We’ve Got Degrowth. Own It. Love It.

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We’re entering a period of degrowth. Some may call it recession, I prefer degrowth. And I suggest we learn to like it. It may be our last chance to find happiness in avoiding climate cataclysm.

For more than a decade before Covid struck, global growth had been slow, and economists spent much of their time debating why, to no particular effect. Then everything shut down for the pandemic. Not surprisingly, a post-pandemic buying spree followed. But that didn’t last long, and few expect to see its like again any time soon.

Instead, mainstream economists, politicians, and stock market commentators are now spending much of their time debating whether or not the US is in a recession, or parts of Europe are entering recession, or what the word recession even means in economies jumbled by Covid, wars, rumors of wars, trade wars, and climate disruption.

Degrowthers should seize this moment of confusion as the last-chance opportunity it represents for the climate and the planet generally — not as something to avoid or ignore because they don’t want their ideal of a steady-state society focused on human and planetary wellbeing to be associated with the dreaded notion of recession.

Declare Victory

Saving the planet from climate change and other ecological devastation requires an end to economic growth. That’s the first core belief of all degrowthers, myself included.

With economic growth stalling out, for whatever complex reasons, shouldn’t everyone who recognizes the incalculably huge damage wreaked by humanity’s obsession with rising GDP be focused on preventing such growth from ever starting up again? I think so.

We should declare victory. Point out to one and all that growth is basically gone.

We should set about updating and popularizing the maps to a better political economy that degrowthers have been flinging out into the world for 50 years to little notice. We should start publishing, posting, and promoting them everywhere we can. We should write new ones.

We should emphasize the positive: Degrowth is not about sacrifice, it’s about ways of life that are both more fulfilling and less destructive. But we should not wait for the political conditions to be right. Now is the time to move, when the economic conditions are right.

Victory for What?

The recently acclaimed (by degrowthers) book The Future Is Degrowth, by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan, defines degrowth as “the democratic transition to a society that — in order to enable global ecological justice — is based on a much smaller throughput of energy and resources, that deepens democracy and guarantees a good life and social justice for all, and that does not depend on continuous expansion.”

In Post-Growth Living, Kate Soper argues that degrowthers should fight for “alternative hedonism,” which emphasizes “the enjoyment that comes with having more time, doing more things for oneself, travelling more slowly and consuming less stuff.”

In a book written before the pandemic, The Well-Being Economy, South African political economist Lorenzo Fioramonti describes his preferred alternative to GDP growth as “a profoundly political concept. It points to the fact that meaningful lives require participation, a sense of purpose, empowerment and deep connections: the very opposite of the simplistic utility-consumption axiom.”

All of these — and many other books and articles about degrowth — do indeed emphasize the positive. They seek to dispel the notion that degrowth is a recipe for misery and to paint it as a better way of living not only for the planet, but for people, too. One in which time, beauty, relationships and accomplishment are valued over the consumption of things and the mass entertainment that have become central pillars of society’s concept of the good life.

What Next?

A key stumbling block is that most degrowthers want the world to choose degrowth in a thoughtful manner and carefully plot out paths to get beyond our obsession with growth and into better lives for everyone. It’s hard to argue with that. It would clearly be the best approach.

The problem is that we face an immediate climate-crisis, and degrowth as a broadly accepted value proposition is a long way off at the current pace.

Recession, on the hand, is staring much of the world in the face. Is there a way to convert classic recession, with all the negativity that implies, into an uninterrupted pathway to degrowth — with all the positive implications that carries?

Recessions have a bad rap for good reason. They are unintended disruptions of an economic system in which growth is the prime motivating factor and, in theory at least, the means by which the poor may become a bit better off without disrupting the constant increase in riches that the rich demand. Recessions hit the poor and powerless hardest because the rich typically control the levers that protect them from serious damage.

Degrowth has barely had a rap at all — until recently. Mainly since the pandemic shutdowns, it is starting to be noticed. More often than not, this notice has been in the business press, and it’s generally negative. But the theory that bad publicity is better than no publicity probably applies. And much of the criticism is weak enough to almost be praising with faint damnation.

Take a recent Bloomberg column by Lionel Laurent. He concedes degrowthers “are right to attack unsustainable consumption habits and the slow speed of emissions cuts,” although “they downplay the ability of investment and innovation to do more with less, such as by increasing the lifespan of goods while reducing their carbon footprint” — moves which most degrowthers would laud and most capitalists would avoid like the plague, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Laurent’s article was picked up by the Washington Post and probably lots of regional news outlets, as well. It and other articles like it can easily be turned to a positive by degrowth advocates, with comments that help raise the public profile of the concept and the term. We have to believe that people will warm to the idea more as they know more about it, or our ideas about democratic acceptance of degrowth are all so much hot air — not something the world needs at this point.

Oil, Gas and Growth

Energy is a topic I know a lot about, having spent a career writing about it. I can say with confidence that, if the global recession becomes as severe as I and many others expect it to, it will sharply lower fossil fuel use, and therefore carbon emissions. My bet is that a good healthy recession will mean that peak oil and peak ICE (internal combustion engine) autos are both behind us.

What it should not do is also bring a repeat of the mantra-like warning from climate activists that the emission reduction doesn’t matter because it will be temporary and will reverse as soon as the world returns to growth. Any emission saved today buys time for renewable electricity and EVs to make headway, against what will be a weakened oil and gas industry and conventional automobile manufacturing.

A lengthy recession will also buy time to spread the word and gain broader acceptance of the degrowth ethic. What is needed is not to disassociate climate and degrowth activism from the recession, but rather to stress the opportunity this presents for the world to transition to a better mode of existence.