September readings

Source: Shareable

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Over the past month we saw an uptick in conversations on degrowth in both mainstream and leftist media in the aftermath of two degrowth conferences in Sweden and Mexico and in connection to a “post-growth” conference in the EU Parliament in Belgium. We’ve also been reading about resistance, community building, and struggle for autonomy and control of land in cities and rural areas around the world—and about criminalization of this resistance. And as usual there are articles about environmental and climate injustice, socialism and the limits of “green” technologies, and new political organizing practices.

 

Uneven Earth updates

We’re excited to announce our new call for submissions for futuristic imaginaries! We are looking for science fiction, science fiction-inspired thoughts, and critical analyses of sci-fi, this time with a focus on pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies.

The shock doctrine of the left | Link | New book by Graham Jones is part map, part story, part escape manual

How the world breaks | Link | Stan and Paul Cox describe the destructive force of nature in the context of climate change

How radical municipalism can go beyond the local | Link | Fighting for more affordable, accessible places to live means fighting for a less carbon-intensive future

 

Top 5 articles to read

Save us the smugness over 2018’s heatwaves, environmentalists. In this historically precarious moment, we need something more fundamental than climate strategies built on shame and castigation. But, note that there is no evidence that environmentalists are at all smug.

‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars

Rise of agri-cartel: Control of land drives human rights violations, environmental destruction

Where are the Indigenous children who never came home?

Disaster collectivism: How communities rise together to respond to crises

 

News you might’ve missed

Harvard’s foreign farmland investment mess. An article in Bloomberg highlights a new report by GRAIN on Harvard’s investment in land grabbing.

Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy

There’s been a worrying trend of criminalizing earth defenders around the world:

‘Treating protest as terrorism’: US plans crackdown on Keystone XL activists

Criminalization and violence increasingly used to silence indigenous protest, according to UN report

Fracking protesters’ ‘absurdly harsh’ jail sentences spark calls for judicial review backed by hundreds of scientists

After five years of living in trees, a protest community is being evicted. The German police is evicting activists who are occupying the 12,000 year old Hambach Forest to block the expansion of lignite coal mining. (The yearly Ende Gelände mass action of civil disobedience against the open-pit mine is coming up this month, on 25th-29th October.)

Declaration: No to abuse against women in industrial oil palm plantations  

 

New politics

Learning to fight in a warming world. Andreas Malm spoke at the Code Rode action camp against a gas pipeline in the Netherlands, addressing crucial questions for anti-fossil fuel organizing: Who are the political subjects in this struggle? How can people be mobilized? Should we think of the climate justice movement as a vanguard? Which methods and strategies should we use? What are the roles of non-violent and violent resistance?

Building food utopias: Amplifying voices, dismantling power

No justice without love: why activism must be more generous. I want to be a member of a thriving and diverse social movement, not a cult or a religion.

Resisting Development: The politics of the zad and NoTav

A story of the creation of the first commune in Kobane, and the struggle against authoritarianism within.

From Rojava to the Mapuche struggle: The Kurdish revolutionary seed spreads in Latin America

Seizing the means of reproduction. Unrecognized, often unpaid, and yet utterly necessary, reproductive labor is everywhere in our lives. Can it form the basis for a renewed radical politics?

Co-ops might not transform people, but the act of cooperation often does.

An interview with the Internationalist Committee of the Rojava revolution

The emerging idea of “radical well-being”. An interview with Ashish Kothari by Paul Robbins.

 

Radical municipalism

The radical solution to homelessness: no-strings homes

What should a 21st century socialist housing policy look like?

The city as a battleground. If cities are becoming amusement parks for tourists, a vehicle to earn money, what space is left for its citizens?

Radical democracy vs. retro social democracy: a discussion with Jeremy Gilbert

The labor movement once built thousands of low-cost co-op apartments for working class New Yorkers. It could do so again.

Internationalism and the New Municipalism

Bologna again takes center stage resisting fascism

First we take Jackson: the new American municipalism

The common ground trust: a route out of the housing crisis

Revitalizing struggling corridors in a post-industrial city

The persistence of settler colonialism within “the urban”. As long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Five principles of a socialist climate politics. Overall it is quite surprising how well the challenge of climate change overlaps with some classical principles of socialism.

The Rise of the Robot: Dispelling the myth. The ‘march of the robots’ idea relies tacitly on the assumption that the limits to growth are negotiable, or indeed non-existent. It buys into the idea that there can be a complete – or at least near complete – decoupling of production from carbon emissions.

Ten years on, the crisis of global capitalism never really ended

Dirty rare metals: Digging deeper into the energy transition. “Western industries have deliberately offshored the production of rare metals and its associated pollution, only to bring these metals back onshore once cleansed of all impurities to incorporate them into intangible ‘green’ technologies.”

Farmers in Guatemala are destroying dams to fight ‘dirty’ renewable energy

The real problem with free trade. As trade has become freer, inequality has worsened. One major reason for this is that current global trade rules have enabled a few large firms to capture an ever-larger share of value-added, at a massive cost to economies, workers, and the environment.

A special issue in Meditations Journal on the link between the economy and energy

The environmentalism of the poor in the USA. A review of the book Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader.

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing. A response to E. O. Wilson’s half-baked half-Earth.

Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’

 

The growth debate

Following from the success of the two International Degrowth Conferences in Mexico and Sweden in August, scientists and politicians gathered at the EU Parliament in Brussels this month to discuss the need to move to a “post-growth” economy. Degrowth has always been a term meant in great part to provoke conversation. And that it did: what followed was a month careful commentary, knee-jerk responses, and thoughtful criticism.

The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth. 238 academics call on the European Union and its member states to plan for a post-growth future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP. Sign the petition based on this letter: Europe, it’s time to end the growth dependency.

Degrowth considered: A review of Giorgos Kallis’ book, In defense of degrowth

Why growth can’t be green. New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both. An article by Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy.

Saving the planet doesn’t mean killing economic growth. A response to the criticism of growth by Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg.

Soothing Noah Smith’s fears about a post-growth world. A response to Noah Smith’s piece by Jason Hickel. “The whole thing is based on either awkward confusion or intentional sleight of hand.” For a similar analysis, see our 2015 article, Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it.

The degrowth movement challenges the conventional wisdom on economic health

Beyond growth. Imagining an economy based in environmental reality: an article featured in Long Reads.

The new ecological situationists: On the revolutionary aesthetics of climate justice and degrowth

Degrowth vs. a Green New Deal. An article in The New Left Review by Robert Pollin criticizing the degrowth position, and proposing an alternative. Is the ecological salvation of the human species at hand? A response to Pollin’s piece from an ecological economist. And New deals, old bottles: Chris Smaje responds to Pollin’s piece.

While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit. George Monbiot calls for degrowth.

The Singularity in the 1790s. A retrospective and enlightening analysis of the science fiction-tinged debate between William Godwin and Thomas Malthus.

 

Addressing climate change’s unequal impacts

Nature-based disaster risk reduction

Puerto Rican ‘anarchistic organizers’ took power into their own hands after Hurricane Maria

The unequal distribution of catastrophe in North Carolina

That undeveloped Land Could Be Protecting Your City from the Next Flood

Carbon removal is not enough to save climate

Climate action means changing technological systems – and also social and economic systems

 

Plastics, waste, and technology

Maria-Luiza Pedrotti is illuminating the unseen worlds of plastic-eating bacteria that teem in massive ocean garbage patches.

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

Forget about banning plastic straws! The problem is much bigger. A feature on the artist and scientist Max Liboiron.

The air-conditioning debate isn’t really about air-conditioning

 

Just think about it…

Pay your cleaner what you earn, or clean up yourself

Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free

Humans are destroying animals’ ancestral knowledge. Bighorn sheep and moose learn to migrate from one another. When they die, that generational know-how is not easily replaced.

The agrarian origins of capitalism. This 1998 essay by Ellen Meiksins Wood is still worth a read (or re-read).

Searching for words in Indian Country. A non-Native journalist encounters a tribal-managed forest and an indigenous garden. “I had no idea how to use the English language to describe what I was seeing.”

Dead metaphors, dying symbols and the linguistic tipping point. An interview with Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the American Environment

Forget the highways: America’s social infrastructure is falling apart, and it’s hurting democracy.

 

Resources

A factsheet on global plastic pollution

A timeline of gentrification in the US

A blueprint for universal childhood

The best books on Moral Economy

An economy for the people, by the people. A report by the New Economics Foundation.

The anatomy of an AI system. The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.

A YouTube channel with accessible, informational videos on political ecology and economy

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

July readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

For the summer months, we’re doing something a bit different. On top of sharing the usual editors’ picks, we’ve invited two scholars to contribute some of the best readings and resources in their respective fields. For July, political ecologist Salvatore De Rosa is joining us. Check out his list below, and scroll a bit further to find other worthwhile articles selected by us Uneven Earth editors! Oh, and follow our brand new Instagram account.

 

Salvatore’s links

I was asked by Uneven Earth to put together a list of my favorite readings in recent years, during which I deep-dove in Political Ecology and related fields and animated, with the fantastic ENTITLE Collective, a blog of collaborative writing around scholarly and academic takes and issues in Political Ecology.

Admittedly, this list does not follow a structure or predetermined path, rather reflecting my idiosyncrasies, the mutating focus of my interests and the associative links nurtured by a broadly defined interest in human-environment relations and in the eco-political performances of grassroots environmental activism.

Tentacular thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene

Let’s start with heavy thoughtful artillery. There’s a lot of talk on the Anthropocene lately, but few original and genuinely critical takes on the issue. Amazing exception, this piece of Donna Haraway that opens up the Anthropocene narrative and goes forward in thinking its implications towards politically enabling, culturally decentering and vertiginously uplifting connections.

David Rumsey map collection

Are you in search of maps to study, revisit, deconstruct or add to your presentation on spatial imaginaries? Nothing better than the David Rumsey map collection: thousands of maps from all ages, freely downloadable in hi-res.

The next wave of extremists will be green

Leaked documents reveal counterterrorism tactics used at Standing Rock to “defeat pipeline insurgencies”

A theme that has always interested me is the relation between grassroots environmental activism and repressive and delegitimizing techniques implemented by governments against it around the world. To get a sense of how environmental mobilizations from below are increasingly considered a ‘serious’ issue by state, and often a ‘threat’ to national interests, the above readings can surely help.

Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist

If you were wondering why a feeling of looming desperation settled in your thoughts when you have just been reading the news, the answer may be that you suffer from climate depression.

Age of grief

Proposing a similar diagnosis but from an entirely different standpoint, the anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan invites us to “face the loss”.

Here’s to unsuicide: An interview with Richard Powers

To recover and to fight back, maybe it is time to turn upside down some deep seated assumptions about nature. Maybe it is time to recognize that the gap between humans and all other living things is made and remade by our drive of dominion and destruction. Wise words can be heard on this from Richard Powers.

End the “green” delusions: Industrial-scale renewable energy is fossil fuel+

Did you think top-down, large scale renewable energies infrastructures, like windmills, will solve the world’s hunger for energy without hurting ecosystems? Think again…

Friday essay: recovering a narrative of place – stories in the time of climate change

For a bit of meaning and hope, here is a reading on how we should work on recovering narratively community and place, to have the “feet firmly on the ground while reaching for the stars”.

Why “Warning to Humanity” gets the socio-ecological crisis (and its solutions) wrong

Finally, one reading from our ENTITLE Blog, that criticizes the mainstream scientific diagnoses and solutions to the environmental crises spread by articles like the “warning to humanity”, and invites to join the fight right on the frontlines of ecological friction points!

Enjoy!

 

Uneven Earth updates

We are now on Instagram! Follow us here.

July | Link | “She enjoys the way they fill the space with artificial flight; an awkward posture that makes their death seem comical.”

 

News you might’ve missed

Crops are dying. Forests are burning. This summer’s heat wave has fueled natural disasters around the world. Here’s a list of them.

Rising temperatures linked to increased suicide rates

The first ever feminist school in Uganda was held this year by The Rural Women’s Movement

A new report shows how the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies will increase their emissions and derail global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.

As Indigenous peoples wait decades for land titles, companies are acquiring their territories

Investing in Indigenous communities is most efficient way to protect forests, report finds

Deadliest year on record for environmental land defenders: A report by Global Witness. Also covered in The Intercept here.

2,500 scientists warn against the border wall’s huge environmental cost

 

New politics

A “happy” world requires institutional change

Meet the anarchists making their own medicine. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective is a network of tech-fueled anarchists taking on Big Pharma with DIY medicines.

Standing Rock medic bus is now a traveling decolonized pharmacy

Women’s fight to feed the world. Women Who Dig takes a global look at food, feminism and the struggle to make a future.

The teenagers fighting for climate justice

Here’s why we’re planting trees in northern Syria. This land was liberated from Bashar Al-Assad and Isis. Now we need help to keep it alive.

How to build a culture of good health. “If we wish to take full responsibility for health in our society, we must not only be vigilant guardians of our personal well-being, we must also work to change structures, institutions, and ideologies that keep us mired in a toxic culture.”

Out from emergency. Today’s crises call on humanity to act collectively, but this possibility seems more and more remote. How do we break the cycle? A dialogue between Katrina Forrester and Jedediah Purdy.

 

Radical municipalism

Seattle flirts with ‘municipal socialism’. The $15 minimum wage was just the beginning. Now Seattle is trying to build a whole safety net for workers—and triggering a war with its biggest companies.

Degrowth and Christiania – I saw how Copenhagen’s collective living experiment can work

Iceland’s slow-burning digital democratic revolution.

How community land trusts create affordable housing

Visions of a new economy from Detroit: A conversation with Malik Yakini. “That whole idea of private ownership of land, which in large part is how wealth is generated in capitalism, is problematic. The question of access to land is critical… The other flaw—which can exist in socialism, also—is the idea that the earth is a commodity, and what we need is more production, more extraction. I think a new way of looking at our relationship to the earth is required.”

Everything we’ve heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong

Most public engagement is worse than worthless

‘Climate gentrification’ will deepen urban inequality, and Coastal cities are already suffering from “climate gentrification”.

Seattle and the Socialist: The battle raging between Amazon and the far left

A world class divide: Seattle vs. Vancouver on the housing crisis

A nationwide campaign to take back cities from the corporations that rule them

Barcelona’s experiment in radical democracy

Municipalism: The next political revolution?

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Losing Earth: the decade we almost stopped climate change. And an important response by Naomi Klein: Capitalism killed our climate momentum, not “human nature”.

Systems seduction: The aesthetics of decentralisation. “We don’t need totalizing visions but a proliferation of daydreams: lateral, experimental and situated within the localities of lived experience.”

Wildfires in Greece—the price of austerity

Science denialism is dangerous. But so is science imperialism. Calls for strict science-based decision making on complex issues like GMOs and geoengineering can shortchange consideration of ethics and social impacts.

The limits of green energy under capitalism

What are human rights good for?

Nature defends itself. Review of The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World by Andreas Malm.

The cashless society is a con – and big finance is behind it. Banks are closing ATMs and branches in an attempt to ‘nudge’ users towards digital services – and it’s all for their own benefit

Karl Polanyi and the formation of this generation’s new Left. As the democratic Left spirals ever downwards, the worrying forces of populism and neoliberalism seem to be emerging from the ashes. Could the visionary thinking of economic historian Karl Polanyi provide a feasible fix in the 21st Century? An open‐ended approach might be just the ticket to rescue global politics from a far right explosion – and it’s not rocket science…

Growth for the sake of growth. “Growth for the sake of growth” remains the credo of governments and international institutions, Federico Demaria finds. The time is ripe, he argues, not only for a scientific degrowth research agenda, but also for a political one.

 

Just think about it…

We can’t do it ourselves. How effective is individual action when it is systemic social change that is needed?

Is the global era of massive infrastructure projects coming to an end?

How to survive America’s kill list. “This is how America’s post-9/11 move toward authoritarianism has been executed: without massacres or palace coups, but noiselessly, on paper, through years of metronome insertions of bloodless terms in place of once-vibrant Democratic concepts.”

Intellectual extractivism: The dispossession of Maya weaving

What is metabolic rift? The ecosocialist idea you’ve never heard of and might need.

Think everyone died young in ancient societies? Think again

Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money. Thousands of years ago, money was a means of debt payment, archaeologists and anthropologists say.

In praise of doing nothing

The medium chill: a philosophy that asks the important questions. “We’re going to have to scale down our material expectations and get off the aspirational treadmill. So how can we do that? How can we make it okay to prioritize social connections over money and choice hoarding?”

Participatory budgeting increases voter likelihood 7%

Cesspools, sewage, and social murder. A riveting history of early environmentalism in 19th-Century London.

Steven Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. These eight graphs show why.

The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis

How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse

The case for building $1,500 parks. A new study shows that access to “greened” vacant lots reduced feelings of worthlessness and depression, especially in low-resource neighborhoods.

 

Resources

The best books on Radical Environmentalism

After 30 years, Science for the People has relaunched!

Science for the People engages in research, activism, and science communications for the betterment of society, ecological improvement, environmental protection, and to serve human needs. Members of Science for the People consist of STEM workers, educators, and activists who are socially and ethically focused, and believe that science should be a positive force for humanity and the planet.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn) and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter? Subscribe here.

Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it

Diverse commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing, and future well-being.
Diverse leftist commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing and future well-being. But rarely do they define what they mean by economic growth.

by Aaron Vansintjan

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 economicsa “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. Most available evidence 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.

Mustachianism, environmentalism, me, and us

The washing machine, like all consumer goods, is a structural issue: blaming consumers alone won't help, we have to tackle the structures that hold them up. Source: Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski
Blaming consumers alone won’t help, consumption goods (like washing machines) are held up by much larger structures. Photo credit: michel szulc krzyzanowski, www.szulc.info

by Simon Vansintjan

Two years ago a friend tweeted this article from the Mr. Money Mustache backlog. The author preaches a gospel that struck me as true – if you’re privileged, and you’re in a lucky position to have a steady income, and you can be comfortable in that knowledge, than through frugality, research, and understanding, you can reach financial independence fairly easily. When that happens, you can focus on the things that you think are really important.

The overall message: you too can curb your consumerism and finally be free of the system and the shackles.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Money Mustache and I appreciate how he’s teaching people to game the system. It’s a philosophy of stripped-down needs, making do with what you have, and enjoying what is available to you. It’s stoicism as an antidote to the consumer rat-race we’re in.

When MMM enthusiastically talks about “the natural conclusion” of everyone becoming Mustachian – a breakdown of a system that relies and runs on consumerism – I happily cheer him on. Ultimately his focus on monetary wealth is only to get free of concerns from that monetary wealth – to pursue other, less financial, riches.

Yet it falls short. Mr. Money Mustache takes the same route many environmental activists and privacy proponents take – one that ultimately puts the blame and burden on us, the people, to individually break free from a culture and mindset that is destroying the world. While the heavy polluting is done by industry, the message is that we should drive our cars less. When the meat and food industry is proving to be unhealthy for the people, we have to become vegetarian and eat less meat. When companies are selling our data, it’s on us to make sure we’re using encrypted channels. When the industry is misogynist, it’s because women aren’t trying hard enough. When the economy was shaky after 9/11, Bush asked people to spend more money to get it going again.

The idea? “Consumers” have created a demand for something and are at fault if it goes wrong. This is blatantly untrue – much of the  demand only exists because of the structure of our industry and because ads are incredibly effective.

Let me diverge on that point for a moment by looking at two products with “great consumer demand”.

The washing machine was first thought up in the 1750s, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that electric washing machines were actually viable. By 1903, ads and newspapers were already heavily discussing the use of washing machines, but it wasn’t until just before World War Two that a significant part of the US population had access to a personal washing machine. Why did it take almost 200 years for the washing machine to become a household staple? Because this so-called high-demand consumer product relied on an infrastructure of detergent use, gender and racial liberalization, consumer prepping through ads, and the development of factories and plants to cheaply produce such products on a large-enough scale that people would actually buy them. The invention of the washing machine was a great thing, but the idea that it was a consumer-driven take-up is false.[1]

The combustion engine was invented in 1886, but the story of the car really starts in the late 1700s. Throughout this period the car industry came across an irritating stumbling-block: inner-city roads belonged to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, there was no separation of sidewalk and road, and there were no inter-city roads to drive on for cars. For cars to take off and be useful, the industry had to lobby governments to build roads and push against public dislike of cars (see the Locomotive Act of 1865). It wasn’t until this infrastructure was built and cars had existed within the public consciousness for over a century that they really started to take off[2], and become something beyond just a status symbol. Consumer driven? Hardly.

Whether it’s the car, the washing machine, smart phones[3], or social networks, our willingness to consume a product or live a certain way is the work of millions of dollars in ad campaigns, positive newspaper reviews and stories, and government lobbying.

When the environmentalists, the mustachians, and the privacy campaigners[4] ask you to change your lifestyles – they’re still saying that you’re to blame if you don’t. You’re either a sucker (if you’re not Mustachian), you’re destroying the world (if you’re not an Environmentalist), or you’re giving up your privacy (if you don’t believe in an IndieWeb), etc. etc. etc.

My challenge to all of these people? I’ve checked all of those boxes, I’m not the only one, and yet here we are. We’re still tumbling towards environmental and privacy disasters driven by consumerism. Getting people to focus on changing their habits is great – but is the result that we’re being distracted from bigger problems? That our conversations are being pointed away from where they should be focused?

Individuals are much more powerful together than on their own. This is common sense, and easy to prove:

  • An individual that campaigns for and supports free and open source software development is more powerful than one who encrypts all of their data.
  • An individual that makes an effort to hire marginalized people into their company is more powerful than the one who takes a couple of days out to teach online.
  • An individual that joins their neighborhood to help the less privileged around them get to school is more powerful than the one who sets up an extensive library for their kids.
  • An individual that encourages their police officers to participate in community events for the areas they’re patrolling is more powerful than the one who teaches themselves about social justice.
  • An individual that helps turn industrial cow farms into wind turbines is more powerful than one who turns vegetarian.
  • An individual that politically pursues the construction of bike lanes is more powerful than one that bikes to work every day.

We’re much stronger as a group than as individuals. And this is true about environmentalism, the own-your-own-data-indie web, and Mustachianisms. By dividing our focus into individual efforts, we will never be able to challenge the structure imposed on us by the people who have the money to pummel us with ads and faux-journalism.

More than a change in our habits, we need a structural one.

Simon Vansintjan works as a user experience designer and developer on various open source projects – currently focusing on OpenFarm. He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.


1. For an in-depth look at this, read The dynamics of willingness to consume ↩

2. A seriously good podcast about The Modern Moloch ↩

3. Smart phones were around for a long time before Apple “optimized” the experience, and even then, the first generation iPhone relied heavily on ads and Apple fans to become popular in the mainstream. Functionally it wasn’t until the second generation iPhone that it started to take off. Nevermind the military funded infrastructure that built the “internet” as we know it today.↩

4. The Indie Foundation. (https://ind.ie/foundation/) ↩