Degrowth: Such a Bad Deal

Published: 2023-09-25
Tagged: essay coordination

The Degrowth movement is based on the idea that humans are using up Earth's resources so fast that catastrophe is inevitable. Its members blame modern economic theory, which relies on indicators of material wealth, to guide government policy. What we should do instread, they argue, is base those policies on measures of environmental and human well-being, as it's the only way to save both our species and the planet.

The whole thing fills me with dread. Two years ago I took a stab at putting that into words and wrote that Degrowth can only be implemented through central planning--an approach that so far has always led to massive suffering. In my mind, Degrowth is basically greenwashed totalitarianism.

But that's a serious charge to level at anything. What if I had misunderstood it? That wouldn't just be sloppy thinking on my part. It would also be kind of a jerk thing to do.

So. Is Degrowth advocating for totalitarianism?

My first impulse was to read some texts produced by the movement to see if I can find signs of illiberal thinking. But before I could start down this path, I realized my mistake: I'm sure there's a wide variety of people writing under the same umbrella, so it wouldn't be hard to find just the right essays to "prove" that Degrowth is bad. Sampling texts randomly would help with this, but then I would face another challenge--no totalitarian ideology labels itself as such. It always pretends to be noble and often paints itself as a shield against some (often imagined) evil. Would I be able to read between the lines and avoid seeing patterns where non exist? As much as I'd like to, I'm not sure.

What makes this question difficult is that it focuses on judging means, which are legion--and mostly speculative at that. But if, instead, we make the question about ends, we get a smaller, simpler one: can Degrowth be implemented within the framework of liberal democracy?

My gut tells me the answer is "yes."

We have the tools to do it. We actually used them just recently to slow down and even reverse inflation. And if our aim was Degrowth, we could simply apply them longer and harder, gradually cooling down the economy. Ultimately, we would reduce resource consumption and extraction.

An alternative approach would be to study what stagnating economies are doing and implement that at home. We of course aren't interested in illiberal states like Venezuela. That would defeat the purpose of our inquiry. (Un)luckily, we have examples of liberal democracies like the United Kingdom, where growth in terms of GDP and productivity has leveled out since 2008. Researchers still contest the exact reasons, but the most probable sounding one is that politics have made it near impossible to build anything, especially housing, leading to soaring costs of living, which than translate to increased costs of absolutely everything else.

Implement such policies wouldn't be easy. They're guaranteed to be unpopular because everything would get more expensive and scarce. And I'm not talking just about coffee or vacation, but also about things like food, education, and health care.

I can think of two ways around the problem: offset the shrinking quality of life by offering government-sponsored services; or introduce the policies a prolonged period of time.

In the first case, we could offer things like shorter work weeks, more time off, government-supplied health care, and maybe even universal basic income. But the problem here is how to find resources for such programs--especially when your economy is getting smaller and tax revenues are dropping. The tempting answer is: redistribution. I'm not sure that would work. For one, I don't think nationalizing the wealth of the wealthy would be enough to provide for us all. Worse, it's a one-shot deal--a Degrowth economy probably can't produce new millionaires.

But even if we find enough resources, and do so without crossing a line with nationalization or super-high taxes, we will then face the problem of speed.

Consider that the faster you implement Degrowth policies, the worse the shock to ordinary people, and the more likely they will be to turn against your government. But the slower you go, the smaller your chance of success is! After all, even moderate climate models predict that temperatures will rise to dangerous levels within just three or four decades.

It's this pragmatic problem that makes Degrowth incompatible with liberal decmoracy. There's simply no way to execute on its goals within the critical time frame without resorting to top-down control of the whole population.

But wouldn't it be ok to sacrifice a little freedom to ensure our survival? After all, what good is liberal democracy when we're all dead--boiled alive in a heatwave or drowned by the semi-weekly tsunami?

But perhaps the choice isn't so black and white.

For one, the future is unpredictable. We should always be suspicious of anyone professing to know it with any certainty. Looking at just the last few decades, our ozone layer was supposed to disappear, we were supposed to run out of oil, and wild population growth was supposed to lead to widespread famine. All of these predictions had decent scientific backing and generated a tremendous amount of emotion and dialogue. And yet none of them materialized.

Today, the ozone layer is growing back thanks to scientific knowledge and political, both of which are crossing international and generational boundaries. As for oil, we've engineered not just new ways to find more of it, but also ingenious technology to use it more efficiently--or switch to cleaner energy altogether: quality electric vehicles (hehe) have become a commonly available consumer good! Moreover, we're deploying solar power faster than humanity has ever deployed anything before!

Well, what about population growth and famine? Let's take a slightly longer detour to appreciate something amazing.

In 1968, two Stanford researchers published The Population Bomb, which predicted that, in the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will die of hunger because we were making babies faster than we could make food. Little did the authors know that an agronomist from Iowa funded by old oil money would ruin their predictions.

Norman Ernest Borlaug, funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, had been working in Mexico since the 40's on increasing wheat yields in arid climates. That work translated into making Mexico a net exporter of wheat by 1963. In that same year, Borlaug was sent to India, where his work shortly produced so much wheat that there weren't enough bags, trucks, and rail cars to handle it. That work, in turn, inspired other researchers to find more resistant and richer strains of rice, with similarly incredible effects throughout Asia.

(According to a 1997 article titled "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity", Borlaug's work may have saved over a billion lives--however, environmentalists are upset with him because that involved using artifical fertilizer and replacing native crops with "western" wheat. It's an interesting topic for another post though.)

Now, I'm not saying that progress is some machine for cranking out miracles. That all we have to do is sit back, relax, and wait for the magic to happen. It takes enormous effort on the part of whole societies to make it happen. Everyone's gotta chip in. But, looking at history, doing so gives us a fighting chance to figure things out. Really hard problems. Like how to unfuck our climate.

Degrowth, too, doesn't give us any guarantees. It's also a bet about the future. But it asks us to sacrifice things we've spent centuries on building, things that have made every generation less miserable than the previous one.

If we're going to roll the dice, I think liberal democracy offers us a much better deal. If we win, the game goes on, and we can keep making the world better. If we lose, at least we tried. But if we implement Degrowth, then even winning means losing.


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