This is a transcript of my keynote address presented at the ‘Local Lives, Global Matters’ conference in Castlemaine, Victoria, 16-18 October 2015.Other keynote speakers included Rob Hopkins, David Holmgren, and Helena Norberg-Hodge.
Thank you for that introduction, Jacinta, good morning everyone. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land and to recognise that these have always been spaces of teaching, learning, sharing, and conversation. It is a real honour to be part of this conversation today.
When I was a boy, if ever I were amongst a group of people congregating at 9am on a Sunday morning it was because I was at Church. For better or for worse, I am now a lapsed, or rather, I should say, a collapsed Catholic, although I remain a seeker. But as I look around the world today, especially from my Western perspective, it seems clear enough that God, if he is not yet dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche declared, is, at least, increasingly absent. There seems to be a tension between our spiritual sensibilities and the cultures and systems within which we live. As the poet-musician, Tom Waits, would shout in the voice of a husky wolf: ‘God’s away on business.’
But the absence of God should not imply an absence of religious thinking in our culture or cultures. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite; that our Western religiosity has become ever more intense in recent decades, and what has happened is that we simply switched idols, no longer worshipping the God of Christianity, and instead worshipping at the altar of growth, singing praises to the God of GDP, our saviour, for only in growth will we find redemption. Our high priests now take the peculiar form of neoclassical economists, bankers, and national treasurers. Daniel Bell once wrote in his landmark text, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: ‘Economic growth is the secular religion of advancing industrial nations.’
Since the industrial revolution this faith in growth has been unshakable. Today, however, we find ourselves at a moment in history where this faith is beginning to crumble, where the ideological ground beneath us is beginning to move – and opening up before our very eyes is a space, at last, for something new, a space where we are being called to think and live differently. What I would like to talk about this morning is something that has been emerging in recent years within the ever-widening cracks of capitalism, a new story, of sorts, or a new book of many different stories.
But I am not here to try to replace the god of growth with a new God. I will not pretend to be the next iteration of the high priest, nor am I about to pontificate about a new Doctrine or Dogma to which everyone must subscribe. As the anti-capitalist slogan goes, there may be one No, but there are many Yeses. So today I am going to talk about one of the yeses, which I hope can enrich the multitude of overlapping yeses we have all been exposed to this weekend, just as they have enriched me. To all those who have been part of the collective ‘yes’ this weekend, I thank you and I salute you.
The vocabulary I am going to focus on today revolves around the emerging ‘degrowth’ movement, which calls for planned economic contraction of developed or overdeveloped nations. I will get into details soon enough, but the basic case for degrowth is surprisingly simple:
1. The existing global economy is already in ecological overshoot, driven by the expansion of high-impact, Western-style consumer lifestyles and the structures of growth that often lock people into those lifestyles.
2. Great multitudes around the world do not have enough to live with dignity.
3. And, we have a population of 7.3 billion that is still growing.
Based on those three simple but extremely challenging premises – ecological overshoot, global poverty, and population – it follows that the richest nations must give up the pursuit of ‘more’ and find ways to flourish on less – much less. Less energy, less resources, less waste. And that means less consumerism, less globalisation, and ultimately, less capitalism.
But degrowth is not just a movement in opposition. Perhaps more than anything else degrowth is about embracing the abundance of sufficiency, it is about knowing how much is enough, and creating the necessary cultures, structures, and systems within which the entire community of life can flourish.
Degrowth is an ugly word, I admit, but it can’t be co-opted by big business without degenerating into Orwellian double-speak, which is an advantage not to be understated. We know all too well how mainstream politics has emptied ‘sustainable development’ of any critical bite. If something can mean anything, it means nothing. So degrowth, I feel, can create new spaces for conversation and action, by offering important insights into what a transition to a just and sustainable world might look like, and how to get there, even if it may not be the best word to use as the basis of a public relations campaign.
Before offering a critique of growth and unpacking the notion of degrowth, I’d like to offer a few more words on the idea that cultures and civilisations are founded upon Story, because this gets straight to heart of our turbulent and self-transforming present.
Stories of civilisation
Charles Eisenstein reminds us that human beings are story-telling creatures. This has always been so. We tell each other stories to ask and explore the question of what it means to be human, even though we usually discover that the answer lies simply in the questioning itself. Every individual life and every society is an enactment of a story people tell themselves about the nature and purpose of their existence and of the world they live in.
But what happens when we stop believing in our cultural stories and myths? What happens when the structures of meaning that have shaped, not only our culture, but also our identities, begin to breakdown?
Over the last two centuries in the West we have been telling ourselves that economic growth is the most direct path to prosperity, that the good life consists in material affluence, and that science and technology will be able to solve all our social and environmental problems. In recent decades we have even imposed this story on the entire globe, arrogantly declaring the end of history.
As each day passes, however, this story becomes less credible; its future, less plausible. With disarming clarity we see and increasingly feel that the global economy is destroying the ecological foundations of life, threatening a catastrophe that in fact is already well underway. The fact that capitalism also produces abhorrent inequalities of wealth raises the questions: for whom do we destroy the planet? And to what end? We are told to wait for justice, as if in a Kafkaesque novel, but we are not told how long we must wait.
As if all this were not enough, the assault of growth capitalism strikes deeper still, to the core of our being. Consumer culture is spreading what can only be described as a spiritual malaise – an apathetic sadness of the soul – as ever-more people discover that material things simply cannot satisfy the universal human craving for meaning.
Tragically, the cause of this malaise is falsely presented as its cure. When we get that new kitchen, and replace the carpet; when we upgrade the car or house and purchase that new watch or dress – then, perhaps, we will be happy; then our peers will respect us; then we will be loved. So do not question the status quo; fall quietly in line; and be grateful for a life of comfortable unfreedom.
As our culture continues to pursue this uninspired, narrowly materialistic conception of the good life, too many people are guilty of celebrating a mistaken idea of freedom; a mistaken idea of wealth.
We know, deep down, of course, that something is very wrong with this cultural narrative; that there must be better, freer, more humane ways to live. But we live in a profit-maximizing corporate world that conspires to keep knowledge of such alternatives from us. Living simply and embracing a humble material standard of living is not good for business. Instead, we are told that consumerism is the peak of civilisation, that beauty is skin deep, and that there are no alternatives. And over time, as these messages are endlessly repeated and normalised, too often our imaginations begin to contract and we lose the ability to envision different worlds. We begin to think that the future must look more or less like the past.
Today I’d like to tell a different story – because the future is not what it used to be.
A brief history of growth scepticism
Fortunately, the dominant story today has surprisingly shallow roots. It may look entrenched, but it is more fragile than it seems. The alternative story, or stories, have far deeper roots, and I’d now invite you to join me in putting our hands in the soils of history, to remind ourselves that there is so much to learn from the past about how best to negotiate the future.
In considering a history of growth scepticism one could begin as far back as the indigenous cultures or the ancient philosophers and prophets, ranging from the Buddha, to Socrates, to Diogenes and Aristotle, as well as the Greek and Roman Stoics, all of whom argued in various ways that the well-lived life, and the good economy, do not consist in the accumulation or production of ever-more material wealth. That is, at some point we should stop pursuing materialistic goals and do something else with our lives, and these early thinkers argued that such a point might arrive much earlier than we might at first think. This is to be contrasted with a culture that assumes that more must always be better.
The relevance of these early thinkers to the limits to growth debate lies in the centrality they placed on the question: ‘How much is enough?’ As Lao-Tzu once said: ‘He who knows he has enough is rich,’ which suggests to me that those who have enough, but who do not know it, are poor. We could call this the philosophical challenge to the growth economy. It challenges us to specify what types of growth we want and what we might want them for. After all, as Henry David Thoreau put it in 1854: ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.’
Growth scepticism in its macroeconomic form really begins however with Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill. Writing in 1798, Malthus famously argued in his Essay on the Principle of Population that population would grow faster the rate of food production, ultimately leading to what has come to be known as a ‘Malthusian catastrophe’ – that is, mass population die-off. The major flaw in this prediction was that Malthus didn’t build technological development into his theory and thus grossly underestimated the ability of food production to keep up with population growth. Today the epithet neo-Malthusian is used to mock limits to growth theorists who are said to predict catastrophe based on false premises.
Despite the fact that Malthus presented a flawed theory, the challenge of population growth has not been solved and remains central to the limits to growth perspective. Currently the world’s population is at 7.3 billion, with the latest research indicating that we are likely to reach 9.5 billion around mid-century and 11 billion by 2100. I think everyone who casually dismisses Malthus should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria and watch as the colony grows until it consumes all the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste. In that light, I ask you to imagine a world of 11 billion people, on our one and only planet, all aspiring to the Western way of life, and consider for a moment whether Malthus may yet get the last, tragic laugh. From a distance, I worry that Earth would look very much like that Petri dish.
If Malthus was the first collapse theorist in the ‘limits to growth’ school, John Stuart Mill, writing in 1848, was the first theorist to positively advocate for a post-growth economy. In his Principles of Political Economy, he argued that there would come a time when an economy has sufficiently provided for the material foundations of a good life for all, at which point, we should adopt what he called a ‘stationary state’ economy. We should do this, he argued, both for environmental and social reasons. Mill insisted that a stationary state in terms of resource consumption need not imply and stationary state in human culture or technological development. In other words, we don’t need to grow quantitatively to develop qualitatively.
Of course, the most famous expression of growth scepticism burst onto the scene in 1972, with the Club of Rome’s publication of Limits to Growth. This book used computer modelling to explore various scenarios, arguing that if population, industrial output, and pollution, kept trending ever-upward, there could come a time in the 21st century when the ecosystems of Earth would collapse under the weight of overconsumption, leading to swift declines in industrial output, food production, and thus population. Other scenarios were also explored where collapse was avoided through the use of appropriate technology and the stabilisation of population, resource consumption, and waste streams. Last year my colleague, Dr Graham Turner, published an update of the Limit to Growth scenarios, showing in his calm, objective, evidenced-based way, that civilisation as we know it is closely aligned with the collapse scenario. This is not happy news, but better we know this.
I will briefly mention one other key figure in this history of growth scepticism, Herman Daly. Herman Daly coined the phrase ‘steady state economics’ to refer to an economy with stable energy and resource demands. Daly deserves recognition for doing more than anyone else to ground economics in physics. But one of the weaknesses of Daly’s theory is that he didn’t emphasis the fact that on an already overburdened planet, the richest nations can’t merely ‘stop growing’ and maintain a steady state. Given the extent of ecological overshoot, the richest nations actually need to contract the energy and resource demands of their economies, and this is why I think the degrowth school of thought adds some necessary clarity. It points out the elephant in the room, which is that overgrown societies need to initiate a process of planned contraction. Note at once that degrowth, being planned economic contraction, must be distinguished from recession, which is unplanned contraction.
Obviously, degrowth could only ever be a transitional phase – one would not want to be in a permanent state of degrowth. The aim would be to transition through a phase of degrowth to a post-growth or steady state economy that operated within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet on stable energy and resource demands.
One of the most compelling justifications for degrowth is as a response to climate change and the looming energy scarcity. There is and has always been close connection between energy and economy, and if we are going to give up fossil fuels, as we must, then it follows that we are going to have to run out societies on less energy. Renewable energy cannot fully replace fossil fuels. And if we have significantly less energy, that means we have significantly less production and consumption. Degrowth is one way to conceive of managing the energy descent future.
The poorest nations, of course, will need to develop their economic capacities in some form, at least to attain some dignified material standard of living, but eventually they too will need to transition to a steady state or post-growth economy. Note, however, that degrowth adopts a particular position on poverty alleviation. Within capitalism, the solution to poverty is through growth. We must grow the economic pie. A rising tide lifts all boats. The degrowth school argues that a rising tide will sink all boats, from which it follows that the primary method of poverty alleviation must be a redistribution of wealth and power, not growth.
My argument will be that this basic vision of contraction and convergence represents the most coherent response to the overlapping crises we face today. And this is significant, I feel, because unless we have a clear vision of where we want to go, we are unlikely to get there.
Deconstructing the debate
Despite the long history of growth scepticism, arguments suggesting that there might be ‘limits to growth’ have been, and remain, notoriously controversial.
Economists of neoclassical inclination tend to argue that these limits to growth theorists just don’t understand economics – plain and simple. In response, the limits to growth school argues that neoclassical economists don’t understand the limits of their own models.
The controversy arises primarily in relation to the concept of GDP. Growth advocates argue that there is no reason why we cannot ‘decouple’ GDP growth from environmental impact in such a way that avoids any perceived limits to growth. Science, technology, and free markets will help us achieve this.
These growth advocates might acknowledge that current forms of GDP growth are not sustainable, but nevertheless argue that what we need is ‘green growth’ in GDP; that is, growth based in qualitative improvement not quantitative expansion. According to this view, all nations on the planet should continue to pursue growth in GDP, while aiming to ‘decouple’ that growth from environmental impact. This is the dominant conception of sustainability, as recently reiterated through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which didn’t even use the phrase ‘sustainable growth’, it merely called for ‘sustained growth’.
I’d now like to explain why this idea of ‘decoupling’ growth from impact, while theoretically coherent as far as it goes, is dangerously flawed when placed grounded in reality.
The arithmetic of growth
The most powerful way to debunk the growth model of progress is to consider what might happen if we actually got what we were aiming for in terms of GDP growth. When we read United Nations reports, or government reports, or hear the promises of politicians on the left and the right, it seems that the basic vision of global development is that the rich nations keep growing in terms of GDP and, in accordance with justice, over coming decades the poorest attain a similar standard of living, all done in a way that is magically sustainable.
But Tim Jackson, among others, have done the arithmetic of growth, and even on quite modest assumptions expose the flaw at the heart of the growth model – that is, the apparent failure to understand the exponential function. Let me explain.
If the developed nations – say the OECD nations – grew by 2% over coming decades and by 2050 the global population had achieved a similar standard of living, the global economy would be 15 times larger than it is today. If it grew at 3% from then on it would be 30 times larger than the current economy by 2073, and 60 times larger by the time this century.
Very quickly, you see, the exponential function makes a mockery of the growth model. Note also that if we ask governments around the world, ‘would you rather 4% growth than 3%?’ they’d all say yes, without exception, making this arithmetic of growth all the more absurd.
Let’s remind ourselves that the global economy is already in gross ecological overshoot; that we’re already devastating the planet and biodiversity; and if we succeed on achieving the trajectory the world is aiming for by 2050 the economy would be 15 times larger than it is today. I wouldn’t much like to think what would happen to the planet if the economy was twice as large as it is today, or four times as large, let alone 15, 30 or 60 times larger over coming decades.
This type of basic arithmetic of growth gives me confidence that the growth model has absolutely no future. At some stage we need to ask: how much is enough? How much is too much?
Absolute decoupling isn’t even happening
At this point, mainstream economists will accuse degrowth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. Everyone knows that we could produce and consume more efficiently than we do today. The problem is that efficiency without sufficiency is lost.
Despite decades of extraordinary technological advancement and huge efficiency improvements, the energy and resource demands of the global economy are still increasing. This is because within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains tend to be reinvested in more consumption and more growth, rather than in reducing impact.
This is the defining, critical flaw in growth economics: the false assumption that all economies across the globe can continue growing while radically reducing environmental impact to a sustainable level. As the arithmetic of growth shows, the extent of decoupling required is simply too great. As we try unsuccessfully to “green” capitalism, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.
Critique of GDP
We should also acknowledge the limitations of GDP as a measure of social progress. GDP is a measure of the total monetary value of the goods and services produced in an economy over a given period. But GDP makes no distinction between expenditure that would seem to genuinely contribute to social wellbeing and expenditure that does not.
To provide some examples: if there is a terrible oil spill or natural disaster, this is good news in terms of GDP because a huge amount of money will need to be spent cleaning it up. If more marriages break down, forcing couples of hire divorce lawyers, and who then live apart requiring more houses to be built and more furniture to fill these houses, this is good for GDP. If we cut down more of our old growth forests and turn them into McMansions, this is good for GDP. If people are driven to purchase extra security alarms or put bars on their windows due to increased crime, or if more people are put on anti-depressants or diet pills, this is all good for GDP. If we all worked 20 more hours per week this would add to GDP.
The point is that GDP is an incredibly crude measure of social progress. It is mis-measuring our lives. Today, growth of the economy in terms of GDP is immediately called ‘economic growth’ irrespective of whether the benefits outweigh the costs. But growth of something that happens to be called the economy should only be called ‘economic growth’ if the benefits outweigh the costs. If growth of the economy has more costs than benefits, then that should be called ‘uneconomic growth’. We are living in an age of uneconomic growth, but this reality is totally missed by societies that assume that more GDP is always better than less.
Note that this diagnosis of uneconomic growth also opens up space for the notion of ‘economic degrowth’ – that is, contraction of the economy in terms of GDP where the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Just as an overworked employee could increase wellbeing by working less and being materially poorer, so too is it possible that over-developed nations might also contract in beneficial ways.
What is degrowth?
When one first hears calls for degrowth, it is easy to think that this new economic vision must be about hardship and deprivation; that it means going back to the stone age, resigning ourselves to a stagnant culture, or being anti-progress. Not so.
Degrowth would liberate us from the burden of pursuing material excess. We simply don’t need so much stuff – certainly not if it comes at the cost of planetary health, social justice, and personal wellbeing. Consumerism is a gross failure of imagination, a debilitating addiction that degrades nature and doesn’t even satisfy the human need for a meaningful existence.
Degrowth, by contrast, would involve embracing what has been termed the ‘simpler way’ – producing and consuming less. This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions – a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty.
The lifestyle implications of degrowth and sufficiency are far more radical than the “light green” forms of sustainable consumption that are widely discussed today. Turning off the lights, taking shorter showers, and recycling are all necessary parts of what sustainability will require of us, but these measures are far from enough.
But this does not mean we must live a life of painful sacrifice. Most of our basic needs can be met in quite simple and low-impact ways, while maintaining a high quality of life.
What would life be like in a degrowth society?
In a degrowth society we would aspire to localise our economies as far and as appropriately as possible. This would assist with reducing carbon-intensive global trade, while also building community and resilience in the face of an uncertain and turbulent future. We must ride our bikes more and fly less.
Through forms of direct or participatory democracy we would organise our economies to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and then redirect our energies away from economic expansion. This would be a relatively low-energy mode of living that ran primarily on renewable energy systems.
As noted earlier, renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”.
We would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our simplicity, we would be rich.
Wherever possible, we would grow our own organic food, water our gardens from water tanks, and turn our neighbourhoods into edible landscapes as the Cubans have done in Havana. As my friend Adam Grubb so delightfully declares, we should ‘eat the suburbs’, while supplementing urban agriculture with food from local farmers’ markets.
More broadly, we must turn our homes and communities into places of sustainable production, not unsustainable consumption. This involves increasing self-sufficiency and reskilling ourselves and our communities to regain practical knowledge that is on the cusp of being lost.
We would become radical recyclers and do-it-yourself experts. This would partly be driven by the fact that we would simply be living in an era of relative scarcity, with reduced discretionary income.
But human beings find creative projects fulfilling, and the challenge of building the new world within the shell of the old promises to be immensely meaningful, even if it will also entail times of trial. The apparent scarcity of goods can also be greatly reduced by scaling up the sharing economy and the non-monetary economy, which would also enrich our communities.
We do not need to purchase so many new clothes. Let us mend or exchange the clothes we have, buy second-hand, or make our own. In a degrowth society, the fashion and marketing industries would quickly wither away. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we creatively re-use and refashion the vast existing stock of clothing and materials, and explore less impactful ways of producing new clothes.
Degrowth sees ugliness in the clothes dryer and elegance in the clothesline. As Leonardo da Vinci once wrote: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
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 David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited. We need to redesign our communities based on permaculture principles, nourishing the earth that nourishes us.
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.
In short, degrowth means living lives of frugality, moderation and material sufficiency – but lives that are rich in their non-materialistic dimensions.
Making the change
A degrowth transition to a steady state economy could happen in a variety of ways. But the nature of this alternative vision suggests that the changes will need to be driven ‘from below’, rather than imposed from the ‘top down’.
What I have said has highlighted a few of the personal and household aspects of a degrowth society based on sufficiency. Meanwhile, the ‘transition towns’ movement shows how whole communities can engage with the idea.
But it is critical to acknowledge the social and structural constraints that currently make it much more difficult than it needs to be to adopt a lifestyle of sustainable consumption. For example, it is hard to drive less in the absence of safe bike lanes and good public transport; it is hard find a work-life balance if access to basic housing burdens us with excessive debt; and it is hard to re-imagine the good life if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements insisting that “nice stuff” is the key to happiness. As has already been discussed in this conference, the very idea of having a monetary system based on interest-bearing debt also clashes directly
Actions at the personal and household levels will never be enough, on their own, to achieve a degrowth economy. We need to create new structures and systems that promote, rather than inhibit, the simpler way of life, even if we have to build these new systems ourselves, at the community level. But these wider changes will never emerge until we have a culture that demands them. So first and foremost, the revolution that is needed is a revolution in consciousness, which will drive change from the grassroots.
I do not present these ideas under the illusion that they will be readily accepted. The ideology of growth clearly has a firm grip on our society and beyond. Rather, I hold up degrowth up as the most coherent framework for understanding the global predicament and signifying the only desirable way out of it.
Degrowth is utopian!
One of the responses I often get when talking about degrowth is that this vision is hopelessly utopian. Let me outline four brief responses to that common and to some extent understandable objection:
First, I would turn this objection on its head and argue that degrowth is not utopian; limitless growth on a finite planet is utopian. When one understands the exponential function, it becomes clear that it is the growth model that is a fantasy; it is the growth model that is not being realistic in a biophysical sense. Degrowth, I contend, is about recognising realities not transcending realities.
In another sense, however, the charge of utopianism should perhaps be embraced, not as an indictment, but as a defence. Without the belief that a different world is possible, there can be no hope for our species or our civilisation. We need to have a coherent vision about where we need to go; we need to have a sense of what is being asked of us in an age of overlapping crises. If we do not have some compass in that regard then we can only proceed aimlessly and without direction. Degrowth provides us with a compass.
Thirdly, the term utopia, of course, means ‘no place’, and in this sense I would again accept the charge of degrowth as being utopian. Granted, there is and has never been a degrowth economy of any significant size. Nevertheless, fragments of the degrowth alternative, or matrix of degrowth alternatives, already exist. It would require another presentation to review these prefigurative examples, but when one looks at grassroots movements based on permaculture, voluntary simplicity, transition towns, local food initiatives, local currencies, worker cooperatives, the Occupy Movement, and ecovillages, one can see glimpses of degrowth in action. So while a degrowth economy, as such, does not yet exist, elements of degrowth are already bubbling under the surface of the existing economy, waiting for some spark – perhaps a crisis, perhaps a revolution in consciousness – that will expand its reach as the growth economy meets its inevitable demise in coming years or decades.
Fourthly, I would argue degrowth should not be dismissed as utopian in a pejorative sense because it is in our own interests – both long-term and short-term. Degrowth, therefore, does not rely on altruism. If we reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture we will discover that we can consume less but live more. By choosing to do without the superfluous material wealth we will be rewarded with more time, more freedom, more community, more health, more connection with nature, more meaning, and more justice. In short, degrowth is predicated on a new form of flourishing, where paradoxically we decrease our material standards of living but actually increase our quality of life. In this sense I would advocate for degrowth even if social justice and environmental concerns were left to one side.
Uncivilising ourselves from our destructive civilisation and building something new is the great, undefined, creative challenge we face in coming years and decades – which is a challenge both of opposition and renewal. This process of uncivilising ourselves implies a revolutionary agenda. We cannot merely tinker with the systems and cultures of global capitalism and hope that things will magically improve. Those systems and cultures are not the symptoms but the causes of our overlapping social, economic, and environmental crises, so ultimately those systems and cultures must be replaced with fundamentally different forms of human interaction and organisation, driven and animated by different values, hopes, and myths.
As citizens of the cosmos, inhabiting this beautiful, unique, fragile planet which is trembling under the weight of our economic recklessness, it is our duty and indeed our destiny to embrace life beyond growth before it embraces us. The end of growth is coming one way or another, due to environmental limits. Better the transition comes by design than disaster. And yet the momentum of two centuries of ‘development’ suggests that changing direction is both necessary and seemingly impossible. In fact, it has been said that in the Anthropocene it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
But – if we listen carefully – we can hear that there is a collective rumbling in the world today. It is spreading in all directions, which means it is both coming your way and emanating from you. Currently dormant, our repressed hopes are all embers ready to ignite, awaiting a rush of oxygen that will flare our utopian ambitions. Breathe deeply, they say, and demand the impossible. Let us stoke the fire of ecological democracy that is burning in our eyes, not because we think we will succeed in producing a just and sustainable world, but because if we do not try, something noble in our hearts and spirits will be lost. As John Holloway writes: ‘We need no promise of a happy ending to justify our rejection of a world we believe to be wrong’.
The creative task of managing our civilisational descent – daunting though it is – promises to be both meaningful and fulfilling, provided we are prepared to let go of dominant conceptions of the good life and begin telling ourselves new stories of prosperity based on the unfashionable values of sufficiency, frugality, mindfulness, appropriate technology, self-governance, permaculture, and local economy.
We should explore alternatives not because we are ecologically compelled to live differently – although we are – but because we are human and deserve the opportunity to flourish in dignity, within sustainable bounds. This does not mean regressing to something prior to consumerism; rather, it means drawing on the wisdom of ages to advance beyond consumerism, in order to produce something better, freer, and more humane – even if it will also be more humble. This revolution, no doubt, will require all the wisdom, creativity, and compassion we can muster. But impossible things have happened before. And if we fail, may we fail with dignity.
Let us declare, in chorus, that providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever’ is the defining objective of a just and sustainable world, a world that we should try to build by working together in free association. And let us show that material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy, and fulfilling lives.
Thus our defining challenge is to seek out and embody the ‘middle way’ between over-consumption and under-consumption, where basic material needs are sufficiently met but where attention is then redirected away from superfluous material pursuits, in search of non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. Those sources are abundant – inexhaustible – if only we knew it. It is time to abandon affluence and turn to the realm of the spirit to satisfy our hunger for infinity.
It is painfully clear, of course, that governments around the world are not interested in moving ‘beyond growth’ or questioning consumer culture, and there are few signs of things changing at the top. Empire, we can be sure, will not contemplate it’s own self-annihilation; nor will it lie down like a lamb at the mere request of the environmental movement. Empire will struggle for existence all the way down.
It follows that the revolution that is needed must emerge ‘from below’, driven into existence by diverse, inspired, and imaginative social movements that seek to produce a post-capitalist society. We must endeavour to live the alternative worlds into existence, here and now, and show them to be good, while at the same time recognising that the Great Transition that is needed will likely come only at the end of a rough road – after or during a series of crises. Can we turn the crises of our times into opportunities for civilisational renewal? That is the question, the challenge, posed by our turbulent moment in history.
In the words of Theodore Roszak:
There is one way forward: the creation of flesh and blood examples of low-consumption, high quality alternatives to the mainstream pattern of life. This we can see happening already on the counter-cultural fringes. And nothing – no amount of argument or research – will take the place of such living proof. What people must see is that ecologically sane, socially responsible living is good living; that simplicity, thrift and reciprocity make for an existence that is free.
Everything else follows from the reaffirmation of life; in the absence of such reaffirmation, all else is lost. Our task, therefore, is to expose and better understand the myths that dominate our destructive and self-transforming present, and to envision what life would be like, or could be like, if we were to liberate ourselves from today’s myths and step into new myths. We search for grounded hope between naïve optimism and despair. Without vision and defiant positivity, we will perish.
It was Buckminster Fuller who once said: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’
This approach to social transformation essentially expresses the idea that examples are powerful, that examples can send ripples through culture further than we might ever think possible, creating cultural currents, that can turn into subcultures, that sometimes explode into social movements and which, on very rare occasions, can spark a revolution in consciousness that changes the world. In an age when it can sometimes seem like there is no alternative to the carbon-intensive, consumer way of life, being exposed to a real-world example of a new way of living and being has the potential to expand and radicalise the ecological imagination, and in those moments when we are able to break through the crust of conventional thinking we see, all at once, that the world as it is, is not how the world has to be.
‘Let the record show that we chose to thrive in simplicity rather than perish in affluence.’*
*quoting Mark A. Burch
Photo credit: "Bradshaw rock paintings" by TimJN1 – Bradshaw Art. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.