Economy featured

What Should Grow?

June 30, 2023

I favor degrowth: the notion that the total energy and resources consumed by humanity must decrease dramatically in order to maintain a livable planet. Part and parcel of this notion is that a massive redistribution of wealth is required because a highly unequal society is neither just nor sustainable.

Quite understandably, the emphasis here is on shrinking or eliminating damaging, unnecessary sectors of the economy. But as degrowth advocates are constantly reminding knee-jerk critics, this process also calls for growth in areas—both geographic and economic—that are undeveloped by petro-capitalism.

Discussions on this subject tend to focus on growth in the Global South; again, understandably so. Less discussed, though, is what ought to grow in the Global North, where colonialism and capitalism have led to sickening—literally and figuratively—overdevelopment.

In the interest of fleshing out a degrowth agenda for the Global North, here are three areas I believe should grow:

Medicine

Here are some things we can and should have: a cure for lower back pain, a lifetime flu shot, universal free LASIK, next generation antibiotics, organ transplant drugs that don’t kill you, a vaccine for the common cold, personalized genomic cancer treatments, 3D printed custom prostheses for anyone who needs them. The list goes on.

One of the great lessons from the COVID pandemic is that when modern medicine focuses its awesome powers on human health instead of profit, it is capable of almost unbelievable progress in staggeringly short timeframes. Despite notable bureaucratic and political fuck-ups along the way, the lightning quick creation of a reasonably effective vaccine—in addition to a variety of novel therapies—demonstrates just how much our lives could be improved by a revamped and expanded medical industry.

The issue is that the interests of profit maximization and reducing human suffering are not in alignment, so the areas of medicine that could lead to the greatest improvements in our quality of life are underdeveloped.

If the medical field were allowed to develop with a singular focus on reducing suffering and improving human life, it would both transform itself and grow, much to the benefit of all. This is not a field we would want to shrink.

It is important to distinguish, though, between “medicine” and “health care expenditures.” The latter accounts for nearly 20% of the GDP of the United States, while producing notably shitty results, due to privatization’s massive waste, corruption, and profit-taking. Cuba, with arguably the greatest health care system in human history, spends 12% of its paltry GDP on the same. So even just an internal realignment of incentives would be a vast improvement, but expansion—combined with a redistributive, internationalist political economy—would yield almost utopian results.

Education

One of the great barbarities of our civilization is the total instrumentalization of education: in the service of profit, for geopolitical jockeying, as an increasingly narrow path to the middle class. In short, for everything except the love of learning.

Degrowth calls for a major reduction in work hours. Were that to happen, people eager to both learn and teach would have much more time on their hands. A humane transition to a sustainable, egalitarian world would help people fill their time with joyful learning, expanding the education sector while democratizing and decommodifying it.

We could reinvigorate public education at all levels and vastly expand opportunities for adults and seniors. In public high schools and universities, we could cut class sizes, employ more teachers, and supply greater resources to classrooms. But we can go much beyond the basics. We should have forest kindergartens for all, outdoor learning semesters for high school students, campus food forests, hands-on projects of all kinds, and individual tutoring provided by knowledgeable adults and seniors in all subjects.

For adults and seniors, in addition to new teaching opportunities, we can build neighborhood reading rooms, community learning centers, 4H for grown-ups, a robust community book club program, personal conflict resolution and mediation training, and community arts centers. All of these initiatives would represent growth over the current education sector, and yet they mostly consist of time and talking, which notably lack a carbon footprint.

Recreation

Liberation from the remorseless taskmaster of productivism would also mean a lot more time to recreate, and the ways we do that can become both better and less destructive. Once again, the relentless drive to commodify the human experience and squeeze from it every last drop of available profit has turned even recreation into a nauseating series of consumer experiences, banal for its participants and often ruinous for the sites of consumption.

We can change that by being intentional about the recreational opportunities our societies provide, rather than allowing the invisible hand of the capitalist market to do it for us. While the advertising industry and the billionaire class thrive on professional sports, for instance, a degrowth agenda would call for the democratization of sports: leagues and facilities for adults and children alike should be ubiquitous and free, as should spectator opportunities. Rather than the idiocy of a national social ritual constructed around the annual consumption of insipid Super Bowl advertising, we all ought to have the daily opportunity to play sports with our neighbors or watch our friends compete in well-appointed facilities.

The same goes for tourism. Rather than a destructive, dispiriting industrial process of conveying gawking visual consumers from one sight to another, travel ought to be slow, social, and regenerative. Instead of an endless series of flights depositing toxic gas in the upper atmosphere and hordes of tourists on the ground, slow travel by train, bike, sail, foot, and horse ought to be the norm, as should constructive engagement with the people encountered along the way.

If you’re only working the equivalent of twenty 40-hour weeks per year, traveling slowing would not be an infringement on your extremely limited vacation time, but a beloved aspect of truly interesting and enjoyable travel. The rapturous descriptions from the past of traveling by train through glorious countryside, on foot via charming paths snaking between villages, and via sail along stunning coastlines are not fantasies. They are real, and under the right circumstances we can experience such joy and beauty again.


The future of growth in the Global North should focus on those sectors that add meaning to our lives. It should correct the failures of petro-capitalism by reallocating resources on the basis of human happiness, rather than profit. Doing so in the context of degrowth is not only possible, it is desirable and necessary.

 

Teaser photo credit: Forêts Nourricière créer par Wenrolland. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wen_Rolland_-_For%C3%AAts_Nourrici%C3%A8re.jpg

The Last Farm

The Last Farm is a homesteader, eco-socialist, and long-time permaculture practitioner carving out a life on the land in the Northeastern United States. He writes a regular newsletter on these topics called Adapt : Survive : Prevail, and when he's not tending to his various polycultures, he can be found reading, writing, and scheming to create a better world.

Tags: building resilient economies, building resilient societies, degrowth perspectives, permaculture