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Degrowth, Sustainability, and Tackling Global Inequalities

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Recently I was interviewed by Jen Wilton, a UK journalist and researcher, on the subject of degrowth. What follows is the transcript of our phone interview, originally posted here.

Q: What would a degrowth society look like?

SA: A lot of mainstream environmentalism still clings to the idea that we can dematerialise our ways of living without giving up what is essentially an affluent consumer lifestyle. One of the provocations the degrowth movement offers is whether true sustainability, one planet living, actually implies a rejection of the affluent consumer way.

Degrowth distinguishes itself from some of the philosophies of voluntary simplicity (VS) that have come out of the US in particular. VS in its first phase was an attempt to reduce consumption from within the capitalist way of life. Degrowth recognises that downshifting or living simply within growth, capitalist structures isn’t going to solve many of our problems and it tends to be limited to a privileged few.

The existing structures we live in often lock us into high consumption ways of living, even if that clashes with our value systems. Degrowth is about exploring post-consumerist lifestyles at the personal level, but also recognises that we need to organise at the community level and start building the degrowth economy B underneath, or within the shell of, the deteriorating growth economy A.

Degrowth recognises the developed world is grossly in excess of its fair-share ecological footprint. Any transition towards a truly just and sustainable world implies not just a movement away from continued growth. Degrowth means a process of planned economic contraction, to be distinguished from recession which is unplanned economic contraction.

Degrowth doesn’t just mean a shrinking of the macro economy. There is so much more to it than that. It’s about rethinking the way we spend our leisure; how we interact with our community members; how we source our food; the dominance and nature of our markets; the extent to which we are exposed to advertising; the motivations we have for wearing certain forms of clothing.

It’s a movement away from status seeking. Perhaps human beings will always want to be recognised and appreciated and loved, but we live in a culture where if we have a nice car and live in a fancy house, if we can spend our holidays in exotic places, this somehow shapes our identities. A degrowth society is one that offers quite fundamentally different rewards and incentives.

Our culture does not yet seem ready to take degrowth seriously, despite decades of rigorous scientific literature telling us the growth model is eating away at the biophysical foundations of our existence. At the same time, disparities of wealth are more perverse than ever.

Degrowth doesn’t just mean a contraction of the economy, it also implies a rethinking of how we deal with issues of poverty. Under the growth model, poverty is assumed to be something that is solved through further growth by way of some trickle-down effect. If the global economy must shrink for biophysical reasons, solving poverty implies a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.

Q: How do we transition to a degrowth model?

SA: At this stage, the most important work is in engaging communities at a local level. It involves telling new stories of prosperity and about the importance of sufficiency.

Once our biophysical needs are met, human beings don’t actually gain all that much wellbeing from limitless consumerism. The driving force for a degrowth society has to come from below, rather than it being imposed from above. In fact, it may not be something that can be imposed on us.

The transition strategy has to be devised and implemented from the grassroots up, rather than thinking we can wait for our politicians to institute this, because the state, almost inherently, is an institution of growth. The state needs funds. A larger tax base would allow the state to be able to do more things and that makes it very difficult for politicians to think seriously about a post-growth or degrowth model.

Serge Latouche, one of the prominent scholars in the degrowth movement, talks of degrowth as being a matrix of alternatives. Degrowth doesn’t mean only one thing and the questions it raises need to be interpreted and implemented in context specific ways. So a movement for degrowth in Melbourne, Australia might be very different from a degrowth movement in rural India or in South America.

Q: What would natural resource management look like from a degrowth perspective?

SA: Economic growth and resource extraction are highly correlated. As economies have grown, that has almost always tended to increase their material and energy use.

It is theoretically possible to grow our economies in terms of GDP and at the same time decrease our material footprint. It is possible to decouple, to some extent, our economic activity from material impact. But when you look at the evidence, this doesn’t happen as a rule. There are exceptions to it, where we are learning to do more with less.

We live on a finite planet. Under the growth model, non-renewable resources are being used up at an extraordinary pace. We also see that renewable resources are being eaten away at faster than they can be regenerated.

This is essentially the argument that was made as early as John Stuart Mill in 1848, with the modern version of the argument, The Limits to Growth, published in 1972. They’re saying that on a finite planet, limitless or infinite growth is an impossibility. It is an absurdity.

The degrowth movement says that if we are to take the environmental crisis seriously, we need to acknowledge there is no solution within the growth model. We can talk about the theoretical possibilities of decoupling, but if historically decoupling has not occurred, or occurred anywhere near enough, it implies we must explore a degrowth model. It means rethinking what we think we need to live well.

One of the concepts I feel lies at the centre of degrowth is the notion of material sufficiency. As biophysical creatures we need food, water, clothing and housing. We all want to have some form of social education. When we get sick we want access to basic medical supplies.

Beyond that there will still be things we think are necessary for a good life. Somebody will want a guitar, or a sewing machine. There are still things beyond the absolute necessities of life that will exist within the degrowth society.

However, the question the degrowth movement puts to us is, ‘How much is enough? How much is too much?’ If we don’t ask ourselves those questions, we will forever think we need more. We will never realise we have enough.

When we take these questions seriously, we can then say we don’t need to be cutting down so many trees. We don’t need to be emptying the oceans at the pace we are emptying them, or growing our food with intensive industrial methods. Through the exploration of alternatives we will find we can thrive as human beings, as local communities, while at the same time demanding so much less from our one and only planet earth.

Q: What does degrowth mean for the majority world?

Obviously degrowth doesn’t mean that people in Ethiopia or the Congo, or even the poorest people living in the ghettos of south-central L.A., should consume less. Degrowth is first and foremost a macroeconomic framework and social philosophy aimed at the over-developed regions of the world.

One way to think of it is in terms of contraction and convergence. Just as the richest nations or regions must radically downscale the extent and impact of their economic activity, in some form the poorest nations and regions might need to develop their economic capacities, simply to meet their basic material needs. Nobody can deny anyone that right. It is a mistake, however, to think that means trying to turn the global south into the global north. That would be catastrophic.

There is a risk with the overdeveloped world prescribing what degrowth means to the global south. Degrowth might mean a withdrawal of control and saying our form of development led us to a world grossly in excess of what the planet can sustain. It led to disparities of wealth that were nothing other than perverse. Not only that, the promise of consumerism has failed us.

It would be catastrophic, sad and tragic, to say nothing of grossly unsustainable and unjust, for us to try to fix global poverty by turning the global south into the global north. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be some resource transference – we have taken so much that the least we could do is assist their transition beyond poverty.

The vision of the degrowth movement, ultimately, is to create a global economy, even if it isn’t globalised in the sense we know of it today. We could create a global, human community that thrives within the biophysical capacities of our one planet.

Q: How widespread is the degrowth philosophy?

Mainstream political and economic discourse defines degrowth as unthinkable and unspeakable. There is not yet, and there may never be, a movement that marches strongly under the banner of degrowth.

That could be because the term has some serious public relations issues. We live in a world still deeply entrenched in the growth model. When people hear of degrowth their instinct is to think that if growth is good and natural, then degrowth must be unnatural and not good.

The reason degrowth uses this language is because it can’t be co-opted. Sustainable development, sustainability, environmentalism – these terms have been rendered almost meaningless by virtue of the fact corporations and politicians have used them to justify business as usual. You cannot say that degrowth means growth without degenerating into Orwellian double-speak.

Degrowth is trying to provoke a broader social conversation about the problem of growth and the necessity of an alternative macroeconomic model. Whether or not that should ever be the basis of a political campaign or a social movement remains to be seen. It may be that notions of a sufficiency economy, a wellbeing economy, the economics of happiness or a sharing economy, all of which overlap deeply with the degrowth movement, may be more attractive to the public.

It’s an exciting moment in both the intellectual debate and also in the social-activism scene. There has been a critique of growth bubbling under the surface for decades, which is now coming to the surface as a result of the on-going global financial crisis, the worsening climate situation and the failure of growth capitalism to deal with problems of poverty.

All of these overlapping issues have culminated in the first decades of the 21st century and forced us to rethink our notions of progress, our myths of civilisation. It would be a terrible shame if we persisted with these myths and false solutions. I hope we are brave, courageous and insightful enough to rethink those models and to explore the questions degrowth poses to us.

The Simplicity Collective

7 Comments on "Degrowth, Sustainability, and Tackling Global Inequalities"

  1. Davy on Mon, 27th Apr 2015 8:07 am 

    This article talks some good talk on degrowth but does not as usual deal with the consequences and unintended consequences of the end of BAU. It does not talk about overshoot and carrying capacity levels in a collapsed BAU. It does not acknowledge a huge population decline in a generation likely bellow 1BIL. It is stuck in the same hopium and exceptionalism of the BAUtopians both green and brown.

    We are done whether we degrowth, try to go green, or continue to peruse the fossil fuel culture. The sooner all persuasions embrace this doom and get out of their denial of a happy ending the better. It is only through crisis that we are going to embrace difficult policies of mitigation and adaptation. Difficult decisions of ending bad lifestyle sand attitudes develop by globalism and the fossil fuel culture.

    Civilization as we know it is going to collapse to a lower level per system dynamics of natural ecosystems. We have destroyed our ecosystem on a global scale coupled with a destabilized climate that allowed civilization in the first place. The foundational aspect of our globalistic society being oil and a global financial system are in decay and ready to collapse. There are no options for globalism without these two variables. The amount of predicaments facing us besides these issues are just too great to overcome even with plenty of cheap oil and a healthy global system.

    This is the end folks. We may have 10 years but likely much less. To live in the denial that we can maintain civilization even at a lower level is continued hopium of our exceptionalism. This descent may last a generation so many of us will continue to live with some civilization. Many of us are likely going to die much sooner than BAU would have allowed.

    This descent will be painful, ugly and insecure. Civilization does not function well with those conditions. We are in the uncharted waters of a strong bifurcation of a global system of delocalized locals all depending on a global for the basics of survival. We have a population grossly in overshoot. Over consumptions has made us dangerously dependent on structures that are unsustainable. Overconsumptions has destroyed our global ecosystem and climate. There is no orderly degrowth only disorderly collapse within the economic and social laws of chaos and randomness of decline.

    I have copies parts of this article I find suspect:

    It is theoretically possible to grow our economies in terms of GDP and at the same time decrease our material footprint. It is possible to decouple, to some extent, our economic activity from material impact. But when you look at the evidence, this doesn’t happen as a rule. There are exceptions to it, where we are learning to do more with less.

    The vision of the degrowth movement, ultimately, is to create a global economy, even if it isn’t globalised in the sense we know of it today. We could create a global, human community that thrives within the biophysical capacities of our one planet.

    It’s an exciting moment in both the intellectual debate and also in the social-activism scene. There has been a critique of growth bubbling under the surface for decades, which is now coming to the surface as a result of the on-going global financial crisis, the worsening climate situation and the failure of growth capitalism to deal with problems of poverty.

  2. paulo1 on Mon, 27th Apr 2015 8:20 am 

    re: “It’s an exciting moment in both the intellectual debate and also in the social-activism scene.”

    And in the poster country for growth and consumption WalMart closes stores to punish workers daring to unionize or who protested poor wages. In Canada, WalMart shut down a store in Quebec that did Unionize and one in BC. Scott Walker, the poster boy for anti-unionism who won his Governership on the basis of stomping workers rights and recently implemented ‘right to work’ in Wisconsin, is a serious contender for the Rebublican Presidential nomination.

    I am glad this is an exciting time for intellectual debate and social activism, but meanwhile the poor are getting poorer and the rich are becoming more powerful. What’s next, companies hire Pinkertons with automatic weapons to ‘quell dissent’?

    And in 1914….just 100 years ago we had the Ludlow massacre. Worth reading this excerpt and then ask yourself what are the possibilities of equitable ‘degrowth’?

    “The Ludlow Massacre was a grueling, horrific display of the plight of labor workers. Many lives were lost or destroyed by the hands of big business.

    In the early twentieth century, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company was owned and controlled by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who lived some 2,000 miles away from his tormented miners.

    The immoral suffering and oppression of the down-trodden service workers erupted in 1903 when many of the workers went on strike. Unfortunately, their efforts were quickly stifled when strike breakers were employed by the company and leaders of the movement were removed.

    As years passed, the conditions worsened and the poor mining community was screaming for an answer to their suffering.

    The coal strike of 1913-1914 began when, exhausted from years of anguish and to assert their rights, the workers banded together and left their picks and shovels for a better life.

    Not only were miners fighting for recognition of the United Mine Workers of America union (UMWA), but every working day was a struggle to earn enough money to feed their families. Their working conditions were dangerous and the coal companies paid the workers in “scrip” that could only be spent in company stores. This may seem logical when one looks at how isolated the mines were, but it is clearly horrendous when the full picture comes into view. The coal companies treated the miners like slaves and paid them with money that would be recycled back to the head of the company. The coal miners could never send money to family members or even invest.

    In September of 1913, the coal miners had had enough. They banded together and demanded fair treatment and decent pay from their oppressors. They demanded the enforcement of the 8-hour work day and the right to live outside of company towns. When their demands were not met, the miners went on strike. Over 13,000 miners and their families moved out of the poorly made houses (shacks provided by the company) and into primitive tents. The land on which the tents were placed was loaned to the strikers by ex-miners who sympathized and supported the strikers’ union.

    Louis Tikas and John Lawson were prominent figures in leading the rebellion. John Lawson was the man who drew together most of the demands and presented them to the coal company.

    Mother Jones, a celebrity in the labor movement, paid a visit to Ludlow to show her support, She did this by giving powerful speeches, and being the vivacious fire brand she was, she instilled hope and faith in the strikers.

    The coal company was furious and, after imprisoning Mother Jones, began threatening the strikers. They began shooting into the tent colony, attempting to frighten the strikers back to work; but they were met with retaliation from the colony. The coal company armed a train that, running along a track between the colony and the mines, began firing into he tent colony.

    In mid-October the company, in evil desperation, ordered in four machine guns. They strapped the guns to a car that they called the “Death Special.” When the colony learned of this they immediately dug pits under the tents to protect the women and children from the gunfire.

    No sooner had the strikers completed these pits than the armored car, bearing the machine guns and coal officials with rifles, opened fire on the colony. This lead to the death of one miner and the injury of two small children.

    Colorado Governor Elias Ammons saw the trouble that was brewing and in late October, called in the Colorado National Guard. The militia was sent in with the intention of being neutral, but there was a separation among the men of the militia. Many were biased, as they were veteran strike-breakers from the coal strike of 1904. Those who did not have this experience to compel them against the strikers, were easily bought by the coal company. When the militia arrived they were not getting paid, based on an imbalance between the number of officers vs. enlisted men. Plus, the economy’s inability to handle that influx. The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company paid the militia from $75,000 to $80,000, stationed troops in company buildings and supplied them with goods from company stores. The militia became economically dependent on the company and thereby set their goals on quashing the strikers.

    A month later the pasing of a bill by General Chase (a leader of the militia), declared that all unauthorized arms were to be turned in to him. When General Chase received a delivery of obsolete weapons (including a number of children’s pop-guns) from the colony he was outraged. He had received a total of 2,000 weapons, 3/4 of which were coming form the mine officials. Because of the insult the militia received from the colony, they began supplying the company with guns.

    After months of disarray, the coal officials saw that the strikers were not going to give-in to the militia. The company demanded the release of imaginary people (supposedly held captive by the colony). The colony denied possession of any such people, as they did not actually exist.

    The coal company was growing desperate. On April 20, 1914 Karl Linderfelt, a company officer and a bitter veteran of the strike of 1904, lead the militia in a brutal attack. The militia surrounded the colony and opened fire. The strikers defended themselves as best they could while women and children huddled in trenches dug out underneath tables in the tents.

    A train operator who was running his train past the coal mines at the time of the massacre stopped his train between the two sides in an attempt to end the blood-shed. By doing this, the man saved many lives and opened a doorway for Louis Tikas to begin leading the women and children to a cave over the hills. When Tikas retuned he was kidnapped by the coal company and taken to their side. Although Tikas was unarmed, his head was cracked open with the butt of a rifle and he was then shot in the back.

    Among the dead were 11 children and 2 women who were suffocated in he underground trenches when the colony was set aflame.

    After the combat, when all was quiet and the firing had stopped, over 60 people had lost their lives.

    The murders received national publicity and finally stopped when President Wilson sent in US troops at the request of Colorado Governor Ammons, to restore the peace.

    The strike officially ended in December of 1914 and the miners were forced back to work. Soon after the strike was put to an end, Governor Ammons enforced the pre-existing Colorado labor laws upon the company.

    But it wasn’t until 1935 that workers attained true laboring rights including: pay for ‘dead work’, the right to live off company land, better housing.”

  3. penury on Mon, 27th Apr 2015 9:53 am 

    You can call it degrowth and attempt to put a nicer spin on it or you can call it what it really is “collapse”. Too many people using too many resources equals degrowth, as the cheap resources run out.

  4. Lawfish1964 on Mon, 27th Apr 2015 10:36 am 

    Right on, penury. Economists have us so trained on growth that they can’t even use the proper antonym: contraction. Collapse is just fast contraction.

  5. Apneaman on Mon, 27th Apr 2015 1:03 pm 

    Voluntary de-growth for privileged N Americans. What a fucking joke. Entitled rapacious apes switching their consumer choices to feel good “Green products” and gardening tools and paraphernalia. Want to de-grow – quit your job and STOP buying shit and get off the internet-Never. What de-growth looks like in the real world is a 1000 men, women and children bobbing in the Mediterranean after their boat capsized-AKA-climate/war refugees. They are also de-growing in Ukraine and other fine destinations. Yep plenty of de-growing on the way. We’ll de-grow fast when the temperature causes plant proteins to denature. So smoke em while you got em

    Methane levels as high as 2845ppb

  6. Makati1 on Mon, 27th Apr 2015 7:54 pm 

    Apneaman, Voluntary degrowth for Americans is buying a 36″ TV to replace the old 42″ that finally quit. “Green” is the latest feel good term used with “degrowth” to confuse the sheeple.

    My architect friend here in the Ps is taking exams to become LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. I have been reading the materials and see that it is another useless “green” program designed to make the world believe the billionaire corporations are working to reduce climate change when all it is is a sales gimmick and another layer of bureaucracy. Like ‘renewable energy’, it can only ever be a very small percentage of existing systems/buildings.

  7. daddio7 on Tue, 28th Apr 2015 7:24 am 

    I like these circular arguments. Workers need to be paid more so they can consume less. The rich have too much money so by paying their workers more then that money wont be spent on consumption. Plus higher tax rates and that money wont be used for consumption either. OooooKay.

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