‘Degrowth’ Isn’t Just About the Economy. It’s About Culture.

Yves here. From time to time, we’ve pointed out that the only possible way to prevent the most catastrophic climate outcomes is radical conservation, as in greatly reducing energy consumption and related resource exploitation. Whenever we broach that idea, we get reactions along the lines of “We can’t because…” when not going this means within a very few generations, Little Home on the Prairie living standards will be the best we can expect. When a complex society, particularly one very dependent on short-lived inputs like computer chips, starts to unravel, the downhill slope will be steep.

Of course, the naysayers have a point in that the notion of what is possible is more and more shaped by mass and social media, which are paid for by advertising, which is entirely about flogging consumption, which is what needs to be reduced. The fallacy is that GDP is a measure of quality of life, which is certainly not terribly true in the US. In the 1950s through 1970s, a single man could work for blue collar wages and be self supporting in all but the most expensive cities. Work weeks were shorter, jobs were more stable, and most people had deeper social ties. Stability and personal networks are big positives not just for mental health; they increase average lifespans.

I could go on but you get the point: more goods and more services have not not necessarily improved the quality of life, and it’s not hard to make the case that the most important elements have been degraded. So doing with less and doing more slowly can have a lot of upside….not that the officialdom wants that idea to occur to you.

By Peter Sutoris, Ph.D., an environmental anthropologist based at University College London, and the author of “Visions of Development” (Oxford University Press) and the forthcoming “Educating for the Anthropocene” (The MIT Press). Learn about his research at www.petersutoris.com and on Twitter: @PSutoris. Originally published at Undark

The global conversation about climate change has revolved largely around a single, misguided idea: that we can replace carbon-intensive technologies with cleaner ones and reach the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions without fundamentally altering our economy. In other words, that we can achieve, and indefinitely maintain, green growth.

But a competing narrative argues that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible, and that even supposedly green technologies will perpetuate the extraction of natural resources and the destruction of the natural environment. Even if these technologies help us mitigate climate change to an extent, they might backfire, for example, by disrupting biodiversity. In this narrative, the underlying problem lies not in the so-called cleanliness of our technologies but in our compulsion to keep growing our economies.

Proponents of this second view argue that to preserve the planet, we must reduce our consumption of resources, a strategy that has come to be known as degrowth. This approach calls for us to shrink parts of our economy, and to move away from measures such as gross domestic product as indicators of economic health.

Many scientists, politicians, and commentators have disparaged degrowth as unrealistic, and asserted that there simply isn’t enough political will to pursue it. We must act on climate now, they say, and we must act within the parameters of our current economic system. There is no time for a revolution.

This, arguably defeatist, perspective is in part the result of a misunderstanding of what degrowth really stands for. Degrowth doesn’t imply a radical decline in living standards, as some commentators have suggested, nor does it mean that poor people would become even poorer. This is because degrowth calls not only for reducing the extraction of resources but also for distributing those resources more equitably. Neither does degrowth mean that all sectors of the economy would shrink; sectors less dependent on resource extraction, such as education and health care, could keep expanding.

But even more importantly, degrowth is too often portrayed merely as an economic idea when it is, in fact, just as much a cultural notion. The culture of degrowth calls for us to view ourselves as stewards of the planet. It pushes us to recognize that our relationship with the natural environment is a two-way street — that we must take care of nature if we want nature to take care of us. And it calls for us to respect our planet’s limits, to look out for other species, and to recognize that our own fate is tied up with the health of the ecosystems we inhabit.

A culture of degrowth sees justice as intergenerational, and respects the rights of the world’s future inhabitants.

What would it take for society to embrace degrowth as a new cultural paradigm?

We can start by questioning the underlying ideologies that have enabled our economic system for decades, including extractivism, the idea that the earth is ours to exploit, and speciesism, the idea that human beings are morally superior to all other species, which fuels the widespread belief that non-human species are essentially disposable. At the same time, we must beware of ageism, the idea that adults know best. Children’s imaginations of alternative worlds and futures will be essential in creating a cultural shift. Why not start publishing children’s writings and drawings on the opinion pages of major newspapers?

A key step is for our culture’s gatekeepers — curators, editors, artists, influencers — to diversify the conversation about climate solutions beyond clean technology and decarbonization. Journalists, editors, and commentators, in particular, carry tremendous power to set the cultural agenda, especially in the world’s more democratic countries. It is time they use it.

It’s worth remembering, for example, that our current global system of infinite growth didn’t emerge by chance. It was partly an outgrowth of cultural forces that took hold in the post-World War II era: a revolution in advertising, media coverage that stressed the benefits of capitalism and globalization, and a drumbeat of Hollywood films depicting material wealth as the symbol of success.

Similar forces could be marshalled to drive a cultural shift toward degrowth.

Take the arts and entertainment. The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argued in his 2016 book “The Great Derangement” that climate change was conspicuously absent from works of fiction. Yet today, climate and the environment remain mostly in the domain of nonfiction. With a few notable exceptions — such as Maja Lunde’s “The History of Bees” — bestselling novels and blockbuster movies of recent years have hardly engaged the question of our relationship with nature.

Education is another space that shapes culture. Many of the world’s education systems are currently focussed on churning out productive workers who can keep the infinite-growth economy spinning. Even at so-called elite educational institutions, critical thinking too often equates with problem solving for infinite growth. Our education systems — currently preoccupied with STEM subjects, and with imparting technology skills demanded by corporate employers — must place greater emphasis on creativity, imagination, and political engagement. We need to be able to imagine alternative futures before we can bring them into being, and degrowth is no exception.

An objection I often hear when I speak about the culture of degrowth is that cultural change takes time, and we are out of time when it comes to climate change. Yet, history teaches us that rapid cultural and political change is possible. Just take the impacts of social movements like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter that manifested within months, if not weeks. Skeptics may be right that imposing degrowth policies from above is unlikely to work, but that doesn’t mean degrowth is impossible — it just means that the demand needs to come from below.

But is it realistic to expect that a critical mass of people might come to support degrowth? After all, our mainstream economic theory claims that people act rationally when they act in their self-interest. And acting in our self-interest often means accumulating wealth, which fuels infinite growth.

But it is no coincidence that our hearts break when we see environmental devastation first hand or that we are more likely to give up meat if we witness the conditions in which livestock are kept. Appreciation for natural beauty, compassion for other living beings, and a concern for the fate of humanity’s future generations are as much ingrained in us as self-interest, even if our culture of infinite growth has blinded us somewhat to these traits.

Ultimately, degrowth is inevitable. We will either choose this path voluntarily, or we will be forced into it violently and uncontrollably as a result of environmental disasters. If we want to prevent the suffering and tragedies that accompany such drastic shifts, we must bring about a culture of degrowth. And where the cultural winds blow, the political winds will follow.

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104 comments

  1. ChrisRUEcon

    Ooooh … I’ll finish reading later this morning, but already – #TIL “The Kitchen Debate” (Nixon v Khrushchev) … ;-)

    #TYVM

    Reply
  2. Taurus

    “ Yet today, climate and the environment remain mostly in the domain of nonfiction.”

    Spoken like a guy who has never heard of the Jackpot.

    I would argue that speculative fiction has covered the subject extensively. In fact, there is a dramatic shift from the optimism inherent to the speculative fiction that I read as a kid and the environmental dystopias which are quite vividly portrayed in today’s books of the same genre. I am in the process of reading Neal Stephenson’s new 700 page brick and it is NOTHING but climate and environment.

    Reply
    1. nikc

      Spoken like a guy who didn’t read the linked article.

      “ It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion.”

      “ the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction.

      I enjoyed the new Neal Stephenson, though I preferred Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

      Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Isn’t William Gibson the only novelist who ever mentioned a Jackpot Future in a work of fiction? It is not yet very generalised.

      Maybe a next step in fictional imagination would be a wave of Jackpotopian works in various media. And then a wave of Jackpot Survivaltopian works in various media.

      I notice that dystopian works are super-highlighted, super-promoted and super-sold. I wonder if this is done to scorched-earth the imagination-scape in order to pre-empt and prevent anyone from imagining a less-than-dystopian future so as to prevent anyone from trying to realize a less-than-dystopian future here in Analog Meatspace.

      So perhaps fictively/artistically gifted creatives should try imagining Semitopias and Mehtopias as being better than Dystopias anyway. And they should try learning enough about science and technology including ecoscience and ecotech that they can make their semitopias seem plausibly and imaginationally achievable back here in the real world.

      People can’t fight or work for that which they can’t even imagine.

      Occupy your imagination!

      Reply
  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    Wendell Berry has been pointing the way to “degrowth” for a long while–largely because he sees many of the growth industries as needless mechanization and complication. He has a famous essay about running his 160-acre farm using horses. Imagine that: Yet many farmers would benefit from having less equipment and more horses and cows around.

    A good profile:
    https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/10/2/20862854/wendell-berry-climate-change-port-royal-michael-pollans

    Berry is not showing us a road to poverty. What he is showing us is that the flight from the land, the disdain for farming, the detachment of individuals from the source of their food–all of these are dangerous and can be remedied by more people on the land and fewer shabby practices.

    Is there a cultural “will” among a population that thinks of cottonseed oil, PopTarts, and UberEats as food?

    Note also that SlowFood has been posing the same questions as Berry for many years. The idea behind SlowFood is hardly elitist: One of its main goals is to keep small farmers and artisans productive and to preserve “heirloom” seeds and breeds.

    So “degrowth” may mean learning to feed ourselves an reorienting the economy according.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      Note to self: It’s raining here in Tucson and it’s supposed to get frosty over the weekend. Means that it’s time to cut my garden lettuce back.

      Salad in the Slim Kitchen!

      Grow at least some of your own food, people. It’s fun!

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        It’s fun and its learning. If one can learn what quality “is” and then learn how to grow “quality” personally in one’s own garden, one is eventually trained and prepared to recognize “quality” when one sees it in the store when buying the food that one could not possibly grow oneself. And that is yet another reason for a hundred million individuals to start gardening, if they all separately individually feel like doing it. It would turn them into a hundred million picky-choosy individual shoppers when shopping at the food store. They wouldn’t be mere consumers any more. They would have become tough customers. Growing parts of the food-for-money system would have to grow better quality food to attract the buying attention of a hundred million tough customers.

        Here is a possible resource to begin learning about the concept of high-quality food and food-gardening. https://highbrixgardens.com/

        And here is a bunch of images of ” brix tables” for various different plants. One can look at all the various iterations of this/these images and look at the URL each image came from and one can, if one pleases, click on any URL at random, or on all of them one by one in sequence, and see which one or ones lead the viewer to an interesting high-value source which today’s Search Prevention Engines will never ever reveal to the searcher.

        Reply
      2. Christopher Horne

        My wife, a chef, often spoke of ‘eating by memory’. Those of
        us blessed to have gotten old at this point, remember when apples,
        raspberries, tomatoes, etc. actually had what is referred to as
        ‘flavor’. The (rather overpriced) produce sold in supermarkets today
        has everything but. It is grown to stay fresh longer, look good, and ship well. This counts as a sin of culinary perversion. True, you can buy
        ‘organic’ products, which sometimes taste a bit better, but the Chinese, for example, now grow it in mega-farms to exploit the
        label. One might develop a certain cynical attitude towards anything
        marketed as natural or organic. I have often said that advertising
        as an industry is the venom by which Capitalism delivers it’s poison
        to Society. This article merely raises the question of whether there
        is an antidote to what appears to be a lethal dose.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          One thing I still trust about certified Organic from trustworthy countries or societies or trustworthy sub-cultures within those societies, is that it is grown without the use of certain ranges of petrosynthetic-chemistry-derived carcinogens/mutagens/teratogens/etceteragens.

          Obviously certified organic from China cannot be trusted in that regard. Which is why I never buy certified organic anything from China. How can I know that natural organic pumpkin seeds from China are not full of natural organic lead paint? Or natural organic melamine?

          About quality, part of the reason for people to start gardening is to learn how to create high nutrivitamineral soil for growing high-nutrivitamineral garden crops. The high-brix gardening websites and etc. I referred to above are one place among more and more places which has been assembling information about what quality is and how to achieve it, and spreading it to as many people as are interested.

          If people get the right information and the right garden/micro-orchard inputs and etc., they can grow high nutrivitamineral produce with high quality so they can learn for themselves what high quality is, and what some layman-accessible signs of it are.

          For instance, Carey Reams noted that produce above a certain measurable threshhold on the brix measurement scales would not rot if left unattended. It would begin to dry down and try shriveling up like raisins without any bacterial or fungal attack along the way.

          Many well-intended growers within the Certified Organic field seem not to have a trace of the nutrivitamineral soil management and soil support science and tech which Acres USA has made a point of making available to readers over these past several decades. I once had a small batch of certified organic tomatoes which I had bought . . . explode into hairy fungus rot decay within three days. Clearly they had not been metabolically healthy even though they were at least free of various modern forms of cancer juice and mutation juice.

          On the other hand, I once bought some 2 inch diameter salad tomatoes at out local farmers market. They were purely “conventional” in “not certified organic” terms. But after I rediscovered them about 2 months after they had somehow escaped my attention, I found them somewhat wrinkled and deflated and trying to dry down like raisins with no trace of rot or mold anywhere. Clearly these tomatoes had been well nourished during their growth. And they tasted good too.

          Here are some images of Carey Reams, the discoverer of the effect of Brix Values and the systematizer of the Brix Charts. ( Carey Reams is the old man with white hair and glasses, not any of the other Carey Reamses also in some of these images).
          https://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A0geKIyer9Bh9vkA1mZXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=carey+reams+image&fr=sfp

          Reply
  4. Skunk

    The idea of unlimited growth is absurd. In fact, anyone who can believe in it seems out of touch with reality. The commons of the oceans and atmosphere are certainly not unlimited, as they are brimming with our waste products. The aquifers of fresh water, the amount of arable land, the quantity of rare earths, etc., are all limited. Sometimes stupid ideas are more apparent to children than to adults who’ve joined the bandwagon. I can recall questioning adults about the idea of growth and never getting an adequate answer. To a kid, it seemed bizarre. Why not just create a sort of steady state economy? It wasn’t until much later in life that I understood the idea of profit and its links to interest and “growth.”

    There’s a sad rigidity to our systems. Once a system is in place, it’s difficult to question it or tinker with it. One side clings like a tiger to what has already been decreed, and the other side wants to completely topple it and put a rival system in place. Often big upheavals are not the best way forward. Sometimes they are. But in either case, you can never just agree to try out options to see how they work. So you end up with really stupid fantasies such as “unlimited growth” that are very obviously wrong and also harmful.

    Reply
  5. Geo

    Thoughtful and important piece to enter into the new year with!

    “Many scientists, politicians, and commentators have disparaged degrowth as unrealistic, and asserted that there simply isn’t enough political will to pursue it.” – Do these critics of degrowth not notice that there is practically no political will behind other environmental reforms like “green growth” either? I highly doubt buying Teslas and privatizing our water for Wall Street to manage is going to save the planet.

    As an artist/filmmaker I have a few thoughts on this part: “Take the arts and entertainment – climate change was conspicuously absent from works of fiction.” Blockbuster films like Wall-e, Mad Max, Interstellar, Don’t Look Up, Avatar, and more, to the seemingly endless list of books and movies about futuristic dystopian hellscapes tackle the subject. Whether they do it in ways that are insightful or helpful is a whole other discussion!

    The biggest hurdles for the arts is media consolidation and apparently most people don’t want art, they want entertainment. They want media that appeals to their tastes and not art that challenges their views and opens them up to new ideas – like our politics and news. The top 10 box office movies of 1975 included: Dog Day Afternoon, Three Days of the Condor, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. For 2019 (last pre-Covid box office) it was entirely Disney properties (Marvel, Star Wars, Lion King, Frozen 2, Aladdin) or Joker & It: Chapter 2. As William Deresiewicz wrote in his essay Curtains years ago: “Great audiences give rise to great artists, but the inverse can also be true.” If audiences don’t support art it won’t get made.

    There are tons of artists trying to make art that takes on the issue of climate change (sometimes even in smart and insightful ways). They just don’t get funding, media exposure, or audiences.

    That said, I may be a lowly little artist making films few see but I’m gonna keep trying. The documentary Chasing Ice has a powerful moment when the photographer it follows, James Balog, says he wants to be able to tell his daughters “he did everything he could” to make a difference confronting climate change. I wish more artists, and people in general, had this view.

    Reply
  6. PlutoniumKun

    I have a problem with the term ‘regrowth’. It seems poorly defined and isn’t necessarily related to actions needed. It implies that growth = energy and resource use, which isn’t necessarily the same thing (although of course historically they’ve been closely linked).

    On a personal level, if for example I decide to spend the money I put aside for a long haul flight and holiday into upgrading my homes insulation, have I engaged in ‘regrowth’, or just changed my spending priorities? What if I switch my trip to Bali with a road trip to a local spa hotel? What if instead of buying a huge SUV I buy a small car and spend the rest of the money on a small glasshouse to grow more home vegetables? What if my utility invests in a wind farm instead of a CCGT station because its cheaper, is that degrowth? If I go vegan have I opted for ‘degrowth’, or just changed my diet?

    To give an example, one of the better assessments of actions needed was set out a few years ago in ‘Drawdown’, a multidisciplinary study on the actions needed to urgently cut emissions. There is plenty to argue with the conclusions, but for the sake of argument I’ll list their 1-20:

    1. Refrigerant management (yes, really)
    2. Wind turbines (onshore)
    3 Reduce food waste.
    4 Plant rich diet
    5 Protect tropical forests.
    6 Educating girls
    7 Family planning
    8. Solar farms
    9 Silviculture
    10 Rooftop solar
    11. Regenerative agriculture
    12. Temperate forest protection
    13 Peatlands protection
    14. Tropical stable trees (for food)
    15 Afforestation
    16. Conservation Agriculture
    17. Tree intercropping
    18 Geothermal
    19 Managed grazing
    20 Nuclear

    The assessment was based on speed of implementation, real world impacts and cost benefit analysis. Speed of implementation is particularly important in their analysis, hence the high priority given to controlling refrigerants and onshore wind.

    Note that none of them involve a substantial reduction in growth, at least as is widely understood. They do involve swapping priorities – changing diets, changing the sources of food and energy. obviously, if the agriculture proposals increase the price of basic foods, there is a loss of income and so ‘regrowth’ in one sense. Some of them will require higher taxes and overall product costs, which could reduce peoples incomes and so, possibly, quality of life as assumed by many people, but its not really clear that if we are ‘degrowing’.

    As another obvious example, if you compare CO2 emissions between north America and Europe, the average European produces around 60% of that of a North American (or Australian), despite general quality of life and living standards being similar (EU average is 8.8 tonnes per person, compared to around 15.5 tonnes for US, and 18 tonnes for a Canadian). Clearly, its therefore possible to reduce overall impact in much of the developed world by up to 50% without reducing living standards.

    So I don’t think terms like ‘degrowth’ is helpful, either in terms of technical analysis or in terms of public debate. We need to dramatically and radically reduce our use of fossil fuels, and we need to radically and rapidly stop the destruction of soils and water. This will certainly require huge lifestyle changes for those in the wealthier parts of the world, and changes in aspiration for those in the poorer parts. But suggesting that everyone just needs to reduce their consumption levels is neither accurate nor helpful. It all depends on what you are consuming and how its produced.

    Reply
    1. Susie

      I think you would really appreciate this website for your re-building efforts at conservation:

      https://verdant.net/building_ideas.htm

      “Much of the framing lumber, 2x4s,2x6s,or larger that is waste after a house is built is thrown in dumpsters or debris boxes. Many contractors don’t bother saving the short or left-over full length material because of high labor costs and nowhere to store it. So it gets tossed in a dumpster. This page discusses how you can get all the material you need for free and how best to use it to its maximum utilization.”

      “Is it legal? There have been Supreme Court decisions about the right of police to seize, search, take things out of people’s garbage without a warrant. Their reasoning was that once something is placed on a public street in a garbage container, or in an area accessible to the public, the owner has “no right of the expectations of privacy” and has “abandoned ownership.”

      I first learned of this site when it was highlighted by Lambert Strether

      Reply
  7. Kentucky Fried Tōfu

    Packaging ideas like speciesism or ageism together with degrowth seems like a great way to alienate a lot people who could otherwise have been pro degrowth.

    I mean these ideas are non starters for many people, even if those people agree with goals of zero co2 emissions and a more ‘sober’ life energy-wise.

    Culture wars are the trap we need to avoid if we want to maintain a chance to avoid the worst.

    Redistribution and better material benefits for everybody? Absolutely, these are political battles and we need to win them in order to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions.

    Making a majority of the population vegan? Absolutely not, it’s a cultural battle and a losing proposition.

    We need the material part (significant meat consumption reduction), without the part that will alienate a majority of people (veganism/speciesism).

    Reply
    1. Rod

      Culture wars are the trap
      imo–adopting or having the right culture doesn’t result in a war or battle
      and things resolve themselves because of that
      I think that is the premise of the Article
      but, that’s imo…

      Reply
    2. juanholio

      Re veganism and ageism.

      In order to try and predict what will happen in the future, first and foremost consider, “What can’t happen, won’t happen”.

      If the environment is so degraded that you can’t grow enough meat to provide it at a price people can afford, most people won’t eat meat.

      …And COVID-19 has shown us that, when the time comes, our society will have no trouble throwing superfluous members overboard “for the greater good”.

      Reply
    3. Darius

      The emphasis has to be on material benefits for the great mass of struggling humanity. Culture wars are always a loser politically for the left. The left needs to show the people why this will benefit their lives materially. It’s no mystery why people with money spend lots of it to establish American-style culture wars in places like the UK, Australia, and EU countries. There is no more sure-fire way to drive wedges deep into working class solidarity and perpetuate the status quo.

      Reply
    4. Christopher Horne

      ageism,eh? It turns out that those of us who are old are the lucky ones.
      With the planet circling the drain, we’ll be outa here before everyone else
      goes down the pipes!

      Reply
    5. drumlin woodchuckles

      Which goes to show why the Fossil Fuel Right works so hard on engineering Culture Wars. So the targets of those Fossil Fuel Right-engineered culture wars will have to learn how to cope with them one way or another.

      Perhaps develop methods of diffuse and hard-to-pin-down culture guerilla wars and counter-wars.

      Reply
  8. Henry Moon Pie

    I appreciate the article and Yves’s introduction. The last paragraph is the most cogent:

    Ultimately, degrowth is inevitable. We will either choose this path voluntarily, or we will be forced into it violently and uncontrollably as a result of environmental disasters.

    In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth spends a chapter talking about how the economy is embedded in the Earth, not vice versa. She then goes on to liken our situation to landing a plane in distress. The plane is coming down, and the chances for a regular landing are now near zero. The question is whether it will be a crash landing with survivors or a nose first, exploding catastrophe.

    Can our PMCs live without three or four flying vacations a year? Can our middle class manage to survive without commuting 100 miles a day in a huge SUV? Can our billionaires exist without their private jets?

    The IPCC said in 2019 that we were headed to 3.2 degrees C rise in temperature, in line with the EN-ROADS projection of 3.6 with Business As Usual. This is roughly three times the warming we’ve already experienced, an almost unimaginable degree of disruption and destruction.

    To avoid this would require that we reduce carbon emission by 7.6% per year for every year from 2020 to 2030. We achieved that in 2020 thanks to Covid, but are quickly back on the ever-increasing level of emissions. I believe reasonable people could sit down and come up with huge reductions by simply eliminating some categories of economic activity:

    1) private jets and their manufacture;
    2) franchised fast food;
    3) Non-essential air travel (which would take large portions of the “hospitality industry” with it);
    4) Non-essential construction unless it could be demonstrated that it resulted in a NEAR-term reduction in carbon emissions.

    Eliminating most of these activities would have additional ecological benefits. For example, fast food is one of the major contributors to deforestation and human disease. And eliminating these industries–with income replacement for those affected–would give us time to eliminate more difficult targets like commuting to and from work.

    This is largely an academic exercise though. It could be done, but it won’t because the billionaires demanding return on their capital will no more allow it than they are allowing the necessary shutdowns to bring Covid under control. In fact, they are even now expending a serious amount of effort to quell even any talk of the degrowth option in the mainstream much the same way that discussion of testing, quarantine and contact tracing disappeared.

    The world is being driven to inhabitability by the demand and for the benefit of a few hundred people and their dynasties along with the comfort, convenience and ego-stroking of the PMCs. It’s insane, but that’s what is happening.

    Reply
  9. Mikel

    “At the same time, we must beware of ageism, the idea that adults know best.”

    Here in the USA that is no obstacle at all. Haven’t had that “problem” in a long time.

    Reply
  10. cnchal

    Not surprised that the massive debt pile almost everyone is whipped into servicing, at the whip hand of Wall Street is not mentioned.

    Student debt not dischargeable in bankruptcy after being subjected to years of expensive education fraud. You wanna be a doctor or veterinarian? Prepare to be ridden like a mule by some Wall Street Pirate Equity overlord to perpetuate billing fraud, so Pirate Equity kingpins can live the lives of Croseus. The tradeoff is Doc can buy a Porsche for his or her service to mammon.

    Technology is used to immiserate whole swathes of society instead of liberating society from the mindless drudgery of crappy work. Keynes is spinning in his grave at the reality of Amazon having a 150% yearly turnover rate due to technology used to wring every drop of sweat out of a warehouse worker’s every shift. If they slow down, even just a little, its you’re fired, by algorithm. Can the whip cracking sadists that order the crapola, shipped all the way from China after being processed into finished goods in the most polluting way possible, even imagine what five minutes tied to Amazon’s whipping post is like?

    Would you want your children to grow up and be tied to the whipping post of Amazon or Pirate Equity? Some choice.

    For degrowth to happen, that wobbly mountain of debt has to repudiated. Wall Street has the whip hand in making sure that wobbly mountain is constantly shored up. Who dares go first in defying them?

    Reply
    1. jefemt

      + a bazillion (inflation is EVERYWHERE)
      Debt repudiation… even in Biblical times, as a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool to his folly.
      Bankers would roll out lending, again, and the consumer driven cycles of humanity wanting and needing shiny baubles starts again, fueled by borrowing.
      Wasn’t Debt Jubilee a seven-year cycle? Isn’t that the UCC standard debt term?

      Reply
  11. jefemt

    Great essay for the New Year. Thank you!
    It seemed in the last covid wave when we either self-sequestered or were ordered to shelter, many were doing a deeper dive into ‘life’. Add in some George Floyd, BLM, T-Rump, more devastating fires, globally, severe weather. All under the umber of a Plague that looms.
    Here we are, a year later, rinse and repeat. The Denver Boulder metroplex are looking like scenes from a typical California autumn fire season. Grass fires in northern Wyoming and Montana, equally devastating but in a more sparse flyover country setting, also occurred.
    Biden leads a bankrupt and ineffective congress nowhere.
    Brutish vulgar thugs rule everywhere.

    Degrowth sounds like a welcome alternative to the status quo! I have slowed down and walked away from many past activities and endeavors voluntarily. Maybe more and more are as well.
    How strong is one vote from one fairly empty pocket?

    Imagine having a slate of aspirational 2022 candidates who were all about degrowth?!
    Imagine America leading by example, away from the brink?
    Investing in people and sustaining Spaceship Earth?
    Think of the jobs in a deep re-tooling, swords into ploughshares?

    *sigh*

    Reply
    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Bombers into butterflies.

      When degrowth is mentioned in some circles, it’s as if you brought Mapplethorpe into a convent. The heresy beneath all heresies. The vision you present is an inspiring one to me. It’s life being about more than acquisition and status. Those things will never go away entirely, but these days, they’re about all that many people have.

      It’s not as if people are happy now. Always chasing the bait on the hamster wheel. We’re dosing the fish with all the pissed away anti- this and that pill. Suicide rates, especially among the young, are rising. Bizarre mass violence is so commonplace they need to establish a flag-at-quarter-mast standard when we’re mourning multiples.

      The most intransigent resistance comes from those fully addicted to money and power. They don’t seem to be able to see or feel anything else. Vampires, really.

      The author is right. It’s not a question of whether there will be degrowth or not. It’s a question whether, at this very late date, we bring things down as gently as we can or let ‘er rip until it crashes quickly and fully.

      Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      It will have to start with one aspirational candidate. And see how far that candidate gets based on herm’s program.

      Heeshee will get further if heeshee says things like ” Defund the rich” and . . . ” DeGrowth starts at the top.”

      Reply
  12. .human

    Five individuals “owning” as much “wealth” as the combined “wealth” of the lower 50% of earths humans demonstrates to me the needless raping of this planet.

    Reply
  13. DJ

    Many of us look forward to a cultural shift that often involves significant degrowth: retirement. Many retirees plan to downsize when we adjust to reduced income. We replace mostly mindless, often distracted acquisition of stuff with healthier pursuits. We move to a smaller home; help out the kids and entertain the grandchildren; seek out the company of friends; and plant a garden. The lust for bling fades – who really need an iWatch? And that pinnacle of rural status, a Ford F-250 pickup truck, begins, after all, to look pretty stupid. If we can peel ourselves away from the siren of advertising, we can greatly improve our lives by focusing on pursuits that bring meaning to our lives.

    Reply
    1. Questa Nota

      Hedonic pricing models, with hedonistic and solipsistic variants, depending on which think tank, ad agency and media combo link up. No wonder so many people talk about unplugging from TV and social media.
      I’m a child of Depression-era parents and don’t like ‘stuff’ so not part of the modern demographic. Maybe I can contribute to a dumpster-downsizing trend.

      Reply
    2. Jonny Appleseed

      I love my F-250, but then again, I am a farmer and need to haul stuff down 1 mile of bad farm road nearly every day. But I have wondered what farming would be like without these massive machines, including my John Deere, which is also incredibly helpful, and other such relics of internal combustion. I have an inkling that the answer involves more actual work, more manual labor, and the proper valuation of such. See Nikiforuk’s The Energy of Slaves to truly understand the magnitude of work done on our behalf by hydrocarbons.

      Reply
      1. Rod

        When I was young, on the farm, Work to make it go was hard and endless and as accepted as the sunrise and sunset.
        It was just Cultural, so Cultural I didn’t even know it was Cultural until we stopped farming.
        When ‘Performance Evaluations’ entered my life, cited ‘Work Ethic’ boxes kept me in the saddle way longer than ‘Institutional Personality’ boxes would have.

        Reply
        1. JacobiteInTraining

          fellow farm-kid here, (and gillnet fisherman’s son too) and I recognize that scenario. Drilled into my brain from a young age to just work…get it done…has to be done. Grandfathers phrase, freely quoted by family members was “Do your job – AND SOMEONE ELSES!’

          When I morphed into IT-type jobs, skills helped, as did being friendly…but i am convinced the work-ethic-uber-alles is what mattered. I have always been able to advance to ‘senior’, or ‘team lead’ or ‘tier 2/3’ or whatever they call the higher paying jobs in any particular company rapidly, never been fired, and usually faster then those who (on paper) have better pedigrees.

          Comes down to being the guy who just does it. Doesnt get told, just does it. Goes back for more. Does a little more at night, maybe even some on weekends.

          And yes, although I am proud of my work ethic – and damn glad this ‘one weird trick’ is still keeping me employed and gathering substantial cash to pay rent and pay bills for me and my extended family even as I get into old-age in a young persons trade….I also do not fail to realize that…

          …I demonstrate the qualities of a really good slave.

          what a dichotomy…. :)

          Reply
      2. herman_sampson

        Trucks are for farmers and construction workers who haul feed or building materials, not for 6 packs of beer to fill the PMC suburbanites never ending appetites for crap.

        Reply
      3. PlutoniumKun

        Almost no Irish farmers I know use trucks. They use cars (4×4 if they can afford one) with trailers for road stuff (my 96 year old uncle has run a large farm with several miles between his three land packages for many decades with tiny Renaults and a series of Zetor tractors), along with tractors for in-farm work. Trucks are seen as useless in mud so can’t be used within farms, and use far too much fuel for on-road haulage. Plus they are useless for moving animals.

        Tax levies may be an influence here – farmers get tax free diesel for non-road vehicles, but have to pay full price for fuel for road vehicles. This strongly favours the ‘regular car plus trailer’ investment over heavy trucks.

        Reply
        1. Jonny Appleseed

          True, Irish farmers are different. Our dairy farmer neighbor in Meath (in the early 2000’s) didn’t drive a pickup. He drove a late model Mercedes.

          Reply
      4. tegnost

        The block and tackle can do a lot of work, but it’s a largely forgotten technology, I’m sure there are other examples…but replacing the dense calories of petroleum will be hard. It would also require a paradigm shift that, as cnchal points out above, our masters are unlikely to go along with. Their plan seems to be get rid of the poors, subject them to amazon warehouse style competition so the weak die, while not subjecting themselves to the same rigors, so the weak among them live (hemophilia, anyone?). This really has been going on for a long time, the trek from mexico to the us “weeds out” the less vigorous, selecting for people who are willing to and can walk across 50 miles of desert. It was only a matter of time until the competition reached the native population. The malevolent scoundrels who have seized the reins of power won’t give it up. For this reason a massive crash is mostly unavoidable, and as with alcoholism, sometimes the sooner the better for the social circle surrounding them…

        Reply
      5. juno mas

        Ah, yes, working trucks. My grandfather had a yellow, 57 Chevy to haul stuff in on his ranch and into town. It was rugged with thick metal fenders, granny-gear manual transmission, roll-down windows (no AC), no radio (sound system) and an anti-static strap so he wouldn’t “shock” the toll taker when he drove us across the Golden Gate Bridge for some City entertainment.

        A modern day F-250 has no such ruggedness, has a minimum MSRP of $35K (topping at $58K), and since it is over 20′ long cannot be parked in City lots.

        Reply
        1. tegnost

          Your grandfather could also, had he needed to , torn down the engine in the middle of a muddy field with 7/16″ to 7/8″ box end wrenches. I loved my 270, but the weight was crippling and the brakes were hopeless vs the modern braking systems.

          Reply
  14. MooseBrain

    Degrowth is inevitable. The issue is whether or not we can accept it and use it to humanity’s benefit or suffer the catastrophic consequences.

    Reply
  15. Carolinian

    The problem with articles like this is the circular proposition that if only people were more rational they would act more rationally. Which is hard to argue with, and not only would we have jumped on global warming but we’d also have no more wars, no more boom and bust economy, no more crime etc.

    Unfortunately there is something within us that works against all of these desirable outcomes and it isn’t just “culture” although a “proper upbringing” as people used to say may help control that irrational thing to an extent. For example even as our current elites talk quite a bit about AGW they enthusiastically seek hegemony over other countries using threats from weapons that could solve global warming rather quickly by destroying everything.

    Here’s hoping the world comes to its senses short of disaster but history points the other way.

    Reply
    1. Steve H.

      Author calls hisself an anthropologist, degrees are in history and education. Seems that makes a difference in defining ‘culture.’

      Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      @dday,

      Are we talking about personal energy use by individual energy users at the most retail level inside the 4 walls of their own dwelling unit? In other words, actual personal energy use?

      Or are we talking about the overall energy use of the whole society in question, averaged out over every inhabitant of the society?

      What is even being referred to here? Can you or somebody or anybody get very specific and very targeted about who’s energy use is actually being targeted and referred to in this 2000 watt society concept?

      Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Well, as I read deeper into the wiki linked to, I see that it does indeed refer to ” the whole society” including all the “legacy embodied energy” of that society, averaged out over each living participant.

      If that is the meaning, the project is worthless and the aspiration is evil and poisonous. It is an attempt to guilt-trip me into conserving inside my 640 square foot dwelling unit by accusing me of a pro-rated share of the energy use perpetrated by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and the One Per Cent and then the Next Nine Per Cent after that.

      Let the rich and the near rich conserve personally all the way down to my 640 square foot dwelling space level. And if that is not enough, then they and I together can all conserve further down to the next lower level after that. And so on and so forth on down.

      But as long as this 2000-watt society concept attempts to extort guilt from me over what the Rich and the SuperRich are using and are costing, then I reject the concept and I reject the people who invented it and I reject the people who support it.

      Conservation starts at the top. Or it starts nowhere at all.

      ( In the meantime, the only conservation I will engage in is the conservation which can be weaponised to tear the upper class down).

      Reply
  16. David

    I’ve often found that trying to discuss degrowth with its advocates is like trying to do palm-reading with an octopus. Every time you point out an objection, they say “ah, but that’s not what degrowth is.” I don’t mean to be harsh, because the basic thesis – that infinite growth is not possible with limited resources and a limited environment – is too obviously correct to be worth disputing. But I don’t think many people will be convinced by an argument like this, which is heavily western-centric in what it says about consumption and, ironically, what it says about culture.

    The article defines degrowth as “reducing our consumption of resources”, although it actually says in the same sentence that this idea “has come to be known” as degrowth, which implies a certain lack of agency. What he might have added is that massively increasing consumption of resources is largely the result of increasing economic growth in China and other parts of Asia, fuelled by massive increases in population. Moreover, such economies are extremely inefficient in their use of such resources, compared to, say, Europe. So we first need to reduce the population of the earth by quite a bit, otherwise we are just playing with the problem. And in fact as standards of living and resources use in China approach those of the West, the problem will get substantially worse.

    But that’s not all. The author couples this reduction in the use of resources with a proposal for a sweeping transformation of society and the economy such as never been seen in history. Another octopus arm appears and it’s now clear that this is a fundamental part of degrowth, contrary to what was said a bit earlier. This radical change is to be brought about by cultural movements, the involvement of children and an enlightened media. Good luck with that in China.

    This, of course, is a way of pretending that the reality of degrowth can be avoided, or at least mitigated, and making it politically palatable. Degrowth, if words have any meaning, is about stopping or reversing economic growth, just as de-escalation is about stopping or reversing escalation. Fortunately (or not) there’s a great deal of pragmatic evidence about what happens when economies stagnate or go into reverse. This can be as a result of a major economic crisis (Argentina, Lebanon today) conflict (the former Yugoslavia, Africa passim) or economies temporarily trapped in zero or negative growth in many parts of the world.
    The first result is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Lebanon’s recent economic crisis has reduced a good half of the population to poverty, but the rich are fine. Without the prospect of growth there is no reason to invest (Bosnia’s economy has been flat on its back for twenty-five years). So money goes into crime, trafficking and rent-seeking rackets, because they require little investment and promise large profits. Infrastructure used by ordinary people (schools, hospitals, public transport) goes into decline, but this doesn’t affect the rich. There’s no reason to suppose that the degrowth which is inevitably coming our way will be any different.

    Finally, he argues that some politically popular sectors, such as education and healthcare, wouldn’t have to shrink, although experience in actual crises shows that they are the first to go. But each sector already uses resources massively, and that use is increasing all the time. And what about transport? What about infrastructure? What about investment in energy-saving technologies? You can make a special case for a large part of the economy.

    In the end, this is part of an attempt to convince people that degrowth, which is inevitable, can be handled in such a way that nobody gets hurt, just like we can bring world peace by holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” The trouble is, that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that this rose-tinted alternative vision will ever come about.

    Reply
    1. Mikel

      “massively increasing consumption of resources is largely the result of increasing economic growth in China and other parts of Asia, fuelled by massive increases in population. Moreover, such economies are extremely inefficient in their use of such resources, compared to, say, Europe.”

      Europe, USA, and a couple of other usual suspects can’t be decoupled from this alleged “inefficient use of resources.” Where are alot of the companies from in other “inefficient” countries? How and why did they get there? What are the effects still of colonialism in various forms?

      Most energy is used to provide a great number of goods – at great distance – to a minority of the people on the planet.

      So yes, distance that goods and people travel and conservation are main points to consider.

      Reply
      1. David

        You’re a bit behind the times, I fear. Almost three billion people live in China and India, and, if they use less energy each than the average USian, they are catching up fast. Likewise, both countries have huge internal markets, and most of their production is for those domestic markets. Nearly four hundred million smartphones are sold in China every year. Any strategy for degrowth that doesn’t (1) tell China and India that they have to do most of the lifting and (2) tell Africa to give up any hope of having first-world standards of living, is simply not serious. The author needs to get out a bit.

        Reply
        1. Henry Moon Pie

          I’d suggest you check out these two charts:

          1) Current per capita carbon emissions by country; and

          2) Historical carbon emissions by country (animation)

          Not shown in these charts is another fact you’re not taking account: offshoring of emissions through offshoring of manufacturing and extraction. Both Europe and the U. S. are quite good at that.

          Equity demands that the WEIRD countries shrink their GDPs. Trying to point the finger at China and India is yet another form of denialism.

          Reply
    2. Doc

      You are correct on many fronts, but degrowth could be managed. It largely depends on how you define your economy. We currently define it with GDP. That is just one metric and we could use any we choose. The metrics you focus on will drive outcomes. Ultimately, we need a huge culture shift in the west that is driving much of the climate disaster. We can’t blame China because the average person in China consumes much less than the average American. Frankly, eliminating the wealthy would go a long way to helping too since they consume vastly more than the average working stiff. Yes, we have a long way to go and it won’t be easy. The author is right, we can do it the easy way or the hard way. I don’t high hopes we will be able to manage the coming crisis.

      Reply
    3. Rod

      Gosh, this is well written and looked so impressive.
      But it sounds so worn and familiar, imo.
      like:
      “So we first need to reduce the population of the earth by quite a bit, otherwise we are just playing with the problem”
      and:
      “The trouble is, that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that this rose-tinted alternative vision will ever come about.” –my emphasis–

      imo–we all have unused capacity, and a New Year is appropriate to begin using it

      Reply
    4. PlutoniumKun

      I have a long comment stuck in moderation, but you’ve put it better than I could. De-growth, or its variations, is just too vague a concept to have any meaning in practical policy. We need to radically reduce fossil fuel use, and we need to rapidly stop and reverse habitat loss, and associated loss of soil and clean air and water. Reducing it to reduced consumption (which is what people normally mean by degrowth, is assuming a level of commensurability that simply is not there.

      Reply
    5. Watt4Bob

      The author couples this reduction in the use of resources with a proposal for a sweeping transformation of society and the economy such as never been seen in history.

      Sounds a lot like TINA to me.

      I’d say the transformation of citizens to consumers was such process, as was the advent of planned obsolescence, and the worship of growth via the perpetration of the myth of the ‘ownershipr society’.

      All being the relatively recent products of determined Public Relations efforts paid for by those who would profit from those transformations.

      Now if you wanted to posit the impossibility of change because of the deep pockets financing the present, manufactured consensus, that’s another topic entirely.

      Reply
      1. Harold

        Haven’t we seen that in every country where girls are educated, population growth starts to slow or go into reverse? It’s my understanding that in all the industrialized countries population is stagnant or declining.

        I think that is why we no longer hear so much about the need to take active measures to reduce the population. It seems like population growth could take care of itself once a trend is started. This is because even a one percent decrease per year could add up to a significant amount over a surprisingly few years, simply because every year the one percent is going to get a bit bigger, numerically. I’m not a math person so correct me if I’m wrong.

        Reply
        1. Harold

          Well, looking further I see that I am wrong about the percentages. But I did once see a youtube video that explained it better than I can, which unfortunately I can’t find. I hope someone else can explain it. In any case government agencies see quite upset about the current trends in population decline

          I have read that animal species tend to undergo a population collapse when they reach a point when the number of living animals in that species in the present becomes greater than all that ever lived past generations put together, and we humans now seem to have reached that point. Unless, we are an exception to that rule, a prolonged, and hopefully painless population deflation is something we can look forward to, with no talk of massacres, culling or eugenics.

          I grew up decades ago, and I now feel that the earth is groaning from overpopulation, compared to a past I can still remember, when resources seemed limitless, a delusion, certainly but still. It was nice to have middle class farmers as neighbors right across the river in New Jersey and on Long Island. I can remember jumping in haylofts on visits to the country and going to watch cows being milked. I feel sad that kid can no longer experience such things.

          Reply
    6. Carolinian

      massive increases in population

      I think there’s a notion that our problems with AGW are a result if turning a blind eye in previous decades. But in fact overpopulation was very much a concern–perhaps the biggest concern–of left intellectuals back in the 1960s. The Sierra Club once made population limits part of its creed. How this came to be discredited might make an interesting article but the Sierra Club was shamed into dropping the idea and others were attacked for trying to bring back eugenics. The cynical might suspect that rightwing rather than left organizations were behind the change since population growth is what fuels the entire capitalist machine. But even now it’s something that doesn’t get much talked about and if one would make the suggestion of population limits the inevitable rejoinder would be “you first.”

      So it’s yet another example of what we want to do as humans (have children) being up against the fate of the planet. Specialists in the subject say that a natural slowing of the increase is already underway but it will take decades for the world’s population to level off.

      Reply
        1. JP

          I will be the first to have less children. What is so prejudicial about pressure not to have a forth child? Why does there seem to be a moral imperative to over reproduce? Right now it seems as if the order of the queue is powered by those who are proud and blind as to the damage of over population and by the laws that encourage this behavior.

          Reply
        2. Keith Newman

          Re Carolinian @ 12:30 and Lambert @ 2:28
          There are obviously a lot of moving parts to this issue but to me a significant part of the solution is to reduce the population of high consumption countries in a big way. In fact this would now be taking place quite quickly were it not for immigration since developed country birth rates are low. But to say we should seriously limit immigration leads to accusations of racism so the subject is toxic and politically difficult or impossible.
          Of course all countries should reduce their populations but since it is the wealthy countries that have been responsible for a disproportionate share of carbon emissions they should go first, followed soon after by everyone else. Far fewer people also means far less destruction, and hopefully reclamation, of wild areas inhabited by non-human animals.
          But this is a non-starter for all kinds of reasons. For one, our economic elites want more people because they generate higher profits by increasing sales of stuff, services and housing. And they are our rulers. How do you overcome that hurdle?
          Then there are social, cultural and economic habits and beliefs. Perhaps they could be overcome by massive propaganda in favour of fewer people, less consumption, more equitable distribution, and PlutoniumKun’s 20 points above, but who would organize politically for them?
          In the end I find the article unsatisfying because there is no political road map at all so it amounts to a call for good over evil. Well OK, but that doesn’t get us very far.

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            There is a way to lay out race-neutral immigration prevention.

            We are almost all descended from immigrants. Immigrants are good people. Good people are a good thing.

            Now we are more people than we used to be, all trying to live on less resources than we used to have. People are a good thing and too many people is too much of a good thing. Immigrants are yet more good people which is too much of a good thing.

            The more we have to share, the less we get to have. The less we have to share, the more we get to keep.

            Ban all immigration. Don’t let in one more good person to add to the too many good people we already have.

            Only a “arpoc” ( RPOC = Racistt Personn ov Colorr) would object to that, and by herm’s objections would we know them.

            Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Europe, America. Canada and Japan are already the lowest-population growth areas. So we have already done the “you go first” actions in actual reality.

        So we get to encourage population control in the population out-of-control regions if we want to , because our approach of zero population growth immunises us against any bad faith accusations of hypocrisy on that front.

        So how do we encourage population control in the population-out-of-control countries? We institute rigid and unforgiving zero immigration policies at the borders of all ZPG countries. Let the RPG ( Runaway Population Growth) countries face the consequences of their own actions within their own borders.

        In return, the RPG countries can permit zero resources from leaving their countries to the ZPG countries. ( Or they could if we had a zero free trade world.) And in that way the RPG and ZPG countries could make eachother honest and keep eachother honest.

        Reply
  17. KD

    You cannot fight entropy. You can question assumptions. Can the Earth comfortably house and feed 100 billion people? 1 Trillion people? Ten billion?

    One of the flaws of neoclassical economics is the treatment of energy as a commodity. In fact, economy is dependent on energy, whether it be human metabolism, solar radiation, or indirect forms of solar like coal and oil. Food production features petro in powering equipment, as well in the production of pesticides and fertilizer necessary for modern food yields. It is not clear how an economy that de-emphasizes “resource extraction” is going to extract sufficient food to feed people, and I don’t think the de-growth people intend on state enforced Malthusian forces to de-growth the world. However, it is not clear that there is the connection between physics (energy, entropy) and economic activity.

    The second piece is the classical mice voting to bell the cat response, that we can shrink the pie but just redistribute it and get more prosperous while shrinking environmental impact. Has that ever been done in human history? Isn’t power about monopolizing resources to your own group, and using that power to maintain that monopoly on resources? Doesn’t revolution mean replacing the old guard with a new nomenklatura? Sure, the commissars will start by redistributing to all, but in short order they will start redistributing to themselves. Assuming a group of elites use their power to kill themselves off as a power elite, doesn’t that just create a power vacuum that will be filled by a new extractive elite?

    Third, growth is a function of increased productive efficiency. If next year there will be more goods and services as a result of efficiency, then this necessitates credit so people can buy the surplus. Degrowth requires eliminating credit and electing less efficient production, and declining wealth. A capitalist example is the great depression, which ended in the rise of, well, not very pc regimes in much of the world.

    In sum, its true enlightenment thinking, starting with a premise that is not debatable, then rigging in a bunch of unverified (and unverifiable assumptions), and then proceeding with economic, political, and scientific naivety typical of a junior high school student (and “good” white people who live in whitetopias with advanced graduate degrees). Degrowth is politically viable in a society organized like North Korea, but North Korea is a prison, no one wants to migrate there, and anyone there will escape if presented with the possibility. Perhaps if you genetically engineer people to become like Benedictine monks it would be viable as peaceful solution, but I’m not sure such a society could survive in conflict with other societies. However, the science isn’t there.

    Reply
  18. Rod

    Oh what a clear-eyed treat this exposition is to turn the new year…
    and using the very effective KISS method of discourse–because the ultimate bottom line for all of us is just that.

    Like— The culture of degrowth calls for us to view ourselves as stewards of the planet. It pushes us to recognize that our relationship with the natural environment is a two-way street — that we must take care of nature if we want nature to take care of us. And it calls for us to respect our planet’s limits, to look out for other species, and to recognize that our own fate is tied up with the health of the ecosystems we inhabit.
    Our Culture is mis-aligned badly.

    of course, just (not) imo–y’know.

    Thanks for bringing it to us to ponder.
    I have seen the crux of this discourse right here in this forum
    Like that bumper sticker I saw in the Food Lion parking lot said: Scared People do Crazy Sh*t

    Yves says:
    So doing with less and doing more slowly can have a lot of upside….not that the officialdom wants that idea to occur to you.
    and from the article:
    that our current global system of infinite growth didn’t emerge by chance

    in regards to the influencers of Arts/Entertainment/Education that the Author mentions I noticed that Religion(as a shorthand) is mostly, and conspicously absent–as it really has been.
    And to me that is a ‘ResistanceTell’ of sorts…

    I hope that when you (YS) came across this it brought a little sunshine into the grey of this time for you.
    It will be a better year…

    Reply
  19. Noone from Nowheresville

    Degrowth for the masses is inevitable because the broad strokes of those policies are top-down driven and the general outline has already been decided on.

    Blaming the lower-class masses for the choices they make, when it’s top-down policy which creates and controls said choices in the first place, is nothing more than TINA theater with its ability to scapegoat others and justify the tough choices which must be made once extreme climate devastation hits the first-world peoples directly.

    Let’s all go Vegan! Give up meat! Almonds are a good vegan food. Look how water-intensive those trees are and how much money can be made by exporting them across the globe while under-cutting traditional global growers. We can really suck those aquifers dry until the ground collapses into them and the aquifers are no more.

    That’s driven by top-down policy, not US consumer wants.

    More policy: Why did we save the cruise ship industry again? Environmentally, how does that even make sense? Why are we underwriting the space travel industry when we know the airline industry has an outsized impact on climate? Why are we still blowing off mountain tops in order to export coal? Why are bitcoin and the other digital currencies allowed to have seemingly unrestricted and unlimited use of so many resources at the same time the climate change mantra keeps screaming that actual people need to conserve more resources? I can’t conserve enough to make even the tiniest dent in what bitcoin uses.

    Let me know when the top 10% get on board the common good global train and re-balance the ledgers of the global wealth accounting system to save human civilizations rather than destroying them.

    Reply
    1. Alex Cox

      Glen Greenwald and Kim Stanley Robinson are both ramping bitcoin with no mention of the energy cost. It does seem that no real green progress can take place without massive wealth redistribution and population degrowth. The former is apparently impossible; so perhaps our elites are working on the latter…

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Jackpot design engineering . . .

        In the context of covid . . . . let ‘er rip on purpose, help ‘er rip on purpose, make ‘er rip on purpose.

        Reply
  20. jim truti

    Permanent growth, the DNA of a cancer cell.
    Central Bankers have been talking a lot about climate and equity lately.
    Maybe if they could increase rates to 10% , that will go a long way to help prevent the waste and destruction of the planet which is partial consequence of their super easy credit policies.

    Reply
  21. Synoia

    Degrowth is going to happen, coupled with mass starvation and deaths.

    Managed degrowth? Managed by whom? Those who are the current managers?

    We need to reduce the number of humans on this planet by 95%.

    Reply
    1. dday

      I would suggest that our planet can probably only handle about 25 million humans at a time, so more like about a third of one percent of our current almost 8 billion.

      And these humans mostly clustered in cities and towns, maybe about 4 million or so in each continent. This would leave much of the planet to rewild a la E.O. Wilson’s ideas in “Half-Earth”. In North America, perhaps a half million in Vancouver, BC, NYC and Mexico City, with another 2 million in 20 cities of around 100,000.

      Reply
        1. Keith Newman

          Re Lambert @ 2:26 “how many squillionaires, etc.”
          Interesting point. However the sqillionaires got their squillions by selling vast quantities of stuff (and services) to billions of people. Absent the people absent the squillions.
          But maybe most squillionaires think short-term. Maybe they just hope to self-exile down in New Zealand and bury their pallet- loads of cash in their bunkers. Great! We’ll finally be rid of them.

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            The squillionaires still plan to be relative-social-position squillionaires. Any degrowth agenda will begin by impoverishing the squillionaires first and working down one class level at a time.

            Or it won’t begin at all, so far as I am concerned.

            Every time I make a non-purchase decision, I ask myself, will this non-purchase hurt the upper class more than it hurts me? The answer is usually “no”.

            The second question would then be, would this non-purchase hurt the upper class more than it hurts me IF ten million other people made the very same non-purchase? If it would, I may non-purchase the item in question anyway, as part of “living my witness”.

            Reply
        2. ObjectiveFunction

          Yes, this all starts to reverberate a bit like the classic though severely ‘problematic’ Star Trek TOS episode “The Omega Glory”, with the “Yangs” vs. the “Kohms”.

          Eed plebnista.

          We! The! People!

          Reply
  22. p fitzsimon

    Degrowth is not a favoured word. The current favoured terminology is sustainability. Of course the last time we had a sustainable economy where I live was shortly before 1620. Even the so-called organic economy based on human, animal, and water power was not sustainable. It was rescued by the 19th century fossil fuel based industrial economy which is clearly not sustainable even if global warming were not an issue. No society in existence now will voluntarily return to a truly sustainable culture/economy.

    Reply
    1. Harold

      The herring and cod were already declining in Europe from overfishing by 1620, that is one reason the Europeans came here.

      I wonder if we have ever been “self-sustaining” — We are really going to have to think of a new way of doing things.

      Reply
    1. vegeholic

      Extra credit for any mention of E. F. Schumacher. As many have pointed out, a significant reduction in resource use is inevitable. And there just is not a trajectory from our current status that does not involve unpleasantness. It seems to me that we should just accept this and then work to mitigate the unpleasantness in cases where it is possible. That’s all.

      Reply
  23. juno mas

    “…journalists, editors, and commentators, in particular, carry tremendous power to set the cultural agenda, especially in the world’s more democratic countries. It is time they use it.”

    Yves and Crew have been doing just that for years. Here’s today’s editorial from the LATimes on this topic: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-12-31/editorial-go-narrow-and-deep-this-new-year-the-three-things-we-really-need-to

    Have a better New Year (and a better future through radical conservation).

    Reply
  24. Eclair

    Christianity, the burgeoning fungus of a new belief and cultural system, fed and flourished on the decomposing Roman Empire. Who would have believed that statues and pictures of a short, dark Jewish carpenter would eventually outnumber all the heroic statues of Roman emperors, tribunes, and consuls combined?

    Belief systems change; our problem is, we need ours to change, well, overnight. But …. we have the internet!

    As someone has said, it’s better to have died trying. And, ‘degrowth,’ or whatever we decide to call it, is going on all around us; has been since the 1970’s. Ask any wage laborer.

    Reply
  25. McWatt

    I tell my kids there are too many people on the planet. Life in America was much better with 142 million than it is with 330 million. They think I am insane. They think the planet can handle another 4 billion. I think they are insane.

    Who’s right?

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Your kids are lucky in that they will get to live long enough to see who was right and who was insane.

      They will get to either have the last laugh or the last cry.

      Reply
  26. ChrisRUEcon

    Really difficult to boil down a complex topic like this to its essentials in one comment for me, but I see it all. There is absolutely so much unnecessary waste produced, and consumerism has run amuck. Central planning is also a dirty term – as someone pointed out above, by whom is de-growth going to be managed? As we are seeing with COVID, if humanity does not make the right decisions, then de-growth will be managed by acts of nature.

    Reply
  27. NotThePilot

    I think this article is looking in the right direction, in that cultural values will trump economic ones in the end. And he’s right that it will happen one way or another, regardless of whether you want to call it degrowth or something else.

    He never addresses the real problem though, which is the great hesitation. I know I still suffer from it. It’s something that was touched on in the review of that one book earlier this year (don’t remember the title) wondering why we don’t see more radical environmental groups despite the crisis worsening.

    Reading this actually made me realize a bit more of the issue though. When we linger on solutions, and the new culture and equilibrium we have to reach, all of those things are true in the abstract. The problem though is that it’s also psychological displacement of what’s concretely right in front of us. For new values to be born, the old values must die, and in between is always a long, dark night of the soul (and great turmoil at the social level).

    I’m not a Christian, but at least as the Catholics & Orthodox seem to teach it, I think there is wisdom if you get under the surface. There is something to the idea of becoming dead to the world, but to do that means welcoming terror & ego-death into your home for a cuppa. In short, maybe the issue is that while it’s not bad to discuss the positive of what we can do in the new Eden, what’s needed is to let go of the little things we do to postpone our own personal Ragnarok, with one eye on Momma Earth throughout.

    Reply
  28. Joy

    Agree— we could use a big movie, like a simple love story, that takes place in a post-degrowth future and thinks through the details to show us what that might look like and how nice it could be.

    Reply
  29. Jeremy Grimm

    I fear I am becoming more than a little jaded trying to wrestle with the language and ideas spewing forth from so many slick web orifices. Peter Sutoris’s website and writings leave a funny smell. From a reference on that website: “Peter Sutoris ’11 has won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He plans to study international education reform at Cambridge University. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship was created in 2000 through an endowment gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Cambridge University that aims “to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others,” according to the program’s website.” He’s written a book: “Educating for the Anthropocene” — “This book asks the question: What can education learn from environmental activism as it faces the challenge of the Anthropocene?” … Good question? What does the question mean exactly? Peter Sutoris’s popular writings referenced on his website repeat the same very correct verbiage and buzzes. And looking at the list of popular writings, their dates, and places of publication … I get a feeling that things have been wired for this guy. That leaves me wondering what is the agenda and who is pulling the strings. I will try not to let my disillusionment taint my response to this post.

    This post wanders through quips about green growth, infinite growth in a finite world, and degrowth — painting degrowth with a happy brush of more equitable distribution, non-extractive and respecting the planets limits, with intergenerational justice for all and interspecies justice to avoid “speciesism” — all very nice and very correct and all pretty fuzzy to me. Next the post takes up the need for a new culture and the place of education in promoting and creating that new culture, helped by pushing back against STEM and culling ideas from children. The close: “Ultimately, degrowth is inevitable.” If by ‘degrowth’ Sutoris means ‘collapse’ — does that not follow given “infinite growth in a finite world”? I am unsure how to grasp the Sutoris vision of degrowth and I fail to see how any of the allusions to very nice and very correct thinking clarify what Sutoris means by degrowth — if it is different than collapse — or how he imagines we will accomplish his vision — whatever it is. I just hope he does not start explaining how in the future “we will own nothing and be happy”.

    [I am very pessimistic about the future of the u.s. with or without green growth, infinite growth in a finite world, or degrowth. Our Industry has been gutted and spread to the four winds and across the seven seas. Many of our resources have been used up. Our roads, railways, bridges and buildings, schools, libraries, electric Grid, sewers, water reservoirs and water pipes are crumbling. Without the winds of a great change I do not expect and cannot imagine — even with continued gorging of energy from fossil fuels — our days are numbered.]

    Reply
    1. drsteve0

      True, reality sux. There’s no tarting up this pig with lipstick, pretty words, or fanciful Gates Foundation funded goofy plans. We can whine about those unwashed hordes of China and India yearning to emulate our lifestyle, but the fact of the matter is the responsibility for the mess we’re in falls almost entirely on Westerners, ‘specially ‘muricans. ‘We’ are unlikely to give up on our addiction to consumption of junk. Consumption is our religion, it fills the voids in our otherwise empty lives. Collapse is inevitable, the sooner the better. As a misanthropist, I couldn’t care less what happens to humanity but my heart and soul are burdened by all the other beautiful life forms we’re taking out with us.

      Reply
  30. Susan the other

    Thank you for posting Peter Sutoris. Never heard of him. He is a beautiful writer. His punchline that politics will follow wherever the cultural winds blow is interesting. That may prove to be true when we reach some critical mass – but up until now, full circle from Earth Firsters to Degrowth, it has been the opposite. The vested neoliberal interests have fought tooth and nail to secure and preserve their own profitable positions – no matter how unjustifiable they have been – often times going to war/cold war to win their arguments. My guess is that these guys will have to be the ones to blink. Blink Firsters. You never know, it could happen. I hate to jinx it, but I think it might already be happening.

    Reply
  31. Alphonse

    The article is the problem, not the solution. As with the culture war causes it celebrates, it says pretty things but is finally counterproductive.

    I agree that degrowth is inevitable as we hit environmental limits. And I agree cultural change is necessary. But this idealism is self interest of the sort that got us in this fix.

    We face a confluence of Peter Turchin’s elite overproduction and Joseph Tainter’s theory of collapse.

    Tainter argues that as societies confront challenges, they increase in complexity. The benefits of additional complexity decline, until eventually the added cost of addressing a new challenge makes life worse, not better. Say you’re a farmer paying taxes to support the Roman armies. Roman soldiers and administators rely on those taxes. You do not: despite paying more and more, you see no benefit. When a barbarian king demands a smaller tribute, you realize that you would be better off if Rome collapsed.

    This is a class struggle between administrators the workers. Now throw in Turchin’s elite overproduction. Turchin argues that revolutions etc. are most likely to occur when there are too many elites competing for too few high status positions. If you have enough disappointed elite aspirants (e.g. sons of nobles unable to acquire estates, university grads), they are likely to form a counter-elite and in an attempt to seize power for themselves. Social stability is maintained if you can find positions for these elites – jobs in HR, education, diversity officers, and so forth. But this increase in complexity costs workers, pushing towards Tainter’s collapse.

    On the one hand, as Turchin says, we have an excess of elites, so we need elite positions. On the other, we can’t afford the complexity: we need to reduce it, which entails cutting elite positions. We are caught between the political forces of the elites and the physical forces of nature.

    What does the article propose? A cultural change. How will that be achieved? Through art, entertainment, social justice. More education in “creativity, imagination, and political engagement.” That’s a jobs programme for white collar elites – a recipe for increasing complexity, not reducing it. “Cultural change” really means “more education,” when in fact education, with its massive administrations and debt loads, is one of the largest generators of complexity and upwards transfer of wealth.

    While it may be well-meaning, the article merely repeats the well-worn tactics of contemporary social justice, using real problems and emotional appeals to create status and employment for the professional managerial class. You want to move in the right direction? Take direct aim at the professional class, and cut the heck out of it. Cull education – teach fewer students less. Reduce the massive overproduction of cultural goods by curtailing copyright. Chop up monopolies. Reduce technological complexity and dependence. All the “essential jobs” during the pandemic? Do those. Bullshit zoom jobs? Eliminate them. Aim for a small elite. Make it decent and honourable again to do necessary work for an ordinary lifestyle. That’s the cultural change we need.

    Politically impossible? Perhaps. But physics beats politics.

    Reply
    1. KD

      What this really is, I suspect, is billionaire for working class bend over here it comes, enjoy being a peasant again, and if you criticize de-growth, you can kiss your 1800 calories of delicious bugmeal goodbye. Sure, we’re richer, and the environmental strain is worse, but we are culturally on the side of environmental purity unlike you greedy, stupid, racist proles.

      Reply
  32. ObjectiveFunction

    Wow, the comments here are a pretty amazing read in themselves. If NCers are posting in their cups, then in vino veritas 2022!

    (or as the ancient Persians counseled, no weighty decision should be taken sober that is not also considered while drunk… and the reverse)

    U2 New Years Day

    Reply
  33. David in Santa Cruz

    Yes! A lovely Comments thread. When I was born in the mid-1950’s: 2.7 Billion human beings. Today: 8 billion of us. You can bet that each and every one of we 8 Billion are just champing at the bit for a little nudge from elite tastemakers in order to embrace the Simple Life that all 8 Billion of us know in our hearts is good for us!

    We will either choose this path voluntarily, or we will be forced into it violently and uncontrollably as a result of environmental disasters.

    Degrowth is coming!

    Reply
  34. Halsey Taylor

    Seriously? Nothing’s really changed since Space Merchants.

    When Apple, and others like them, go out of business because people figure out that i-crap, et al. helps cause these problems then maybe we can start making some progress.

    There doesn’t seem to be a lot of popular support for degrowth – just greenwashing.

    Reply
  35. Alexandra

    Happy new year to all!

    I notice everyone (and not just here) keeps talking about degrowth in the future tense, but to paraphrase William Gibson, degrowth is here – it’s just not evenly distributed (yet).

    Rather than speculate, if you want to see what degrowth looks like, come to Appalachia. It’s crumbling roads and abandoned houses; small towns being reclaimed by nature; extremely resourceful and creative (re)use of plywood, chicken wire, and bologna; lots of people without cars or internet access, who have never been on an airplane; hunting and eating roadkill; ride-sharing, but little to no public transportation; kitchen gardening; when the power goes out it may stay out for days; rampant chronic illness; big patches with no cell phone signal; plenty of farm land that no local can afford to buy; lots of guns…I could go on.

    It’s hard and it ain’t pretty, but it’s not all bad either. Interdependence fosters connection, survival fosters purpose. It’s more difficult because so many people are at least a generation removed from knowledge about gardening, foraging, canning, herbal medicine, mechanical repair, and other survival skills. But, slowly, people are learning the hard way, and they’re a lot closer to those “old timey” skills than coastal sub/urbanites who will be really up the creek when their turn comes.

    I think it’s a waste of energy to hope that our so-called leaders will manage this decline for us. Our energy would be much better spent looking to the people who are already managing degrowth “on the ground.” When you do, you see not only some of the specific skills and “lifestyle changes” (spoiler: it’s not eating bugs or going vegan) that are needed, as well as all the proof you could ever need of why elites won’t help. Just as our “leaders” have a vested interest in clinging to their power and privilege and the status quo that provides them, so industrialized Western cultures more broadly have little incentive to accept, let alone embrace, degrowth. This will be so as long as there is somewhere else to hide the costs and the refuse – but those days are coming to a close.

    Another benefit of looking to the places where degrowth is already well underway is that you see just how adaptable people are, and how many *actually sustainable* practices have already been successfully established. There is real reason for hope and even a glimmer of optimism if you know where to look for it.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Re-Foxfire 2.0 ?

      Can the people of Appalachia succeed to degrade the “modern built environment” all the way down enough to where not one flatlander can exploit one single thing from one single Appalachian person or unit of land?

      Perhaps the future of humanity is in the strong hands of the Appalachians just as much as it is in the strong hands of the Aymara alpaca herders on the shore of Lake Titicaca, or the ba’Mbuti Pigmies in the Ituri Rain forest.

      Reply
  36. LAS

    Degrowth is not really what we want b/c that kind of implies the systems don’t need to change and our life expectancy has to fit within old systemic limitations. What we want is much higher efficiency in the design of our systems, metrics to better reveal efficiency to the global evaluators as well as local public, and the effect of various alternatives/modifications. Instead of talk about how many people we can sustain, we should talk about how many people one system versus another can sustain. Put a lot more pressure on the systems to better competitively evolve. Instead of stupid comericals about silly non-benefits; lets see providers regulated so that they are required to discuss the design of industry which includes all the externalities it imposes. It’s the framing.

    Reply
  37. KD

    Look at these zero carbon “policies”–they don’t consider imports. So the real agenda is to drive heavy industry out of places with real environmental regulations to countries without regulations and/or non-enforced regulations and create net global pollution. Its a charade to encourage more outsourcing of supply chains, and more profits for Goldman-Sachs, and virtue signaling for the PMC.

    If you wanted zero carbon for real, you would put in place strict regulations with autarchy or trade only with countries with equal or stricter environmental regulations (and verifiable), set up a nuclear energy infrastructure to replace fossil fuels, and go from there. Work on developing industrial processes that are more efficient and produce less waste.
    However, zero chance you are getting Gates money or any kind of platform on Blackrock’s controlled media sources.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      That’s what no-Gates no-Blackrock counter-media thoughts-and-info platforms like this are for. To get such ideas moving out in the teeth of the International Free Trade Conspiracy and its MSM bullhorns.

      Reply
  38. Sandra Ericson

    If all the powers that be and all the pundits stopped seeing the problem as a need to reduce, it would be solved a lot easier by teaching a different kind of growth, personal growth. This avenue has plenty of background and proof of pudding — see Andersen and Bjorkman’s The Nordic Secret. It parallels both Maslow’s hierarchy and the Human Ecology curriculum. What you teach is what you get. What’s in the mind as aging happens is considered growth. If every school board instituted a Human Ecology curriculum from K-14, growth would not automatically mean consumerism and extraction.

    Reply
  39. Sound of the Suburbs

    Why don’t we start with the easy stuff?
    Advertising gets us to buy things we don’t really want in the first place.
    Get rid of it.
    No one will miss what they didn’t know they didn’t have.

    Reply

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