A review of The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism (Verso, 2022).
The Center for Global Development (CGD), a think tank with former US Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers as head of their Board of Directors, announced that “we may have reached Peak Progress.” The CGD believes that a declining population coupled with “diminishing returns . . . [from] high levels of education . . . suggests we are approaching a slowdown in the rate of technological advance.” The data that they refer to indicate that older people don’t innovate at the rate of youth and that the level of inventions and patents generated by institutions of higher learning is declining.
This forecast, if it withstands scrutiny, would be devastating news for the financial sector. Investors can blow off concern for insect decline (which affects agriculture), sea level rise (which affects tens of millions), or deaths due to worldwide temperature increase (thousands die in Phoenix), or any of the other horrors brought about by runaway climate change. Simply put, if investors can’t make money based on “Progress” (aka profit-making ventures) their capital remains contingent.
Or from another perspective, fifty years after the Club of Rome issued its report titled “Limits to Growth” the chickens have come home to roost.
Noting this fact, the UN’s environment agency stated that there is “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place,” and the failure to reduce carbon emissions means the only way to limit the worst impacts of the climate crisis is a “rapid transformation of societies”.
In two Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports focused on climate change impacts and proposed mitigation policies that are key to reducing the impacts of climate change. These policies were identical to those associated with the Degrowth Movement in Europe and challenge the widely accepted story that endless economic growth — an increase in the quantity of goods and services — is essential to reducing poverty and improving the quality of life around the world.
What are these degrowth policies? Some are recognizable climate friendly demands: improve public services, introduce a green jobs guarantee, reduce working time, enable sustainable development, and (the most radical one) reduce less-necessary production. All of these are top/down programs some degrowthers maintain are necessary. A recent, comprehensive book on degrowth – The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism (Verso)– clarifies that this top/down approach as just one of several that Degrowth advocates endorse and practice. Their list includes:
(1) the institution-oriented current;
(2) the sufficiency-oriented current;
(3) the commoning, or alternative economy current;
(4) the feminist current; and
(5) the post-capitalist and globalization-critical current.
The authors of The Future is Degrowth delve into the policies and practices of these approaches in an objective and thorough manner. Only the first one – the institution-orientated current – is the one that they characterize as “green-liberal” since it relies heavily on a mix of market instruments, eco-social taxes, and regulations, combined with radical reforms of institutions and broader policy frameworks. The City of Amsterdam, for example, has adopted this approach for its long-term sustainability policy. And along these lines the European Parliament, in 2018, organized a conference on post-growth policies.
The second current that the authors mention, the sufficiency-oriented current, aims to radically reduce resource consumption through the creation of local and decommercialized subsistence economies, do-it-yourself initiatives, and ‘voluntary simplicity.’ While the commoning or alternative economy currently focuses on the construction of alternative infrastructures, cooperatives based on solidarity, and non-capitalist forms of collective production and livelihood: in short, ‘nowtopias’, a term that emphasizes the possibility of realizing utopias in the here and now. (Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists,and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today.)
The feminist current, which has its origins in the 1970s, clarifies the connections between capitalist exploitation of housewives, smallholders in the Global South, and nature. These feminists decades ago rightly analyzed the starting point of a critique of patriarchy and capitalism.
And lastly, the post-capitalist and alter-globalization current, is characterized above all by a critique of the growth constraints of capitalist societies along with an emphasis on its dynamics of power. This is the current that in part allies with the eco-socialism of Marxist ecologists and with the necessity of class struggle, or as some say, a remnant of the class struggle.
These approaches don’t define factions of the degrowth movement, but more tendencies that sometimes overlap. The self-sufficiency current, for example, often melds into the post-capitalist current. Degrowth therefore isn’t a precisely defined ideology as much as it is like an orchestra composed of sections of specific instruments.
Degrowth as an ideology has been circulating in France for decades. The term was used by social critic and journalist Andre Gorz in 1974. A few years later the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen criticized a “steady-state economy” approach in favor of “a zero-growth state, nay, even a declining state. . . .” Serge Latouche, a French professor of economics, published, in 2007, Petit traité de la décroissance sereine. This book had a wide readership throughout Europe. The English translation, in 2010, was Farewell to Growth.
While degrowth has attained some traction in Europe, to develop a movement for degrowth in the US would be difficult, if not impossible. Progressive politics in America is premised on growth to attain social justice – more housing, for example. And the lack of substantial welfare provisions in the US is in marked contrast to most of Europe. Some American politicians go so far as to argue for Green Growth. This is in fact the premise for Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act which the financial elite at Davos praised as an “engine’ for US growth.”
The problem with building a movement focused on growth is that it circumscribes the discussion of an alternative society on the terrain of economics, when it seems more appropriate for it to be on the terrain of social psychology. Gallup polls for more than a decade indicate that the overriding problem with our society rests upon the popular discontent with work. Last year Gallup announced it had recorded job unhappiness at an unprecedented all-time high. Their poll revealed that sixty percent of people reported being emotionally detached at work and 19% as being miserable. Only 33% reported feeling engaged.
Two years earlier, in 2020, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that “an estimated 21.0 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. This number represented 8.4% of all U.S. adults.” These episodes were severe enough for the majority to seek professional help. And this is just for one year.
Covid may have had an influence on this statistic, but a ten year population survey shows a steady rate of depression in the range of 25% of the population. It can be argued that social depression on the massive scale recorded is due to trying to survive a pernicious economic reality. This is true. But to change our social circumstances by concentrating on economic issues confuses the engine of change – first we need to define what sustains a good life, then envision what changes are needed to achieve it, and, finally, put it into practice.
The popular, liberal approach to this situation is generally known as Well-being, which follows traditional psychological practice and focuses on the individual, who is encouraged to “grow their well-being.” The New Zealand government, for instance, has a program called the Wellbeing Outlook that recognizes traditional measures of success, such as GDP growth, are not what matters most to people. And Wales has enshrined these concerns into legislation with its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, and created the world’s first Future Generations Commissioner.
These well-being projects are similar to corporate team building exercises and are just about as successful. The Latin American, Eduardo Gudynas, a leading scholar on the subject of cultural change and the concept of sumak kawsay. Too often this is translated (in Spanish) as buen vivir, and further mis-translated into English as good living and well-being. Sumak kawsay is not about the individual, say Gudynas, but the individual embedded in the social context of their community. This sense of collectivity, of communalism, especially in the West, has been lost and needs to be retrieved.
Degrowthers, despite the handicap of their name, attempt to convey a larger perspective beyond economics – much of their rhetoric is visionary and aspirational. There is nothing wrong with utopianism. Indeed, the authors of The Future is Degrowth see it as necessary for waking the imagination for radical social change. However, the actual circumstances of the social condition have to be the basis for making the dream of communalism material. Utopianism must be grounded in everyday reality. It must develop from real needs.
A good example of this is the rise of mutual aid groups that respond to extreme weather events and to the ravages of poverty. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell depicts the spontaneous solidarity that arises when disasters occur. But the task before us is to cultivate sociality beyond these acute circumstances. Those who participate in mutual aid projects have a life filled with those aspects of satisfaction missing in the lives of the depressed that show up in Gallup polls. The significance of mutual aid isn’t solely dependent on the rescue scenario. The major benefit to those involved comes from doing the work collectively with like-minded others. That collective adventure occurs whenever a group undertakes real work, socially necessary work. Of course, these are precisely the “essential jobs” that are underappreciated outside of a crisis situation. But, nevertheless, this is the work that needs to be done and which will increasingly be necessary to do as disasters pile up. This is the work that satisfies the need to be engaged in useful activities. It is not the work that the corporations will pay for.
While Europe has its fires, floods, droughts, and heatwaves, the US seems to have these catastrophes amplified. Degrowth advocates maintain that they are for a planned slowing of the economy, not one that comes unexpectedly as a tragic (“natural”) disaster. That may be fine as a slogan, but the reality in America seems to be constant major disasters. In part this is due to the lack of preventive measures like rational forestry or floodplain management. And, of course, being a large land mass means that disasters have a huge playing field: firestorms in California, ravaging floods in Texas, and killer heatwaves in New England can all happen on the same day.
Promoting nowtopias as outposts for a new society that by their exemplary values will attract replication, is not a strategy. These endeavors need to be scaled up and focused on real needs to contend with the environmental devastation awaiting us. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently initiated FEMA Corps, which recruits approximately one thousand youth for one year stints to assist populations in disaster areas. This program is too small to be of any consequence if a major disaster strikes. In those circumstances the National Guard gets called out.
Furthermore, FEMA was founded as a reactive agency. What is needed on a national scale is something approaching what the Green New Deal proposed – a Civilian Climate Corps along the lines of the Depression era CCC. Some Western States already have summer programs like this. Again, too little.
A grassroots strategy that incorporated small groups – like a collective of like-minded individuals – financed by foundation grants, or contracts with local government, could undertake restorative projects. These demonstration projects might be able, with popular support, to push for major funding on a state or regional level to scale up so thousands could participate. Something like this occurred in the 80s in Western States with tree planting and landscaping worker cooperatives that secured federal contracts.
The growth of small organic farms is another example of a program that should be encouraged along the lines of the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency that provides loans to young farmers. The Green New Deal proposed many more examples of socially necessary work that needs to be done to mitigate the effects of climate change. There is no reason to wait years for the federal government to first create a huge bureaucracy to administer a program when localities all over the country know exactly which projects are needed to create resilient communities.
In several European countries farmers and small villages have formed cooperatives to provide solar and wind energy to their national grids. In urban areas people have similarly formed co-ops to provide online EV bus services and this idea is catching on in a few US cities.
What we have here is a mix of private and public programs that mitigate inevitable disasters. European degrowthers have been involved in some of these efforts. They are not, however, necessarily directed at curtailing growth, they are better directed to enhancing well-being. Despite the intentions of degrowth to direct a soft post-growth landing for a future society, it is dubious that that aim can be attained in the US given the profit-driven forces unleashed that portend civilization collapse.
We have no alternative but to expand collaborations to contend with threats from extreme climate, resource decline, food insecurity, loss of natural diversity, and the list is seemingly endless. Behind this strategy to reclaim our world from the forces of collapse is the vision of a free people taking charge of their lives.