This is the second of a series of 3 blogs by STEPS co-director Andy Stirling, responding to the ideas of Giorgos Kallis on the ‘degrowth hypothesis’. Read Part 1 and Part 3, and see also Giorgos Kallis’ response.
Pluralities of Growings
It is odd that the thrust of Giorgos Kallis’s excellent lecture should have concentrated so exclusively on a single narrow material dimension of growth – as denominated in monetary value. This is because, like other proponents of such narrow definitions of degrowth, he made it very clear that there are plenty of other social values that can be much more positive and progressive than the monetary metrics around which currently dominant global capitalism obsesses so regressively.
For instance, Giorgos rightly pointed very clearly to the massive potential to improve current worldwide levels of ‘happiness’ and ‘longevity’. In other words, even for him, there is a progressive imperative that at least these additional kinds of values – and their associated enabling cultures, institutions and practices – actually grow.
This is a crucial point. To Giorgos’s mention of happiness and longevity must be added other social values like equality, health, wellbeing, justice, sustainability, care, liberty, fulfilment, education, human flourishing and quality of life. In empowering communities to define their own values, many more arise. And each of these progressive values might meaningfully be hoped to grow.
Lived social experience of many of these qualities – and their opposites! – is at least as concrete as the complex and ambiguous abstractions that underlie and constitute monetary values. Although money values are ostensibly precise, the underlying patterns of material production that they supposedly reflect, are actually far more ambiguous and perspective- and structure-dependent.
Had many of these other kinds of social values been the focus of so much elite attention over the centuries, then cultures, institutions, practices and methodologies could surely have grown around these to yield the same impressions of concretely precise quantification. Modern economic institutions are not the only ways to formalise social value.
The power of values
It was spuriously rigid assertions of values like ‘grace’, ‘nobility’, ‘piety’ – or ‘comradeship’ – for instance, that helped enforce equally stark forms of privilege and oppression in different times and places. That these values might be regarded as meaningless outside of their cultural contexts, in no way diminishes their potency – like money values – to shape dynamics within their political settings.
Nor are the pluralities of connotations of growth restricted to diverse kinds of social values beyond monetary value alone. Even in the narrowly restrictive terms measured by material consumption or monetary value, positive progress towards more just and sustainable societies will necessarily entail exponential rates of growth in particular practices, technologies and sectors.
Progressive areas for growth
Depending on context, then, progressive areas for material growth may include: peaceful dispute resolution; open source seeds; ecological farming; collective land tenure; co-operative enterprises; renewable energy; community utilities; grassroots innovation… and so on. For anyone interested in progressive transformations to just and sustainable societies, all these need to grow massively.
The point here is not that any one of the many possible counterfactual value metrics associated with such transformations would somehow automatically be progressive. Given a chance, forces of incumbent power and privilege will (and do) exercise their expedient pressures on the constituting of all kinds of social value – including “justice” or “happiness” as well as any kind of technology or practice. How regressive or emancipatory any given frame might be, depends more than anything else, on the emancipatory qualities of the political environment within which it grows.
So, there seems an obviously less oppressive way to engage with growth, than the current singular material parameterisations shared both by proponents and (sadly) many degrowth critics alike. This is, to open up more diverse appreciations for the many kinds of possible ways and values that societies might grow… and the radically different ways of growing. It is in enabling associated plural spaces for political creativity, contestation and experimentation, that hopes for emancipation lie.
Nor does this argument need to be wholly accepted, for key features of the current polarised growth/degrowth debate to radically change. So why do discussions like the one I witnessed, tend to remain so neglectful of these implications? It seems there may sometimes be more specific blinkers in play – like the comforting allure of performing a self-conscious critical identity?
For a beleaguered left, this may be understandable. But the struggle for emancipation from injustice and environmental destruction is too serious a responsibility to succumb to this kind of self-indulgence. The issues around degrowth are too important to be reduced merely to a slogan.
Of course, this is not what Giorgos himself did. It is in indirectly highlighting plural ways of living and working more lightly on the earth and with each other, that the degrowth analysis is most inspiring.
In various parts of this literature, what is really advocated under the simplistically reductive banner of ‘degrowth’, are profoundly progressive political transformations towards radically more just and sustainable societies. I admire these ambitions and stand in strong solidarity.
But it is precisely this shared commitment, that makes me worry very deeply, about whether the narrowly negative framing of ‘degrowth’ – parameterised in similar terms to economic growth itself – is the best way to advocate this diversity of possible (and essential) kinds of growth.