I’m an undergraduate political science student in the US. In the last year, I’ve consumed a huge chunk of literature on degrowth (probably 1500–2000 pages of books, journal articles, etc). I have deep respect and admiration for the work done by the folks at Research and Degrowth, and I fully believe degrowth (in the global north) is necessary and desirable. This is an open letter to the R&D community and others interested in post-growth economics that I’m writing as an unknown student, with the hopes that someone will hear, and just might listen.
I know I’m not academically qualified to make the generalizations I make here — I may have a good GPA, but I’m no PhD, MA, BA, etc — I’m simply writing this letter as a hopeful student who has devoured degrowth literature, but have yet to find a chunk of it that answers the challenging question of how to make our dreams into a reality. On that note, here’s the letter:
“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”-Marx
I want to make a simple argument.
Research & Degrowth should shift trajectories, dramatically, as soon as possible. In what direction? Political science research, and direct organizing.
We are running out of time.
The IPCC’s 2018 report on warming of 1.5 degrees sounded the alarm to the world: the world needs to cut emissions in half by 2030, and to net zero by 2050, to stay within 1.5 degrees C. In the global north, to compensate for its historically disproportionate role in driving emissions, emissions must go to net zero by 2030.
Here’s the tough part.
If the central thesis of degrowth is correct — that economic growth unavoidably drives ecological destruction and GHG emissions — then we have a little more than 9 years to win.
We know that green growth is an impossible fantasy. Material use and emissions are tightly coupled to GDP, and studies that have modeled insane policy responses (a $573 carbon tax plus resource extraction tax) still find that if economic growth continues, material throughput will continue to rise, instead of falling to sustainable levels.
In other words, we cannot stop the ecological crisis without degrowth becoming mainstream. And we only have 9 years (give or take) to avoid catastrophic harm (150 million dead from 2 degrees instead of 1.5 C).
Degrowth is gaining followers, yes — in the 14 years since Schneider rode a donkey across France, the academic/research community has expanded significantly. But there’s a big gulf between where we are and where we need to be. We cannot afford to spend 14 more years in the ivory tower — we have 9 years to change the world’s opinion of growth (and possibly take down capitalism along the way)!
This poses an incredible challenge — the Mont Pelerin Society took 30 years to mainstream neoliberalism, and it had the advantage of being in the interest of capital. Degrowth still has a long way to go, and wants to end capitalism (not exactly a recipe for securing billionaire Koch-brother sponsors!) Growthism is so entrenched that we still argue about whether degrowth is even the right word to use when communicating to the public. Even the furthest left parties see degrowth as politically toxic, they won’t touch it with a 10 foot pole.
So, in summary: degrowth is ecologically necessary, but still is far from being mainstream politically acceptable. This must change, and very quickly.
I have three tentative suggestions.
First, degrowth’s research agenda should shift significant attention to questions of political science and sociology. We must ask (and answer) questions about how to win the battle of ideas, how to mobilize tens of millions of people into a social movement advocating degrowth, etc. Put simply, we must engage the vast political science/sociology research on social movement theory to chart ourselves a way to a degrowth world. Having read a significant cross section of the existing research on degrowth, I am struck by the lack of attention given to these questions.
I suspect this is a product of degrowth’s intellectual heritage in ecological economics and political ecology — many of the academics have backgrounds in economics or ecology, not social movement theory. So it makes sense that the research has thus far neglected the challenging (but crucial!) question of how the hell we will convince the public to adopt our policy platform. But this must change if we want to have any shot at mainstreaming our ideas in time. I’m hoping to work on these questions for my senior thesis (and possibly if I take the MA program in Barcelona), but it might help if others (more qualified than I) would too.
Second, it may be prudent to (partially) leave the ivory tower of academia. If the goal is to mainstream degrowth ideas, energy must be focused on spreading ideas publicly, rather than conducting research that never reaches the public eye. Put simply, greater emphasis should be placed on appealing to ordinary people and policymakers. Perhaps this means writing more books like Hickel’s Less is More or Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. Perhaps it means writing more op-eds for major media outlets, giving more public talks, etc. Perhaps it means securing greater funding for a dedicated think tank, or collaborating with existing progressive think tanks. Too little emphasis is currently placed on communicating to the public.
Hopefully, the process of converting degrowth ideas from the language of academia to be publicly accessible will help clarify the many challenges with framing an idea as counterintuitive as degrowth for a general audience. Certainly, framing is another area within the political science/social movement theory umbrella that could use greater research attention (I wrote a paper on this subject that took an initial stab at the question, if you’re interested, it’s here).
Third, real time and effort should be invested in organizing. If degrowth is to become mainstream, we must not only win the battle of ideas, we must help build a mass social movement to force politics to abandon the growth imperative.
200 years of Marxist theory has not overturned capitalism. But partial victories against capital have been won. Crucially though, as Piketty’s most recent book documents, those victories (universal suffrage for non-property owners, the right to unionize, social democracy in parts of Europe) were the result of mobilization, not benevolent capitalists. Ideas matter, yes — but ideas are not enough. Action is required.
To quote Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” The end of slavery, universal suffrage, the right to unionize, gay marriage — at the beginning, these battles seemed unwinnable. But if history teaches us one lesson, it’s that social movements — ordinary people mobilizing to demand better — are unstoppable.
The last 3 years have seen an unprecedented mobilization by new social movements to deal with the climate crisis (Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise, Fridays for the Future). I hope they win. But if green growth is a myth, then at some point, they will need to be ready to make the hard choice — ecological safety with degrowth, or climate catastrophe with growth.
We must be ready to help them.
Postscript: I know that many of the folks at R&D and others do devote significant time to public talks, and some to organizing (I met one scholar-activist of this mold when I spent a semester abroad in Copenhagen). And I recognize that the question of strategy has recently been raised at the Vienna Conference. My argument is that these things must be made a more core focus of the existing research/practice — I am not saying these things are not being done at all right now.
Teaser credit image: By user:Lalupa – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=886485