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.