degrowth

We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

The November Edition of the Monkerai Review looks at Degrowth.

“Is degrowth essential for just transition?”

Degrowth (décroissance, decrecimiento, decrescita) is a critical interrogation of growth-based economics.

Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the sustainable contraction of economies as the core means of addressing long term environmental issues and social inequalities.

While degrowth can frame discussions on the failures of and alternatives to the status quo, its advocates recognise there is no theory of contraction equivalent to the growth theories of economics. Whether or not a theoretical foundation is necessary is an ongoing point of creative tension within its social-grassroots movement, at least within minority, wealthy countries. Its key advocates, such as Professor Serge Latouche and Peter Victor promote it as a wide-ranging economic solution,  others are more sceptical of its co-existence with continuing capitalism and its tendency towards personal-community scale change as opposed to systemic transformation.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a peculiar situation: although hardly anyone would deny the deep ecological crisis facing humankind, we seem to be caught in a net of assumptions that impede a practical solution. Having acknowledged that we need to reduce consumption of energy and materials drastically,1,2 we still often think that adjustments within the current system of production and consumption will accomplish this formidable task.

At the same time, it is widely recognized that the results of the dominant approaches to solving the ecological crisis are far from satisfying. Thus, a growing community of scientists and social activists, sharing the basic insight that a reduction of energy and material use implies a reduction of gross domestic product (GDP), is gathering under the heading of sustainable degrowth.3Degrowth obviously entails a fundamental transformation of economic structures. But what precisely are the necessary steps?“

– Andreas Exner and Chrisian Lauk, ”Social Innovations for Economic Degrowth.“

Image by Daniel Skorodjelow . Licensed under Creative Commons.

Degrowth

Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—as overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities.

‘degrowthists’ aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community.

Degrowth opposes sustainable development because, while sustainable development aims to address environmental concerns, it does so with the goal of promoting economic growth which has failed to improve the lives of people and inevitably leads to environmental degradation.

Resource depletion

As economies grow, the need for resources grows accordingly.

There is a fixed supply of non-renewable resources, such as petroleum (oil), and these resources will inevitably be depleted.

Renewable resources can also be depleted if extracted at unsustainable rates over extended periods.

Many people look to technology to develop replacements for depleted resources. [and to increase resource efficiency]

Proponents of degrowth argue that decreasing demand is the only way of permanently closing the demand gap.

Ecological footprint

It compares human demand with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate.

It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste.

According to a 2005 Global Footprint Network report:, inhabitants of high-income countries live off of 6.4 global hectares (gHa), while those from low-income countries live off of a single gHa.

In order for world economic equality to be achieved with the current available resources, rich countries would have to reduce their standard of living through degrowth.

The eventual reduction of all available resources would lead to a forced reduction in consumption. Controlled reduction of consumption would reduce the trauma of this change.

“The Rebound Effect”

Technologies designed to reduce resource use and improve efficiency are often touted as sustainable or green solutions. However, degrowth opposes these technological advances on the ground of what is referred to as the “rebound effect” This concept is based on observations that when less resource-exhaustive technology are introduced, behaviour surrounding the use of that technology will change and consumption of that technology will increase and offset any potential resource savings. In light of the rebound effect, proponents of degrowth hold that the only effective 'sustainable’ solutions must involve a complete rejection of the growth paradigm and a move toward a degrowth paradigm.

Origins of the movement

The contemporary degrowth movement can trace its roots back to the anti-industrialist trends of the 19th century, developed in Great Britain by John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement (1819–1900), in the United States by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and in Russia by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1911).

Criticisms

Supporters of economic liberalism believe that economic growth brings about the creation of wealth, by increasing employment, improving quality of life, and providing better education and healthcare, in other words, there should be more resources in order to make and improve on more things. From this point of view, degrowth constitutes economic recession and is a destroyer of wealth.

Supporters of the self-regulation of the market believe that if a particular non-renewable resource becomes scarce, the market will limit its extraction via two mechanisms:

  • an increase in price (supply and demand) …. [this occurs after things have run out]
  • an increase in funding for the development of alternatives (i.e. renewable energy, recycling, etc.)

The concept of degrowth is viewed as contradictory when applied to lesser-developed countries, which require the growth of their economies in order to attain prosperity. In this sense the majority of supporters of degrowth advocate the attainment of a certain, acceptable level of well-being independent of growth. The question of where the balance lies (i.e. how much the developed nations should degrow by, and how much the developing nations should be allowed to grow), remains open.

Supporters of scientific progress argue that it will solve the problems of energy supply, waste and the reduction of raw materials. This ideology draws inspiration from the Enlightenment to develop an optimistic technologist vision

One day, we might even live in cob houses that we build ourselves, but over the next few critical decades the fact is that most of us will be living within the poorly designed urban infrastructure that already exists. We are hardly going to knock it all down and start again. Instead, we must ‘retrofit the suburbs’, as leading permaculturalist David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited.

This is not the eco-future that we are shown in glossy design magazines featuring million-dollar “green homes” that are prohibitively expensive.

Degrowth offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.

Would a de-growing or steady-state economy stop us from expanding our knowledge, stifle innovation and education and stop society from ever creating and completing the kind of grand projects that Neal Stephenson has in mind? Not necessarily at least. Would our approach to these things have to be different? Definitely, but as Stephenson and I have observed, our current economy isn’t really enabling these projects anyway.

Our approach might have to be much more inclusive at a political and economic level. Because of this, we might have to think really hard, at a collective level, about what it is that we really want to achieve. There might be some projects and technologies that we ought to avoid. But if we have to carefully consider our options, we might be able negotiate a path that is environmentally/economically sustainable, reasonably ethical, and still have room for the great innovations and ventures that Stephenson would like to see.

Yes, we can prosper without growth
  1. Citizen debt audit.  An economy cannot be forced to grow to resolve accumulated debts that have contributed to fictitious growth in the past.  It is essential not only to restructure but also to eliminate part of the debt with a people’s debt audit, part of a new, really democratic culture. Such elimination shouldn’t be realised at the expense of savers and those with modest pensions whether in Spain or elsewhere. The debt of those that have considerable income and assets should not be pardoned. Those who lent for speculation should take the losses. Once the debt is reduced, caps on carbon and resources (see 9) will guarantee that this will not be used as an opportunity for more growth and consumption.
  2. Work-sharing. Reduce the working week to at least 32 hours and develop programmes that support firms and organisations that want to facilitate job-sharing.  This should be orchestrated such that the loss of salary from working less only affects the 10% highest income bracket.  Complemented by environmental limits and the tax reform proposed below (see 4), it will be more difficult for this liberation of time to be used for material consumption.
  3. Basic and maximum income.  Establish a minimum income for all of Spain’s residents of between 400 and 600 Euros per month, paid without any requirement or stipulation. A recent study suggests this is feasible for Spain, without a major overhaul of the tax system. 

     
     Design this policy in conjunction with other tax and work reforms so that they increase the income of the poorer 50% of the population while decreasing that of the top 10%, to finance the change.  The maximum income for any person – from work as well as from capital – shouldn’t be more than 30 times the basic income (12,000 – 18,000 Euros monthly).
  4. Green tax reform.  Implement an accounting system to transform, over time, the tax system, from one based principally on work to one based on the use of energy and resources.  Taxation on the lowest incomes could be reduced and compensated for with a carbon tax.  Establish a 90% tax rate on the highest incomes (such rates were common in the USA in the 1950s).  High income and capital taxes will halt positional consumption and eliminate the incentives for excessive earnings, which feed financial speculation.  Tackle capital wealth through inheritance tax and high taxes on property that is not meant for use, for example on the second or third houses of individuals or on large estates.
  5. Stop subsidizing and investing on activities that are highly polluting,moving the liberated pubic funds towards clean production.  Reduce to zero the public investment and subsidy for private transport infrastructure (such as new roads and airport expansion), military technology, fossil fuels or mining projects.  Use the funds saved to invest in the improvement of public rural and urban space - such as squares, traffic free pedestrian streets [paseos y ramblas] -, and to subsidise public transport and cycle hire schemes.  Support the development of small scale decentralised renewable energy under local and democratic control, instead of concentrated and extensive macro-structures under the control of private business.
  6. Support the alternative, solidarity society.  Support, with subsidies, tax exemptions and legislation, the not-for-profit co-operative economic sector that are flourishing in Spain and include alternative food networks, cooperatives and networks for basic health care, co-operatives covering shared housing, credit, teaching, and artists and other workers.

     
     Facilitate the de-commercialisation of spaces and activities of care and creativity, by helping mutual support groups, shared childcare and social centres.
  7. Optimise the use of buildings.  Stop the construction of new houses, rehabilitating the existing housing stock and facilitating the full occupation of houses.  In Spain those objectives could be met through very high taxes on abandoned, empty and second houses, prioritising the social use of SAREB housing [those falling under the post-crash banking restructuring provisions following the Spanish real estate crisis], and if this is insufficient, then proceed with social expropriation of empty housing from private investors.  
  8. Reduce advertising.  Establish very restrictive criteria for allowing advertising in public spaces, following the example of the city of Grenoble. Prioritise the provision of information and reduce greatly any commercial use. Establish committees to control the quantity and quality of advertising permitted in the mass media and tax advertising in accordance with objectives.
  9. Establish environmental limits.  Establish absolute and diminishing caps on the total of CO2 that Spain can emit and the total quality of material resources that it uses, including emissions and materials embedded in imported products, often from the global South.  These caps would be in CO2, materials, water footprint or the surface area under cultivation. Similar limits could be established for other environmental pressures such as the extraction of water, the total built-up area and the number of licenses for tourist enterprises in saturated zones.
  10. Abolish the use of GDP as indicator of economic progress.  If GDP is a misleading indicator, we should stop using it and look for other indicators of prosperity.  Monetary and fiscal national accounts statistics can be collected and used but economic policy shouldn’t be expressed in terms of GDP objectives.  A debate needs to be started about the nature of well-being, focusing on what to measure rather than how to measure it.

In 1992 world leaders signed up to something called “sustainability”. Few of them were clear about what it meant; I suspect that many of them had no idea. Perhaps as a result, it did not take long for this concept to mutate into something subtly different: “sustainable development”. Then it made a short jump to another term: “sustainable growth”.

And now, in the 2012 Earth Summit text that world leaders are about to adopt, it has subtly mutated once more: into “sustained growth”.

This term crops up 16 times in the document, where it is used interchangeably with sustainability and sustainable development.

But if sustainability means anything, it is surely the opposite of sustained growth. Sustained growth on a finite planet is the essence of unsustainability.

Permaculture Research Institute