In Defence of Degrowth—A Comment
The concept of ‘degrowth’ is politically infeasible, according to a recent article by Branko Milanović. In this blog, Simon Mair argues that ‘degrowth’ is no less unrealistic than the alternatives.
Degrowth is naïve, the narrative goes, idealistic and unrealistic. Whether a post-growth economy would be desirable or not is beside the point. That isn’t how the world works. It won’t happen.—In the words of Branko Milanović, Degrowth is “is not the way to go”, because it is not “even vaguely likely to find any political support anywhere”.
Milanović and the other critics are wrong. Degrowth and post-growth economics is on the political margins. But it’s no less politically feasible and no less realistic than the alternatives.
First let’s establish some context. We all agree that avoiding ecological catastrophe is A Good Thing. We also agree that to do this we have to drastically reduce the environmental impact of human society. We can also agree that this will involve at least some reduction in consumption. Pro-growthers and de-growthers alike want to reduce the most emission-intensive goods and services. Degrowthers just take this a bit further. If you don’t agree with these points, this post probably isn’t for you.
Terms of debate set, let’s turn to the issue at hand: political feasibility. It’s true that reducing consumption is probably not a vote winner. And degrowth does mean reducing consumption. But so do the alternatives. Take Milanović as an example of a pro-growth alternative. Instead of reducing consumption in in the aggregate, we just have to reduce consumption of key highly environmentally damaging goods and services. The usual examples, and the ones Milanović cites, are air travel and meat. When did reducing meat consumption and flights become politically feasible? Why anyone thinks it should be easier to reduce consumption of these goods than others, I don’t know.
In a response piece to Milanović’s post on degrowth Jason Hickel points out that global growth as a route out of poverty will lead to ecological collapse. Milanović says that the rich (i.e. me and you, if you’re reading this in a wealthy country) will never vote to reduce their consumption. So they should be able to keep consuming at least at this level while the poor continue to grow their consumption up to this level. As Hickel points out, this means increasing global extraction and emissions to a level 175 times that of today. This would cause an ecological catastrophe plunging everyone into poverty.
The case gets trickier if we take a look at a slightly bigger list of the most environmentally damaging goods. One comprehensive list, produced by Arnold Tukker and collegaues (PDF), includes not only meat, but also milk and cheese. Other items are car use; telephone and communication services; restaurants and bars; clothing; refrigerators, freezers and other household appliances. Under both a degrowth scenario and a pro-growth high carbon taxation program people will have to stop buying and using these goods. What is it about the latter that suddenly makes going out less, and not having a fridge politically palatable?
The only functional difference between the two proposals, is that under the pro-growth scenario you can switch your environmentally damaging consumption for something else. There are two issues with this. The first is that every item of consumption has an environmental impact. Imagine that we don’t just reduce the most environmentally damaging forms of consumption, but also increase our consumption of less environmentally damaging goods. What happens is that we don’t get all the environmental savings we would have had if we’d just reduced consumption. All the new things we’ve bought also damage the environment, just a bit less than the stuff we didn’t buy. This is called the rebound effect. The upshot is that we now have to make even deeper cuts to the most environmentally damaging forms of consumption. In short, switching consumption from one thing to another makes it harder to avoid ecological crisis than reducing consumption alone. What’s more, we can only cut the most environmentally damaging types of consumption so far. After all, we all have to eat.
The second issue is one of political reality: switching consumption patterns is just as hard as reducing consumption. Key to the pro-growth argument is that we want stuff, as evidenced by the fact that we’re all out there buying it. It is true that less environmentally damaging patterns of consumption are possible. But these typically involve buying less ‘stuff’. Switching most of your consumption to art or to care services probably gives you less of an environmental impact than spending all your money on ‘stuff’. It probably also has social benefits. But it isn’t politically easy. To paraphrase Milanović: people aren’t getting up at 4 in the morning to line up in front of Walmart’s and engage in fistfights so that they can buy higher quality personal care services.
From where I’m standing, the alternatives to degrowth don’t look much more politically realistic than degrowth. And they look a lot less realistic in terms of avoiding environmental collapse.