Reimagining and reinventing the ‘good life’ lies at the heart of any degrowth transition to a low-carbon economy. High-consumption lifestyles simply cannot be universalised to seven, or nine, or ten billion people, while keeping within a carbon budget (to say nothing of the other limits to growth). Therefore, any sufficient response to climate change and other ecological limits requires a cultural paradigm shift that involves a significant shift away from high-consumption lifestyles towards ways of life informed by principles and practices of material sufficiency.
The ‘degrowth’ principles of increased frugality, moderation, and sufficiency need not necessarily be seen as principles of hardship or deprivation. A strong socio-psychological case can be made that income has diminishing marginal returns, meaning that income is very important at low levels of income, but once basic material needs have been met, priorities other than income become increasingly important (e.g. social engagement, more meaningful employment, more time for private passions). In fact, the evidence suggests that high-consumption societies are widely mis-consuming, in the sense that many people could actually reduce their consumption while also increasing their wellbeing (see Alexander, 2012b; Bilancini and D’Alessandro, 2012). In this context, degrowth can be understood to mean trying to find that ‘optimal’ material/energy threshold.
In much the same way that carbon budget analysis must be the basis of a pro-active education campaign, so too should support for the goal of ‘voluntary simplicity’ be built as an attractive alternative to consumer lifestyles. Such a campaign may need to begin at the grassroots level, where a cultural shift is initiated as more individuals and communities provide real-world examples of low-consumption, high quality living. This cultural transformation also highlights the point made above: that decarbonisation cannot be achieved simply from the ‘supply side’ but actually requires people to reduce the consumption of resources and energy from the ‘demand side’ too. This might mean driving less and cycling more; growing local organic food; putting on woollen clothing rather than always turning on the heater; taking shorter showers; flying less or not at all; making and mending things rather than buying new; and in countless other ways rethinking lifestyles in ways that reduce energy and resource burdens. This is an immensely creative challenge, which finds promising movements already underway based on notions of voluntary simplicity (Alexander, 2009), permaculture (Holmgren, 2002), and transition towns (Hopkins, 2008). It is highly likely that these types of social movements will need to expand if the policies outlined above are to find broad social support. Indeed, to the extent that governments refuse to act decisively, it follows that the transition to a low-carbon, post-growth economy will need to be driven ‘from below’, without much state support (see generally, Trainer, 2010).
It is also necessary to acknowledge, in closing, that the above proposals, bold though they are, would not, in themselves, be enough to produce a just and resilient degrowth economy (Trainer, 2012). The proposals above are focused primarily on the question of decarbonisation, but given how fundamental the transition to a low-carbon economy is, a wide range of broader social, economic, and political changes will also be required. For example, a degrowth economy will require new banking and financial systems that are not so dependent on debt or the expansion of the money supply through interest-bearing loans. Similarly, providing access to cheap and affordable housing, or sufficient job security, in a degrowth economy may require a fundamental restructure of existing property and tax systems (see Alexander, 2011; Kallis et al, 2012). Land use patterns will need to be revised in order to assist with decarbonisation too. This paper has not attempted to address these or other remaining complex issues, but I note them here as issues deserving of more attention by those who see the transition to a post-growth economic paradigm as a necessary part of any a low-carbon transformation. Whether ‘degrowth’ is the best term to describe this necessary societal transformation remains open to question. But that terminological debate is less important than the fact that this debate is occurring in recognition of the radical implications of carbon budget analysis and the broader limits to growth critique.
In order to have a reasonable chance of staying within carbon budget constraints and therefore of avoiding the most extreme global warming scenarios, this paper has argued that an integrated matrix of decarbonisation initiatives must be implemented which aim to initiate a rapid transition to a degrowth economy. In the Annex 1 nations, this would require a systematic, planned reduction in the consumption of energy and resources. The rapid and deep reductions in emissions required if the Annex 1 nations are to decarbonise at 8-10% over coming decades cannot be achieved merely with a ‘supply side’ transition to renewable energy, necessary though that transition is. It must also be supplemented by a ‘demand side’ reduction in carbon-intensive consumption and production. That means creating a fundamentally different kind of economy – one not based on limitless growth – and embracing ways of living far less impactful than high-consumption lifestyles.
While I am fully conscious of the challenges involved in building broad public support for this argument, I hope that the analysis presented here can contribute to a more informed public debate about the crucial contribution which the transition to a post-growth economic paradigm will need to make in achieving climate stability and a just and resilient future. After all, as Winston Churchill once noted: ‘it is no use saying, “We are doing our best”. You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.’
1. Note that calling the former policy a carbon ‘tax’ is actually a misuse of the term, since it is really just internalising an externality. We do not, for example, say that a company is being ‘taxed’ when we expect it to clean up the river it polluted. We will, however, defer to convention and use the term carbon tax to differentiate this form of pricing carbon from an emissions trading scheme.
2. In an important aside, if the world decided to take climate change seriously, one of the first investment changes necessary would be to stop financing new or existing infrastructure projects aimed at producing unconventional shale oil and the tar sands, as these oils are significantly more carbon-intensive as conventional oil (Hansen and Kharecha, 2008). Nevertheless, stopping production of unconventional oils would mean global liquid fuel production would immediately peak or even be in decline, despite demand growing, which would inevitability mean significantly higher oil prices (which are already at historically high trend levels). The further challenge this would raise, however, is that expensive oil has a suffocating effect on oil-dependent economies, inhibiting growth (see Alexander, 2014b). This is not an argument in support of unconventional oil, of course; it simply provides further grounds for decarbonising our economies and moving toward a post-growth macroeconomic paradigm that is far less dependent on cheap oil.
3. As Kallis and Martinez-Alier (2010: 1572) note: ‘First there is the question of who and how is to decide on the proper caps. Second, there is the question of who and how is to enforce them.’
Wiseman, J., Edwards, T., and Luckins, K. 2013. Post Carbon Pathways: Toward a Just and Resilience Post Carbon Future. CDP Discussion Paper, April 2013. Available at: http://www.postcarbonpathways.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Post-Carbon-Pathways-Report-2013_Final-V.pdf (accessed 1 July 2014).
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