In 2020, a world ended. I found myself living in a strange, new world; one fraught with new geopolitical challenges and socioeconomic uncertainties. Upon losing my job at the start of the pandemic, I used my newly-found free time to reeducate myself. Through reading and conversation, I began to reconstruct everything I thought I knew about the world-at-large; I had been taught its triumphs, but I sought to know its struggles. In 2021, I traveled around the continental US for three months, exposing myself to the American cultural and natural landscapes, both in exceptional states of decay. After witnessing environmental degradation on a country-wide scale, as well as widening political polarization, I ended my journey with more questions than answers. Upon completing the 19k mile journey, I found solace in the discovery of two things: an academic concept called Degrowth, and Bo Burnham’s artistic masterpiece, Inside. Bo Burnham is an American comedian who used his musical talents to single-handedly write, perform, film and direct one of the more poignant pieces of social commentary in modern memory. Degrowth (called décroissance until it entered the English lexicon at the onset of the 21st century) is part of the evolution of environmental activism in the Global North. Through this bifocal lens I portray what I have learned during the onset of a strange, new era.
Author’s Note: Familiarity with at least one of the two things is preferred.
Q: “The world is changing. The planet’s heating up. What the f*** is going on?” (Bo Burnham — Comedy)
A: Piles of peer-reviewed, scientific data clearly indicate that a manmade, runaway greenhouse effect is speedily heating the planet, due to the constant and increasing combustion of carbon. Global climate catastrophes have become increasingly apparent. Recently, soaring temperatures (70 degrees above normal) at the coldest regions of the planet, caused an ice sheet the size of New York city to completely disintegrate into a rising ocean, in a matter of hours. Climate experts described the event as unthinkable.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988 and containing 195 member countries, has been systematically reviewing ALL of the independently published material related to the changing climate (the most recent review compiled over 14k scientific papers). If the peer-review process is the most accepted way to verify factual information, the IPCC is the most factual and legitimate human organization in existence, full stop. It has released summary reports every few years, the first in 1990, and its sixth and most recent report released in the fall of 2021. While the report is massive, at just under 4k pages, its summarizations could not be more straightforward: decarbonization needs to be humanity’s main focus. The climate crisis has to be addressed in the next decade if there is to be any hope of a livable future for our species and many, many others. FULL STOP!
Q: “The simple narrative taught in every history class is demonstrably false and pedagogically classist. Don’t you know the world is built with blood?” (Bo Burnham — How the World Works)
A: The capitalist and colonial arrangements of the last five centuries have proliferated a tiered platform of economic, social and material development, separating the world, generally, into the prosperous countries of the Global North and the developing countries of the Global South. Capitalism cannot operate in abundance; any surplus it manufactures often is the result of harm to, or devaluation of a person, place, or thing. Capitalism, by definition, takes money, turns it into a commodity, then back into money. This cycle perpetuates an economically-endless and environmentally-destructive pursuit for growth. As scholar Giorgios Kallis puts it, there is no way to both have your cake and eat it too. Neoliberalism, the economic theory which has dominated global industry for over the last half century, sees the economy as existing separately from the environment. Anyone who has picked up plastic trash in parks and on beaches, or removed oil slicks from rivers and coastlines, will firmly refute this false dichotomy. The transition to clean and renewable sources of energy, in a society addicted to economic growth, has been occurring at a snail’s pace. Even if the transition had begun earlier and with more vigor, green growth is a myth (see also Jevon’s paradox). Given the urgency to decarbonize, technology cannot advance quickly enough to offset the extreme drop-off in the EROI of renewable energy when compared to fossil fuels; renewables will not, alone, save us. Therefore, we must envision new, less-energy intensive pathways down which humanity must energetically proceed. One of these possible paths is the activist-led science of Degrowth.
Q: “But how does it work? It must be complicated.” (Bo Burnham — How the World Works)
A: Degrowth (Dg), in one sentence, could be described as: the planned downscaling of material and energy throughput to bring human society back within safe levels of planetary boundaries while simultaneously improving human and non-human well-being. Dg is an interdisciplinary, academic field encompassing various aspects of environmental justice, anthropology, sociology, political ecology, philosophy, and feminist economics among others. Dg focuses on the political, economic and social movements critiquing capitalism’s growth paradigm using scientific data, indigenous knowledge, and academic discourse.
Dg principles emerged in the late 1960’s alongside the environmentalism movement ignited by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which first documented the environmental degradation as a result of our indiscriminate use of pesticides. Witnessing the structural adjustment and economic development of the post-WW2 world, critics of the path voiced warnings of continued planetary decline if growthmania was left unabated. In 1972 the Limits to Growth statistically modeled the continued degradation of current neoliberal trajectories and predicted that global societal collapse would occur midway through the 21st century. Reevaluations have been made in the years since the original report, all of which proclaim its prophetic accuracy. The pursuit of endless growth in a finite system is indeed absurd.
Q: “Could I interest you in everything? All of the time?” (Bo Burnham — Welcome to the Internet)
A: Degrowth is a matrix of multiple alternatives, a blueprint of blueprints. A web of ways of being, connected in pursuit of the good life. As we dismantle our desire for unending growth, we can begin the honest, democratic conversation about what sectors of society need to grow, and which need to degrow. Dg uses scientific modeling and analysis in an effort to qualify what it means to live well (buen vivir). Human well-being can mean many things to many people. While there not does exist a consensus as to what constitutes the good life, there is much evidence to indicate that neoliberalism’s favored measuring stick GDP is not the tool we need. Data suggest that income does not in fact equate to happiness. While money does matter, beyond a point it does not. The happiest countries are not the wealthiest countries. Material comfort mainly exists in the form of basic services. Access to health services, local nourishment, unbiased education and sufficient housing are more relevant indicators of well-being than the number of zeros in bank accounts. Any argument to the contrary fails to understand Easterlin’s paradox: happiness and income only correlate when analyzed at a singular point in time and not as part of a series.
Q: “Isn’t anybody going to hold me accountable?” (Bo Burnham — Problematic)
A: Degrowth also seeks to address the overconsumption of resources and resulting environmental damage committed by the prosperous nations. In a world unbalanced, the scales of justice must be weighted accordingly to reflect past as well as current transgressions. Prosperous nations have contributed the most to excess emissions (emissions created that have taken the composition of GHG in the atmosphere above the accepted level of 350ppm). Ninety-two percent comes from the Global North. As of 2015, the USA led at 40% in excess, with Europe right behind at 29%. While the US and EU are slowly ramping down emissions as China and India are ramping up, this does not excuse the destructive practice of historical atmospheric appropriation. In the last four decades, ten trillion dollars per year, on average, of embodied resources and labor have been extracted from the Global South by the Global North, for FREE! The high-income nations of the world contribute 74% of global excess material use, with the USA leading the way at 27% and Europe close behind at 25%. China is responsible for 15% and the rest of the Global South combined is at 8%. The North owes it to the rest of the world to lead the way to decarbonization. Degrowth asserts a necessary paradigmatic shift to realign society’s guiding principles to focus on what actually matters. All that has matter, matters.
Q: “What can I do to help?” (Bo Burnham — How the World Works)
A: Consume more knowledge and fewer things. Slow down. Learn to live well with less. Remove disposable and single-use from our vocabulary. Repair instead of discarding and reordering. Focus frustrations not on individuals, but on the corrupt and unequal economic systems that dominate our ways of living. Instead of continuing to let an elite few control the path of the many through fairytales of endless economic growth and displays of conspicuous consumption, realize that we the people have the numbers to unite for change. Demand we have a democratic societal conversation about what types of industry we want to continue to grow (education, healthcare, care economies, renewable energy, infrastructure etc.) and which need to degrow (industrial agriculture, fossil fuels, military industrial complex etc.). Encourage the Global North to forgive the debt it owes to the Global South. Decolonize the atmosphere. Decolonize your imagination. Watch Inside. Research Degrowth. Understand having “anything and everything-all of the time” is no longer an option in a world on fire. Halve your cake so that maybe together we can continue eating it.