Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward
A reduction of economic activity is necessary and just – and can lead to human flourishing.
To sustain the natural basis of our life, we must slow down. We have to reduce the amount of extraction, pollution, and waste throughout our economy. This implies less production, less consumption, and probably also less work.
The responsibility to do so must lie mainly on the rich, who currently enjoy a disproportionate share of our resources. But we should also do things differently, as much of today's economic activity is of little benefit to human wellbeing. Imagine what could be if we organized democratically to produce what we actually need, distributed those resources fairly, and shared them in common. This, in a nutshell, is the vision of degrowth: a good life for all within planetary boundaries. And while this might seem utopian, there are already concrete policy ideas to start such a transformation.
In a recent article, Leigh Phillips argues that this is a delusion. He brings forth three main critiques: degrowth is (1) not necessary, (2) unjust, and (3) marks the end of progress. He suggests that we should “take over the machine, not turn it off”, expressing his concern that an end to growth would mean an end to all the things that makes our lives so rich, like for example fridges. This reminds him of the likes of Malthus or Thatcher, whose ideologies have supported the imposition of unjust limits onto the poorer parts of society.
In this response, we want to investigate the world-view behind Phillips’s critique and argue that degrowth is, in fact, very different than what he claims it is. This is not the first time that this debate has been had (see here, here, or here). Our aim is not to create further division. Instead, we want to point towards common values that degrowth shares with socialist perspectives. We claim that Phillips employs an inordinate optimism about technological possibilities, and discuss how his views are framed by a rather narrow and liberal conception of freedom and progress. We argue that an increase in social value does not depend on economic growth, allowing for further human flourishing within limits.
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Degrowth is necessary
Phillips acknowledges that we need to stay within planetary boundaries. But as an ecomodernist, he believes that all environmental problems can be solved by a shift in technology. All we need to do is become more efficient. This version of post-environmentalism has received a lot of support, as it aligns well with existing powerful interests in the economy. But it is problematic for many reasons.
First, there is no evidence for this claim. The potential of our current technology is limited. And the potential of future innovation is uncertain. As Phillips acknowledges himself, it will take considerable time until new technology arrives. We should not gamble away our future on ideas with such a low (if even known at all) probability of success.
Let us illustrate this in relation to climate change. The latest IPCC report to limit global warming to 1.5° presents four scenarios. Three of them strongly depend on negative emission technologies, which are highly controversial as they have not been proven to work at the required scale and represent an “unjust and high-stakes gamble”. The IPCC also provides a fourth scenario that does not rely on negative emissions, but which notably requires that “global material production and consumption declines significantly”.
Some demand reduction could be achieved through efficiency improvements. But these might be less effective than they appear. As long as we keep pursuing growth, such improvements will be used for further expansion. This can counteract possible environmental gains. Simply put, efficiency improvements make things cheaper and therefore push up consumption. Such a rebound effect has been found both in different countries and industries.
What is more, technological shifts always come at an environmental cost. Every sector of our economy is still based on some form of extraction, pollution, and waste. And all of them depend on carbon. Renewable energy, in particular, requires a great amount of rare minerals and land-use. The same goes for nuclear energy, which demands considerable resources in order to mine uranium, construct power plants, and deal with its waste. Even digital technology has environmental impacts.
Phillips tries to argue against this by pointing at past solutions to environmental problems, like the ozone layer or deforestation. However, he does acknowledge that those examples do not compare well to a bigger challenge like climate change. Some of those challenges were solvable because they only affected a single sector and an easy technological replacement was available.
Additionally, many past environmental challenges have not been overcome, but have simply been reshaped and displaced. Philips points towards the fact that net deforestation ceases in rich countries. But this is mainly because agricultural production is outsourced to poorer ones. The study he uses to show the increase in global tree-cover also shows an alarming reduction in tropical areas. The recent Amazon fires in Brazil, for example, are connected to increased deforestation efforts for agricultural expansion in the territory of the world’s 22nd largest export economy. The total amount of environmental degradation caused by our economy remains coupled to economic activity.
Finally, it is important to understand that environmental issues are all interrelated. Even the successful ozone depletion is nowadays under threat as climate change could reverse the recovery of the ozone layer. The deforestation study mentioned above shows that climate change has contributed to both increases and decreases of vegetation in different parts of the world. Mass extinction is another serious threat that our planet is experiencing at the moment, which is also connected to deforestation. And we know that most mass extinctions of the past “had something to do with rapid climate changes”.
All this means that it is hard to see a way around a reduction of economic activity. Of course it is theoretically possible that we could grow and produce more within our limits if technology improves. But so far this hasn’t happened, there is little to show that it will, and as long as it doesn’t, we need a practical plan. The logic of eco-modernism – to blindly bet on future innovation – has already caused us to delay action for more than thirty years, and there is simply no time left. We need to act now, and within our current technological means.
Degrowth should be just
A central question of degrowth is how to achieve this necessary decline in a way that is equitable. This is a serious question as there already are extreme inequalities and injustices all around the world. We should therefore focus efforts on reducing what is less useful to human wellbeing and more harmful to the environment. For this to be a just transformation, the direction of this focus needs to be a democratic decision, building on direct participation and local autonomy.
Phillips is concerned with austerity. And he is right in the sense that a lack of expansion in our current economy leads to disaster. We are systematically dependent on both economic growth and inequality. Without it, we face unemployment, investment bubbles, and competitive disadvantages, sliding into another economic depression. But austerity is, contrary to Phillips’s belief, a measure taken in order to achieve growth. Take Greece, where such measures were taken in order to return to previous growth levels. The Greek government as well as international financial institutions and analysts regularly portrayed the suffering of austerity as a necessary sacrifice of the present in order to arrive at a more abundant future. Instead of more, we should care about leaving our children something that is better and, notably, an environment that can sustain human life.
It is time to get rid of this dependency on economic growth. We must restructure our economic system so that an end to growth does not create further injustice. Essential to this are policies that reduce financial speculation and redistribute the immense amount of material wealth that has accumulated in the hands of a few. Like Phillips, many degrowth proponents are excited about a comprehensive ecological reform, and have contributed to the recently proposed Green New Deal for Europe. There are also economic models that examine how a post-growth economy would work in detail (see here or here), although more work is needed on that end.
Without such a transformation, there can also be no equitable mitigation of climate change. Phillips claims that efforts so far have failed because they were market-based. And degrowth advocates agree with his critique of the free market ideology. But existing carbon prices have been ineffective simply because they are too low. And Phillips’s best example of a planned intervention – France's reduction of emissions by 4.5% through a shift to nuclear power – also proves little about effectiveness on the magnitude that is needed. As stated above, the only IPCC scenario without technological speculation requires a reduction of demand. This remains true independent of the policy instrument that is used to achieve mitigation. And as long as we are systematically dependent on growth, such a reduction will likely lead to another crisis.
But the most important perspective of justice might be that of global inequalities. A full length response to Leigh Phillips on this perspective has been published here. Essentially, the riches of the wealthy part of the world are based on the exploitation of both nature and people in poorer countries. This is why the responsibility of reducing economic activity should lie upon the wealthy part of the world. If we want to share our cake equally, rich countries must reduce their disproportionate share. This would pay back ecological debt, giving poorer countries the possibility to produce what they need and have more autonomy over their resources.
Finally, Phillips argues that green goods should be cheaper so that all people can afford them. On a similar note, he is worried that income would be too low for a good life, i.e. be stuck at 5500$ if we assume current global wages to be equalized (there is already a response to this argument here). But wages could not be higher (or prices lower) than what would give people the power to consume more than what is possible within natural limits. All we can do is distribute our resources fairly and try to produce what is needed within natural limits. Technological innovation can help us with that. But, as argued above, its potential is uncertain. This is why degrowth envisions a type of human flourishing that does not depend on better technology, although it includes innovation.
Degrowth marks a different kind of progress
Will natural limits put a limit to freedom and progress? That mainly depends on what is meant by these words. For Phillips, progress refers to the expansion of freedom through the domination of nature through technological advance, allowing “each one of us to become the master of our fate”. This is a notably liberal view, as it imagines freedom as being a full emancipation from any toil, care labor, and suffering. But life must involve work – caring for others, caring for the vulnerable, sharing not only our joys but also our suffering. Marx said: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. This describes a relation between toiling, connected human creatures. He didn’t say “from each to each more and more, with robots doing the work”.
We also need to be careful with the notion of progress as the ultimate, unquestionable project for human freedom. This has often been used to justify action for the higher cause of ‘humanity’ against the opinion of people affected. Prime examples for this are western colonialism or the mass dispossessions and environmental harm in the name of development.
The strive for human flourishing should include all people, and it cannot be thought of apart from nature. That doesn’t reduce the human capacity to be free. But freedom here does not mean freedom from any and every limit, but freedom to choose our limits and care for one another and for non-human beings. This simply confirms that humans are not alone in our march to freedom, and that its pursuit has effects upon others and our environment. It also won’t stop innovation, but rather channel it into a direction that is actually useful (unlike this). That does not always need to be high-end technology. Progress could also come in the form of social innovations that adapt society’s institutions to the challenges of abrupt environmental changes, such as the Native American ‘seasonal round’.
Phillips’s claim that there can be no progress without economic growth and no good life without high wages shows a failure of imagination. If we free our imagination from the liberal idea that well-being is best measured by the amount of stuff that we consume, we may discover that a good life could also be materially light. This is the idea of voluntary sufficiency. If we manage to decide collectively and democratically what is necessary and enough for a good life, then we could have plenty.
In that sense, degrowth has also been called a theory of radical abundance, not scarcity. Scarcity represents the problem of limited resources in the face of unlimited ends, and is the driving force of capitalism. Degrowth, in contrast, talks about a conscious and democratic limitation of ends, making resources abundant in turn. This is the critical difference between the ideas of degrowth and Malthus, who essentially was a proponent of growth. This is not about ‘Thatcherite’ limits forced upon people from the top, but about a social choice of self-limitation.
But what if it is not enough? What if what we want is not ecologically feasible to produce? In that case, the desires that capitalism has convinced us that we have are simply not compatible with the planet that we live on. The objective should then be to focus on what we actually need – to find more sustainable ways of reaching for a good life. If we cannot be happy without weekend trips to Thailand, than we might as well reflect about what actual desires are fulfilled by such a trip and try to satisfy them with other kinds of activities.
But what if it is the most basic needs that we cannot cover? A recent study has found that this might be a possibility. In that case, Phillips is right that the dilemma in front of us is difficult. However, this alone does not make the technological innovation at the scale he imagines possible, even if it would be necessary. Degrowth proponents believe that there is a lot of potential for social innovation that could improve our wellbeing and sustainability at the same time. Many people in rich countries currently live with unnecessary excess (while many of them lack basic needs at the same time). There is a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick, so to say, before we can declare that there is not enough to satisfy everyone’s basic needs with a sustainable amount of energy and resources.
Let us illustrate that with Phillips’s example of fridges. He claims that forbidding more fridges holds back the global south from vital access to fresh food and the global north from access to better nutrition and reduced food waste. Under a degrowth scenario, fridges would not be forbidden where they are needed (remember that degrowth calls for democracy and autonomy). But consider the global North: in Britain, people consume and throw away more food than half a century ago when just two per cent of households owned a fridge. Supermarkets have removed doors from fridges to boost sales of frozen food that often travels across the planet and replaces local agriculture. Most energy that wealthy countries put into refrigeration is unnecessarily wasted. Even less energy would be needed if we consider communal use like the solidarity fridges in Spain and communal fridges in Berlin.
The same goes with health, transport, diets – you name it. We don’t need an abundance of unnecessary waste. In contrast to Phillips’s claim, degrowth does not impose what has social value or not. It rather calls for more reflection on, and more democratic ways of deciding, what is important to produce and how, and then to focus production on that. This is a much more promising conception of freedom for a socialist project than that of Phillips. In this sense, degrowth both supports and entitles many alternative proposals and sustainable practices with a potential to increase human well-being. Among them are the ideas of shared ownership, not-for-profit cooperatives, cohousing, community gardens, open software, repair cafés, community-supported agriculture, and solidarity economy networks.
A decline in economic activity would further give us back what might be one of the most important ingredients of a good life: time. By having to work less, we could focus our energy on conviviality and care, ending the age of loneliness. We could have more freedom to pursue our personal ambitions. And the time that we spend at work, as well, could be more fulfilling if we know that it actually serves a meaningful purpose.
Degrowth, in this sense, is about the opportunity to improve our lives without increasing our use of resources. It therefore represents a feasible way of expanding human freedom within current technological and ecological means. This is not so different from Phillips’s own description of socialist growth: an “increase in the creation of new value that does not undermine the ecosystem services upon which human flourishing depends”. What is important, though, is to disentangle the idea of social value from that of economic growth.
How to move forward
To conclude, we want to emphasize the need for different progressive movements to work together. A critique on growth is complementary to other critical perspectives, especially those of socialism. As Giorgos Kallis puts it in his discussion on socialism and growth: “there is nothing intrinsic in socialism that will make it pursue degrowth and a steady-state economy or throughput. Yet, unlike capitalism there is nothing that makes a socialist economy unstable without growth”.
Both degrowth and socialism center around the idea of sharing. Based on the same fundamental values, we could have much more interesting debates about what is truly important. We don’t need growth to reach a good life for all. What we do need is a genuinely democratic and radical transformation of our economy.
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