di Melanie Erspamer
When a crisis arrives and shakes the assumptions we took for granted, even if they do not tumble down, we would do well to take a closer look at them. After all, the ‘utility’ of a crisis can be to remind us that we are susceptible to crises. In this case, the shadow cast by the current outbreak is that of an even larger global disaster, the climate crisis, one on which we have been doing little more than writing articles as we continue to increase emissions.
I want to take a closer look at one particular ingrained assumption of our current socioeconomic system—because it is not questioned much, even in this time of great uncertainty, and because it is relevant to the climate crisis that awaits us: the assumption of endless and continuous growth. In the last decades, this assumption has been largely seen as necessary and good (two words that may appear almost equivalent to the positivist mindset). It has been deemed so not only by the economic right, the defenders of neoliberalism and globalization, but also by much of the left. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century has been influential in this regard: a game-changer in the discussion on inequality, Piketty’s book mined historical data to argue that growth is needed to reduce inequality (among other things, like taxing the rich).
Covid-19 has put a spoke in the wheel of, if not the desirability of economic growth, at least its inevitability. It has intruded with the decisiveness of the real and brutally reminded us that reality imposes its limits, and that we must learn to respect them.
The South Korean-Swiss philosopher Byung-Chul Han recently claimed that because of Covid-19, reality has re-emerged. Reality, for Han, is resistance; and our relationship to it, before the crisis, was being eroded by digitalization (he does not mention that for many, digitalization has increased in the present moment). Spanish writer Santiago Alba Rico also wrote about the return of reality as the natural world forces its way into our debates on resources, distribution, and the future through Covid-19. ‘La realidad tiene momentáneamente la palabra.’ In theory, there may be very few limits (but certainly some) to what we can achieve with innovation and technology; in practise, there are more—in the case of coronavirus, for instance, there are regulations in place that slow down the development and release of a vaccine. There are socioeconomic structures in place that will make the distribution of the vaccine unjust and result in potentially aggravated social tensions. And in the case of climate change, we do not have enough time to wait for the perfect technological solution.
Last year, I participated in an installation at Milan Design Week. It was an exciting time to be in the city—exhibits from around the world showcased new designs and materials in hidden courtyards, while crowds of fashionable characters filled sidewalks and cafes. And yet there was a great shadow of futility over it all. A significant number of the installations and conferences were on sustainability; at the same time, the waste and excess involved in creating them was irrefutable. And so was the huge amount of air traffic, both commercial and private, that transported the numerous people and goods to Milan and back. This year, for obvious reasons, Milan Design Week was cancelled. Need I mention that the absence of this huge event did much more for the environment than a week of ecstatic lectures and installations on slightly more sustainable materials? (In 1955, the poet Jacques Prévert wrote, ‘So many forests ripped from the earth, destroyed, wiped out, torn to pieces. / So many forests sacrificed to make the pulp for billons of newspapers that year after year draw their readers’ awareness to the dangers of deforestation’.)
This may seem obvious, but a year ago, to mention the waste and emissions being produced by an event focused largely on sustainability would have felt out of place, as if one were being an unrealistic spoilsport. This is often the reaction to bringing up the long-term effects of unhinged and poorly regulated growth. That the economy must grow is considered necessary in both a normative sense and an ontological one. The vast majority of scientists may say that business as usual will have catastrophic effects on the climate, yet this fact has little practical or rhetorical weight against the oft-repeated belief that we need economic growth (and, by sneaky extension, the capitalist, globalist marketplace) for our general well-being. To resist and question a prevalent idea is not necessarily to seek to defeat it from a place of prejudice. It also allows the truly good ideas to prove their worth. On the other hand, immediately silencing any criticism of an idea creates self-fulfilling prophecies of inevitability. At least, this may happen in our economic and political system; but it is harder to fool nature. In this sense, we may now be witnessing nature, or reality’s, revenge—though I prefer not to see it as anything so personified or malicious; we are simply facing true inevitability.
Anything that appears without viable alternatives smacks of necessity, and we have had a lack of imagination in recent years when it comes to envisioning alternatives to neoliberal capitalism (it’s Mark Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’). Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in 1992 that the ascendance of Western liberal democracy was ‘the end of history’, and we often hear that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. Certainly, finding Against Amazon: and Other Essays on Amazon has a taste of the farcical, as if the impact and meaning of our choices has lost resonance outside a cold consumerist logic. And, certainly, the end of the world (the human world, that is) is not so difficult to envision when reading the UN’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports. Perhaps to counter such a black hole of language and imagination as neoliberal capitalism, we can begin by questioning one of its most foundational assumptions: the need for continuous growth and accumulation.
Once again, I question not to demolish, but to understand, and then to improve or reject. What could there be but continuous growth? Well, without sounding coy, there could be degrowth.
Critics of degrowth abound on the left and right. For now, I will let them be, as I am not as interested in championing degrowth’s political project as I am in considering the potential of a rhetorical shift in the language around endless growth. Degrowth is a vague concept that is used to sustain widely different policy projects. However, it is useful and productive in its questioning of the normative assumption that economic growth should be the priority of all governments, and that economic growth is the necessary and foundational pillar of human well-being.
Growth is often treated as an ethically ‘thick’ concept, providing not only description but a positive ethical evaluation. In their exploration of the metaphorical foundations of our language and concepts, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson describe the prevalence of ‘orientational’ metaphors that associate ‘up’ with positive attributes like happiness, health, and life. Yet we need only look at the example of the virus to see that growth in a different context can be detrimental. Even in our societies and economies, we may not wish for growth in every sector or industry (e.g. fossil fuels), and we may not want all growth metrics to be treated equally (e.g. GDP vs. HDI).
Few advocates of degrowth adopt as a normative principle that growth should decrease; a decrease in consumption and production is taken as a probable result of other normative priorities, such as environmental sustainability, human flourishing, equality, etc. Walden Bello, for instance, a Filipino academic and activist who coined the term deglobalization in 2002, writes that it is ‘at its core, an ethical perspective. It prioritizes values above interests, cooperation above competition, and community above “efficiency”’. These are lofty aims, indeed; ‘values’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘community’ are important. But left on their own they can easily be manipulated and co-opted to become empty signifiers and marketing strategies—ones that could result in interesting and innovative developments, but that do little to challenge the economic structure as a whole. This is why the term degrowth does not only propose alternatives but in itself directly challenges the normative priority of the current system—economic growth.
Let us compare degrowth to its environmentalist foil, green growth. Advocates of green growth stress that certain sectors, like renewable energy and sustainable materials, should grow. The question is, how easy is it to maintain a legitimate metric of ‘sustainability’ once it is pinned to the goal of economic growth? If we can judge based on past years, the metric of sustainability is used as a veneer to prop up what remains the fundamental objective: economic growth, especially in a free market. Decoupling the use of natural resources from economic growth, the sine qua non of green growth, has so far not occurred: a recent study in the PNAS (Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences) calculated that no decoupling, absolute or relative, had been achieved in the last two decades in developed countries, and that previous indications of decoupling were incomplete.
It is worth mentioning that left-wing critics of degrowth say it will cause a mass Thatcherian austerity, with enforced and damaging limits to consumption. They see the current global recession and quarantine as the bleak reality of degrowth. The truth, however, is that this situation is more a consequence of unfettered, environmentally disastrous growth than of any degrowth. Instead of thinking of it as an authoritarian eco-austerity, we can begin to consider degrowth as a change of normative priorities. In such a light, the question of whether GDP growth—or one’s economic metric of choice—would decelerate, level off, or even accelerate is not initially relevant. What matters is extricating ourselves from the damaging logic that economic growth is necessary and beneficial at all costs, before we find ourselves in an even greater crisis. What matters is focusing on maintenance and resilience—of communities, of local economies—instead of endless growth and innovation (a shift akin to that desired by Mierle Ukeles in the art world with her Manifesto For Maintenance Art). In the end, both growth and degrowth are words, concepts, mental habits; and as Elaine Scarry says in Thinking in an Emergency, habits are first thought, then chosen, and finally transformed into competences. And in the moment of need, when we do not have the luxury of time for creativity, we must use the competences we already have, not those that it would have been useful to have.
Defendants of our current neoliberal economy like to argue that capitalist economic growth is essential for helping poorer countries ‘catch up’ with wealthier industrialized ones. The reality of the distribution of economic growth and wealth within those countries, as well as their relationship to the system in terms of natural resource extraction, financial debt, brain drain, and effects of climate change is much more complex than this simple claim. Needless to say, though I have not done so here, any policy around degrowth would have to consider different global realities before making blanket economic recommendations.
The New York Times editorial board recently wrote that ‘out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better America’. To be sure, the need for a new system in America can feel palatable: as the editorial board writes, ‘over the past decade, the wealth of the top 1 percent of households has surpassed the combined wealth of the bottom 80 percent.’ However, we need to recognise that diagnosing the need for change—pointing out problems and directions for improvement—is incomplete without a realignment of priorities. This is the sad truth behind green growth and noble intentions. On paper, green growth can sound logical and just, but when it comes to decision-making (including the setting of discourse), it can easily result in prioritizing growth at the expense of real sustainability.
The tragic ‘opportunity’ of the coronavirus might seem less tragic if we can imagine, in bouts of optimism, that the lessons it teaches us as a society will help prevent greater crises to come. I hope these lessons might be felt even more during the transitional period, between the current lock-down or near lock-down in many countries, and the return to normal that only seems possible when a vaccine is found. What this time offers us is the possibility to experiment, phenomenologically if you will, the existence of limits to our desires, to our consumption, and the tangible benefits of local economies and production networks. Of course, the beneficiaries of the current capitalist economy will try to manage these events according to the famous words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: ‘for everything to stay the same, everything must change.’ For example, the Board of Innovation, a ‘business design and innovation strategy firm’, has made a report on the new ‘low-touch economy’ that has emerged, giving advice and ‘strategic options’ to companies. It is apparent and not worth criticizing that companies will seek above all to maximize profit and growth, both during and after this crisis. The report encouragingly points out that, for instance, ‘the outbreak of SARS was a pivotal moment that put Alibaba on its path to becoming a $470 billion e-commerce behemoth’.
As a society, however, we do not have to use the same ruthless, market-driven logic. To truly use this crisis as an opportunity, I would begin by challenging the priorities of a logic that left us so unprepared—before reality imposes again its blind, brutal consequences.