Degrowth – A Vocabulary for a New Era: Review

Dec 18, 2014 Comments Off on Degrowth – A Vocabulary for a New Era: Review by

Degrowth. A Vocabulary for a New Era, just published by Routledge, is quite a slim volume of 220 pages and 51 short chapters.

Before anything else it seems important to say that there are lots of chapters in this book that I think are quite excellent as short pithy descriptions of the key concepts of degrowth. If in this review I have not mentioned many of these chapters it is usually because I have no quarrel with the choice of the word or phrase, the way that is elucidated, the way that it is related to the other words and combined with a short reading list. An attempt has been made by the editors and by the individual authors to relate the words in the vocabulary together so that they are not isolated chapters about stand alone ideas. This puts the idea of “Degrowth” on the intellectual map as a wide ranging discourse, a movement of thinkers about the future of society that needs to be taken seriously…and yet….

…because it is supposed to be a “vocabulary” of degrowth my inclination has been to try to get an idea of which words and concepts relating to degrowth the authors consider to be important enough to be given explanatory chapters, and then to compare this choice of concepts with the vocabularies used by other analysts. Do the words that have been chosen for inclusion cover the constellation of concepts which match the range and types of degrowth ideas that there are and the degrowth idea as I have understood it? 

In fact there is only a partial overlap with my own ideas. In this review I will try to explain some of the differences.

No chapter on climate change

On this first point the most striking absence is that there is no specific chapter for climate change. Although climate change is mentioned throughout there is no chapter for the topic as such.

In their introduction to the book the editors write that one of the “foundational degrowth claims” is “the inevitability of disastrous climate change if growth is to continue”. One would think that, if this is such a central issue, it requires proper elucidation. Perhaps the editors thought people would already know about climate change and there was no need to cover it. However this is not really what I am getting at. I am not stating a case for a thumbnail sketch of elementary climate science; I am arguing for an exploration of how the climate crisis contextualises the way one perceives degrowth. For example, given the policy failure of the growth enthusiasts to mitigate climate change at the rate and scale required is “degrowth” now, in any case, too late? If degrowth ideas are not too late, then how much time is left to implement them? Exactly how desperate is the situation that the degrowth agenda is supposed to address? A related question is “how quickly must degrowth proceed, how deep must it be and how could it possibly be delivered?”

It is now widely recognised by people involved in climate politics that only with a level of CO2 in the atmosphere of under 350 parts per million, perhaps much less, will the planet be safe from runaway climate change. Since the actual level of CO2 in the atmosphere is nearly 396 parts per million we are already well on the way to a catastrophe in the absence of emergency action. I have always assumed that a core rationale for degrowth was to be found here.

Degrowth could be driven by climate policy

Not only that – in my own vision for degrowth, and I guess for others associated with Feasta, degrowth would actually be ‘driven’ by an adequate climate policy. Many chapters in this book draw attention to the role of energy as central to the metabolism of the economy. Most of that energy is currently derived from fossil fuels so if there is a mechanism to screw down the available fossil energy entering the economy it should be possible to force an amount of degrowth on the economy appropriate to averting catastrophe.

To use an metaphor – we need a climate policy regime that is akin to the process of turning down the tap through which carbon fuels enter the economy until no more carbon energy is available to be burned. Were the political will there, and the general political support for degrowth, this would be easy to administer. One would simply require all companies that extract fossil fuel to have permits for the tonnage of carbon in the fuel that they extract before they are allowed to sell this tonnage. Some agency would limit the tonnage of carbon permitted out of the ground each year and would only make available for sale a rapidly reducing number of permits. The money that the fossil fuel companies paid to buy the permits would be distributed on an equitable basis to the general population. That’s called “cap and share” and if I had edited a book on degrowth then ‘cap and share’ and/or similar climate policies would have a chapter as the driver of any voluntary degrowth process.

Voluntary and involuntary degrowth

I write “voluntary degrowth process” because there is an argument that I think ought to have been explored in this book that degrowth will mainly be an involuntary process. Let me try and explain what I see as being the difference.

By “voluntary degrowth” I mean a vision for the future that is promoted because it is regarded as preferable to a growth economy. It is preferable, for example, because it encompasses a number of proposals for change that get no attention in the growth economy where more output is seen as the solution for all problems. An example would be Ivan Illiich’s tools for conviviality – creating the kind of tools that would make possible “space for relationships, recognition, pleasure and generally living well, and thereby, reducing the dependence on an industrial and consumerist system” as Marco Deriu explains in his chapter. Thus what I might term “voluntary degrowth” is a mainly French idea that is sometimes termed “décroissance conviviale”, a cultural and social critique of society – an alternative “imaginary” of how society might be.

By “involuntary degrowth” I mean a view of the future that the production economy will contract anyway, whether we like it or not, perhaps in a chaotic fashion, perhaps through collapse, so that the task of the degrowth movement is to prepare for, and ameliorate, that contraction as best as we can. It is not so much communities and societies making a choice against growth – but communities finding means to cope with difficulties that they will inevitably face when the economy contracts anyway. For example the Transition Movement (that is barely mentioned in this book) has had an idea that “energy descent” is going to happen in the near future and that it is an urgent task to prepare communities so that they will be able to cope.

Now in trying to cope with this process that people like me think will happen anyway the Transition Movement have had a strong idea of making the most of the situation. They have wanted to “make a virtue out of necessity” and to look for the silver linings around the storm clouds. There is the suggestion that people might be surprised to find that the quality of life might actually be better. The Transition Movement thus works towards the revival of community, relationships and different kinds of creativity too. The kinds of projects advocated for – like urban gardening – are the same as for décroissance conviviale. However, the starting point is not a choice for a different kind of society compared with the growth economy – so much as making the best of what will happen in the difficult conditions associated with future contraction.

To my mind it is a weakness of this book that it does not draw out and emphasise these distinctions enough. In fact different kinds of future are possible. Thus we can consider the possibility that involuntary degrowth happens (in the sense of a contraction of material production) but not quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions at an adequate pace. In this situation cap and share to drive a faster pace of emissions reduction – and a process of voluntary degrowth of material production would still be needed to speed up the involuntary contraction.

Reducing the allowable extraction of fossil fuels in order to leave most fuels in the ground would degrow the economy. However, on its own this is unlikely to be enough to avert runaway climate change. That’s because CO2 is already over the limit and any more will add to the danger. So a lot of CO2 will have to be taken out of the atmosphere. This is another urgent future task. However, any draw-down of CO2 will probably only be possible, if at all, by extensive land reclamation and re-vegetation, locking up the CO2 in biomass – using ecological design methods (like permaculture). In my view draw-down or sequestration ought to be another idea with a chapter. It isn’t. There is no consideration of enhancing carbon sinks.

Overshoot and collapse – some more missing words

Of course academics at the University of Barcelona, who have played a leading role bringing this book together cannot be expected to know everything but the failure to address these urgent practical issues is serious. Or that is my point of view anyway. We need to remind ourselves that the original authors of the 1972 Club of Rome sponsored study “Limits to Growth” worked with a model in which growth could continue for some time beyond the carrying capacity of the planet in a phase that they termed “overshoot”. Overshoot was analogous to living beyond ones personal means by running down the family savings or running up debts. It can be thought of as a delay in adaptation to ecological realities which would mean that eventual adjustment, when it comes, will be that much more of a shock. An overshoot that goes on too long eventually leads to collapse – a chaotic reduction in complexity likely to involve a great deal of insecurity. You can think of collapse as involuntary degrowth and it is much more serious than stagnation, recession or even depression. That’s because it is a much longer and irreversible process of transformation in humanity’s relationship with the planet likely to be associated with rising death rates and falling populations. Unfortunately words like “overshoot”, “collapse” or “involuntary degrowth” are not part of the vocabulary either. To my perception this “vocabulary” lacks a continuity with the “Limits to Growth” thinkers of 1972. It is a southern European and French choice of words even though the book is written in English.

Many of the actions and policies that are proposed under the heading of “degrowth” might conceivably help in a collapse – but one feels that most of the authors in this book do not conceive their proposals for action as emergency measures. They are not being proposed as survival arrangements; they are still being proposed in an alternative paradigm in a future which is rather like the present. They are being framed on the assumption that “developed economies” are entering “a period of systemic stagnation” in which “an abandonment of growth will revive politics and nourish democracy, rather than animate catastrophic passions” as it says in the introduction. I find this framing to be rather too complacent.

Not all of the contributors share the same ideas. Christian Kerschner has written the chapter on peak oil (and other resource peaks). He thinks “Economic degrowth is no longer an option but a reality”. For him it is starting to happen involuntarily.

Another author not on the editors’ wavelength is Alevguel Sorman who has written the chapter on ‘Societal Metabolism’. Sorman concludes “ The biophysical view of social metabolism warns about the limitations of degrowth strategies based on voluntarily consuming fewer resources, less energy or less capital. These will not suffice on their own”. In particular Sorman warns against the assumptions of many thinkers that worksharing will enable a trade of income in exchange for more free time because “In a future scarce in energy we will have to work more, not less”.

There is also an indirect and partial consideration of collapse in a chapter by Serge Latouche titled the “Pedagogy of Disaster”. This is a discussion about whether future disasters will allow a sociopathic elite to exploit the vulnerability of shocked, disorientated and frightened people ( ‘disaster capitalism’) or whether the coming shocks will shake people free of their complacency so that they wake up in time to forestall an even worse future. Latouche concludes that both are possible, depending on context.

An version of degrowth flawed by optimism bias?

One way of summarising these points is to say that the editors have drawn together a mainly optimistic version of degrowth. It is not a view that I share. I find it is interesting to contrast the approach of the editors with the attitude of Dennis Meadows, a surviving member of the ‘Limits to Growth’ study of 1972. Meadows stopped believing that humanity would be able to adequately respond to the limits to growth crisis in the 1990s and feels that a collapse is now inevitable.

“In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or super volcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years”.

Graham Turner, an Australian academic has now done 30 and a 40 year follow-ups to see how the business as usual predictions of the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ computer model compare with what actually happened. He concludes that they are pretty much on target – and that the turning point will occur in 2015.

“With significant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs to agriculture from industry, combined with pollution impacts on agricultural land, leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

“Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century.[1]

The distinction between voluntary and involuntary transitions matters. Without a transition that is at least partly involuntary it is highly unlikely that sufficient people will voluntarily adjust their lifestyles in the directions that degrowthers see as vital. At the same time what we are describing an unpleasant historical epoch in which death rates will be rising.

Risk aversion, prospect theory and the collapse of lifestyle packages

In order to understand the inertia in current systems and peoples reluctance to change their lives towards degrowth the work of Daniel Kahnemann is helpful.

Kahnemann’s “prospect theory” is another idea absent from this book. It shows that people organise their lives around ‘reference points’ and are very “risk averse” when it comes to retreating away from those reference points. A reference point might be something like the income level to which one has grown accustomed and therefore the amount that one spends in day to day life, the expenditure associated with a lifestyle that is more or less adjusted to the income. My interpretation of this is that a fall in income is not welcome not only because one has less but because the organisation, the management of life’s details, must be adjusted so as to create an adjusted expenditure pattern and this requires thought and attention. One spends less money but spends more time thinking about what one spends money on. This is unwelcome extra mental effort. For a significant change one must adjust a whole pattern of hourly, daily and weekly purchases with possible consequences for habitat, relationships, routine transport arrangements etc.

It is all very well to write, as the editors do in their epilogue, that scarcity is social, and that society can produce more than enough for our basic needs – but that does not address the main issue that people worry about when they manage their day to day lives. This is how to maintain their “lifestyle package” in sufficient balance so that their lives are not at risk of descending into chaos. Most individuals whose lives are in balance will be living in a set of circumstances where their income is more or less appropriate to match their habitat needs, which must match their relationships (accommodation suitable to living with their partner and dependents). These must match their job with its income – and with its time and travel commitments. These must match their job skills and domestic commitments. There is mental and emotional work involved in balancing one’s life and it is scary if it seems like unravelling.

The biggest fear is of a generalised life crisis in which all of these things unravel together. For example because they lose their job a person might find that they cannot service their debts (mortgage) or pay the rent and thus lose their accommodation. During the stress and practical chaos of this their relationships might break apart. During the last crash many ended up homeless living in tents or cars on their own. Many people also lost their minds – i.e. became totally disorientated, extremely emotional and unable to function.[2]

The practical projects as “lifeboat arrangements”

The point about a generalised crisis is that large numbers of people could find themselves in situations like these – and thus need the urban farms, the food co-ops, the repair and maintenance workshops, the back to the land projects, the alternative currencies as “lifeboat” arrangements to keep them afloat. They will need these kind of projecsts to give them new social relationships and enable them to begin again, to regain confidence, to “recycle their lives”. It seems implausible to me that most people will join these projects and organise their lives around them as a choice of rejection of the growth economy – although some will. It is however not implausible that if and when the growth economy is breaking down that people will join these projects. (I have seen how valuable a community garden can be for people who have mental health problems.)

Until a generalised breakdown occurs most people will remain too tightly tied into the economic mainstream. When a breakdown does occur however the times will be very dangerous and the projects must be there ready to include and support people. This is because it is when all their options seem bad that people lose their risk aversion and are prepared to take gambles – like for example betting what little they have left or, in a more fundamental sense, gambling with their life by joining a criminal gang or an extremist movement.

Resilience – another missing word

The word to describe this set of issues is “resilience”. Unfortunately resilience is another missing concept in this book. Resilience is about how much stress an individual’s ‘lifestyle package’ or a community or a society can take and still function before it breaks down catastrophically. It is about the tipping points or thresholds within systems that reflect their levels of complexity and interdependence.

This ought to have been clear from the chapter by Sergio Ulgiati on “Entropy” which is about what role low entropy energy has in the maintenance of systems. The availability of low entropy energy in economic and social systems is not just in order to be able to produce enough “stuff”. The conversion of energy in “hub interdependencies” – in transport systems, transactions and financial systems, computer controlled production systems and global supply networks is used to maintain the continued functionality of an immensely complex set of organisational structures. If the energy is not there then the complexity degrades – systems cease to function – the organisation falls to bits.

The crucial issue here is how resilient are these interrelated structures to disruptions in hub interdependencies brought about by energy and resource supply shocks? Systems can cope with reductions in inputs of energy and other resources up to a point but beyond that point they may break down completely. When organisational arrangements break down altogether nothing at all may get produced because workers are unemployed, production systems stand idle, banks are bust, nothing moves. There would not be stone age levels of production but no production at all. Gar nicht. Rien du tout. Res en absolute.

Here’s a quote from a colleague in Feasta, David Korowicz, which reveals the issue at stake:

“In September 2000 truckers in the United Kingdom, angry at rising diesel duties, blockaded refineries and fuel distribution outlets. The petrol stations reliance on Just-In-Time re-supply meant the impact was rapid. Within 2 days of the blockade starting approximately half of the UK’s petrol stations had run out of fuel and supplies to industry and utilities had begun to be severely affected. The initial impact was on transport – people couldn’t get to work and businesses could not be re-supplied. This then began to have a systemic impact.

The protest finished after 5 days at which point: supermarkets had begun to empty of stock, large parts of the manufacturing sector were about to shut down, hospitals had begun to offer emergency only’ care; automatic cash machines could not be re-supplied and the postal service was severely affected. There was panic buying at supermarkets and petrol stations. It was estimated that after the first day an average 10% of national output was lost. Surprisingly, at the height of the disruption, commercial truck traffic on the UK road network was only 10-12% below average values.”[3]

It will be noted here that 10 to 12 % less commercial truck traffic and British society was about to fall to bits. It is easy to imagine particular kinds of emergency where the “life style package” of a lot of people would disintegrate.
Climate change, climate policy, overshoot, involuntary degrowth, collapse, risk aversion, inertia, resilience…here are a whole series of concepts and words that in my view ought to have appeared in the vocabulary but did not. As I said at the beginning of this review the constellation of concepts or the words in this vocabulary do not cover the issues to my point of view.

A French book written in English?

The Degrowth book is a collection of 51 very short essays, almost all of which are by academic authors – 16 of whom are at the University of Barcelona. Although it is claimed to be the first comprehensive collection about degrowth in English it is very much a southern European academic view of what degrowth means. This is reflected in the choice of topics by the editors who have clearly been very influenced by thinkers on the French left. Thus, to my mind, many chapters sit uneasily alongside the chapters by some of the English and American authors some of whom have started from a different pre-analytical framework. I have no problem with a book whose authors start from different points but it places a particular responsibility on the editors to give the reader some orientation to the differences. It makes me wonder what the English and American authors have made of the parts of the book that they had no hand in writing.

In a footnote early in the book the editors explain why some words have not been translated into English:

“In this entry we leave the original titles in French, not only for reasons of language pluralism or practicality but also because many of the words involved sound more inspiring in French!”.[4]

My response to this is that it is not always practical not to translate. It is not practical for readers when it makes it more difficult for them to understand the meaning. Indeed if one does not understand what a word is supposed to mean then I for one don’t find that word inspiring. This is particularly the case with words that do not translate easily because they come out of a different intellectual tradition, background and patterns of thought.

An adjective used as a noun – “the imaginary”

Throughout the book many authors write out of a left wing French intellectual tradition about the “social imaginary”. The use of the adjective “imaginary” as a noun, as “the imaginary”, I have now learned has a long intellectual tradition in France. Novelists like Gide, philosophers like Sartre and Castoriadis and psychoanalysts like Lacan all used “L’Imaginaire” in different contexts. The idea seems to be that the words and symbols used in human communication, as well as in our thinking, do not necessarily match or correspond to actually existing realities.

The words and symbols that we use may have an invented component that corresponds to nothing ‘out there’ in the world. In fact the imagination is necessary to thought. Our ability to shape patterns of words, images and symbols in creative writing or painting is not merely an ability we have to create fictitious realities. The mind has to have this capacity to imagine if it is to be able to think at all. How else can a scientist theorise except by imagining what might be the explanatory causes for some phenomena? The imagination can later be tested and found to be true or false but the initial act of making a hypothesis is an ability to construct what might be, to imagine.

Furthermore it is through our ability to imagine the way in things might be otherwise arranged that our freedom to act in the world lies. Our imagination can create visions of how future social, economic and political realities might be constructed differently. We can use our imagination to invent things. This is why, according to Cornelius Castoriadis, history cannot be analysed in a determinist way. A significant role in the historical process originates from the creative imagination of people in societies. Thus, once we surrender to the idea that “there is no alternative” (e.g. to neo-liberal economics) we have not only got a failure of the imagination but have allowed our freedom to disappear. We are, to use the concept of one of the other chapters, relinquishing our autonomy – our ability to set rules and laws for ourselves in co-operative and hopefully convivial arrangements with other people. Hence the case made by Serge Latouche in this book for the need to “decolonise” our “imaginaries” from the ideas of market economics.

Unfortunately one meaning of “imaginary” in the English language is “existing only in the imagination”. (Oxford English Dictionary) That’s why I don’t personally like the adoption of “the imaginary” as a noun. It is too ambiguous. In the context it also reads like a word that has suddenly become fashionable among intellectuals.

I can imagine that I can raise a bag of ten apples one metre into the air with one joule of energy but that is “an imaginary” that only exists in my imagination. (An apple of an average weight takes one joule to raise one metre). While some imaginaries have some connection to reality, some imaginaries, on closer inspection, appear to be too-off-the wall and rather more in the nature of fantasies. Some imaginaries are nice to look at in a surrealist painting but non functional and some imaginaries are not only crazy but criminally insane and plain dangerous. As a matter of fact “economic growth” is a mainstream “social imaginary” that is collectively suicidal. Imaginaries have to have some connection to practical possibilities and actual developments in material reality and it’s important to note that current mainstream ‘economic imaginaries’ are delusionary.

Ecological economists have given a lot of thought to this issue by seeking to ground economics in energetics and physics. Cultural critique has to check its groundings otherwise it is waffle.

La depense sociale – what is it actually?

This brings me to one of the words that do appear in this book and one in particular that the editors seem particularly keen on – that word is “dépense”. This concept is discussed more than any other by the editors particularly in their epilogue where the authors break into French slogans in their last two sentences:

“Vive la décroissance conviviale. Pour la sobriete individuelle et la dépense sociale.”

With social dépense so clearly highlighted it is obviously important to understand it. If the idea is to be ‘operationalised’ we need to know how to recognise “dépense” when we see it. In fact I’ve been left feeling that I am unclear what it means.

Part of the problem for me with understanding ‘dépense’ is that it is another word coming out of the French tradition with which I have not been familiar. When the word “dépense” is left in French and not simply translated as “expenditure” then the reader is left assuming that it has a more complex meaning which I need to make some more effort into getting a grip on. My assumption is that I have no choice but to do extra work digging back into the history of that concept to try to capture all its connotations in the intellectual background in which it was created. In this book ideas are introduced in very small chapters that are no longer than 4 pages and that is not long enough to pick up all the nuances and assumptions of the tradition. For that reason I felt compelled to do additional google searches in order to try to understand “dépense”. I also searched around to find some more about George Bataille who originated the idea. It was on my bookshelf that I found the most useful succinct description of Bataille’s ideas in an old edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy:

“For Bataille, much modern thought and many social and economic structures are modes of denial of the fundamental nature of being as a Dionysian process without stable identity or meaningful direction, an expenditure and squandering of force that is no more than its own end – compare the second law of thermodynamics….”

So this is a crucial idea for degrowth? Digging in other texts to try to understand what kind of idea this is, and what its author was about, I discovered not just an economic theory but a writer of surrealist texts, a particular angle on psychoanalysis and Marxism and a deeply disturbed and traumatised man. I write this at this point not to disqualify the dépense idea but only to point out that I am reluctant to embrace any concept with this amount of baggage before I have carefully examined it because there isn’t enough in the Degrowth book to get a grasp of the idea.

Unfortunately after a lot of work I am still not completely sure that I have understood what the word means. Nor am I sure that I have understood how the dépense chapter author, Onofrio Romano, and the editors want the word to be understood in the context of degrowth – because this is not necessarily identical to the way Bataille understood it. What follows is my attempt to convert the idea into a terminology that would make some sort of sense to me but I am not completely sure that I have got it right.

Underlying the motivational foundations for the ideology of growth is the mainstream economics idea of scarcity. If there can never be enough goods and services to meet human needs it seems to follow that the more we produce the better. Here is the simple case for growth. It would therefore be understandable if advocates of degrowth were drawn to Bataille who turned the scarcity idea on its head – the problem for the economy in his way of thinking is not how to deal with scarcity but how to deal with “excess”.

According Bataille that there is a “superabundance of energy” and more than enough to meet the basic material needs for organisms/humans. That part of work using energy to meet these basic needs which enable us to survive can be regarded as ‘servile’ serving and merely re-creating our animal existence. It is when we are deciding what to do with the surplus which is more than we need for very basic needs that we enter a realm of freedom where we are truly exercising our freedom in “forms of energy beyond the servile”.

For Romano, and for the editors here is a key concept that they want to put at the heart of “degrowth”. Scarcity, the editors assure us, “is social. Since the stone age we have had more than we need for a basic standard of living.”

The problem is that, instead of staying with our basic individual standards of living and democratically organising how we are going to “waste” the surplus together, for non servile purposes that develop our humanity, we have accumulated and invested the surplus in new technologies that expand production even more. We have thereby grown the capacity of “the economy” to produce ever more until it is threatening the eco-system. At the same time we have privatised and individualised the process of waste making of the surplus. “Given the individualisation of society, single individuals take on the burden of waste through small trade offs: from perverse sexuality to alcoholism, gambling and flashy consumption”. [5]

The alternative then is guaranteeing a modest living for all individuals and socialising “dépense”, the non productive use of society’s surplus.

This is a superficially attractive idea could perhaps alternatively be expressed like this. If we want to stop growing we must stop accumulating productive capital. (Creating more technical devices and infrastructures that convert energy while turning more throughputs into what eventually become larger waste streams). With a modest income most individuals would not have enough to save and any surplus would go to democratic institutions to dispense – though not on anything productive that would grow the economy. According to the editors:

“Our message to the frugal ecologists is that it is better to waste resources in gold decorations in a public building or drink them in a big feast, than put them to good use, accelerating even more the extraction of new resources and the degradation of the environment. It is the only way to escape Jevon’s Paradox. Accumulation drives growth, not waste. Even in a society of frugal subjects with a downscaled metabolism, there will still be a surplus that would have to be dispensed, if growth is not to be reactivated.”

I think that I get the main drift of the argument here but I am not absolutely sure I have understood it fully. This is partly because I am not sure that is meant by the word “energy” – is it the same energy that is actually becoming scarce because of peak oil or is there a looser use of the word? I am also not sure that I have understood partly because there is an implicit psychology under the analysis that I don’t get either. For example, Romano argues that “individualised dépense” does not happen on an adequate scale.

“A large amount of energy remains unused, it continues to circulate and to stress human beings. Lacking tools of deliberate and symbolic catastrophe (i.e. the ritual collective dépense) the inhabitants of growth societies begin to dream them and to desire a ‘real’ catastrophe.”

What is this supposed to mean? Is it supposed to be the same idea as “catharsis”? I don’t understand what this ‘energy’ is that is stressing people and how it is stressing them. However I have tried to guess at what the author means in a conceptual framework that makes sense to me so, once again, here goes with my attempted ‘translation’:

Is this trying to describe a situation where, while people have time on their hands and a wish to do things, they are stressed and frustrated because they don’t actually know what to do with their time and ‘energy’? Is this because they don’t have purposes to give structure and meaning to their lives and to use their personal ‘energy’ on (like the sacred)? Is this what frustrates them? Does it mean that they are frustrated because they have spare time on their hands and they are bored because they don’t have a meaningful “game” to play with their lives? Is this what it is supposed to mean? Does it mean that people need to be able to collectively express the negative feelings that arise out of their bored purposeless – feelings like anger and destructiveness? Does it mean that without collective rituals of destructiveness to which resources must be devoted that they will end up wishing for real catastrophes? Is this, for example, about angry young men (and women) needing rituals like football matches with punch-ups thrown in – because otherwise they will sign up to go and fight for causes and go to war?

What seems to be being said here is not only that dépense is a means to dissipate resources so that they are not accumulated economically but also that dépense has a function in the management of mass emotion. If I have got that right then what is being described here is what therapists call “catharsis” – the release, and therefore relief from, strong emotions which would otherwise be channelled into real destruction.

How do you administer the dépense idea? How do you operationalise it?

If I have understood these ideas correctly then what opens up for me is a huge number of questions. For example how is the social depense to be organised/administered? How is it to be decided, and by whom, what is an acceptable level of basic provision and what is to be destroyed as “excess”? How is “excess” to be identified and then “socialised” prior to its “waste” in a useless fashion? I suppose that by guaranteeing a basic income and a maximum income and then taxing all the rest away that one could say that that rest was “excess” but would the authors really want to spend this excess without any investment whatsoever? For example all buildings as well as other forms of public infrastructure would be depreciating as they always do – should provision be set aside to maintain their upkeep and replacement? “Growth” can happen because when equipment needs replacing and the replacements are “upgrades”. Where does that fit into dépense?

Further to that, what exactly is “dépense sociale”? On the last page the editors give a list of examples – collective feasts, Olympic Games, idle ecosystems, military expenditures and voyages to space and they refer to pressure on democratic and deliberative institutions choosing between these.

I will put aside at this point the question of what an “idle ecosystem” is and raise some other points instead. The implicit faith in the ability of “democratic and deliberative institutions” to be able to stand up to the military industrial complex and prevent it claiming the surplus surprises me. Given the pre-existing power structures it would be very surprising if the idea of individual sobriety and social depense did not to turn into the latest version of bread and circuses. The masses would have, at best, a very basic standard of living while the political elite would organise banquets in honour of the latest head of state, rope everyone into large scale theatrical events with everyone wearing a uniform and carrying torches while they listen to rants from their betters. Alternatively resources could be “wasted” in jolly festivals in which ‘civil people’ (who are obedient) are entertained while those who are disobedient and uncivil, and thus ‘obviously’ the cause of all the problems in society, are put in the centre of ampitheatres and torn apart by lions. This would be wonderfully effective in channelling and managing mass emotions and getting rid of the surplus too. Wouldn’t these qualify as social dépense? They appear to have done in the thinking of George Bataille for whom socialised dépense also included human sacrifices organised by the state in the Aztec empire.

In conclusion

In conclusion, it seems important to me to know whether Degrowth is a voluntary or an involuntary process and to build that distinction into the vocabulary about it. If it is a voluntary process then certain things follow – like the need to know how it is going to be driven/motivated and administered, at what pace and in what manner, in order to respond to the climate crisis. It is also possible here that even if degrowth is involuntary, because of energy descent, that if it is not fast enough then, once again certain things follow from that about climate policy. As I have argued degrowth could be driven by climate policy by reducing the amount of fossil fuels allowed out of the ground.

To the extent that degrowth is an involuntary process then another set of issues arise – will the society and economy withstand the process without catastrophic breakdowns and what can the many kinds of projects and policies described in this book do to make energy descent a survivable process for the population? A great many people will be finding that their lifestyle packages are severely stressed and breaking apart and this will generate a great deal of fear and ‘negative’ emotions.

Notions like “dépense” are useful for drawing attention to fact that “surplus resources” can be ‘invested’ in things that have consequences for mass emotions and therefore for social stability or conflict. However, one must ask how much “surplus” or excess there will be on the way down given that energy descent is likely to take society through a variety of thresholds and tipping points and be an exceedingly bumpy ride. It is true that to “invest” resources in “capital accumulation” might in theory start the economy growing again – but only if new energy sources were found.

Growth is unlikely in a society where energy inputs are rapidly shrinking. Instead what is needed for the resources that are there is investment in the community level projects and activities which help people cope – an investment directly in the lifeboat projects as I have called them. There is a danger that the rather vague call for “socialised dépense” can be interpreted as a support for state centralisation of the remaining surplus – for the maintenance of remaining resources in the hands of the military, the state bureaucracy and privileged insiders whose claim to maintain “order” in difficult times is also buttressed by the use of resources to display their power and add theatrical embellishment to their authority. I don’t think this would be a very good idea…..

Read the response to this review by Giorgos Kallis, one of the book’s editors

Endnotes

[1] Turner, G. M. (2012). On the Cusp of Collapse. Updated Comparison of the Limits of Growth with historical data. GAIA 21/2 , 116-124.
[2] See my paper produced for Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18/19th April 2008 at http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/themes/ I did not attend this conference because, not being an academic, I could not afford to.
[3] http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Catastrophic-shock-pandemic2.pdf
[4] footnote on page 5
[5] Onofrio Romano p 88

Featured image: community garden in Denver, Colorado. Author: emerson12. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2007_community_garden_DenverCO_787214962.jpg

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About the author

Brian Davey trained as an economist but, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.

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