Blog post

The Future is Degrowth: A Five Book Plan

To celebrate Earth Day, the authors of The Future Is Degrowth suggest five books to contextualize the demands of a system hell-bent on perpetual growth and to help conceptualize a world centered around a vision of global ecological justice.

Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter22 April 2023

The Future is Degrowth: A Five Book Plan


The Future Is Degrowth’s Five Book Plan

Degrowth radically questions the fossil-fuel powered way of life, and with that its central institutions and infrastructures. It makes visible how, through democratic and planned reduction of production and consumption in the global North, global ecological justice can be achieved and a pluriverse of interdependent ways of living can emerge. As a critique of neoclassical economics, it is of course inspired by heterodox approaches to economics—from ecological economics to Neo-Keynesianism. However, as we argue in our book The Future is Degrowth, degrowth is also fundamentally about social power and hierarchies. In celebration of Earth Day, we decided we would highlight five books that are key inspirations for degrowth, which are critical of power structures and offer viable alternatives.

1 - Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (HarperOne, 1990)

In The Future Is Degrowth, we show how the idea of economic growth emerged in the late 1940s and became an ideological tool to stabilize consumer societies, repress the demands of organized labor in the West and justify the expansion of capitalism globally. Thus, progress came to be defined according to whether the GDP—an indicator that essentially measures the rate of capitalist accumulation—is going up or down.

But growth is not just an idea, it is also a dynamic and interlinked social and biophysical process. The growth paradigm has deeper roots, extending beyond the 20th century and way back into the early days of the Enlightenment. During this period, the idea that White men are superior came to justify the plunder of the colonies, the subjugation of women, and the exploitation of nature.

This intellectual history is described in careful detail in Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Death of Nature—a book that should be productively integrated in degrowth thought. Published in 1980, The Death of Nature is perhaps the first, and still one of the best, ecofeminist histories. With clarity and an immense body of evidence, Merchant traces the interconnection between the domination of women and the domination of nature in Western thought. In her words, she sought to "reexamine the formation of a world view and a science that, by reconceptualizing reality as a machine rather than a living organism, sanctioned the domination of both nature and women". Merchant thus argued that challenging the dualism of nature and culture, inscribed in institutions of property, scientific rationalism, and government, was paramount to human-ecological flourishing. Hers is a holistic, ecological outlook that extends consciousness and democracy, care and value, to all beings. It is easy to see how foundational this book is for degrowth.

2 - Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, The Imperial Mode of Living (Verso, 2021)

In 1992, Bush Sr. justified the US demand to not include timetables and targets for emissions reductions in the Rio Earth Summit documents by stating: “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” Today, the richest 1% of the global population is responsible for an increasingly large portion of environmental impacts. This is the owning class: billionaires who fly in private jets, sail in cruise ships, and invest in the worst polluting industries.

But there is also a larger demographic—roughly 10% of the global population, which includes most of the middle class—whose way of life is dependent on global exploitation of cheap labor and on a massive environmental footprint. While this group largely calls the Global North home, it is expanding in the Global South too.

It is within this class that we find an idea of the good life that is closely bound up with an imperialist economy—one that must necessarily always extend beyond itself, using an outside to appropriate resources and dump wastes. And as the demands for SUVs, suburban living, fast fashion, and meat grow around the world, these practices and the ideal of an “American way of life” behind them are sending the rest of the world over a precipice.

In The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism, the German sociologists Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen introduce the “imperial mode of living”—a concept that is incredibly useful to understand the social desire for and institutional momentum of growth. Bringing together the sociology of consumption and habit formation with post-development, feminist, and Marxist critique, Brand and Wissen show how capitalist hegemony “draws on the wishes and desires of the populace … becomes a part of individual identity, shapes it, and thereby becomes all the more effective.”

The lens of the imperial mode of living is useful to understand how capitalism becomes entrenched into everyday life and into our very desires and hopes for the future. Not only that, but this important book also shows how we can begin to decouple our desires from a materially intensive and ecologically destructive economic system—and develop a desire for a way of life that is convivial, not imperial.   

3 - Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta, Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary (Tulika Books, 2019)

Degrowth—largely because of the word’s connotations—is often thought of as a negative, reactive concept. And so, critics of degrowth often claim that degrowth would doom the poor, and especially the Global South, to immiseration. But neither claims could be further from the truth. First, global justice is a central tenet of degrowth. The phrase “sustainable degrowth” was first coined during the heyday of the alter-globalization movements as a counter-term to the jargon of “sustainable development” and “green growth”—phrases which were employed by development gurus to justify immiserating and disastrous structural adjustment programs in the Global South. And the degrowth movement has allied itself with vibrant and hopeful movements and strains of thought rooted in social movements in the Global South. For decades, these movements have built and proposed alternative, counter-hegemonic paradigms and models that resisted the hegemony of growth and development.

It’s here that the pluriverse comes in. Like degrowth, the pluriverse is a concept whose aim is to counter a universalizing, monolithic economic system. If the goal is to build “a world where many worlds fit”—as the Zapatistas put it—then it is paramount that we draw on the experiences of movements around the world that offer different visions of the future.

The recent volume Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary seeks to do just that by bringing together ideas and concepts advanced by struggles around the world, such as Ubuntu (Southern Africa), Sumak Kawsay (Latin America), Swaraj (South Asia), and Democratic Confederalism (Kurdistan). Framed as an alternative to elite non-solutions such as smart cities, ecomodernism, and geoengineering, this invaluable book will guide the reader through the wealth of alternatives already on offer. And it situates degrowth within a much larger set of ‘alternatives to development’, many of which criticize capitalist growth from the perspective of the global South.

4 - Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)

Degrowth is utopian, as should be clear by now. And utopias are, as Ernst Bloch puts it, “the education of desire.” Without the ability to imagine a better world, we won’t have the desire, nor the courage, to enact it. But utopian thought is often dismissed as impractical. Without a strategy to challenge the well-organized interests of capital, utopia remains just a daydream. While our book does not provide a blueprint for change, we do offer some ways to think about strategy and the mutually reinforcing roles that different kinds of strategy can play in the ecological transition.

To do so, we turned to the indispensable work of Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright. Published just after the 2008 financial crisis, Envisioning Real Utopias is one of the most accessible books out there on what we can do today to break out of capitalism, with useful, and concrete examples of the actually existing alternatives already out there. The book is structured similarly to ours: it first offers a critique of capitalism, then describes socialism as a utopian alternative, and finally describes the strategies available to us to make it happen. Thus, Wright shows that post-capitalist alternatives are not just desirable, it is also achievable. And he provides a framework for thinking through strategies of radical change, on which we rely in the second half of our book. There, we we discuss policies that democratise the economy, "now-topias" that create free spaces for experimentation, and counter-hegemonic movements that make it possible to break with the logic of growth.

5 - Stefania Barca, Forces of Reproduction (Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Who is to be the agent of this ecological transformation? Elites prefer to see capital and technology as the agents of history. On the left, there are those who argue that, because of their privileged position vis-a-vis capital, the Western working class are our only hope. And this working class, it is argued, can only get behind an ecological transition if we offer them more of what capitalism has provided us, not less.

In the short book Forces of Reproduction: Notes for a Counter-Hegemonic Anthropocene, Italian economic historian Stefania Barca shows that this conception of working class agency and desire is not only ahistorical, it also profoundly misunderstands where power and counter-power lies today. The book’s aim is to deconstruct the narrative that it is modernity, and by extension capitalism, that has provided us “health, wealth, longevity and security”. Barca shows how these are “not the result of global trade and capital, but of those forces which have opposed them.” Those material gains, she argues, were not only fought for and won by industrial workers, but also by reproductive and subsistence workers—what Barca calls the “forces of reproduction”. These forces, we have been told, count for nothing in story of modernity—a story that “considers the forces of production (Western science and industrial technology) as the key driver of human progress and well-being.” In this 79-page tour-de-force, Barca proposes a “counter-master narrative” that expands what labor looks like and reconsiders where its agency lies both historically and today. In so doing, she outlines the contours of a working class whose desire is not simply a recapitulation to capitalist ideology, but a departure from it.

In our book, we follow Barca and other feminist economists to advance an economy based on care. Degrowth, we argue, will result from struggles and policies that democratize and repurpose industrial society, dismantle the parts we can do without, and expand the realm of reproduction to support life on Earth. We eagerly await Barca’s next book, Workers of the Earth: Labor, Ecology, and Reproduction, set to be released in 2024.

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The Future is Degrowth
Economic growth isn’t working, and it cannot be made to work. Offering a counter-history of how economic growth emerged in the context of colonialism, fossil-fueled industrialization, and capitalis...

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