The Case for Degrowth

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Read an excerpt from The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism  by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan, and Andrea Vetter.

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When the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, a debate began in almost every country about whether we should shut down the economy to preserve lives, or whether we should keep it going to protect the economy and economic growth. Some countries, such as the United States, Brazil, and Sweden, initially chose to keep the economy largely open, leading to many avoidable deaths. The economy and growth, many said, was much more important. Other countries, however, deliberately shut down parts of the economy to save lives. Here – in a process of crisis and under capitalist, hierarchical, and largely undemocratic circumstances – we could see something resembling degrowth more than anything hitherto experienced.

For the sake of argument, the politics to fight the pandemic can be interpreted as a deliberate and planned shutdown of large parts of the economy, with the goal of furthering the common good (flattening the curve and thus saving lives), thereby differentiating between sectors that were essential for the provisioning of basic goods and services and those that were less so. To achieve this shutdown and cushion its effects, governments introduced policies that had long been deemed impossible – furloughing workers, protecting livelihoods, ordering planes to stay grounded, securing employment through short-term work allowances, investing in care, or intervening directly in the production process by nationalizing crisis-ridden companies and health facilities or planning the production of health equipment – all by using the government’s sovereign power of money creation. These and many other far-reaching interventions were initially backed by large majorities, and they led to (temporary) significant reductions in emissions and material throughput.

Of course, this is a highly idealized account that only reflects certain aspects of the policies of some governments in the first half of 2020, neglecting that, even then, it was mainly the rich who were bailed out, and that this came with austerity measures, vaccine apartheid colonialism, increasing global inequality, authoritarian tendencies, or public support for and fast rebounding of carbon-intensive industries and emissions. Governments’ reactions to the pandemic were not degrowth. Recessions are not degrowth because the economy is still dependent on growth. Similarly, the responses to COVID-19 are not degrowth because, ultimately, they are designed to get the economy back on track towards growth. So what is degrowth?

‘Degrowth’ is a term that is increasingly mobilized by scholars and activists to criticize the hegemony of growth – and a proposal for a radical reorganization of society that leads to a drastic reduction in the use of energy and resources and that is deemed necessary, desirable, and possible. Degrowth starts from the fact – demonstrated by an increasing number of studies – that further economic growth in industrialized countries is unsustainable. Even if that growth is ‘green’ or ‘inclusive’, or even as part of a transformative progressive agenda that massively invests in renewable energies and the sustainability transition, industrialized countries cannot reduce their environmental impact (emissions, material throughput, etc.) fast and sufficiently enough while, at the same time, growing their economies. The transformation needed in industrialized countries – if they are to reduce their emissions and environmental impacts fast enough to leave space for the Global South to develop – will also lead to reducing the size of Global North economies. Degrowth claims that such a transformation in the Global North is not only possible but also desirable: it is feasible to live well without growth and to make society more just, democratic, and truly prosperous on the way. To do this, however, a fundamental political and economic reorganization of society is necessary, which aims at overcoming multiple structural growth dependencies inherent in the capitalist economy from industrialized infrastructures to social systems to the ideological myths of growth societies. More specifically, degrowth can be defined as the democratic transition to a society that – in order to enable global ecological justice – is based on a much smaller throughput of energy and resources, that deepens democracy and guarantees a good life and social justice for all, and that does not depend on continuous expansion.

What distinguishes degrowth most clearly from other socio ecological proposals is the politicization of social metabolism and its ramifications for policy design. Degrowth shares with most programmes of ecological modernization – and with the Green New Deals – the call for massive investments into rapidly building up the material infrastructures for a post-fossil society, from (community-controlled) renewable energy sources to (democratically managed) public transport networks, to retrofitted (social or collective) housing, or to (worker-owned) industrial plants (such as for long-lasting, repairable, and recyclable consumer products).

Diversity is a central characteristic of degrowth, the strength of which lies precisely in the interplay of different strands of growth criticism, policy proposals, and visions for transformation. Degrowth is a political project and a research paradigm that illuminates pathways for comprehensive global justice beyond capitalism: for a convivial way of life in solidarity with others. Degrowth aims to achieve global ecological justice by fundamentally restructuring and radically reducing the energy and material through-put in the Global North through policies, institutions, and everyday norms that promote social justice, self-determination, and a good life for all without being structurally dependent on social dynamics of expansion, acceleration, and accumulation.

Though we have yet to witness degrowth, initial reactions of some governments to the threat of the pandemic did inspire hope and spark debates about a future that did not go back to ‘normal’. In the wake of the impacts of the coronavirus and with the unfolding of the various crises related to growth – the chronic emergency of climate catastrophe, mass extinction, and the increasing threat of pandemics – interest in degrowth has grown. The degrowth manifesto that provoked a debate in mainstream Dutch media is symptomatic of this opening of a window of opportunities. Many no longer accept that we must choose economic growth over people’s lives – the dichotomy is rejected as wrong in its very basic assumptions. In the time since, people’s emotional approach towards radical ideas such as those of degrowth have shifted, and, for many, it now seems to be a more realistic proposal than that of keeping the current system intact. Today, a critique of economic growth is common among many who do not want a society that sacrifices human lives for the sake of protecting the annual GDP growth rate.

Fundamentally, questioning economic growth means asking: What kind of society do we want to live in, and how do we get there? These debates have been immensely productive: they have triggered discussions on what a post-capitalist future could look like and have (re-) politicized ‘the economy’. And they are an important and timely contribution to understanding and tackling the social, economic, and ecological challenges of the twenty-first century. Today, the multiple limits and crises of the growth society, the hegemonic growth paradigm, and the dynamics of growth and expansion fundamental to modern societies are topics that can no longer be ignored in socio-political discussions and scientific research.

Given the scale of the challenges, there is much more to discuss. Many open questions, research gaps, and unresolved controversies remain but we propose that degrowth is well positioned to help us navigate the crises that face us. Degrowth is unique in offering both an analysis of how we got here and a way to get to the root of the crises we face. Over the last five centuries, a material, cultural, and political system has developed that depends on growth and further drives it. This is a system geared towards collapse. Neither green growth nor left productivism are desirable options: growth cannot solve the problems it creates, and, to face the impending crisis, we need an economy that values rather than exploits, disposes of, and invisibilizes, women and people of the global majority. As far as the Green New Deal goes, this is an admirable and encouraging development on the left – and its growing popularity is a promising indicator of the possibility of mass appeal for transformative, radical projects. Here, a degrowth perspective can be a compass for determining what kind of policies a truly transformative – that is, a caring, internationalist, post-growth, and socially just – political project would entail.