Degrowth is a vague term. On the one hand, Degrowth arouses fear of personal impoverishment. On the other hand, Degrowth encompasses a wide array of policies that seek social enrichment. While Degrowth emerged from many sources and while it features many facets, it has few if any positive institutional commitments. Instead, Degrowth mainly features a thematic commitment. To avoid ecological disaster and even total ecological collapse, society needs to substantially cut production and consumption. Some Degrowthers say we must cut by as much as 90 percent. Other Degrowthers have in mind an unspecified but much lower reduction
In most accounts, the origin of Degrowth traces back to the 1970s and particularly, though not exclusively, to the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. A survey undertaken in 2014 found 220 Degrowth-focused texts. A similar survey in late 2020 found 1166 such texts. Other accounts now report upwards of 3,000 or more. So Degrowth is a rapidly growing focus in academia, but it also stretches beyond campuses, particularly in Europe (especially Spain) and to a lesser degree in North America.
One theme common to virtually all variants of the Degrowth school, movement, or perspective, (which of these you call Degrowth depends on how you assess it), is the observation that infinite growth on a finite planet must result in escalating ecological crises and eventual collapse. This observation owes first to Roegen who derivatively felt that even no growth, often called a steady state economy, wasn’t viable. Roegan argued that society instead needed (and now needs) serious cutbacks. Regarding Degrowth writ large, it is often overlooked that the basic theme that you can’t build infinitely on a finite foundation is trivially true. It is also often overlooked that to use this truism to argue for Degrowth would by the same logic motivate that there should have always been Degrowth on our always finite planet. Roegen wanted major cutbacks in the 1970s. Were he alive at the time, he could with the same logic have called for them in 1790. Of course, he could reply now, but not then, yes but now we are hitting a wall. Now disaster looms. True, but unless elaborated, the finite planet argument doesn’t say why particular outputs are bad. It doesn’t say how to determine the worthiness or badness of production choices. It doesn’t tell us under what conditions production we deem bad should be reduced or eliminated. It doesn’t tell us what areas of growth are not only not damaging but even beneficial and sometimes absolutely essential.
What then, we might reasonably ask, is likable about Degrowth? If you seek to transcend gender, sexual, race, religious, ethnic, class, and political hierarchies of income, wealth, circumstance, and power, if you seek to attain a society that delivers diversity, solidarity, equity, self management, internationalism, and ecological sustainability/reciprocity, what should you like about Degrowth
It turns out, you should like quite a lot. Degrowth seeks decline of environmental pressures and avoidance of ecological crises and collapse. It seeks emancipation from certain ideologies deemed undesirable. It calls for sufficiency and care. It seeks to diminish gaps in income, wealth, knowledge, infrastructure, resources, and time within and between countries. It seeks to guarantee universal provision of fundamental human needs. It seeks to decentralize decision-making and to defend and reclaim the commons. Likewise, Degrowth frequently recognizes and rejects diverse social ills and often quite explicitly rejects colonialism, capitalism, and markets. Also likable are many of Degrowth’s specific proposals for ecological improvements like developing public transport, promoting collective rather than private goods, cutting luxury production, and (surprisingly not so often mentioned) cutting military production.
Okay, but then what, we might reasonably ask, might people who seek to transcend gender, sexual, race, religious, ethnic, class, and political hierarchies of income, wealth, circumstances, and power dislike about Degrowth? What might put off people who seek to attain a society that delivers diversity, solidarity, equity, self management, internationalism, and ecological sustainability/reciprocity?
First off, the name “Degrowth” is dislikable. To many people, it quite understandably connotes impoverishment. Likewise Degrowth’s absence of positive institutional commitments even while calling itself a societal vision is dislikable by those who think a societal vision has to address not just values but also institutions. So too is Degrowth’s tendency to go from observing that we live in a finite world to rejecting infinite growth which later no one proposes and which, more importantly, tends to direct attention only to amounts of stuff. Degrowth sometimes comes across as context and need independent. That is, Degrowth sometimes treats all outputs as, well, generic outputs, with little attention to differences in kind, value, and even impact. It tends to dismiss people’s desires for “stuff” as nearly universally wrong-headed or greedy and thus as part of the problem. And not uniquely, Degrowth also often ignores the attractive or repelling effects of its words on certain wide audiences.
It should be noted, however, that Degrowth likability and Degrowth dislikability come in many and often entangled packages. The most dislikable Degrowthers make little mention of its worthy aspects while they call for essentially genocidal cutbacks and castigate all but survival consumption. The most likable Degrowthers successfully avoid Degrowth’s problematic aspects and put forth only its worthy proposals and sentiments. But most Degrowthers, I think it is fair to say, offer some from “column likable” and some from “column dislikable.” When described in terms of its half full likable aspects, the Degrowth school, movement, or perspective has many virtues and someone like myself might even see it as consistent with a campaign aimed toward achieving a participatory economy and participatory society. But the same school, movement, or perspective, Degrowth, when described in terms of its half empty aspects, has many debits and someone like myself could even see it as seriously detrimental to outreach due to its off-putting aspects. One might see half empty dislikable Degrowth as an obstacle to clear economic thought due to it often lumping everything into one category called “too much output” which obscures important distinctions between different outputs—as well as due to its implicit denigration of advocating institutional alternatives due to its not advocating any.
So now what? Should we advocate for or should we denigrate Degrowth?
This is actually a question with wider applicability. Many schools of thought, movements, or perspectives have half full and half empty versions. In such cases, should we celebrate what we like and ignore what we dislike so as to fully positively advocate the orientation? Or should we instead castigate what we dislike and ignore what we like so as to fully reject the orientation? Be positive or be critical, that is the question.
A friend once told me of instructing his young child, “you can do x or you can do y, but you have to choose.” And the little fella replied, “but daddy I don’t like x and I don’t like y.” While sometimes “binaries” are real and we must choose one over the other, other times “binaries” are false and to choose either is senseless. Support or reject Degrowth? Which will it be?
What if you feel that your whole-hearted support would give unwarranted credibility to the harmful aspects? Or, what if you feel that your whole-hearted rejection would rob warranted credibility from the helpful aspects? What if for either or both of those reasons you don’t like whose-hearted support or whole hearted rejection? What if you want to favor the good in hopes you can help enlarge the good and what if you want to simultaneously critique the bad in hopes you can help transcend the bad?
Conclusion: One should not be chased away from criticizing Degrowth by Degrowth advocates who say, “come on, stop nit-picking. Look at all the good stuff. Get on board. This train has traction.” Well, maybe it does, but identifying serious problems is not nitpicking, and a train with serious flaws may be moving but it is unlikely to arrive where you want to go.
Similarly, one shouldn’t be chased away from delivering compliments by Degrowth opponents saying “are you kidding me? Lay waste to it, and in any case, certainly don’t praise it. This train misleads, it distracts. The flaws are the heart of it.” Well, maybe so, but trying to retain the positive is not alibiing the negative. It is trying to ensure that the train does good.
The point is, regarding Degrowth, we shouldn’t be entirely rejectionist or entirely celebratory. We should support the likable elements and simultaneously reject the dislikable elements.
Consider an analogy. Many and arguably most critics of injustice see positive and negative aspects in the school, movement, or perspective called Marxism Leninism. But a great many let what they find positive about Marxism Leninism (for example support for struggle and rejection of private ownership, exploitation, and capitalist economic rule) close their eyes to what they would otherwise find negative. Many others let their sensitivity to what they find negative about Marxism Leninism (for example authoritarianism, economism, support for the corporate division of labor, and enabling coordinator class economic rule) close their eyes to what they would otherwise find positive. Eyes wide in every direction is most often better than eyes closed in all but one direction.
Okay, but having gotten this far, suppose someone who has been a long-time progressive, radical, or revolutionary and who has therefore always believed in equality, environmental sustainability, a vastly reduced military, etc., were to ask me, “what does Degrowth add to my politics? Don’t what you call the good parts of Degrowth overlap with other left ideologies, offering nothing new, and the parts that don’t overlap, those are the parts you reject as bad?”
I would have to answer that “yes, I think what you say is fair,” but then I would add that “not all of society is as progressive, radical, or revolutionary as you are. The Degrowth train, spurred by highly aroused ecological concern, is taking on passengers and also taking on lots of familiar movement insights. It also has some serious problems. So shouldn’t we seek to have it jettison its bad aspects and enlarge its allegiance to the good aspects, as well as add more of the latter?”
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