Can degrowth save us from the future crises of neoliberal capitalism?

This year we have seen our system crumble in front of our very eyes. Our vast, interdependent global economy fell to its knees within a matter of weeks. COVID-19 has continued to expose the frailties of our trend towards hyper-globalisation and its inability to cope with any form of crisis.

As a result of the pandemic, people have been questioning whether the structure of our society is up to the task of dealing with pandemics and the consistent crises that befall our neoliberal capitalist model. Academics and activists around the world have been forming a movement advocating for a social, political and economic system called ‘degrowth’ since the turn of the millennium. Recent events have caused a wave of renewed interest in alternative, post-growth systems that may better serve our social and environmental needs.

Our global economic interdependence is the hallmark of the endless economic growth that most liberal states espouse. Here in the UK and in other Western states, we rely upon our ability to purchase cheap goods from commodity frontiers in the Global South in order to prop up our service economies. Li et al. note that the rapid increase in international trade and capital flows associated with globalisation has generated substantial interest in issues of financial and economic interdependence, particularly the intimate integration of global stock markets, global trade and the movement of people.

Capitalism works just fine for a lot of us in core countries such as those of Europe and North America, and it cannot be refuted that capitalism and globalisation have helped to lift millions out of poverty and into a relative state of “material abundance”, yet not only does this structure exacerbate global inequality and lead us on a path to environmental degradation, it also leaves us hopelessly exposed to any crisis that threatens to disturb this highly disturbing house of cards.

It is imperative that we recognise that the ways in which we organise our society and global economic community have exacerbated the impacts of this pandemic. Our relentless out-migration to urban environments rapidly increases the spread of contagious diseases, the rupturing of global supply chains reveals “hidden frailties” in such systems, and the ease of air travel ensures that viruses can travel thousands of miles within hours, turning local outbreaks into global pandemics in a matter of weeks.

It does not have to be this way in the future. The pandemic has generated widespread interest in alternative politico-economic systems that not only contain the potential for our emancipation, but also offer us a radically different scenario for future crises.

Degrowth is a political, social and economic movement that seeks to challenge the current dogma of relentless and infinite economic growth as being the solution to our needs. Degrowth advocates for a shift from regarding economic growth (GDP) as our metric of prosperity to other, more suitable metrics including wellbeing, ecological justice and social progress. Citing the work of mathematician and bioeconomist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and social philosopher André Gorz, degrowth recognises that whilst economic growth is inextricably tied to the use of natural resources, infinite economic growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources, therefore we must engage in a democratic and intentional “slowing down” of our economies.

Degrowth visions aim to reshape our society and lead it away from ecologically damaging, materialistic ways of life towards more conscious, less alienating and inequality driving habits. Examples of patterns of behaviour that could be conducive to degrowth include the expansion of cooperatives, commoning, growing your own food, sustainable transport, reduction in air travel, work-sharing, job guarantees and wage caps just to name a few.

Degrowth proposes a re-localization of a significant amount of production based on the principles of bio-regionalism. This principle of bioregionalism can allow us to see how the future pandemics would be better managed if such structures were realized in the future. Regionalism assumes a localization of production, effectively encouraging self-sufficiency within communities and shortening supply chains. Cast your mind back to the looming spectre of food shortages we were being told about in March and the rationing that took place across our supermarkets, could this anxiety be remedied by relying on yours and your community’s own food supply? Urban and community gardening offers a resilient food supply that does not rely on a daunting web of supply chains.

This bioregionalism goes beyond food supplies and encourages us to re-consider our consumption habits. Liegey & Nelson suggest that –“the collective sphere features alternative activities based on goals of ‘fair trade’ and ‘ethical production’ from open and transparently run local production of high-quality organic goods to schemes involving non-speculative local and alternative currencies; from local exchange trading systems (LETS) to barter and ‘no-exchange’ (non-monetary) communities, from economies developed on the basis of reciprocity to sharing and gift economies, time-banks and solidarity economies.” Such a shift to more localized economies encourages greater resistance to global crises, it grants individuals and communities more autonomy through not being subjected to the tribulations of the global economy. For those who wish to decry this as a radical utopian daydream that is restricted to eco-communities and communes, I invite you to look into work that Barcelona’s recently elected governing body – Barcelona en Comú, have been doing in recent years.

The hyper-mobilised lifestyles of the global community resulted in 100,000 commercial flights operating every day prior to the pandemic. This ease of mobility caused COVID-19 to spread to 185 of the world’s 196 states within 3 months of the first reported case in Wuhan. It is widely recognised that excessive air travel drives a significant portion of our emissions, degrowth visions aim to tackle such habits. Kate Soper calls attention to our pressure to make the most of our precious time off work, why would we pay £100 and spend a whole day travelling to Europe by train when we can fly for £15 and be there in mere hours? The way our system is currently structured makes it uneconomic and unappealing to consider other modes of transport, but again, such visions are not as radical as they seem. The Green Party describes a frequent-flyer levy as “perfectly reasonable”, with taxes being levied on those that take more than one return flight a year. Swedes have already coined the term flygskam (flight shame) to draw attention to the unnecessary caprice of regular air travel. In a world where we travel at a slower pace and less frequently, not only are we engaging in environmentally conscious travel, we would decrease our exposure to the rapid proliferation of infectious diseases.

I have outlined just a few ways in which a degrowth model could relieve us from the cyclical nature of the crises that seem to be befalling us. With the frequency of pandemics set to increase as a result of climate change and financial crashes bringing us years of misery every decade, is it not time to radically rethink the way we organise our society? I would encourage readers to read ‘The Case for Degrowth’ by Kallis et al., this small book outlines succinctly the way in which we can liberate ourselves and the planet from destruction in an emancipatory fashion. ‘Green growth’ will not save us. Increasing efficiency is a fallacy. To climate nihilists I say no! We’re not fucked, there is hope!

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