Welcome to the second blog post in the Enough is Plenty Series from Anne Ryan, hosted by Feasta.
In this post, I reflect on the vocabulary we need to be familiar with if we are to raise awareness and develop widespread literacy and skills for responding to all our interrelated problems, from climate breakdown to soil erosion, species extinction, human suffering and inequality. The issue of language and vocabulary has arisen in a number of conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances in recent weeks, as we approached the School Climate Strikes on Sept 20 2019.
Activists and economists have for many years been developing ideas about how we can do well without untrammelled economic growth, which has reached the limits of its usefulness, especially in rich countries. Growth has reached the end of its capacity to give us a good life. It worked to help develop many societies and economies in the past but past results are no guide to future performance, as financial advisors rightly warn. We have overshot our ecological limits and we need to contract in order to fit within the biophysical capacity of the planet. We now need to make progress by sharing and distributing the wealth we already have, rather than by trying to grow.
This is a story with many variations and many storytellers, all yearning and working for a just and ecologically stable world that will bring together political action with scientific knowledge. So what language is suitable for sharing the story?
Green New Deal
The language of a Green New Deal (GND) is attractive and seems to have captured the imagination of many who want a just transition to an ecologically stable and just world. But a GND could go either way. It could mean a genuine transformation to an international, social, democratic, fair sustainable economy and society. It will understand and have at its heart the need to contract or shrink the world economy so that we can begin to repair some of the damage done and to construct ecologically sound and just ways to live.
On the other hand, the term GND could be used to describe rich countries continuing to strive for growth and high levels of production and consumption, using so-called ‘clean’ technologies. But this would be at the expense of the countries that supply the materials for solar panels and batteries and turbines: indium, lithium, neodymium. These materials are dwindling and whatever amount of them we can sustainably extract or harvest should be used to help developing countries, not to maintain the lifestyles of people in rich countries. Such a GND would probably also try to ‘decouple’ growth from fossil fuels in rich countries; but this is a false hope, as decoupling relies on exporting fossil-fuel-intensive production to other countries. In this way, overall global emissions do not shrink.
Anyone promoting GND needs to be well versed in the language and actions needed to democratically shrink overall global production and consumption, with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological stability. We need to manage the contraction that is necessary, in a way that cares for all global citizens. If we don’t manage it, climate and ecological breakdown will cause an involuntary recession, with the usual punitive austerity and cuts in social spending. Vital questions for GND-ers are: Which sectors of the economy should grow and which should shrink? Where (in what countries and in what sectors) do we still need growth? How do we match the jobs available to the work that needs to be done at this time of social, ecological crisis? What social developments and social technologies do we need?
Degrowth and other ways to talk about contracting in a planned and democratic way
The term degrowth has recently been getting some attention in the media in Ireland, where I live, but a number of friends and acquaintances (some new to the concept, and some who have been aware of it for some time) have remarked to me that they find the term degrowth off-putting and negative.
People who promote the term degrowth point out that it is a big movement that encompasses a huge range of imaginative and positive ways of living, much more conducive to human and planetary wellbeing, outside of our current obsession with a growth economy. And so it does, but for people coming new to it, that is not immediately clear; it can imply loss, going backwards, retreat, recession, even defeat.
Still others who understand and support the degrowth movement, nevertheless say that the term is unable to express what the movement is aiming for, and they prefer to use terms such as steady-state economics or post-growth economics.
I like the term ‘enough’ because it contains an inherent sense of balancing, an acknowledgement that some things need to grow, some need to contract and eventually all countries need to converge at a state that provides sufficiency for everyone. Rebalancing is also obvious in the term contraction and convergence, which I also find appealing. The term degrowth does not immediately convey a sense of rebalancing, although when one investigates a bit more, this shrink/grow and eventual convergence principle is very central to the movement. Still, for some the term ‘enough’ is equated with misery, mediocracy and a retreat to the past.
Likewise, the term ILK or Indigeneous and Local Knowledge refers to the valuable knowledge developed over time by indigeneous and local communities about how to live lightly in the world. ILK is a key source of knowledge about how to revive traditional skills and ways of caring for the earth. But again, for some, that is seen as ‘backward’.
Juliet Schor has coined the term Plenitude and Tim Jackson’s seminal work uses the concept of Prosperity Without Growth. Peter Viktor talks about going slower by design, not disaster. Some people like to use the term post-growth economics. Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams talk about The Economics of Arrival, referring to sharing the wealth we have and ensuring that everyone is included.
Another way to think of the necessary move towards contraction and equality is as feminism writ large. There are many strands within feminism, but they all contain basic principles that cut across sectoral lines: respect for diversity, the idea that the personal is the political, a challenge to the white able-bodied heterosexual male as norm and the rejection of oppressive power as an organisational basis for society. The concept of intersectionality was developed by feminists to show how race, class, ethnicity, ability and other markers of our being in the world operate together with gender to create oppressive conditions.
There is intersectionality in the current crises of ecology and humanity also, since they are all connected and a change in one can bring about changes in other areas. Activists like the US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez understand and express this very well.
Eco-feminism is a particularly important part of this story; it shows that the oppression of women and the suppression of the care work they have traditionally done is part of the same extractive mentality that has damaged the earth and the living systems that support us all. The knowledge about care generated over time by women is highly appropriate to the care for people and the earth that is needed at this time.
What will contraction look like?
One thing that most of the activists and thinkers promoting contraction are agreed on, is that the form of a sane, human, and ecological society and economy is not to be determined in advance. Many people are doing their best to pioneer it as best they can in the present circumstances but there is no blueprint waiting to be put into place in some overnight switchover.
The original New Deal, in the United States following the depression of 1929, was not a definite plan or blueprint either; it was an improvisational series of programs, some of which were successful and some not, and all of which evolved over time.
States and international governance bodies need to make contraction-interventions at the systemic or upstream level of economy and society, where they have high leverage potential. Then, they need to continue to respond intelligently to what arises. (Feasta members and others have shown how fossil fuel caps, an ecologically sound taxation system, democratic money systems and basic income, would be important systemic interventions.)
In Enough is Plenty, I conceptualised some of the interventions as ‘keystones’ and I will return to this idea in the next blog post.
Depending on our own unique personal histories, experiences and insights, each one of us will find certain terms more or less attractive. There are different levels of readiness in society to hear and engage positively with terms and concepts such as enough, degrowth, steady state and sufficiency. It’s important not to get too hung up on the differences among them and to see the common themes: sharing, solidarity, cooperation, care, equality, limits and wellbeing.
If you are coming new to these ways of thinking, if you are searching or developing your awareness, be aware that of all the terms, GND one is the one most open to co-option by big business and elite groups who stand to make money from crises, under the guise of being green. The other terms have no such ambiguity about them.
You might also like to investigate the phrases and headings below in addition to some of the terms I’ve mentioned already. This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive; I haven’t added links because there is so much material available. But a quick online search will get you started if any of them appeal to you.
- Doughnut economics and being growth agnostic
- Sharing for survival
- Sufficiency for sustainability
- Wellbeing economics
- Voluntary simplicity
- Buen vivir
- Ecological economics
- Economy of permanence
Which terms appeal to you? I’d love to hear your responses.
Featured image: extract from the page ‘In principio erat verbum’ (‘in the beginning was the Word’), from the Book of Kells