatible
with capitalism. This is because the goals of healthy agriculture and the goals
of capitalism are diametrically opposed. When capitalism’s logic governs
agriculture, it affects all manner of management systems, making it difficult
or impossible to implement ecological or humane practices that might decrease
short-term profit margins. It also results in the kinds of outcomes the GND
seeks to remedy: hunger surrounded by abundance, unnecessary waste, the
systemic injustice of farmer displacement,
labor abuses, and fossil fuel use.
Therefore, GND food policies should begin
with identifying the overarching goals, because the goals of a system are some
of the most powerful leverage
points for change. All policy mechanisms should be guided and tested
against the vision of a “just transition,” and it would be useful to identify
sub-goals that support a just
transition—for example, climate change mitigation; climate change resilience;
an adequately fed and nourished human population; pay parity and economic
justice for farmers; healthy and diverse agroecosystems; etc.
Does “efficiency” change if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields?
Similarly, during policy discussions, it is
useful to question goals we might accidentally take for granted. For example,
why do we need highly “efficient” agricultural production as it relates to
labor? Does efficiency in this sense compete with goals of reduced fossil fuel
use, biodiverse agriculture, or widespread employment? Does “efficiency” change
if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms
of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields? This process point can
help avoid implementing policies that recreate problems driven by assumed,
rather than intentionally adopted, goals.
Finally, GND policy discussions must
incorporate, not ignore, the historical context of our current food system. Our
food system is built on systematic wealth accumulation
and the dispossession and cultural erasure of marginalized people in the United
States. For GND policies to be “just,” they must account for and begin to
reverse these patterns. To ensure that outcomes have integrity, and that mechanisms
are well-crafted, policies must be developed directly
with farmers, food systems workers, sustainability experts, and social justice
advocates. As the Agroecology Research-Action Collective reminds us, “…the Green New Deal will only succeed if it
helps rapidly eliminate the fossil-fuel economy, and transforms industrialized
agriculture into agroecological, regenerative agriculture, with special
attention to rural communities and inclusion of historically marginalized, and
socially disadvantaged groups.”
goal-aligned solution: Basic Income for farmers
One solution, in line with a just
transition in food and agriculture, is basic income for farmers. “Universal
basic income,” recently brought into mainstream debate by Democratic
presidential candidate Andrew Yang,
is a monthly stipend provided by the government to all citizens. While there is
a compelling argument for UBI for everybody, basic income may be critical for especially
for agriculture. Proponents of UBI argue that one of its essential functions is
allowing people freedom
to make choices based on what they truly want or need in life, without
potential financial crisis dictating their options. For people who work in agriculture,
that freedom is the freedom to farm.
Farmers in the United States are in historic
levels of debt. In order to make enough money to continue, many farmers
have to expand their farms—regardless of whether it is a sustainable or
desirable choice—which usually means building or purchasing expensive
infrastructure and equipment. The result is a race to increase profit margins
and pay down debt, often prohibiting farmers from making choices based on land
stewardship or care for workers. Over half of American farms earn negative
income, losing more than they make, and rely on off-farm income for
There is increasing recognition that agroecology, the science of farming in tune with local ecosystems, is one way forward for just and sustainable food systems. But in the United States, where land is expensive, industrial agriculture subsidized, environmental regulations minimal, and parity pricing absent, it can be economically untenable for people to start agroecological farms in a rabidly capitalist system. Young farmers interested in raising sustainable, healthy food cannot make enough money to do so.
Thus, a basic income would be a way for people to produce food without needing to exploit themselves, their employees, or their land. (India recently announced that it will be providing UBI for farmers, expecting it to double farmer incomes.) Anyone working in agriculture should be eligible for this support, without making distinctions between farm owners and farm workers. Because up to half of farmworkers are undocumented, this policy would likely necessitate a corresponding reform in immigration policy, at least for the food sector, as put forth recently by the Sanders Campaign’s Green New Deal plan. It is also possible that another aspect of food justice—access to fresh and healthy foods, mentioned in the GND—would also benefit from basic income for farmers, by supporting agricultural livelihoods without astronomically raising the cost of their products.
Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.
Furthermore, a basic income begins to address historic injustice. Reversing the trends of land theft and ongoing dispossession in the food system is difficult for many reasons, one of them being that farmers from marginalized communities do not have access to the same wealth, credit, and financial safety nets of more privileged farmers. Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.
Yang’s UBI proposal, the “Freedom Dividend,” is $1,000 per month. This might not be enough for farmers. The Freedom Dividend is designed with the idea that it will encourage people to find jobs to supplement UBI that alone keeps them at the poverty line. But farmers already have jobs. We need a debate among stakeholders about the benefits of parity pricing—ensuring farmers are paid enough to cover their costs and living expenses—versus basic income, in terms of allowing farmers to stop overproducing to cover their debt, and make both environmentally and socially sustainable management choices. A just level for farmers might instead be the living wage for their area.
Other social programs that could make
farming, and sustainable farming in particular, a more viable option: free
childcare, free health care, free education, and a guaranteed farming pension. The
latter could allow farmers to keep their land in agriculture, rather than selling
it to cover retirement costs.
The bottom line: anyone growing food for
other people, especially if they are growing it in ecologically-sound ways, should
be able to provide for themselves and their employees. If we want to make
sustainable farming desirable, viable, and just, we must support it by reorienting
policy to support such worthy goals.
Caitlin Bradley Morgan is a doctoral candidate in Food Systems at
the University of Vermont, studying the intersection of on-the-ground efforts
and wider systems change.
I’ve recently seen a lot of excited talk about basic income. A bit over a year ago, it was announced that the Swiss would soon hold a referendum for its citizens. Then we were confronted with exciting stories of a small Canadian town that had experimented with the idea back in the 1970s. A couple of weeks ago, Finland’s government made it known that it would seek to implement it in the near future, with backing from the Right, Left, and the Greens. Then the Dutch city of Utrecht pitched in, claiming that they would give it a try. And now both mayors of two of the most conservative cities in Canada, Calgary and Edmonton, are trying to give it a go.
Each piece of news has been greeted with great enthusiasm. I’ve seen the words radical and progressive used many times to describe these announcements.
The idea of basic income–also referred to as guaranteed minimum income and universal income–isn’t new, but it is starting to see a large following. It is appealing for those on the right, who want to minimize the role of the state and end the abuse of welfare. Others think it is the best economic solution to the increasing replacement of workers by robots, and the simultaneous onslaught of bullshit jobs in the economy. It is attractive to the left because it would mean access to income for the most marginalized, and it would allow people to pursue their own interests, furthering democratic society. It would also help support those who mostly do care work, especially women, which is less economically valued in Western society. Because it is appealing to both conservatives and progressives, it is seen as a compromise even the far right and far left could agree on. Largely because of this, it is hoped that, if implemented, it could become a catalyst for a more just economic system.
As it is being proposed currently, basic income can make things worse: it can strengthen racist policies, increase environmental impacts of our current economic system, and increase wealth inequality between the rich and poor globally. Right now, at best, it seems more like a poor compromise–one that’s slanted toward the benefit of the elite.
But I’m not that excited. I agree that a compromise, if it is strategic, can help us get closer to our goals. But I don’t think this is a strategic compromise. Basic income can only be a strategic compromise if it is proposed along with a host of other policies that would limit its negative effects. But it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening. To illustrate this, it might help to briefly provide some basic facts:
Yes, Switzerland is moving toward a basic income referendum. But Switzerland’s main business is providing a tax haven for the world’s richest people. It is also one of the most racist countries in Europe, with leading parties pursuing actively discriminatory electoral campaigns, and even green parties taking anti-immigration positions.
In the Canadian town, Dauphin, the experiment was cancelled when faced with an economic recession, caused by the collapse of Canada’s lumber and mining industries, which were predicated on the over-exploitation of one of the world’s largest forested areas–significantly driving climate change.
The party proposing basic income in Finland is centre-right, with neoliberal leanings. Other parties supporting the proposal are the Fins’ Party, which is anti-immigration and conservative.
Calgary and Edmonton make most of their money from the tar sands, one of the most environmentally catastrophic and socially unjust extraction projects in the world. This would fund their basic income schemes.
In each situation, it’s worth asking where the wealth that would sponsor it comes from, who it will benefit, and who it will exclude.
As it is being proposed currently, basic income can make things worse: it can strengthen racist policies, increase environmental impacts of our current economic system, and increase wealth inequality between the rich and poor globally. Right now, at best, it seems more like a poor compromise–one that’s slanted toward the benefit of the elite.
In this essay, I argue that current proposals of basic income can be problematic and help to further the goals of the elite. I also provide some suggestions of ways to address this problem while keeping the positive effects of basic income proposals intact.
Basic income: a tool for economic, social, and environmental exclusion?
J. M. Keynes’ ‘welfare economics’ was seen as the only satisfying compromise between the capitalist class and the increasingly powerful workers’ unions. But this was by no means a radical compromise–it guaranteed continued profits to the market system while making a deal with the poor. In this way, it remained in line with liberal economic thinking.
Liberal economics is based on the idea that the state ought to make it easier for the market to operate. The main way to do this is to build infrastructure that makes it easier for enterprises to conduct their business. A secondary role for the state is then to regulate the market’s negative impacts. Welfare liberalism is the extension of this role: to redistribute market surplus to, on the one hand, improve the livelihood of those who cannot participate in the market, and to further bolster the market by giving lower classes sufficient capital so that they too can become consumers, further driving economic growth.
Welfare in the minority world guaranteed consumption and production at a level never seen before. And while this really did raise the standard of living, many of the costs were eventually off-loaded onto the backs of the majority world.
A half-century later, and we now know the impacts that this has had. Welfare in the minority world guaranteed consumption and production at a level never seen before. And while this really did raise the standard of living, many of the costs were eventually off-loaded onto the backs of the majority world. Sweatshop labor, mining disasters, pollution, and now migration due to climate change–these are all rife in ‘Third World’ countries. Countless people are now forced to move from their land because it has either been privatized or their basic means of subsistence has been destroyed through free trade agreements.
These people will often strive for better lives and migrate to the ‘First World’, where they are faced with systemic racism, terrible working conditions, and a legal system that regards them as second-class citizens. At the same time, the increased political and financial power of the growing class gave rise to the ‘Not In My Backyard’ phenomenon, pushing polluting industries to the Global South, where states had less regulatory power and poor people have less ability to resist environmental injustice.
Add to this the fact that the money that made welfare programs possible was already derived from centuries of colonialism, which involved dispossession and resource-grabs backed by violence.
And even within countries welfare can be exclusive. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward have argued that welfare in the US was designed primarily for quelling dissent in times of unrest, and for forcing the lower classes to enter the workforce in times of political stability. In this way, it can be seen as a mechanism for perpetuating the current economic system, not fixing it.At first sight, welfare liberalism might seem like a positive way to address the inequality inherent in capitalism. But if you zoom out, it starts to look more like a tool to placate the poor within rich countries, all the while justifying continued exploitation of the rest of the world. In this way, it remains simply a compromise, legitimating the power of the elite, while externalizing the costs of the economic system to those who don’t have the privilege of being citizens of a rich country.
Let me use an example to illustrate why basic income can be a continuation of this. It is telling that the country that has advanced the most in bringing basic income into the policy discussion–Switzerland–is also one of the most racist and migrant-unfriendly places in Europe. In this case, the Swiss try to redistribute the profits from their banking system (which are derived from providing tax havens to world’s richest people) to a small and already privileged society, while excluding others. At the same time, as it would increase the finances available to the poorest Swiss, it would also increase spending and therefore consumption, driving up the costs unloaded on to society and the environment. These costs will mostly not be borne by the Swiss, but by people in the Global South, who are the most affected by climate change, work in far more dangerous conditions, and are forced to migrate when their land and livelihood is destroyed. Effectively, basic income in Switzerland would entail closure of the world’s riches, for the benefit of a small community.
As it is currently proposed, basic income simply redistributes the profits of already rich nations to its poorer classes. It keeps in place, and strengthens, the divide between the Global North and South.
In most policy proposals for basic income that I’ve seen so far, the pattern is the same. As it is currently proposed, it simply redistributes the profits of already rich nations to its poorer classes. It keeps in place, and strengthens, the divide between the Global North and South.
It’s true that basic income, if it were designed right, could potentially address Piven and Cloward’s concern that welfare has been inherently exclusionary within nations. In fact, they themselves supported basic income as a solution. But while it seems like basic income might create some sort of level economic playing-field, it could also be blind to any kind of structural inequality that already exists. That is, if black people in the US received basic income, they would still have to contend with a history of racism, which continues to be embedded within the US legal structure, housing, education, and financial system. And it wouldn’t necessarily take into account the fact that the money funding basic income schemes has been made mostly through unequal trade with the rest of the world.
There’s another reason why basic income could be a big problem, which I have rarely seen discussed by its proponents. Let’s say these countries and cities do end up creating such a program. Would they also extend it to migrant laborers and undocumented migrants?
Because if they don’t, one could well imagine a scenario where corporations just stop hiring legal citizens (because they would start making demands for better working conditions once they have basic income) and instead hire cheap migrants, who have very little legal support. They would also pressure their governments to change regulations to facilitate their reliance on precarious migrant labor. In this scenario, basic income would simply be a tool for more efficiently redistributing the profit from the exploitation of secondary citizens to rich countries.
I do acknowledge the potential of basic income to help reform the current economic system for the benefit of those who are the most affected by the current economic system–women, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, and so on.
But basic income policies in countries like the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, and Finland could, potentially, make many of the world’s problems worse. By raising the average income, it would also help increase GDP and the spending power of the lower classes, as happened with welfare. Without adequate policies limiting environmentally destructive and socially unjust consumption, we would see a repeat of the negative effects of welfare, creating uneven burdens on the Global South. While it could give many a boost, because it gives everyone an equal amount of money, it would help make the system blind to existing oppressive institutions. It could help further the exploitation of migrants. In short, it would simply redistribute the profits of ongoing colonialism within the rich countries’ borders.
This may be due to the fact that basic income is, in each case, proposed by alliances between right, centrist, and leftist governments. But while this may look like a strategic compromise by the left, it can also become a way to further the goals of racist, neoliberal politicians, as well as the corporate elite. So when I see the news that Finland wants to experiment with basic income, I’m not that excited, because I know that it may just as well pave the way for more conservative policies shutting out, and legitimizing the exploitation of, the Global South.
As it stands, basic income is not a radical, progressive policy. It is more of a compromise between Keynesian welfare and neoliberalism, under the guise of economic equality within a nation’s borders. So no, it wouldn’t “eliminate poverty”, and it wouldn’t “revolutionize the 21st century”, but it would certainly help keep the current economy intact–with disastrous consequences down the line.
Beyond basic income: a more just proposal
So what would be necessary for basic income to be successful? It would mean not assuming that simply redistributing capitalism’s surplus will solve our problems. It requires a host of policies to be implemented, without which it may increase inequality globally. Here are some criteria for a more just basic income:
First and foremost, it should be seen as an end, not a golden ticket. It cannot substitute existing public services. For example, it cannot replace health insurance, since the key to a low-cost healthcare system is collective bargaining of medicine and equipment costs, which would no longer happen if it were assumed that basic income would replace this.
Limit environmental exclusion and externalization. This would require policies limiting consumption, specifically resource-and energy-intensive goods, as well as policies regulating environmental destruction and addressing environmental and social injustice, especially in the Global South.
Limit economic exclusion. Provide support for alternative economic enterprises that are less exploitative, especially in the Global South. Limit exploitative labor. Limit excessive working days, especially for low-income people. Raise minimum income. Put in place policies that allow (but not force) women, migrants, and people of color to be more involved in the economy.
Limit social exclusion. We need policies that guarantee accessibility of basic income for migrant workers, and/or ensure legal and financial support to migrants and refugees without status. In addition, policies must be put in place that better support historically marginalized groups within countries, such as black, indigenous people, or ethnic minorities. This would help address the social exclusion that would likely happen along with a basic income policy, which tends to be ‘blind’ to existing inequality.
As you can see, these are big demands. None of these can be implemented very easily, let alone at the same time. But, importantly, the list shows that basic income will not, by itself, bring about all the changes that the left is hopeful for. This requires strategic implementation of a wide platform of policies that are complementary and respond to existing inequalities, both within countries and outside of them.
When I’ve raised these concerns to others, many have responded that basic income might not be the be-all end-all, but it can get us a lot closer. People see it as a strategic stepping-stone, arguing that basic income could help facilitate a transition to these other policies.
But take again the example of Switzerland. These same proponents might argue that basic income could, potentially, free up time for people to get involved in politics and caring activities. In this way, it could be a crucial step toward a more democratic and just society.
But this is magical thinking. Without adequate research, it cannot be assumed that it would automatically lead to more democracy rather than, for example, an increase in protectionism, racism, and consumption. Creating a more just world is a lot of work, and there is no one policy that, somehow, paves the way for others. To do this, it must come hand-in-hand with other policies that limit its potential negative effects.
I want to stress that I’m hopeful for this policy to be part of a platform that may change our economic system for the better. But considering the type of parties that have proposed it so far, I’m worried that it could actually increase inequality between the North and the South and help drive economic growth and climate change. In particular, I would like to challenge basic income advocates to think a lot more about issues of citizenship and migration, and how basic income could contribute to the exploitation of migrants. This means that it can only be proposed as a part of a wider platform of policies.
I would like to challenge basic income advocates to think a lot more about issues of citizenship and migration, and how basic income could contribute to the exploitation of migrants.
Anything less would just help further close off the minority world–and drive the exploitation of the majority world. Getting excited about progressive policies is great, but only if they are actually progressive, not half-assed compromises between the existing elite and the middle and lower classes who already profit the most from the current economic system.
Thanks to Adrian Turcato for the title.
Thanks also to people at the Social Costs of Automation and Robotics group and the Degrowth reading group for the discussions on this topic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.