The accelerating interest in Degrowth has been especially astounding to those of us who can look back several decades to the times when the mainstream gave almost no attention to the issue of economic growth despite the important contributions by Paul Ehrlich, Dennis Meadows et al., and Herman Daly. My Abandon Affluence elaborated on the theme in 1985, but gained negligible attention. But now it is most encouraging that the issue is widely understood and there are large numbers of advocates.
However I think there are some significant problems in the literature and I want to draw attention here to what seems to me to be the most important of these. It is the failure to deal with, to even grasp, the magnitude of, the transition task. I will explain below that the task is so great that it is insoluble. This “Degrowth conundrum” is I think almost totally unrecognised.
My reading indicates that there has been little or no thinking about transition strategy, apart from that of the Green New Dealers and the Socialists, (…both of whom get it wrong; see below.) There has been considerable discussion within the Degrowth literature of what might appear to be strategy, but this is only discussion about goals. For instance various Degrowth (and GND) advocates call for things like fairer taxes, limiting inequality and implementing cap and trade systems. These (admirable) demands are in fact policies, statements of goals, not strategies for achieving goals.
But my main point here is not the neglect of the strategy issue, it is the total failure to grasp the magnitude of the degrowth required. I have gone into this in numerical detail in my paper “Degrowth; How much is needed?”. It derives the conclusion that present rich world levels of production, consumption resource use and GDP per capita must be reduced by up to 90% before a sustainable and just world could become achievable.
Typical GND proposals are utterly incapable of doing anything like this. They assume that the reductions needed are far less than this and can be achieved by reforms to/within/by consumer-capitalist society, mainly achieved by technical advances, more recycling and efficiency improvements. This “tech-fix faith has now been demolished by massive recent review studies such as by Hickel and Kallis, Parrique (… reviewing around 300 studies), and Haberl et al. ( … reviewing around 800.) These conclude that decoupling is not being achieved and is not at all likely to be. In some limited areas reductions can be made but in general if GDP increases so do resource and ecological impacts.
Significant Degrowth, beyond the relatively small amount that can be achieved by tech-fixes, means eliminating a great deal of productive capacity. Degrowth of the magnitude argued for above means phasing out, writing off, scrapping, most of the present amount of factories, corporations, trade, investment, industry, financing, and profit-making. It is about ceasing, eliminating, most of the producing and consuming going on. How on earth could this be done? That’s the Degrowth conundrum.
Over 350,000 people depend on the mining of coal in Australia today. What are you going to do with them, and the towns they live in? You can’t move them out of coal mining and into other jobs, because the point of the Degrowth game is to cut down the amount of work, that is, producing, that’s going on. How are they going to get the things they need to live if they can no longer earn money in mines or factories to buy goods sold in the global market?
Capitalism cannot move in the Degrowth direction. It is a growth system. Its fundamental nature is about investing capital to accumulate more capital to invest in additional ventures. The few who own most of the capital constantly look for investment outlets for their ever-increasing volumes of capital. They have no choice about this; it’s grow or die. If a capitalist doesn’t try to take or generate more sales opportunities then his rivals will do it and drive him bankrupt. Capitalists are trapped in capitalism like the rest of us.
But could capitalists compete within a capped and thus zero-growth system? Firstly that would not be capitalism; it would be a kind of socialism, and it would soon lead to one firm in a domain killing of the rest. If the state intervened to stop that it would be managing the economy, deciding which firms should have which shares, setting up a cosy mutually beneficial arrangement with a favoured few. That would at last be socialism, if not fascism.
So even a “steady-state” or “zero-growth” economy is incompatible with capitalism, It would require social management of capital investment etc., to ensure that there was no increase in the mount of investment and accumulation. And how would it be decided which firms were to be set up and which wanna-be firms were not going to be set up. There goes “freedom of enterprise”. How many Degrowthers realise that they are for massive socialism.
But that’s only about preventing any increase in production and consuming. What about a 90% reduction in the amount of investment, production, work, trade, buying and selling, and consumption by 90%. The Degrowth literature reveals no recognition of how on earth this could be done. How could this be done in a socio-economic system that craves and must have growth in production, affluence and GDP or it will disintegrate one way or another?
In the article “Simpler Way transition theory” I explain how it can be done, and the only way it can be done. The task is to enable people who presently have to produce and consume a lot to live satisfactorily, to transition to lifestyles and systems in which they do not have to. The Simpler Way makes that possible and it is the only way it is possible.
The claim here is that there is only one general form of society that can enable a high quality of life on extremely low levels of resource throughput. The core elements in this Simpler Way must be mostly small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing predominantly collectivist communities in control of their local needs-driven economies and willingly committed to far simpler lifestyles and systems. The Alternative provides the detail, including provision for socially-desirable high tech, the elimination of unemployment, and the securing of a high quality of life for all.
Why/how does The Simpler Way do it? Our study of egg supply (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2019) shows how. The dollar and energy costs of egg supply via the normal industrial/supermarket path were found to be in the order of 50 to 200 times those from backyards and local poultry cooperatives.
This huge difference is due to the smallness of scale, processes being close to each other, enabling the integration of systems within communities, and the spontaneous and informal social interactions that manage systems. The supermarket egg has a vast and complex global input supply chain involving fishing fleets, agribusiness, shipping and trucking transport, warehousing, chemicals, infrastructures, supermarket chains, storage, freezing, packaging, marketing, finance and advertising and insurance industries, waste removal and dumping, computers, a commuting workforce, OH&S provisions, and highly trained technicians. It also involves damage to ecosystems, especially via carbon emissions and agribusiness effects including the non-return of nutrients to soils.
However eggs supplied via integrated village cooperatives can avoid almost all of these costs, while enabling immediate use of all “wastes” and reaping collateral benefits. Recycling of kitchen and garden scraps along with free ranging can meet total poultry nutrient needs. Poultry and other animal manures, including human, can be fed directly into compost heaps, methane digesters, algae and fish ponds, thereby eliminating the need for inputs to village food production from the fertilizer industry. No transport needs to be involved. Care and maintenance of systems can be largely informal and dollar-costless, via spontaneous discussion and action. In addition cooperative care of animals adds to amenity and leisure resources and facilitates community bonding.
It can be the same with respect to many other goods and services, including almost all other food items, dwelling construction, clothing supply, welfare and education provision, and especially for abundant and resource-cheap leisure and entertainment.
These Simpler Way communities cannot be established or run by governments. Their crucial ingredient is a mentality, a culture prioritising self-sufficiency, localism, global awareness, community autonomy and self-government, cooperation and above all desire to live in materially simpler lifestyles and systems. These communities must be highly autonomous (within national guidelines and laws). They can only function well if run by conscientious, socially responsible happy citizens who derive life satisfaction from non-material pursuits. The state cannot give or enforce the conditions. It cannot make the right decisions for vast numbers of local communities, decisions such as what fruit trees to plant where a parking lot is being dug up. Above all the state cannot create the required world view and dispositions.
This is a cultural revolution; only when the right ideas and values become predominant can structural change towards simpler lifestyles and systems take place. These conditions show the fundamental mistake built into the standard socialist assumption that the good society must have highly centralised state control. And it shows that the standard socialist strategy of taking control of the state is also fundamentally mistaken. We will eventually take it but at the present early stage of the revolution trying to do so is a waste of time, partly because the system is far too deeply entrenched, but mainly because there are much more important subversive things to do right now.
My recommendation for getting rid of capitalism is to ignore it to death. It is well into the process of getting rid of itself. Marx saw that its internal contradictions would eventually destroy it. We are going down into a possibly terminal time of great troubles and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The system is incapable of solving the problems it creates. In the above transition article I list about ten reasons why our decision making institutions cannot save the system, above all because few people understand the basic causes of its trajectory, and fewer still would accept that only some kind of Simper Way can solve the problems.
This is a classical anarchist vision of small scale cooperative communities run on thoroughly participatory lines free from domination by outside forces. It has been made essential now by the advent of the limits to growth. In previous revolutions it made sense to try to take power off the ruling class and to run the industrial system in the interests of all via a centralised state. But now the situation is totally different; central states cannot create or run the kinds of communities needed get per capita resource use rates right down while enabling good quality of life.
Consider the impossible logic embedded in socialist strategic thinking. If by some miracle a government with these ideas got state power tomorrow it could not implement Simpler Way practices unless there had been such massive support for them that people had elected a government with these policies. There is no possibility of that happening in the foreseeable future in a society obsessed with growth and affluence. It could only happen after there had been the greatest cultural transition in history, to willing acceptance of simpler ways. That transition would have been the revolution; the subsequent change in structures, including our control of the remnant state, would then be consequences of the revolution. It is therefore clearly a mistake to focus on taking state power at this point in time. What we need to focus on is working to bring about the crucial changes in ideas and values.
What then is to be done? Again the anarchists have the right answer. It is to “prefigure” the alternative. That is, build some of the required new ways here and now within the old system. The point of pre-figuring can easily be misunderstood. It does not assume that just setting up post-revolutionary arrangements one by one will lead to these eventually having replaced consumer-capitalist ways. The main point is educational/ideological. By becoming involved in the many emerging local initiatives activists are likely to be in the most effective position to acquaint participants and onlookers with the need to dump capitalism and build local needs-driven economies under local control.
The more people we help to understand all this in the short time remaining the better will be our chances of establishing the new systems before it’s too late.
So if you want to help us solve the degrowth conundrum, get down to the community garden.
For material on this perspective see https://thesimplerway.info/