Outgrowing the twin simplifications of Growth and Degrowth: part 3

This is the third 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 2, and see also Giorgos Kallis’ response.

Part Three: Outgrowing the Growth/Degrowth Trap

Giorgos Kalllis’s wonderful lecture, reviewed in these blog posts, extended much deeper and wider than the specific issues that I have criticised. There is much I agree with.

But by emphasising growth as constituted in terms of material consumption and monetary values, his analysis did have the effect of suppressing appreciation for the pluralities of social values discussed in my earlier posts.

And he made a further move that seemed to me to be equally problematically simplistic. Like others in this field, Giorgos repeatedly insisted (without qualification) that it is a necessary consequence of growth in general and of any kind, that it entail impossible aspirations to infinity – and so come up against the resulting inevitable, uncompromising discipline of material limits.

This is certainly true of unqualified neoliberal visions of economic growth. But it can only generally be so for all kinds of growth, if these are also seen as one-dimensional, quantitative and unending. And this would also be ironically similar to the mindset that drives the oppressive reductions of the monetary growth hegemony itself. As elsewhere in politics, it appears that polarised oppositions can share more in common than they think!

It was actually very clear in some of the examples of contrasting non-material and non-monetary social values that Giorgos mentioned (reviewed in my previous post), that growth can be a far more nuanced and subtle process, than this dismal zero sum calculus suggests. But he did not explore this. So beyond the challenge of plurality of values, the degrowth critique also seems in danger of neglecting the multiple complexities of what it can mean to ‘grow’.

Does growth have to be limited?

When it comes to crucial human values like health, equality, wellbeing, justice, sustainability, care, liberty, fulfilment, education, flourishing and quality of life (for instance), the orientations, constitutions – and so denominations – of growth are not just plural (as discussed in my last post), but also necessarily contextual, relational and ever-changing. They involve disparate topologies as much as different scales of change.

Yet ‘growth’ is nonetheless still an appropriate word for these more complex phenomena. It is in these multidimensional terms, after all, that people speak colloquially of ‘personal growth’ or the growth of relationships, or communities, or solidarities. When told to ‘grow up’ by one’s friends, they do not mean ‘get taller’! They are talking about patterns not magnitudes. Why then, must even critical notions of growth be reduced to such a singular unidimensional material economistic form?

Of course, hard materialities nonetheless remain crucial. In situations of outright injustice, oppression and exclusion of kinds that prevail so ubiquitously around the world, there is a strong and obvious meaning to ‘more’ and ‘less’ – and a progressive imperative to grow the needed values.

Here the practical directions for emancipatory struggle, progressive politics – and desirable growth – are clear. But this again, is a point on which the more simplistic, unqualified or uncompromisingly narrow ‘degrowth’ views have problems, if they imply a blanket rejection of any material increase.

To be fair, it is clear that Giorgos, like colleagues, is very well aware of all this. In the lecture and subsequent questions, the discussion was quite nuanced on this point. Yet the central account of degrowth nonetheless repeatedly emphasised that any kind of growth must necessarily imply some impractical infinite imagination.

And it was repeatedly asserted that any kind of growth seen in these terms, must unavoidably incur the stern discipline of its own purely scalar limits. Again, it seems complexities evaporate – the similarities with neoliberal-style insistence on a singular uncompromising ‘bottom line’ is oddly insidious!

Growth in patterns

In reality, both natural and social worlds are replete with examples of modes of growth that defy these restrictive imaginations. For further examples: What about growth over time in patterns – like those in: Connections among neurons? Co-evolutions between species? Experiences of individuals? Empathies in relationships? Networks within communities? Sensibilities in art movements? Knowledges in traditions? New values in cultures?

None of these are simply scalar or reducible to single metrics. They are topological not scalar. And to recognise this, implies no denial of hard biophysical limits or the scalar dimensions of growth where topologies are clear. They are, quite simply, different. So, it is this recognition not only for pluralities, but also different modalities, of growing, that a narrow scalar notion of degrowth risks suppressing.

Crucially, the nature and orientations of growth in many of the modes mentioned above are also ever-changing. The resulting dynamic branching permutations also transcend scalar notions of limits and infinities. Countings of either, after all, depend on calibrations. There is no infinity-defying limit that cannot be averted by finer grain appreciations or reorientations in new dimensions.

So – despite the imperative to curb devastating current impacts of growth in quantities like carbon emissions or material consumption – the static notion of a singular scalar limit is fundamentally inappropriate to many other kinds of growth. ‘Limits’ have no necessary meaning for topological growth. What counts as growth in patterns depends on context. And devils are in details.

Again then: why such serious neglect in the narrow degrowth argument, of these more complex and diverse possible dimensions, topologies and dynamics of growth? The point of this query is not to dismiss all forms of singular quantification in any kind of context. What it urges instead, is contemplation of the need for pluralities of measures – each transcending the limits of others.

By simply flipping from overly narrow notions of ‘growth’ to similarly constituted – equally restrictive and uncompromising scalar – ideas of ‘degrowth’, prospects for progress can be more thwarted than enabled.

Seeking alternatives

Taken together with the problems discussed in the two earlier blogs, then, these are the reasons why I think it is necessary to challenge the degrowth critique – despite my solidarity with so much that drives it. I believe the implications of these criticisms are both momentous and very practical.

By implying that the only alternative to a supposedly singular growth is an equally restrictive and similarly-constituted scalar kind of ‘degrowth’, an underlying impression is given that disablingly (albeit unintentionally) entrenches the hegemonic pressure that “there is no alternative”. This in turn risks engendering counterproductive reactions.

So, by simply inverting the terms of its target, a narrow ‘degrowth’ critique risks counterproductively reinforcing the prevailing hegemony of monetary value in current real world- politics.

What is striking about all this, is that alternatives are so clear. Instead of half empty, the glass of political possibilities is half full! It entails no compromise on powerful critiques of existing impoverished notions of growth in carbon-dependent, consumption-addicted, pathologically-unequal current capitalist societies, to demand that growth of any kind be – not indiscriminately denied – but radically redefined and pluralised. There is a need to outgrow the current growth debate.

Of course, many concrete implications for positive kinds of action are shared with those that arise from narrow notions of degrowth – and which the degrowth community has done much great work in supporting. But the efficacies of these actions, their practical political prospects, and the risks that they might be subverted, may all be significantly improved by more plural understandings of growth.

Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for instance, offer a current pragmatic example of one place to start. Despite many flaws and undue compromises, many SDG indicators define multiple nonmonetary quantities that even high-level global governance institutions are emphasising must grow. Here is a chance to harness ‘the civilizing effect of hypocrisy’, that a narrow emphasis simply on ‘degrowth’ might miss?

So it is not a pipedream to argue that new ways of thinking, speaking and acting about growth can be radically more plural and complex than monetary values alone. The choices lie not just in “growth or degrowth”, but in vibrant democratic struggles for ‘many-growths’.

Nor does this necessarily mean repudiating all kinds of material growth. For excluded communities and marginalised kinds of green infrastructure, material – and economic – growth is essential. So, a many-growths approach need not necessarily imply (as degrowth does) rejecting growth as measured in narrow economic terms.

Instead, a many-growth analysis means reshaping and balancing activities measured in conventional economic terms, with radically more prominent and dynamic diversities of cultures, institutions, practices – and metrics – constituting far richer pluralities of social values than the money or material consumption on which current capitalist appropriations depend. Indeed, by opening up wider political spaces, this plurality itself is a driver of potentially empowering disruption.

And these alternative strategic possibilities also seem to offer important tactical benefits. There are plenty of political constituencies who are alienated by perceptions of an implied indiscriminately narrow ‘degrowth’ critique. Rightly or wrongly, suspicions about simplistic rejection of any kind of growth, may have a disabling effect on movements for sustainability and social justice.

Rather than losing any possibility of mobilising these allied interests, alternative forms of pluralistic many-growth critiques of narrow monetary hegemony offer a firmer basis for the kinds of broad alliances that are always needed for effective progressive transformation.

Not just ‘growth’ or ‘degrowth’

So here at the end, I appreciate and agree with Giorgos’s own underlying optimistic spirit. In fact, it is this positive progressive energy that I think the narrow degrowth critique actually risks eroding. The choice is not just between “growth or degrowth” on some notionally singular, expediently-imposed scale favoured by the regressive forces being challenged.

What must be resisted is the impoverished starkness of this restrictive one-dimensional choice itself. Progressive politics needs to move more fully out of the straightjacket of narrow economic growth – not by inverting it, but by pluralising it. What is needed is not degrowth, but outgrowth.