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Michael Hoexter: Malign Confusion about Growth, Economic Growth or “Degrowth”: Which Way Forward? – Part 2

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Yves here. One of the big problems with the growth v. “de-growth” debate is how terrible our measures of productive activity are. For instance, if an elderly person stays in their home and has family members take care of them, the only GDP impact is the spending the family does for the old person’s meds, food, doctor visits and occupancy costs. But if the elderly person goes to a nursing home, you get much higher expenditures for care that is likely lower quality from the perspective of the old person. You have similar issues for people who produce some of their own food, say by having a large vegetable garden or keeping some chickens, or using wood for a lot of their winter fuel rather than buying oil, gas, or coal.

I’d thus be happier if we focused on the action required, conservation, and pointed out that 1. It’s the first line of defense, green energy will take too long to be adopted on a widespread enough basis and many of the transition measures (and the technologies themselves) entail non-greenhouse environmental costs and 2. Conservation is not necessarily a negative from a growth or profit perspective. For instance:

John Browne of BP in 1997 broke with big oil omerta and committed BP to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010. They met the target in only three years for an expenditure of $20m; the company actually made $650m in savings.

The “de-growth” argument thus become the third line of defense: if de-growth winds up being the outcome, it’s a managed accommodation to necessities and unmanaged outcomes would be worse.

By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives.

De-Growth”:  A Serious Proposal

Lately, climate scientists have stepped into the gap where economists have generally feared to tread and have suggested that intentional “de-growth” is the only hope to stop the rising emissions associated with economic development and growth.  No news to anyone who follows developments in climate science, the earth’s climate is facing tipping points beyond which a recognizable human civilization will be almost impossible to maintain due to the expansion of inhospitable or entirely uninhabitable climate zones, destruction of existing human settlements by water and weather, and the destruction of co-evolved species (including food) upon which we depend.  The target of a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature has been chosen as a difficult-to-achieve but also permissive target, which some think should be 1.5 degrees or less.  One way or the other global warming gas emissions, still on an upward trajectory, need to be reduced and the current upward trend reversed almost immediately.   Climate scientists understandably have been impatient with the response of the social sciences and policymakers to the threats they see present and emerging.

Prior to the recent interest in de-growth, the hope has been that through either a regime of carbon pricing or a massive government program of green investment or both that the developed economies would decarbonize, yielding economic growth with progressively less emissions until such time as economies would grow without adding in net to the earth’s carbon cycle.  No one has suggested that this decarbonization could happen overnight or without initial costs in emissions.  My “Pedal to the Metal” Plan involves incurring increased embedded emissions upon start-up via a program of building green infrastructure and focused incentive programs to achieve social and environmental goals, including full employment and long-term decarbonization of the developed economies.  The “market-based” approach of either cap and trade or carbon tax advocates take a more leisurely approach to decarbonization, with a highly unlikely achievement of that goal if at all.  Either way, it is assumed that growth of some sort is the mechanism by which change occurs in capitalist monetary economies, though in the P2M Plan, I posit that the growth is a transitional state to a achieving a steady-state economy.

While a number of climate scientists have called for direct political action and civil disobedience over the last several years, mainstream climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the leading Tyndall Centre in the UK have gone further and called for governments to institute radical and immediate de-growth strategies in wealthy countries to sustain year over year reductions of 10% in carbon emissions.  A recent conference at the Tyndall Center collects a number of proposals along these lines.  Anderson and Bows arrive at the 10% annual reduction number, via a series of calculations based on a 2 degree Celsius maximum warming target and a relative permissiveness towards the developing world to increase emissions for another decade.  They come upon degrowth as the route to 10% per annum reductions via Nicholas Stern’s estimation that economic growth is conceivable only with 3-4% annual emissions reductions via in a decarbonizing economy..   The developing world would have a few years to grow using conventional means until 2025 and then it too would need to “de-grow” or develop on a path that would to zero net contributions to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.   Anderson and Bows turn to “degrowth” is substantiated by observations that certain emissions reductions were achieved when economies world-wide shrank for a period of several years either in the Great Depression or in the post-Soviet period in East Europe, where huge and inefficient industrial enterprises were stilled as governments turned to a capitalist economic structure.

The term “de-growth” is of fairly recent origin and most widely discussed in France (“decroissance”) over the past decade, though the concept or impulse has been around in various forms since the industrial revolution.  One of the early reactions to industrialization in Western Europe, were cultural and political movements that attempted to capture something of the material reality or ideals of a threatened or past agrarian or primitive society, which could be grouped together as “Romantic” reactions to industrialism.  I do not mean to suggest in using the term “Romantic” that this reaction is unrealistic in the broadest sense of the word, only that it has relied on an intuitive, aesthetic, or emotional reaction to industrial society.  The recurring Romantic reaction to industrial development has waxed and waned based in part on the aesthetic reactions of individuals to industrial and post-industrial society as well as the success or failure of various idealistic colonies based on agrarian or communitarian ideals.  The general impulse of these communities and cultural movements has been towards a smaller-scale, less rapidly-changing society.   The emergence of the ecology movement in the 1970’s throughout the industrialized world, in contrast, has found a basis at least in part in the biological and natural sciences.  There has been based on the notion that at some point there would be “limits to growth”, though a direct confrontation with the growth imperative of capitalism has been endlessly postponed.

With global warming and the climate crisis we are seeing with an ever more quantifiable basis that the growth of the economy dependent on fossil fuels is becoming tightly coupled with the degradation of the natural basis of human life and the co-evolved life-world.   The buffering capacity of the natural environment to receive, dilute, and transform, the toxic or damaging byproducts of industrial civilization has been diminished and/or its incapability to perform these “ecosystem services” is becoming more apparent.  Previously the filters of aesthetics and personal preferences for a more “natural” environment which have motivated many offshoots of the environmental movement were required to draw the link between the expansion of fossil-fueled industrial civilization and the irrevocable destruction of natural wealth and the potential for a sustainable human civilization.   These filters should become, unfortunately at a very late date, less necessary for people to come to the conclusion that they are hurting themselves or their descendants via participating in and helping propagate a society based on economic growth fueled by fossil fuels.

With current and near-future technology, there is a trade-off between immediate degrowth and rapid decarbonization, as building green infrastructure will in an era of emissions-intensive building techniques and materials (like steel and concrete) mean increased emissions attributable to large construction projects.  These emissions might be trimmed by innovative use of materials but we are still looking at a massive construction project.    The “Pedal to the Metal” plan attempts to counteract these emissions by a program of voluntary emissions reductions encouraging activities similar to the following: reducing non-essential travel for business or pleasure, increased use of phone and computer networks, increasing the capacity utilization of vehicles by ride-sharing, and shifting food consumption towards low emissions foods.  However, given the historical record and acute crisis the priority of emissions reductions, it is understandable that a serious proposal for radical emissions reductions would focus on economic shrinkage in the developed, some would say “overdeveloped” countries.

Social Equality, Growth and Degrowth

The various streams of the environmental movement have, in general, not shown much sympathy for or understanding of basic economic issues or the dynamics of economies, in particular issues of economic equality.  They also have not shown much of an understanding of or interest in managing political coalitions on a grand scale, a scale required for the major transformation of the economy and society required by climate change.

Given the difficulties of extracting useful and practical information from the generally airy and impractical body of academic economic writings as well as the sprawling mass of the social sciences more generally, this is in part understandable but still a major problem if large-scale economic policy is, as I and others have recommended, to be guided by concern about our deteriorating climate and natural environment.  While there are exceptions, including the environmental justice movement arising from communities that have seen inordinate health impacts from dumping or emissions, in many cases concern about the environment seems to fall higher on Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, meaning that people attend to it only after becoming economically comfortable themselves and the resulting politics has often assumed that others are “taken care of” in terms of their basic needs.  The concept of “degrowing” the economy would also fall into this category of an idea that appeals to people who have had their basic needs satisfied and expect that in the future those needs will continue to be satisfied, even in a shrinking economy.

While economic growth is integral to capitalism, an already highly unequal socioeconomic system, growth, in particular robust growth of the real economy, is one of the few means by which those with middle and lower incomes can improve their economic positions.  An unequal economy that doesn’t grow or grows slowly is likely to see increases in inequality, as those with existing advantages continue to build on those advantages to the detriment of those with less income or social resources.  Hope for the future is often predicated on the possibility of a positive change of one’s personal or family circumstances, into which the economy’s overall growth plays a large role in exciting hopes and planning for a change in life circumstances for the better.

Within a capitalist economic framework, against which no one is proposing a likely and detailed alternative, degrowth of the entire economy is with very high probability going to have differential negative impacts on poor and working people.  While there are and could be a variety of degrowth recommendations, most aim at cutting the excess consumption of the middle- and upper-classes in the developed world by policies that are either mandated by governments or a government-facilitated form of voluntarism in the face of impending disaster.  While preferable to fatalistic notions about social collapse and “die-off” due to Peak Oil or other resource shortages, these recommendations overlook the feedback effects of sharp reductions in demand within a monetary economy.  Reduced consumption by the upper- and upper-middle-classes would reduce the currently-weak overall aggregate demand in the real economy even more.  That aggregate demand drives economic activity and if it were to shrink in net, it would lead to shrinkages in incomes from employment, increases in unemployment, and consequently of overall demand even further.   It could only be within the context of a reinforced welfare state that the economic shrinkage envisaged by degrowth advocates.would not increase poverty and differentially harm the less wealthy.  It is not accidental that degrowth seems to have its strongest advocates in countries that already possess a substantial welfare state, an economic institution which luckily does not seem to be a target of degrowth advocates.

Anderson and Bows are aware of the potential that degrowth polices they propose would appear indifferent to the lot of the less fortunate in developed countries.  The policies they suggest involve a combination of voluntary and mandated changes in the economy that would differentially effect the well-to-do.  However they seem not to operate with an understanding of the economy, like the climate, as an dynamic system, treating their proposed subtractions from the consumption of the well-to-do as isolated within the economic system.  They are trained as climate scientists but of course training in economics would not necessarily compel them to attend to the aggregate effects of their policy proposals.  Anderson contrasts his degrowth program to the suggestions of carbon pricing advocates, whom he points out would impose a carbon price that would effect mostly middle- and lower-income consumption while not seriously inconveniencing the wealthy due to their ability to pay.  Anderson makes some good points about the regressivity of carbon pricing but also downplays or does not seem to understand the systemic effects of the reduction of consumption on employment and productive economic activity.

Growth or Degrowth of What?

There have been over the past several decades a number of both mainstream and heterodox critiques of the measurement of economic growth and a few that question growth as a goal in itself.  Out of these critiques have emerged a number of modifications or alternatives to the simple numerical measure, Gross Domestic Product (Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports), that has been the standard of measurement for national economies in the post-WWII era.   While there has been widespread dissatisfaction with GDP because it does not capture social welfare or even the “happiness” that economists might hope to measure, the alternatives to GDP have varied in their utilization by policymakers and economists with no clear replacement for GDP yet emerging.  Among the more interesting for this discussion are measures like ecological footprint and carbon footprint, which themselves do not encompass the welfare/happiness aspect of an economy, so cannot fully measure the ultimate delivery of services for a given footprint.  From outside economics, there is for instance, a prescriptive approach of targeting a 2000-watt society from a Swiss technical organization.

Ultimately, “growth” in macroeconomics is the change in the aggregate of all economic activity, however measured, in a given economic area in a given time period.  Once one has selected either a single or a complex measure of economic activity, different sectors or areas within the economy will either have grown or shrunk within a set time period, or if one is using a complex non-linear measure undergone some meaningful or hard-to-interpret transformation.  That growth or shrinkage and those sectors involved interact both financially and in real terms in a monetary economy, so that the aggregate measure is not simply the arbitrary sum of disconnected events.

All of those who take climate change seriously realize that certain sectors of the economy must shrink or disappear while others must grow to some extent in order for human civilizations to survive and become in some way sustainable.  We can say with certainty that for there to be a civilization of even moderate complexity, renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors must grow and some also believe that nuclear energy must be part of the mix, at least for a while.  Electrification of much of transport, agriculture, and industry should occur to enable the use of non-fossil energy, a process which entails also the production of new infrastructure and equipment.  At the same time, the fossil fuel industry must decisively shrink and, either temporarily or permanently, those sectors of the economy that must depend exclusively on fossil fuels for their primary energy must also shrink or go through a hard period of readjustment.

So using the language “growth/degrowth”, climate policy of any effectiveness would degrow the fossil fuel sector and activities that are completely dependent on fossil fuel use, while growing those sectors of the economy that in the short, medium and/or long term decrease dependence on fossil fuels.   The total balance of growth and degrowth in any given year would yield the net growth or degrowth of the economy.  If the economy would degrow in net, then one would expect that overall emissions would decrease for that year, though the emissions-intensity of those sectors that grow and degrow would play a key role in determining how much emissions would decrease (if at all).  Of course, in reality, these sectors interact, producing real and financial effects that are only measured at the end of the period, let’s say a year.  It may be, especially in a phase of infrastructure and building construction, that the “green” sectors of the economy would have in that year, higher per GDP emissions, than for instance, the travel sector.

It may be that such a system could be adjusted for net degrowth for the purpose of emissions reductions and at the same time buffering for the socially harmful system effects of that degrowth.  But this system would either break from or evolve very rapidly away from a market-driven capitalist economy, leading to the need for the creation of almost an entirely new economic language and methods of economic coordination.

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52 comments

  1. psychohistorian

    I would hope we could develop better language than Welfare State to describe the social safety net necessary for de-growth to occur without including genocide.

    Having discussions like this is similar to trying to describe to an alien how different chunks of our species have organized themselves. The Western way is centered on accumulating private ownership of property and inheritance that creates an elite that stays in power for centuries across all western way countries. The alien asks how the 99+% of Western way societies are deluded into thinking this makes any sense and one just grins and points to the TV.

  2. kimsarah

    Re: “One of the big problems with the growth v. “de-growth” debate is how terrible our measures of productive activity are.”
    You cite a good example, and could probably go right down the list.
    That is the reason I am not only skeptical of, but I have no trust whatsoever in any official government economic report that comes out in the mainstream media.
    I wonder if I am alone. And I don’t think it’s paranoia/conspiracy theory. Many of the indexes are faulty, like with the jobless and inflation rates (unemployment rate does not account for those who have stopped looking for a job, etc., thus the real number of unemployed is skewed. And apparently gas prices, electric bills and food prices at the store are not counted in the inflation index). This is why I see two different realities. The one reality is put out by the government/mainstream media that rarely scratches below the surface; the other reality on sites like this one that go beyond the cover page, dig a little deeper, and find the real news.
    Two different universes. Dumb vs. informed.

  3. mmckinl

    Growth as currently defined does not include depreciation, resource depletion nor pollution …

    Growth includes increased spending for ill health and unnecessary expenses for medical, increased (unnecessary) MIC spending and the prison industrial complex.

  4. Nell

    “Within a capitalist economic framework, against which no one is proposing a likely and detailed alternative, degrowth of the entire economy is with very high probability going to have differential negative impacts on poor and working people.”
    I don’t necessarilty disagree with this statement, but I do object to the requirement. Did someone (or someone’s) come up with a plan for a capitalist system that we all signed up to? Because, I don’t remember reading about it in my history classes. As far as I know capitalism developed without a ‘grand plan’. In fact, we still don’t understand capitalism – witness the conflict between marxist analyses, post keynesian analyses and neoclassical (new keynesian) analyses. I just think it is a bit much to make an alternative detailed plan a ‘requirement’ for change. Surely change will come about because it has to. Capitalism has pretty much run its course and is very dependent on its current ‘financial’ form rather than its productive antecedents. As we are witnessing financial capitalism is pretty useless at sustaining societies and economies and thus sustaining human beings (let alone other forms of life).

    1. Banger

      Good thoughts. Today’s system is so intertwined with politics and culture that I don’t think we can even call it “Capitalism.” I also believe that we cannot organize an alternative system because there is no “we” there. The first step is to develop the idea that we are all in this planet together and we need to join with our brothers and sisters in our hearts to begin with rather than try to impose something on others.

      1. Mansoor H. Khan

        Banger said,
        “The first step is to develop the idea that we are all in this planet together”.
        Banger, you are so cool and refreshing! Salaam (peace) to you.
        There is so much nihilism, despair and apathy out there. I am with you on realizing that we (humans) are all connected like never before (i.e., via globalization, internet, etc). Besides, there are too many nuclear weapons and too many ways we can damage the global ecology to not think globally/humanisticly.

        And you have said ealier that there are plenty of good practical/implementable ideas out there in the blogosphere but there is no consensus and no will to struggle. I am not sure what more to do other than writing blogposts (aquinums-razor.blogspot.com) and educating family, friends and co-workers!

        Mansoor H. Khan

        1. Banger

          Thank you–as you well know and have commented on before–moral values are the key to this and that all has to come from somewhere, in each of us, that is deep within our hearts.

    2. susan the other

      I agree here. Venture capitalists are looking for a minimum 8% return in Africa. I think that is just amazing hubris given how that kind of financial gain drives growth to unsustainable levels. But that is the only way for capitalism to “survive.” So capitalism is the obvious choice for elimination; get rid of it and have all societies use their sovereign wealth to pay for sustainable changes. If there is a dedicated enclave of capitalists left they can be quarantined so as not to interfere. Sort of like letting them have their hobby (screwing each other – but not the rest of the planet).

  5. salvo

    thank you very much for this text

    “The concept of “degrowing” the economy would also fall into this category of an idea that appeals to people who have had their basic needs satisfied and expect that in the future those needs will continue to be satisfied, even in a shrinking economy.”

    very concise description of the german green party and its constituents whose ‘Verzichtsideologie’ is mainly targeted at the so called Unterklassen

    1. salvo

      btw

      “It is not accidental that degrowth seems to have its strongest advocates in countries that already possess a substantial welfare state, an economic institution which luckily does not seem to be a target of degrowth advocates.”

      at least in the case of the german greens that is not true, as they have been one of the main drivers in the massive attack against the ‘Welfare State’ in the Schröder era (Agenda 2010)

  6. kjboro

    It is not sufficient to speak of growth/degrowth alone. We need to add dispersion/distribution into the mix. And we need to make this explicit and not just implicit with comments such about outsized effects on the poor through degrowth, etc.

    Put differently, no matter how one constructs “GDP”, as long as it fails to explicitly include dispersion/distribution, it will fail.

  7. dan B

    I view degrowth as more than an ideology for adapting modern society. It is, I feel ,an empirical description of what is actually going on in a modern world that has reached the limits to growth. It’s the case that many sell degrowth as a relatively painless path to higher consciousness and a better life through less consumption. However, what we are seeing ,I suggest, in Europe and here in the USA is degrowth in action under the boot of neoliberalism in the form of so-called austerity. This piece illustrates it is beginning to dawn on some of us humans that nature bats last and all our analyses in the end must conform to natures’s parameters. We have three generic choices, all are confined to consuming fewer natural resources: efficiency, conservation and shedding complexity (which reduces resource consumption). But these latter two -especially the third- are unacceptable to most, whether on the left or the right.

    1. Banger

      I think the 2008 crisis was the excuse many in the global elite (who, BTW, are not of one mind about much of anything) were attracted to the idea of austerity and believed that the crisis was a good opportunity to impose limits on growth. Most elites do believe climate change is a real problem even as they try to deceive the public about saying it is not important.

      1. mansoor h. khan

        Banger,

        I believe one reason the elites do not want to seriously discuss resource limits and degrowth is because if they did the stock and bond markets around the world would severly crash.

        I agree with I don’t believe there is consensus among the elites on what to tell the people. So what we get is a slow motion train wreck and band-aid solutions. Ofcourse, eventually the markets will crash and reality cannot hidden forever.

        Mansoor H. Khan

    2. Fiver

      If you’re suggesting the current form of “austerity” is a deliberate policy response of Governments, Central Banks and the wealthy to a realization of real limits to growth, we are completely screwed, as they are skinning the wrong end of the consumption curve (top 20% consume as much as 60% of total).

      While there are certainly those who have profited in money or political terms via the “future scarcity” argument I don’t believe any Government, CB or nation is now acting on that premise vis a vis the “austerity” to which you refer. That does not mean that individual wealthy people are not increasingly hesitant to commit to long-term investments – they are, and there is no reason to expect that to improve – only that State actors remain overwhelmingly ‘growth’ oriented but for their banking systems, which continue reacting to a debt problem, not an environmental one. It is instructive though, if viewed in terms of 4 generations trying to own the wealth that had typically been owned by 3 generations up until very recent times in the history of capitalism.

  8. JGordon

    One minor quibble: climate change and sea level rises will involve putting a large number of nuclear plants underwater, which, curiously enough, are often located conveniently near large bodies of water, such as oceans.

    This would of course mean then end of all life on earth, permanently. So prior to us tackling the pressing problem of climate change, it would probably be more worthwhile to tackle the even more pressing problem of shutting down all of the nuclear plants and disposing of the 40 years of accumulated nuclear waste–waste with a toxic shelf life of several million years–not one single gram of which anywhere in the world has been permanently and safely stored away (deep within the earth’s mantle) as of yet. As a species, human beings are apparently quite psychotic.

    1. Malmo

      Humans are prisoners of the moment. Their collective backs must be pressed to the wall before they act.

      The future is no thing. The present is everything.

      1. Banger

        I don’t agree with you. At the moment the reason human societies can do nothing about climate change is that it is a matter only a fraction of the population understands in any useful way. I don’t know about Europe and elsewhere, but the degree of scientific illiteracy in the U.S. is stunning. To explain climate change I have to teach a course in not just ecology but in logical thinking. But even without science, I think there should have been a moral and aesthetic revulsion to wasting resources, using sloppy engineering methods to meet short-term goals for short-term profits and, above all, to believe the meaning of life lies in accumulating vast quantities of junk and traversing vast distances just because the government subsidizes the most wasteful methods of transportation.

        What I’m trying to say is that our situation is peculiar from a cultural POV. Humans are not naturally idiots either collectively or individually–idiocy needs to be learned and programmed into people. People could, if they cared, truly look into what sort of world we are creating for our offspring and give it some thought–but we are too caught up in the entrancement of entertainment and petty status goals.

        1. JGordon

          Yes. It’s like Obama shelving plans to store nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain for whatever reason he did that. Only psychotic people would want this extremely nasty stuff sitting on the earth’s surface, just one not so improbably accident away from releasing enough toxic nuclear waste into the air to give everyone in the world cancer three times over. Which incidentally includes his entire family.

          Therefore it’s quite logical to say that these people are not just ignorant or misinformed, but psychotic. Because sane people do not go around advocating policies that expose their kids to extreme cancer risks.

          1. Podargus

            JGordon,some self education about nuclear technology is needed badly in your case. Unless and until you do that you would do well to confine your comments to something you have some knowledge about.

            1. Ellen Anderson

              Really? Why is it that whenever someone talks about the fact that we have booby trapped our country with nuclear facilities that will likely consume our time and treasure for many years – or else ‘kaboom’ – that someone pops up and scoffs? Who pays you to do that, my friend? I see it everywhere.
              The more I get self-educated on this subject the more I despair!

    2. American Slave

      lol. We have survived Chernobl and Fukashima just fine and so did the fish. Im sure more sea life died from the BP Gulf oil spill then Fukashima.

      And as far as nuclear physics go the waste that lasts 7 million years is the good kind because its stable but the bad kind is the stuff that lasts 1 week to 50 years and releases a high level of radiation do to a high level of radioactive decay which is what you dont want.

  9. c1ue

    Humans are not idiots. They don’t want to starve, freeze, or sit in the dark.
    The first world – including the US and Europe – may have the luxury of ‘going green’, at least the 1%.
    Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not.
    The rest of the world wants electrification – which is most cheaply accomplished by coal fired electricity plants.
    The rest of the world wants transportation – which is best accomplished in the short term by CO2 spewing buses and in the medium term by massive CO2 emission causing concrete and steel public transit infrastructure.
    Thus rather than throwing subsidies at installations of expensive and 1% focused solar panels and Teslas, the best way to assuage the belief in climate change is to put money into research programs with a specific goal: to make alternative energy cheaper than coal fired electricity.
    Once that is accomplished – everyone, everywhere will be overjoyed to buy and use it.
    As things stand today, the ‘green energy’ movement seems primarily designed to pour money into specific politicians and government subsidy farmer pockets.

      1. c1ue

        No, green energy is nowhere close to approaching existing fossil fuel sources in terms of economic cost vs. benefit.

        Take solar PV: compared to coal fired electricity, it is extremely expensive. Compared to natural gas – fracked or not – it is extremely expensive. Even compared to nuclear power, it is pretty expensive. Solar PV compares well with diesel fired electricity generation, but that’s about it.

        Let me put this another way: if solar PV is so great – why do we still need massive installation subsidies, not to mention laws requiring ‘minimum green/alternative energy sources’?

  10. Banger

    I think discussing de-growth is a very important subject but the article only hints at the critical issue of “what is growth?” So, when I talk about “growing” do I mean, for myself, or people I know, do I mean making more money? No, I don’t. I mean growing in consciousness and the quality of life. Do I get upset about petty insults or perceived slights? Do I get anxious about the future and build myself up into a panic so that I have to take a dose of Xanax? If I did and then I don’t do those things I realize I’ve grown. Whereas, if I make more money this month I think that’s a good thing because it will help me realize my mission of helping others and grow morally.

    Growth for our economy does not mean more economic activity–in fact we are way too active economically and way underactive in terms of hanging out, enjoying nature or each other. We could, through technology and a little cooperation work less and live better–but we are obsessed with a vision of life that no longer needs to be lived. However much we claim to be freed from Victorian ideas we still maintain the same attitudes of “nose-to-the-grindstone” and “hard work.” We still cling to outmoded ideas of education (which generally ignores social science) to force knowledge into reluctant students which strikes me as the height or idiocy–we don’t beat them with sticks but we humiliate them, dose them with bizarre medications so they sit still (as if young people ought to sit still!). We believe in a “democratic” society that we ought to work, learn, and be healed using authoritarian models and systems. In medicine we are “patients” who passively get drugged and analyzed based on things that are considered important because they are measured with counting molecules while true healing energy is ignored despite scientific validation. We passively say “yes” to stupid ideas our bosses have so we can be sufficiently servile to keep from being fired. Elites want us to be “units” that fit on spreadsheets because they cultural norm in businesses is to see the world as a vast array of Excel spreadsheets not organisms. We suffer from stress, which is the chief cause of illness, but we put our research dollars into obscure drugs as if the human body and psyche were a mechanism because thinking beyond mechanics would require a less prosaic POV.

    No politician would urge to pursue policies of de-growth because our cultural values are based on economic growth. The elites know that endless growth is not possible given current cultural attitudes so they go from one year to the next insuring that, at worst, they will be left with all the goodies, and the rest of the surplus population has to fight for what’s left and, at best, some stunning technological changes like the “Singularity” will come in and order our lives in a way that will avoid ecological disaster.

    My point is that we need to grow, really grow and we have all the tools available to revolutionize our inner life (the most critical element) and our outer life through the myriad of wonderous ideas brilliant people have come up with in recent years whether it is food production, health-care/healing, engineering/construction, transportation, political reform of basic structures, organizational reforms (yes, we could democratize the workplace) and so on. The challenge we face is moral. All parts of the population of the West are facing a moral as well as ecological disaster. All classes whether bosses or workers are fundamentally demoralized and are increasing focused in narrow areas or wander off in the midst of the entertainment, gaming, and social media (rather than real socializing) direction.

    1. Fiver

      “No politician would urge to pursue policies of de-growth because our cultural values are based on economic growth. The elites know that endless growth is not possible given current cultural attitudes..”

  11. cnchal

    Thank you Yves, for bringing wide ranging ideas and viewpoints together to feast on. I am more confused than ever.

    One thing I am not confused about is the word capitalism, and we do not live in a capitalist system. If it were capitalism, Goldman Sachs would be history instead of “The Vampire Squid”, and “private sector” businesses that extort tax favors from all levels of government would be told to bugger off, just to name two of a practically unlimited list of examples.

    Globalization has been very destructive, for our economy and the environment. The benefits of globalization have accrued to the very top tier of society. The cost of globalization has been the destruction of the middle class and the reduction of work that creates wealth, and wholesale environmental destruction.
    A system has evolved that rips up raw materials from all over the world, ships them to China where they are processed and refined into finished goods, that are then shipped back to all over the world. My definition of insanity.

    Economic de – growth is being experienced first hand by a lot of people living in the so called developed world, and quite simply, the top tier or 1% get to keep more of their hard earned money that way.
    Environmental de- growth simply will not happen on the plutocrats watch, which is the name that I think most accurately resembles our current economic system. These plutocrats wield their enormous tally sticks to beat the rest of us dead, if their want be.

    1. Cassiodorus

      “One thing I am not confused about is the word capitalism, and we do not live in a capitalist system.”

      Please tell me the readers here aren’t being bothered for the zillionth time with the standard jive about “this isn’t capitalism” coming from people who dream of some ideal world in which “capitalism” is some pure Heaven of sovereign (adolescent, male) individuals achieving ecstasy through trading. “Capitalism” defines a world in which there is universal participation in markets — and in these markets ordinary things, down to the most basic essentials, are commodities for sale. The definition of capitalism as such can be found in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s “The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View.” So, yeah, this is capitalism, there is a capitalist world-system, and the Bush/ Obama bailout of the banksters doesn’t make it any less so.

      Look — if everything is a commodity for sale under capitalism, the services of politicians are certainly for sale too, and so Goldman Sachs got what it paid for.

      1. cnchal

        Perhaps you are right, and what I think of as capitalism or capitalistic system is too narrow.

        Here is the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s definition of capitalism.

        Capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry and the means of production are controlled by private owners with the goal of making profits in a market economy. Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets and wage labor. In a capitalist economy, the parties to a transaction typically determine the prices at which assets, goods, and services are exchanged.

        And this is the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s definition of plutocracy.

        Plutocracy, also known as plutonomy or plutarchy, defines a society or a system ruled and dominated by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens.

        It never occurred to me to consider political corruption as just another commodity in the capitalist system, to be bought and sold by plutocrats, so thank you for that insight. Can I presume then that a politician that isn’t corrupt is priceless and not a commodity?

        Is it capitalism when Walmart builds a warehouse after extorting a few million dollars from the neighbors, and then doesn’t have high enough wages so a considerable percentage of their employees need food stamps to not starve? At the same time as the Walton family fortune grows by another $25 billion in a year.

        Is it capitalism when Goldman Sachs becomes a bank holding company within 24 hours and gets $13 billion to not starve?

        How about we call the system pluto – capitalism as a happy middle ground?

        1. Cassiodorus

          “Is it capitalism when Walmart builds a warehouse after extorting a few million dollars from the neighbors, and then doesn’t have high enough wages so a considerable percentage of their employees need food stamps to not starve?”

          Yes. Would anyone from Charles Dickens’ era of English history, ruled as plutocratically as any period of history, imagine the commerce of that period as “not (being) capitalism”? No. WalMart’s employees are still wage laborers, and “plutocracy” merely refers to the political aspect of capital’s rule within capitalism.

          As for the extortion part of it, see e.g. the 26th chapter of Marx’s “Capital”:

          http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch26.htm

          “The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labour. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale. The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage labourers. The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.”

          In other words, big business continually steals because to do so is the prep the (economic) ground for more capitalism. As Tom Brass continually emphasizes in his books, “primitive” accumulation has continued in force throughout the history of the capitalist system.

  12. don

    Here I thought “de-growth” was desirable, in a way that also brings with it equality. How naive of me.

    According to the author, equality requires econ. growth. Furthermore, we can also tackle climate change while at the same time having econ. growth. Wonderful. We can have our cake and eat it to.

    Environmentalist, on the other hand, just don’t get it. “They also have not shown much of an understanding of or interest in managing political coalitions on a grand scale, a scale required for the major transformation of the economy and society required by climate change.”

    Growth that brings about equality while also resolving climate change can come about by “managing political coalitions on a grand scale.” How about providing a description and prescription of how this is to come about.

    I’ll bet the author never ever gets around to that one.

    1. Sandwichman

      Funny how that happens. ALL the “green growth” solutions presuppose the magical appearance of a genuinely social democratic government that faces virtually no resistance from capital. If wishes were horses… On the other hand, MOST degrowth scenarios ALSO presuppose the magical appearance of a genuinely social democratic government, etc., etc…

      And while we’re waiting for the miracle to occur? Then what?

      There is one “degrowth” scenario that doesn’t depend on the magical appearance of a genuinely social democratic government. It is highly unlikely on the face of it — but at least it doesn’t presuppose the magical taking of state power. What it presupposes instead is the emergence of a radical “syndicalist” rank and file movement of workers. Not very likely. But more likely than scenarios one or two! Remember the story about you and your companion running away from a bear — you don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than your companion.

    2. jrs

      Capitalist apologizing (ie “equality” that appeases the ruling class) requres economic growth such as we know it. But what if one stoped trying to appease the plutocrats?

    3. Fiver

      Don,

      Agree. What chance for a global solution to a global problem if the principle is not survival with true decency, not just for 9 billion (the stupidity boggles) people, but also all other species and the planet as a whole? We have to be able to be “doing well” without being a typical “well off” US consumer or we’re just plain done.

  13. LillithMc

    30 years ago in Sacramento our municipal utility (SMUD) offered a choice of adding $5/mo. to pay for expansion into green energy. Several years ago our solar panels returned enough electricity to the system to almost run it without other help. Our problem is water theft from our rivers for big ag and the desert of southern CA plus the massive shale oil deposits suitable for fracking and oil export. Sadly our environmental Governor Brown has taken the corporate road and not expanded on the “degrowth” we need.
    Our community gardens also produce local veggies. Common sense tells us we need all this to help climate change (now in drought in our area) and ending of many of the jobs that supported our economy. We don’t need the massive money that came from Wall Street to “bubble and burst” housing and now buy cheap for securitized rentals.
    Each community needs to recreate themselves instead of thinking what worked in the past will work for the future. Degrowth is a good description, but the change is sustainable living for the future.

    1. Banger

      Numerous simple solutions are out there but are opposed by vested interests and those that are easily manipulated through fear.

      1. LillithMc

        SMUD has been been attacked the entire time by PG&E who to my knowledge not only charges higher rates, but does nothing for green energy. Public utilities are difficult to find, but worthwhile to create. Water and shale are too big to expect grass-roots opposition to have much effect. They own politics. Oddly in our area water is gold and fracking depends on water. I hope they defeat themselves, but leave us enough water to support life.

  14. coboarts

    On a working holiday hitchhiking around UK back in the late 70s, passing south through Wales, I looked up to the craggy ridge on my left and saw an old goat with long, long, matted hair looking down at me, backlit by a brilliant sun light. “I got away a long time ago and ain’t never been caught back…” Ride the wave until it crashes, because all of your conceit and the arrogance of your supposed intellectual foresight won’t keep the great ape from facing himself bare naked.

  15. Jill Hamburg Coplan

    Re “no clear replacement for GDP yet emerging.”
    Please see a great deal of work on this subject. Indeed clear replacements for GDP are emerging quite clearly.
    –UNEP (United National Environmental Program)’s work going back at least to 2008 on Green GDP.
    –The UN has introduced a System of Environmental-Economic Accounting with metrics that can be used to monitor growth in a universally consistent way, to help sustainability evolve through better accounting. (I can only attribute the lack of broader knowledge of this to the weakness in UN external PR/communications, which is my area and I know it is under dire budgetary constraint.)
    – Please see the World Bank’s Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES).
    Foundations, think tanks, and intergovernmental groups are doing much important work at the intersection of economic development & sustainability. Please see a report (I was editor) authored by Homi Bhaba, development economist of the Brookings Institution, commissioned by Ban Ki-Moon in May, with David Cameron and 2 other heads of state (Indonesia & Liberia) in charge of the effort. The report was entitled, “A New Global Partnership; Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development–the report of the high-level panel on the Post-2015 development agenda.”) It takes up the issue of data (use of new measurements to align sustainability with economic wellbeing) throughout, esp. on page 23-24.
    PDF here http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCkQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.un.org%2Fsg%2Fmanagement%2Fpdf%2FHLP_P2015_Report.pdf&ei=pG-8Uo2EAszJsQTxtILIDg&usg=AFQjCNFZ_uySerPIKoY9M92JGBPBbIIRJA&bvm=bv.58187178,d.cWc

  16. allcoppeddout

    Human population tripled from WW2, just as we had reliable contraception and modern ideas from science on what over-population is. The ‘growth argument’ is essentially about a modern morality, not economics. The Chinese imposed single-child policies and elsewhere we made kids too expensive. In my own ‘plan’ I probably wouldn’t have made it as a third child and none of us, surely, can stand such as seeing a Chinese woman dragged off to a forced abortion.

    Our arguments about this start in corrupted form within the economics of the corrupt, medieval work ethic and batty stories on human aspiration that peaked in Greek tragedy. Most of the real issues are not addressed, let alone speculative ones (e.g. that science may now have a ‘cure’ for ageing populations by making us younger again), including why we rely on a control fraud like economics and live like Magpies attracted to glitter.

    There are critiques of whacky bits of economics, like private debt being irrelevant and ludicrous comparative advantage notions developed from back of a fag packet 18th century musing. The growth loonies want us to work more and longer just as we could mostly be free of all but work needed. They complain our populations have aged, say we need to retire later and ignore massive youth unemployment as they speak. Meanwhile, real economics is in fact dark politics.

    Where is the debate on what we really need?

    1. JTFaraday

      I’d guess about 20 years in the future. Too many Americans still await the return of (their idealization of) the 1950s industrial economy like the South will rise again.

    2. Fiver

      allcoppedout,

      No matter which way you cut it, we grew way, way too many people from oil for the long haul – yet we must shut down all of the fossil-fuel overload much faster than that, as in complete the transformation within 20 years – or it’s simply buggered. The oceans die circa 2050, after fresh water droughts scorch immense agricultural regions and forests weaken, wither and withdraw faster than expected, always faster than expected because it’s not just Climate Change that’s happening. Human impacts of all kinds are destroying immense expanses of habitat, poisoning rivers and lakes, and harvesting trees by their millions, now Japan irradiating oceans already full of plastic garbage islands, oily slicks and acid and a thousand new chemicals a year from the air with every rain. Opinions vary, but 1 billion is often cited as a sustainable number for the planet. I don’t imagine we’ll get younger getting there either, I’m afraid. The time for thinking has got to be now.

  17. Sandwichman

    What Would Keynes Do?

    Long, long before there was “degrowth” there was “shorter working time.” In fact, there was a movement for a ten hour day way back in the 1830s. The mechanics of just about any degrowth strategy involve a crucial reliance on… reducing and redistributing the hours of work. As Keynes wrote in a letter to T. S. Eliot in 1945, “Less work is the ultimate solution.” Keynes was talking about full employment but the same argument holds for ecological sustainability. Why? Because the reason “more growth” is always necessary is to achieve “full employment”. 2 + 2 still = 4!

  18. Podargus

    “and some also believe that nuclear energy must be part of the mix,at least for a while.”
    At least nuclear energy got a mention even in this half hearted and almost derisory manner.
    Nuclear is our only effective technology to remove fossil fuels from electricity generation which is the main source of greenhouse gases and it will be needed for much more than a while.Unless,of course the current policies result in a near total meltdown of our civilization.
    Certainly a controlled degrowth is needed,particularly in population. But that is a concept which a lot of so called environmentalists won’t touch with a very long pole.
    Political correctness is the name of the game.

  19. Hugh

    If you look at a lot of economic productivity from a social purposes perspective, that is whether it contributes to making a better society, one that we would choose to live in, it’s social usefulness is not just zero but negative.

    All of Wall Street’s financial activities fall into this category. Our society is not made better by Wall Street’s activities but infinitely worse. But negative economic productivity shows up in lots of other ways. Look at our community planning, for instance, or the lack of it. Building ex-urbs filled with poorly build oversize McMansions represents an enormous energy drain and destruction of our country’s farm land and green spaces. The poorly built element brings up a whole other category of waste: planned obsolence. Most of our clothes, appliances, and electronics are simply not built to last. Relatively small increases in quality at various points in design would multiply their effective usable lifetimes. But manufacturers would rather sell cheap, shoddy goods because these necessitate more frequent replacement, thus ensuring a large ongoing market for these goods. It takes, for instance, a much smaller outlay of resources to improve the battery on a smart phone so that the phone lasts twice as long than it does to produce two iphones. The difference is, of course, that the way we do it now, the manufacturer gets to sell you two phones instead of one. Rather than planned obsolence and never-ending consumerism, we should embrace the less energy intensive and resource consuming values of quality and built to last.

  20. Henry

    Regarding nuclear energy, rather ho hum. Stuart Brand has a rather interesting perspective on that. Better city planning, yep. Useful activity… Well it seems most of civilization is about the performance of tasks that are of questionable utility. I think long term usefulness of electronics is sort of stupid when the reality is of continuous improvement, though replacing parts in a long lived box might be a bit better than what we see now. Trash really isn’t a problem, we just have to do a better job burying it rather than, particularly with plastic, screwing up ecosystems. As far as carbon in the atmosphere, the basic problem is that the economy is built on it. And replacement, especially with entrenched players, takes time. We are talking about a hundred, a thousand, not the next decade, and the imperfect lens through which we view the future makes harbingers of doom seem a bit overwrought. Most people don’t really do anything, and the increased insertion of the computer into our lives makes that fact more and more obvious. So if it was the unions who got hit, it is now the middle managers, and, to a certain extent, the middleman who is getting hit. A bigger world with more and more people, and fewer and fewer winners. It is the lucky ones who can find some ivory tower to become ensconced within.

    1. Cassiodorus

      Nuclear energy? A lot of people are going to be paying attention to how TEPCO handles the Fukushima mess — and the story on the street is that TEPCO has farmed the job out to the Yakuza. Don’t count on success.

  21. Cassiodorus

    So we are looking at some sort of hypothetical world, here, in which 1) the world economy isn’t run by some tiny, super-rich elite of insane sociopaths who promote universal subordination to markets because neoliberal ideology is the universal path to power, 2) the political system isn’t run by insane sociopaths who are too busy bailing out the banksters to pay attention to the 99%, and 3) the universal global market isn’t held in place through the universal propagation of “market values” including the relentless commodification of everything nature has to offer.

    You know I appreciate the polite college-seminar talk about how we can have some sort of smooth transition to a sustainable world-society — but in real life, the transition is going to be catastrophic, traumatic, and chaotic. Expect it.

    1. Fiver

      It is not at all inconceivable that the US elite in future is itself spooked into unified action, or the elite fractures and some portion of it moves decisively – even the military. After all, everyone’s equal outside in a tornado (one landed on Davos, you’d see some action) and you have to believe the bulk of the scientific and technical class, much of it military, believes the science. Now you can take the POV they’re already acting, akin to comments above, but adding the deliberate withdrawal of Iraqi, Iranian and Libyan oil, together with the financial crisis, as the first phase of a plan for lower, more directed, global growth, with the containment of China both militarily (Pivot, Africa) and economically (TPP, Africa) – but you run smack into the question of why it would have to be so bloody and disgusting and profitable. No, it is definitely in future, and in an incredible stroke of redemptive luck, The General is the ideal instrument to “save the world” by rounding up the top couple thousand corporate kingpins and setting them about the task at hand – building something that works.

  22. normansdog

    This has all been covered in great detail by Herman Daly in his 1977 book “Steady-State Economics” – republished in 1991.
    We do not need Michael Hoexter to invent some grand new strategy, he is only re-hashing Daly’s original work.
    JUST GO AND READ THE BOOK!

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