Degrowth Promotes The Commons And Focuses On Improving Human Well-being

Roger Annis

The following is a compilation of articles and interviews by Dr. Jason Hickel. He is an anthropologist and author at the University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He serves on the UK Labour Party task force on international development. He is an advocate for global social equality and an advocate of ‘degrowth’ as a solution to the global warming emergency. Jason Hickel’s most recent book is Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions (2017).

This compilation also includes two related supplements–a 2010 article by Victor Wallis in Monthly Review and a 2016 article by Roger Annis.

Why Branko Milanovic is wrong about de-growth

By Jason Hickel, PhD (University of London), published on his website, Nov 19, 2017

Branko Milanovic has written a blog post titled “The illusion of degrowth in a poor and unequal world.” He penned it, he says, following a conversation he had with a proponent of degrowth.

As it turns out, that proponent was me.

First, let me say that I have a lot of respect for Milanovic’s work on inequality. I cite him all the time. But unfortunately, he doesn’t have a strong grasp of degrowth. Let’s look at his argument in detail:

One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute on Earth (Zakir Chowdhury, Barcroft Images)

Milanovic rejects degrowth because he believes it is unfeasible. He notes, correctly, that if we were to cap global GDP at its present level then the only way to eradicate poverty would be through redistribution: reduce the income share of the richest and shift it to the poorest. He thinks this is a terrible idea. If we bring all of the poorest up to $5,500 per person per year (the global mean income), then in order to stay within the GDP cap everyone above this level (almost all of whom live in the West) will have to take an income cut, with the richest taking the biggest hit. This would also require “gradual and sustained reduction of production” in rich nations, with economic activity slashed to one-third of its present size.

Milanovic calls this “the immiseration of the West” and he dismisses it as “not even vaguely likely to find any political support anywhere.” Forget about it, he says; we need growth. Let’s focus instead on reducing our consumption of emissions-intensive goods and services by taxing them, and “think about how new technologies can be harnessed to make the world more environmentally friendly.”

This is exactly the argument that Milanovic articulated during our email exchange. I responded by pointing out some of its problems and by gesturing in the direction of relevant literature he might find useful, but he never replied. Apparently, he had made up his mind and was ready to take a public stance. So let me publicly lay out some thoughts in response.

1.  Degrowth does not call for immiseration

Milanovic’s argument is levelled against a straw man. If he had read the literature on degrowth, he would know that it does not call for immiseration.

Imagine cutting the GDP per capita of the U.S. down to less than half its present size, in real terms. This might sound horrible on the face of it, but it would be equivalent to U.S. GDP per capita in the 1970s. Folks who lived through the 70s remember them as heady days. And the poverty rate was lower back then – and happiness levels higher – than now. Real wages were higher, too. The only difference is that people consumed less unnecessary stuff. It’s not clear why Milanovic considers this to be so dreadful.

There are lots of other examples we might cite. The GDP per capita of Europe is 40% lower than that of the U.S. I live in Europe: it is hardly a dystopia. Costa Rica has a GDP per capita that is one-fifth that of the U.S., but it has life expectancy that outstrips that of Americans, and levels of happiness that rival those of Scandinavians. All of these examples prove that we don’t need ecology-busting levels of income and consumption to live good lives. The literature is very clear on this: just check out Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Firamonti’s Well-Being Economy, Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, or anything by Giorgos Kallis.

2.  In fact, degrowth calls for human flourishing

Proponents of degrowth don’t just want to redistribute income within the already-existing economy, as Milanovic wrongly assumes. We want to redistribute income in a way that improves social goods, like universal healthcare and education, which are key to reducing poverty and improving people’s lives. Not only are universal systems cheaper and more efficient at achieving these outcomes than private ones (healthcare in the UK costs one-third that in the U.S.), but having them in place also improves the “purchasing power” (if you will) of incomes. Think about it: if Americans didn’t have to pay exorbitant prices for healthcare and higher education, they would need a lot less income to live good lives.

In this way, decommoditizing key social goods is a good way to take pressure off the planet. We can even extend this insight to housing. Housing in London, where I live, is obscenely expensive. Most people spend half of their income just to keep a roof over their heads. If the housing stock was even partially decommoditized, Londoners would be able to work much less than they do now – producing less unnecessary stuff in the process – and still have the same quality of life that they presently enjoy.

3.  Degrowth demands a different kind of economy

Of course, all of this requires that we shift to a different kind of economy altogether – one that supports and promotes the commons, and focuses on improving human well-being rather than only on improving monetary incomes. This is where Milanovic makes a key mistake. The point of degrowth is to reduce the material throughput of the economy not by shrinking the existing one (which would surely be painful), but by shifting to a better one: one more in line with our planet’s ecology.

To be honest, I’m surprised that Milanovic didn’t jump on a more obvious issue, namely, that if our economy stopped growing it would more or less immediately bump up against financial crisis. Why? Because our economy is shot through with debt, and debt comes with interest; and because interest is a compound function, all of us have to run around producing more and more each year, shoveling money into the pockets of the rich, just to pay it down. If we halt the rat race, the whole house of cards will collapse. And it doesn’t help that, given fractional reserve banking, our money system itself is based on debt.

So if we want to throw off the tyranny of growth we’ll have to have some kind of debt jubilee, and get rid of our debt-based money system. These necessary changes are not compatible with the logic of the existing economy. We need a different kind of economy.

4.  Trying to eradicate poverty through growth is going to immiserate everyone

Milanovic rejects degrowth and claims that we should stick with the existing plan for eradicating poverty: more growth. But he hasn’t thought through the implications of this.

We need to remember that the existing distribution of global growth is skewed heavily toward the rich. David Woodward points out that even during the most equitable period of the past few decades, only 5% of new income from annual global growth went to the poorest 60% of humanity. At this rate of trickle-down, it will take more than 100 years to get everyone above $1.25 per day, and 207 years to get everyone above $5 per day. And in order to get there we will have to grow the global economy to 175 times its present size.

That’s 175 times more extraction, production and consumption than we’re already doing. And to reach Milanovic’s minimum of $5,500 per year would require much more than this by far. Even if this kind of growth was physically possible, it would cause catastrophic ecological crisis that would more than wipe out any gains made against poverty. Redistribution may not seem feasible to Milanovic, but the existing plan is much less feasible still.

Yes, one might argue that we can improve the share of growth that goes to the poorest. That would be an important first step, to be sure. But as long as the rest of the world continues to grow, increasing aggregate material throughput and emissions, we’re going to be in trouble. In fact, we’re already in trouble even at existing levels of throughput and emissions, and we can see it all around us: rapid deforestation, collapsing fish stocks, mass species extinction, soil depletion and of course climate change, with the poorest getting hit hardest by far.

Milanovic believes we can reign these problems in with more “environmentally friendly” growth. But that’s a pipe dream. And this brings me to my last point:

5.  Green growth is not a thing

Milanovic likes to run numbers, so let’s look at some.

First, emissions. As we know, emissions rise more or less in line with GDP growth. Climate scientists Anderson and Bows (2011) say that if we want to stay under 2C, rich nations will have to reduce emissions by 8-10% per year. Since the dominant assumption in the literature is that reductions greater than 3-4% per year are incompatible with a growing economy (Stern 2006; UK CCC 2008; Hof and Vuuren 2009), they conclude that the only way to prevent catastrophic climate change is by reducing economic activity.

This conclusion is in keeping with that of other studies (e.g., Raftery et al 2017). Keep in mind that the existing rate of decarbonization is only about 1.6% per year. Schandl et al (2016) suggest that some rich nations might be able to bump this up to a maximum of 4.7% per year in the future if they roll out a high and fast-rising carbon price, and somehow manage to double their material efficiency. But even this extreme best-case scenario is a far cry from the 10% we need.

Of course, some think we’ll be able to buy time by deploying new technology, the most “promising” being bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. But there is a growing consensus that BECCS won’t work. The technology has never been proven at scale, and it probably won’t appear in time to prevent us blowing the 2C budget (which is only 19 years away). Even if it did, it would require that we create plantations for biofuel equivalent to three times the size of India. Think about the consequences for the global food supply: hardly good for poverty-reduction.

But let’s be charitable and assume that Milanovic is right – that we can somehow manage to reduce emissions by reducing the consumption of high-emission goods and services. Of course, in order to keep the economy growing, we would still have to increase the consumption of other goods and services. Milanovic sees no problem with this. I don’t know why. Maybe he believes that new technology will make us more efficient, and we will be able to grow the GDP without growing material throughput.

This is known as “absolute decoupling”. But unfortunately, absolute decoupling is not a thing. Take two recent studies:

Ward et al (2016) find that even the most optimistic projections of efficiency improvements yield no absolute decoupling in the medium and long term. The authors state: “this result is a robust rebuttal to the claim of absolute decoupling”; “decoupling of GDP growth from resource use, whether relative or absolute, is at best only temporary. Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is impossible… because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits.”

Schandl et al (2016) find the same thing. Even in their best-case scenario projection, global material consumption still grows steadily. The authors conclude: “Our research shows that while some relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.”

*  *  *

I laid all this evidence out for Milanovic, but he didn’t engage with it. Instead, he chooses to believe, against all available evidence, that we can continue with indefinite exponential GDP growth without causing ecological collapse.

Milanovic accuses us – incorrectly – of wanting “the immiseration of the West” in order to eradicate poverty in the global South. But his blind faith in growth, and his implicit denial of scientific evidence, is sure to lead to ecological collapse – entrenching the misery of the poor and immiserating the rest of us in the process.

* Note: Milanovic responded to this post insisting that degrowth is not politically feasible. But I disagree: people are ready for a new economy. See my argument here.

Are you ready to consider that capitalism is the real problem?

By Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk, published in Fast Company, July 11, 2017

Before you say no, take a moment to really ask yourself whether it’s the system that’s best suited to build our future society.

In February, college sophomore Trevor Hill stood up during a televised town hall meeting in New York and posed a simple question to Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. He cited a study by Harvard University showing that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism and asked whether the Democrats could embrace this fast-changing reality and stake out a clearer contrast to right-wing economics.

Pelosi was visibly taken aback. “I thank you for your question,” she said, “but I’m sorry to say we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.”

The footage went viral. It was powerful because of the clear contrast it set up. Trevor Hill is no hardened left-winger. He’s just your average millennial—bright, informed, curious about the world, and eager to imagine a better one. But Pelosi, a figurehead of establishment politics, refused to–or was just unable to–entertain his challenge to the status quo.

There’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital. It’s not only young voters who feel this way. A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 64% of Britons believe that capitalism is unfair, that it makes inequality worse. Even in the U.S. it’s as high as 55%. In Germany, a solid 77% are skeptical of capitalism. Meanwhile, a full three-quarters of people in major capitalist economies believe that big businesses are basically corrupt.

Why do people feel this way? Probably not because they deny the abundant material benefits of modern life that many are able to enjoy. Or because they want to travel back in time and live in the USSR. It’s because they realize—either consciously or at some gut level—that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on.

Because let’s be clear: That’s what capitalism is, at its root. That is the sum total of the plan. We can see this embodied in the imperative to grow GDP, everywhere, year on year, at a compound rate, even though we know that GDP growth, on its own, does nothing to reduce poverty or to make people happier or healthier. Global GDP has grown 630% since 1980, and in that same time, by some measures, inequality, poverty, and hunger have all risen.

Gains are seen as the natural property of the investor class. We also see this plan in the idea that corporations have a fiduciary duty to grow their stock value for the sake of shareholder returns, which prevents even well-meaning CEO’s from voluntarily doing anything good—like increasing wages or reducing pollution—that might compromise their bottom line.

Just look at the recent case involving American Airlines. Earlier this year, CEO Doug Parker tried to raise his employees’ salaries to correct for “years of incredibly difficult times” suffered by his employees, only to be slapped down by Wall Street. The day he announced the raise, the company’s shares fell 5.8%. This is not a case of an industry on the brink, fighting for survival, and needing to make hard decisions. On the contrary, airlines have been raking in profits. But the gains are seen as the natural property of the investor class. This is why JP Morgan criticized the wage increase as a  “wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion” to workers. How dare they?

What becomes clear here is that ours is a system that is programmed to subordinate life to the imperative of profit.

For a startling example of this, consider the horrifying idea to breed brainless chickens and grow them in huge vertical farms, Matrix-style, attached to tubes and electrodes and stacked one on top of the other, all for the sake of extracting profit out of their bodies as efficiently as possible. Or take the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, where dozens of people were incinerated because the building company chose to use flammable panels in order to save a paltry £5,000 (around $6,500). Over and over again, profit trumps life.

It all proceeds from the same deep logic. It’s the same logic that sold lives for profit in the Atlantic slave trade, it’s the logic that gives us sweatshops and oil spills, and it’s the logic that is right now pushing us headlong toward ecological collapse and climate change.

Millennials can see that capitalism isn’t working for the majority of humanity, and they’re ready to invent something better. Once we realize this, we can start connecting the dots between our different struggles. There are people in the U.S. fighting against the Keystone pipeline. There are people in Britain fighting against the privatization of the National Health Service. There are people in India fighting against corporate land grabs. There are people in Brazil fighting against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. There are people in China fighting against poverty wages. These are all noble and important movements in their own right. But by focusing on all these symptoms we risk missing the underlying cause. And the cause is capitalism. It’s time to name the thing.

What’s so exciting about our present moment is that people are starting to do exactly that. And they are hungry for something different. For some, this means socialism. That YouGov poll showed that Americans under the age of 30 tend to have a more favorable view of socialism than they do of capitalism, which is surprising given the sheer scale of the propaganda out there designed to convince people that socialism is evil. But millennials aren’t bogged down by these dusty old binaries. For them the matter is simple: They can see that capitalism isn’t working for the majority of humanity, and they’re ready to invent something better.

What might a better world look like? There are a million ideas out there. We can start by changing how we understand and measure progress. As Robert Kennedy famously said, GDP “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play . . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

We can change that. People want health care and education to be social goods, not market commodities, so we can choose to put public goods back in public hands. People want the fruits of production and the yields of our generous planet to benefit everyone, rather than being siphoned up by the super-rich, so we can change tax laws and introduce potentially transformative measures like a universal basic income. People want to live in balance with the environment on which we all depend for our survival; so we can adopt regenerative agricultural solutions and even choose, as Ecuador did in 2008, to recognize in law, at the level of the nation’s constitution, that nature has “the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.”

Measures like these could dethrone capitalism’s prime directive and replace it with a more balanced logic, that recognizes the many factors required for a healthy and thriving civilization. If done systematically enough, they could consign one-dimensional capitalism to the dustbin of history.

None of this is actually radical. Our leaders will tell us that these ideas are not feasible, but what is not feasible is the assumption that we can carry on with the status quo. If we keep pounding on the wedge of inequality and chewing through our living planet, the whole thing is going to implode. The choice is stark, and it seems people are waking up to it in large numbers: Either we evolve into a future beyond capitalism, or we won’t have a future at all

Related reading:
Time for degrowth: to save the planet, we must shrink the economyby Jason Hickel, published in The ConversationAug 23, 2016

‘Inequality is killing us all. Are we going to stop it?’, interview by Russel Brand with Jason Hickelbroadcast on Russell Brand’s podcast program ‘Under The Skin’, #24, Aug 24, 2017  (60 minute interview)

‘Author and anthropologist Jason Hickel joins me to explain how a handful of rich countries have been able to control economic policies in the rest of the world; why we’re being lied to about poverty; and the radical revolution required to stop the global inequality machine.’

Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, by Jason Hickel, published by Penguin /Random House (2017)

From the website of Jason Hickel:

We have been told that development is working: that the global South is catching up to the North, that poverty has been cut in half over the past 30 years and will be eradicated by 2030. It’s a comforting tale, and one that is endorsed by the world’s most powerful governments and corporations. But is it true?

Since 1960, the income gap between the North and South has roughly tripled in size. Today, 4.3 billion people–60 per cent of the world’s population–live on less than $5 per day. Some one billion live on less than $1 a day. The richest eight people now control the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world combined. What is causing this growing divide? We are told that poverty is a natural phenomenon that can be fixed with aid. But in reality it is a political problem: poverty doesn’t just exist, it has been created.

Poor countries are poor because they are integrated into the global economic system on unequal terms. Aid only works to hide the deep patterns of wealth extraction that cause poverty and inequality in the first place: rigged trade deals, tax evasion, land grabs and the costs associated with climate change. The Divide tracks the evolution of this system, from the expeditions of Christopher Columbus in the 1490s to the international debt regime, which has allowed a handful of rich countries to effectively control economic policies in the rest of the world.

Because poverty is a political problem, it requires political solutions. The Divide offers a range of revelatory answers, but also explains that something much more radical is needed – a revolution in our way of thinking. Drawing on pioneering research, detailed analysis and years of first-hand experience, The Divide is a provocative, urgent and ultimately uplifting account of how the world works, and how it can change.

On Twitter:
Jason Hickel on July 8, 2017: ‘Capitalists and communists only disagree about how to distribute the plunder of a ravaged earth.’
Two replies by Twitter followers:
1. ‘Eco-marxists diagnose the causes of that plunder–Fidel Castro, Raymond Williams, Andre Gorz, John Bellamy Foster among others’.
2. ‘Funny because the capitalists are the ones that have destroyed earth not communists.’

Two supplements:

Beyond ‘green capitalism’

By Victor Wallis, published in Monthly Review, Vol 61, #9 (February 2010)


… The politics of reduced energy consumption

The ecological movement, as it has so far developed, has not yet been able to mount a socially persuasive agenda for reducing energy consumption on a large scale. Broadly speaking, critique of the capitalist growth model has advanced along two paths, which, although complementary in their ultimate thrust, have tended to clash politically. On the one hand has been the tradition identifiable with the “small is beautiful” slogan, associated with localism, ruralism, and (in varying degrees) rejection of “industrial society.” This tradition understands the danger of growth but tends to link it with the general condition of modernity, including modern technology, population increase, and urbanization.12 On the other hand is the socialist tradition, which, drawing on Marx, sees growth not in terms of human evolution as such, but rather in terms of the specific drives unleashed by capital. In its political expression, however, this tradition has been associated with revolutionary regimes arising in countries of widespread poverty, where the top priority appeared to be a form of “socialist growth.” As a result of this association—buttressed by real or ascribed failings of the regimes in question—critics of growth tended also to become critics of socialism, which they saw as sharing the major negative traits of capitalism. Conversely, those who felt the urgency of emerging from poverty rejected the anti-growth posture, viewing it as an ideological expression of sectors whose needs were already satisfied, and who would unfairly deny similar satisfaction to others.

A theoretical resolution to this antagonism already exists. It is implicit in Marx’s dual focus on nature and humans as sources/creators of wealth and as objects of capitalist depredation. The link has been discussed in depth by, among others, writers such as Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster, Joel Kovel, and Richard Levins. Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology, in particular, refutes the productivist stereotype of Marx’s thinking, and Levins has presented a concise yet wide-ranging refutation of developmentalist assumptions, informed by a blend of dialectical thought, biological expertise, and farming experience.13 Reading this literature, one can see implicit in the Marxist critique of capital a call for undoing high-tech agriculture, restoring biodiversity, drastically reducing the volume of long-distance trade, and generally bringing technology under social or community control. These are the same goals enunciated by zero-growth activists (who stress lifestyle choices and local actions over challenges to state power), but the realization of those goals is, for Marxists, clearly linked with class struggle. The basis for this link is simply that without successful class struggle the major vectors determining trade patterns and technological development will continue to be those of the capitalist market.

There is thus a clear theoretical symbiosis between ecological thinking and the anti-capitalist critique. Two major strands of radical activism are thereby poised to function as one, in the sense that the ecological movement, in seeking to override market dictates, is at its core anti-capitalist, while the critique of capitalism is, in its rejection of the growth/accumulation imperative, inherently ecological.14 The resultant socialist ecology or ecological socialism constitutes a full-blown alternative to the dominant ideology. Its political potential, moreover, should be greatly enhanced by the 2008 financial collapse, which showed the hollowness of capitalist “prosperity.” Yet there remain huge obstacles to popular recognition of the link between ecology and socialism, and hence to popular support for an agenda of collectively planned, society-wide reduction in energy use. What are these obstacles, and how can they be overcome?…

Related footnotes:
12.  An influential expression of this tradition is Herman E. Daly and Jonathan B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994); see also Clive Ponting. A New Green History of the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).
13.  John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); Yrjö Haila and Richard Levins, Humanity and Nature (London: Pluto Press, 1992), chapter 5 (“Agricultural Ecology”).
14.  Victor Wallis, “Toward Ecological Socialism,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 12, no. 1 (March 2001), 132-33; see also Michael Löwy, “Eco-Socialism and Democratic Planning,” Socialist Register 2007 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).

Welcome to The Anthropocene: Are environmentalists equipped to respond?

By Roger Annis, Sept 14, 2016

… The findings and recommendations of the Working Group on the Anthropocene should serve as a giant wakeup call to human society. They signal that the changes to the Earth’s biosphere by human industrial activity are alarming and a threat to the very existence of the human species as we know it.

The findings should set in motion emergency measures to reverse society’s suicidal march of destruction–despoliation of the air, waters, forests and soils; and global carbon emissions causing rising global temperatures, ocean levels and ocean acidification. But that will not happen because the world’s economy is dominated by the capitalist mode of production, which is the source of the crisis in the first place…

Read the full article at the original weblink above.