The case for degrowth in a time of pandemic
The time is ripe for us to refocus on what really matters: not GDP, but the health and wellbeing of our people and our planet.
The pandemic has lain bare the fragility of existing economic systems. Wealthy nations have more than enough resources to cover public health and basic needs during a crisis, and could weather declines in non-essential parts of the economy by reallocating work and resources to essential ones. Yet the way current economic systems are organized around constant circulation, any decline in market activity threatens systemic collapse, provoking generalized unemployment and impoverishment.
It doesn’t have to be this way. To be more resilient to crises – pandemic, climatic, financial, or political – we need to build systems capable of scaling back production in ways that do not cause loss of livelihood or life. We make the case for degrowth.
Conservative outlets such as Forbes, the Financial Times, or the Spectator, have been pronouncing that the coronavirus crisis reveals “the misery of degrowth”. But what is happening during the pandemic is not degrowth. Degrowth is a project of living meaningfully, enjoying simple pleasures, commoning, sharing and relating more with others, and working less, in more equal societies. The goal of degrowth is to purposefully slow things down in order to minimize harm to humans and earth systems and to reduce exploitation.
The current situation is terrible, not because carbon emissions are declining, which is good, but because many lives are lost; it is terrible not because GDPs are going down, to which we are indifferent, but because processes in place to protect livelihoods when growth falters are grossly insufficient and unjust.
We would like to see societies become slower by design, not disaster. This pandemic is a growth-induced disaster, harbinger of more to come. Drives for growth have accelerated global flows of material and money, paving the way for lightning-fast circulation of bodies and diseases. The economic policies and social arrangements proposed by degrowth offer ways to make such situations more livable and just, to emerge stronger and better post-crisis, and to reorient practices and politics towards care and community solidarity.
The end of growth will not necessarily involve a smooth transition. It may very well be unplanned, unwilled, and messy, in conditions not of our own choosing. Conditions like the ones we are living through now. History often evolves with punctuations; periods of seeming paralysis can reach a tipping point, when unexpected events open new possibilities and violently close others. The COVID-19 pandemic is such an event. Suddenly, things take radical new directions, and the unthinkable becomes thinkable, for better or for worse. Severe economic depression led to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and also to Hitler’s Third Reich. What are the possibilities and dangers now?
Amid this pandemic, many scientific, political, and moral authorities are communicating the message that caring for people’s health and wellbeing should come before profit, and that is great. A resurgence of a care ethic that we advocate in our forthcoming book The Case for Degrowth is evident in the willingness of people to stay home to protect their elders, and in the spirit of duty and sacrifice among care and health workers. Of course, many stay home also because they fear the virus and worry about themselves, or to avoid police fines. And many care workers go to work because they must earn a living. Acting collectively against crises, pandemic, or climate change requires such combinations of sacrifice and solidarity, self and collective interest, government interventions and people’s participation.
Deep inequalities are coming into play in new ways. Residents of some countries are suffering different, and sometimes more severe, hardships than those of others, as are those who are deprived of full citizenship in prisons, migrant labor camps, and refugee settlements. Within each country, actors differentiated by gender, racial, socioeconomic, and occupational positions suffer different vulnerabilities in the face of the disease, and of the economic downturns that follow. Data from countries around the world show that COVID tends to be much more severe and deadly in men than in women. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups. Nurses, health aids, and caretakers, positions in which women prevail, are especially vulnerable to infection. As are millions of men working in essential jobs including sanitation, trucking, taxi-driving, and meat packing. These jobs, in very large majority performed by men, were already among the most dangerous occupations before adding exposure to coronavirus. While some have the luxury of sheltering at home, others must choose between unemployment without an adequate safety net and working at jobs that expose them to the coronavirus. Yet, unless whole populations are protected, not even the wealthiest are fully safe from contagion.
In this crisis, like others before, people have mobilized and self-organized where businesses and governments have failed to provide for their needs – from mutual aid groups delivering food and medicines for elders, to groups of doctors, engineers, and hackers collaborating to 3-D print components for oxygen ventilators, to students babysitting the children of doctors and nurses. The proliferation of caring and commoning endeavors, which form the bedrock of the degrowth societies we envision, are all the more commendable given the contagious nature of the virus. After the pandemic is over, and the difficult path of economic reconstruction starts, this resurgent dynamism of commoning and care will be vital.
Positive impulses among individuals and grassroots networks are necessary but not sufficient for sustained change. We need governments to secure healthcare for all, protect the environment, and provide economic safety nets.The degrowth-supporting policies we advocate were necessary before the pandemic, and are more so during and after: a Green New Deal and public investment program, work-sharing, a basic care income, universal public services, and support for community economies. So is the reorganization of public finance through measures including carbon fees, caps on wealth and high incomes, taxes on natural resource use, and pollution.
Whereas degrowth debates have traditionally focused on demobilizing resource-intensive and ecologically damaging aspects of current economies, pandemic responses deal with demobilizing those aspects not immediately essential for sustaining life. We coincide in facing the fundamental challenge of managing political economies without growth during and after the pandemic: how to demobilize parts of the capitalist economy while securing the provisioning of basic goods and services, experimenting with resource-light ways of enjoying ourselves, and finding collective meanings in life.
Radical proposals are already being considered and selectively adopted across the political spectrum as they provide concrete solutions amid the pandemic. Companies and governments have reduced working hours and implemented work-sharing; different forms of basic income are being debated; financial measures have been instituted to subsidize workers in the quarantine period and after businesses close; an international campaign for care income has been launched; governments have engaged the productive apparatus to secure vital supplies and services; and moratoriums are being considered or imposed on rent, mortgage, and debt payments. There is growing understanding that vast government spending will be required.
The world will change after the pandemic, and there will be struggles over which paths to take. People will have to fight to direct change toward more equitable and resilient societies that have gentler impacts on humans and natural environments. Powerful actors will try to reconstitute status quo arrangements, and to shift costs to those with less power. It takes organizing and a confluence of alliances and circumstances to ensure that it won’t be the environment and the workers who pay the bill, but those who profited most from the growth that preceded this disaster.
Degrowth is not forced deprivation, but an aspiration to secure enough for everyone to live with dignity and without fear; to experience friendship, love, and health; to be able to give and receive care; to enjoy leisure and nature, and to legitimize a life that it is also an experience of interdependence and vulnerability. This goal will not be met by subsidizing fossil fuel companies, airlines, cruise ships, hotels, and tourism mega-businesses. Instead, states need to finance Green New Deals and rebuild their health and care infrastructures, creating jobs in a just transition to economies that are less environmentally damaging. As oil prices fall, fossil fuels should be taxed heavily, raising funds to support green and social investments, and to provide tax breaks and dividends to working people. Rather than using public money to bail out corporations and banks, we urge the establishment of a basic care income that will help people and communities to reconstruct their lives and livelihoods. These fundamental questions related to the strategies for socio-ecological transformation will be at the center of the international Vienna degrowth conference taking place as an online event in late May 2020. A good starting point are the principles for the recovery of the economy and the basis of creating a just society contained in the open letter ‘Degrowth: New Roots for the Economy’.
This crisis arguably opens up more dangers than it does possibilities. We worry about the politics of fear that the coronavirus pandemic engenders, the intensification of surveillance and control of peoples’ movements, xenophobia and blame of others, as well as home isolation that curbs commoning and political organizing. Once measures such as curfews, quarantines, rule-by-decree, border controls, or election postponements are taken, they can easily become part of the arsenal of political possibility, opening dystopian horizons.
To counter these risks, degrowth motivates and guides us to re-found societies on the commons of mutual aid and care, orienting collective pursuits away from growth and toward wellbeing and equity. These are not just lofty aspirations; in our forthcoming book The Case for Degrowth we identify everyday practices and concrete policies to start building the world we want today, together with political strategies to support synergy among these efforts in the construction of equitable and low-impact societies. This book is unlike any other on degrowth, in that it is the first to try to address the hard question of 'how to' in the current political conjuncture.
Before the pandemic, we had to work hard to convince people of the case for degrowth. Our job may be somewhat easier now amid such tangible evidence that the current system is crumbling under its own weight. As we embark on the second major global economic crisis in a dozen years, perhaps some of us will be more willing to question the wisdom of producing and consuming more and more, just to keep the system going. The time is ripe for us to refocus on what really matters: not GDP, but the health and wellbeing of our people and our planet.
In a word, degrowth.
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