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The idea of De-Growth

Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.

— Kurt Vonnegut

Ever since the end of WWII, the vast majority of world affairs has been fixated with one thing: economic growth. A relatively new concept, branded with the letters “G” “D” and “P”, growth has become synonymous with progress (another highly contentious word) and stands at the altar of modern man, homo economicus. Economic growth, the standard reasoning goes, enables nations to develop and reach a stage whereby things like poverty, illiteracy, illness and misery no longer exist. This is partially true. It is also partially true that economic growth enables nations to develop and reach a stage whereby things like poverty, inequality, illness and misery continue to exist. Reading and writing must be very important skills.

That economic growth brings nations to a certain ‘stage’ is true enough however. Time and again studies have shown how such growth can elevate human happiness — up to a certain extent. Once these nations have reached this ‘stage’ of growth, happiness simply plateaus. Why is that? There are probably lots of reasons. An economist might say this is because of the law of decreasing marginal utility: you get more satisfaction out of the first serving of cake than out of the second, third, fourth and so on until you’ve stuffed yourself. In other words, there’s only so much stuff we can acquire that’ll make us quite a bit happier. Once we’ve got a house, a car, a toaster, a fridge, a washing machine, a dryer, a computer and a smartphone — the rest (a lawnmower, air-conditioning, an iPad Air and a jacuzzi) doesn’t quite hit the spot that owning your first car did.

This is not, however, simply a problem of how best to remedy rich-people’s blues. The issue is not that the wealthy — those of us who are fortunate enough to live in nations who have reached this stage of growth — are seeing their happiness stagnate, despite working hard, to earn the cash, to buy the products that we are told will edge us ever closer to happiness. The bigger issue is that the very thing that brings these nations to this stage of development (economic growth) is simultaneously destroying the planet.


You’ve heard it all before — the over-reliance on fossil fuels, the depletion of natural resources, the destruction of ecological habitats, climate change and all that jazz. What to do about it? The standard answer has been to fall back onto good old habits (no matter that they’re the ones that got us here in the first place): economic growth. To be more specific, on the trusted fruits of Technological Progress. That, after all, is what drives economic growth. If growth if not advancing fast enough, it’s because the technology has not been developed yet. If inequality seems to be widening, it’s because the technology has not been developed yet. Once it has, the gains will spread to everyone (no matter that this is a lie). If the world is in danger of reaching 2 degrees of global warming this century, it’s because the technology to avoid it has not been developed yet.

If the argument sounds simplistic, it’s because it is. In all the IPCC forecasts envisioning a reduction of emissions to avoid the 2 degree scenario, more and more space is given to Technological Progress as a means of reduction ('negative emissions' in techno-talk - see graph). No matter that none of these technologies have been proven to work. That none have been scaled up to any meaningful dimensions. All our eggs are in one basket, the basket of Technological Progress. We might as well call it for what it is: our new God.

It sounds odd, doesn’t it. We uber-modern humans. The Homo Sapiens Sapiens, wise of the wise, destroyers of religion and bearers of the light. How readily we criticise those who still believe in God. Unconsciously we probably consider them somehow mentally deficient. “How could they chose to hold on to such ridiculous beliefs? Perhaps it’s not a choice after all. It must be their upbringing or something”. And us, paragons of knowledge, we of course hold no such ridiculous beliefs. Ours are grounded in rationality, in the objectivity of science, of observation and trial and error. Mmmm…

Here’s a little formula I discovered recently:

I = P *A * T

I stands for Impact (humans impact on the planet) P is Population, A is Affluence, and T is Technological Progress. To reduce our impact, there are three numbers to play around with. At the moment, we’re only interested in playing around with one. The conventional thinking is that P and A can keep growing, because T will grow too and, being a decimal, will reduce the overall Impact.

Degrowth is a school of thought which is a little skeptical of our faith in T. So it’s looking at P and A, and how those two might be reduced. Population control is a little controversial. So is A. Reducing A amounts to reducing our level of affluence. That means consuming less stuff. Here’s a cool video about that.

A lot of people become squeamish at the mention of degrowth. Sort of like doing a thought experiment with a child and proposing either you’ll never celebrate xmas again, or you’ll never be allowed to eat your favourite cake again. Ever. Which do you choose? Of course, a relatively sane adult would probably forsake their favourite chocolate velvet cupcake and keep celebrating xmas with their loved ones. It’s unfortunate that most adults are unable to make the parallel between saving our ecosystem and our ability to celebrate with our loved ones. We want to be able to have our cake and eat it.

Little wonder then, that everyone is quite glad to hear the techno-solutionists preach. We Can Have Our Cake And Eat It. You’d be stupid to think otherwise. I mean, look at how much progress we’ve made in the past 200 years!

We are so used to having it all, we can’t stand the thought of losing some of it. So much so that we actively turn a blind eye to the costs racked up by ‘having it all’. The amazing thing is that this is done under the veil of ‘rational, evidence-based scientific inquiry’. The problem is that we actually believe our own lies. How freaky is that? Isn’t that a sure sign of addiction? Or some serious mental deficiency?

Good thing that this is a relatively new thing. A passing fad. Like when people used to think kings were divine rulers and women were mentally inferior.

Like when people used to think that they could have their cake and eat it.


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