Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth"
I very much enjoyed Giorgos Kallis's GTI essay on "The Degrowth Alternative" and commend it for providing an informative introduction to the concept as an intellectual idea as well as to the way that it is informing certain areas of policy practice. I have three more or less discrete points to make in response.
First, I have long found it striking—and Kallis’ essay reminded me of this fact—that those of us who work primarily in the English language face a major obstacle in envisioning alternative futures. This situation is clearly demonstrated in discussions about degrowth where the very point of departure is an inelegant interpretation of the French word décroissance. And it gets worse with the importation of terminology like dépense (French for "financial outlay" but often used colloquially to suggest "unproductive expenditure"), ubuntu (Nguni Bantu word meaning "human kindness"), and buen vivir (a Spanish expression that is much more evocative than its English near-equivalents, "good life" and "good living"). Linguists call these terms loanwords, and they have become essential to the English language discourse which has required still further enlivening through the invention of phrasing such as "illth" (conceived by ecological economist Herman Daly) and "communing" (coined by historian Peter Linebaugh).
What might we construe from these etymological twists? Language mirrors the predominant system of societal organization, and as neoliberal economics (and politics) has seeped further and further into our collective consciousness, we—and especially those of us in the English-speaking world—have lost our ability to communicate proficiently about a world without growth. If we struggle to find the vocabulary, how can we express ourselves so others will comprehend? Such circumstances, it seems to me, evoke our deeply impoverished state of affairs. Even the words that we do have at our disposal to describe conditions of sufficiency—frugality, prudence, thrift, parsimony—have become so toxic in popular usage that careful scholars set them to the side.
Second, while I acknowledge that the notion of degrowth is, as Kallis says, "not synonymous with recession or depression," proponents of the concept could be more assertive in tackling the actual challenges of presently contracting economies. Such engagement would help to bring degrowthist thinkers into closer debate with mainstream macroeconomics. And there is, as any reader of the daily news will realize, no shortage of useful cases. The Japanese economy has been ebbing now for more than a generation. Significant parts of Europe have again tipped into "negative growth" (itself a quite curious expression), and countries like Russia and Argentina are reliable examples to consider. While I fully understand that degrowth (in its unadulterated form) suggests a process of purposefully planned contraction, we are unlikely to encounter such a situation given current growthist commitments. This recommendation suggests a need for greater pragmatism among members of the degrowth research community.
Finally, for all of its talk about system transformation, my reading of the work on degrowth finds it to be insufficiently systemic. Degrowth cannot be simply about the activation and veneration of small-scale experiments, as useful as they may be as proof of concept through practical demonstration. In the contemporary reductionistic world, few people understand the interconnections among, say, the energy subsystem, the financial subsystem, and the agricultural subsystem, but in actual practice all of these spheres are tightly coupled. It is futile to talk about establishing, for instance, 100% reserve requirements for banks without working through the impacts that such a move would have on other subsystems (and how they would respond in kind). Most conventional academics can perpetuate this conceit because they rarely step out of their siloed disciplinary neighborhoods, but visionary thinkers focused on system change of vast socio-technical systems—as I presume is the case for the vast majority of degrowthists—need to be better on this score.