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The Politics of Degrowth

Gareth Dale

Finally, degrowthers recognize that the most fundamental human need is for a habitable planet. They are more sober, more clear-eyed than most on the Left in recognizing that facing up to the multiple environmental crises will require much more than nationalization of the energy sector and investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs). It requires an extreme reduction in energy use and material throughput, at least in the rich world, a reduction that, while focused on the highest energy users, will affect working people, too, above all in consumption of such goods as flights and beef. Their pitch is that a world of “public luxury and private sufficiency,” with greater equality and democracy, less hierarchy, and much more free time, would enable the quality of life for the masses to improve immeasurably, even if some consumer goods disappear from the menu. The technocratic myth is that decarbonization must center on the invention and deployment of new technologies. … [T]hey lull us into the belief that new tech can simply be scaled up and plugged in. It’s a state of mind that reflects our own condition of alienation.

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One can find some perverse inspiration in the wartime United States. “Perverse” in that any serious degrowth or eco-socialist program must be anti-militaristic. I’m thinking, rather, on the lines that Mike Davis lays out in his essay “Home-Front Ecology.” Davis recounts how U.S. daily life was transformed during the Second World War. Cars were ditched for bicycles, people tore up concrete in their yards and planted vegetables. Nowadays you could imagine agro-ecology transforming the suburbs. The U.S. lawn, for example. At present, it’s a monoculture kept lifeless by herbicides and pesticides. Instead, garden it, allow life to thrive, plant fruit trees and flowers, and in the process we’ll transform our relationship to nature. More labor would be required, but a great deal of food would be produced—and locally, without the need for transport, preservatives, and so on. This requires less “technology,” in the usual sense of the term.

High-tech firms like Bayer—the producer of Roundup—would see profits dive. But it would develop what Marxists call the “productive forces.” These center not on “technology” per se, but on human knowledge and capacities. Scale up the example of the suburban lawn and we can imagine industrial agriculture replaced by agroecology and agroforestry, a transformation that would dramatically mitigate climate change, increase the supply, diversity and resilience of crops, and in general begin to overcome the “antithesis between town and country.” Books such as Braiding Sweetgrass are full of suggestions as to how our relationship to the natural world could be revolutionized.