Ed note: this is Part 2 of the Introduction to Samuel Alexanders’ new book Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth. Part 1 of the essay can be found on Resilience.org here. This essasy was also published as a Melbourne Sustainable Society monograph in .pdf format here.
6. THE NEW STORY: TOWARD AN AESTHETICS OF DEGROWTH
In exploring an aesthetics of degrowth, we could begin with clothing, it being the domain of life where we express our personal aesthetics or ‘style’ most noticeably and immediately. The primary purpose of clothing is to keep us warm and its secondary function, at least in modern times, is to cover nakedness. That being said, those functions have been marginalised in consumer societies today, where clothing’s purpose has evolved to be primarily about expressing one’s identity or social status (Mackinney-Valentin 2017). There are powerful cultural expectations about looking a certain way depending on context, and since fashion changes so quickly, there is social pressure to constantly upgrade and expand one’s stock of clothing. These aesthetic expectations drive consumerism and the growth economy at the expense of a healthy environment and create cultures overly focused on cosmetic concerns.
In a degrowth society, the social importance of high fashion could be drastically reduced or disappear, as people might come to see that clothing is really just a superficial shell—saying little or nothing about the depth of a person’s character—and that always looking ‘brand new’ in an age of ecological overshoot is neither necessary nor cool. Of course, human beings have always expressed themselves through what they wear, so we should expect that style would not so much disappear as evolve in a degrowth society. But this style would reflect the ethics of sufficiency and frugality that would shape material culture in all domains of life (Thoreau 1983). People would probably have limited changes of clothing, buy second hand whenever possible, mend the clothing they have, exchange items, perhaps even make their own, and wear their items in creative arrangements until they are worn out. This would require many people to rethink their ‘image’ in light of the new aesthetic, including their ‘self-image’, in ways that might require a deliberate reshaping of the self by the self.
Clothing would be functional first and foremost, comfortable and well-worn, so there would be no worry about lying down on the grass if the mood called for it, opening up new opportunities for a sensuous reconnection with nature (Reich 1970). Neckties, high heels, and ostentatious displays of jewellery could slowly disappear as relicts of a bygone era. A time would come, no doubt, when people wearing ‘high fashion’ would be the ones perceived as lacking style and taste, and conversely, that the creative and eccentric clothing-makers and stylists would be the ones admired, esteemed, and sought after—at which time it would be clear that a new, creative, post-fashion, and highly localised aesthetics of degrowth had emerged.
A similar aesthetic evolution might come to shape both our homes and how we furnish them. In contrast to the McMansions prevalent especially in the United States and Australia, housing in a degrowth society would come to reflect the ‘small is beautiful’ aesthetic (Schumacher 1973). A small house minimises the materials and time needed for building, as well as shrinking the spatial footprint, thereby minimising pressure on urban sprawl. Most importantly, perhaps, a small house reduces the energy needed to heat and cool it, especially if well designed in terms of materials, orientation, window placement, and insulation. Less space inside also incentivises frugality and minimalism, as there would be little room for material clutter. There could be a widespread cultural embrace of William Morris’s dictum: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
Often furniture might be homemade (perhaps even the house itself); spaces would be dedicated to home production (eg arts and crafts) rather than merely consumption; renovations would rarely if ever be merely cosmetic; and the piano rather than the television might become the heart of the lounge. It should be clear, then, that nothing here suggests that homes in a degrowth society would be ugly, only that the sense of beauty and style would be very different, again reflecting a humble ethics of creative sufficiency rather than the slick uniformity of modernist chic. Scarcity begets creativity.
Continuing with basic material aspects of life, we could turn to food. One of the more perverse aspects of the industrial-consumerist aesthetic with respect to food is the bizarre expectation today for visually perfect, unblemished fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. Not only does this result in vast amounts of perfectly good food being thrown away or left to rot on account of it being aesthetically unacceptable to the contemporary consumer—highlighting the moral implications of aesthetics—but also the aesthetic demands for exterior perfection tend to impact negatively on the food’s taste (see generally, Stuart 2009).
In a degrowth society, it would be considered utterly tasteless to throw away good food if even a single person went hungry, and cosmetic blemishes would not be considered flaws but merely the inevitable result of natural, organic production. Similarly, it would be considered bad taste to eat meat from factory farms and in general meat consumption would be greatly reduced or eliminated due to environmental, especially climate, impacts (see Tanke 2007) and the heightened sensibility with respect to animal welfare. Thus the picture of an ordinary meal could begin to look very different from the highly processed, meat-heavy diets prevalent in the West and increasingly elsewhere, resulting in a new engagement with cooking styles, tastes, and recipes. Given that diets would probably be healthier on account of these changes, the very aesthetic of the human shape would likely transform in a degrowth society, with a reversal of the obesity epidemic. In terms of home production of food, the tidy but unproductive lawns and nature strips common today would be dug up and planted with fruit trees and vegetable gardens, transforming the ‘look’ of the suburbs and reminding people of the changing seasons. The productive permaculture garden or food forest might become new status symbols in the degrowth society (Holmgren 2002).
This reference to status symbols provides a segue into a consideration of the aesthetics of transport and travel. In consumer societies today, the automobile sits alongside clothing and housing as an object of consumption that is often designed and desired in order to convey wealth, success, and status. But in a degrowth society, the Lamborghini or Porsche would be considered a bit tacky, extremely wasteful, destructive, and contrived—certainly not something considered beautiful or to be envied or admired. There would be far more interesting and important things to focus on, for as Henry David Thoreau (1983, p. 568) would say: ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.’
A degrowth society would likely be a highly localised society, in which people’s main forms of transport would be cycling or walking (Honnery and Moriarty 2008). Aside from the environmental benefits, this would be a positive aesthetic innovation because it would increase the human connection with nature, keep us fit, and expose us to the elements in ways that would enrich our sensuous experience of the world. ‘Nature deficit disorder’ would disappear (Louv 2011). With good wet weather gear and adequate lights, even cycling home at night in the rain would not concern members of a degrowth society, who would instead look forward to the soft exhilaration of an evening ride, as cyclists today already know. Rather than go on holiday in homogenous luxury resorts overseas, the practitioner of voluntary simplicity in a degrowth society would sooner take the family camping in the local national forest or beachside village, again transforming our aesthetic or sensuous experience of the world in ways that could enhance our lives, provided we had developed a ‘taste’ for simplicity, nature, and the outdoors. This could open the door to what is today called ‘alternative hedonism’ (Soper 2008) or ‘frugal hedonism’ (Raser-Rowland and Grubb 2017)—that is, simpler ways of living that explore the various potentials of living ‘more with less’.
It should be clear that this type of aesthetic revisioning could be extended to all domains of life, large and small. At the ecosystemic level, by creating a post-carbon way of life, members of a degrowth society might avoid experiencing in their day to day existence the worst climate impacts; the wind farm would be perceived as a vista of supreme beauty, enriching the landscape, not something aesthetically objectionable; at the household level, the impression of a ‘good sized’ family might tend toward one child; in matters of detail, not flushing urine in order to save water might raise aesthetic objections from within the consumer mindset but become the ‘new normal’ in a degrowth society; similarly, using a composting loo to create ‘humanure’ (Jenkins 2005) might offend the squeamish bourgeois sensibility and yet defecating in drinking quality water might offend an alternative degrowth sensibility.
Furthermore, a degrowth society would likely produce vastly different urban and suburban landscapes, where advertising and cars were increasingly absent, de-polluting the visual, aural, and mental environments, allowing people to have thoughts of their own, liberated from the industrial-consumerist aesthetic. Even the arts themselves would doubtless evolve, with the corporate production of formulaic pop music, vapid television, and meaningless ‘spectacles’ of performance art (Debord 2000) losing hold on society and creating cultural space for a rebirth of authentic, local art, uninfluenced by the promise or seduction of the globalised market economy.
All this, of course, returns us to the question of ‘story’—and its importance, both in terms of self and society. Mending one’s clothes or growing one’s own food within the Old Story might be considered by many to be a shameful requirement, symbolising an unsuccessful life of poverty. But within the New Stories being told by degrowth and related movements, such practices would be seen and experienced as a fulfilling exercise of creativity; an example of sensible frugality; and a small but meaningful act of ecological care that draws social admiration, and so forth. Each element in life looks very different depending on the underlying narrative that gives those elements context, and so Story can be understood as the meta-aesthetic issue that shapes the ‘taste’ we have for various aesthetic forms, values, and practices. A degrowth society therefore requires a story of self that transcends the consumerist story of self—requires a new aesthetics of existence, as I have argued, from which a ‘taste’ for degrowth aesthetics would emerge. Of course, the challenge here, to paraphrase the poet Samuel Coleridge, is to create the taste by which we will be judged.
How to do that is a question that leads nicely into our final subject of inquiry.
7. THE ROLE OF ART AND THE ARTIST ON THE DEGROWTH PATHWAY
In these closing substantive sections I wish to reflect more directly, albeit briefly, on the role of art and the artist in the context of a degrowth movement. As noted from the outset, such an inquiry should be treated with some caution, for there is a risk that art merely signifies a pessimistic or even irresponsible retreat into the realm of the imagination at a time when the world needs committed and direct political and economic engagement, not merely beautiful pictures or creative stories. While a legitimate concern, I will maintain that art and aesthetic inventions in culture more broadly, far from merely representing an escape from the real world, may be, in fact, necessary to provoke and drive the required societal transformations that the degrowth movement envisages. Here the work of Herbert Marcuse remains as relevant as ever, who held that ‘art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world’ (Marcuse 1978, p. 32).
The foundational point—a negative one—lies in the realm of consciousness: currently there is little evidence within advanced, industrialised nations that people within the dominant culture think or feel that there is any need to transcend consumer capitalism. This is the reality of the situation and there is little use in denying it. The Marxian idea that the working classes would develop a revolutionary consciousness has not transpired and does not seem to be threatening to emerge. Indeed, within mainstream culture there does not seem to be any felt need to act for deep and urgent change, and without that cultural sensibility it is not clear how deep and deliberate change could ever eventuate. A radicalised consciousness seems to be a precondition for a successful degrowth movement, thus its absence should be a subject of critical concern.
I will offer two primary reasons (somewhat overlapping) for the broad cultural acceptance of the established reality of consumer capitalism. The first is related to the limits of human rationality; the second relates to the counter-revolutionary allure of affluence, which I argue limits the human imagination. Both of these issues reward an analysis through the lens of aesthetics and point to essential aesthetic responses.
7.1 The limits of rationality and the aesthetic implications
What is the nature of the human being? How do we make our decisions? The Enlightenment conception is, notoriously, a highly rationalistic one, assuming that our species shares a common nature by virtue of our rational faculties. The essential idea is that scientific progress and technological advancement is slowly lifting humankind out of the domain of historical ignorance and primitiveness, and by applying the scientific method we will continue to develop a broader range of knowledge and technologies with which we can better control and predict the workings of nature, thereby advancing human ends more effectively. The faith is that human beings are, by nature, rational—or capable of rational deliberation and reflection—and that increasingly we will shape how we act in the world according to the best scientific evidence we have at our disposal.
I am hardly the first to contend that human beings are far less rationalistic than this picture assumes (see the works of Nietzsche, Freud, Derrida, etc). To take the ecological crisis as a case in point: arguably there was evidence enough in the 1970s or earlier to justify a fundamental transformation of our destructive modes of economic activity. If not historically, then certainly today. Climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution, topsoil erosion, etc, etc—at what point will there be ‘enough’ evidence to provoke change? I contend that perhaps it isn’t ‘better evidence’ that is lacking.
Granted, there are vested interests at play which influence how democracies respond to the issues they face (Tham 2010), but the fact is that culture broadly knows about the ecological crises that are unfolding yet people continue to vote for politicians that are essentially maintaining not subverting business-as-usual; little change seems to be coming from the personal or household domain either, even though marginalised counter-cultures are everywhere bubbling under the surface. Who then seriously thinks that yet another scientific report on the declining state of the environment is going to be the catalyst for transformative change? It is important that evidence-based thinkers answer this question based on the evidence (see Haidt 2000, Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011).
If humanity’s social and environmental problems were just a result of an ‘information deficit’ or ‘knowledge deficit’, then perhaps a purely rationalistic approach to societal change would be justifiable. That is, the primary task would be simply to conduct the scientific research and publish the findings, and trust that human beings, as rational agents, will read and understand the evidence, change how they live, and vote for an appropriate political and economic response. It could be argued that this has been the defining faith of the environmental movement to date and perhaps points to its deepest failing.
I hasten to add that this is not in the slightest to denigrate the necessary and important work of environmental and social scientists. It is only to suggest that relying on ‘the evidence’ alone to do the hard work of societal transformation is naïve. Yes, it is critical to apply the scientific method rigorously to better understand the world; to pose and test hypotheses; to develop and apply appropriate technologies; to create cultures that think critically about the world; and to endeavour to be evidence-based decision makers at all levels of life. But it is just as important to recognise that it is not just what is communicated that matters, but also how it is communicated (see Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011), and it could be that the environmental movement, and the degrowth movement in particular, has trusted too much in the provision of the evidence, neglecting the critical task of presenting the evidence in socially digestible forms. This is an aesthetic challenge because it highlights the importance of giving form to content. It follows, I contend, that the degrowth movement should be exploring ways of being more creative and engaging in its presentation of its own scientific and ethical foundations, in order to do those foundations justice. After all, it is not enough to be correct in one’s diagnoses and prescriptions; one must also find a way to expand the audience beyond those already converted, and that points to a communications challenge.
On a related note, I would argue that the degrowth movement should be trying harder to appeal not merely to the head, but also—or especially—to the heart. Put otherwise, a persuasive case for degrowth must be made not just intellectually or rationally but also affectively or emotionally (Haidt 2000, Amin and Thrift 2013). No doubt there will be and are people who, when exposed to new evidence, reconsider their current thinking and adjust their worldview and actions to better reflect the facts. This is the rationalistic ideal and probably the self-image we all hold of ourselves. But most people would also probably accept that in many cases human beings fail to live up to this self-image, especially in this age increasingly called ‘post-truth’. When confronted with evidence that challenges a cherished worldview (eg the growth paradigm), people can look away; assume the evidence is flawed; attack the authors rather than the evidence; blindly trust that markets or some new technology will solve the problem; go searching for evidence that validates (however dubiously) their current position or lifestyle; or undertake any number of other evasive strategies (see, eg Hulme 2009, Hamilton 2010b).
It is in these non-rational contexts where the artist arguably becomes a necessary agent of change, having the potential to provoke social change via different mechanisms of persuasion, making emotional, psychological or even spiritual impacts on an audience at those times when science, logic, and argument have failed. The artist can conjure up new modes of perception, providing a feast of sensuous experience that anticipates, often explosively, a different way of living and being in the world, reshaping in some mysterious way not just the thoughts of individuals, but also their needs, feelings, hopes, and drives. As Marcuse (1978, p. 10) pointed out long ago, art can communicate truths ‘not communicable in any other language.’
Beyond the work of art narrowly defined lies the potential of aesthetic interventions in culture and politics more broadly. The ‘culture jamming’ movement, for example, seeks to incite cultural and political change not through argument, evidence, and logic, but through provocative and jarring images that disrupt and unsettle our sense normality, for the purpose of exposing the violence often hidden in our habits of thought and practice, and opening our minds to alternative ways of living and being. David Cox (2010) defines the practice of culture jamming as ‘a vibrant counter-attack on the empire of signs’, and this counter-attack need not just be the production of images, but can include other acts or activity that function to disrupt people’s ordinary experience and open new doorways of perception and understanding. Some refer to this as ‘artivism’ (see Jordan 2017).
It is worth noting that the Canadian journal Adbusters, which is the global hub of the otherwise decentralized culture-jamming movement, was the institution that conceived of the Occupy Movement. This is the closest thing we have ever seen to a global uprising, but note that Adbusters did not create the discontent at the heart of the Occupy Movement. It merely gave imaginative form to content—created an ingenious ‘branding’ of that discontent—in ways that were able to mobilise and organise it for political and economic purposes. It fought the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (Debord 2000) on its own terms, and met with some success. Culture-jamming is an oppositional aesthetic practice, I contend, that has yet to fulfil its potential.
The neo-pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty (1989), has made a compelling case that art—the novel, in particular—is a far more effective means of provoking an expanded moral or ethical sensibility and reshaping social relations in the world than logic, science, or books of moral philosophy. Indeed, Rorty argues that paradigm shifts in human culture, science, and political economy rarely occur because a society has been rationally convinced, based on the evidence, of a new framework of understanding; instead, such revolutions are usually a result of creative interventions in the dominant story whereby many significant aspects of the old mode of understanding have been redescribed in new ways. When a new generation grows up adopting and normalizing these redescriptions, we find that the world has changed. This is perhaps why Percy Bysshe Shelley (1890, p. 2) was prepared to declare that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, suggesting that aesthetic revolutions often precede revolutions in political economy, sometimes in subtle ways. Perhaps the ultimate lesson for the degrowth movement, then, is this: when all appeals to reason have failed, tell a new story (Burch 2016).
7.2. The counter-revolutionary allure of affluence and the aesthetic implications
The reflections in the previous sub-section offered one take on why there is no broad cultural consciousness that seeks to transcend consumer capitalism. The argument was that the evidence in support has not been communicated sufficiently well and that the movements for change, including degrowth, have focussed too much on an intellectual mode of persuasion, at the expense of emotional or affective modes of persuasion, which are arguably more effective in shaping or reshaping consciousness. It could even be the case that the very terminology of ‘degrowth’ is too confronting—is socially indigestible—in a civilisation where ‘growth’ is the defining metaphor of success. That is, degrowth invokes what it seeks to overcome, and therefore arguably reinforces the dominant metaphor. On the other hand, perhaps attacking the metaphorical foundations of civilization is the only coherent means of achieving the types of changes required. I will not try to resolve that debate here, but note that it is far from being a merely cosmetic concern (see Kallis 2017b, Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011).
In this closing sub-section I will briefly expand and extend this analysis by arguing that the promise (and to some extent the reality) of rising affluence in developed nations has functioned, in recent decades, to dissipate any large-scale social discontent or threat of social upheaval. The Grand Narrative of progress via economic growth has been widely internalised in consumer cultures, such that the working class—once the locus of the revolutionary sentiment—has found little need or desire to replace the ‘economic base’ of capitalism, even if little wealth has been trickling down. Even when ecological and social justice concerns are given attention by politicians or mass media, the social imaginary is so limited that resolutions to such problems are conceived of within the paradigm of growth and affluence, rarely if ever beyond it. People may shake their heads in concern when they hear of the latest warnings of climate scientists, or shake their heads in outrage when they hear that the richest eight men now own more than the poorest half of humanity, but when reflecting on what an alternative mode of existence might look like, the dominant culture shrugs its shoulders, unable to imagine anything other than green consumerism in a technocratic world. This is obviously a non-confronting response to the crises we face because it does not question the growth paradigm, overpopulation, or consumerist conceptions of the good life.
The point I would like to make is that this inability to think beyond growth and consumerism is a troubling failure of imagination, and arguably one of the greatest obstacles in the way of transformative change in the direction of degrowth. It is all very well for scholars to present a range of devastating critiques of the existing order of neoliberal capitalism, but if people are unable to envision what a just, sustainable, and liberated world would actually look like, then the necessary task of mobilizing communities for collective action will face insurmountable barriers. People will continue to seek meaning and advancement in the only ways the dominant culture permits: through consumption. Indeed, people may consume as means of objecting to the dehumanising ways they have been treated under capitalism, not realising they are in fact being counter-productive.
Again, this is why art has a revolutionary or transformative potential and always threatens to perform a political function, albeit usually indirectly (Edelman 1995). I would argue that one of the most important roles of the artist in society is not merely to make beautiful objects, images, stories, or songs, but to expand conditions of possibility by breaking through the petrified social reality and unshackling the human imagination. Far from representing an escape from reality, art and the artist can in fact expose the falseness and contingency of the established order, leaving the truth of alternative realities more accessible and perceivable. In the words of Marcuse (1978, pp. 6-7):
the world formed by art is recognized as a reality which is suppressed and distorted in the given reality. This experience culminates in extreme situations (of love and death, guilt and failure, but also joy, happiness, and fulfilment) which explore the given reality in the name of a truth normally denied or even unheard. The inner logic of the work of art terminates in the emergence of another reason, another sensibility, which defy the rationality and sensibility incorporated in the dominant social institutions.
With specific reference to degrowth, it would seem that the artist must help people see or feel more clearly, not merely the violence too often hidden in our cultural practices and economic and political institutions, but perhaps, most importantly, show that there are forms of flourishing and liberation that lie beyond consumer culture; forms of flourishing founded not upon affluence, growth, competition, and technology, but upon the visions and values of sufficiency, moderation, permaculture, community, cooperation, and self-governance. In short, an art for degrowth, first and foremost, must expand the collective imagination. The words of Gary Snyder speak to this approach with eloquent insight: ‘it would be best to consider this an ongoing “revolution by consciousness” which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy’s side’ (Snyder 1970, np).
Such aesthetic interventions in the name or spirit of degrowth are beginning to emerge here and there (Jordan 2017), but we are still waiting for the groundswell of creative activity that makes degrowth irresistible. We are still waiting for a new ‘aesthetic education’ (Schiller 2004) that teaches us how to live in balance and harmony with nature; a new aesthetic education that re-enchants our lives in ways that make the status quo utterly unacceptable and the joys of defiant activism seem impossible to pass up (Bennett 2001). But now, at least, the challenge has been laid down – both to artists, in particular, and to artists-of-life more broadly.
If it turns out, however, that neither art nor science can provoke the transformations needed to avoid the looming apocalypse, then the role of the artist will only magnify further, as creative imaginations are tasked with interpreting and understanding civilizational descent in terms that give meaning to the inevitability of suffering; give sense to the pain we will feel (perhaps are already feeling) as global capitalism dies its inevitable death. At that stage, the therapeutic or even spiritual role of art will take precedence over its political function, a transition anticipated already by the Dark Mountain (2017) movement. The very term ‘apocalypse’ has a dual meaning, not simply referring to the ‘end of the world’ but also signifying ‘a great unveiling or disclosure’ of knowledge. It will be the artist, not the scientist, I contend, who will contribute most to the human understanding of such a disclosure when, or if, it arrives. Rather than wallow helplessly as civilisation descends into barbarism, let us hope that our artists, novelists, poets, and filmmakers, are up to the task of weaving narratives of human and ecological suffering into a meaningful web of solidarity and compassion—and thereby, perhaps, give birth to a new golden age of Grecian tragedy that offers both an education and cleansing of the emotions and passions in these turbulent times (Aristotle 1997).
Perhaps that is the new dawn that lies beyond this dark hour.
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