However, there are people who have been anticipating a moment like this for decades. If we are willing now to listen and learn from post-growth thinkers, the crisis and its aftermath can be a process of adaptation that leaves us more locally resilient, happier, and more connected.
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At this point in human history, the limits of capitalism and the limits of our species’ life on Earth have converged. We have never been here before, and we cannot go back.
The political activism of my youth was largely in solidarity with anti-colonial movements in Africa and Palestine, anti-US imperialist movements and dictatorships in Latin America, and solidarity-building between the labour and other social movements around a broad program of democratic, anti-capitalist reforms. In those struggles, there was always an assumption that social transformation could draw upon the resources of a reasonably intact natural world. No more. Capitalism, patriarchy, and racism now threaten to destroy this world, along with its tenuous civilizational achievements. We are all of us, now, face to face with the kind of ‘deworlding’ that traumatized Indigenous peoples following the arrival of colonizers.
The newest book by Giorgos Kallis, one of the most prolific degrowth advocates is entitled Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. It is a short and accessible read which contains some important and unconventional arguments. In what follows, I will first briefly summarize the core arguments of the book, which promises to provoke important discussions on the matter of limits and subjects. Then I will reflect on the fuzziness of the primarily cultural conceptualization of capitalism, and argue that neither self-limitation nor degrowth qualifies as a mode of production, such that they could constitute an alternative to capitalism.
If nothing else, the last few months have heightened awareness of the desperately parlous predicament that now faces humanity, with an accelerating climate and ecological crisis. So attempts to design assertive policy proposals are very welcome. The Green New Deal is the one that currently is getting the most attention and perhaps traction. So I want to ask some critical questions that generally seem to be ignored in the infectious enthusiasm for the idea. In doing that I’ll also be rehearsing some insights from the degrowth perspective.
On the surface, degrowth sounds like an economics of scarcity, as many on both the right and left have been quick to allege. But in fact exactly the opposite is true.
The mobilization against climate change continues to build, gaining new social layers beyond the initial circles of environmental activists and tending toward a systemic critique of capitalist productivism with its underlying competition for profit. Particularly significant is the fact that young people are joining the struggle. On March 15 more than a million people, a majority of them youth, went on strike for the climate around the world in response to the call by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. The movement is very deep, although at present it is limited to the major countries of the Global North. It reshuffles cards, upsets agendas and puts all the actors — politicians, trade unions, associations, social movements — on notice to answer two fundamental questions:
- Why are you not doing everything possible to limit to the maximum the terrible catastrophe that is growing day by day, and to do so in compliance with democracy and social justice?
- How dare you leave such a mess to your children and grandchildren?
The Green New Deal narrative risks reproducing the hegemonic ideology of capitalist growth, which has created the problem of climate change in the first place.
One of the core claims of degrowth economics is that by restoring public services and expanding the commons, people will be able to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income.
The term degrowth comes from French ecosocialist André Gorz, and until recently was mainly used by European academics. Indigenous movements in Latin America, however, have provided perhaps the best model of a degrowth movement, resisting mining and deforestation projects and building cooperative economies outside the capitalist market.
We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.
These words are from the Greek Poet Giorgos Seferis’ speech at the Nobel Banquet. Today they are more relevant than ever, as humanity fights against a ‘contemporary Sphinx’: the utopian ideal of an infinite growth defined by economic indicators and theories. This Promethean way of living has sustained the idea that increased wealth was the ‘one pill to cure them all.’