Livia Gershon | Longreads | September 2018 | 9 minutes (2,229 words)
Late this August, an article in the journal Science offered a preview of the earth that we are now hurtling toward. Based on evidence from previous periods of global temperature change, an international research team described collapsing ecosystems and dwindling water and food supplies. “If we allow climate change to go unchecked, the vegetation of this planet is going to look completely different than it does today, and that means a huge risk to the diversity of the planet,” Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, wrote. “We’re talking about global landscape change that is ubiquitous and dramatic, and we’re already starting to see it in the United States, as well as around the globe.”
Many of us already know about dying polar bears, the garbage-truck-worth of plastic that humanity dumps into oceans every minute, and the tens of millions of climate refugees expected to flee their homes in the next decade. But serious efforts to address any of these problems run afoul of a view held sacred in the United States: environmental rules kill growth. In 2017, when President Trump stood in the White House rose garden announcing America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, he argued that, under its mandates, “Our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.”
Supporters of environmental protections responded, in large part, by saying that Trump presented a false choice. We can grow the economy with new green jobs for solar panel installers and plant-based biodegradable plastics, they argued. But to an increasing number of activists and academics working at the intersection of ecology and economics, the dilemma that Trump articulated is indeed real. They have a different reply, of course, though just as firm: to stave off the most devastating environmental peril, we must give up the ideal of economic growth.
This concept, sometimes called “degrowth,” sounds to many in the economic and political mainstream absolutely absurd. (Given Americans’ boundless love of all things material, it may not be surprising that the idea has taken off faster in Europe.) Last year, James Pethokoukis, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote dismissively, “Advanced economies just ran a fascinating, real-world degrowth experiment. It was called the Global Financial Crisis. An economic shock followed by a decade of sub-par economic growth.” Some critics argue that economic expansion can be “decoupled” from material growth—the economy could shift away from extraction and production while ramping up ecologically beneficial projects like wetlands restoration and relatively carbon-neutral industries such as education and health care.
But advocates of degrowth say that decoupling won’t be enough to keep the economies of wealthy nations booming in the way we’ve come to expect. Barbara Muraca, a philosopher at Oregon State University who has been working in the degrowth movement for years, told me that, to explain their logic to skeptics, she and her colleagues deploy a shared metaphor: picture our current growth-based economy as an elephant. “It’s not about putting an elephant on a diet,” they’ll say. “It’s about transforming the elephant into a snail.”
To stave off the most devastating environmental peril, we must give up the ideal of economic growth.
In this view, our economic elephant is an ungainly and fragile creature. When, between late 2007 and the middle of 2009, gross domestic product in the United States fell by 4.2 percent, it was a disaster. In the months after the recession, unemployment hit 10.1 percent and, a decade later, we’re still crawling out from under the wreckage. Yet when the economy grows, the benefits go mostly to the rich. Imagine having less than half of our current wealth as a nation, and you might picture a wasteland of hunger and unemployment. But you might also picture 1976, when per-capita GDP was $27,446 in 2012 dollars, compared with $56,455 today. If it doesn’t feel like we, as a society, are twice as wealthy now as we were then, it might be a sign that growth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Halina Szejnwald Brown, a professor emerita of environmental science and policy at Clark University, argues that what’s needed is a strategy to shift our economy off the growth-at-all-costs track, much like the one that placed America on that path after World War II. “The decision to start building a civilian economy after the war, based on domestic consumption—that was a deliberate plan of the federal government, of industry, and the labor unions,” she said. “It was the government who built this enormous infrastructure. We wouldn’t have suburbs if the government didn’t build roads and sewage lines. It was a coordinated effort.”
During the heyday of the postwar economy, Brown was living in communist Poland. She has no affection for that system—in 1968, at age 20, she fled to America as a refugee when the Polish government purged what remained of the nation’s Jewish population after the Holocaust. In her new home, Brown was exposed to consumer capitalism as she’d never experienced it before. “We did not know about this massive availability of stuff,” she recalled. The abundance came as a shock.
Brown, who was trained as a chemist, observed the harm that resulted from excess, and eventually turned her focus to pollution. “I became interested in technology as a way of solving that problem,” she said. “But after about a decade of working on technological innovation and so on, I realized the problem was really in the consumption.” Brown concluded that technology was crucial to addressing environmental destruction, but it wasn’t enough. For example, she said, for years, Germany has made a concerted effort to adopt renewable energy, but today it is still largely dependent on fossil fuels. “Making turbines and solar panels takes a lot of materials and energy in and of itself,” Brown explained. “There is no data right now that would indicate that we can do it at the time table that we have available.” Moreover, as the wealthiest people on earth continue to be responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of ecological damage—and are less likely than the rest of the world to suffer from the crop failures, natural disasters, and wars—addressing the energy needs of the poorest places remains a morally urgent task.
A number of recent studies, including one from the U.N. Environment Program, which has advocated for green growth, have confirmed that even a major shift toward renewable resources won’t be enough to stave off massive climate change if economic growth continues as it has been. Growth skeptics like Brown support heavy investment in sustainability—from solar panels to public transit systems—but they also call for significant changes to the ways we live. For example: In 1950 the average new home was 983 square feet. Today it’s 2,599 square feet—which means huge increases in the use of building resources and demand for heat and air conditioning. Living in smaller homes, particularly in urban apartments rather than sprawling single-family houses in suburbs, wouldn’t necessarily be a sacrifice for many people, but it would make a collective environmental impact. We could organize housing differently, Brown said. “I think it would be very acceptable now, especially to the younger generation.”
What’s needed is a strategy to shift our economy off the growth-at-all-costs track, much like the one that placed America on that path after World War II.
Joshua Farley, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont, agrees. He argues that we need an entirely new model for the global economy, one that is built on resources that are not scarce—renewable energy, information that can be shared online—and therefore can’t be depleted no matter how many people use them. “Capitalism and fossil fuels evolved together,” he told me. On the other hand, “If I put solar panels on my house it doesn’t leave any less sun for your house.” Moving rich nations toward less resource-intensive economies may necessarily mean slower, or even negative, economic growth. The project for degrowth activists is to shape the economy so that doesn’t lead to a dystopian future.
The idea of building a different kind of economy—one that treads lightly on the earth—is not new. In 1973, E.F. Schumacher, a British economist, laid out many of the same principles in Small is Beautiful. Upon traveling to Burma as an economic consultant, Schumacher soured on his own work—looking around, the idea of trying to import western assumptions about growth to a post-colonial nation didn’t make sense. In his book, he argued that it is irresponsible to treat fossil fuels as a source of income and that any money generated from their use should be put into a special fund to promote sustainable energy. He called this perspective “Buddhist economics.” Ever-increasing consumption, he wrote, will not deliver salvation. “Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being,” he explained, “the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”
Schumacher had company. In the Seventies and Eighties, ecological economics emerged as a new discipline, which held that human activity exists within the material limits of the earth’s sustaining ecological systems. The Limits to Growth (1972), based on computer simulations of economic activity, natural resources, and pollution levels, suggested that a “business as usual” path would lead to disastrous collapse by around 2070. The book, written by four scholars representing a team of seventeen researchers, became the best-selling environmental title in history.
But as Christopher Ketcham described last year in Pacific Standard, The Limits to Growth also faced a sharp reaction from mainstream publications, economists, and politicians. “The study was an affront to the cornucopian credo of mainstream economics,” Ketcham wrote. In a 1983 speech, Ronald Reagan cited the book, insisting that there are “no such things as limits to growth” since “in this vast and wonderful world God has given us, it’s not what’s inside the earth that counts, but what’s inside your minds and hearts.”
In the decades since, it’s become increasingly clear that expansion, in itself, doesn’t promote wellbeing. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, a pair of British epidemiologists, have documented, economically unequal societies score worse on a broad range of social metrics (from infant mortality to crime), even when they have high GDPs, compared with more equitable places. We may assume that a rising economic tide helps all but, to a large extent, it’s not growth but a fair distribution of resources and opportunities that makes people’s lives better.
Many Americans prefer to think about economic reform in positive terms—“sustainability,” “green jobs”—but the negativity of the word “degrowth” can be exactly what makes it right. “Degrowth is clear—it can’t be co-opted by people who are trying to make money,” Sam Bliss, who is in favor of ditching economic growth, told me. In 2016, Bliss, a graduate fellow doing research with Farley at the University of Vermont, worked with some of the leaders of the European degrowth movement at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. After he returned to the U.S. and wrote about the subject, a number of similarly inclined Americans got in touch. They’ve since formed a loose collective called Degrow US, which will be holding the first U.S. degrowth gathering this week, in Chicago.
Anna Prouty, a 25-year-old activist and writer who is helping to organize the meeting, told me that she sees a rising interest in degrowth among people her age. For one thing, Millennials are more concerned about climate change than older Americans. Prouty said that, as an “economically disenfranchised generation”—having borne the brunt of the Great Recession, and now facing high loads of debt—they’re also more inclined to be skeptical of the existing system. They’re often already living relatively materially simple lives because that’s what they can afford. “I ride my bike everywhere,” she told me. “I do think that kind of necessity can be tapped into and can turn into a space of agency. I would love to be able to ride that wave to a degrowth utopia.”
For the most part, degrowth advocates are skeptical of big, top-down plans, believing instead that changes to the economy will need evolve out of democratic, community-level movements. But they do have ideas. Key to their vision of economic stability is pairing serious environmental regulation—cap-and-trade, taxes on resource-intensive industries, trade deals requiring that consumer products be made to last—with the creation of well-paid public-sector jobs in education, human services, and projects that look after the environment.
Many Americans prefer to thinking about economic reform in positive terms—“sustainability,” “green jobs”—but the negativity of the word “degrowth” can be exactly what makes it right.
In a nation that didn’t uphold growth as the highest aim, we might eat less meat, own fewer electronic devices, and live in smaller homes. We might also spend less time at work and find the work we do more meaningful. We might be guaranteed a job, a minimum income, and whatever health care we need. It would take massive political change to make this a reality for everyone. But to people who are able to live like that now, including many degrowth activists, it doesn’t look like a big sacrifice. Farley said that he sees this among his students at UVM. “They live very simple lives, but with a lot of good friends and time to do the things they enjoy,” he told me.
Farley is among those who avoids the term degrowth. Instead, he said, his preferred label for his economic philosophy is neo-cornucopian. “The horn of plenty is already overflowing,” he explained. “We already have way more than we need, to the point where it’s almost a detriment to our wellbeing.”
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