Degrowth and its Discontents: Part One

“No modern solutions to modern problems” – B dS Santos

Hardly a week goes by without another dire warning about climate change. Whether the alarm comes from a university, an animal protection outfit, a human rights NGO or an intrepid TV journalist warily broadcasting in the front of a melting iceberg, their message of impending catastrophe hardly registers amongst the other debilitating news of terrorist bombings and police violence. While aware that their fearsome scenarios are having limited impact, the institutions issuing these alarms have been escalating their rhetoric, not simply to gain amplitude in a cacophony of chaos, but because their forecasts have become more precise with the rising sophistication of their research methods. For example, two prestigious research centers, one in the UK and the other in Australia, recently warned of civilization collapse well before the end of century. A few years ago, such language would have been tempered with academic caution. That’s no longer the case.

When, in 1972, the Club of Rome issued Limits to Growth warning of the end of civilization, as we known it, in less than fifty years, that is in this century, it was widely attacked as alarmist. However, the UK Foreign Office-backed research project at Anglia Ruskin University released a report, sponsored by Lloyds of London for the insurance industry, titled “Food System Shock” that supports the forty-year-old predictions of Limits to Growth.

And last year the University of Melbourne predicted a similar global warning to be initiated by a sharp decline in industrial production beginning this year, and right on schedule, the BBC reported Chinese factory activity (the world’s “factory”) shrank for the fifth consecutive month.

To discount the long-range view of a major world insurance company would be foolhardy, but to ignore the same “long reach” planning of the US military is stupid. A June, 2015 US Army report delivered to the Department of Defense highlighted “climate change, rapid technology proliferation and shifts in centers of economic activity” as major concerns in an increasingly destabilized world. And further it stated:

“Global resource constraints will also undermine the integrity of the Army’s supply chain… We can no longer assume unimpeded access to the energy, water, land, and other resources required to train, sustain, and deploy a globally responsive Army.”

To prepare for the future and to achieve “resilience” (as they say) the US Army is going Green in a big way to reduce their resource footprint.

Currently, The Army, Navy and Air Force operate about 1 percent of the installed solar panels in the US. But that could be the tip of the iceberg. Within the next five years, the Pentagon could install about eight times as many solar panels, about 1 gigawatt worth, on military bases and on up to 120,000 homes for military personnel in privatized communities.

And the Department of Defense has even bigger ambitions for renewable energy, in general. The DoD plans to have up to 3 gigawatts installed by the year 2025.

And always on the cutting edge, the Army is evaluating transportable solar-powered tents – a practical combat item since, we presume, they expect to spend time in countries with an overabundance of solar potential.

The institutions that must respond to the impending environmental collapse each have their own flavor of scenario. Lloyds has one perspective, the Army another, banks yet another. None of these see the totality of the situation. Even megastudies like the one from the University of Melbourne ignore the dust in the corners. And, despite high-priced research, can we be assured that they will foresee something like the so-called Great Recession, when even financial mages like Alan Greenspan were surprised by the idiocy of bankers’ hubris?

Climate change in many ways is a euphemism for system collapse, the prospects of which cannot be uttered by the economic elite responsible for it, but it has been forecast in a NASA-funded study.

And recently, the Pope discarded all perfunctory politeness in an interview last year when he said, “the global economy is near collapse.”

However, in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel) he was more circumspect. Darrell Delamaide in Market Watch writes:

He did not say capitalism was evil, or that it had not led to prosperity of historic proportions. He did not even call for a socialist redistribution of wealth.

Pope Francis did not even use the word “capitalism” in the offending four paragraphs and the only globalization he decried was the “globalization of indifference.”

Rather he made an impassioned plea for society and government to protect the vulnerable from the predations of the greedy, to include everyone in this prosperity — not by taking from the rich to give to the poor but by making sure they have a role to play.

He does indeed attack unbridled financial speculation and runaway greed, but no one would defend these as core elements of a functioning capitalism system … right?

Speaking of growing inequalities even in developed economies, Francis says, “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”

So while the Pope condemns unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny” and supports grassroots organizing to overcome inequality and pursue economic justice, this is hardly the revolutionary proclamation that some presume it is.

Pope Francis’ exhortation, as tempered as it may be, is however significant as a total system critique of neoliberalism. He follows in the modern tradition of Church social teaching that began in 1891with Pope Leo XIII and his Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, often abbreviated by using the first two words (in Latin) of its opening sentence “Of revolutionary change” – Rerum Novarum. In his day, Leo caused a similar scandal for questioning the same “unbridled” capitalism as Francis. His recommendation for collaboration of the workers, the capitalists and the politicians defined the Church’s social gospel as corporatism. To quote from Wikipedia:

In 1881, Pope Leo XIII commissioned theologians and social thinkers to study corporatism and provide a definition for it. In 1884 in Freiburg, the commission declared that corporatism was a “system of social organization that has at its base the grouping of men according to the community of their natural interests and social functions, and as true and proper organs of the state they direct and coordinate labor and capital in matters of common interest”.

It is appalling that the Freiberg Commission lacked the insight to recognize both the growing power of the State (Bismarck was hardly a slacker as a ruler) and also the imperialistic tendencies of capitalism already evident throughout the world. Together these historic occurrences left no place for an egalitarian compact with the workers. And in fact, the closest adherents to Leo’s vision were a fellow Italian and a pathetic, atheist Viennese painter.

Corporatism was a dismal failure, but it was formulated to encompass what the current crop of Cassandras avoid – a holistic approach. What is popularly referred to as the Triple Crisis – Financial, Environmental and Food – hardly depicts the enormity of the catastrophe we face. Better to think of large categories with a broad scope and how they are interconnected through a web of relationships with subcategories. For instance, the economy, including finance, but also production and consumption, influences the environment via the extractive industries, to take one obvious example, which in turn affects food production (as both an input and a pollutant), while at the same time, industrial food production poisons the environment (not to mention us) and all of these issues are products of the capture, by major economic players, of politics, that they corrupt and which contributes to the misery of our daily life.

What we have here are linkages, but also synchronism where one element immediately affects another, like when a toxic spill kills the fish in the river and hurtles the local tourist economy, along with the residents, into a spiral of depression.

Disruptive and, often, destructive economic synergies dominant the “crisis discourse” of well-intentioned experts that, in fact, define our subjugation to forces outside our immediate control. And this discourse ignores, or worse, dismisses categories of our experience that we seek, however furtively, for fulfillment and pleasure. More on this later.

We are threatened daily with a variety of social antigens, and in response, we search for the appropriate antibodies to neutralize them – public electoral financing, state banks, a Department of Peace – or should we ban coal? At the circus of quotidian assaults awards us, for our compliance, the choice of a prize: should the toy we take be the stuffed bear, the quacking duck or the monkey hanging from its prehensile tail? The only correct response is to find the circus generator and disable it. The lights go out, the amplification is silenced and all the rides come to a stop. Is this domestic terrorism? Or is it a terrorism of coherence?

How do we subvert the juggernaut? If not bring it down, at least, severely impede its progress?

Given the enormity of our task, it may seem pathetic to talk about language and not artillery. Words however can have targets and do have impact. Last year Podemos began using the term caste when speaking about the Spanish oligarchy and the word caught on across a broad spectrum of the press and population. In the US, the increasing use of corruption in reference to finance and politics may reach a similar popular acceptance.

Ruling circles have always known the power of speech and have swiftly suppressed it with the same reflex as dodging a bullet. More sophisticated power-brokers coin words to derail our perceptions, like the neoliberal neologism privatization, which really means the theft of the commonwealth. Or human capital, which denotes monetizing the skills and education people have acquired through their life experiences. And, similarly, the use of reform to mean, ultimately, deform.

Neoliberalism as an ideology has attained, unfortunately, the powerful pseudo-legitimacy of commonsense: the market, in all its permutations, seems like a natural phenomenon not a human creation. And with its extension into all aspects of our lives, the market (as politically motivated construction) defines us as customers no matter whether we are entering a hospital, a museum or a voting booth.

As an offensive strategy to the language of power, the right word appropriately targeted can have legs. In the 60s, participatory democracy was one such term, though today it evokes laughs. Currently in Europe, but not much in the US, the portmanteau precariat (precarious proletarians) has taken hold to define the unemployed and underemployed youth. And also in Europe, over the past ten years or so, the word degrowth has gained currency. For some, it has surpassed sustainability as a term that better defines an economic program cogniscent of the limitations of extracting natural resources and aware of the corrosive effects of industrial externalities on the environment.

Proponents of degrowth have extended their argument beyond addressing economic matters to recognize the pervasive impact unrestrained accumulation has on all aspects of our lives. Degrowthers seek a holistic approach, which their name unfortunately does not convey (though the French décroissance at least lacks the phonic irritation). But, not withstanding that linguistic defect, according to a declaration issued at the Second International Conference on Degrowth in Barcelona in 2010:

… the looming multidimensional crisis, which [is] not just financial, but also economic, social, cultural, energetic, political and ecological. The crisis is a result of the failure of an economic model based on growth.

Further the declaration states:

So-called anti-crisis measures that seek to boost economic growth will worsen inequalities and environmental conditions in the long-run. The illusion of a “debt-fuelled growth”, i.e. [f]orcing the economy to grow in order to pay debt, will end in social disaster, passing on economic and ecological debts to future generations and to the poor. A process of degrowth of the world economy is inevitable and will ultimately benefit the environment, but the challenge is how to manage the process so that it is socially equitable at national and global scales. This is the challenge of the Degrowth movement, originating in rich countries in Europe and elsewhere, where the change must start from.

And for the change they envisioned at the 2010 conference:

A wealth of new proposals evolved, including: facilitation of local currencies; gradual elimination of fiat money and reforms of interest; promotion of small scale, self-managed not-for-profit companies; defense and expansion of local commons and establishment of new jurisdictions for global commons; establishment of integrated policies of reduced working hours (work-sharing) and introduction of a basic income; institutionalization of an income ceiling based on maximum-minimum ratios; discouragement of overconsumption of non-durable goods and under-use of durables by regulation, taxation or bottom-up approaches; abandonment of large-scale infrastructure such as nuclear plants, dams, incinerators, high-speed transportation; conversion of car-based infrastructure to walking, biking and open common spaces; taxation of excessive advertising and its prohibition from public spaces; support for environmental justice movements of the South that struggle against resource extraction; introduction of global extractive moratoria in areas with high biodiversity and cultural value, and compensation for leaving resources in the ground; denouncement of top-down population control measures and support of women’s reproductive rights, conscious procreation and the right to free migration while welcoming a decrease in world birth rates; and de-commercialization of politics and enhancement of direct participation in decision-making.

The conference participants asserted that these are not utopian, but foresighted proposals. And they need to be implemented by a drastic redistributive tax system that will correct income equality and direct social investments to reduce private consumption – trains instead of autos, for example. And they ended with this statement:

As the economy of wealthy parts of the world quietly contracts [by adopting an degrowth program] and our damage to the environment through new infrastructures and extraction activities is constrained, well-being will increase through public investments in low-cost social and relational goods.

Every new proposal generates several new objections and questions. We do not claim to have a recipe for the future, but we can no longer pretend that we can keep growing as if nothing has happened. The folly of growth has come to an end. The challenge now is how to transform, and the debate has just begun.

(End of Part One)