Brian Davey responds to Giorgos Kallis on degrowth

Note: This discussion started with Brian Davey’s review of the book Degrowth: A vocalabulary for a New Era. One of the book’s editors, Giorgos Kallis, wrote a detailed reponse. The text below is Brian’s reply.

To start my reply let me take you up on this part of your response where you write:

‘“Political” in Castoriadis’ terms means the pre-paradigmatic view that humans make their own history, and they are not subject to immutable, outside forces that pre-determine their fates, and to which the best that they can do is adapt.’

Thus stated it is hard to disagree – for if I were to disagree then it would seem as if I see humans as automatons with pre-determined destinies. But this conclusion is an outcome of the way that your sentence is written. By definition anyone subject to “immutable forces” and a “pre-determined fate” can do no more than “adapt”, fit in – and lose their freedom.

But what if history involves humans making their own destiny in conditions not of their own choosing? And what if these conditions, while not “immutable”, are not actually very favourable to their purposes either? What if the conditions in which people make their destiny are a little bit more “fuzzy” – not exactly “immutable”, but not very “mutable” either? What if the conditions are something in between? What if people do not “adapt” to the conditions they find themselves in but “respond” to them? “Adapting” implies accepting the conditions as a given and fitting in with them. The word “responding” carries no such implication – it can mean, as ‘conditions’ become more fluid, that people become freer to pursue entirely new ideas and novel purposes.

The conditions that all humans face in “making our history” vary in how much scope they allow for success in a variety of different endeavours, including new and innovative ones. We have degrees of freedom or, put the other way round, we face varying limits to our power to make history according to our intended purposes. In part this depends on who “we” are. If the people referred to are those billions of people without significant purchasing power, without well-connectedness in high places, without the power to influence the mass media and state policy then “this we” may only have ‘proximal power’, the ability to influence the things and people close to them. That is unless the the powerless mass becoming part of a broader movement that starts to take practical and coherent steps to live differently. Others – like “the 1%” – currently have “distal power”. They have a much greater ability to influence events, and indeed are able to frame the circumstances or conditions in which “the 99%” are forced to act – so that they end up largely working for the benefit of the 1%.

However, no part of humanity has unlimited power to do just as it wishes. Any individual, group or society that overestimates its power – and then attempts to use it in a way disproportionate to conditions will eventually become unstuck. To use a religious and mythical metaphor, they will be punished by the Goddess Nemesis whose role is to take revenge on those who overstep their limits.
The question for each individual, for each group and for all of society, is where are these limits? Unfortunately it is often not at all easy to see them. Indeed the more powerful that an individual, a group or a society is, the more it inclines to arrogance and the overestimation of its own power, to optimism bias and then to hubris.

The so called “Serenity prayer” expresses this variability in the conditions and the difficulty of recognising limits:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

It seems to be a recurrent narrative in the history of humanity that powerful people fail to have the wisdom to know the difference and they can pull, not only themselves, but the rest of society into a catastrophe as they overreach – for example miscalculations leading to wars – or overstepping the limits to economic growth, pulling the global economy and society into overshoot and collapse.

As you suggest Giorgos in such hubristic situations it is typical that the most powerful people who share the greatest responsibility for disaster are also best protected and at first escape the consequences that first fall on more vulnerable people. I don’t disagree with you on that or your comments about people like Richard Branson.

What I do take issue with is the idea that if one says that growth will come to an end anyway then one is ipso facto “a survivalist”, that one is “ a-political” and that one is inadvertently “hiding the fact” that “we” are not all equally responsible or equally vulnerable. I can’t see that those conclusions follow inevitably at all. If that is meant as a description of my point of view then it is not one that I recognise.

It seems that for you, the very acknowledgement that the growth process could come to an end anyway, whatever anyone does,

“…opens the potential for authoritarian responses to save “us” from disaster; and it is politically disempowering and demobilizing, as it suggests that we can do nothing to change the system and its trajectory, only prepare and “survive with our peers”.

I would prefer to say instead that “…. AT THIS TIME in most countries we cannot do very much to change the system and change its trajectory except assist the early victim of the crisis and thereby sow the seeds and prepare the ground for later. At this later time changing conditions are likely to make the political situation more fluid and open to wider political purposes when “our seed projects” mature and network into a new kind of system as the old one disintegrates…”

The point is that we make history not in conditions of our own choosing but that those conditions vary from place to place and they also change change, not necessarily through our own actions. What’s more the conditions can change in ways that open up a greater freedom to make history. However it also leads to greater dangers if we make the wrong choices through clinging to what is no longer viable.

This is indeed a route along which there is a lot of conflict and it is not at all clear to me which are the best and most appropriate choices to make. There are a lot of difficult decisions and no doubt one of the choices is how much to engage in politics, how much to try to organise communities around projects and social and ecological enterprise and how much to try and go it alone, survivalist style. Speaking personally I don’t see much purpose in the last choice but I certainly not advocate a choice of “only” preparing to “survive with our peers”.

It’s been one of the features of the Transition Movement that it is NOT “only” about survival but also about re-creating community, recreating creativity and seeking to create a life that would be worth living. I myself helped set up and ran a community garden which was never “only” to help people to survive. We’ve had plenty of parties, meals on the grass and among the trees in the summer, festivals at harvest time, community building, art, creating a beautiful place. There is nothing that makes it inevitable that the responses to an involuntary breakdown would involve adapting to a worse situation. After the fear and the trauma of change, after the loss of control, after the breakdowns it might be better for some people, perhaps even for a majority. (I don’t know because I don’t have a magic ball to tell the future with).

The fact is that we are talking about such a vast process in so many different places facing so many different people it’s going to be hard to generalise meaningfully. But please let’s take off the rose tinted spectacles. At the recent Leipzig conferences I heard academics lecturing on degrowth as an opportunity for the promotion of new “concrete utopias” and it really bugged me. It seems that you have the same sort of idea when you write:

“A social change, if it is to take place, requires desire, materialized into an alternative political vision, a vision driven by a quest for the enjoyment of life, not by fear of a looming disaster, or a pure survivalist spirit.”

Giorgos, I don’t accept your simple ‘either–or’ choice. I don’t buy this kind of psychology. For me it’s more complex than that, and more paradoxical. I’m all in favour of enjoying life where it’s possible but the peculiar thing is that people often grow and lead fuller and richer lives when they face the worse that can happen and learn and grow as a result. That has been the discovery of those who work with people who have a terminal illness:

“When we face the worst that can happen in any situation, we grow. When circumstances are at their worst, we grow. When we find the true meaning of these lessons, we also find happy meaningful lives. Not perfect, but authentic. We can live life profoundly.”


Note that this is not chiefly or at all about how we are going to realise our desires, it is about how we are going to live authentically. They are not necessarily the same thing. Growing as a human being eventually involves accepting that one cannot live all of one’s desires – and it almost certainly will in a degrowth society.

If there is a looming disaster then I think we have to say so, even if, at first, this spoils the party. It seems to me entirely appropriate to fear a disaster if a disaster is threatened – and one is certainly “looming” in the case of climate change. Not talking about extremely dangerous climate change because it would create fear and frighten people away would be denial and avoidance as part of a political strategy.

Implied in what you write seems to be an assumption that we should not emphasise things that might frighten. It is preferential to have messages that are uplifting. For myself I am weary of uplifting messages. The plan is going to be achieved, our troops are holding the line, our regulations are the best in the world, the economy is recovering, technology will solve the climate crisis, the government will make sure everything is OK.

….and now you want to tell people “The degrowth society will realise your desires.”?

Sorry. I don’t believe in the “concrete utopias” dreamed by academics. Let’s simply tell the truth instead – what humanity is doing to the eco-system is close to catastrophic. On current trends, the poor will probably die first but it won’t be nice for anyone – even, eventually the psychopaths who govern us. If we degrow the economy it might help avert this global tragedy. It will be difficult and chaotic and there might sometimes be time to party. Perhaps it won’t be all bad. We actually don’t know because nothing quite like this has happened before in history so we’ve no precedents. However, it’s often likely to be very difficult.

Is it really so outlandish to simply tell the truth? This was a famous speech that an English politician, Winston Churchill made early in world war two. It was recognised at the time and afterwards as being an inspirational speech but it certainly wasn’t inspirational because it was about realising desire.

“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

This was inspirational because it was true.

By comparison the challenge of degrowth at national and global levels may be even more daunting. We need to be realistic. Consider this excerpt from a paper on psychological strategies to cope with the threat of a 4 degree increase in global temperatures by Clive Hamilton and psychologist Tim Kasser:

“The research literature on death reflection (the more thoughtful and prolonged engagement with death) suggests that an open and wide-ranging public debate over questions of mortality and survival would make recourse to maladaptive coping strategies less attractive (Kasser 2009). More conscious reflection on mortality would also encourage more pro-social and less materialistic goals. At present most governments and environmental organisations adopt a “don’t scare the horses”
approach, fearful that exposing people fully to the scientific predictions will immobilise them. With climate scientists now stressing the need for extremely urgent action and spelling out more catastrophic impacts if action is inadequate, this now seems to us a dangerous approach to undertake.”


So, as you can see, here are scientists who, basing themselves on research about motivations and values, come to a position that appears very different from yours. That’s not to rule out giving thought to how we are going to enjoy life “on the way down” but it does point to a potential danger in perspectives that put “realising desire” at the centre. As Hamilton and Kasser point out, the major “maladaptive coping strategy” that people adopt, when confronted short term with uncomfortable emotions like anxiety because of environmental threats, is “pleasure seeking”.

Now let me turn to your comment and question:

“Note also your own contradiction. If climate disaster, degrowth and whatever else the future holds for us is “involuntary” and the best we can do is to become “resilient” in “transition towns”, then what is the point of an international “cap and share”, like the one you propose, or any other mitigation action for that matter? Cap-and-share is a voluntary, and deeply political action, for which people would have to be seriously mobilized and organized to get it institutionalized. How would this ever be done without a positive, political vision about the future? And why do it, if the future is pre-determined?”

That’s a perfectly valid question and, as I was, for a long time, involved in promoting cap and share, I asked myself something somewhat similar – though not exactly the same. The point is though that I have never regarded the future as pre-determined as I already explained. I do not know for sure what the future holds and my experience of life has been one in which plenty of unexpected things have happened. The future is one of “strong uncertainty”. That being the case, if you re-read my comments on your book carefully, you will notice that I envisage two possibilities – one where the degrowth process is largely involuntary and the other where it is more of a voluntary process because of the emergence of political forces that actually promote it – for example, driving the process of degrowth through policies like cap and share.

The point is that, at the moment, it seems to me that, the process of degrowth is likely to start more as an involuntary process to which people and groups must respond. However as it proceeds, if the responses are successful and networked, then the response networks might be able to accumulate political influence and power which might make it possible to start to drive the process more directly. That process is further along in places like Greece than most other places and the situation has change there.

So part of my answer to your question is that situations can change. A process that starts off largely involuntarily can end up steered more directly and cap and share might then be adopted along that road.

When? Again I don’t know. In the next 1, 5, 10, 15, 30 years?

You will note here that a part of my answer to your question is to note the varying conditions in different countries – in some countries at this time a policy for voluntary degrowth appears to be more of a possibility. In others this is not so. Political-economic conditions vary tremendously. I am sure that part of our difference reflects our different experiences in our different countries. At the time of my writing this I am reading about the possibility that Syriza could win in elections that are called early. As a grass roots party it makes sense for Syriza to have a programme for the transformation of society here and now – in Britain where I am the situation is totally different.

Now let me turn to “depense”. I must admit a bit of me does wonder if the idea of depense is in some way connected to the Euro zone crisis in that it allows the “green left” to connect to a mood of defiance among people in southern europe. This is a question to which you will better know the answer than me? Does “depense” have a function in matching the emotional reaction of many people southern Europe to dictats from Northern eurozone creditors?

Is this the kind of idea: “So what if you lent our governing elite a lot of money and now they can’t service the debts? So what if our corrupt elite has squandered what they bought on euro credit and now our country can’t pay it back? Your efficiently produced products, your exports that our elites borrowed Euros to buy, need to be used rather than accumulated. We have to destroy capital to prevent destructive growth. But the good life, the dolce vita – belongs to all of us, not just our governing elite so we are going to protect and cherish our festivals and our feasts. It’s something that we know how to do here in southern Europe better than you constipated workaholics in the north. So, even though we are prepared to accept personal frugality, take your hands off our right to have a good life together and stop insisting that we have to save and invest to compete with you, when it leads to ecological destruction anyway.”

Once again I emphasise that I am asking an exploratory question. It is not accepting or rejecting the depense idea it is trying to exploring where it might have come from. I write “might” because I am trying to explore whether there are other collective emotional roots for why this idea be given prominence at this time. If it is accepted that depense has an emotionally cathartic role then it seems to me legitimate to explore possible emotional roots in other directions too. Of course I might be wrong, I often am. It’s my imaginary at work I suppose and my imaginary is sometimes pure imagination and nothing else.

I want to repeat here that my first concern was to try to understand depense and I was not sure that I had understood it, partly perhaps, because a ‘new idea’ requires more space than was available given the constraints of chapter length that you put upon your authors. Now you tell me that I have understood it I’ve got to admit that I have still not made up my mind – although I do incline to scepticism. This is because although I can understand the idea that accumulation of the surplus product would lead to growth, I doubt that you would ever be able to administer this idea as a policy. If you accept that energy sources will be shrinking involuntarily then, as I explained, all sorts of systems and interest groups will be claiming resources so as to prevent complex systems breaking down as contraction occurs. Buildings will need maintenance, computer networks will need maintaining, health systems will be under pressure, power grids will be having brown outs, vehicles, roads and rail will need repair. And there will simply be less and less to do each of these things. In this context a strategy of deliberately “wasting resources” “to prevent growth”, when the resources are dwindling anyway, would not be very popular and doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. So it depends on how you see the conditions “on the road ahead”. If the global economy can continue growing for the next thirty years and this is a policy for a movement of opposition to that further growth then you’ve got more of a case. However, I think that there is likely to be a claim on resources, not to grow the economy but to slow a descent into chaos – and hopefully a transition to more locally low energy lifestyles lived in and though the network of projects that we envisage.

At the same time I also accept that the process of degrowth whether voluntary or involuntary will be emotionally difficult so it make sense to devote a part of the surplus to events that bring people together, that celebrate and that make life worth living – rather than devote all resources to “fire fighting”, emergency responses and the maintenance of crumbling technical systems. At the time of writing I have just read an article about Donezk and the Ukraine in the latest copy of Der Spiegel. The sub title of the article makes the point that I think is important:

“The Opera of Donezk is performing Rigoletto, without money and with only half a cast. But all 970 seats are sold out because the yearning for beauty in the middle of the war is so great”

A final point on resilience – I think that you are under-emphasising the importance of resilience as well as the sophistication of the people who have theorised what resilience is and how it fits into the bigger picture of social, economic and ecological change.

There is a “Resilience Alliance” of academics from different disciplines that has developed a theory called “Panarchy” which is not at all static and has influenced my thinking a lot. In their approach ecological and economic realities evolve cyclically in three dimensions – productivity, interdependence and vulnerability/resilience. Mature systems lose their resilience because of their huge complexity and interdependencies so that when “hub interdependencies” break down problems cascade through entire systems which may then collapse. (Think of hub interdependencies like the money system, the electric power system, the internet or public health). A collapse is a break down of complexity and interdependency which then creates opportunities – if you like the space – for pioneering species in an ecological system, or pioneering projects and pioneering institutions in an emergent new social system. When these pioneers start to grow together, to network and develop new shared infrastructures and institutions, then a new system begins to emerge. That’s the process that I’m trying to envisage here using Panarchical concepts.

Featured image: Roman statue of Nemesis from Eygpt, 2nd century AD. Source:


1. Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler. “Life Lessons. How our Mortality can teach us about Life and Living” Simon and Schuster 2000 p25
2. Clive Hamilton and Tim Kasser “ Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and stresses of a Four Degree world” A paper for “Four Degrees and Beyond” conference, Oxford University 28-30 September 2009

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One Reply to “Brian Davey responds to Giorgos Kallis on degrowth”

  1. This touches on the fascinating topic of motivation. I’d agree with Brian that awareness of possible disaster can inspire us to action, but I think we also need to be very careful not to neglect the positive. This essay from Fleeing Vesuvius references a lot of studies about the negative/positive balance that sound very interesting (although I haven’t looked into them myself): .
    The gist seems to be that both negative and positive play a role but that the negative shouldn’t be allowed to dominate.
    I find the other things that the article touches on – learning by imitation and working within different people’s worldviews – fascinating too.

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