Why Degrowth Won’t Work
Degrowth is not a hard concept to wrap the mind around. It’s a common sense movement drawing a rational conclusion: we are over-consuming relative to the capacity of the biosphere. In order to not bleed the earth dry, we have to extract fewer resources and consume less stuff. In order to consume less and still provide for people’s needs, we have to radically redistribute the resources we have and shift our societal priorities away from extraction and profit, towards mutual aid and sharing in community.
Saying that people can value something other than the accumulation of capital is not radical. It’s just true. But for some reason, when you say our society can prioritize something other than profit, consumption and economic growth, everyone thinks it’s so ludicrous.
It is ludicrous, and there’s a reason why.
We’ve been fed the grow-or-die mentality for so long that we’ve forgotten how not to be afraid. We’ve been taught the possibilities for what our world can be, allocated our meager options to get there, and told to call this Freedom. We parrot this constriction of freedom to each other, to ourselves. Even in our own minds, our beliefs of survival are pegged to accumulation, profit, consumption, and obedience to norms. The vast expanse of possibilities withers to a single path where only the absurd seems sensical.
We vote for candidates who promise something vaguely like the world we want. We make excuses when they don’t deliver, and then we vote again. We vote with our dollars, but vote for cleaner stuff. Greener stuff. What kind of renewable energy defines you as a person? Maybe BuzzFeed will make a quiz so we can find out.
We believe we can accelerate into the future, making some tweaks here and there, but carry on without untangling the web of how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place. Let the UN do its job, whatever that is. Let California go renew itself, even if it’s all on fire. Let Elon Musk guide us into a glittering paradise of solar battery storage and self-driving life. Maybe it’ll be on Mars. Wouldn’t that be exciting?
Down here on Earth, we’re dying. We know we are. We can feel it every day. We were born of this earth and we are never not a part of it. We all know how it feels to be this sick.
Faced with the looming threat of planetary destruction, we cling to strongmen promising to turn our nations into fortresses. A fascist tide rises from Brazil to India to right here at home in the Land of the Free (TM). The walls go up but the clock keeps ticking. There’s no way the economy won’t collapse again, some are saying worse than the Great Depression. Another hurricane blows through, another fire rages. We stumble on into the Anthropocene, leaving burnt and waterlogged homes, the wreckages of forgotten well-being, the carcasses of another mass extinction lying in our wake. Somewhere way up north, something big is melting.
Imperialist wars are launched to sell weapons and the ones who flee them are turned away or put in cages. Journalists are killed. Protests are slowly outlawed. Tax cuts for the wealthy cut deeper into the rest of us and nothing ever, ever trickles down. We die from curable diseases, just like the planet we live on.
If you’re watching for canaries in the coal mine, this is what a dead bird looks like.
We don’t need the IPCC to tell us we don’t have much time left to act. We know. This was never a mystery to anyone. We know we are sick. We know we have to change.
But we believe it’s the wrong party in power. It’s the wrong CEO in the company. If only we could switch them out, everything would be fine! Buy something else. Buy into something else. This is the beauty of elections, this is the beauty of capitalism: we can have what we want, if we what we want is being sold, if we have the resources to buy it. Only if our favorite leader wins. Only if they keep their promises. If they don’t, we get to wait, and vote again. All we’re asked to choose is whose power to prop up.
We don’t question why we should want a life like this, full of renewable solutions to the equally renewable problems we created. We’re not asked to dig for the root, to where this crisis came from.
From what desert of the mind did we find this thirst for the world to be the way it is?
What mentalities got us this far, and why the hell do we still trust them?
From whom did we unlearn the question: how do I want the world to be?
The thing is, it doesn’t matter what we want. 71% of carbon emissions come from only 100 companies, and we are not in charge of them. Our democracies are shams of representation, our petitions fall on deaf ears, our possibilities of enacting change are at most incremental, more band-aid than cure, and usually remain gathering dust in a drawer with all our other hopes for a life well-lived. We treat the symptoms, not the disease, if we treat anything at all. And as a result, we get sicker, and sicker, and sicker.
This is the way we’ve been taught to see the world: nothing is of value unless it can be extracted and commodified. Nothing can be yours unless someone else doesn’t have it. You are not worthy unless you’re at the top, and for there to be a top, well, there has to be a bottom.
Why is it ludicrous to say our society can be built on values other than profit and growth? There’s a final piece to the degrowth puzzle. In order for resources to be shared in community and equitably distributed, power must be shared in community and equitably distributed.
And it isn’t.
The IPCC says we have twelve years left, twelve years to step up and mitigate the most serious consequences of our destruction of the planet. Now that the mighty IPCC has sanctioned what we already knew, maybe someone in power will listen!
But our leaders sit on their hands, so We the People say our hands our tied. We’re driving straight off the edge of a cliff waiting for someone to take control of the car. Those of us looking ahead wonder why the driver doesn’t swerve away. And still we sit on our hands. We cry and beg and plead for mercy, for common sense, for reason. And we sit on our hands.
Powerlessness breeds inaction and inaction breeds apathy and apathy breeds acceptance of powerlessness and so, we roll on to the edge of the cliff.
It’s time to grab the steering wheel.
We cannot trust our leaders to stop this in time. Beyond the individuals in power, we cannot put our trust in power. The answers we were fed have left our economies either bloated or starving and our well-being malnourished either way. Human life on planet Earth is a few years out from becoming a hospice patient. We know this culture is wrong for us, from extraction to domination, from materialism to imperialism. We cannot wait for it to tell us how to fix this. Its answers were the ones that got us here. Its answers will always lead to us to the cliff’s edge.
Now is the time to question the good of everything we’ve been told. Our entire value system. How our conditioning shaped us, and who we’d be without it. To question the value of growth. The importance of stuff. The nature of democracy. The purpose of governing, not just whom we want in our government. What do we want this world to be?
Question it all, question it more.
If it’s worthy of our obedience, it will stand up to our questioning. If it isn’t, why would we obey it? What are we afraid of? Twelve years left, the IPCC says. It’s official now. What have we got to lose?
A company is only as rich as its products are bought. A leader is only as strong as they are followed. A rule is only as powerful as it is obeyed. A system is only as pervasive as it is believed in.
These values are not our values. They did not come from us, not from each of us putting first what we need. They were given to us by the very system that dragged our world screaming into a garbage disposal. If we, as human beings, really value economic growth above all else, if we really value profit, if we really value status above community, above love, above care, above passion, above culture, above music, above nature, then our values will stand up to questioning. And if we don’t… the responsibility rests on us to reclaim the power to determine what our society looks like.
Salvation will not be found in the clean, green things we buy. It will not be found in Democrats, not even in Bernie Sanders. It will be found in us, in using our power to destroy hierarchy itself. Destroying the power discrepancy between those who sell us things, and us. Between those who rule over us, and us. The culture that drove us to the edge of the cliff, and us.
It will come from dissolving domination, and opening the expanse of possibilities wide. When we have the freedom to meet our needs, we cultivate systems that meet our needs. When our ability to meet our needs is dependent on cooperation with others, we develop systems that foster cooperation. When we know our time is limited, we start living for our values. Our values, disparate or shared. We start living for love, for community, for quality over quantity.
If we value our values at all, we cannot wait for someone else to allow us to live for them. This very practice of concentrating power in the few has given us a culture that concentrates resources in the few. It has sold us the lie that everything is scarce, so we must extract and hoard to survive. It has declared it impossible to share — for a thing can only be yours if it is not someone else’s.
We know this earth is abundant. We know our lives are rich. Living is rich, and the riches that come from good living matter more to us than our paychecks. But when we live inside a false cage of scarcity where money is the only way out, we stop valuing good living. We stop valuing our values.
It’s time to reach for the steering wheel. To remove our trust from the powerful few and give it to the disempowered many. To live for the opposite of what we were trained to become, and in turn become ourselves. To refuse to believe the stories that cut imagination out of our minds like a tumor, dig our authentic desires out of the trash, and place them front and center in our lives.
Salvation will be found in rallying others to move with us, not by telling them where to go, but by allowing them to move in the direction they actually want to. It will come from moving in the direction we actually want to, not from being led there. It is internal and external, personal and collective: a shared commitment to each of us doing what is right for each of us, and having the ability to do so.
This is how we save the world: by leveling the playing field, so that our choices do matter. By waiting less and acting more. Buying less and being more. Becoming ungovernable and governing ourselves. Following less and leading ourselves, as individuals and communities. We are as powerful as we decide we are.
Climate catastrophe is upon us. This is about carbon dioxide, after all. What we do with every breath we exhale. How we put ourselves into the world.
What do you actually value?
Start living for it. Wrench your right to do so away from everyone who would tell you it’s impossible. Reclaim your imagination. Give the right to imagine back to yourself. Give land back to the earth, where all can walk freely upon it. Give water back to the rivers, where all can drink freely from them. Give space back to the public. Give connection back to the alienated. Rip your mind back from the system that robbed you of it, that claimed, conditioned and caged it. Steal power back. We never signed that social contract. We never gave consent.
This is how degrowth will actually happen: from a degrowth of domination, hierarchy, coercion and force. From allowing ourselves, and our world, to bloom from what we actually want. As our power grows in strength and number, those who lord it over us will find themselves ruling in an empty room. The rest of us will be tending to our gardens.
All it takes is saying No to these extrinsic, contrived, bullshit values, and Yes to ourselves, to each other.
Maybe, if enough of us shift to a different kind of living, we can pull humanity through. Twelve years, at most, to fix this.
Maybe it won’t be enough. Maybe this shall be our end, by superstorm or famine, by firing squad or flood. Let us live our values all the same, so that when the end comes, however long or short we had, at least we will have lived.