Degrowth

I don't understand why when we destroy something created by man we call it vandalism, but when we destroy something created by nature we call it progress.

A few days ago, I was walking with a friend, which is how I think most of my posts come about. We talked about energy (I'm writing about that right now as well), The Green Deal and Degrowth.

We can hardly find an area of life that is not dominated by the growth imperative. An explicit demand for ever greater and faster activity underlies all productive sectors, from the volume and speed of products to be produced to the sale to us the consumer.

The logic of growth has been embedded in our areas of life, which formerly did not have much to do with productivity or efficiency, such as public health, education, care, the arts or quite banally our well-being and happiness. Here we quickly end up with topics like Green Growth, we had talked about this together with Thomas Schindler (thomas.cr) once in a FullCircle format and he also writes on the topic of well-being as a growth index on his newsletter.

Gross domestic product (GDP) growth is a common denominator for judging the success of public policies and the performance of governments. The idea of growth, as I will like to use it, goes beyond simply showing an increase in GDP. Growth here takes place in terms of money flows, financial assets and transactions, capital accumulation; in terms of aggregate material throughput, infrastructure, desirability, efficiency, and productivity. Ethan, as well as Thomas and I, define other forms of capital here, but I won't go into them today. I had also written something similar entitled "The Economy of Wellbeing."

GDP growth is only a small part, of a broader socio-economic process of expansion and increasing human control over nature and over each other. Growth is a culture that can be seen, touched and felt. It is reflected in modern iconic architecture, in the taste of industrially produced food, in the speed at which students must graduate from university, in the degrees required to maintain privileges between and within countries. Growth is armed by (techno)science and technology and fueled by labor markets and cheaply acquired natural resources, often based on histories of war and colonization.

This sociocultural dimension of growth has been uncritically overlooked for too long. This is perhaps why it was (and still is) expected that failures of growth would be cured with more growth. Whether in borrowing, natural resource extraction, or new infrastructure, growth has been the primary tool for addressing inequality and unemployment. It is promoted equally by those who call for austerity and those who advocate Keynesianism. The end result, however, is the same. Problems are shifted or distorted in space and time, while social conflicts (described in "Weltschmerz," among others) and ecological crises intensify. As early as the 1970s, André Gorz argued that the point is not to consume more and more (i.e., to achieve a "steady state"), but to consume less and less, because even zero growth, which keeps current consumption levels constant, leads to rapid depletion of resources. This is the "stage" on which the degrowth slogan operates. It was first used explicitly as a slogan by activists in France and southern Europe calling for a downsizing of material capacity. One of its main goals was to expose and challenge the imperative of growth as a commonly accepted social goal. Since then, degrowth has become a field of research and a framework that encompasses a broad vocabulary of meanings. Niko Paech also writes a lot on this at the University of Jena, he just uses the term postgrowth for it. This article takes this further by looking more explicitly at climate change, its impacts and policy responses (There was also a lecture on this by Niko Paech on January 25th).

Putting the term in context, degrowth should be understood as a strategy for sustainability, since economic growth is environmentally, socially, and even economically unsustainable. However, the degrowth debates began precisely as a response to the prevailing sustainability or "sustainable development" discourse. The idea of a virtuous win-win triangle in which the environment is protected, equity is promoted, and growth is perpetuated, is strictly rejected by degrowth theory and research. The starting premise of degrowth is that growth-based development is not sustainable, and the question is how to make the necessary degrowth socially sustainable.

What does degrowth actually mean?

Degrowth, contrary to what the term might suggest to the uninitiated, is not a technical term in economics that means the opposite of growth or setting prices so that the number of resources decreases. In a "post-degrowth" scenario, if we bothered to quantify the changes in the outdated GDP indicator, they would be negative. But to peg and understand degrowth only in terms of GDP metrics is clearly a misinterpretation of the nature of the term. While degrowth denounces GDP growth, its focus is on changing context and units of measurement. Societies embarking on a degrowth course would need new metrics that are more nuanced and diversified. This is not to say that the thorny goal of reducing consumption is not present in the Global North. It is at its core. However, it is driven by principles of political organization in the spirit of caring for the commons, voluntary simplicity, and joyfulness (rather than top-down GDP shrinkage). Establishing and redesigning institutions that enable societies to do without growth (in a broader sense than GDP) is at the core of the pursuit of degrowth.

Degrowth is the synthesis and the new mental and political space that opens up when confronting growth. It does not simply mean "less," but a social metamorphosis. Which ties closely to further cultural changes (Game B scenarios). Degrowth shifts attention from expansion to redistribution and equity in societies. This implies not only a reduction of societal metabolism, but the production of a new metabolism with different functions and forms of organization. Here the social limits of growth are crucial. In a world of "Porsches for all," a Porsche would no longer be a "Porsche" but a boring car that no one would want. Even if biophysical resources were not a constraint, economic growth would never satisfy everyone's desire for status. Goods that lead to a higher position are a function of growth and constantly change with it.

Degrowth confronts productivism both culturally and economically, pointing to the myopic, normative, and simplistic representation of humans as self-interested utility maximizers. More than anything, it strikes at the theoretical heart of economic models of representation in which utility is reduced to consumption, markets are seen as the single best way to allocate resources, and efficiency (in production) is an end in itself. Much of the literature that does not explicitly address degrowth, however, shows that human rationality is limited and markets tend to crowd out friendship, gift, and altruism. Alternative forms of circulation, through which goods and services are exchanged reciprocally at the community level or between communities, without markets, prices, and the calculative logic of profit, have existed and continue to exist in some less visible parts of society. Unlike a market economy, participation in a gift economy develops a pride in, if not - a joy in giving, even if it means entering into a chain of compulsory returns or collective dependency. Again, degrowth is a tapestry woven within a framework of multiple complementary threads or ideas that collectively converge into something greater than their sum. At its heart is the well-being of society. Based on the idea of friendly togetherness, it implies an appreciation of each other's presence within an event, activity, work, or place. Illich (1978) defines it as the "individual freedom realized in personal interdependence as an intrinsic ethical value." Conviviality is neither efficient, nor time-saving. Conviviality in technological terms implies the use of tools that are easy to use and repair, reliable, durable, openly accessible, multi-purpose, recyclable, socially and environmentally friendly, and above all, allow for "graceful play" in personal relationships (Illich 1973).

Democracy, or some form of government, is another central concept in the degrowth web. According to Illich (1978), justice and power grow simultaneously only up to a threshold. Beyond this threshold, capital and (authoritarian) power grow at the expense of justice. The more centralized a system is, the more it needs experts and bureaucrats to manage it; these would then appropriate an ever larger share of society's surplus. Growing energy wealth therefore leads to a more unequal distribution of control over that energy and societal surplus. A true participatory democracy of truly equals can only exist in a society with low and distributed energy consumption. This is also true in reverse - participatory democracy creates the conditions for convivial technologies. Degrowth is thus conceived as a deeply democratic process based on inclusivity and the search for solutions among diverse actors in the spirit of a society that continuously builds, evolves, and transforms its own institutions.

Importantly, degrowth builds on a critical reflection and historical charging of the concept of "development." This idea of development places countries on a ladder, with the types of societies produced in the West being the ones at the top that others must emulate. The ideology of development can best be illustrated by the shifting of titles, with most colonizing countries being labeled "developed" while the colonized countries (or their indigenous populations) - "developing". A lifestyle based on ever higher levels of material consumption (or development) has been built, generalized and introduced as a common mental infrastructure. This infrastructure continues to reproduce itself even after its original trigger has been displaced. Based on these ideas, degrowth is the gradual, public, and participatory deconstruction of the "mental infrastructure" - concepts such as "development" and "progress." However, this does not mean replacing them with new, unquestionable paradigms.

Degrowth in the North, then, need not translate into more growth in the South. Growth leaves its footprint on the landscape of the Global South, consisting of small stores and textile factories, deforestation and erosion, strip mines, landfills of electronics, chemicals and ships, or monoculture fields of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and global commodities. Degrowth is a call for an end to this environmental colonialism. As Martinez-Alier argues back in 2021, the degrowth movement in the Global North is the natural ally of the environmental justice movement in the Global South. Indeed, degrowth calls for opening up space for the South to find its own paths to the good life or "buen vivir." This certainly implies thriving health care, quality education, access to land and food sovereignty, democratic governance and participation, self-sufficiency, and protection of human and nature rights. While growth is not a necessary condition for any of this, it could be the deconstruction of development thinking.

The transgression of environmental limits has led to an increase in environmental conflicts worldwide. Degrowth starts from the idea that environmental conflicts are embodied visibly or invisibly in most objects and spaces. People in the North are rarely keen on "toxic tours," spending a day at a landfill, a mining site, or walking for hours along a highway, and are never personally confronted with the uprooted communities or eroded mountaintops that necessarily accompany corporate growth. The distancing between the impacts and the goods bought and used has given rise to the environmental justice movement. At the same time, the information overkill about the environmental and social conflicts taking place around the world has little impact on the individual lifestyles of those at the end of the commodity chain until it is felt, marveled at, and experienced with the eyes, hands, and skin. Degrowth is about living and feeling the ecological conflicts, whether on a neighborhood or international level. It is a call to relocalize our impacts and bring ecological and social conflicts (back) to our backyards, where they can be resolved equitably and democracy becomes possible.