Sea levels are rising, fish stocks are depleted, temperatures may climb by 6% this decade. Inequality between us is growing, with the richest 1% owning half of global wealth.
We all know this so I won’t repeat it. Instead I would like to propose a collective thought experiment. Let us imagine that in this assembly that unites delegates from all the human nations of the world, delegates from the non-human world were also here with us. Let us welcome the delegates from the Animal nations, the Plant nations and the Rock nations. While we may not understand their language, let us try to listen to their claims and to hear their interests.
In this task we have of course much to learn from Indigenous communities in Turtle Island and elsewhere who have maintained such relationships with other life-forms for millennia. Nishnabeg scholar Leanne Simpson writes about how twice yearly “the fish nations and the fish clans gathered to talk, to tend to their treaty relationships and to renew life”. Their treaty included principles such as: take only what you need, waste nothing, respect cycles and seasons, and return fertility to the soil. These relations are founded on responsibility and reciprocity and ensure the health and flourishing of both parties.
We are here today in commemoration of Earth Day to discuss how we can rebuild these relationships with the community of life. How can we transform our systems of production and consumption in harmony with nature and other humans? How can we move from extraction to restoration? From overconsumption to reproduction? From domination to care? What would an Earth Jurisprudence economy look like?
Over the past 10 years my work has entailed examining these questions through the experiences of those defending the environment and their health and livelihoods. We have been collecting these stories in the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (http://www.ejatlas.org), a participatory project which maps protests and mobilizations against life threatening extractive activities around the world. To date we have documented 2400 such ecological conflicts. Environmental justice includes the right not to be polluted, to have a safe environment to live, work, and play. It also includes justice for the greater web of life, acknowledging the inseparability between justice for nature and justice for humans.
This work has brought me to some of the most polluted and to some of the most pristine places on the planet, to the barricades with communities blocking pipelines, Indigenous groups defending sacred mountains against mining, pastoralists opposing land-grabbing, and recyclers fighting incinerators that would burn the waste they depend on. While some dismiss these communities on the frontlines as anti-development, they are stepping in and resisting because they feel their leaders are not taking the necessary actions. They often can’t be bought off, but are putting forward a vision for a radical transformation of our societies and economic system while engaging in experiments in diverse ways of living and new forms of collective organization.
Their call for systemic and structural change is not addressed in the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which fall short in arresting the driving forces that cause poverty, such as wealth concentration, corporate control and impunity, and ongoing racism and colonialism.
We know that the current economic paradigm constrains our ability to tackle these forces. Economic growth, resource efficiency, and the green economy cannot address the poverty caused by environmental damage and the commodification of life. Ecological economics, which is an economics grounded in biophysical reality that respects the laws of thermo-dynamics, rejects the possibility of limitless economic growth on a finite planet. We must acknowledge that the economy is embedded in nature and its expansion will always require fresh resources and new sinks for wastes. Thus the need to continually colonize new areas for extraction and waste disposal, leading to conflicts, environmental degradation and increased inequality. We must abandon growth because pursuing it mindlessly instead of focusing on equality, distribution and justice is a driving cause of poverty, not a corrective to it.
The good news is that a new paradigm is already emerging and citizen movements, North and South, as well as governments are already thinking beyond growth.
The good news is that a new paradigm is already emerging and citizen movements, North and South, as well as governments are already thinking beyond growth. There is a growing international movement for de-growth which argues that those countries who are occupying more than their fair share of environmental space must downscale production and consumption but that they can still increase human flourishing while devoting more time to nature, culture, and community.
Above you can see the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice. Each dot represents one case where the community has risen up to say we refuse to be polluted, we don’t want that mine, that highway, that nuclear power plant in our community. I invite the reader to go to the atlas and to see what is happening in your countries. The data is not complete, but it gives us a broad picture of who suffers the impacts stemming from the underside of economic growth. And it is primarily women, Indigenous communities, peasants, fishers and other marginalized people who are being polluted and dispossessed. While sometimes referred to as minorities, they represent the majority of the world’s and your countries’ populations. They do not all want to follow a single path to development. Together they constitute a global environmental justice movement.
The atlas also shows that it is possible to stop these life-threatening activities. That it is possible to find billions of barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there. There is the case of the Te Urewa Park in New Zealand. El Salvador, in consultation with the rock and water nations, has put in place a ban on metal mining under the world’s first such moratorium. Costa Rica, in defense of the plant and animal nations in that mega-biodiverse country, has decided that fossil fuel extraction is too great risk for their collective health and put in place a moratorium. France, Quebec, and Tunisia and some other territories have banned fracking.
What if instead of economically recoverable reserves of minerals we talked about ethically recoverable reserves? To reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change most fossil fuels reserves have to be kept underground. These unburnable fuels include 80% of coal, 50% of gas and 30% of oil. An Earth jurisprudence economy would include policies and laws to halt extraction of these reserves for both local and global well-being. An Earth jurisprudence economy would accept that there are places on Earth that should not be ripped open by mines or bulldozed for highways no matter the potential profits.
One path to restructuring our economy in harmony with nature is to shift the emphasis from production of things to the reproduction of life. A central element of this transformation is recognition of what has previously been considered free of charge and available for exploitation—the reproductive and care labour undertaken primarily by women, and nature’s gifts including air, water and soil fertility.
Reproductive labour includes work in the home, child-care but also the work of peasants, fishers and Indigenous peoples who work directly with nature to meet the everyday needs for the majority of people on Earth. This work, done mostly by women, is integral to the functioning of our economies and yet it is primarily unpaid and unrecognized. A new report estimates the value of unpaid childcare to Australia’s economy at $345 billion making it the single biggest sector. As the mother of a 5-month old newborn I can assure you that breastfeeding is a full time job on its own.
An Earth jurisprudence economy, instead of producing more consumer goods, would invest more resources in teachers, nurses, mothers and other care-workers.
An Earth jurisprudence economy, instead of producing more consumer goods, would invest more resources in teachers, nurses, mothers and other care-workers. Farmers would not be pushed off their lands to make way for industrial plantations. They would be supported to continue working alongside the Plant nations, Insect nations and the Soil microbe nations to feed 70% of the global human population while increasing seed and agro-biodiversity, and cooling the planet.
Yet it’s true, in an economy with less extraction and less consumption, there would be less jobs in some sectors. This is a concern. Yet instead of more consumption to remedy this, what if we began rethinking work? This would include diverse initiatives. Pilot studies such as one in Iran show that when guaranteed an unconditional basic income, workers don’t work less, instead they explore work that they want to do and is in line with their values and goals. They seek work which allows them to be creative, to improve their communities, to problem solve collectively. These are the jobs of an Earth jurisprudence economy.
I began this essay asking us to acknowledge the presence of the Animal, Plant and Rock nations with us in this room. My hope would be that henceforth politicians continue to include these nations in their thoughts and deliberations. But let’s remember that since these nations cannot speak, we must listen to the human voices who speak on their behalf. In closing I would therefore like to acknowledge those who dare to speak out for our more-than-human nations. Above you will see some of their faces. These are all environmental defenders killed in the last year murdered for their defense of the planet. According to Global Witness, four environmental defenders were killed per week in 2017.
I would like to applaud the recent regional Latin American and Caribbean Escazu accord which guarantees the right of environmental human rights defenders to carry out their activities without fear, restrictions or danger. This agreement will be open for signatures here at UN headquarters in September. I would urge world leaders to put forward such an initiative for all members and to ensure compliance. We are here to talk about living in Harmony with Nature but the reality is that we are murdering those who aim to defend life.
The journey towards an Earth jurisprudence economy, rather than being seen as an insurmountable challenge, can serve as a uniting force in our defense of the global commons. It can reawaken an ethic of care, reinforce livelihoods and create meaningful work. In these times of great divisions, the protection of our shared home can serve as a convergence issue where we can jointly challenge multiple forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, speciesism and violence and where new solidarities and new worlds can be born.
Leah Temper is a trans-disciplinary scholar-activist based at the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is the founder and co-director of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (www.ejatlas.org) and is currently the principal investigator of ACKnowl-EJ (Activist-academic Co-production of Knowledge for Environmental Justice, www.acknowlej.org) a project looking at how transformative alternatives are born from resistance against extractivism.
I’m writing to you from a future. I’m doing this, because I don’t know any other way. I need to speak to someone who might understand.
You see, my grandfather wants to die. You might think “Oh no, that’s sad, but maybe he is old and tired, has lived enough and is ready to die.” Well you are not wrong about that. It is sad, and yes, he is old and tired and he has had a long life and he is ready to die. But being old and tired and dying don’t go together like that anymore. And that’s the problem.
In 2017 some researchers found a protein called TIMP-2 that stimulates body cells to rebuild and keep healthy.
The quest for endless life is an old one. In 2017 some researchers found a protein called TIMP-2 that stimulates body cells to rebuild and keep healthy. A protein which all humans have in their blood when they are young. Babies have a lot of it, but as we age, the production decreases. Having less and less of this protein allows us to age, but if you keep this protein at a consistently high-level, you stay young. In 2017, some newspapers reported this research for the first time, but it didn’t really cause much of a stir. By now, those results have changed humanity “for the better” – at least this is the conclusion that pours out of the mainstream.
Back to my grandfather: he is 130-years old now and thinks he has seen enough. He remembers how it was when old people just died. He told me a lot about it. Sounds quite nice, I have to say. Granddad started the protein treatment when he was already 60. I started when I was 21, which is the normal starting age now. It is considered the best physical age to stay in: one is fertile, has high-brain capacity, yet is physically fully grown and strong. It is considered the best age to stay in for work and reproduction. We call it “starting”. You are born and then, 21 years later, you “start”, almost like you hadn’t even lived before. As if you were maturing and then, when you are ripe, you get your preservatives. There are also early starters, some choose to do that as well. Looking like a teenager had been a trend some years ago. And there are all those who started later in their life, when the whole thing went mainstream. That was about 60 years ago.
Granddad was among the first to try the treatment. He had this panic, he says, that life would be over too soon and that there were so many things left undone. He wanted to travel and still be fit when he retired so he could go hiking and fishing with his grandchildren. At the time, he and grandma had well paid jobs and could afford trying this new, promising forever-young therapy that some companies had started to offer.
Things have gone wild since those days.
Back then, most people just went to a private hospital once a month for a transfusion. You remember, the TIMP-2 concentration in the blood is higher the younger you are, so people initially got blood transfusions from newborn, healthy babies. This blood was voluntarily donated in doses that would not harm the baby, or so it was said. But you can imagine the treatment being available only for a limited amount of people and at a high cost.
Granddad and grandma were real adventurous in those days, ready to try something radical. People around them thought it was a bit crazy, but many secretly wished they could afford it themselves. As time went on, it became more and more prominent and more affordable. It was especially popular among affluent people in their late fifties. The idea of “starting again” once the children had grown-up and moved-out sounded wonderful. Having more time to do all the things left undone. Having time to find yourself again. That was the mood back then, or so my granddad says.
It turned out that poor families in Latin America were being tricked to believe that their babies had died shortly after birth, when in reality, those babies had been farmed for blood.
Then the first scandals happened. It turned out that poor families in Latin America were being tricked to believe that their babies had died shortly after birth, when in reality, those babies had been farmed for blood. That was, of course, a huge controversy. The run for the treatment declined for a while. But the wish to live forever was too strong and such stories are easy to forget if forgetting is convenient. Similar crimes happened again and again, but nobody really wanted to know about it. They are very likely still there, the baby farms that is, just more well-hidden.
In Europe the whole thing took off much later. It was illegal for a long time. Some rich people traveled to the US or Asia for treatment, but in Europe it went mainstream only when laboratories could generate the protein. No babies involved. But even if available cruelty-free, the treatment remains expensive.
For granddad and grandma, it got expensive anyway. You can imagine the treatment like an addictive drug: it is not something you do once and pay for once, but you need to keep doing it again and again. It is easy to afford when you have a well-paid job, but it requires that you maintain your income in order to maintain your standard of living. So in the end, my grandparents needed to keep working in order to afford the treatment. The idea of a long retirement soon dissolved. Of course, having time had been the original promise. Live long enough to live all your dreams, or so the advertisements said. Reality is more of a nightmare. Work longer and harder and dream forever of those days spent traveling, playing with your grandchildren, having time for an endless bucket list. I actually grew up with my grandparents being fit and healthy, spending wonderful Sundays hiking. But during the week, they worked just like my parents.
One way to stop the cycle is to die. But that is not that easy either.
Many people take out loans nowadays to afford the treatment. Like my parents, they also took out a loan for me. It’s like investing in education: by keeping young, healthy and fit, you hope that you’ll earn enough to pay back the loans. Breaking out of that cycle should be possible, shouldn’t it? It’s actually very difficult. One way to stop the cycle is to die. But that is not that easy either. You will not just die after taking that stuff for ages, at least not of natural causes. Suicide is becoming an option, but doing that before you are debt-free is a huge taboo. I mean, you wouldn’t need to mind people talking once you’re dead, but you don’t want to leave your family with all that grief or all that debt.
For those who just can’t or don’t want to commit suicide, having a mortal accident is really the only other option for dying early. My grandmother died in a car accident on her way back from work, she was 118. Granddad retired the same day and stopped taking the medicine a couple of years later. It was a wakeup call. A bad one. He did some traveling without really enjoying it. But for the past 10 years he has wanted to die. He is fed up. It didn’t turn out like he had wanted. Killing himself is not an option for him though. And the strategy of taking high risks, doing things like rock-climbing without safety measures or driving into hurricanes and tornadoes, more often than not leaves people paralyzed or otherwise injured but not dead.
You might still be wondering what the fuss is about. Life is longer, you get more time to do stuff. Even if you have a longer working life, you still get more holidays more weekends and life’s rush-hour is stretched out over a longer period of time. All this is possibly true, but what if long life only equals longer drudgery, longer suffering? We live long, but for what?
Life is very, very stressful. You have endless to-do lists. Grandpa said back in the days you could always say “No I won’t do this now, I only got 24 hours every day, I can’t do everything”. That doesn’t work anymore. The day still has only 24 hours, but there are so very many 24 hours. People feel rushed, all the time, pressured to do all they can imagine doing. This is not how I wanted to live when I started the treatment at 21.
Competition is also very high. There are a lot of people who need to and are able to work. There is high unemployment and many homeless people as well as a panic not to end up in such a situation. Without a job, you can forget about the treatment, which means you’ll age, which means you are less likely to get a job. It’s a downward spiral. And consequently people do anything to keep their jobs, like working crazy hours for bad pay with almost no holiday. And the debt for the treatment is not the only financial burden many take on: people also take loans for education, houses, and cars. If you want a loan to buy a house, the bank will make you sign a document that you’ll take the treatment until you’ve paid off the loan.
Just imagine your life, but longer. A very long struggle of not getting worse.
Nowadays, life has become a struggle against things getting worse. How does that sound? Familiar? Just imagine your life, but longer. A very long struggle of not getting worse. I imagine, that when you know you’ll age, you might get to a point where you manage to change something. I imagine there might be a point when you realize that this is not how you want to spend the rest of your limited days. That must be so empowering. But now, there is always another day to start changing your life. And changing is uncomfortable, so most never change.
All that I have described so far concerns only the most affluent. A common belief is that those poorer countries need to develop and grow their national GDP so that more people can access health care and the endless-life treatment, which will further grow the economy. The same old song, just with another verse added. There is a company that got rich with an endless-life businesses that has since started a foundation that runs programmes in Africa to help people to afford the treatment. They call it charity and development aid. You could also call it a cruel investment.
Despite all of this madness, there are some who don’t take the treatment anymore or who never took it at all. They are called “oldies” and are treated like outcasts. Most of them live together in villages in the countryside. The oldies don’t make an effort to isolate themselves, but they end up quite isolated simply by the way they choose to live. I’ve thought about it myself, but it would require leaving my friends and family behind. And somehow, for some reason, I want to stay connected with what is going on, even if I don’t like it.
Back then you were fighting for a life within ecological and social limits. Now we are fighting to get limits to life itself.
I am part of a movement that calls itself STOP. We criticize the idea that life is all about longer and more, drawing ideas and inspiration from sources on post-development, degrowth, and social justice, which is what brought me to your blog. After all, the Internet doesn’t forget. Back then you were fighting for a life within ecological and social limits. Now we are fighting to get limits to life itself.
I have recently stopped the treatment myself. It is very new for me. I’m 54 now, but still have around seventy years to live, seventy years to dedicate myself to a world in which we can learn to die once again.
Corinna Burkhart is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Geography in Lund, Sweden. She is active around degrowth since 2012 and tries to think outside the box, sometimes through writing fiction.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
It always feels like things are happening all at once: just as the global economy is transforming radically and we face an environmental crisis of global proportions, new social movements are rising up giving us new ways to think about the future. Weirdly, just at this moment, some are latching on to an idealized vision of modernity and the Enlightenment to defend the status quo. This month, we read articles that complicated the idea of modernity and offered ways to think about society and nature that incorporate, but go beyond, the Enlightenment tradition.
We also highlighted international environmental justice movements, showing that not everything is rosy—but people are fighting and thinking in creative ways, imagining different kinds of modernity and new kinds of internationalism. And lest we forget, March is women’s history month, and what better way to celebrate it than to highlight the—often undervalued—role that women play in global environmental justice movements?
Uneven Earth updates
How to navigate the disorientation of a seismic world | Link | Taking inspiration from past revolutions to build a new framework for the future
Krishna never looks up | Link | “Several tentacle-antennae coiled around his extended arm like Medusa’s hair.”
The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living | Link | Notes toward a degrowth internationalism
Dreaming spaces | Link | “Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true”
Climate change mitigation and adaptation of the poor | Link | A call for decolonial responses to climate change
URGENT REPORT Protomunculus spp | Link | “If an infected robionic is discovered at any stage, universal mandate requires its immediate incineration”
Avatar revisited | Link | Gesturing at decolonization of the great epistemological divides
The young feminist who died for my people. “Despite scarcity, we do not want bullets, we do not want food, and we do not want money. All we are asking for is action that will stop Turkey from flying its warplanes over the heads of our children.”
Love in a hopeless place. A first-hand account from a German internationalist YPG fighter from the now nearly forgotten battle of Raqqa.
The wind of change: Renewables and self-determination. Katie Laing explores the fight for the right to community renewables on the island of Lewis. On one hand is a system that brings direct community control and builds a local economy, on the other one that extracts profit, control and resource from the islands.
An interview with David Bollier on the meaning of the commons for social transformation.
Carving out the commons. By now, you could be forgiven for assuming that “the commons” refers to another cocktail bar or coffee shop in yet another neighborhood people used to be able to afford. But Amanda Huron’s new book grounds the romantic notion of urban commons in the everyday struggles of working people.
Surveillance capitalism. Deleting our Facebook accounts following the recent privacy scandal is not enough: we need to challenge the structural problem of surveillance capitalism.On the digital and social networks supporting authoritarian populism, and what can be done to resist them.For those who are active on Facebook,an instruction on how to use it while giving it the minimum amount of personal data.
How American masculinity, by sending the message that needing others is a sign of weakness and that being vulnerable is unmanly, creates lonely men.
It’s easy to forget that activists fighting to eliminate injustice struggle with mental and physical health, too. A story on those who push, protest, and privately suffer as a result; and the personal account of an environmental professor whose battle with cancer helped her cope emotionally with the reality of climate change.
The necessary transience of happiness. “By selling a myth about the nature of happiness, capitalism creates atomistically-ambitious but socially-obedient individuals who can be distracted from collective values and aspirations.”
Why Americans should give socialism a try. Against the commodification of life and relationships: “Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.”
Corporations do damage to poor women with their global philanthropy. Companies like to focus their corporate social responsibility work on girls because supporting women is, in theory, noncontroversial. But such charitable efforts actually harm girls and women in the Global South by depoliticizing their problems, which are inherently political.
Climate change and the astrobiology of the Anthropocene. “We will either make it across to the other side with the maturity to ‘think like a planet’ or the planet will just move on without us. That, I believe, is the real meaning of what’s happening to us now. It’s a perspective we can’t afford to miss.”
With the 8th of March being International Women’s Day, and Women’s History Month running through March in the US, UK and beyond, this month is a good time to turn the spotlight on women’s struggles and (often overlooked and undervalued) contributions to environmental justice.
Stories of women’s resistance. Women are on the frontlines of climate change around the world: they make up 80% of people displaced by it, are more vulnerable in the aftermath of disasters, and disproportionately face other risks described in this overview from the BBC. But they are also active agents in fighting back against the climate crisis and other forms of environmental injustice.
Finland’s reindeer-herding Sámi women, faced with a combination of weather changes and increased tree cutting that threatens their centuries-old tradition, fight climate change. Meet the “Polish Mothers at the Felling”: a grassroots group of mothers protesting intensified logging practices across Poland. In Nepal, women are running for office to protect traditional forests that belong to indigenous peoples and local communities, and they’re winning. The DRC mining industry is a prime example of how corporate power threatens women’s rights: this is why feminist activists are mobilising behind a proposed international treaty to regulate the impacts of transnational corporations. Indigenous activists of the Chaco movement – the most vital branch of which may be young, Native American women – try to quell a rising tide of oil and gas exploration in Chaco Canyon. In India, women resist plantations that uproot them from their customary forests. On International Women’s Day, a petition initiated by women in West and Central African countries demanded that oil palm companies give back community land and end violence against women living in and around large-scale oil palm plantations; a struggle that women in Guatemala and Colombia and Indonesia face as well.
Here is a women’s strike reader with socialist feminist highlights from the archives of Dissent Magazine, and a list of women activists from around the world taking up the fight for social justice.
Zafer Ülger discusses environmental issues in Turkey, and points to the need for movements that unite ecological struggles with other social struggles, including women’s liberation: “The crises experienced by labor, women or oppressed peoples are not separate from the crisis of nature and ecosystems; it is just the other side of the same coin.”
Female writers and naturalists. A list of nine women who are rewriting the environment from a female perspective; a beautifully intimate portrait of Rachel Carson and her life and work on the sea; and an exploration of Nan Shepherd’s work on the mountains, and what we can learn from it. “Shepherd does for the mountain what Rachel Carson did for the ocean — both women explore entire worlds previously mapped only by men and mostly through the lens of conquest rather than contemplation; both bring to their subject a naturalist’s rigor and a poet’s reverence, gleaming from the splendor of facts a larger meditation on meaning.”
Thinking ecologically: a dialectical approach. In this essay Murray Bookchin warns against overly spiritual, reductive, and mechanistic approaches in ecological thought, injecting a political analysis into the discussion of what it means to think ecologically. In particular, he directs his ire against various strains of new age environmentalism as well as systems thinking.
Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of sci-fi classics like Red Mars and the more recent New York 2140, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian arguing for a variation of E. O. Wilson’s ‘half earth’ proposal. The idea is that humans should be kicked out of half the planet and inhabit the rest in super-dense and ecological cities. Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, two political ecologists, wrote an essay at the time critiquing Wilson’s book: “Addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality, not by blaming the poor and trusting the ‘free market’ to save them.”
With the publishing of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now!, there’s been a lot of talk about modernity and the Enlightenment, with accusations flying around of anyone who disagrees with the present state of things being accused of anti-modern and anti-Enlightenment. Here are a few rebuttals:
Downtown is for people. It’s always worth revisiting Jane Jacob’s classic 1958 essay. “If the downtown of tomorrow looks like most of the redevelopment projects being planned for it today, it will end up a monumental bore. But downtown could be made lively and exciting — and it’s not too hard to find out how.”
A nuclear warning designed to last 10,000 years. “Consider a wanderer 10,000 years in the future discovering a strange construction of granite thorns in the New Mexico desert, their points weathered by centuries, their shadows stretching at sinister angles. The wailing figure from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” itself long ago turned to dust, appears on sporadic signs near these totems. It’s unclear for what this site was intended, or who created its menacing forms.”
Apocalypse soon. The science fiction of this century is one in which great existential threats are known: they are real, and terrible.
We are currently facing the most severe migration crisis in history. In Europe, the debate on how to tackle the root causes of migration, including forced migration, happens mainly amongst established political actors such as political parties, state institutions, and large international NGOs. This debate focuses on wars, catastrophes, arms trade, and terror, which are all framed as a state of emergency.
For these actors, it is difficult to find practical, immediate solutions to the problem, because this would require addressing the root causes of those wars, going against the immediate interests of European states and international organizations. In consequence, these actors propose “development aid“ as the panacea to address root causes of migration.This aid is then tied to bilateral agreements with Arabic or African countries to prevent migration from occurring in the first place, or which make the deportation of migrants from Europe to their country of origin easier. Left-leaning critical migration researchers rightly critique this approach for misusing development co-operation as a tool for migration management.
One common response on the left is to, on the one hand, highlight the hypocrisy of trying to solve the crisis through development aid while continuing to drive these crises through arms deals and Western involvement in regional wars, and, on the other hand, framing the migrant crisis in terms of the right to free movement and the human rights of migrants.
Addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare
But this responds to only one dimension of a broader civilizational crisis. Anti-racist and migrant justice movements should not focus solely on issues of human mobility rights, the failure or even adverse effects of development aid, or Western military involvements. They also need to question the colonial division of nature and labor and what has been called the ‘imperial mode of living.’ Doing so would involve building new paths of solidarity with societies in the geopolitical Global South. In this sense, addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare and to link up with movements such as eco-feminism or degrowth. This could open up new possibilities to address social relegation due to immigration, as they exist in the Global North.
It is urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South
The left focus on critiquing the mainstream discourse easily leads to an equally politically problematic counter-position, an attitude that principally welcomes migration as something positive without questioning its root causes or the deterioration of living conditions in the Global South. However, can migration be something principally unproblematic that is to be welcomed and even increased? Does the defense of the right to migrate necessarily have to lead us to ignore the manifold coercions that force people to migrate? Must we not, on the contrary, acknowledge the real-life scenarios in the geopolitical Global South and our historical, economic and political contribution to these?
Today, a counter-hegemonic project must necessarily result from a collective construction process between the global North and South, which understands their interdependencies. Of course we have to object when governmental institutions differentiate between “good“ or “legal” refugees on the one hand, and “bad“ or “illegal” refugees on the other hand. However, this should not lead us to ignore global power relations or to paint a naive and euphemistic picture of migration as a natural phenomenon with positive connotations of personal choice and self-determination.
It is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.
By relying only on a “right to move” framework, we fail to address what makes this current wave of immigration unique. The decision of a German who prefers to live in the USA is radically different from that of a Nigerian who faces the dangers associated with fleeing and entering the EU undocumented. At the end of 2015, over 65 million persons were displaced globally—a historical record. In light of this situation, it is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.
As already mentioned, this process is rooted in the international division of labor, and, more specifically, the exploitation of nature (‘resources’) and cheap labor in the Global South to ensure unlimited consumption options in the North. Because of this, the geopolitical South is increasingly faced with “accumulation by dispossession” as the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, to satisfy the demand for commodities of the North and new middle and upper classes in some southern countries. This greed for raw materials has led to a massive expansion and acceleration of extractivism: the export of oil, minerals or cash crops is often the only possibility for Southern economies to integrate themselves into the existing world market. As the reports of several human rights organizations show, these processes destroy the material conditions necessary for the lives of increasing numbers of people. The destruction is not only environmental, but often includes the very social fabric of the concerned regions. People are forced to migrate, and are dispossessed of their social bonds and cultural contexts and knowledges. The so-called ‘green economy’, often mentioned as a ‘clean’ solution to combine ecological concerns with economic growth – for example wind or solar energy production or electric cars – also requires resources such as rare minerals, cobalt, lithium or copper, whose exploitation leads to destructive social-ecological conflicts elsewhere.
At the same time, the globalized world market ensures that production chains and power relations, and effects like environmental destruction and exploitation which are inscribed in all consumer goods, remain abstract or are systematically obscured. However, those global value chains and power relations constitute a causal link between the imperial mode of living in the geopolitical North and the root causes for flight and migration in the South. In most cases, migration is not a freely-chosen emancipated decision, but a reaction to a specific concurrence of constraints, for example capitalist, gender-specific, ecological and/or (neo)colonial ones. Many of those people who play cat and mouse with the European border-regime today would rather have stayed in their own cultural and socio-economic contexts, if this had been a viable option.
Who has the right to the imperial mode of living?
The imperial mode of living divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter
The term ‘imperial mode of living’, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, does not seek to describe a certain lifestyle practiced by specific social milieus. Rather, it refers to the hegemonic patterns of production, distribution, and consumption in combination with related cultural imaginaries and subjectivities. These are deeply embedded in the day-to-day practices of the majorities in the global North and increasingly find their ways into the upper and middle classes of countries in the global South.
This mode of living is imperial insofar as it assumes unlimited access to all resources – the space, nature, cheap labor, and sinks of the entire planet – only for a small and privileged minority of the global population. This mode of living is only possible while such unlimited access is secured either by political and judicial means, or by military means and violence. The imperial mode of living connects the geopolitical North and South insofar as it represents their shared hegemonic ideal of a successful and good life under current capitalist conditions, an ideal closely related to the promise of ‘catch-up development’. But at the same time, it divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter.
Without doubt, open borders and global mobility have to be fought for, especially against nationalist or right-wing environmentalism. But new questions arise around these claims if we consider the global division of labor and nature and the imperial mode of living. Does the claim to open borders and the right to move translate into the right for every human to participate in this mode of living, including those from the global South, if necessary, via migration? This is impossible for two reasons: firstly, while the multidimensional ecological crisis is already threatening the material conditions for the reproduction of life on our planet, the ecological destruction necessary to sustain this mode of living would be intensified. Secondly, because the imperial mode of living always requires an ‘elsewhere’, a foreign space to where exploitation and destruction can be externalized. But when applied to everybody, such an ’elsewhere’ would no longer exist. Without a doubt, many migrants indeed come to Europe hoping to participate in the imperial mode of living, which in most cases reveals to be an illusion, due to the manifold mechanisms of a “selective inclusion“ in place. However, the real question should be: do they, do we, or does anybody at all have the right to a mode of living that exploits and destroys the livelihoods of other people?
New perceptions of the good life
A critical left perspective on refugees and migration that is in solidarity with the global South requires a comprehensive paradigm-shift. The hegemonic discourse of what is considered a good and successful life is based on a number of problematic assumptions: that life as it is today in the Western World represents the highest stage of development of human civilization, and that modifying it would necessarily constitute a loss; that happiness inevitably relies on mass consumption and the accumulation of material goods; that the path of history is one and linear and that other modes of living that are less permeated by capitalist logics and based on different world views are necessarily inferior, backward and underdeveloped on this path; that the advancement of technology is only possible via multinational corporations; that it is the state which has to provide social welfare in a centralized manner; and that – as the idea of socialism in the 20th century suggested – one single, universally applicable master plan is needed before we can initiate change.
Modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.
In my opinion, the key way to challenge this narrative lies in the connection between anti-racist struggles for the right to migrate and struggles for a different, less alienated, less accelerated, and individualized life. Such struggles do exist in Europe and the geopolitical North and have gained strength over recent years. The degrowth movement and ecofeminism undermine the basis of chauvinist feelings of ‘entitlement’ to prosperity and of widespread fears of being socially deprived by the presence of migrants or refugees, insofar as these struggles fundamentally question the narrative that the western, European way of life equals prosperity or a good life. As Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen puts it, “we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are materially well-supplied or even over-supplied, but nevertheless we experience needs. The big problems of our times are individualistic isolation, loneliness and existential fears, as well as the recourse to racist, nationalist patterns of conviviality as we lack of emancipatory concepts.”
Movements such as degrowth and ecofeminism tackle consumption patterns of the imperial mode of living in their everyday dimension, thus opening up possibilities of active transformation for people in the geopolitical global North. These movements make it possible to collectively learn that modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.
Of course, our social reproduction and the fulfillment of our needs do have a material dimension. But this material dimension a) does not necessarily have to be governed exclusively by money – see for example the debate and practice around commons and commonism – and b) is not the only dimension there is to poverty and wealth. Notions of abundance, value, and wealth related to quality of relationships, self-determination, self-reliance, the ability to redistribute, the experience of finding meaning in life, and the effective power to act are systematically made invisible by the poverty indicators which dominate the development discourse: quality of life is reduced to money, consumption and, at best, access to public services.
In the last decade, the alternative paradigm of Buen Vivir(living well) – emerged from some Latin American countries as a counter-narrative to capitalist wellbeing. It considers humans as part of Nature, thus promotes harmonic relations with all other beings, and puts emphasis on communitarian construction from below in a territorial sense, leaving plenty of room for diversity. Other important principles are equilibrium, reciprocity and complementarity instead of accumulation, progress, growth and competition. Buen vivir, if it is developed from the bottom up and, above all, in democratic ways – will inevitably have different shapes in different contexts. This is why emancipatory debates in Latin America increasingly speak of los buenos vivires in plural.
Movements such as degrowth or the commons can connect with struggles around Buen Vivir, post-extractivism and post-development in the global South, opening up a perspective through which people in the geopolitical North and South can work together to overcome the hegemony of the imperial mode of living. These approaches also take on responsibility for challenging imperial day-to-day practices and can directly and simultaneously address the root causes of forced migration, often caused by compensatory mass-consumption elsewhere, and the roots of the global ecological crisis.
Considering social welfare globally
Finally, what about the alleged threat that migration poses to the welfare state? If we are consequently striving for social equity, we can only consider welfare or social security in a truly global manner. Although this might sound threatening at first, in my opinion nobody has a birth right to certain social benefits. Some of the feminist debates around care and commons are path-breaking here. If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state, as it has existed only in a small part of the world, and only for a few decades – on the basis of cheap energy and centuries of previous value transfer from the global South – then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts. The commoning of care might be a possible pathway, while at the same time reducing the hours dedicated to paid labor – without abstaining from the state altogether, which would still need to provide the ideal conditions for this kind of commoning.
If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts.
Consequently, anti-racist movements and critical migration research cannot be content with fighting the European border regime by advocating open borders.. As an offensive strategy against racist prosperity-chauvinism, their critiques should just as much focus on the imperial mode of living and the associated uneven North-South relationships, as well as hegemonic perceptions of a good life. An up-to-date perspective on inter-peoples-relations should clearly tackle the root causes of forced migration by effectively reducing the energy and matter consumed in the global North, and, at the same time, develop new approaches for a global social welfare that do not consider welfare as a privilege related to one’s dwelling place or birth right.
A version of this article first appeared on Degrowth.de.
Miriam Lang is professor for Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. She studied Latin American Studies at Free University of Berlin and holds a PhD in Sociology. In the 1990s she was active in the anti-racist movement in Berlin. She has lived in Latin America since 2003, and for the last 12 years in Ecuador.
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Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
February is the shortest month, but holy crap we do have a lot of cool links for you. This month, we cover some new research about the limits of the good life, the impact of companies like AirBnB and Amazon on our cities, the changing Latin American politics, and the importance of Indigenous ways of seeing the world. The work of Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson has also triggered a new series of discussions on the importance of science and its links to colonialism and racism. In the sci-fi department, we’ve got a whole new slew of fiction for you, analysis from writers like China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson, and a feature on black science-fiction writers.
Uneven Earth updates
La Barceloneta’s Struggle Against (Environmental) Gentrification | Link
“A city-wide urban struggle that evolved in defense of the needs and rights of residents over capital and profit.”
The Transition: towards a psycho-social history | Link
“The facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours.”
“After the Division, Avon split from Greater Thames and declared a matriarchy”
You might’ve missed…
Turns out that carbon capture is a pipe dream. Not many know that the fine print of the Paris Treaty relied on a dirty little secret: the advent of carbon capture technology. But it turns out that this is a pipe dream. The unavoidable fact is, we just have to make less stuff, burn less oil, and grow more trees. Read the stories from Wired, The Guardian, and the original report from EASAC.
You may have heard of Route 66, “the main street of America”, but Highway BR-163 in Brazil may be just as epic. This beautiful photo essay about this single highway tells the story of the complex political ecology of rainforest deforestation.
The Samarco dam collapse in 2015 was Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. What’s happened since, and who’s to blame? This investigative piece gives us the update.
Is it possible for everyone to live well? This study mapped indicators of well-being along with every country’s environmental impact. Turns out most don’t make the cut, and Vietnam comes closest to balancing the good life and environmental impacts. Though these numbers just tell part of the story, the study has had international impact, starting a much-needed discussion on what it means to live well today.
It’s behind the scenes, as always, but new rounds of trade negotiations are happening and they will affect the world for generations to come. Here’s an article dishing it out about the CEPA trade deal (EU-Indonesia), a perspective from Kenya by Justus Lavi Mwololo, a representative of small farmers, and an explainer about how the new NAFTA negotiations affect Mexican workers.
We’re over one month into Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish canton Afrin in Syria, and since then, there’s been an international outcry. This piece in Jacobin lays out the stakes behind the attack, here’s an op-ed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in the Wall Street Journal, another opinion piece by Rahila Gupta on CNN’s website, and a piece by David Graeber asking why world leaders are backing Turkey’s invasion. And here’s a piece on the ecological initiatives happening right now in Rojava.
Here’s a letter from Evin Jiyan Kisanak, the daughter of Gultan Kisanak, telling the story of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey and their oppression: “My mom, who still has traces on her body from the torture she suffered, always sees light in the face of profound despair. Today she is in prison again, but her belief in peace and equality is unrelenting. Her will is unyielding.”
In the face of our climate crisis, a group of five activists known asthe Valve Turners decided not to wait for the law to catch up and took matters into their own hands. This is a story on their direct action.
A striking piece in New York Magazine linking loneliness and the opioid epidemic: “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.”
Another photo essay, this time an intricate story about industrial farming in California, the migrant workers who toil the fields and processing plants, and how it intersects with climate change.
Introducing vTaiwan: Citizens are pioneering new public participation methods through online civic involvement. They’ve become so successful that the government has been forced to listen.
What happened in Catalonia? This article explores how the roots of the independence movement was in based in the fight for neighborhood, not nationhood—and this is what most outside observers don’t seem to get.
Socialist organizing was never just about striking in the workplace. This article explores the vibrant dance halls, social clubs, Sunday schools, and film screenings of socialist movements, and why they declined starting in the 1950s. Today, as young people are once again becoming interested in socialism, they can stand to learn a lot from the block-by-block initiatives of the past.
Environmentalists are often caricatured as hippy-dippy young people, removed from common people’s interests. In this beautiful photo essay, we’re guided through the diversity of people resisting fracking in one village in North England.
Indigenous activism is seeing a resurgence, and, finally, growing interest amongst non-Indigenous and settler communities. What can the white left learn from Indigenous movements, and how can it build better alliances? This article explores what decolonization would mean in today’s context.
What’s wrong with the financial system? If you ask a banker or a politician, their ignorance of how money works, and how debt powers the whole system, will become immediately apparent. The organization Positive Money has been putting a lot of work into battling misconceptions and putting forward alternatives. They recently came out with a report on how we can escape the growth dependency that our money system forces us into. Here’s a summary of the report in The Independent.
The local initiatives happening around the world can be a bit overwhelming. How can we think of them all together, understand them as part of one big movement? In this report, titled Libertarian Municipalism, Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition, Kevin Carson highlights the diverse movements in cities globally and the theories that can help us understand them.
Have you heard of Cooperation Jackson? It’s a worker-owned cooperative in Jackson, Mississippi, but so much more. Through their efforts, they’ve successfully kick-started a movement led by black folks that eventually took over city hall. This video explains what’s going on and why it’s so important.
The new housing rights movements in the US have the real estate industry running scared. The Nation reports.
Have you heard of the Preston model? It’s helping to start a new conversation about the role of local government in locally-driven economic revitalization and transforming ownership towards democratic alternatives.
A new series was launched in the Guardian, ‘The alternatives’, in which Aditya Chakrabortty looks at ways to make the economy work for everyone.
Jason Hickel on why, by removing the walls that separate the causes and consequences of climate change, we can encourage constructive action.
“This is real politics. It’s personal. It’s a lived experience that you are a part of and implicated in, whether you had asked to be or not.” The staff strikes at Cambridge inspired Alice Hawkins to reflect on political engagement.
Where we’re at: analysis
Different perspectives on human history, the Anthropocene, and climate change
David Graeber and David Wengrow rethink world history as we know it: contrary to the popular narrative which conflates the origin of social inequality with the agricultural revolution, egalitarian cities and regional confederacies are historically quite commonplace, and inequalities first emerged within families and households (it’s worth mentioning that feminist scholars and other marginal voices have worked on stories of micro-scale inequalities for a long time). In an interview from 2016, Nancy Fraser discusses how the work involved in social reproduction is severely undervalued and taken for granted as ‘gifts’ in capitalist societies. This article highlights the need for thought on the Anthropocene to include African perspectives and scholarship, and a recent World Bank report provides new evidence of the massive ongoing extraction of the continent’s wealth by the rest of the word.
The fact that young people are opting out of having children because of climate change is an urgent call for action, and so is the alarming research on how it is worsening public health problems. During these times of crisis we’re facing, art can help us process what’s going on, intellectually and emotionally.
An analysis of Latin American politics.Against the backdrop of state and gang violence, some of Latin America’s most affected communities have taken radical measures to defend themselves and build new social counter-powers from below. Arturo Escobar discusses post-development and the fight for justice and pluralism in Latin America. “As inequality and environmental degradation worsen, the search is on not only for alternative development models but also for alternatives to development itself.” Elsewhere, Pablo Solón discusses the cosmovisions emerging from Latin America’s Indigenous movements, and Miriam Lang and Edgardo Lander talk about the slow demise of Latin America’s “pink tide”.
Just think about it…
“This exploitation by powerful men of women and girls in the most abject of circumstances has been misleadingly framed broadly in terms of “sex work” and “sex parties” in dominant narratives in the Western press.” Some good points and context on the Oxfam scandal and its aftermath.
The logic of consumerism has come to infect what we mean by gentrification. “The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement — it’s something psychic, a theft of pride.” When ‘Gentrification’ isn’t about housing.
Technology and the new economy
The capitalist work ethic and the fear of leisure
The conversation about how human work is impacted by new forms of industrial technology continues. Here is a podcast from the Guardianwhich introduces different ideas about alternatives to work as we know it.
As Silicon Valley entrepreneurs turn “the end of work” and basic income into their new hobbyhorses, one article instead suggests a new public sector to guarantee both jobs and leisure time. Another article says “the end of work” is a sham—since new technologies in industrial production are driven by controlling labour and not liberating it. Others focus on a critique of work: on the capitalist work ethic which makes people too busy to think and (conveniently for capital) to be engaged in politics; on working less as a solution to everything and the long history of elites fearing the leisure time of the poor; and on how Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers can help industrial societies rethink work.
For a historical perspective on the discussion and on different ways of looking at new technologies, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay on Luddism is a must-read.
Is energy efficiency a good thing? Not especially. This feature in The Tyee takes us through some of the thinkers and researchers like Jacques Ellul, Stanley Jevons, and Elizabeth Shove on the problems with efficiency in an economy that just keeps growing.
What are “Western values”, really? Peter Harrison argues that the potential of a Western tradition lies “in the preservation of a rich and varied past that can continue to serve as on ongoing challenge to the priorities and “values” of the present.”
Part of the Zapatistas’ project of resisting indigenous genocide, capitalism, and political repression is their struggle to decolonize knowledge. This is an article on the discussions between Zapatistas and leading left-wing scientists during the second iteration of the ConCiencias conference in December 2017.
Indigenous knowledge is finally being recognized as a valuable source of information by Western archaeologists, ecologists, biologists, climatologists and others.
Even so, the relationship between traditional ecological knowledge and Western science remains problematic.
Massimo Pigliucci tackles scientism: “when scientistic thinkers pretend that any human activity that has to do with reasoning about facts is “science” they are attempting a bold move of naked cultural colonization, defining everything else either out of existence or into irrelevance.”
“Current environmental policy textbooks are all stuck in a liberal narrative of environmental progress through political consent.” Melanie DuPuis elaborates on the concepts that are missing from this narrative.
Race science—that we can prove the superiority of one race over another through science—is rearing its ugly head again, with Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker playing some unwelcome roles. But as Gavin Evans shows in this Guardian article, it’s still as bogus as ever.
“The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together… There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford.”
Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation has been turned into eco-thriller movie, and people are pretty stoked. For Laura Perry, it “offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life”. And there’s a feature in Macleans on Jeff VanderMeer and his “new weird”.
The future is now? Five science fiction writers speculate on what science fiction can do when the present seems more and more like a science fiction story. On the genre as social critique, an ethics of science, and a place to consider questions of meaning and value.
An interview with climate fiction and utopian science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the roles of science, fiction, and science fiction today, the limits of tech-only solutions to environmental problems, and sci-fi as the realism of our time.
In The progress of this storm, Andreas Malm both criticizes the increasingly popular environmentalist idea of the “death of nature” and imagines political change through an ecologically class-conscious popular movement. This interview covers the latter point and this review covers both.
A review of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism by Melinda Cooper at Jacobin.
“Most resistance does not speak its name”: James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, talks about his work.
“How will we have enough resources to support those people sustainably and equitably? Should we develop new technologies to respond to those challenges? Or should we focus instead on trying to limit growth and develop more of a harmony with the nature around us?” Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet is a testimonial to the art of the possible.
Utopian dreamers, other-worldly explorers and psychonautic adventurers, scholars, activists, students, and critics: we are officially inviting submissions for a new collaborative writing project that combines critical perspectives and creative possibilities. Drawing inspiration from Uneven Earth, an online magazine for political ecology established in 2015, we are excited to announce the launch of a new section, called Not afraid of the ruins, dedicated to science-fiction and utopian imaginings. The goal of this new section will be to regularly showcase new, original, creative and critical reflections to foster intimate and productive conversations across the intellectual and creative arts.
The fertile ground between science fiction and social/environmental justice has long been an arena for speculation and exploration by academics, activists, and creative writers. From the academy to the field and beyond, the works of science fiction writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood (among many, many others) have presented unique corollaries to the diverse worlds and experiences we encounter in political ecology and social/environmental justice research and activism. Our goal with this project is to create a space explicitly open to exploring such convergences, a space that is neither formally academic nor wholly creative fiction, but instead, in the true spirit of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seeks to tap the potential that exists in the liminal space between these otherwise isolated worlds of thought. We hope that such an endeavor will produce seeds for imagining that will go forward and populate unexpected places both far and near.
There are no strict guidelines for submission in regards to content, format or length although we will maintain editorial oversight of submissions. While shorter pieces up to 2,500 words may be most suitable, we are happy to consider longer pieces, especially as they explore the creative possibilities of such a genre-melding forum. We are particularly interested in pieces that engage with the themes of:
Examples of pieces that we would ideally consider include, but are not limited to:
Utopian dreams and/or dystopian nightmares: explorations of queer, feminist, decolonial, afro-futurist, anarchist, luxury communist, degrowth, and post-capitalist ecologies.
Conversations between science fiction and political ecology, social, environmental and climatic justice.
Critical analysis of academic and science fiction literature, either old or new.
Thought pieces blending science fiction and contemporary social, economic, and political struggles.
Fictional renderings of field experiences and/or relevant research topics.
While the short term aim of this project is to develop a space for cross-cutting collaboration and conversation, we are also hoping to create the possibility for publication opportunities beyond the blog. We regret that we cannot currently offer financial remuneration for submissions to this section, however, Uneven Earth does offer a writing grantfor non-fiction pieces.
In order to submit a piece, please send us an email to ruins[at]unevenearth.org which includes:
A short paragraph about your idea/topics
A short paragraph about yourself and your motivation to publish with the blog
Deadline: Friday, September 22 (Autumn Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere)
Deadline: Friday, September 29
In an age of unprecedented climatic, social and political change, we believe that such a project is as important and urgent as ever. We feel compelled, as academics and activists and human beings, to not only critically reflect upon our shared human and ecological condition, but to dare to dream otherwise, to imagine things not only as they are, but to reimagine them as they could be. It is our hope that this blog will provide both space and motivation for doing just that.
Please feel free to contact us with any questions, thoughts, or ideas.
We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.
These words are from the Greek Poet Giorgos Seferis’ speech at the Nobel Banquet. Today they are more relevant than ever, as humanity fights against a ‘contemporary Sphinx’: the utopian ideal of an infinite growth defined by economic indicators and theories. This promethean way of living has sustained the idea that increased wealth was the ‘one pill to cure them all.’
However, in the past years, it has become more and more obvious that resources are finite and that the planet cannot sustain continued growth. And just like that, the utopian ideal started falling apart. The latest economic crisis showed the cruelest face of the unsustainable capitalistic system. It has become clear now, more than ever, that we live in an absurd world, that despite increased wealth, unemployment and poverty are increasing, conflicts are continuing, and inequality keeps rising. In this context, the idea of degrowth points to an alternative route, and establishes a vocabulary to describe a new world based on solidarity and cooperation.
While the idea of degrowth is rather old (seeds can be found in the 1970s), the movement has only started to gain ground in recent years, especially in the echoes of the recent economic crisis. The Conferences in Leipzig in 2014 and in Budapest in 2016 brought together thousands of scientists and citizens with different backgrounds and ideologies including sufficiency-orientated critics of civilization, reformists, pacifist idealists, and libertarian leftists. However, they all seem to share the common belief that the current economic model is unsustainable, as well as a vision of a different way of living.
Perhaps because the movement found its voice through people’s dissatisfaction following economic crisis, many confuse degrowth with the idea of ‘unsustainable degrowth’, which is often synonymous with economic recession and social instability. On the contrary, the core of ‘sustainable degrowth’ is the concept of ‘progress’, but a progress not related to an increase of the GDP, large-scale production, or over-consumption. As Tim Jackson puts it, ‘Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth’. And exactly this is the myth that the degrowth movement seeks to demystify.
At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War.
At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War. Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001 and since then joined the privileges of being a member of the EU monetary union, which led to a rapid increase in GDP between 2002 and 2008. However, Greece was unable to recover from the global economic crisis and, in 2009, Greek debt peaked at €310.4 billion.
Since then, the country has been trapped in a vicious cycle of bailout programs and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), under the watchful eye of the German government. These measures came with many costs. The austerity plans included strict public cuts (in health and education), measures in the private sector (massive dismissals), increased taxes, and reduced pensions. These decisions increased political instability and had a severe social cost. Unemployment was last reported to be at 23%, and 45.7% among young people (January 2017); while there are more than 20,000 homeless people (February 2016). Thus, the initial economic crisis has been transformed into a multifaceted social, political, and environmental crisis—what Geels calls a ‘triple crisis’, each of which is connected to the other.
In Greece, these interactions are now becoming clear. There was an increase in the number of smog events due to the increased price of oil, while it a rapid increase in illegal hunting and logging related to sharp budget cuts in conservation was also observed.
In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity.
In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity. It is true that economic crises are complex phenomena, and a form of exogenous shock in the society. On the other hand, they are also an opportunity to challenge the current way of thinking and they can open a door to a profound change.
As some supporters of degrowth have claimed, this new era will be born from the ashes of the present unsustainable system, or more specifically, active social movements can gradually pave the way for a bigger change. The work of Giorgos Kallis, Francois Schneider, and Joan Martinez-Alier offers a useful starting point. They claim that a crisis can be seen as an opportunity for alternative discourses and the seeds can be found in community-based initiatives that can form the pieces that, in the future, will fit into a bigger puzzle.
This idea triggered my interest, and I decided to focus my research on the question of a sustainable degrowth transition in Greece, and to what extent it could result from this increased civic engagement. And taking this as a starting point, the idea I want to put forward is that in Greece, despite the crisis (οr because of the crisis) one can find the seeds that can support the idea of degrowth.
The early seeds of a degrowth economy in Greece
Civic engagement was rather underdeveloped in Greece before the economic crisis. For instance, in 2005, the Civicus Survey pointed out that Greek civil society is anemic, as it was dominated by political parties and the family. However, in the wake of the economic crisis, civic activism appeared as a spontaneous response to increased social inequality and poverty. Aside from the increased number of NGOs, new, informal groups based on solidarity erupted and formed grassroots movements and networks. In times of crisis an ‘alternative, parallel’ economy was born.
But it would be a mistake to assume that this new economy came out of nowhere. Greece is a country with a strong sense of community and a culture of self-organization. The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point. Unfortunately, these small businesses are also the most harmed by the economic crisis and the austerity measures. Between 2008 and 2015, more than 20.000 small local businesses closed in Greece, according to the European Commission. As a response to the absence of local gathering points, and the loss of jobs, a number of social movements and cooperations emerged during the times of crisis.
The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point.
What’s more, the idea of cooperation has always been an important element of Greek tradition. In fact, Greek cooperative traditions may be the oldest in Europe. The idea of self-organization can be found in ancient Greek times in the form of trade unions. Cooperatives were also present, in a more advanced form, in the Byzantine Empire. These consisted of unions of land or livestock owners into common production and management systems. In this period they were recognized by the legislation of Leo VI the Wise and achieved increased autonomy—becoming a vital part of the economy.
Cooperatives were also present during the Ottoman rule (1453- 1821) and had an important role during the national liberation war of 1821. During this period new cooperatives popped up in small villages, where small groups of producers known as ‘syntrofies’ (companies or friendships) decided to cooperate to avoid competition. In some cases they were even able to export their products to other European countries.17 After Greece became an independent country the cooperations remained active, working for the establishment of a democratic regime.
The revitalization of Greece’s cooperative movement
Coming back to the present, the Greek cooperative movement is still a vibrant part of the economy. The numbers speak for themselves, as there are currently more than 3000 agriculture cooperatives, 14 co-operative banks and 48 womens’ co-operatives. In addition, one can find 23 electrician, 33 plumber and 41 pharmacist co-operatives all around the country.
Lately, the idea of cooperatives has once again increased in popularity. People prefer products they can trust and remind them of their ‘grandmother in the village’. They also want to support local communities. Ιn this context, cooperatives offer products whose raw materials come directly from the land of the members of the cooperative or the village, they are often based on traditional recipes from the women in the villages, and in most cases they pack and promote their products by themselves.
On the island of Lesvos, more and more women who lost their job during the crisis joined the women’s cooperative. This increase in the number of memberships gave them the opportunity to augment their production and expand their network. They take advantage of the oranges produced in the area, which remained unused the previous years, to make desserts and jams. They also use ‘neratzath’, a type of rose water made from the leaves of the orange tree, to make cosmetics and perfumes. Nowadays, their products (sweets, jams, pasta, and cheese) can be found all around the country.
Even in big cities a number of cooperatives have sprung up. In Athens one can find the cooperative coffee shops Mantalaki, Pagkaki, Syggrouomeno; the Syn Allois shop, an importer of fair-trade products; the publisher Ekdoseis ton Sinaderfon; the computer repair shop Stin Priza; and the grocery store Lacandona, among others. Many of these stores operate under the umbrella of a bigger network, Kolektivas.
The ‘do you want milk’ cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.
One initiative is the ‘do you want milk’ (thes gala) cooperative. The cooperative is made up of milk producers from central Greece and supplies with fresh milk a number of ‘milk ATMs’ in Larissa, Athens, and Greece. Consumers can fill their bottles with fresh milk, produced less than 24 hours ago, with a cheaper price than can be found in the supermarket. The cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.
New consumption habits
Overall, consumption in Greece had been significantly reduced as a result of diminished wages and pensions. As documented by the Hellenic Statistical Authority in 2014, average household consumption expenditure went down by almost 32% since 2009.
As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities
As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities. One of the most famous is located in the neighborhood of Eksarcheia; a neighborhood known for its anti-establishment and anarchist character. In this store, one can trade old clothes for new ones. ‘Our store is a response to the overconsumption, which is one of the reasons that brought us into the present crisis,’ said one of the women who worked there:
Nowadays, more and more people prefer to buy second hand clothes, especially if they can exchange them with some of the clothes they don’t need anymore. Of course some of our clients are people who can’t afford buying new clothes but the past year we see more and more people who choose not to buy new clothes as a way of living.
In the same spirit one can find similar initiatives of book exchange, furniture exchange, and even exchange of mobile phones.
Another important element of the Greek tradition is the ‘100 km rule’ (before it became famous internationally as the ‘100 mile diet’). According to this principle, people should aim to consume products that are produced within 100km from the residence. Τhis concept was a pillar of the Greek diet between the 50s and 80s, however, due to increased urbanization and working hours, and the large variety of products available on supermarkets, it was replaced by the concepts of ‘easy’ and ‘quick food’. Recently, the idea of the ‘local farmers market’ aims to bring back this idea. Producers from all around the country gather in a different neighborhood every Sunday and sell their products without Intermediaries.
In one of my visits in a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, I had the chance to speak with M.X., a cheese producer from northern Greece. ‘Because of the crisis people want to make sure they buy local products,’ she told me. ‘More and more people tell me that they avoid buying from big supermarkets, not only because the products are more expensive, but because they know that, in this way, international brands take advantage of the Greek producers and buyers,’ she added. ‘I talk with people and give them all the information they need about my products. I am even willing to negotiate the price when someone can’t afford it!’
Social solidarity groups are also rapidly growing these past years. The work of organizations like ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Doctors of the World’, which were active before the crisis, are now supported by new health care organizations like the ‘social infirmaries’ (koinonika iatreia). Acting at a municipal level, these groups consist of doctors and nurses who treat patients for free. Similar initiatives are organized by pharmacists, teachers, and even coffee shops, which offer a free cup of coffee to people who cannot afford it.
Last but not least, a number of more politically-oriented social movements emerged during the times of crisis as a response to the austerity measures and the dysfunctional democracy. The big protests of 2008, the movement in Sundagma square and the ‘I won’t pay movement’ (Kínima den Pliróno) are some examples. Squares and occupied public and private buildings were transformed into sites of political contestation and mobilization.
From ‘a way of living’ to a way to ‘make a living’
The above examples illustrate an increased tendency around niches of social movements that can form an alternative model of growth, based on solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect. Many of these initiatives form part of the tradition that is rooted in the Greek culture that did not fade completely in modern life. This can offer a comparative advantage towards a potential transition to a degrowth model, as many of the ideas this model embodies are neither new nor strange to the Greek society. Of course these former traditional societies had a number of limitations (e.g. racism, xenophobia) that are not in line with the ideas the degrowth movement puts forward. Thus it is essential to learn from the past and keep the positive elements that can pave the way for a new way of living.
These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’.
These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’. Nowadays, many of the people who choose to buy from second hand stores or to visit the farmers market are driven by need. On the contrary, this attitude should grow into a fundamental mentality. Most of the people I had the chance to interview pointed out that, in the past years, they observed a change in people’s attitude, mainly because of the ongoing crisis that made many question the success of the present system. But is this enough?
The answer is no. This is only a first step in a long path. These initiatives will not have a significant impact if they are not supported by adequate education and publicity. Such instruments can strengthen these alternatives by raising awareness—triggering the interest of more people and encouraging the formation of new projects.
State intervention is another factor that can shape social movements. In the case of Greece, the government seems to ignore the importance of these movements, and often threatens their existence through increased taxation and stricter legislation. In the present political situation, it is nearly impossible to picture a major movement that does not involve the state. At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction as it’s a common belief that the state is a unitary actor, and that social movements are a separate unity and often in opposition to the state. In this context one should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them. To use the words of Saturnino Borras, ‘societal actors attempt to influence and transform state actors, but in the process are themselves transformed—and vice versa.’ Thus, realizing the potential of these initiatives, especially at a municipal level, could be a crucial first step.
One should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them.
Today, we are participants in a complex and severe crisis, and a radical crisis requires radical solutions. Through a number of examples it became obvious that in Greece there is groundwork for a transition to sustainable degrowth. There are seeds in the numerous social movements, voluntary actions, and solidarity networks. What remains to be seen is if the seeds will flower. We should not forget that, as Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.’
Many thanks to all the interviewees and to Brayton Noll for his useful comments.
Marula Tsagkari is a researcher, and environmental professional from Athens, Greece. She holds a BSc in Biology and she is currently enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental, Science, Policy and Management. She lives in Athens, Greece and her research focuses on the areas of Environmental Politics, Policy and Justice especially in the European South.
For the past little while I’ve been involved with a group in Barcelona, which studies and advocates ‘degrowth’: the idea that we must downscale production and consumption to have a more equitable society, and that we therefore must dismantle the ideology of ‘economic growth at all costs’. As you can imagine, they spend much of their time trying to clear up misconceptions: “No, we’re not against trees growing. Yes, we also would like children to grow. Yes, we also like nice things like healthcare.”
But this last year I was living in London. There, activist ideology seemed to be permeated by the ‘accelerationists’—who argue that capitalism and its technologies should be pushed beyond their own limits, to create a new post-capitalist future. Accelerationism is almost like, having tried hard to evade a black hole, a ship’s crew decides that the best course of action would be to turn around and let themselves be sucked in: “Hey, there could be something cool on the other side!”
After a year of experiences in some of London’s activist circles, I now understand better where this is coming from. Decades of government cutbacks, squashing of unions, total financialization of the city, and lack of access to resources for community organizing has meant that London activists are systematically in crisis mode—exhausted, isolated, and always on the defensive.
These worlds of thought are best encapsulated in two recent books. In Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, edited by Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, its authors explain concepts such as care, environmental justice, basic income, commons—all of which are seen as part of degrowth’s “interpretive frame”. For them, degrowth is an umbrella term that houses a variety of movements, ideologies, and ideas for a more sustainable, and less capitalist, world.
Surprisingly, both books have a lot in common. You have the utopian imaginaries, a renewed focus on alternative economics, the willingness to think beyond both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, and the ability to grapple with contemporary technology’s effects on society and the environment.
But they are also quite different. These differences were made real to me on a dreary Saturday afternoon last winter at an event in London called “Future Society Forum”. After a short introduction by Nick Snricek, activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like.
The room was divided into different ‘themes’: work, health, environment and resources, education, etc. We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for “futures” particular to each theme. (Comically, someone had put ‘basic income’ on every single theme before the event had even started—an attempt at subliminal messaging?) Then, we were asked to split into groups to discuss each theme.
Given my background, I decided I could contribute most to the ‘environment’ theme—though I was certainly interested in joining the others. After a 15-minute discussion, the time came for each group to feed back to the larger collective. Unsurprisingly, the environment group envisioned a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.
The ‘work’ group, on the other hand, envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the “fully-automated luxury communist” dream.
Talk about selection bias.
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes. Was it just an armistice to prepare for a bigger battle down the road, or was there really less animosity than I imagined?
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes.
Of course such differences are not totally new on the left—similar opposing strands played their part in social movements of the past: should we smash the machines or take them into our own hands? Should we grab the reigns of the state or disown it outright? Friedrich Engels may have totally dismissed peasants as possible revolutionaries, but the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin insisted that peasants could, and would, be crucial in creating a world beyond capitalism—and that the left could learn from peasant communes for an idea of what another world would look like.
These same tensions are competing in the accelerationist and degrowth ideologies. Accelerationists like Srnicek and Williams emphasize automation, the role of unions, and reduction in the working week as the primary variables in shifting the gears beyond capitalism. Their focus is on the big stuff (labor, global trade) and they argue a focus on small interventions by the left is part of the problem, not a solution to it. Degrowth scholars look toward small “nowtopias” and make alliances with those struggling against extractivism—often peasants, forest-dwellers, and indigenous peoples.
When I was done reading Srnicek and Williams’ book, I realized that degrowth and accelerationism (although I’ve since learned that Williams and Srnicek now distance themselves from the term, so as not to be confused with more right-wing strains of the movement) actually have more in common than I initially thought—both in practical terms (policies and strategy), and in their general ideological positions. And they have a lot to learn from each other.
What follows is a bit of a report: a conversation between the two proposals. There will be some critique, but also some cross-pollination. My discussion revolves around a couple of themes: the importance of utopian thinking, technology, economy, and political strategy.
If there is commonality there is also difference. How is it possible that, considering so many agreements, they have such an oppositional framing of the problem at hand? By way of a conclusion, I suggest that the notion of ‘speed’—and their divergent views of it—is fundamental to each position.
As David Graeber put it in yet another tasty essay, social movements today are experiencing a kind of “despair fatigue”: no longer content with merely commiserating about cuts to social services, there has been a rebirth in futuristic, positive thinking.
Indeed, it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”.
However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’ (also picked up by the accelerationists); the embracement of ‘imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.
The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Srnicek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”
What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable. For degrowth scholars like Demaria et al., degrowth is not a stand-alone concept but an interpretive “frame” which brings together a constellation of terms and movements. For accelerationists, part of the strategy is to promote a new set of “universal” demands that allow new political challenges to take place. In addition, they call for an “ecology of organizations”—think tanks, NGOs, collectives, lobby groups, unions, that can weave together a new hegemony. For both, there is a need to undermine existing ideologies by, on the one hand, providing strong refutations to them, and, on the other, through setting up new ones (e.g. post-work, conviviality). The result is two strong proposals for alternative futures that are not afraid of dreaming big.
Economic Pluralism, Political Monism?
Forty years after neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol indicted the New Left for “refusing to think economically” in his well-known speech at the Mont Pelerin Society, it is interesting that these two emerging frameworks are once again centering economics in their analysis. Indeed, both frameworks propose startlingly similar economic policies. They share demands such as universal basic income, reduction in work hours, and the democratization of technology. However, they differ in other demands: Williams and Srnicek stress the potential of automation to address inequality and focus on the role of technological advances in either further driving precarity or liberating society. As part of this, they talk at length about the importance of state-led innovation and subsidies for research and development, and how this needs to be reclaimed by the left.
In contrast, Degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis and Samuel Alexander have proposed a more diverse platform of policies, ranging from minimum and maximum income, working hour reduction and time-sharing, banking and finance reform, participatory planning and budgeting, ecological tax reform, financial and legal support for the solidarity economy, reducing advertising, and abolishing the use of GDP as an indicator of progress. These are only a few of the many policies proposed by Degrowth advocates—the point is, however, that Degrowthers tend to support a broad policy platform rather than a set of strategic, system-changing “easy wins”.
At multiple points in their book, Srnicek and Williams urge the left to engage with economic theory once again. They argue that, while mainstream economics does need to be challenged, tools such as modeling, econometrics, and statistics will be crucial in developing a revived, positive vision of the future.
Indeed, near the end of the book, they make a bid for “pluralist” economics. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the left responded with a “makeshift Keynesianism”—because the focus had largely been on a critique of capitalism there was a severe lack of alternative economic theories available to draw from. They urge thinking through contemporary issues that are not easily addressed by Keynesian or Marxist economic theory: secular stagnation, “the shift to an informational, post-scarcity economy”, alternative approaches to quantitative easing, and the possibilities of full automation and a universal basic income, amongst others. They argue that there is a need for the left to “think through an alternative economic system” which draws from innovative trends spanning “modern monetary theory to complexity economics, from ecological to participatory economics.”
However, I was a disappointed by what they considered “plural” forms of economics. There was little discussion of the content of alternative economics such as institutional economics, post-Keynesian economics, commons theory, environmental economics, ecological economics, and post-development theory. It is these fields that have offered some of the strongest challenges to neoclassical economics, and present some strong challenges to their own political ideology as well. They would do well to engage with them more.
This gap is not minor. Rather, it reflects deeper issues within the whole accelerationist framework. For a book that mentions climate change as one of the foremost problems we face—also mentioned in the first sentence of their #Accelerate Manifesto—there is surprisingly little engagement with environmental issues. And yet it is these unmentioned heterodox economic fields that have provided some of the most useful responses to the current environmental crisis—even going so far as providing robust models and econometric analyses to test their own claims.
The same gap is not found in the Degrowth literature. Indeed, the movement has been inspired to a great extent by rebel economists such as Eleanor Ostrom, Nicholas Georgescu-Røegen, K. William Kapp, Karl Polanyi, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herman Daly, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. Degrowth sessions are now the norm at many heterodox economics conferences—just as degrowth conferences are largely dominated by discussions of the economy.
Taking the lessons from institutional economics in stride, degrowth thinkers have stressed that there are no panaceas: no single policy will do the trick, a diverse and complimentary policy platform is necessary to offset feedback loops that may arise from the interplay between several policies.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic. Focusing on three core policies makes for elegant reading and simple placards, but also comes at a price: when these policies are implemented and result in unforeseen negative effects, there will be little political will to keep experimenting with them. I would rather place my bets on a solid, multi-policy platform, resilient enough to deal with negative feedback loops and not too dogmatic about which one should be implemented first.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic.
A strong point of the accelerationists is their emphasis that economic policies are political—and thus must be won through political organizing. In doing so, they make the crucial step beyond economism—the term Antonio Gramsci used to refer to leftists who put counter-hegemonic activism on hold until “economic conditions” favor it. The same cannot always be said of the environmentalist left: scarcity, environmental limits—these are often imposed as apolitical spectres that override all other concerns.
And yet, for all their calls for a united, utopian vision, I remain apprehensive about the kind of utopia they proposed—and therefore the kind of politics they see as necessary. While ‘folk politics’ is in part a promising definition of activism that fails to scale up, it also easily becomes a way to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their idea of what politics really is.
Take, for example, their take-down of the Argentinean popular response to the financial crisis. Under their gaze, the “large-scale national turn towards horizontalism” involving neighborhood assemblies after the 1998 recession “remained a localized response to the crisis” and “never approached the point of replacing the state”. Worker-run factories failed to scale up and “remained necessarily embedded within capitalist social relations”. In conclusion, they claim that Argentina’s ‘moment’ was “simply a salve for the problems of capitalism, not an alternative to it.” They maintain that it was simply an emergency response, not a competitor.
But this is a very problematic view of what constitutes ‘the political.’ Drawing on decades of reporting on Latin America’s popular struggles and involvement in them, Raùl Zibechi argues that, following neoliberal abandonment by the state, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and slum-dwellers are creating new worlds and resources that operate differently from the logic of the state and capital. These new societies make no demands from political parties and they do not develop agendas for electoral reform. Instead, they organize “con/contra” (with/against) existing institutions by ‘reterritorializing’ their livelihoods, building diverse and horizontal economies, and rising up in revolt at critical junctures.
Under Zibechi’s gaze, the very same Argentinean popular reaction is described as a moment when “the unfeasible becomes visible”. What was simmering under the surface is revealed “like lightning illuminating the night the sky”. Rather than being “emergency responses”, the Argentinean response was practiced and strategic—not quite as spontaneous and disorganized as Srnicek and Williams depict.
Likewise with gender politics; even as Williams and Srnicek acknowledge feminist economic theories around care and reproductive labor, what qualifies as ‘real’ politics falls into very hegemonic realms: lobbying, the formation of think-tanks, policy platforms, unions, and economic modeling. But what about other types of resistance, such as the ones Zibechi highlights: childcare collectives, squatted and autonomously organized settlements, community-organized schools and clinics, collective kitchens, and street blockades? How do such practices, now being referred to as ‘commoning,’ fit in their ‘ecology of organizations?’
I worry that accelerationists, like Friedrich Engels’ dismissal of peasants as revolutionary agents, implicitly reject the possibility that Indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles are important potential allies. If political success is measured solely by statist goals, then non-statist victories will remain invisible.
In contrast, degrowth thinkers have collaborated with post-development scholars like Ashish Kothari and Alberto Acosta, and have helped to create a worldwide environmental justice network—forming alliances with the very groups that would be the most affected by an increase in automation and the least likely to benefit from accelerationist policies like basic income.
What Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North
Unfortunately, what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North, unable to break away from hegemonic ideas of the ‘right’ political actors. By this logic, the Argentinean movement ‘failed’ because it could not replicate or replace the state. To this end, they might find it useful to engage with subaltern theorists, decolonialization studies, post-development scholars—all of whom have in different ways challenged Western conceptions of what resistance, alternatives, and progress looks like. Further, they might engage with commons theorists who demonstrate how commoning practices open up very real alternatives to neoliberalism. Beyond theoretical alliances, this might help them not to dismiss “failed” movements simply because they do not seek to copy the state.
Technology, Efficiency, and Metabolism
For many on the left, technology is secondary to redistributive policies (welfare, health care, employment equity) and innovation is the realm of private companies, not the government.
In contrast, accelerationists recognize that technology is a key driver of social and economic change. For Srnicek and Williams, an important strategic goal within the left would be to politicize technology, to transform capitalist machines for socialist goals. We must take the reigns of technology, democratize it, if we are to deal with the multiple issues facing humanity today. This ‘modern’ gesture, which avoids primitivism and the wish to return to a ‘simpler’ past, is certainly appreciated.
Srnicek and Williams spend much of the book discussing how automation is transforming social and economic relations worldwide. Not only is the roboticization of the workplace rendering so many workers in the Global North useless, automation is starting to have its effects in rapidly developing countries like China. They go so far as to link the informalization of huge swathes of humanity—slum-dwellers, rural-urban migrants—as an indication that capitalism no longer even needs its “reserve army of labor”. The onset of automation means that we may once again enter a world of mass unemployment, where labor becomes cheap and all the power will be in the hands of the employer.
Their response to this is quite brave: rather than fleeing this modern ‘reality’, they suggest pushing for ever more automation—eventually ending the need for rote labor and bringing about “fully automated luxury communism”—their vision of a desirable future. As part of this, they argue that public investment in innovation will be key in achieving this goal.
As they try to show, automation is already helping to deindustrialize many countries (developed and developing), meaning that regardless of whether full automation happens or not, there is a critical need for social movements to fight for political advances to guarantee social safety nets. As a response to this, they argue that unions should actually be fighting for less working hours, not more, and that basic income will help address the mass unemployment that automation seems to be causing.
I agree that such political responses will be necessary in the years to come, and that automation certainly presents a predicament, but, for several reasons that I’ll list below, I’m not sure if it’s really the central predicament—as they seem to assert. First of all, is automation really occurring at such a rapid and destructive pace? It’s true that the rate of growth of employment worldwide is decreasing, but this could be explained by a number of factors, many of which are more and more being highlighted by mainstream economists: the onset of a ‘secular stagnation’ in Euro-America, the decline in conventional oil extraction, and the exhaustion of ‘easy’ growth that was already being felt in the 1970s. Indeed, once I dug into their citations, I didn’t find much research showing how automation’s role in current economic transformations compared to these other factors. However, not being a labor economist, I’m not well-versed enough in the numbers to discuss further. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Second, and more problematically, I follow George Caffentzis in his skepticism of the claim that soon Capital will not need workers in the future, and will therefore bring about its own demise:
Capital cannot will itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of existence… The “end of work” literature… creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.
This was a critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri in the 90s, but it might as well apply to the works of Paul Mason, Snricek, and Williams today. There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism. Even if they claim at multiple points that automation is not a technical but a political goal, they’re in many ways letting automation drive the cart of politics. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of economism. Today, something new seems to be emerging, which seems to very prevalent amongst “ecomodernist” progressives: technologism. The belief that a low-carbon future is only possible through ramping up innovation and technological advances, rather than a full-scale transformation of our social and political relations. Snricek and Williams try to skirt technologism, but their over-fascination with automation brings them dangerously close.
There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism.
Third, even if automation were on the rise, I’m skeptical as to how it could possibly limit capitalism’s outward expansion. As Peter Linebaugh has argued, the Luddites opposed automation not just because it was costing them their jobs, but because they knew the automation of textile manufacturing meant the enslavement, and drawing in to the capitalist system, of millions of slaves and indigenous people in the colonies.
Automation, from this viewpoint, is a local “problem” borne from a myopically Northern perspective: it will not do away with ever-expanding forest-clearing, enclosures, destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and the creation of itinerant classes forced into the extractivist economy. Regardless of whether automation is capitalist or communist, without being regulated, it stands to increase environmental conflicts globally. But rising rates of resource extraction are not mentioned as a problem in the book, nor do they propose a strategic alliance with those affected by the extractive industry.
This leads to what is perhaps the most frustrating gap in the whole book: their very weak environmental proposals.
Surprisingly, there are only two instances where they present ways to address the ‘environment problem’: when discussing why automation could actually be a good thing, they also mention that greater efficiency would decrease energy use. Elsewhere, they suggest that shifting to a four-day workweek would also limit energy use from commuting.
But efficiency doesn’t work that way. If you would take away one lesson from ecological economics, it is this golden rule, to be repeated to every techno-optimist you come across: without limiting in some way the use of resources and energy (e.g. by taxing it), any advance in efficiency will likely lead to progressively more resource use, not less. This is called the rebound effect, or Jevons’ Paradox.
It follows that there is no guarantee that truncating the workweek will be more environmentally friendly. Efficiency and more free time can just as easily lead to more ecological damage, not less. In any political regime where there are insufficient limits or regulations on total energy and material use in society (capitalist or communist), and the profits of investment are invested in more production, advances in efficiency will cause energy and material throughput to increase exponentially.
When discussing this issue with people in the degrowth community, Viviana Asara pointed out that this is not just a problem of environmental justice—who stands to loose by the increase in production—but also one of energetic limits.
The concept of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) illustrates that, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy has a very low return on investment. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that a fully automated luxury economy has about the same total energy consumption as today’s economy—more efficient but producing more stuff. But because of renewable energy’s extremely low EROEI, such an economy might just require the total transformation of the Earth’s surface into solar panels—not just a hellish vision of the future, but also impossible.
We can argue at length about whether it is indeed possible to produce the same amount of energy using renewables alone, but the point is that Srnicek and Williams neglect to even hold that argument—something you might think necessary if you propose to scale up global industrial activity in times of climate change. As Asara put it to me in an email, “their ‘supposedly sustainable’ utopia of automation misses any sense of biophysical reality.”
This is where accelerationist and degrowth analyses differ the most. Degrowth takes as a key question the ‘metabolism’ of the economy—that is, how much energy and material it uses. As innovation enables the speeding up of this metabolism, and because an increase in metabolism has disastrous social and ecological impacts—too often offloaded on people who do not benefit from the technology—there needs to be collective decision-making on technology’s limits.
In this way, simply reappropriating technology, or making it more efficient, is not enough. In fact, without totally transforming how capitalism reinvests its surplus—requiring a fundamental transformation of financial systems—automation will unfortunately help expand capitalism, rather than allow us to overcome it.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations. This is the danger of ‘fully automated luxury communism’. These dangers are not discussed by accelerationist texts—but they should be.
Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.
What is Speed?
It says something about the times when two important segments of the radical left have gravitated to the terms ‘degrowth’ and ‘accelerationism’—about as opposite as it could get.
In my opinion, there is something rather new here, which brings the discussion beyond peasants vs. workers, localism vs. taking over the state: the introduction of the question of speed into leftist thought.
They do so in very different ways. For degrowth, ‘growth’ is the acceleration of the energetic and material flows of the economic system at exponential rates, as well as the ideology that justifies it. Let’s call this socio-metabolic speed. Their political project then comes down to challenging that ideology head-on, as well as re-thinking economic theory to allow societies to ensure well-being but also transform how energy and material is used—necessary for a more just economic system.
Accelerationists, on the other hand, think of speed much more figuratively: they are referring to the Marxist concept of the material conditions of human relations—for them, acceleration means moving beyond the limits of capitalism, which requires a totally modern stance. This is socio-political speed: the shifting gears of social relations, as a result of changing technological systems.
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized?
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized? For accelerationists, this would require making that web more efficient and modifying political systems to make it easier to live with—shifting the gears of social relations beyond capitalism. For degrowthers, it would require slowing that system down and developing alternative systems outside of it. I don’t think these two aims are mutually exclusive. But it would require going beyond simplistic formulas for system change on one side, and anti-modern stances on the other.
But it’s also worth going one step further and asking whether that infrastructural system would really take kindly to these shifts in gears, or if it will it simply buck the passenger.
To navigate this question, it’s useful to briefly turn to the foremost “philosopher of speed”: Paul Virilio. In Speed and Politics, Virilio traces how changes in social relations were brought about through the increased velocity of people, machines, and weapons. Through Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.
What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.
Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point—at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.
To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out.
Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario?
To be fair, degrowth doesn’t answer all the big questions either. There has been little discussion on how mass deceleration would be possible when, as Virilio shows, mass change has historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate?
If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.
The Danish political party the Alternative (Alternativet) was officially established in November 2013 and was elected into Parliament in 2015 with 9 seats and 4,9 percent of the total votes. The party’s main goals are to achieve a ’serious sustainable transition’, a new political culture and better conditions for entrepreneurship. The Alternative is critical towards pursuit of economic growth as a primary goal for policy makers and aspire to a new understanding of progress.
The Alternative is aware of the existence of a number of relevant indicators for sustainable progress, yet we have not found one that is considered politically applicable. For example, the ‘five headline indicators for progress’ by the New Economics Foundation is compelling but we find the five headlines to be too complex to communicate to the public in the hyped speed of contemporary media.
Many Danes respond positively when we talk about economic, social, and ecological sustainability, and we wanted our indicator for progress to include these concepts. Accordingly, we decided to have one headline indicator for each type of sustainability in order to make it easily understandable.
We are still in a developing phase of our indicator, but it seems we will decide on the following: Economic sustainability is improving when the rate of employment on collective agreement terms and self-employed increases. The rate of employment has a significant impact on the public budget, so it is a key indicator to the health of the economy. Additionally, we want quality jobs and strong labour unions, hence we decided to only include jobs on collective agreement terms. Social sustainability is measured by improvements in economic inequality in terms of the income difference between the top 20 and the bottom 20 percent of the population. Research has found equal societies to have fewer social and health problems, so equality is a very important indicator of the well-being of citizens. Ecological sustainability is measured by the degree to which the Danish CO2-emissions are declining at a tempo where Denmark makes a fair contribution to securing the internationally agreed goal of avoiding more than 2 percent increases in global temperatures and aim at a 1,5 increase up till 2100. Climactic changes are likely the gravest danger to modern society and CO2 emissions are therefore a relevant indicator for ecological sustainability.
Our general idea is that the main indicators for economic, social, and ecological sustainability have to be positive if we are to propose a policy in Parliament. If we are to vote for a policy proposal from another political party, at least two indicators must be positive, and optimally all three. We will be able to communicate this very clearly to the public and be accountable with regards to these indicators of sustainability.
We are aware of the fact that many other indicators are needed for serious sustainable development. Therefore, each of these indicators will be supplemented with second-level indicators relevant to their area. Economic supplementary indicators could be job employment measured by gender and other ethnic background, job stability, job satisfaction, balance of payments and ratio of private investments to private savings. Social supplementary indicators could be happiness, children’s wellbeing, mental wellbeing, social trust, quality of health care, health inequality, inequality in wealth and income inequalities between gender and for ethnic minorities. Ecological supplementary indicators could be biodiversity, air quality, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, resource consumption and so forth. The supplementary indicators are considered important, and if a significant number of them are deteriorating or improving, this can affect our attitude towards a specific proposal.
We will decide on the main indicators shortly, and we will ask ecological sustainability experts to help us decide which supplementary indicators are relevant to their field. We will also host what we call political laboratories where we will invite citizens, experts and our own members to discuss the details of our new indicator for progress. This is in accordance with our vision on a new political culture with more democratic bottom-up processes.
We have discussed whether we should follow the headline indicator for New Economic Foundation’s indicator on ‘good jobs’. This includes the amount of the population with a secure job above the ‘living wage’. We are currently in favour of using the more simplistic percentage of the population with a job on collective agreement terms (and self-employed), since we wanted the indicator to be as simple and easy to communicate as possible.
If we vote for our own or a proposal by another political party in Parliament and the proposal passes, we can go to the media and evaluate whether the policy is improving the three main indicators for sustainability. If so, we can argue that it increases triple bottom line sustainability. When we participate in longer discussions we can discuss to which degree the policy improves or deteriorates relevant supplementary indicators.
Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability.
We find this to be an accountable and transparent way of communicating with the public and participating in the political process. It matters to citizens whether new jobs are created and inequality and CO2-emissions are reduced. Also, we hope this approach can raise awareness of a triple bottom line understanding of sustainability in the public.
So is degrowth needed to ensure climate justice?
It is highly likely, but to us this is not the key question of our time. Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability. Our indicator does not include GDP as we want to measure what really matters in relation to the wellbeing of mankind and nature. The public policy must be centered on achieving these goals and can only be successful via an intelligent cooperation with the private sector, civil society, and international actors.
Mother Teresa once said: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”
The Alternative wants to communicate as clearly as possible that we are for a sustainable development rather than against growth, as we find this inspires and resonates deeper with the public.
Naturally, the main institutions of the current economic model will have to be reformed in order to ensure a serious sustainable development. Therefore, the Alternative proposes reforms of the financial sector, lower working hours, an ecological tax reform, increased investments in green research and infrastructure, more redistribution, increased financial transfers from the developed to the developing world partly focused on climate change mitigation and adaption, and a slowdown of the massive subsidies for conventional agriculture and the fossil fuel industry.
Rune Wingaard has a Masters degree in social science and international development studies from Roskilde University, where he also works and teaches economics, politics and quantitative methods. He is part of the Economic Council of the Danish political party the Alternative and is very engaged in co-creating a transition towards a much more sustainable, just and thriving society.
Things are big in the United States of America. Returning home after a year away reacquaints me with big detached single-family homes, big single-occupant vehicles, and big single-species grass lawns. I find wider roads, longer distances, larger supermarkets, and more stuff everywhere.
As a student of ecological economics, it makes me a little anxious. Such individualistic extravagance isn’t ecological or economical. I remind myself: it is precisely why I came back.
I spent most of the past year in Barcelona, studying with a group of researchers who are interested in degrowth – the idea that humans and other species might live better if the former had a smaller economy. Degrowth is not recession. It is a purposeful, equitable slowing of the rate at which we transform nature into stuff.
Our politicians pledge economic growth like priests promising eternal paradise in heaven, as if producing and consuming 3 percent more smartphones, assault rifles, and bacon-flavored beverages this year than we did last year is our best bet to achieve the good life. According to a 2015study, the United States’ yearly material footprint – the materials taken from farms, forests, mines, and other extraction sites to make the products Americans consume – measures about 27 metric tons per capita. In other words, 163 pounds of nature is extracted every day to feed, house, clothe, entertain, and satisfy the average U.S. resident. While the gadgets and garbage have piled up, the number of wild animals hashalved over the last four decades. People, rich people in particular, have conquered the planet in the quest for more.
Degrowth means downscaling the human enterprise to share the world nicely with other species and our grandchildren. Degrowth means distributing wealth equitably and prioritizing needs over wants.
But why the word “degrowth” anyway? Alively, complex debate rages over whether the term isuseful orharmful. I only want to make a few points that relate to the U.S. context.
Renouncing growth today has the potential of flipping every politician’s favorite narrative: that only growth can save the poor.
In the wake of elections that gave all three branches of government to the Republican party, the reeling American left must rethink, regroup, and rekindle the smoldering embers of the Bernie campaign. But Bernie Sanders, just like the politicians and financiers he rightly criticizes, is firmly pro-growth.
I cannot understand why. Growth over the last four decades has not brought substantial wage increases or a functioning healthcare system to the 99 percent, but it has made the U.S. economy unsustainably big in terms of resource use and carbon emissions. We must demand that leaders address inequality and other issues head-on instead of promising that a growing economy will make things better. Degrowth should be our rallying cry.
But degrowth has not yet caught on among academics or activists in the oversized United States. Don’t get me wrong, many initiatives here exhibit the values of the degrowth movement – simplicity, democracy, sharing, the rejection of economic growth as the goal for society. There’s a network of organizations fighting to create an economy based on justice and ecology, a campaign to work less, a scholarly groupfocused on downsizing consumption, and countless community-scale projects from urban food forests to bike cooperatives to tool-lending libraries. And there are the water protectors at Standing Rock, standing peacefully in the way of the growth economy’s ever-extending tentacles. Yet these projects lack a defiant unifying frame for their collective crusade to construct a socially and environmentally sustainable country.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?”
Why hasn’t degrowth spread in the United States? At September’s international degrowth conference in Budapest, I spoke with some other degrowthers living in the U.S. about why the word has not been adopted and how we might spark a movement.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?” A downward-oriented word like degrowth produces reflexive repulsion.
In response to Trump’s victory and the calls by many to “give him a chance,” Jelani Cobb, a professor in journalism at Columbia University, tweeted that he “had not fully appreciated until now how much the relentless American drive for optimism resembles abject denial.” Denying that a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth is just another aspect of that abject denial.
Yet in other ways degrowth is too positive for the United States. Bear with me. Barbara Muraca, an Italian environmental philosopher who arrived at Oregon State University two years ago, says that ecological intellectuals in the U.S. urge rapidly transforming society to avoid imminent civilizational collapse, whereas the European school of degrowth tends to promote a slow revolution toward living well together with less. The deep-green environmentalists of this country foresee hardship accompanying the end of growth. Degrowth tends to look at the bright side of freeing ourselves from our current unsustainable, unjust economy.
As Muraca sees it, U.S. enviros do not fear the end of the world, but the end of the American Dream. The science on global environmental limits shows that all humans cannot drive gas-guzzling trucks and eat sausage every morning – which means it is unfair if some folks do get to live that way. The news is frightening, for its recipients and for the messenger.
To my friend Deric Gruen, who manages theRethinking Prosperity project, it is simpler: Americans love growth! Emotional growth, sales growth, spiritual growth, crop growth, earnings growth, growth spurts, growth of my social network. People from the U.S. hear about degrowth and reply, “So you are kind of like redefining growth, right?”
So mainstream green groups refuse to renounce growth. Prominent voices from Silicon Valley to the Bible Belt reject the existence of any constraints on human activity. Muraca’s catastrophist colleagues counter this denial of limits with pleas to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world by consuming less.
Most folks do not want to hear these pessimistic-sounding appeals. So the earnest ecologists shout louder, which turns off everyone not already convinced. Who are we to tell our fellow citizens to restrain themselves, and be happier while doing so? Many residents of the highly unequal U.S. cannot comfortably afford to fill their trucks with gas to guzzle. Meanwhile, the plutocrats in charge of the nation jetset to important gatherings around the world where they discuss what to do about climate change and income inequality.
America doesn’t just need a wake-up call. We need new narratives about what the good life is and how to achieve it. Coming to the University of Vermont to take part in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative is a chance to bring degrowth home, as both a scholarly concept and an activist slogan. Perhaps one day it can be a social and political movement, too. Instead of boasting about the new wave of cancerous growth their policies will trigger, we need candidates that lay out plans to ensure everyone economic security and opportunities to flourish regardless what happens with GDP.
Last year I cycled across North America, talking about degrowth to anyone who would listen and listening to whomever had something to say about it. Now, in Vermont, I discuss degrowth with other graduate students, undergrads, faculty, and also with the woman who helps me fix my bicycle and the guy kneeling next to me as we dig carrots from the soil. Just mentioning it leads to dynamic and interesting conversations, especiallyamong people previously unfamiliar with the concept.
In the end, it is not about the word, it is about sparking socio-ecological change toward a fairer, smaller, and simpler economy. Degrowth explicitly or by other names.
Sam Bliss suffers from an acute strain of the imposter syndrome that affects most first-year PhD students. He makes okay improvised salads from whatever he finds in dumpsters, though, and is hopeful about surviving his first Vermont winter.
Lately there has been a rising interest in degrowth – an umbrella term that critiques the centrality of economic growth in our societies and embraces various alternatives for ecological sustainability and social justice (see Kallis et al., 2015). This interest is shared not only by the proponents of degrowth, but also its critics, who often support many of the ideas behind degrowth, but have reservations about using the term.
It seems to us that these reservations at least to some extent arise from economic growth itself being an ambiguous and contested concept. For example, Kate Raworth suggests that it is not clear whether degrowth refers to the decrease of the economy’s biophysical throughput or its monetary value, measured in GDP, and argues that the difference matters. Or, John Bellamy Foster proposes that it is important to argue not “for degrowth in the abstract, but more concretely for deaccumulation – a transition away from a system geared to the accumulation of capital without end.”
These reservations about degrowth point to the need to clarify what growth traps to avoid when making a transition to sustainable degrowth. In what follows, we articulate three ways of understanding growth that should be challenged by degrowth: first, reliance on biophysical throughput; second, capital accumulation and productivism more generally; and third, the perpetual strive for quantitative expansion of national economies (measured in GDP). We also propose that growthocene can be a suitable way to characterise the epoch we live in, broadening the notion of capitalocene while opposing the now mainstream notion of anthropocene.
Economies across the world rely on growth of biophysical throughput, which has led to severe ecological consequences for Earth and its ecosystems. In contrast, degrowth would involve descaling biophysical throughput. This critique of growth has been partially integrated into the mainstream discourse, as captured by the notion of anthropocene. However, this concept is deeply problematic as it suggests that all human beings are responsible for the ecological crisis. Differences related to class, gender, race, geopolitics or economic systems themselves are glossed over or totally disregarded.
While renewables are of course an important way forward, the transition to them does not automatically lead to sustainability or justice.
Green economy has become a buzzword that is often suggested as a solution to the world’s ecological problems, whether by the left or right. Such an economy, however, is neither sustainable nor just because it focuses on incorporating (supposedly) green solutions into the economy with all its flaws and divisions rather than changing the economy itself. For example, the economic valuation of nature is green only on paper, in reality, it enables continuous ecological destruction and the appropriation of local governance (see Kill, 2015).
And while renewables are of course an important way forward, the transition to them does not automatically lead to sustainability or justice. For instance, in Brazil, the way the shift to renewable energy is implemented—on top of challenging the biodiversity of the Amazon—often threatens the very way of being of indigenous communities and the livelihoods sustained and inhabited by them (e.g. as the case of Munduruku Indians demonstrates).
So in striving for sustainability and justice, degrowth goes beyond the question of biophysical throughput and the physical limits of our planet. It would need to involve challenging the problematic and potentially harmful solutions positioned as ‘green’, such as the carbon and biodiversity markets or nuclear energy. This also would also require problematising how these proposals have been promoted under appealing banners like ‘inclusivity’, ‘poverty reduction’ and ‘development’. Therefore, it is crucial to ask questions like: ‘what is at risk?’; ‘who benefits and who loses from the proposed solutions?’. Pushing this line of thinking further, we must also ask what societal divisions, injustices and inequalities are maintained, reproduced or enforced by such policy proposals.
Capital accumulation and productivism
This brings us to challenging growth understood as capital accumulation. Not only are the conditions under which capital accumulation occurs demarcated by class, gender, race, and other divisions, but when surpluses are reinvested in the economy, these divisions become amplified. As has been powerfully observed by a broad spectrum of critical theories, such as anarchism, feminism, Marxism, and postcolonial thought, the strive for surplus accumulation relies on maintaining injustices and inequalities. Some of this critique has been captured by the notion of capitalocene, which suggests that capitalism, and not all humanity, is responsible for the ecological and also social problems we are facing (see Haraway, 2015; Malm, 2015; Moore, 2014).
The popular slogan ‘system change not climate change’, then, should imply not only a systemic change in the way we deal with climate or ecology, but in the very way our societies are organised. Degrowth also problematises these forms of accumulation, including, commodified consumption with a ‘sustainable’ or community-oriented appearance. For example, the notion of the sharing economy often commodifies social and communal spaces and depends on precarious labour conditions (see also Schor, 2014).
While capitalocene is a powerful idea to understand ecological and social problems without decoupling them, it does not capture the whole picture. For example, it struggles with how to grapple with the environmental history of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, whose economic systems, too, had devastating ecological and social consequences. Industrial production was the key driving logic for organising these economies, if not in shaping their entire societies.
It is important to challenge not only capital accumulation, but more broadly productivism, that is, the growth of production as desirable in itself.
Therefore, it is important to challenge not only capital accumulation, but more broadly productivism, that is, the growth of production as desirable in itself. Apart from industrial production, this includes many other forms of production found in contemporary economies, such as production of information, knowledge, technology, and services.
However, it is also crucial to note that challenging productivism does not suggest descaling of all production as there are different types, ways, consequences and understandings of it. For example, it would be desirable to see more permaculture as a sustainable production practice in agriculture. Or the expansion of initiatives like platform cooperativism—as opposed to the ‘sharing economy’—would also be appealing to many.
In line with the argument that has been presented so far, we suggest using the notion of growthocene – i.e. the strive for perpetual growth—consisting of reliance on growth of biophysical throughput, continuous capital accumulation and productivism more generally—to describe the epoch we live in and the ecological and social problems we are facing. Degrowth, then, captures both the conditions and the consequences of the growthocene.
Quantitative expansion of national economies as measured in GDP
The perpetual striving for quantitative expansion of national economies is in line with prioritising production as desirable in itself, which is part of the growthocene. The assumption underlying this ideology is that quantitative expansion automatically leads to an increase in prosperity. Based on this assumption, GDP is being used as the dominant measure of the monetary value of national economies. It was introduced as a tool for the US government to deal with the Great Depression and then to plan production during the Second World War, but eventually became the central measure of almost every nation’s progress.
While degrowth is not aimed at shrinking GDP or the monetary value of the economy, we would also like to stress that degrowth should not be evaluated in light of GDP and similar measures as these are essentially flawed indicators of prosperity.
GDP and other similar measures, on top of being inadequate indicators of prosperity, have had problematic consequences. First, they produced a norm, which allowed countries with lower national incomes to be ‘analysed and framed in a way that suited their assumed future compliance with the industrialized model’ (Speich, 2011: 19). Second, gearing crucial public institutions—such as education and healthcare—towards increasing GDP has made them more exclusive and subordinated their core functions to economic demands.
So while degrowth is not aimed at shrinking GDP or the monetary value of the economy, we would also like to stress that degrowth should not be evaluated in light of GDP and similar measures as these are essentially flawed indicators of prosperity. GDP has been convincingly criticised by many scholars already (e.g. Fioramonti, 2013), but, due to its hegemonic status, this remains part of the task of degrowth as well.
Toward the notion of growthocene
To sum up, striving for growth – or the growthocene – is manifested in reliance on growth of biophysical throughput, continuous capital accumulation, and productivism more generally. Hence degrowth can be understood as descaling of biophysical throughput, deaccumulation and anti-productivism, and aimed at bringing together the alternatives that fit these principles.
Such an understanding does not decouple ecological and social problems. It acknowledges that capitalism bears a large share of the responsibility, but is not the only system that has led to the problems we face today. It also highlights that productivism itself is part of the problem and hence cautions against proposing solutions rooted in its logic.
A version of this article has been published in the blog of ENTITLE, a network of European Political Ecologists.
Recently there’s been a wave of arguments defending economic growth from a leftist perspective. People are increasingly reacting to the rise of ‘degrowth’: a diverse movement calling for, among other things, scaling back the total material and energy use of the global economy.
One particularly vigorous example is the work of Leigh Phillips, where he accuses degrowthers—who he claims have become “hegemonic” (file under: things I wish were true but aren’t)—of undermining classic leftist pursuits such as progress, well-being, and strengthening of social services. Similar arguments could be seen in a recent article that appeared in Jacobin Magazine, in which growth was posited as necessary for progress. And Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman have come out against degrowth, claiming that economic growth is actually necessary to address climate change, and lumping degrowthers together with the Koch Brothers, as they both seem to seek to dismantle the state.
When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles.
Many of their points have been valid and necessary—serving to complicate the simplistic ‘are-you-for-capitalism-or-a-Luddite?’ narrative. Preaching the benefits of technology and criticizing the current economic system are not mutually exclusive. But there are some recurring problems with these arguments that I want to highlight.
In this article, I argue that definitions of growth are either unclear or constantly shifting depending on the argument. The result is that authors often misunderstand and do not engage adequately with critiques of growth. When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles. In an effort to clear up some misunderstandings, I briefly explain what I see as some of the values of the degrowth position.
Growth is everything and nothing: long live growth!
Perhaps the most emblematic—and unfortunate—leftist challenge to degrowth came from Paul Krugman, all the way back in October 2014.
This was a significant occasion. For the most part, mainstream economics ignores ecological economics—a “rogue” field that harbors many of the growth dissenters. But with this article, Krugman brought the challenge out into the open. In his words, the criticism of growth is “a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.”
Weirdly, Krugman spent most of the article explaining how shipping companies reduced their energy expenditure in 2008 by slowing down their ships. Using this example, his defense of ‘economic growth’ waffled between two very different arguments: that an increase in efficiency can lead to less energy being consumed, and that, theoretically, it is possible to increase the total economic transactions while decreasing total energy use.
With respect to efficiency, Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now. From 19th-century English economists concerned with the decline of available coal to scientists investigating the impact of washing machines, people have long wrestled with problems like the one he raised: how an improvement in efficiency might nevertheless lead to a total increase in energy use. So from the perspective of ecological economics—which has sought to understand how the human economy is embedded within the physical environment—it’s not that hard to sink Krugman’s flimsy argument that an increase in efficiency necessarily increases economic growth while decreasing total energy consumption.
Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now.
What’s curious though about his article is that he not once defined economic growth. This definition remained latent—one can only assume that, whenever he used the term economic growth, he meant the increase in the annual monetary value of economic transactions over time, calculated using the GDP. The article could’ve been a chance for him to show exactly why economic growth is desirable. Instead, he spent most of the article fumbling to find some example that shows that economic growth can theoretically be decoupled from oil consumption.
Granted, if that was the only goal of his article, it would’ve been a good point: a rise in GDP is not the same as a rise in energy use, economic transactions could still take place in a low-carbon economy. The problem is that his argument claimed to go beyond this—seeking to contradict the degrowth claim that, until now, economic growth has been strongly coupled with increasing material and energy use. But his evidence remained purely theoretical, and therefore failed to settle the debate.
This tendency isn’t unique to neoclassical Keynesians—I’ve seen Marxists who’ve suffered from the same inability to explain what, exactly, they mean by economic growth, thereby misunderstanding the call for degrowth.
In Jacobin Magazine, Samuel Farber argues that notions of progress are actually essential for any leftist project. Improvements in technology, infrastructure, and material well-being are crucial for addressing inequality and injustice globally. Fair enough. But then he also explicitly criticizes the degrowth stance:
Many progressive activists today are skeptical of material growth, for ecological reasons and a concern with consumerism. But this often confuses consumption for its own sake and as a status symbol with the legitimate popular desire to live a better material life, and wasteful and ecologically damaging economic growth with economic growth as such.
So here, like Krugman, Farber argues that economic growth is not the same as what he calls ‘material growth.’ And like Krugman, he argues that economic growth is not, in itself, environmentally destructive. But what, then, is economic growth to him? He notes in the following paragraph:
Environmental policies that would make a real difference would require large-scale investments, and thus selective economic growth. This would be the case, for example, with the reorganization of the individualized and wasteful system of surface and air transportation into a collective and rational plan…
It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.
Interestingly, like Farber, many degrowthers might also argue for “more of the Good Things”—for example, increasing health care services, supporting care labor, creating infrastructure for public transportation, and incentivizing renewable energy—but they wouldn’t call them economic growth. Instead, they might prefer to use terms like ‘flourishing’ or ‘sufficiency’ or just ‘more of that good stuff’. They wouldn’t assume that it is total economic growth that allows the good stuff to come into being. Instead, more of the good stuff requires redirecting economic activity to better suit the needs of society—for which the primary ingredient is democratic deliberation, not increased production (social metabolism), larger money supply, or an increase in the transactions taking place in the market economy (GDP growth).
It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.
So there are two problems: the misidentification of what degrowthers are calling for, and a poor definition of economic growth as such. Farber seems to think that degrowthers are claiming that preventing (or reversing) environmental destruction necessitates “less Good Things”. As a result, his argument against degrowth, and for growth, amounts to a bait-and-switch between two definitions of growth: growth of Good Stuff and growth of total economic activity. This failure to define his terms then allows him to mischaracterize the claims of the degrowth movement.
This tactic is heightened to an extreme degree in Leigh Phillips’ recent anti-degrowth polemic, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff. While reading his book I not once got an exact definition of what he meant by economic growth. Growth seemed to include a whole host of things, such as: growth = progress, growth = innovation, growth = increase in well-being, growth = increase in money supply, growth = increase in resource use. He tended to use these interchangeably.
In one instance, Phillips acknowledges this directly:
Of course, one might argue that I’m being far too loose with the terms growth, progress, and invention, which begin to blur here. But then, as well they should, as perhaps what it means to be human is to invent, to progress to grow. To constantly strive for an improvement in our condition. To overcome all barriers in our way.
As far as I could figure out, the logical reasoning here goes as follows:
Degrowthers argue that infinitely and exponentially increasing economic growth is bad for humans and the planet. But economic growth leads to Good Things as well. Therefore, degrowthers are against Good Things.
Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.
The problems with muddling the definition of growth come to the fore when Phillips tries to argue, in contrast to Naomi Klein’s recent book, that degrowth and anti-austerity are incompatible: “Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing.” To show this, he uses the example of the economic decline following a time of rapid growth immediately after the Second World War—which involved “high productivity, high wages, full employment, expanding social benefits…”. In contrast, he argues that after the 1970s, according to “whichever metrics we use”, there was a decline in prosperity for all Americans.
Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.
The implication is that economic growth is directly related to material and social well-being, and “degrowing” would limit that kind of progress. Actually, during this time, well-being decreased just as consumption and economic growth sky-rocketed—a fact which he conveniently doesn’t mention. To avoid this fact, he usefully switches from defining economic growth as increase in productivity and material use, to defining economic growth as decrease in inequality. But different kinds of things can grow or degrow at different rates—a decrease in consumption is not the same as a decrease in well-being. In fact, since the 1970s, the US has only increased its per capita material use, not decreased it. Austerity does not inherently lead to a decrease in total consumption, nor does a decrease in well-being inherently require a decrease in material consumption.
His argument reminds me of a recent New York Times article about degrowth. As fellow degrowth scholar Francois Schneider pointed out in an email, in this article, degrowth was defined simply as a reduction of income. Not only does this misinterpret what, exactly, needs to degrow (hint: not well-being), it also feeds into the tendency—symptomatic of the neoliberal era—to reduce all kinds of well-being to monetary indicators.
Phillips continuously makes the same error: conflating income with wealth, material production with material well-being. While this is standard practice in development circles—used to justify land-grabbing, exploitative industry, and privatizations—you would expect different discursive tactics from a staunch anti-capitalist austerity-basher. Part of the degrowth framework has been specifically to argue that well-being and income have been conflated for far too long, with very negative consequences (such as the wholesale destruction of indigenous livelihoods for the sake of development).
Finally, when trying to counter the degrowth position, you’re also going to have to deal with the now well-known catchphrase that “infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet”. To do this, Phillips calls upon a pretty quirky theoretical model:
Think of a single rubber ball. Like the Earth, it is bounded in the sense that very clearly there is an edge to the ball and there is only so much of it. It doesn’t go on forever. It is not boundless. And there is only one of them. But it is infinitely divisible in the sense that you can cut it in half, then cut that half in half again, then cut that quarter in half, then that eight in half, and so on. In principle, with this imaginary ball, you can keep cutting it up for as long as you like, infinitely extracting from this finite object.
Phillips counters the necessity to degrow with a variation of Zeno’s paradox, hoping to show that, theoretically, infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, as long as it decreases at a negative exponential rate. Basically, in a finite world, you can keep on growing infinitely as long as you grow less and less, all the way to infinity. But this also involves acknowledging that positive exponential growth (e.g. a 3-5% growth rate) is physically impossible. Funnily enough, in trying to prove the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, he trapped himself in an argument that looks very similar to that of the degrowthers.
Phillips argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist.
Similarly, later in the book, he concedes that we do need to move toward a low-carbon economy and that, within capitalism, this is impossible. But, rather than conceding that economic growth within capitalism is undesirable, he argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth (largely defined in capitalist terms, even as he rejects GDP elsewhere) is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist.
So what needs to degrow?
Let’s be clear, even if defenders of economic growth rarely are. Historically, economic growth (defined as total increase in measured economic transactions, or GDP) has risen along with social metabolism: the total consumption of materials and energy of an economy. Increased material-energy throughput is what makes climate change and environmental destruction happen, and engenders environmental conflicts around the world. Therefore we have to downscale our total material-energy throughput to address environmental and social injustice. Mostavailableevidence points to the fact that decreasing total economic activity is the best way to do this, while still being able to provide adequate social safety nets.
Critics of degrowth spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they rarely define what they mean by economic growth.
Degrowth, then, is about challenging the idea that infinite and positive exponential growth in monetary transactions (GDP) is the main tool for achieving well-being, today and for future generations. Further, degrowth is about acknowledging that exponential GDP growth has been, and will likely be for the foreseeable future, linked with rising material and energy throughput, and that this increase in total consumption has disastrous effects on the earth and its people. This comes along with a critique of GDP: many argue that it is a terrible indicator for well-being in the first place. It also comes along with criticizing the neoliberal demand to increase economic growth at all costs, even if this means subjugating an entire population to decades of debt (more on this in another piece).
There are many definitions of degrowth out there, but a commonly cited one is “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions”. Under most definitions, degrowth is about maximizing well-being while minimizing energy and resource consumption (particularly in the rich nations) which may be mutually beneficial, and can address climate change to boot.
So degrowth is not about decreasing the Good Things. Nor is its main thrust that decrease in total consumption is the only thing that must be done. And all degrowthers I know would happily concede Phillips’ point that a change in the mode of production—involving a critique of capitalism, better use of technology, and better democratic planning—is necessary to avoid environmental and social Bad Things.
But they would disagree that the prerequisite for more Good Things is increasing total economic activity. In fact, as I argue in my next piece, the ideology of economic growth actually waylaid struggles for better welfare, helping to shut down the political action necessary to provide more Good Things.
Now, it is theoretically possible to decouple exponential economic growth (be it positive or negative) from exponentially increasing metabolic rates, even if no such thing has, as far as is known, been successfully implemented. Arguments for decoupling, including those in Phillips’ book, fail to take into account the embedded material and energy consumption of economies that have, so far, ‘dematerialized’ while GDP has gone up.
Krugman’s proposal for how to decouple remains in the neoclassical camp: toggling consumer preferences—demand, and regulating undesirable economic activity—supply, while continuing to increase economic activity on the whole. Farber and Phillips’ approaches are in the Marxist camp: radically shift the mode of production to rationally plan an economy, limiting the Bads and upping the Goods, while (presumably) continuing to increase economic activity on the whole.
To make their case, these authors have conjured up magical scenarios involving a slow ship economy and a post-capitalist socialist world order. Neither economies exist today. To really support their points, they would need to point to extensive research and probably some robust models, rather than possible worlds.
Take the case of Austerity Ecology: Phillips argues that socialist economic growth has the potential to save us, even as he does not draw on any examples of situations where this has occurred. It’s a cheap argumentative trick to defend economic growth today just on the basis that it could theoretically work under socialism.
So if they really wanted to defend economic growth as it exists today, this would be where the conversation would need to go: determining whether, and how, economic growth could keep going without exponentially increasing material and energy use. Bonus points: showing exactly why economic growth—defined as the exponential increase in monetary transactions at 3-5% per year—is desirable in itself.
But it is exactly at these points that the defenders of growth remain obscure. Rarely do they explicitly concede that, in fact, current rates of economic growth have been historically tied to increasing environmental degradation. Rather, they spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they don’t define what they mean by economic growth.
And yet this approach actually suggests that they are already on the defensive: they are trying to save economic growth from the accusation that it inevitably leads to more “bad stuff”. Without proper evidence, and by shifting the definition of growth constantly to suit the needs of their arguments, the positions of growth-defenders start looking more like denial than reasoned debate.
In contrast, degrowth starts from the reality of the current economy. In this economic system, decoupling is very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, because climate change is now and a global socialist economic order is not yet in sight, a realistic short-term strategy is to limit exponential growth in metabolic rates, most easily achieved by limiting exponential economic growth. This should be paired by a long-term shift to a more equitable, democratic economic system. Then, theoretically, a new economic system could be constructed where equitable economic growth does not lead to more fossil fuel consumption.
Whether we should focus on creating a global socialist system instead of shifting to a low-impact economy is debatable, but perhaps, just to be on the safe side, we could give both a try.
Thanks to Sam Bliss, Grace Brooks, Adrian Turcato, and Giorgos Kallis for their comments and feedback.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food politics, and urban development. He is an editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
At the most recent Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting in Chicago last month, Josh Lepawsky and I coordinated a pair of panels on discards, diverse economies, and degrowth. As a concept, degrowth has taken off since the last global recession. At its most basic level, degrowth is about production without economic or material growth, and it encompasses a great diversity of types of economies that might achieve this: steady-states, gift economies,community economies, solidarity economies, and so on. As such, degrowth is also a way to organize social life, including ethics, values, and norms, as well as the systems of worth and circulation at the core of economics. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, authors write that: “‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.”
Lepawsky and I are interested in degrowth because of what it means for waste. Accounting for and with waste will ground-truth new economic imaginaries: how do 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.
In this post, I want to focus on surplus and dépense in particular. Growth and surplus are two different things: sometimes it is a good idea to have a surplus of food or other materials such as in preparation for winter or drought. Growth is the idea that surplus, whether in the form of profit or production of goods (or both), is the goal of economies, rather than one of many ways of organizing goods in a variety of economies. There can be surplus without accumulation being the main driver of production.
This brings us to dépense. Let’s say you’ve saved up some food for the winter, and the winter was shorter and warmer than expected, leaving you with extra stored food at the end of the season. What do you do with it? Proponents of degrowth might say: “waste it!”
Originally signifying the expenditure of excess energy in the writings of George Bataille, under degrowth the term dépense has come to highlight how some forms of wasting can be celebratory, ethical, and at the very least thought about in terms of what positive social values wasting might engender. Authors of Degrowth mention the practice of potlatch by Indigenous peoples of the Northeast coast, a mix of consuming, gifting, and destroying goods in a celebratory feast. We could also consider the FreedomiteDoukhobor‘s practice of burning all possessions, including houses and clothing, every few years as a protest against materialism. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, the point of thinking about dépense is that “The different patterns of excess energy use [or wasting] characterize and distinguish different types of societies across space and time. Excess can be spent on sacrifice or festival, in war or in peace. … How should we go about the removal of the problem of energy and excess?” (87). How should we waste?
What would happen if we paired an ethics of surplus, where accumulation was always temporary and not the goal of economic production, with processes of wasting that enacted social values? In this situation, we might have a right to waste. If human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of behaviour, and degrowth has ushered in a new ethics of surplus, then celebratory, ritualistic, generous, thoughtful wasting may very well become a social norm that would gain the status of a right.
Of course, this assumes that wasting doesn’t cause harm to health or environment. It also doesn’t address what to do with the already existing surplus of legacy wastes we have to manage from nuclear waste to plastics. Yet this is precisely the power of the concept of degrowth: it is an economic imaginary, a politics of possibility, that can allow us to look at old questions with new frameworks.
Max Liboiron is an activist, artist, and Assistant Professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland researching plastic pollution.
A day after I reached Barcelona in Catalonia (Spain) in the last week of May, its first woman mayor was elected, much to the delight of large sections of its civil society. Ada Colau, a 41-year-old activist who has fought with social movements against forced evictions, is with Barcelona En Comú (formerly Guanyem Barcelona).
This is one of many new political outfits in Spain that are rising from peoples’ movements of various hues, including those seeking fundamental changes away from an economic system that has left 50 percent of the country’s youth unemployed, created a massive unpayable public debt, and caused ecological devastation.
Over the next few days I met with a number of researchers and activists and practitioners in Barcelona who are in one way or the other seeking alternative futures. There seems to be an explosion of experiments towards sustainable farming and producer-consumer cooperatives,eco-housing and communes, solidarity networks, complementary or alternative currencies, occupation of empty buildings (squatting) by the homeless or for social activities, cycling and car-free spaces, reclaiming the commons in cities, and much else.
Though still marginal in a society that is overwhelmingly consumerist and wasteful as also facing enormous social problems (including a resurgent right-wing in many areas), these initiatives are growing and provide hope for a different future.
This would especially be the case if the grassroots mobilisation in such initiatives can be combined with progressive new elements in the state, such as the ones that have taken power in Barcelona … and if the rapidly rising political formation Podemos takes over Spain in the coming national elections.
Promises for another way of living
I will illustrate this with a few examples that I got to know of during my visit. One is theCooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC), a network of activists working on various aspects of collaborative, ecologically sensitive living.
Its aim is to be “a tool to create a grassroots counter-power, departing from self-management, self-organization and direct democracy, and one that would help overcome the actual state of dependency on the structures of the system, towards a scenario of liberty, full awareness, free of authority, and in which everyone could flourish under equal conditions and opportunities.”
As CIC activist Ale Fernandez told me, sitting on the roof of one of their working spaces in the midst of an urban herbal garden, the initiative has a very interesting origin. In 2006-08, activist Enric Duran Giralt carried out an act of financial rebellion, borrowing 492,000 Euros from various banks, distributing this to a number of initiatives described as alternatives to capitalism, and refusing to return the money, arguing that banks had been stealing from ordinary people for decades (earning the nickname ‘Robin Bank’!).
When arrested (and later released on bail), Duran pointed out the irony that chief executives of banks who had ruined the lives of millions of people by their irresponsible acts leading to the 2008 financial crisis, were being let off scot-free.
The CIC was started by him and others as a model of how people could live perfectly well without capitalist institutions such as banks, through solidarity and collective actions.The CIC has also evolved into the proposal for a global cooperative called Fair Coop with its own currency (faircoin), similar to Bitcoin but with justice and sustainability principle.
CIC worker Joel Morist I Botines took me out for coffee, and with his eyes shining brightly and a big unruly beard flying in the wind, gave me a run-down on all that the collaborative does: The use of unused buildings or other available properties for collective, social housing; community-led, free and alternative education that is integrated with community living; sharing knowledge platforms; producer-consumer exchange especially of organic, ecofriendly products (food, soap, laundry items, toothpastes, etc); technological innovation and collective repair spaces; social or ‘free’ community currencies in which exchanges can take place without using euros and movie-making through crowdfunding.
CIC is involved in these and much else. It has one permanent assembly for decision-making, but many individual processes or projects linked to CIC have their own assemblies, in an attempt towards decentralised or direct democracy. There are about 5000 user members in the producer-consumer exchange.
The full-time paid employees of CIC, interestingly, can even have their salaries reduced as they are encouraged to obtain more and more of their living needs through sharing, alternative currencies, and other ways that reduce the need for money!
The second initiative I saw is fascinating because it is not something we are used to in India. Can Masdeu is an old hospital building that had been abandoned for a few decades and was occupied by an international group of activists who converted it into a housing and social centre in 2001.
They achieved fame in early 2002, when some 100 police came to evict them. Using passive resistance and tactics that would have meant the police possibly injuring themselves and the occupants if forcible eviction was attempted, and eventually winning both significant public support and a local court’s favorable judgement, the activists managed to stay on. Since then, repeated attempts by the Barcelona administration to evict them failed. (Incidentally, the new Barcelona mayor was involved in protesting against these attempts).
The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.
The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.
Can Masdeu’s building and surrounding fields and forests have also become a space for residents of Barcelona (and elsewhere) to come and volunteer for practical work, do joint activities on Sundays, tend to little garden plots assigned to them, bring schoolkids to get exposed to a different life and more.
Claudio Cattaneo, one of Can Masdeu’s veterans, father of a two-year-old child, and also a researcher who has studied the ecological economics of squatting in Barcelona, was quite frank that this was still an evolving experiment. There are many weaknesses to be addressed still (for example, energy use remains relatively high, and it is not yet clear how elderly people would fit in), but even in his statement of gaps one could see that there is already a lot that the place has achieved.
Can Masdeu’s occupation is still technically illegal. I asked Ale Fernandez, one of the early residents, whether he would prefer it to be legalized; he said he was in two minds, it would be ok if there was a good law covering it, but it was also scary to be “part of the machine,” referring to the system that could gobble up such initiatives in a minute.
This is a dilemma many alternative, radical initiatives face in many countries: whether to remain ‘outside’ the system and face continued harassment and possible closure, or to get legitimised by it, which entails the risk of getting institutionalised, less ‘edgy’ and less radical.
It’s not all about money!
Another widespread trend in Europe encompasses a similar paradox. People in several towns are trying out social currencies of various kinds. In this experiment, the unit of exchange between producer or service provider and consumer is a locally generated ‘money’ or equivalent unit. For that particular exchange, therefore, the relationship is outside the dominant monetary system.
In so far as many of these are ‘complementary’ currencies – working in limited circles, supplementing rather than replacing the dominant currency – they do not really threaten or seriously challenge this system. But some, if they become big like the Bristol pound, can indeed be subversive.
In Barcelona, I met Susana Martín Belmonte, who has helped write a chapter on social currencies for the Barcelona En Comú party that has just come to power in the city. I did not fully understand it, but Susana stressed that this model moved away from bank-related interest, and money as debt and speculation, that was at the centre of the economic crisis. Instead, it focused on positive value creation and trust-based economic exchanges, an early version of which is to be tested in Barcelona.
This initiative is part of a wider European Union funded process of piloting social currencies.
There are however challenges to making this widespread enough to challenge the currently dominant money system. Researcher Kristofer Dittmer, whom I met at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, recently conducted an interesting review of local currencies of various kinds. He concluded that there was not significant evidence of them leading to ‘community-building, advancement of alternative values in economic exchange, facilitation of alternative livelihoods, and eco-localization’, all of which are criteria that the Degrowth movement in Europe espouses.
But there are indeed a number of local benefits, and he said he had not looked at the Bristol pound, which may be one of the few to achieve larger social and economic impact.
Dittmer’s own inclination is for reforms towards a “more democratically controlled monetary system, which is a prerequisite for public spending and taxation that favor communities, egalitarian values, ecologically rational supply-chains, and other principles that degrowth advocates cherish.”
Belmonte, however, feels that if the kind of social currency she is promoting spreads widely, it has the potential to undermine dominant economic powers. This ongoing experimentation and debate in Europe should be of major interest to us in India, as increasingly our movements will also want to look at fundamental changes in economic and monetary systems.
The above initiatives are part of a growing search in Spain and the rest of Europe for alternatives: different ways of being, living, working, and relating that in various degrees question or rebel against the currently dominant economic and political order.
I learnt about these and others over several sessions and treks and meals with a wonderful team of people associated with the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, including the ecological economics guru Joan Martinez-Alier, and his younger colleagues Federico Demaria, Daniela del Bene, Aili Pyhala.
It is through my interactions with them that I came to know of Som Energia, for instance, which is a cooperative buying renewable energy and putting it on the grid, making it more accessible to households. Eticom is a cooperative offering mobile services as an alternative to the big private corporations while ECOS is common working space where many of these cooperatives and projects have their office, with shared cleaning, transport, insurances, finances, design and printing.I also heard more about the movement towards ‘degrowth’, which espouses a considerable scaling down of Europe’s energy and materials use, and encompasses philosophical, ethical, economic, political and socio-cultural elements in its advocacy.
A couple of presentations I made on RED/swaraj were well-attended and generated very interesting discussion on a host of complex issues. People were very interested in the various examples of alternative initiatives that I mentioned, and asked many critical questions about them. It was clear that the presence of such initiatives in both Europe and India offers us a great opportunity, to exchange experiences, mutually learn, evolve common futures where globalization is about freer movement of ideas and cultures and people rather than of finance, and build solidarity networks that can also be a political force.
These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.
These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.
Increasingly, however, as the economies of Europe themselves face crises and it becomes clear that tinkering around within the same system is not helping to resolve them, as knowledge of the ill-effects of these lifestyles for the rest of the world and for themselves spreads, and as ecological and social movements gain ground, the ‘ordinary’ person will be faced with choices for the future that are clearly either irresponsible or responsible.
Hopefully, the thousands of initiatives that are springing up will then also provide available pathways to choices of a more responsible life, forging a future in which the colonial past of Europe is replaced with a truly collaborative role vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
Ashish Kothari has been active with a number of people’s movements in India. He is a member of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh which helps run Vikalp Sangam, a process that brings together people working on economic, social, and environmental alternatives in India, and a website showcasing these initiatives. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and over 300 articles. In 2012, he co-authored the book Churning the Earth, The Making of Global India with Aseem Shrivastava, where they outlined the concept of Radical Ecological Democracy, as inspired by India’s social movements.
We are often told that we need economic growth to address social problems such as unemployment and poverty and to improve everybody’s welfare. However, if one of your sleeves is tight on you, this does not necessarily mean that you need a bigger shirt: perhaps what you need is to reshape your shirt. Indeed, this will be your sole option if you have little thread left.
Economic growth is not a realistic answer to social problems in a world with vanishing natural resources, ecological degradation and climate change. The sensible answer is a deep transformation of the economy to make it more egalitarian and better suited to people’s aspiration to satisfy their basic needs and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, while we get rid of many economic activities that we do not really need, and contract the economy to sustainable levels, carefully and in a truly democratic way. Currently, this idea is best known with the name of degrowth (see this website or this one), and their supporters pursue it at all levels, including individual consumption choices, grassroots self-organization to experience alternative forms of collective functioning, and political action.
However, very few people in the degrowth movement are aware that we are essentially repeating a cycle of mobilization that had already taken place from the late 1970s to the early 1990s (Piulats 1984 is a good sample, in Spanish). In that period, the ideas and practices that we currently call degrowth were labelled just as green, without knowing that the environmental movement would later become dominated by other different shades of green. The movement was especially strong in West Germany, becoming a reference all over the world when its political arm, Die Grünen (the German Greens) irrupted into the Federal Parliament in 1983.
Unfortunately, Die Grünen became split in two main factions. The fundamentalist or fundi, which we would currently call degrowther, would soon have to share the party with the self-called realists or realos, closer to what we currently call green capitalism. Fundis went under pressure after an electoral defeat in 1990 (when the Greens did not share the general enthusiasm for a quick reunification of Germany, warning of the many problems that this would cause to East Germans, and focused their campaign on the then virtually unknown issue of climate change; paraphrasing the German Railways’ slogan Everyone is talking about the weather. We don’t, their slogan was Everyone is talking about Germany; we’re talking about the weather!; e.g., Jungjohann 2013). In a party congress in 1991, the fundis were defeated and left the party (see different views of this congress here and here). The end of the German Greens of the 1980s was rounded off with the death in 1992 of its most emblematic member, the fundi Petra Kelly.
After these events, the ideas, experiences and illusions of the early Grünen were forgotten almost completely. However, their spirit has never ceased to manifest itself in lots of grassroots initiatives. And, behind this veil of amnesia, there is a hidden treasure: the political programmes of the German Greens of that times. As described in a paper that Jorge Riechmann published in Ecología Política in 1994 (if you understand Spanish, this review is a must read), there was a conscious process of programmatic elaboration. It was carried out by the assemblies and representatives of the party all over West Germany, the many social movements where they had their roots, and hundreds of experts hired with the funds obtained from the presence of the party in the institutions. They envisioned, with much detail, how Die Grünen could foster a transition toward a socially fair degrowth.
Even though Die Grünen had already moderated some of their positions before the upheaval of the early 1990s (Blühdorn 2009), the rich programmatic document on international economic policy elaborated between 1988 and 1990 still declares that “For us it is no longer international politics in the national interest but national politics in the international interest” (p. 7) and that “we should not hide the fact that our foreign economic guidelines could bring about a noticeable reduction in our current standard of living” (p. 93). Few current radical parties would dare to go so far.
I was appalled by the amnesia surrounding the early Grünen, which I noticed in many different ways, not least by failing to find some key programmatic documents with search engines. Taking advantage of a trip to Berlin to give a talk, I visited the historical archive of Die Grünen (run by the Heinrich Böll Foundation) and I photocopied some of these documents. I put them together with some other documents in this small repository.
By studying the early programmes of Die Grünen, the degrowth movement can save much effort and leap forward in the detail and quality of its political proposals. Like the protagonist of Groundhog Day, we can also learn from that past to avoid a repetition of the same story.
This is just the beginning. I hope that this (or some other) repository will be enriched with more programmatic documents and with translations.
Salvador Pueyo is a scientist and an activist. He holds a PhD from the Dept. of Ecology of the University of Barcelona, and has worked at research institutions in several countries. He applies complexity science to macroecology, macroeconomics and global change. He is a member of Research & Degrowth.
The two images in this article were found in the document, “Gegen arbeitslosigkeit und Socialabbau: Sinnvoll arbeiten – solidarisch leben” by Die Grünen.
Speculative lending practices and the securitization of sub-prime mortgages were largely to blame for the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis was particularly severe in cities where the lack of liquidity in the financial system made it difficult for municipal governments to respond to the wave of foreclosures and resultant shrinking tax bases. With the worst of the crisis seemingly behind us it is time to reflect on its long-term impact on American cities.
Perhaps the most extreme example of a city in crisis is Detroit. The city’s beleaguered finances proved to be no match for the global economic meltdown and in 2013 Detroit filed for bankruptcy. This part of the story is well known, but much less attention has been paid to the vision of Detroit’s future development around which a consensus among local elites coalesced in the year-and-a-half since its declaration of bankruptcy.
While this plan retains some elements of out-of-the-box urban development programs, it dispenses with a growth-based strategy geared toward rejuvenating the city’s manufacturing base. Instead, it recognizes the likelihood of further economic decline and its emphasis is on improving the quality of life of Detroit residents, economic diversification and environmental sustainability.
In order to understand the willingness of policy makers in Detroit to relinquish the dream of returning to a golden era of Fordist manufacturing it is necessary to put the 2008 crisis in context. Like many American cities, Detroit is a casualty of the prolonged economic crisis that began in the 1970s. Auto manufacturers relocated production facilities to southern states and then overseas in an attempt to outflank organized labour and to counter a falling rate of return. The collapse of Detroit’s manufacturing base left the city’s finances in tatters, and policy makers responded by embracing market-oriented solutions that were in fashion in the 1980s.
There was a broad shift in the United States during the 1980s, in which the primary function of municipal government went from managing day-to-day service delivery to fostering economic growth. To this end “growth coalitions” emerged in many cities. These coalitions practiced “growth machine politics” aimed to augment land value and attracted inward investment. Public bodies assumed risk for large-scale urban development projects while private firms reaped the financial rewards.
This led to a perception among investors that municipal bonds were safe investments that offered lucrative rewards, so when Detroit’s municipal government sought to make up for its shrinking tax base by issuing bonds there was no shortage of willing investors. By 2012 Detroit’s deficit stood at $326 million while its tax base and population continued to shrink.
The textbook response to crisis in many cities has been to intensify neoliberal policies. Thus, when growth coalitions failed to attract investment or augment land value, the response has oftentimes been to offer even more favourable terms to investors while cutting back on services. This has led many scholars and activists to despair that while neoliberalism is the cause of the current crisis it is also perversely embraced as its solution.
Many municipalities have indeed imposed fiscal austerity since the onset of the financial crisis as a means of attracting investment. Some of these cities may have fundamentally sound finances, and policy makers may view fiscal austerity as a short-term detour aimed at calming skittish investors. According to this reasoning the pain caused by austerity will be offset in the near future once the growth coalition is able to resume a cycle of development and growth.
In the case of Detroit this optimism would have most certainly be misplaced because even the most aggressive version of fiscal austerity would not have reversed the city’s decades-long decline. This begs an obvious question: Why should a city endure the pain of austerity if further decline is inevitable from the outset?
Detroit’s elites decided that, while austerity was in the best interest of extra-local creditors, it also promised to make life even more difficult for residents, and they decided to repudiate the city’s debt and take the historic step of declaring bankruptcy. By freeing the city of its debt burden, bankruptcy has allowed Detroit’s future to be re-envisioned.
A coalition among Detroit elites coalesced around this emergent vision, which is based on creative land-use, environmental sustainability and economic diversification. It is articulated in a 345-page document entitled Detroit Future City (DFC). It reads like a master plan and focuses on five “planning elements”: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighbourhoods, and land and buildings assets.
Unlike entrepreneurial urban policies whose time horizons are measured in quarters and election cycles, DFC aims to rejuvenate Detroit’s economy in the course of the next five decades. The first step is to make the city liveable in order to stem the tide of out-migration, and to this end the plan calls for investments in neighbourhoods. Residents in neighbourhoods characterized by high levels of abandonment are encouraged to relocate to neighbourhoods with high population densities. Fordist manufacturing is rejected in favour of economic diversity, the single-family detached home is rejected in favour of densely populated diverse neighbourhoods, and in a major shift for the Motor City the plan envisions an efficient public transportation network. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the DFC is “the re-imagination and reuse of vacant land for productive uses or, where there is excess vacant land, returning it to an ecologically and environmentally sustainable state.” The emphasis on sustainable land use is a significant departure from growth machine politics aimed at augmenting land value.
It is too early to tell whether the vision articulated in the DFC will be realized or if it will indeed guide policy for the next fifty years. Nevertheless, it is important to note that bankruptcy gave Detroit the opportunity to chart a new path. I refer to this as degrowth machine politics because it takes the further shrinking of Detroit’s economy for granted, and rather than placate creditors policy makers are focused on improving the quality of life for city residents.
The concept “degrowth” is not new but it has historically been used primarily by activists and scholars because politicians do not win elections by campaigning for shrinking the economy. This is changing since the onset of the financial crisis because there are many places in which degrowth simply seems to be a reality that cannot be reversed by fiscal austerity.
For example, elements of degrowth are beginning to enter mainstream policy discourse in southern Europe. Voters in Greece recently rejected fiscal austerity, and the concept has begun to enter mainstream discourse elsewhere in southern Europe. In the United Kingdom the Scottish National Party has chided mainstream political parties – and most notably the Labour Party – for not repudiating austerity.
Thus, it is possible that we could see the emergence of other degrowth machine political coalitions, and this provides an answer for the pressing question: What comes after neoliberalism? The transition to degrowth is not a linear advancement to a new political system based on purportedly universal ideology. Instead it is a mixture of locally adapted policies whose coherence lies in their intended outcomes rather than ideological underpinnings. The objective is to simply do more with less and thereby improve the quality of life, and this will oftentimes (1) reduce the quantity of resources used and (2) put localities – and local elites who were hitherto part of multi-scaler growth coalitions with extra-local financiers – at odds with their creditors whose main priority is protecting their investment.
Detroit may provide lessons for degrowth coalitions elsewhere. First and foremost, Detroit demonstrates that the intensification of fiscal austerity is not the only response available to policy makers faced with an economic crisis. In spite of declaring bankruptcy Detroit was not punished by creditors. On the contrary, the repudiation of debt transformed Detroit into an attractive destination for investors. For example, Goldman Sachs launched an initiative to invest $20 million in Detroit’s small businesses. Quite simply, an institution that is unburdened by debt seems like a better investment than one that cannot hope to repay its debt without the support of a guarantor (in this case the State of Michigan).
The reason why Detroit is able to attract investment is because its degrowth machine politics has clearly articulated an innovative plan for the city’s future. Thus, the rejection of austerity for austerity’s sake must be accompanied by a clear set of policies aimed at managing decline in a way that makes cities more liveable. In other words, the repudiation of debt should not be understood as a strategy to attract capital from different investors, but to rework with relationship with all investors so that any inward capital is leveraged toward the realization of a sustainable and equitable future.
Seth Schindler is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Sheffield.
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.