The Case for Degrowth: Review

Different meanings of “degrowth”

50 years ago when I was a young hard left socialist I recall how I would argue with people about politics. The argument would almost always go something like this: the other person would say that “socialism is all right in theory but it doesn’t work in practice – look what happened in Russia” and I would reply “Russia is not socialist”.

I remembered this at one point when reading “The Case for Degrowth” written by Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, and Federico Demaria. (Polity Press). I read this:

“Some of you might protest, “Isn’t the coronavirus crisis revealing the misery of degrowth?” We invite you to first read this book. What is happening during the pandemic is not degrowth. The goal of degrowth is to purposefully slow things down in order to minimize harm to humans and earth systems. The current situation is terrible, not because carbon emissions are declining, which is good, but because many lives are lost; it is terrible not because GDPs are going down, to which we are indifferent, but because there are no processes in place to protect livelihoods when growth falters. For us, caring and community solidarity are vital principles…”

OK – a major purpose of this book is to put up a counter argument to the idea that growth is a cure all and should be understood instead as the root cause of many current problems. Although it is not true to say that the covid 19 pandemic was caused by economic growth because, after all, pandemics have been happening for centuries, nevertheless the speed with which the pandemic spread, the growing ease with which viruses jump from animals to humans because of growth related land use changes, the reluctance in the early stage to take steps to protect public health, the undermining of health service infrastructures through austerity and the reluctance to scale back production for fear of a market collapse – all are problems of a growth economy.

All this is explained in the case for degrowth book and yes, I get it…And yet, the memory of my socialist student days came back and I wonder how much authors are able to determine how words like “degrowth” get used and how these words are understood once they go into circulation. In the last year I have many times seen “degrowth” used, purely and simply, to mean economic contraction brought about because the economy has reached the limits to economic growth. I give examples below.

This issue of framing is important. Words matter – the problem is that, to those unfamiliar with the issues, the word “degrowth” conveys first and foremost an apparently obvious meaning, namely that degrowth means the opposite of growth. It means contraction. Unless you read a book like The Case for Degrowth it is not obvious that some people are using the word to propose a radical policy package – qualitative, structural changes in ecological, social and economic relations as a necessary alternative to the economy growing quantitatively bigger. The authors of this book, and a larger movement of which they are a part, envisage a degrowth society, with its low impact, non consumerist lifestyles, largely operating on co-operative and commons principles. It is about “re-founding societies on the commons of mutual aid and care, orienting collective pursuits away from growth and toward wellbeing and equity.” Yet the single word does not convey this larger meaning and this is a problem because most people will, unfortunately, never read the book.

“Degrowth” if understood, (or misunderstood) as contraction has already arrived

A related point here is that it will not be necessary now to actually advocate “degrowth” if understood (or misunderstood) in the limited way as “economic contraction” . That’s because it is beginning to happen anyway. As I write this review in early September 2020, economic storm clouds are gathering the world over. For a few years, even mainstream economists have noted a falling off of economic growth and have named this phenomena “secular stagnation”. According to the Centre for Sustainable Prosperity at Surrey University

“Rates of growth across member states of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have been in decline since the 1970s, a phenomenon known as ‘secular stagnation’. The average growth in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita fell from over 4 percent in the mid-1960s to little more than 1 percent in the pre-pandemic years. The International Monetary Fund expects global GDP to decline by 5 percent this year alone (2020) with a contraction of 3 percent likely even in the emerging and developing market economies.”

Other authors, like Dr Tim Morgan, think there are reasons to believe that secular stagnation will, in the future, not only be an issue in the OECD countries. Secular stagnation, and then worse, is the fate of countries like China too. Biophysical limits to growth are increasingly being reached everywhere. The depletion of oil, gas and coal means it is necessary to tap higher cost sources of energy – including in China.

Nor will the enormous credit expansion used by policy makers to address falling growth rates help any more – such “financial adventurism” will make the crisis worse. Tim Morgan describes all of this in his blog and does not believe that it is necessary “to make a case for degrowth”. In April of this year he wrote:

““de-growth” has now arrived. This is not something that we have chosen, however compelling may have been the environmental or the human case for kicking our growth addiction. There’s nothing noble, voluntary or selected about the onset of de-growth which, rather, is a straightforward consequence of the unwinding of an energy dynamic which, courtesy of fossil fuels, has powered dramatic expansion ever since the first efficient heat-engine was unveiled back in 1760.

The necessity now is to understand de-growth, and to make the best of it. Those who have considered this likelihood have started to understand processes such as loss of critical mass, the threat posed by falling utilization rates, the inevitability both of simplification and of de-layering, and the equal inevitability that, just as economies became more complex as they expanded, they will be subject to a process of de-complexification now that prior growth in prosperity has gone into reverse. As shown below, these components of de-growth give us an outline taxonomy of the very different economic world of the future.

It doesn’t require a Pollyanna approach to understand that, just as “growth” has been a mixed blessing, de-growth offers opportunities as well as threats.
If you really valued ‘business as usual’, were looking forward to a world of widening inequalities and worsening insecurity of employment, enjoyed the glitz of promotion-drenched consumerism, and were unconcerned about what a never-ending pursuit of “growth” might do to the environment, you might find the onset of de-growth a cause for lament.

If, on the other hand, you understand that our world is not defined by material values alone, you might see opportunities where others see only regrets….”

There are similarities between the Tim Morgan view and the book that I am reviewing here…but there is a subtle difference.

In “the Case for Degrowth” we have a book which assumes that a more elaborate version of “degrowth” must be fought for against a mainstream growth consensus. It requires a non consumerist and collectivist counter culture combined with green economic policies – like a Green New Deal, but with the growth taken out, combined with policies to throttle back carbon emissions, tax high incomes, natural resource use and pollution.

At the same time other authors, like Morgan, using a more limited definition of degrowth to mean involuntary economic contraction, clearly believe that this kind of degrowth has already arrived.

When I scan the essays on the website of the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity there is a similar point of view. For CUSP authors current political and cultural issues need to be thought of in the context of “secular stagnation” which is set to deepen. According to evidence on the CUSP website even the UK Ministry of Defence has cottoned on to degrowth.

Secular stagnation is not a straight line process of decline. As the growth rate declines the economy becomes more unstable, taking longer and longer to put itself back together when it suffers a shock. Rather like a bike that is slowing down it becomes more difficult to keep in balance. There is evidence of “critical slowing down” which means that it takes longer to put things back together after knocks like covid 19. The slow recovery means a tipping point is close.

A period of economic shocks and disasters – which we should prepare for

Economic activity is more vulnerable to shocks: extreme weather events, public health crises like covid 19 and crises in which problems from one sector cascade into another. “Contagion” becomes ubiquitous because of interdependency – an extreme weather event may paralyse the power grid so that, without electric power, electronic transactions are paralysed with further devastating effects – unless break downs are put right quickly.

A tipping point might entail the onset of general paralysis.

The “Case for Degrowth” is advocating degrowth to help achieve a better life on a bedrock of caring and commoning. Its authors recognise that unexpected events open new possibilities and violently close others. They fear what the future may look like and so they should. They acknowledge the way that disasters like the covid epidemic can move situations on in ways that are unplanned, unwilled and messy. However, specific responses to disasters is not a focus of their book.

That is unfortunate because these unplanned, unwilled and messy developments are more likely than book publications to influence what happens. The more we prepare for them, the less unplanned they are, the more we steer the aftermath of these messy and unwilled happenings.

Here’s an example – the organisation Occupy Wall Street, which was the grass roots movement at the time of the 2008 financial crash, reappeared at the time that hurricane Sandy hit New York. People from Occupy Wall Street resurrected their organisation as “Occupy Sandy”. They demonstrated how horizontal mutual aid, disaster collectivism, could be a powerful aid to poor communities with a lasting impact. The way I see it disaster collectivism could turn out to be a part of the degrowth story.

In April the same publisher, Polity Books, published a translation of a French book by Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stevens titled How Everything can collapse. A Manual for our Times. It argues that there is real likelihood of political, social, economic and ecological collapse. This is relevant to making a case for degrowth. You can argue that a case for degrowth helps head off more problems and offers a better lifestyle. You can also argue that a “degrowth” ought to be a programme to help cope with problems that are going to occur anyway – up to and including collapse. Servigne and Stevens write the following about this:

“We did not use the term ‘degrowth’ because it designates less a historical reality than a voluntarist political programme (frugality and conviviality) intended, precisely, to avoid a collapse. But this ‘wish’ gives us a glimpse of a gradual, controlled and voluntary reduction of our consumption of materials and energy – something that…is not very realistic. Unlike degrowth, the notion of collapse still makes it possible to think of a future that is not totally mastered.” ( page 128 )

Not only is there a process of secular stagnation but extreme weather events and disasters like covid 19 are happening with greater regularity and with more severe impacts. Recovery from these disasters are more difficult as the resources available to use for recovery contract. In other words we are entering “a future that is not totally mastered”. Let’s face it – degrowth as a policy needs to be about the policies to help destitute and distressed people, to reclaim contaminated and derelict buildings and land, to clean up and poisoned sea scapes and to cope with weather disasters of increasing frequency and severity. If it is not that then what possible use is it?

It would be reassuring if elites were aware of the trends and were taking appropriate steps in government but to a large extent they are not – instead they are using the chaos for emergency powers that remove themselves from democratic control and enable them to take advantage of vulnerable communities and/or to loot tax revenues through no bid contracts for their own enrichment. Meanwhile a “future that is not totally mastered” is the last thing that elites want to acknowledge as this has the potential to undermine their legitimacy and credibility. So we watch their blundering and blustering increase as things get worse.

In their book the authors of the case for degrowth argue that politics in the near future looks increasingly as if it will be about mutual aid by grass roots communities in co-operatives, collectives and care commons. OK but is it enough to say this? Do we not also have to say that these grass roots collective arrangements will be spending a lot of their efforts responding to an increasing frequency and severity of disasters? Do we not also need to mention that they will be involved increasingly in “disaster collectivism” – which may also be pitted against “disaster capitalism” as we move into a period of economic disintegration?

The analogy is not perfect but it will do for now – before the onset of world war two in Britain the likelihood of war meant that preparations for food rationing were made and people began to think of constructing air raid shelters. At an early stage in the war they were issued with gas masks. At this time should we not also think of food arrangements for hard times? If we live by the sea or near flood plains should we not think of flood plains and arrangements? Instead of thinking that we will avert the crisis by degrowth let’s acknowledge that we are too late to avert some of the problems and will have to work with what nature and a disintegrating economy throws at us. We will have to reconstruct through the crisis and hope that we can change things sufficiently in the early stages of the disintegration to avert the later stages – but we will not now stop some of the damage.

So many diversities and pluralities that the argument is hard to follow

Part of the problem that I have with the Case for Degrowth book is that it is sometimes difficult to know what to hang on to in their argument. They are so keen NOT to propose “monocultural” responses to the institutions of a growth economy that they go to great lengths to describe “pluralities” and “diversities” or arrangements.

“Our strategy is to re-order values and resources to support the development of diverse life-making processes operating with different logics. That diversity will be key to resilience and adaptation in the face of historical-environmental challenges.”

However as I read about the diversity of arrangements, the arguments almost seem labyrinthine and I eventually lose my way and wonder what to hang on to. In the english language one word for “understand” is to “grasp” something – but this is often a difficult book to “grasp” because there is so much “diversity” and so many “pluralities” that trying to grasp the argument is like trying to get a grip on a handful of sand. At least one chapter contains a mass of examples that are not even about degrowth as such but are claimed to “prefigure degrowth transitions” because they are about living simply in communities, prioritising well being over profit, promoting models of community ownership with less negative impacts and energy use. In a book called “The Case for xyz” you expect something more focused – but I often can’t see the wood for the trees…(Probably because of this the authors decided to add a Frequently Asked Questions section which reads much more like a more ordinary “Case for…” chapter than the rest of the book.)

Responding to difficulties gives focus

Another way in which the amorphous argument could be brought into sharper relief would have been if more effort had been put into structuring it around how degrowth will respond to a variety of damaging challenges. Let me give mental health as an example.

At the time of writing an article appeared in the London Guardian which describes a mental health crisis of unprecedented scale unfolding in the United Kingdom – psychological depression in British adults has doubled during the coronavirus crisis.

“Almost one in five (19.2%) people experienced depression in June, almost double the 9.7% with symptoms in the nine months to March, according to a survey of 3,500 participants by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Younger adults, women, key workers and disabled people were among those most likely to suffer depression during the pandemic, as were those in households unable to afford an unexpected expense, according to the ONS.

While people across all age brackets were more likely to have experienced depression post-Covid, the greatest proportional increase was among those aged 16 to 39. Between July 2019 and March 2020, 11% of this group reported depression, rising to 31% in June.

Women were more likely than men to have experienced depression during the pandemic, with almost one in four (23.3%) reporting moderate to severe depressive symptoms, compared with one in eight beforehand.”

The point about this growing mental health crisis is that it is, or has to be a tangible focus – something definite that needs to be addressed. You can argue if you like that a well organised “degrowth process” that the authors would like to see would not suffer this mental health crisis because the conviviality and collectivity would have raised people’s moods. However it’s too late for that now. There is and will be a lot of distressed and disorientated people in the unwilled and messy situations and perhaps they prefigure a collapse. How is the growing avalanche of mental health problems going to be responded to? What are needed are answers now – not just to head off and avert a future situation but to cope with an acute disaster situation that is already unfolding as entire communities are overwhelmed.

Here are some more hard nosed questions – how are we to get ready for the impacts of extreme weather events – floods, droughts, fires? What will be done during serious food shortages? How are we to respond to public health issues like covid 19? How are we to respond to waves of evictions? How are we to respond to waves of unemployment? How are these responses connected to the climate and environmental crisis?

Disaster Preparation by Communities

It is not true that we can do nothing in advance of these crises. A great deal of experience demonstrates that when disaster strikes communities often come together in responses based on altruism and mutual aid. The greater the pre-existing trust and networking, the better a community can respond. Community horizontally organised responses often emerge from pre-existing social networks and prior divisions in communities may dissolve as people experience catastrophe together. This is more likely if there has already been information sharing in convivial settings about the need for preparedness about particular risks likely in particular places and if neighbourliness has already been strengthened by shared activity. One way of strengthening communities is if they work together – in Ireland there is a tradition called meitheal – which means work teams of neighbours doing tasks like field labour together on each other’s land.

It is one thing to find responses to problems that are slowly increasing in magnitude – it is another to respond to multiple crises happening at once because these crises are systemic to the growth economy which is highly interconnected and therefore vulnerable to crisis contagion. What happens in such situations will be crucial to the direction that history takes.

What would and could be done if there is a “cascade crisis”? A cascade crisis would happen when for example there are domino chain collapses. For example extreme weather crashes the power grid which paralyses everything needing electric power like computers and the internet. This would crash the electronic transactions system which would crash buying and selling, shops and supply chains and basic services. How would or will mutual aid work here, now, as the economy contracts and how do we create the necessary density of social networks to be ready and able to respond?

The Case for Degrowth is a well-written book, but my feeling is that it is already being overtaken by events on the ground.

Brian Davey
5th September 2020

Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Demaria “The Case for Degrowth”, Polity Press, 2020

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One Reply to “The Case for Degrowth: Review”

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful review, Brian. I am currently reading a 1968 book The Student Revolt, which contains interviews with and statements by key people in the French ‘revolt’ of 1968, and I am struggling to find anything that is relevant to the situation the world is in today. We need goals – and words – that can not be misunderstood and hijacked. I will be interested in what Servigne and Stevens have to say in their forthcoming book Another End of the World is Possible, but meanwhile the words I am using are Restoration and Renewal. This applies to all life, including humans. In my country, New Zealand, this means the restoration of rights, responsibilities and relationships which have been destroyed or degraded by colonialism and capitalism, and building new alternatives which are better in a place where a lot of us (like me) had no choice about where in the world they ended up.

    Good mental health depends on good relationships, and practices of restoration and renewal both personal and social, and it is the absence of these factors which is causing the current crisis in mental health (in NZ as well as the UK). I am afraid there is no quick or easy way out, but if (as you say) we could frame the issues and where we are trying to get to in better ways, that would help.

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