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Degrowth and the monkey’s paw

Degrowth and the monkey’s paw

2023-05-17 15:58:47

Notes on Progress are items which are a bit too brief to run on Works in Progress. You possibly can decide out of Notes here.

Fifteen years in the past, after I labored within the “social innovation” subject, there was a world-view that was extremely popular amongst my colleagues about what was fallacious with society and tips on how to repair it.

The thought was that folks and governments wanted to cease seeing financial progress as an excellent factor, and that by doing so, we might construct a world that paid extra consideration to necessary issues like environmental sustainability and happiness. By the later 2000s, this view appeared properly established amongst British progressives, with help from stories by think-tanks just like the New Economics Basis that fleshed out a imaginative and prescient of a “Great Transition” and the way “Growth Isn’t Possible”, and books like Tim Jackson’s best-selling Prosperity Without Growth.

There have been a number of distinct flavours of the degrowth imaginative and prescient. There have been the optimistic pragmatists who thought we might sort things via sensible initiatives like teaching schoolkids meditation and measuring Gross National Happiness. On the heavier finish, there have been the cool however barely scary Dark Mountain guys, who thought the apocalypse was inevitable and that the most effective we might hope for was to domesticate a way of equanimity whereas the world burned.

However everybody appeared to agree that financial progress wanted to take a again seat, and that because the pursuit of GDP receded, it will make house for nobler issues, like environmentalism and self-actualisation.

The opposite factor everybody tacitly agreed on is that this imaginative and prescient can be good for the left in a broad sense, that it was “progressive”, and that individuals who opposed it had a foul Tory vibe. Even the precise Tories appeared to agree—to the extent that the Cameroons embraced this agenda (hugging huskies and instructing the Office for National Statistics to measure wellbeing), it was clear to everybody that this was a break from their conventional picture.

So, a decade and a half later, how has this imaginative and prescient panned out?

Properly, the “abandoning financial progress” bit has gone surprisingly properly. When you’re within the UK, you’re most likely acquainted with the ONS’s statistics displaying what has occurred to productiveness—the UK’s output per hour labored—because the late 2000s. They make grim studying for economists, with progress near zero, and much under the pre-2008 pattern.

However from a degrowth perspective, this appears to be like like a hit story. When you flip the graph the other way up, they really present that the UK has been remarkably profitable in weaning itself off its progress dependancy. I’m stunned that supporters of degrowth don’t have fun these charts extra.

What they definitely don’t present is a rustic hooked on progress in any respect prices, a cost you typically hear levelled at Britain.

However progressive supporters of degrowth would little question argue that the remainder of their agenda has not been delivered. They argue that the UK’s financial system nonetheless produces an unsustainable amount of carbon and consumes an unsustainable quantity of resources. The financial system appears to be doing a good much less passable job at assembly individuals’s wants, with stagnant wage progress and housing dramatically much less inexpensive. And the cultural local weather of the UK has developed in ways in which degrowth advocates typically dislike, from an increase in anti-immigration politics to the virulence of the so-called tradition wars—and naturally, Brexit, which the progressive growth-sceptics I do know principally opposed.

For essentially the most half, they blame these unhealthy issues on the forces of financial progress. Our financial system remains to be soiled and wages are low as a result of capitalists are hooked on the pursuit of ever-increasing earnings. Housing is dear due to gentrification and financialisation, each of which they affiliate with the pursuit of financial progress. And the culture wars are a psy-op, a confected motion created by capitalist villains like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers to distract voters from their (unhealthy, pro-growth) financial machinations. The implication is that we simply have to push even tougher towards the forces of financial progress, and the imaginative and prescient of a greener, nicer world can be realised.

However I can’t assist considering that there’s a distinct rationalization for what has occurred. Maybe, when my buddies wished for degrowth and thought it will result in environmentalism and to a concentrate on what actually issues, they had been right—simply not in precisely the way in which they anticipated. Maybe their want was granted, however the Monkey’s Paw twitched.


Take the atmosphere. The UK financial system has been getting greener since 2008, however, it appears, not fast enough to meet its targets. So why is it arduous to decarbonise our vitality methods? The principles towards wind generators and photo voltaic farms weren’t lobbied for by top-hatted capitalists, however by campaigners who consider themselves as protectors of England’s inexperienced and nice land: not BP and Shell, however the CPRE and the RSPB and numerous native teams, and politicians in search of to accommodate them.

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The spine of those teams is basically comfortably-off individuals who don’t have any determined want for financial progress, and who sincerely consider they’re defending nature and the atmosphere. For many individuals, “the atmosphere” is much less about ppm of atmospheric carbon and extra concerning the view after they stroll their canine; that is in spite of everything, a venerable environmental custom stretching again to William Morris and past. They’re pursuing what they see as a simply environmental trigger, and so they don’t thoughts if it reduces progress—it simply so occurs that this specific flavour of environmentalism will increase slightly than reduces carbon emissions.

The identical logic performs out in relation to housing. When you settle for the argument that Britain’s excessive housing prices have something to do with our inability to build enough new housing to meet demand, you need to reckon with the truth that opposition to new constructing comes from individuals who for essentially the most half declare to face for safeguarding communities, defending the countryside, and opposing “company greed”. It’s exactly the type of altruistic social motion you’ll anticipate to see in a post-growth society—it’s simply that it exacerbates a significant social downside and, almost definitely, is a major driver of inequality.

These traits appear to have been on show within the latest native election outcomes, the place we’ve seen exceptional wins by the Inexperienced Get together not in stylish bohemian cities, however in rural areas (like Mid Suffolk the place they took management of the native council) in no small half by opposing housing development

After which there are the tradition wars, the limitless combating over “wokeness”, Brexit, and a complete host of social justice points. I’m typically sceptical of the declare that these debates are confected by the media, or by another malign elite actors: informal empiricism means that vital teams of individuals actually do care about these points, and sincerely disagree about issues they assume are necessary. If that is true, it appears to me that intense tradition wars are precisely what you’d anticipate in a post-growth world, by which individuals focus much less on the pursuit of fabric issues and extra on tradition, group and what issues to them.

It’s simply that folks don’t agree with one another on what issues to them: for some individuals, what actually issues could be nationhood and sovereignty, or conventional gender roles, or being surrounded by individuals of the identical group and ethnicity, simply as for different individuals what issues may embrace range, inclusion and social justice. By this logic, the tradition wars aren’t a pretend phenomenon made up by growth-oriented media moguls to distract individuals from the damaging penalties of financial progress, they’re totally earnest, and the predictable results of individuals having much more psychological bandwidth to fret about “what actually issues”.

Because the final pagan Roman emperor lay dying, considering the demise of the previous gods and the top of the traditional world, he’s presupposed to have uttered the phrases vicisti, Galilaee—“you’ve gained, Galilean”. Maybe we should always acknowledge that the advocates of degrowth have gained, at the least in the interim, and the world we see round us is—maybe inadvertently—a world of their making.

Stian Westlake is Chief Govt of the Royal Statistical Society, and co-author of ‘Capitalism Without Capital‘ and ‘Restarting the Future‘. When you loved this piece, please share it!


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