Degrow or Die

If homo sapiens were really selfish individualists, we wouldn't have survived a few decades. We're not fast and strong and smooth enough to survive as loners. It's really communication and collaboration that has allowed us to create worlds and live in them.

Transcribed from the 10 November 2020 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

It’s like a bicycle, if you don’t keep biking you fall down. It’s designed into the system, which of course makes it very difficult for many of us to imagine ways out of it. We know that when this system doesn’t move, it’s disaster time. It’s recession time, it’s depression time. It’s what is happening now.

Chuck Mertz: We need economic growth. The economy needs to constantly grow. We need to continuously consume for our economy to work best for us. We determine who our political leaders are depending upon whether the economy grew during their term in office. But what if economic growth, which we believe we need to continue our standard of living, is actually undermining that life by destroying the planet and imposing inequality, even poverty?

Here to help us rethink our prospects under constant growth, Giorgos Kallis and Susan Paulson are co-authors of The Case for Degrowth, along with Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Demaria. Giorgos is a professor in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Susan is a professor in the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida.

Giorgos, welcome to This is Hell!.

Giorgos Kallis: Good to be with you.

CM: And thanks for being on our show, Susan.

Susan Paulson: It’s great to be with you.

CM: Let’s start with you, Giorgos. You make a case for “attributing current ecological dis-equilibrium, and a range of social ills, to the relentless pursuit of growth. It would be naive to claim that this pandemic is proof of limits to growth, a messianic reckoning for our unsustainable ways.”

Giorgos, how can the relentless pursuit of growth contribute to the current ecological dis-equalibrium and a range of social ills, yet the pandemic is not proof of limits to growth? How is the pandemic not a messianic reckoning for the constant, unsustainable pursuit of growth?

GK: We have to be a little bit careful with how we attribute things. On the one hand we can attribute climate change and material extraction to the constant increase of economies, the constant increase of production and consumption of materials: three percent per year, which means the economy doubles every twenty-something years—doubles the amount of material, doubles the amount of emissions. There is a very clear link, then, between economic growth and environmental tumult. And there is a very clear link between economic growth and social tumult, in the sense that we sacrifice more and more of our public infrastructure, our commons, and good conditions of living for everyone, in the pursuit of a few decimals of GDP growth.

Now, do we attribute the pandemic to that? The pandemic is linked to the globalized economy and the globalized machine of growth. It’s linked in the sense that the interaction between humans and wildlife has increased as we encroach into forests and other ecosystems, and we know this is the way through which diseases pass to humans, and possibly is one of the transmission mechanisms through which the virus passed from bats to humans. Also the global economic machine is linked to the quick spread of the pandemic. It’s not as though we didn’t have pandemics before, and it’s not as though we didn’t have pandemics with slower economies. But the speed with which this pandemic spread followed the links of airplanes and the quick traveling of people on routes around the world.

It’s linked also to the growth machine in one other very specific way, which is the initial (and continuous in some places) hesitation to do something decisively about the pandemic in the name of impacting the economy. What we see is that the more people and governments delay action to face the pandemic, sacrificing the economy in the short term, the more they damage the economy in the long term. That’s also the lesson of where we are heading with climate change.

CM: Susan, it sounds like our situation is that globalization has been a major contributor not only to climate change but also in spreading the pandemic. Is this all hindsight? Or were there concerns about globalization having a negative impact on public health?

SP: For the past hundred years, as industrialization has accelerated and been expanded through neocolonization, development projects, and so on, there’s been a lot of alarms raised: scientific studies about ecological damage as well as a growing social inequalibrium as people in different power relations are exploited and drawn into the expansion of these growing economies, especially in certain parts of Latin America, where I work.

It’s not new at all. What’s different is that as habitats are destroyed, these concerns—with ecological damage, with health, with unequal and diminishing health conditions—are coming more into public debate now that many of us are drawn into a crisis and a vulnerable situation. It’s no longer so easy to displace that to the poorer and weaker parts of the world, because the pandemic has spread to all corners.

CM: Giorgos, you write, “The way current economic systems are organized around constant circulation, any decline in market activity threatens systemic collapse, provoking generalized unemployment and impoverishment. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

What do you mean it doesn’t have to be this way? And my bigger question is, why is the system we have—why is growth—not resilient to crisis?

GK: It’s not resilient because it’s the way the capitalist system works, and people have been studying how capitalism works ever since the nineteenth century. It’s a system that needs constant growth and increasing profit to invest and make more profit. It’s like a bicycle, if you don’t keep biking you fall down. It’s designed into the system, which of course makes it very difficult for many of us to imagine ways out of it. We know that when this system doesn’t move, it’s disaster time. It’s recession time, it’s depression time. It’s what is happening now.

It doesn’t have to be this way because: based on understanding our capacity as societies to organize, there is nothing in economic science or science in general to suggest that it has to be this way or it can’t be another way. There are many good proposals out there. There are many good ideas. There are people already organizing and living their lives differently in order to “manage without growth,” as my friend the ecological economist Peter Victor put it. There are ways we could manage without growth, but they are not easy, let’s say, politically or socially. It means fundamental transformations in how the current system and current society is organized.

We’ve been modern humans, walking, talking, for two hundred thousand years. During almost all that time, and in almost every context, we’ve managed our resources in commons, and our human resources in commons. It’s only been in the past few hundred years, with the rise of colonial capitalism, that this constantly growing and expanding material production system has happened.

CM: Susan, you also write, “Some of you might protest: Isn’t the coronavirus crisis revealing the misery of degrowth? What is happening during the pandemic is not degrowth. The goal of degrowth is to purposely slow things down in order to minimize harm to humans and Earth systems.”

You repeat this over and over in your book, how often people think they will be harmed by degrowth. How is today’s degrowth different from the degrowth that you and your coauthors propose? How would the degrowth you propose look different from the degrowth that people are suffering from today?

SP: First, I want to add one more thing to Giorgos’s excellent answer about why we don’t have to do things this way. My colleagues in anthropology have been studying how homo sapiens live together in communities. We’ve been modern humans, walking, talking, for two hundred thousand years. During almost all that time, and in almost every context, we’ve managed our resources in commons, and our human resources in commons. It’s only been in the past few hundred years, with the rise of colonial capitalism, that this constantly growing and expanding material production system has happened.

That’s another reason why it doesn’t have to be this way: it’s simply historical fact and archaeological fact, as well as a cross-cultural fact. Humans live and lived in many other ways. It’s hard to imagine that.

Now to get to your great question about why what’s happening right now isn’t degrowth. One of the first confusions people I talk to have when they hear about degrowth is thinking the point of degrowth is depressing or receding profits and GDP. We’re pretty indifferent to that. What we really want is to stop the growing use of materials and energy, and the thermodynamic entropy that’s growing all the time. As Giorgos described, it turns out that those are very closely tied in history. With every dollar of GDP growth, more environmental impact happens. What we really want is less environmental impact and less social sacrifice. Those are tied to economic growth.

Right now, we see paralyzed economic activity and some authors have jumped to the headlines saying, “Oh look! Degrowth is happening and it’s hell for everybody.” No. Degrowth is careful, thoughtful movements trying to slow down the damage to our economy and society so that we can live in more resilient ways. This is the opposite of pushing as hard as we can on this speeding train towards disaster and then, when it crashes, saying now we’ve got degrowth.

CM: Giorgos, just to follow up, the argument has always been that this is just the natural state of being. Of course the economy always wants to grow. As Susan was just pointing out, that is not the case. This is a new system of economic growth that humans never had before in all of our history. So is it any more fair to say that degrowth is natural, not economic growth? Or is the whole concept of “natural” within economics a distraction from the conversation?

GK: The latter. It’s a distraction. I remember David Harvey saying whenever you hear someone claim something is “natural,” look out for their ideology and what they want to address as “natural.” When someone says that economic growth is natural, it’s pure ideology at play. Economic growth was not the common state of things up until recently, but not only that: the very idea of growth and the idea that we have to grow the economy three percent every year is an idea that started after the great depression in the 1930s and 40s. People before were not talking about constant growth. Keynes was not talking about growth. He was talking about having sufficient employment and increasing output to a certain level, but he wasn’t talking about increasing output three percent every year ad infinitum, which is a very strange idea. It emerged in the fifties, in the context of the Cold War. The Soviets started claiming they will grow their economy a hundred percent in ten years; they threw spacecraft into space; the Americans got scared and said they’re going to grow a hundred and fifty! There is competition, and there is the social model of avoiding tough redistributive conflicts by expanding more and more. This lasted for basically twenty years, until the crisis of the seventies.

Ever since then, growth is not improving the well being of a majority of people. Wages have stagnated. I’m talking now about the US, but in other parts of the world they haven’t increased either. We have increasing inequalities, increasing frustrations, a sense of social stagnation. GDP keeps growing nominally, but without any effect. Many people are arguing right now—and this is not degrowth scholars, this is economists—that with gig economies, at some point it gets harder and harder to grow so there is a point where they enter stagnation. This seems to be what is happening now in the Global North and West. It gets harder and harder to grow, and then we have more and more sacrifices in order to maintain a few points more of GDP growth.

It’s not “natural,” and precisely because it’s not the natural way of doing things, it is being pushed now to the extent of the destruction of our natural habitat and of ourselves.

CM: Susan, you write, “Even if Elon Musk flew the wealthiest one percent off to Mars, a drive for growth would persist in many, although not all, places and persons—even some of those most exploited and degraded by growth economies. The capacity to change course is constrained by particular modes of knowing and being that have become intertwined with expanding colonial capitalist and fossil fuel economies.”

What are the modes of knowing and being that have become intertwined with expanding colonial capitalist and fossil fuel economies that we may not recognize as having been affected by colonialism, capitalism, and fossil fuels? Do we realize the extent to which our understanding of the world has been guided by those factors? And must we make that recognition in a path toward planned degrowth to realize the impact that capitalism, colonialism, and fossil fuels have had on our social relations?

SP: I love that question! That’s what we’re trying to think about as we’re finding new ways to be human every day. It’s really hard to change, because it’s not just a rational decision. Many people involved in degrowth have been talking about decolonization of the mind. The visions we have, the desires we feel, the self-esteem, our sexual desires—things that feel so intimate in our bodies and our minds—are all tied up with this worldview that has been sold to us and institutionalized into us, depending on our class position and racial and national positions in this world, so it’s pretty hard to pull those things out of us.

Nevertheless, in moments of great conflict and change like we’re living through now, it’s a wonderful time for that kind of change, because it’s one of the few moments where things really come into tension and new light can shine in. I’ll just mention two ways of thinking that are hard to overcome. One we call binary hierarchies: thinking that humans dominate nature, we’re better than other nature; it’s men over women, white people over non-white people, Western science over other ways of knowing. We’re dividing the world into two categories and thinking that one should decide how to do things and use the other one as resources to get them done.

In those worlds, people aren’t thinking in the same way we are about individual ownership, property, and success. By nature they are managing their watersheds, their hunting forests, and their rivers communally, and it wouldn’t make sense to “own” it.

I am also particularly interested in the belief that humans are naturally greedy, selfish, individualistic, and competitive. It’s so common in our stories, our movies, our schoolbooks. They talk about the “selfish gene,” homo economicus, this innately selfish creature. And again, anthropologists have said that’s ridiculous. If homo sapiens were really selfish individualists, we wouldn’t have survived a few decades. We’re not fast and strong and smooth enough to survive as loners. It’s really communication and collaboration that has allowed us to create worlds and live in them. Yet somehow we’ve been convinced in the modern world that we are innately selfish and competitive, and just want more and more.

Those bodily and mental challenges are harder to change than just changing policy or an economic program. On the other hand, they’re more accessible: we can all start changing them this minute, this day, in our relationships and in our attitudes and our interactions with the world around us.

CM: Susan, let me just follow up with you on that. You’ve heard this a million times. Does degrowth mean an end of individual rights? Does it mean an end of individualism? And if we all know, as you point out (and you see this even in rightwing circles), that working together works, then what is the attraction to hyperindividualism?

SP: One of the things we’ve all been struggling with in degrowth conversations and communities is to stay away from one programmatic model, to say degrowth is X, we should fight for Y, and rather think about changing the way the playing field is set out, to create opportunities for more worlds to emerge that we may not even know.

I don’t want to attack individual rights and get rid of them; what I would like to do is create a scene where the worlds I know, from living many years among Indian and Amazonian communities, also have a way to thrive. In those worlds, people aren’t thinking in the same way we are about individual ownership, property, and success. By nature they are managing their watersheds, their hunting forests, and their rivers communally, and it wouldn’t make sense to “own” it.

That’s what I say. Rather than attacking individual rights or selfishness, let’s create a world where a whole rainbow of collaborative forms can thrive better and coexist with the contemporary way of thinking that has come to dominate Western societies.

CM: Giorgos, why doesn’t the monetization and commodification of everything lead to the incentivization and motivation that markets promise? Why isn’t a system of monetizing and commodifying everything effective and efficient like people have been telling us it will be?

GK: Because the value of something is not—in many cases it’s antithetical to, it’s the opposite of—getting it for money. There are many things. We can start with love, we can think of pride, we can think of friendship. You wouldn’t like to pay to have friends, right? Maybe some people would, I don’t know. Now on social media you find everything. But in principle if you start paying for friendship, then something is irreversibly lost in friendship.

In many social relations that we have as humans, commodifying them is not just changing the means of exchange or rewards in this relationship; it changes the very nature of the relationship. The very nature of it goes against the logic of exchange for profit. For example, in the degrowth literature we like to talk about how it has been with many human societies: it is the logic of exchanging gifts. In our society there is some remains of that: we exchange gifts on Christmas or on a birthday. But maybe societies exist where their whole logic, and their whole economies, were based around the logic of gift exchange. It doesn’t mean they were benevolent, as if they were angels. No, they had wars also. Maybe they were exchanging too many gifts and getting in trouble. I want to emphasize the point that Susan made: that there are many different worlds and many different logics, and reducing everything to the bottom line of money is not only destructive for the planet, but it’s also destructive of some intangible qualities that give meaning to human life.

CM: Let me follow up on that, Giorgos, because last week we celebrated election day by talking to Ruth Kinna, who wrote the book Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism. The following day, while votes were still being counted, we spoke with Hadas Thier, author of The People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics, because we were still celebrating the American election. They both discussed how much they enjoyed the different ideas, healthy debates, and the many possibilities of both anarchism and Marxism.

So Giorgos, why do ideas like anarchism, Marxism, and degrowth promise so much but are so uncertain? How can their promise be more certain?

GK: That’s a matter of political organization and social forces. This is not something that can be responded about in the abstract, intellectually. It’s made on the ground by people organizing and fighting in different arenas—including elections, but definitely not only elections, or even mostly elections. What would be the strategies of organizing for degrowth? We are open to different strategies, but we emphasize that there has to be an articulation between our personal change, our coming together in common to produce, consume, and live differently, and then our organizing politically so the different ways we do things can be universalized and be available to everyone.

This still sounds abstract, but it is something that is made on the ground. I have in mind here the very strong cooperativist movement we have in Barcelona and Catalonia. People are running electric cars as a cooperative, building houses as cooperatives. The same people organized to occupy the square, and our mayor right now was born out of that movement, and represents that movement. It’s called Barcelona En Comú: the Commons of Barcelona. This is where I see hope.

But yes, of course, we’re fighting against something that is extremely strong, extremely big, and much more intricate, complicated, and interwoven in ways that it is not easy to change from one day to the next.

CM: Susan, you write, “The intersection of contemporary innovation with ancestral wisdom is evidenced, for example, in Bhutan’s commitment to building ‘gross national happiness’ not directed towards GDP growth but instead towards the attainment of meaning and fulfillment in harmony with Buddhist spiritual values. In parallel processes, millennial Christian traditions of simple communal life are being revitalized in contexts ranging from neo-monastic communities of young evangelicals (who eschew consumerism in favor of a collective life of spiritual growth) to Latin American visionaries exploring Pope Francis’s call for a radical transition towards ‘integral ecology.’”

What explains degrowth’s connection with religion and spirituality? Yesterday’s guest, activist and political theorist Mohamed Abdou, brought up spirituality and religion as they relate to decolonization. What explains degrowth’s connection with religion and spirituality? And is there a connection between degrowth and decolonization?

How can we get the things we’re looking for—longevity, literacy, less homicide and suicide—without just getting more and more cash? The obvious way is to work directly towards them instead of saying we need to get more cash so that we can have better mental health.

SP: Absolutely. Most spiritual traditions are deeply about our values and our paths to this world, the way in which humans relate to each other and to the world around them, imbuing that with some type of moral or traditional meaning. I’m really glad you brought up those cases. Bhutan is a really outstanding case because it’s a very explicit national effort to make very longstanding traditions of peacefulness, respect, and equilibrium come to the forefront in decisions about managing the nation’s historical development.

In the US it’s harder. I don’t want to overstate it, but in some ways the worship of individual success, economic success, professional success, and the sense of responsibility and achievement built into it, has become a moral and spiritual goal in itself in many Western communities: built into religion, as we’ve seen in the spirit of capitalism and the protestant ethic. They coexist.

In Latin America, what we might call spiritualism is not necessarily related to going to church. People’s practices in managing a watershed and cleaning irrigation canals communally, and sharing the water, are deeply embedded in rituals that are expressed in what we might call cosmological language. The idea of how we live together, how we live in the environment, takes many spiritual forms.

CM: Giorgos, you write, “The time is ripe for us to refocus on what really matters. Not gross domestic product but the health and well being of our people and our planet. In a word, degrowth.”

How does GDP not reflect the health and well-being of the planet and its people? How good are economic metrics at determining the health and well-being of the people and the planet?

GK: Compare what’s going on right now with the health of the people in the US and Europe to what’s going on in Vietnam. They have zero dead people from the coronavirus over many months. It’s obvious that GDP didn’t protect us from what happened.

It’s also obvious that the obsession with GDP and the economy was part of our problem: the hesitation to lock down and close borders when it was clear the pandemic was coming—and even the hesitation right now. I’m reading right now about Denmark and its fifteen million farmed minks—Denmark, the social democratic, civilized, so-called paradise. They have fifteen million minks that they apparently kill to make furs, and right now they’ve got the new strain of coronavirus. They’re worried it might escape and might not be addressed by the vaccine, and even now they are saying, “We cannot stop the mink economy, many people depend on that.” We see the same pattern playing over and over again.

This doesn’t mean that the response is just to lock down and stop doing everything or stop living our lives, but it means that we need more reasonableness: putting health and well-being first. Putting health and well-being first, we would have healthy humans and happy humans who also produce things that they enjoy and make sense to them. Then we also have a healthy economy.

Right now what we have is this: for fear of damaging some economic activities in the short term, we are damaging the economy and the health and well-being of the people in the long run, much more than was necessary, and much more than it has been in other countries where they have much less income than in our part of the world.

In that sense, the obsession with GDP has become a huge obstacle. Economists and the government have a complete lack of ideas about how to manage an economy that has to go on lockdown for two or three months. How do you provide for the people? How do you secure the basic necessities? How do you move resources to produce masks and oxygen and track-and-trace tests that you might need for a year? All the work of people who now are sitting in their places because they can’t work in restaurants and bars—how do we direct it somewhere else?

No one has seriously asked these questions. No government in the so-called developed world knows what to do. Then you have a collapse. That’s how the system works. Pursuing GDP at the expense of human health and well-being: growth-growth-growth until there is no more, and it collapses. This is what we are trying to put on the table with degrowth. Let’s try to escape from this catastrophic trap.

CM: Susan, you also write, “Existing resources can be shared and invested differently to secure good living with less money, less exploitation, and less environmental degradation.” Is degrowth less expensive, and does it provide more services for the public than growth does? How can more and better services be less expensive?

SP: Great question. First of all, Giorgos did a nice job of pointing out how the differences between GDP and well-being have become so obvious during the pandemic. I’d like to add that also, for decades now, it’s been very clear to scholars and statisticians that there’s very weak correlation between GDP growth and the things that most societies say we desire: higher rates of longevity, literacy, equality, security, political participation, mental health, happiness; lower rates of incarceration, obesity, homicide, suicide, infant mortality. I live in the US. We have one of Earth’s highest GDPs, in absolute terms and per capita, and yet we’re actually quite low. We’re often behind dozens of other countries in all the indicators I mentioned.

That’s just empirical correlations—a strong argument. We continue to think that GDP is the only means to getting everything good, but when we look across countries, high-GDP countries don’t have better average levels of those attributes than medium-GDP countries or even low ones in many cases. Also, as countries grow, they don’t necessarily improve in those terms.

So how can we live good, costing less? How can we get the things we’re looking for—longevity, literacy, less homicide and suicide—without just getting more and more cash? The obvious way is to work directly towards them instead of saying we need to get more cash so that we can have better mental health. Can’t we just work directly towards mental health instead of assuming that higher incomes is going to make everyone happier and healthier?

Everyone in degrowth movements agrees that we need to reduce the overall amount of matter and energy that is transformed everyday by human economies. But that doesn’t mean that we have to reduce everything. We can reduce casinos and tour boats or whatever, but maybe we can actually increase investment in caring and sharing resources and features that matter like health, education, and nourishment. We’re certainly more than wealthy enough to do that.

CM: Giorgos, can we address climate change, can we address the pandemic—can we address all of the challenges and social ills we face today—without challenging or addressing globalization?

GK: In degrowth we talk about re-localization. It doesn’t mean going back to each one of us living in our towns and villages and not traveling. It’s the way Susan put it: it doesn’t mean going away from something completely and going to the other extreme; it means letting alternatives emerge. We emphasize the importance of reinvesting in local economies, reinvesting in local commons. Reinvesting in relations of proximity, food networks of proximity, traveling and vacations of proximity.

Globalization is part of the problem, and the acceleration that comes with globalization—the acceleration of traveling, the acceleration of our daily lives, the acceleration of extracting things out of the Earth, the acceleration of sending things into the air—all these phenomena are interlinked, and a first important step towards providing a real alternative to globalization is working to reconstitute local human-scale economies.

CM: Susan, does the American Dream cause climate change and pandemics? And if so, how can we address an American Dream that causes climate change and pandemics?

SP: That’s a hellish question. What is the American Dream? Robert Reich has a great argument about inequality where he looks back to the mid-twentieth century, when there were policies in place that allowed our country to be leaders in the world in terms of moving towards income and wealth equity, intergenerational mobility, education for all. We got to be one of the best-educated workforces in the world.

There was that process, going up into the seventies (as Giorgos mentioned, when it went into crisis), and then in the eighties greater inequalities began to emerge. In some ways, if we think about the American Dream as chances for equity, participation, opportunity—certainly we can do that. If we think about the American Dream as something that’s emerged more explicitly in recent decades: as massive accumulation of wealth, of untold riches, and a grotesque increase in consumption by everybody—more and more cars, more and more clothes, changed out every month—if that’s the American Dream, it’s tough to figure out how to keep it going on a finite planet.

CM: Susan and Giorgos, I cannot thank you enough for being on the show this week.

GK: Thank you.

SP: I’m grateful for you inviting us to this conversation.

Featured image: painting by Syrian artist Anas Albraehe

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