Earth Day

Degrowth: The solution that must not be named

Our societies could be richer and more sustainable without economic growth
Photo: Miroslav Petrasko

Zero. That’s the total number of countries either meeting the needs of their people or doing so sustainably according to a remarkable study published a few weeks ago in Nature Sustainability.

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Let that sink in on this Earth Day. Because it's hard to think of a worse testament to the state of the world and a more powerful reason to seek alternatives.

That’s why, instead of reviewing the study findings, as other outlets already have, we would do well to consider one of the authors’ proposed responses. But first, a word of warning. It's as close to unutterable in this society as something can get, an eight-letter four-letter word to be avoided in polite company, the idea-that-must-not-be-named: degrowth.

Two arcs of thought

Degrowth, if you haven’t heard of it (and there are plenty of accessible introductions if you haven't), is the umbrella term encapsulating two related arcs of thought.

There is a more decent society on the other side of endless growth and needless work.

First is a variety of critiques of the now-globalized economic paradigm of infinite, heedless, unbridled, compound growth. The most prominent of these critiques is that, in rich countries, continued growth does little to improve well-being and, as the Nature Sustainability article reminds us, is costing us a habitable world in the process.

In the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction event, the environmental case for a society more relaxed about growth is pretty clear. And yet it’s obvious that the world liquifying and incinerating and deluging and desolating and turning into plastic has not sufficed to spark a mass crisis of faith in growth. Perhaps, then, it would help to emphasize that this system is not only environmentally unsustainable but also existentially so.

That’s where degrowth’s second arc of thought comes in: a search for alternatives for promoting the good life in ways that are more equitable, meaningful, and ecologically rational.

For those of us in the overdeveloped parts of the world, that starts with a question.

Stunted free time

As far as anyone can guarantee, we get but a single life on this earth. Wouldn’t it be nice to really live it?

Ecological economist Tim Jackson has worked to describe what this might look like by turning to what's called the capability approach to justice. The meaning of a good life is not here measured in endless wealth and consumption, but rather in our ability to excel in the various things we have reason to value. Jackson's innovation was to suggest that this can be done sustainably, that we can flourish within environmental limits. But to do that requires time, which is exactly what this system does not give us.

Paring ourselves down into the beings ideally suited for market society involves a series of strange self-mutilations. Perhaps the oddest of these is how much of our lives we accept should be occupied by work.

New ideas always stand at a distinct disadvantage: they’ve never been tried.

It creates a particular pattern (with some minor details changing from case to case): for five days a week, for 50 weeks of the year, for the best years of life, we wake up, commute, work eight (or more) hours, and commute home. What “free” time remains is less like an ample and yielding fabric for us to shape and experiment with and more like a handful of unsizeable fragments already pre-cut and pre-allocated for domestic chores, maintenance of relationships with family and friends, and self-care, which includes physical exercise and the need to recharge and recover after the work day. And that might not be too bad for those whose work and self-actualization are one and the same. But for how many is that really the case?

It’s probably not the case for those in what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” who, even when well remunerated, find little point to their work and admit on some level their jobs shouldn’t really exist.

Nor is it likely to be so for what economist Guy Standing names the precariat, the growing proto-class of workers whose lives are defined by insecure work, unpredictable income, and the “four A’s” of anxiety, anomie, alienation, and anger.

And it’s doubtful, too, that this is the case for those who do not belong to the mere 15 per cent of full-time adult workers in the world who find themselves actually engaged at their jobs.

A life really lived

We have a tendency to look at our endeavours and seek purpose, reason, meaning. But it’s hard to look at a withering planet, an alienated workforce, and a society that is impoverished as it grows richer, and emptier as its homes fill with more clutter, without asking, who is this all really for? (Hint: 1 per cent of us.)

At our most depleted, atomized, and alienated, are we in a state to take on the kinds of challenges that develop our capabilities? Or are we more likely to slip into a passive idleness, one of listless binge-gaming, binge-streaming, and binge-scrolling for a quick and easy serotonin hit? And we might ask whether there are more insidious consequences to all this, whether stunted free time is the substance being alchemized into vitriol aimed at refugees, Muslims, and caricatures of social justice warriors, feminists, and political correctness that permeate the Internet’s lowest troll lairs.

There is a more decent society on the other side of endless growth and needless work. When French political theorist Andre Gorz looked at this matter, he imagined the “possibility of periodically interrupting your working life for six months or two years at any age,” which would “enable anyone to study or resume their studies, to learn a new occupation, to set up a band, a theatre group, a neighbourhood cooperative, an enterprise or a work of art, to build a house, to make inventions, to raise your children, to campaign politically, to go to a Third World country as a voluntary worker, to look after a dying relative or friend, and so on.” John Maynard Keynes and critical theorist Herbert Marcuse both believed this would promote the perfecting of the “art of living.”

To master new abilities with our minds and bodies; to immerse ourselves in and come to be part of the world we inhabit and the living communities with whom we share it; to educate ourselves about the cultures, arts, politics, and histories of the world; to come to understand, empathize, and join with the struggles of others as better allies — none of these are weekend hobbies. They require learning, reflection, exploration, experimentation, mistakes, second, third, and nth tries.

New ideas always stand at a distinct disadvantage: they’ve never been tried. But when you look at the way things are and find them wanting, there really isn’t a choice other than to organize and fight for an alternative, in this case a society that is richer and more sustainable without economic growth.

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