Why we need Degrowth

In this post, Giorgos Kallis responds to a three-part critique by Andy Stirling of his ideas on the ‘Degrowth Hypothesis’. You can read Andy’s blog posts here: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

Andy Stirling’s three-part blog intervention on the occasion of my lecture at Sussex is much appreciated. I am particularly thankful for his constructive engagement and the collegial tone of his comments and critique.

Andy argues that ‘the choices lie not just in growth or degrowth, but in vibrant democratic struggles for many-growths’. But I think there is confusion here regarding my argument. What I criticized was the idea and practice of ‘economic Growth’ (growth with capital G), which has come to have a very concrete meaning and material effect. I am not against any and all ‘growths’ in general, such as the growth of kids into adults or of seeds into trees.

Andy points many things that would need to ‘grow’ even after we abandon Growth: ‘equality, health, wellbeing, justice, sustainability, care, liberty, fulfilment, education, human flourishing and quality of life’. Also ‘connections among neurons, co-evolutions between species, experiences of individuals, empathies in relationships, networks within communities, sensibilities in art movements …’

I honestly fail to see why Andy insists to frame these aspirations in terms of ‘growth’. Equality has to be achieved (or approximated), not grow; same for justice, sustainability or liberty. Fulfilment, ‘human flourishing’, or experiences to ‘grow’? In what sense? In all these domains we are talking of qualitative changes, patterns of emergence, change and evolution (that Andy knows much better than me), not growth. The coevolution between species is not a ‘growth’ phenomenon in any meaningful sense of the term. And a Picasso is as good as a Goya which is as good as an ancient Greek or Egyptian sculpture; in what sense is it meaningful to talk about ‘growth’ in art?

‘When we say grow up, we do not mean get taller’, Andy comments. Precisely: trees or children do not need to grow at a compound rate of 2-3% per year ad infinitum. And happiness or wellbeing have an upper limit of… ‘10’. Again, what I criticized in my talk and what we criticize as a degrowth community is capitalism’s need for limitless Growth (the aggregate of what each individual firm needs in order to stay competitive in a capitalist economy). David Harvey argues that this is the most lethal of capitalism’s contradictions. I would add that it is the most lethal threat for humanity’s flourishing in this planet.

Unsustainability and growth

Andy argues that ‘like others in this field’, I repeatedly insisted without qualification that unsustainability is ‘a necessary consequence of growth in general and of any kind, that it entails impossible aspirations to infinity – and so come up against the resulting inevitable, brutally-material limits’.

First, I didn’t criticize ‘growths’ in general and of any kind; I am not against the growth of certain types of renewable energies or of social security provisions; but again, only ‘up’ to a level, not their compound growth ad infinitum.

Second, as I argued in more detail for the Great Transition Initiative, the ‘growths’ of the things and services that ‘we’ (ecologists of the Left) would like to see are unlikely to lead to aggregate GDP growth because they are bound to decrease productivity; and this is fine, as long as we prepare to manage without growth and change institutional structures accordingly. The ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ Andy applauds shy away from dealing with the radical social reorganization that will be necessary in order to flourish in a world without growth and with radically less material and energy use.

Third, I did not talk only of ‘material limits’; the growth of any magnitude at a compound rate quickly escapes towards infinity, which is an absurd proposition. If someone doubts that, check the math. Economic growth will soon come to an end (if it hasn’t already) – be it because of ecological limits, or, as Harvey argues, because of the impossibility of finding ever new outlets for investment.

Finally, when I said that I am against any type of growth, I meant any type of economic Growth, be it green, immaterial, angelic or socialist; all these visions of growth that share the notion of a constant annual rate of growth and declare no end, are absurd.

Andy argues that this critique applies only to ‘unqualified neoliberal visions of economic growth’. No, it is certainly true of all visions of economic Growth – neo-liberal, Keynesian, social-democratic, green or socialist. It is certainly true of all political projects that do not have a clear vision of when ‘enough will be enough’. I am not aware of any definition of economic Growth other than in terms of economic activity without an upper limit; the growth of neurons or empathy is not economic Growth.

Growth and other systems

As Andy notes, ‘systems other than capitalism have also shown themselves to be highly susceptible to the cult of economic growth.’ I believe the reference here must be to the Soviet bloc and not to pre-capitalist formations, or indigenous civilizations, since to my knowledge the latter did not have a cult of growth.

One might debate whether ‘socialist’ systems were truly not capitalist (or state capitalist in the sense that a state elite accumulated surpluses which it invested for further growth), or to what extent they were caught in a competition for growth with capitalist economies given the arm competition.

It is beyond doubt, though, that the invention of economic growth is an invention of capitalism; it is both an ideology and a phenomenon that appears with its emergence. Previous civilizations did not see their production, consumption and exchange as a unified ‘economic system’, nor did they perceive that such system needs to accelerate the circulation of goods and services. Andy comments that ‘not all forms of capitalism are equally obsessive about money as the sole arbiter of value’. Maybe so; I imagine the reference is here to Scandinavian capitalism or post-war UK labour. But no variant of capitalism that I know rejected the pursuit of economic growth and limitless expansion.

A network of ideas

Andy raises the importance of the ‘force … of cognition’ and makes the valid point that degrowth risks reinforcing the prevailing hegemony by defining its critique in the same parameters of uni-dimensional value. I have debated in detail the cognitive aspects of degrowth with Kate Raworth and the discussion that ensued (see commentaries) is as good as our articles.

The misunderstanding with Andy seems to be partly from the fact that his main interaction with the degrowth literature was through my lecture. In my lecture, I made very clear that I restrained my ambition to a ‘ruthless critique’ of the ideology of economic Growth. Hence I critiqued economic Growth in its own absurd mono-dimensional terms. Given that I had 40 minutes and I wanted to drive one ‘take home’ message, I didn’t get into the details of the alternatives that are being promoted in the degrowth literature, alternatives however that can flourish only once we free our imagination and structures from the mono-dimensional pursuit of GDP growth. In our recent book, we provide a ‘garden’ of alternatives (hence the book cover) and a range of inspiring signifiers from ‘commons’ and ‘conviviality’ to ‘depense’ and ‘care’. Degrowth is a network of ideas not the mono-dimensional inverse of growth.

Uncomfortable critiques

Finally Andy referred to ‘the comforting allure of performing a self-conscious critical identity’ and the responsibility for all of us to not ‘succumb to this kind of self-indulgence’. He qualifies that this comment is not directed to me, but since it is directed to my friends and colleagues in the degrowth community, I cannot let it pass (more so I cannot see why would I be the only one from the degrowth community exempt).

First, I am not so sure what is comforting with going against the grain and criticizing explicitly economic growth and capitalism. Certainly being part of a community helps you not get scared; living in the EU also helps, at least for the moment (growth critics and ecologists in other parts of the world, including democracies like India or Turkey do not have this privilege). But rest assured: there is nothing comforting or indulgent in listening to this best-selling radio talk-host from the US citing directly from our book and threatening degrowthers (which include also President Obama…) as enemies of the nation who want to end the American dream.

Second, I don’t think my students stand a better chance of building an academic career by being proponents of degrowth, rather than doing neat economic models or writing about more innocuous stuff such as ‘sustainability’.

Third, I really admire the courage of ‘growth objectors’ who block coal power plants or new airport highways; there is nothing indulgent in spending months if not years of your life in prison.

Are the Sustainable Development Goals a source of hope?

Finally I am not sure how ‘the Sustainable Development Goals … offer a current pragmatic example of one place to start’ (Andy’s words). Sustainable development is an empty signifier which has been with us for two decades, during which time there has been an unprecedented process of environmental de-regulation and a backtrack in each and every environmental front (typically in the name of the economy and its growth).

How is it not comforting to stick with this outdated, non-conflicting, depoliticizing (in the sense that it hides genuine antagonisms about the kinds of worlds we want to live in) agenda that has no real effects, and which has been fully assimilated by the establishment?

If this exchange has given the impression that I and Andy stand on opposite fronts, let me make clear that this is not the case. We both agree that Growth is not the way to go, and we both envision a future of equality where care, solidarity, justice, social networks and the commons flourish.

Andy recognizes that the ‘tyranny of money is far from abstract in practice. It is imposed by many kinds of coercive power and hard structure – and (ultimately) by threat of organised violence’. Given such a formidable force to confront, the degrowth community needs the intellectual resources and help of people like Andy and his contribution in order to decolonize society’s imaginary from the Growth fetish. I am not sure that pointing to the obvious fact that many things might have to grow, once we abandon Growth, is the best way to help.

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