What Is to Be Grown?

Can "degrowth" politics make a useful contribution to building the ecosocialist movement?

Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, Aaron Vansintjan, The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism. Verso, 320 pages.

In the US, life expectancy at birth peaked in 2014 at 78.9 years; in 2021 it was 76.1 years, an unprecedented decrease of 3.5% (and of course vastly unequal along lines of race and class). Most of this drop came in the last two years due to the prioritization of business interests over public health in a pandemic. Our Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the primary metric currently used to gauge the health of economies, grew by approximately 15% over the same period. At the same time, heat waves, wildfires, floods, and other disasters keep getting worse as water supplies dry up and ecological degradation continues apace. The Economy is pleased; are you not entertained?

Economic growth is sacrosanct among economists and political elites, who consider it the barometer for societal progress. But GDP is just the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a given place over a given time period. Obviously, there are all sorts of ways to increase it that are actively harmful in the short and/or long term and there are all sorts of valuable things that such a measure does not and cannot incorporate. It is also true that, in our present society, recessions tend to result in increased immiseration for the working class because they are left to the whims of the market.

In The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism (Verso Books, 2021), Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan diagnose the ideology of growth—economic and otherwise—as the primary underlying driver of capitalism and our various systemic crises. Therefore, they offer degrowth as the solution, which they define as:

the democratic transition to a society that—in order to enable global and ecological justice—is based on a much smaller throughput of energy and resources, that deepens democracy and guarantees a good life and social justice for all, and that does not depend on continuous expansion.

The parts about reduced throughput and independence from expansion are what really set people off (across the political spectrum). One of the key complaints that critics have with degrowth is that it means lowering living standards in the Global North, which is said to be either bad or politically impossible. The Future is Degrowth, like all degrowth scholarship that I have encountered, makes clear that that is not the aim or what they think will be the result of a degrowth society. Schmelzer et al. start from the premise of what they think is biophysically possible and necessary and work backwards from there, and they make the case that reducing overall energy and material usage can actually coincide with creating a better quality of life for everyone.

With that being said, degrowth is an intentionally provocative term intended to break through the blinders of a conventional wisdom that prioritizes growth above all else. That does make it easy to misunderstand or misconstrue (in good or bad faith). Growth is a word with an overwhelmingly positive connotation for reasons that go far beyond capitalist ideology: seeds grow into food, children grow up, weight lifting grows muscles. Even if you entirely or mostly agree with the degrowth premise, there is an open question as to whether it is the most useful or clear way to communicate these ideas, particularly when it comes to movement-building.

After all, that is (or should be) the point of any political theorizing: what can and should we do right now to build power to change the world? Whatever solutions one favors, having endless scorched earth debates about theoretical horizons can often be a distraction from or detriment to the necessary and arduous work of organizing to enact them, which requires soberly and humbly assessing and reassessing our conditions as they actually exist. To that end, Schmelzer et al. present their vision of an anti-capitalist degrowth as merely one set of answers among many rather than the answer. The Future is Degrowth is more of a reference than a manifesto, offering a thorough compendium of degrowth and its various strains and tendencies from a radical perspective.

Core to the degrowth argument is the idea that growth is not only bad for the planet, but it is unnecessary for quality of life, particularly after a certain point of development. For example, the US is 8th in the world in GDP per capita at $76k per person and our 2021 life expectancy would put us somewhere around 75th in that measure, lagging well behind substantially “poorer” countries like Japan ($39k, 85 years), Italy ($35k, 82 years), Spain ($30k, 82 years), and Costa Rica ($12k, 80 years). Cuba, the longtime socialist holdout that the US has strangled for decades via embargo, has a higher life expectancy than us (79 years) with an 88% lower GDP per capita ($9k).

Health and happiness come from getting our needs met: quality food, shelter, water, environments, community, purpose, etc. Targeting growth can get some of these things, for some people, in some ways, to varying degrees. But it is imprecise, to say the least, and over the long term undermines whatever progress it causes or correlates with by undermining social and ecological reproduction. Growing the economy by building missiles, clearcutting rainforests, or selling cheap plastic junk is a violent waste. If people need housing, build housing. If people need food, grow food.

As the authors discuss, economic growth is generally associated with increasing material and energy throughput. Whether or not decoupling these things is possible seems besides the point to me; since GDP is a poor indicator, let’s ditch it. However, Schmelzer et al. argue that degrowth is nonetheless necessary because growth is also “an important ideological construct that goes beyond the economic sphere as an interlocking, self-reinforcing cultural, social, and material process.” The very conception of The Economy is a homogeneous abstraction that treats society’s production as a mysterious, omnipotent god that must be appeased with blood sacrifices. Production and all of its requisite contingencies—who, what, when, where, why, and how—are the result of human decisions and human-created systems; therefore, we can choose to do them differently. The point of all of this should be the dignity and flourishing of life, not making a line go up.

Prioritizing use value instead of exchange value like this is what state planning can do. But as Schmelzer et al. touch on in the final chapter, there is a tension between their calls for a planned economy and the more horizontalist, decentralized politics that degrowthers tend to favor. How can we plan something as complex as a just transition to a sustainable society, particularly one that uses fewer resources, without hierarchies of state power and bureaucracy steering the ship? I do not think that hierarchy is inherently bad; it can enable efficiencies of decision-making and wielding power that seem necessary if we are to succeed in saving and repairing the biosphere, degrowth or otherwise. “Localized” solutions seem like they do not account for the urgency and scale of the changes needed, and more “centralized” solutions can be undemocratic and also seem like a shortcut in the present conditions. Fighting on all fronts with a diversity of strategies and tactics is likely necessary, which is indeed what The Future is Degrowth proposes (albeit with an emphasis on the local).

Whether degrowth policies like more localized food production, reduced car dependency, tool libraries, and fewer but higher quality and more durable goods in service of meeting everyone’s basic needs constitutes a reduction in living standards is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Consumerism is certainly bad for our health and wellbeing in addition to being bad for the planet. But this gets to one of degrowth’s challenges as a term for popular political education: reducing the overall energetic and material throughput of society is not necessarily experienced as a reduction. Riding a bike to work is more pleasant than driving, passive housing that thermoregulates using little energy can keep homes just as comfortable as AC and gas heat, and getting rid of tanks and fighter jets would not affect my life one bit. Also, capitalism is enormously wasteful; think of all the unsold food and goods that corporations destroy because giving them away would undercut the whole operating logic of the system. Instead of focusing on the idea of overall less consumption, it might be more clear and useful to think of the changes we need resulting in qualitatively different consumption.

Consumption and production are mediated through technology; or as Ursula K. Le Guin once put it, “Technology is the active human interface with the material world.” Schmelzer et al. advocate for democratizing technology via

policies such as assessing the impact of technologies on society and the environment over their entire life cycle, or opening repair centres in every community.

The technologies we deploy should not be determined by the profit motive or limited by intellectual property rights, and treating technology as indistinguishable from magic obscures real limitations and costs. Going back to Le Guin:

the word [technology] is consistently misused to mean only the enormously complex and specialised technologies of the past few decades, supported by massive exploitation both of natural and human resources.

It is a mistake to think that because some aspects of modern technology are useful, we therefore need or should prefer all aspects of modernity. Development need not and should not be universally high-tech; if a given modern complex technology is worth keeping, that does not mean all other modern high technologies are (especially on a mass scale). In other words, MRI machines and wind turbines do not require ICBMs and F-350s. Agriculture can mix low-tech agroecological methods with electric tools. Architecture can mix low-tech, energy-efficient design with solar panels. Transportation can mix walking and biking with high-speed rail and electric buses.

Relatedly, there is an enormous difference between counting on the future deployment of unproven high technology and funding public research into it to see what is possible. There is no magic coming, no technological deus ex machina in the third act. We can only save ourselves, and we can only do it together. As I previously said:

The liberation of humanity is a collective project that must be formed on the basis of recognizing and acting on our interdependence with each other and with nonhuman nature. To be in service of something much larger than yourself that is at the same time ultimately the best thing for yourself and everyone else is the premise and promise of socialism.

Does degrowth add something necessary to ecosocialism? I am ambivalent. As a rallying cry, degrowth leaves something to be desired, but its emphasis on limits and its critiques of economic dogma and capitalist values are certainly useful. Regardless, removing the profit motive wherever possible via public and cooperative ownership remains the task at hand.

Capitalism’s insatiable need for growth—at both the macro (GDP) and micro level (corporations)—is why it must always seek new frontiers for expansion. But victory has defeated it; capitalism conquered the world and history ended, leaving nowhere else for it to go. There is indeed no such thing as infinite growth on a finite planet, so our wealthiest men can only offer fantasies of space colonies as they delusionally run out the clock.

Transition is coming and it cannot be wished away. What it looks like—who it helps or harms, what grows or withers away—will be decided politically. In the face of unequal ecological breakdown and escalating climate displacement, trying to build a movement that can contest for power by treating a uniquely American consumerism as the apotheosis of life will inevitably run up against hard limits and internal contradictions—as my friend Syd once said, “Don’t make promises only fascists can keep.” Instead of striving towards mirages and bitter fruits to the very end, we can forge international solidarity and sow the seeds of a better world. Who knows what we can grow together?

This article is republished from Terrain with the author’s permission.