The Degrowth Alternative

Care can become the hallmark of an economy based on reproduction, rather than expansion. Reproduction refers to the activities that sustain the life cycle, typically within the family. But more generally, it encompasses all processes of sustenance and restoration. In the present economy, care work remains gendered, undervalued, and pushed into the shadow of the formal economy. Degrowth calls for the equal distribution of care work and the re-centering of society around it. A caring economy is labor-intensive precisely because human labor is what gives care its value. It thus has the potential to offset rising unemployment today while fostering a more humane society.

Dépense refers to the unproductive expenditure of the social surplus. How civilizations allocate their surplus, the expenditures they make above and beyond what is necessary to meet basic human needs, gives them their collective character. The Egyptians devoted their surplus to pyramids, the Tibetans to an idle class of monks, and the Europeans of the Middle Ages to churches. In today’s capitalist civilization, as the surplus is accumulated and invested to produce more growth, dépense is displaced to privatized acts of exuberant consumption. Since limiting excessive consumption alone would fuel even more saving and investment, degrowth envisions radically reducing the surplus and deploying it for a festive society in which citizens devise new, non-harmful ways to dispense it, ways that help build community and collective meaning.

The Degrowth Imperative

There is a substantial body of evidence that demonstrates how growth threatens both environmental and social well-being.7 Continued economic growth makes us more likely to exceed the safe operating space defined by planetary boundaries, making life harder for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. Although “green growth" has become a buzzword in recent years, it remains an oxymoron. Its emphasis on enhanced efficiency creates a paradox: decreased resource requirements lead to lower costs and - by the simple workings of supply and demand - a rebound in the consumption of resources.8 This is part of the fundamental dynamic of capitalism: increasing productivity frees up resources that are invested to provide yet more growth.

Continued economic growth in wealthy nations is also proving inimical to well-being. As Herman Daly observed, “illth" (congestion, crime, and other undesirable side effects) increases as fast as, or faster than, wealth as measured by GDP.9 Redistribution, not growth, is what improves well-being in affluent nations. Moreover, despite significant economic growth, people in the United States and most countries of the West are at best only marginally happier than they were in the 1950s. The wealthy are happier than the poor, but wealth, in the aggregate, does not translate into a higher average level of happiness because aspirations also increase and comparisons intensify with higher standards of living. Growth can never quench the desire for positional goods; only redistribution and new values can.

What about those in poor nations who have yet to see the benefits of growth? Degrowth in the Global North can provide ecological space for the Global South. For example, strong carbon caps for the North and better terms of trade for the South can help compensate for past carbon and resource debts, redistributing wealth between North and South. Economic growth in the South, moreover, threatens alternative, non-monetized means of livelihood, generating the poverty that, in turn, makes more growth “necessary." Degrowth in the North, then, can provide space for the flourishing of alternative cosmovisions and practices in the South, such as buen vivir in Latin America or ubuntu in Africa. These are alternatives to development, not alternative forms of development.

Seeds of a Degrowth Transition

Degrowth alternatives have begun to flourish as the formal economy has fallen into crisis. These include food production in urban gardens; co-housing and ecocommunes; alternative food networks, producer-consumer cooperatives, and communal kitchens; health care, elder care, and child care cooperatives; open software; and decentralized forms of renewable energy production and distribution. These alternatives are often accompanied, or even supported, by new forms of exchange such as community currencies, barter markets, time banks, financial cooperatives, and ethical banks.10

Such projects display various facets of degrowth. They promote a shift to a more locally based economy with short production and consumption cycles. They emphasize reproduction and caring, to satisfy use values, not profits. They replace wage labor with voluntary activity. They do not have a built-in tendency to accumulate and expand, and they are less resource-intensive than their counterparts in the formal economy. Such practices of “commoning" cultivate solidarity and humane interpersonal relations, and generate shared, non-monetary wealth.

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Disclosure: This article appeared on Great Transition ...

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