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A problem of translatability: On The Future Is Degrowth

The Future is Degrowth has been published in Italian. Here, we share an English-language translation of the preface to the Italian edition.

Andrea Rizzi28 February 2024

A problem of translatability: On <em data-mce-fragment="1">The Future Is Degrowth</em>

**This text is the Preface to the Italian translation of The Future Is Degrowth (Il Futuro è Decrescita: Guida per un mondo post-capitalista, Ledizioni, 2023).

Rosa Luxemburg insisted that the first revolutionary act is to call things by their name. In an era in which words are daily emptied of their meaning, co-opted, or distorted by political parties, think tanks and marketing agencies, it isn’t always easy to be clear which name things have — i.e., what the terms and phrases which are used in public debate are referring to. We only need think of treacherous words like “organic” and “natural”, which pepper the supermarket shelves, or ubiquitous concepts like “sustainability” and “resilience” (a term which is so “stretchable” that a few months ago Thierry Breton, the European Union’s commissioner for the internal market, went so far as to suggest that member states should use the funds allocated to “resilience” plans to produce ammunition).

However, there are also those rare and thus precious words that are almost impossible to redefine. One such word is degrowth. Often referred to as a “bomb-word” (understood as a word that creates havoc and — for better or worse — never leaves us indifferent), degrowth is a term that no politician would dare mention during an election campaign. After all, they operate in a reality in which the media still invariably assess how the economy is doing with reference to GDP, despite this yardstick itself being widely discredited. In short — notwithstanding all the nuances and clarifications set out in this book — degrowth can be called by its name. So, using this word — and translating it — becomes a political act. Even more so if the more immediate sense of translating — the one which artificial intelligence now lords it over — is accompanied by the Gramscian sense of translation as a political practice, as transposition from one culture to another, taking into account the historical peculiarities of the target society. So, here, we are talking about the translatability of ideas, and the translatability of ideas into actions.

This is particularly relevant in Italy, where the debate on growth is particularly poor and polarised. It is a debate marked both by those who are so immersed in “growthist” ideology that they cannot conceive of anything different; and by those who do not even to try to understand and, in mistaking degrowth for a synonym for recession, reject it out of hand. Particularly indicative, in this sense, is the fact that in the Italian debate “growth” is often used as if it were semantically interchangeable with “development”, as demonstrated by Ezra Mishan’s “The Costs of Economic Growth” (translated into Italian as Il costo dello sviluppo economico, i.e. the cost of economic development) and the more famous Rapporto sui limiti dello sviluppo (report on the limits of development) which MIT prepared for the Club of Rome in 1972 under the English title “The Limits to Growth”. In Italian, moreover, there is no adequate term for other key concepts used in this book, such as throughput (a polysemic term that takes on different meanings in fields such as logistics and telecommunications but which, applied to economics, indicates the set of materials “put through” a production system) and overshoot (which Luca Mercalli also mentions in the afterword). Nor is there a satisfactory term for commons: the usual Italian translation “beni comuni” seems to refer to the commercial sphere with the former term (beni, goods) and with the latter to the local institutional sphere (comuni, municipal), in each case misleadingly. In this text, we have opted for “beni collettivi” (collective goods), but the ambiguity of “beni” remains, and the adjective may mistakenly suggest an association with collectivism of a specifically Soviet kind. And we should remember that this lexical poverty is no superficial problem: if a language lacks a term to express a concept, it is probably because that concept has not yet been contemplated by its speakers.

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We could go on with this list of words that are “orphaned” of other words to translate them. But degrowth, besides being an evolving theory, is also and above all a practice. Joan Martínez-Alier, a Catalan scholar who has long interacted with South American native peoples, argues that “when they stop metal mines or coal-fired power plants or oppose palm-oil plantations, they are enacting ‘degrowth in practice’”. Martínez-Alier is one of the fathers of ecological economics (not to be confused with environmental economics), which questions the primacy of the economy over any other social sphere. The revolutionary insight of this heterodox discipline is that the economy is part of biology, or rather of the indissoluble unicum of society and nature: if what is taken from biological cycles does not fit into these cycles — or enters them in the form of harmful residues, such as plastics — the system will be destabilised. Our battered planet is proof of this. Practising degrowth, then, also means overcoming the short-sighted anthropocentrism that characterises the human species, which leads us to question only what geographer Neil Smith calls “second nature” (human institutions and infrastructures that facilitate and regulate the exchange of goods) while taking for granted the “first” nature, namely the network of ecosystemic relations that allows us to breathe and feed ourselves. Taking this logical leap leads to the inescapable conclusion that there can be no infinite growth on a finite planet.


The Unknowns of Degrowth

One of the merits of this book is that it does not limit itself, as other — albeit worthy — texts on the subject do, to outlining degrowth theory. Rather, it confronts criticism head-on (in particular that coming from the “eco-modernist” front which seeks green growth), it tackles the internal tensions within the movements contesting the hegemony of growth (for example, from the feminist perspective) and takes up a prefigurative politics by sketching out the contours of a degrowth world. And it does so without falling into the trap of wanting to replace one globalising model with another, but rather by emphasising the importance of a multiplicity of democratically determined “autochthonous” alternatives.

Among the great enigmas regarding the feasibility of degrowth, which are addressed in the various chapters, three stand out especially sharply. It is certainly not the job of this preface to give an answer to these three unknowns, but the book investigates them in depth. They can be summarised as follows:


  1. Convincing “labour”: billions of people around the world live immersed in the capitalist system, depend on it for their survival and are understandably reluctant about any change. Although the vast majority of us are among the exploited, not the exploiters, capitalism has the devious ability to convince us that, if we just try a little harder, a life of comfort awaits us. How, then, to convince millions of workers, employees, teachers, doctors, and so on (most of whom will not read this book) of the need to rebel against modern slavery in favour of a re-appropriation of their time (one of degrowth’s key objectives)? A public exhortation to this effect came from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leading figure on the French radical left. From the stage of the March 2023 street protests against the pension reform, he thundered: “The task is not to produce more, but to produce better, and to do that we must work less! The key to an ecological future is to work better, and therefore work less”. The horizon to strive for, perhaps, is that “labour” should not be a pre-eminent element of identity — which is to say, that we should identify as human beings, with our own relations and social roles, more than identifying as workers.
  2. Harnessing “capital”: supposing that the degrowthist transformation enjoys a strong popular base, the transition will require public and private capital, both for the development of sustainable technologies and for social spending. Yet, this capital is currently only invested where there is some financial return to be had, and at the first sign of “real” degrowth it would turn its back on it. So, what can be done to prevent capital flight from countries that distance themselves from the obsession with GDP (a problem that is particularly pressing for the countries of the Global South, left particularly vulnerable by their modest budget margins and often derisory political clout)? And how can the masses of capital today circulating between central banks, investment banks and tax havens be exploited in a socially useful way?
  3. Involving the Global South: Although many degrowthists insist that degrowth is meant exclusively for the rich countries, its successful realisation depends on a change of global hegemony which — as such — cannot do without the participation of the Global South. The good news is that many non-Western communities, already having their own concepts of prosperity (see Chapter 3.7) that have survived the material and epistemological ravages of colonialism, start at an advantage. The bad news is that they will still need to increase their material footprint, i.e. their consumption, in order to achieve decent living standards. This is why anthropologist Jason Hickel speaks of an “energy convergence”: reducing consumption in the rich countries in order to rapidly cut emissions and thus enable the rest of the world to meet everyone’s basic needs.

More broadly, like any radical project, degrowth will have to overcome the resistance of those who doggedly fight against change. It would be naïve, after all, to take it for granted that any person with common sense espouses the idea of a better world as a “categorical imperative” (Immanuel Kant would say). That is why, in the absence of a Jacobin-style purge, it might be necessary to compromise with political factions which we would normally stay away from (see Chapter 3).


What Is to Be Done?

Chto delat (What Is to Be Done?), Lenin asked in 1902, in a book with the eloquent subtitle “Burning Problems of Our Movement”. What are the burning problems of the degrowth movement, and what is to be done in order to make the move from theory to practice? First of all, beyond the practices mentioned above, it is difficult to think of any change that does not come through the conquest of the institutional space: it is necessary to occupy legislative and executive power — that is, by democratic-electoral means — and turn to judicial proceedings where necessary. The grassroots engagement of civil society, including even the praiseworthy (women-led) activism of movements such as Ultima Generazione, Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, which awakens the consciences of those willing to listen, suffers from a fundamental flaw. That is, it addresses its demands to elected politicians, under the illusion that it is they who decide. But, in reality, the levers of power are moved by entities that operate outside democratic processes and are not accountable to the ballot box. These include industrial lobbies (counting also legalised ones, whose banners fly in front of EU institutions and in high-level international forums such as COP), as well as the international financial institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), in which the G7 powers — which hold the majority of votes — dictate the agenda for the entire globe, without any possibility of their decision being revoked.

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Second, it is now imperative that we tell a better story about the current social-environmental crisis. It is now clear that “the facts” are not enough to provoke a response. We have had the umpteenth proof of this with the war in Ukraine. Why has the world (at least the Western world) — rightly — mobilised to support Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, even as it remains glaringly indifferent in the face of the tragedy of Palestinians or Syrians dying under the same bombs, if not for the different narration of these equally atrocious wars? The time has come, even on climate questions, to act on the level of emotions. This does not mean misleading anyone: but it does mean operating on a different cognitive register, one that drives people to act out of a sense of urgency. Commendable experiments in this sense are beginning to emerge: Such is the case of “Time and Water”, in which the Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason retraces an inter-generational family history that is intertwined with the fate of a dying glacier; and the US series “Extrapolations”, which, by narrating everyday situations set between 2037 and 2070, confronts the viewer (not without a certain dose of American-style special effects) with the destabilising “normality” of life on a planet devastated by global warming and conflicts over resources. Equally importantly, these melancholic and dystopian stories should be flanked by positive utopias, images that point to the possibility of a different world. For, as Murray Bookchin put it, “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking”.

For centuries now, and particularly since the Enlightenment, we have been convinced that the only possible and necessary progress is a technological, measurable, and ultimately monetisable progress. In short, to have new objects that make our lives easier. There is no doubt that technological progress is indeed necessary: Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan resolutely clear the field of the accusations of Luddism levelled at degrowth. Indeed, they call for major investment in innovation, even though they also seek to dispel the myth of private enterprise’s role in driving innovation as they demonstrate that progress is often the child of public investment (a thesis masterfully illustrated by the Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato in her The Entrepreneurial State). Degrowth, however, also, and above all, wagers on social progress: a progress assessed in terms of well-being, inspired by criteria of redistribution on a global scale, reduction of the working week, generally less dependent on the consumption of material goods. And a progress that reverses the priorities of investments, of the use of that wealth — produced by all of us — that in recent decades has been increasingly concentrated in the pockets of a few. What humanity needs, says Dylan Riley, a sociologist at the University of Berkeley, is “massive investment in low-return, low-productivity activities: care, education and environmental restoration”.

In this sense, it seems crucial to reassert a distinction between the two concepts of needs and wants, whose boundaries have been blurred by neoclassical economics. Humanity today has more than enough material and financial resources to satisfy everyone’s needs, as understood to mean relatively objective requirements for a decent life (housing, nutrition, health, education, etc.). But it cannot satisfy everyone’s desires, where this is at the expense of the needs of others. When we think about this a bit more, this is a banal ethical principle which even the fathers of capitalism would have subscribed to. Yet capitalist modernity, particularly in its late twentieth century neoliberal incarnation, has inculcated in us the equation between freedom and the unlimited satisfaction of desires: and this is a modern dogma, born of blatantly sociopathic minds.

“Sufficiency” provides a useful notion for freeing ourselves from the imperative to satiate endless desires. This term has recently begun to make its way into the reports by the IPCC, i.e. the UN body responsible for assessing and taking stock of climate change research. For this we especially have to thank the efforts of a few female scientists (notably Yamina Saheb of Sciences Po in Paris and Julia Steinberger of the University of Lausanne). A sufficiency (or sobriety) society is one organised in such a way as to minimise the demand for energy, materials, land and water, while ensuring well-being for all. More prosaically, sufficiency is what many of our grandparents applied — and some of us still apply — in our daily lives: having all that is necessary, perhaps even something superfluous (“unnecessary things are our only necessities”, Oscar Wilde said, certainly not referring to trivial consumer products), but wasting nothing. This would be a huge step forward for a civilisation which currently — as UN Food and Agriculture Organisation data tells us — wastes one-third of the food it produces, which creates plastic islands in the middle of the ocean and mountains of used clothes in the Atacama Desert.


Less or Better?

Will we thus be forced to have less? Degrowth imposes nothing on anyone, except for some consumption that could be limited by democratic decision (just as we democratically limit drug use because we consider it socially harmful), for instance the use of SUVs or private jets. Degrowth, on the other hand, imagines a world of “radical abundance”, in which we will not necessarily have less of everything but will attribute a different value to things, so that it is no longer the quantity of objects produced and purchased that determines the quality of life. This means a world in which wealth is better distributed and basic social services are accessible to all. Those who want to can continue to work themselves into burnout and surround themselves with objects. But it is easy to imagine that, seeing others fulfil themselves through vocational activities, sharing experiences and rewarding social relationships, they will feel the desire to imitate them.

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Humanity has always considered itself the most intelligent species ever to emerge on planet Earth. On closer inspection, however, this is not the case at all. Humanity is an extremely efficient species, that is, able to exploit environmental resources to have more and more, faster and faster, increasingly comfortably. But can we really consider intelligent a species that in hundreds of thousands of years of existence does not learn — rather, it has unlearned! — to live in harmony with its ecosystem, eventually degrading it and thus entering a suicidal spiral? Can a species that believes it has infinite resources on a finite planet be considered intelligent? We abound in what Kurdish politician and intellectual Abdullah Öcalan calls “analytical intelligence”, which is competitive and typically masculine, but we lack the — collaborative and feminine — “emotional intelligence — that which makes us perceive our commonality with the whole.

So, what might, a few decades ago, have appeared as a containable problem of externalities is now emerging in all its immeasurable seriousness, as a problem that jeopardises the very existence of complex human societies. But humanity is unable to disenchant itself with the glitter of technological progress and is under the illusion that salvation lies in some technical artifice. “As we scramble to ask how to change technology or tax structures”, bitterly notes Robin Wall Kimmerer, a US biologist of Potawatomi descent, “what remains unsaid is the change that could save us — that what we need to change is ourselves.” The time has come for us to prove ourselves truly sapiens. It is the time for an anthropological shift. Degrowth marks out a route ahead, and this book offers a guide to walking the first few metres of it.

Translated by David Broder

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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