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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Case For Degrowth

Infinite growth on a finite planet is alarming and doesn’t even make us better off. A new book argues we must shed the ideology of “growthism.”

We now know that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an insanity. Not just an “imperfect measure of social well-being,” but a wholly irrational, arbitrary, and dangerous construct that must be ditched sooner rather than later. This is becoming more and more widely appreciated by economists—even the Harvard Business Review now says that “GDP is not a measure of human well-being,” and conservative policy analyst (and Mitt Romney adviser!) Oren Cass wrote in the New York Times a few days ago:

[R]arely have such economic indicators been so entirely beside the point. Seriously: Who cares? What good does G.D.P. do, if people we love are falling seriously ill and dying in unprecedented numbers; if the rhythms of daily life vital to our happiness have gone haywire and our social connections have atrophied?

There have been efforts to develop alternative frameworks that get us away from using GDP as a measure of economic success, from the EU’s Beyond GDP initiative to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index to economist Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” (the economy can be pictured as a doughnut—in the center is too little, on the outside is too much, and what we need is to be in the delicious sustainable ring). Yet newspapers are still filled with headlines about what the GDP has done that implicitly treat it as the measure of economic health: did the GDP expand? Did it contract? How do we get it growing again? We are a long way from shaking off the strange folk belief that a country’s job is to maximize the numerical “growth” of its products and services. 

GDP is a measure of the market value of goods and services sold over a given period of time. The more that consumers consume, the higher the GDP. If twice as many cars are sold in the United States next year compared to this year, and all other things are equal, the GDP will rise. If twice as many people pay to have surgery, it will likewise go up. Mazzucato gives the example: if she marries her housekeeper, and they are doing the exact same work but in the context of a personal relationship rather than an employment relationship, the GDP will go down. If people are unusually healthy, the market value of medical services will go down. Of course, there are absolutely colossal amounts of care work that are performed without compensation. The classic critique of GDP is to point out that even incredibly destructive pollution can improve it: a factory could be getting lots of people sick, but their sickness is not being measured in GDP. In fact, GDP is growing, because (1) lots of people are buying the factory’s products (2) the sick people are buying medical treatment and (3) people are buying ways of mitigating the pollution.

A significant problem here, as Mariana Mazzucato documents in her history of the concept of economic value, The Value of Everything, is that over time “price” has become conflated with “value.” In fact, this is so commonplace in everyday thinking that, even though I think we all can nod and smile at Oscar Wilde’s famous description of the cynic as someone who knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing” (a phrase that now better describes economists), we infrequently consider how something could be worth a lot without actually being worth a lot.

But take our polluting factory: every year, it may be causing catastrophically negative effects. Its benefits may be negligible, say 50 jobs and the toy plastic SpongeBobs that it manufactures. But shutting it down would “shrink the economy,” because whether “the economy” is “growing” or “shrinking” is not measured by whether the aggregate amount of human social well-being is increasing or decreasing but by whether we’re buying more shit. Thus the majority of us could be more and more immiserated every day—unhappy, hopeless, sick, lonely—but so long as the market value of the goods and services we consume in the aggregate is going up, the “economy” will grow. And because whether the economy is growing is an aggregated measure, the GDP does not look at who is getting the benefits. It could well be that even on the very narrow criterion of “consuming more products,” a small wealthy subset of people are actually getting most of the enjoyment. (Not that increased consumption is a good proxy for well-being even for the upper classes—the lives of the super-rich are often hollow and unsatisfying, because it turns out that having 40 cars does not give you four times the satisfaction of having 10 cars.)

As Mazzucato explains, this represents a shift in how the economy is talked about. 200 years ago, “value” was assumed to be a quality that things had before they had prices. There were debates over what created value. But prices themselves were separate, for an obvious reason: the air we breathe has value, but no price. Bullshit financial products have prices, but serve only to transfer wealth from poor, desperate people who need money to wealthy, conniving people who already have it. The debate about “value” is necessarily philosophical, and requires, well, value judgments. What is “worth having” is something that we differ on, and there are no purely scientific answers.

Unfortunately, as economics became decoupled from philosophy (the field used to be called “political economy,” which better reflects the fact that economic ideas are necessarily political), and developed pretensions of being a science, many economists sought a way to pass off their normative beliefs as mere empirical facts. They reasoned as follows: if something is bought in a marketplace, without anyone coercing the buyer or seller, clearly the buyer desired to buy it and the seller desired to sell it. If the buyer was willing to pay more, they clearly valued the thing more. (I am willing to pay more for a house with four bedrooms than a house with three because a house with four bedrooms has something extra that I want.) Free market transactions are therefore mutually beneficial and would not occur unless both parties perceived themselves to be made better off by transacting. For a third party (the economist) to say that the transaction is not valuable is to impose subjective value judgments. The economist does not take a position on which transactions ought to happen. Instead, the measure of value is preference. If I buy a hamburger, my preference for a hamburger has been satisfied. Evaluating the success of an economy by the market value of its goods and services therefore seemed sensible, rather than insane, because it showed the degree to which people were having their subjective tastes (which it is not the economist’s job to question) satisfied under conditions of perfect freedom.

Growth in the provision of goods and services is therefore intrinsically good: it means more mutually beneficial transactions, thus more satisfaction. And while any sensible economist would admit that growth is an “imperfect proxy” for well-being, on the whole, if we are buying more stuff, it means we want more stuff, and if we both want more stuff and are getting more stuff, it means we are getting more of what we want, and are thus better off. There is a common assumption in economics that human beings have “infinite wants,” meaning that it will always be better to have more rather than less, so long as we can supply “more.” (More of what? More of whatever has a price in the market.) At the very beginning of Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus’ widely-used Economics textbook, it is made clear that mainstream economics is premised on the idea that we all have “unlimited wants”: 

If you add up all the wants, you quickly find that there are simply not enough goods and services to satisfy even a small fraction of everyone’s consumption desires. Our national output would have to be many times larger before the average American could live at the level of the average doctor or major-league baseball player. Moreover, outside the United States, particularly in Africa, hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger and material deprivation. Given unlimited wants, it is important that an economy make the best use of its limited resources.

 In fact, the “unlimited wants” premise is false: only a select number of human beings, such as Jeff Bezos, can literally never be satisfied no matter how much they have. Most of us have modest desires: good food, satisfying occupations of our time, some entertainment now and then, positive social relationships, and a soft bed to sleep on. But when wants are treated as “unlimited,” with everyone aspiring to live like a “major league baseball player,” (and, presumably, wanting even more once they have reached that level), no amount of economic growth will ever be “enough.” Thus to satisfy “desires” we must perpetually increase the quantity (not just the quality, or the distribution) of goods and services produced. 

But more goods/services quite obviously doesn’t in and of itself make the world better, without any analysis of what those goods/services actually are or what people’s lives are like. It is easy to imagine a society in which the market value of economic activity is going up and up, but the general trend is toward dystopia: the number of nuclear weapons is growing annually, which creates jobs, but an alarming percentage of people are exhausted all the time and want to kill themselves. I say it is easy to imagine such a society, because we live in one. Likewise, it is easy to imagine a society in which there is no growth but people are relatively content; go and try to explain to the isolated Sentinelese tribe why they ought to be maximizing their development and see how they feel about it. (They will probably fill you with arrows, and they will have a point.) 

Mazzucato points out that the prevailing orthodoxy has led to the abandonment of critical normative questions and the embrace of mindless tautologies. Does Wall Street add value or is it parasitic? Well, conveniently for Wall Street, it adds value by definition, because under “price is value,” if it did not add value it would not prosper. Mazzucato argues that all kinds of socially harmful activities are therefore incentivized because, with the field uninterested in doing normative philosophy, we do not have the language to evaluate whether various economic activities are good. There are jokes about alleged measurement mistakes in the Soviet Union, things like “measuring coal production by the number of tons of coal shipped from one place to another, resulting in the same ton of coal being shipped in a circle over and over.” But how are the perverse incentives that fueled the opioid crisis any different? Purdue Pharma makes money hooking people on drugs, and has a direct incentive to downplay the risks of its product and convince as many people to try it as possible. 

If you’re a free market libertarian, it’s not clear that there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, there’s a fascinating book from the 1970s by libertarian Walter Block called Defending the Undefendable, which makes arguments in favor of pimps, slumlords, blackmailers, corrupt cops, and drug pushers. The same argument recurs throughout: there’s a market for what they do, therefore what they do is good. Block has the courage to embrace the reductio ad absurdum: if the market produces outcomes that appall us morally and seem to be making a cruel and exploitative society, then instead of this indicting the market, it indicts morality. Given that the divine Invisible Hand does no wrong, we must change our principles to accommodate its actions, rather than demanding an economy that operates in accordance with our principles. Blackmailing someone produces value in market terms, therefore it is good, actually. 

Crucially, “price = value” means that a whole lot of good work that is “unpriced” goes undervalued. Mazzucato points out that confusing market worth for actual worth has encouraged the absolutely absurd idea that “the private sector produces the wealth, while governments can only tax it away,” and while some government services are necessary, they always feed on the productivity of the private sector rather than creating value by themselves. This, Mazzucato says, is plainly false: a public library adds value to a community even if it generates no revenue, it’s just that the value cannot be quantitatively measured. Same with research at a public university. Same with public school teachers and firefighters and OSHA inspectors. The problem is that the value they add is qualitative, imprecise, and clearly value-based; impossible to measure quantitatively. Growth in market value, on the other hand, is something we can measure, even if that measurement tells us almost nothing about our actual well-being. (After all, a banana taped to a wall can fetch $120,000.) It’s easier to look at whether the little arrow of random stuff we measure is going up or down than to have a debate over what it is we really want. (The latter question implicates the entire meaning of life, which many people don’t want to think about, because it’s scary and the indifferent universe hands us no answers.)  

Jason Hickel’s new book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World is a lucid, accessible, and crucial contribution to the debate over what we ought to value and how we ought to measure it. Hickel, whose specialty is rigorously debunking Pinkerian myths about the wonders of capitalist progress, is a proponent of “degrowth,” the idea that we need to stop measuring our well-being by how much our market economic activity expands, and instead make our economy the right size to fit our real needs and the finite resources of the planet.

Degrowth is a little bit of a misleading term. It implies that while right now our economies grow continuously, that growth is environmentally destructive, and actually what we need to do is shrink them all. But “degrowth” proponents are not in favor of universal shrinking, or of the shrinking of “everything generally” as opposed to a particular subset of things. Hickel does say that the ideology of limitless growth is irrational, and that excessive resource consumption in extremely rich countries needs to be curbed, but “degrowth” is not a kind of plea to return to nature and give up the wondrous benefits of technological development (you will pry my iPhone from my dead hands, though I will support any political platform that promises to abolish Microsoft Word). It is about having technologies arise as a result of some specific social need rather than because they make rich people a great deal of money. A social media platform should not exist to put eyeballs on advertising but to facilitate healthy communication between people. Degrowth is a plea to measure the economy more soundly, to pull back what needs to be pulled back, instead of just mindlessly assuming that more is better when, in many cases,
“less is more.” 

Hickel asks us to think of the growth of economies the way we would think of the growth of a plant or a human. A human needs to grow, and grow a lot, from the time they are born to adulthood. But “growth” is not treated as the end goal, with “more physical human matter” being our measure of the quality of a person’s life. Infinite exponential growth of a human being would be a horrifying nightmare; the endless growth of animal cells is cancer, and it kills. Instead, we grow to the point at which we are “fully grown,” and then we stop (while continuing, hopefully, to develop intellectually and emotionally; i.e. in non-quantifiable ways).

Likewise, the poor economies of the world generally need to grow. But the rich economies should not continue to grow for growth’s own sake, if doing so is ultimately destructive and contributes nothing additional to well-being. Instead, economic success should be measured on a series of other criteria that may be correlated with growth but are ultimately indifferent to whether growth is great or small, positive or negative. Costa Rica has a longer life expectancy than the United States despite having a per-capita GDP 1/6 the size of ours. Here’s Hickel:

Over and over again, the empirical evidence shows that it is possible to achieve high levels of human development without high levels of GDP…. In theory we could achieve all of these social goals [health, education, employment, democracy, nutrition, social support, and life satisfaction] without any additional GDP growth at all, simply by investing in public goods and, and distributing income and opportunity more fairly.

In fact, as we’ve seen, because measurements of growth exclude a bunch of incredibly important things, and can include a bunch of socially destructive things, additional growth can actually be bad for people. Much of Hickel’s book is about climate change and ecological destruction, and the way the infinite growth imperative clashes tragically with the realities of a finite planet. 

Hickel responds to the arguments of “ecomodernists” and proponents of “green growth” that limitless growth can be reconciled with environmental stability. In fact, he says, this is science fiction. It ignores the realities of what it takes to extract and use an ever-increasing amount of natural resources year after year. The word “new technology” cannot be used as a magical incantation that makes the material world disappear. Green growth proponents have argued that growth can be “decoupled” from environmental impacts: we can have ever-more goods and services without ever-more material and energy use. But Hickel cites research arguing that “decoupling” is ultimately impossible, and he debunks statistics purporting to demonstrate that limitless growth doesn’t depend on unsustainable resource use. Hickel is skeptical of those who believe we can reach “sustainability” without eliminating the unsustainable capitalist growth imperative itself. 

The climate change and environment sections of Hickel’s books are distressing and do not make for easy reading. Importantly, Hickel stresses the fact that climate change is in many ways an act of theft from the Global South by the United States and Europe, because we have created the bulk of the problem but bear comparatively less of the most devastating consequences. In fact, as he does in his earlier book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions, Hickel stresses the extent to which contemporary global capitalism is built on theft and violence: Britain likes to think it “developed” India but in fact simply extracted a vast amount of wealth from it illegitimately. The United States, as we know, simply expelled the Native population from its land (and then had the audacity to tell the world about the importance of private property rights). An important aspect of relentless growth is that it is usually brutal: the capitalist in search of profits thinks nothing of destroying a rainforest or blowing off a mountaintop or keeping laborers in slavery-like conditions, because after all, what the capitalist is doing is good by definition. We don’t price the consequences, and therefore we don’t value them, and that’s precisely how climate change has become such a mess: fossil fuel companies can knowingly create a giant problem for everyone else, but that problem is diffuse and long-term and hard to quantify and the precise scientific predictions have a level of uncertainty, so the companies in question don’t get sued out of existence for the harm they’ve caused. In fact, they prosper, and everyone is on their side: Barack Obama even boasted about escalating oil and gas production under his presidency because, after all, growth is good. 

Hickel argues that many policy-makers and intellectuals have denied the scale of the climate change problem and the scale of the action that will be required to deal with it. Because the fundamental goodness of capitalism and the growth imperative are treated as articles of faith, there is a tendency to frame the question as “How can we solve the climate crisis without having to change the fundamentals of our economic system?” rather than “How can we change the fundamentals of our economic system in a way that helps us solve the climate crisis?” Debates on climate change policy are often based on the premise that we will accept any solution that doesn’t require us to do anything differently to what we’re doing now. By cordoning off all correct answers as prohibited, we have ensured that the problem is destined to remain unsolved. Thus, because it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” if stopping the end of the world required ending capitalism, well, so long, world. 

But Hickel’s book is not actually pessimistic. In fact, it is profoundly hopeful and solution-oriented. This makes it far more appealing and worthwhile than doom prophecies like David Wallace-Wells’ panic-inducing The Uninhabitable Earth, which scare the shit out of the reader and then leave them feeling helpless. Hickel comes to us with radically encouraging news: the fact that it is not actually that expensive or resource-intensive to provide the ingredients of “the good life” means that we can, in fact, have a just and sustainable world. We are not locked inexorably into a brutal competition over scarce resources, where only the select few can live well and everyone else must suffer and perish, or labor so that those special few can prosper. In fact, everyone can prosper, if prosperity is defined rationally and we have an economy that is built to create that egalitarian prosperity rather than to help Jeff Bezos get ever-richer

Hickel does not play down the consequences of human activity for the environment—far, far from it—but he does offer a rather beautiful vision of an alternative way of living. He draws from animism in his thinking about nature: seeing the world around us as alive and having intrinsic value, rather than as something inert to be conquered and subjugated. It’s important to adopt a new kind of philosophy, because at the moment, wild animals, being unpriced, are valueless. (Except to the extent that they can be sold and turned into pianos or pets.) Thus wild animals are destroyed by the billions, and their habitats paved over. Anything that cannot justify itself by producing market value can be destroyed. Of course, it’s harder to develop a new way of thinking with new concepts of value; “price as value” is a convenient way of evading life’s toughest questions.

Both Mazzucato and Hickel emphasize that the central problem is not that the economy grows, but that the economic system is irrational. Hickel says, “None of this is to say that growth is bad, in and of itself. It’s not growth that’s the problem, it’s growthism,” by which he means the absurd belief that growth is the end rather than the means. Mazzucato says we need to focus “less on the rate of growth and more on its direction,” meaning asking the question: what are we growing? Is it our health, the strength of our relationships, the richness of our culture, the quality of our meals? Or is it simply “the amount of stuff we use” regardless of what that stuff is doing to us? 

I am not sure I like the title of Hickel’s book, Less is More, because while it’s true that less can be more—less work for the same money gives me more free time, less poisonous water makes children better off—it does make people feel like they’re going to have to cope with less materially than they have now. For some people this is true, but many readers of his book would, in an egalitarian world, actually end up with more than they have now. In fact, Hickel isn’t really arguing that “less is more,” at least insofar as that implies a kind of ascetic philosophy in which material poverty becomes spiritual richness. The actual argument he makes is much more complicated and interesting, even if it doesn’t lend itself as easily to a snappy book title. Roughly, it is this: an ideology of “more for the sake of more” actually makes us less well off overall, and in order to have more well-being, we need to have less of some things we currently think we need to have more of, while having more of some things we currently have too little of. (As I said, I see why he picked the title he did.) The ultimate implications are:

We need high income countries to scale down excess energy and material use; we need a rapid transition to renewables; and we need to shift to a post-capitalist economy that’s focused on human well-being and ecological stability rather than perpetual growth.

Could anyone looking at the climate data disagree? It does feel like the idea of perpetual growth is a kind of mental virus that has afflicted people in the 21st century. Hopefully it will be looked back on as a bizarre aberration, as future societies will think it obvious that we need to evaluate economic success according to a wide variety of normative qualitative factors. These factors will be “squishy,” in that there will not be a scientific way to resolve disputes about what they are or which should take precedence. But the idea that relentless accumulation and consumption are rational—while convenient for those whose personal interest is in relentlessly accumulating and consuming—is yet another example of subjective value judgments pretending to be Reason Itself. The “degrowth” philosophy, while misleadingly named (some places need to grow more, some to degrow certain things a bit while growing others, i.e. the United States needs fewer giant gas-guzzling trucks and more free medical services), is certainly far more sensible and healthy than prevailing economic orthodoxy. Jason Hickel is no primitivist, and degrowth is about being better off, not worse off. By having less relentless mindless growth, we can have more of those things that make life worthwhile but do not produce profits for capitalists. 

I would like to see critiques of Less is More, and I am sure there is something in there for everyone to disagree with. But if everyone read it, we would at least be having a worthwhile debate on the right questions, like: what should the economy be for and what do we want out of it? How can we develop an economy that values unpriced things, like the natural world and personal domestic labor? How can we measure qualitative factors, and won’t any metric of success always be biased toward things that are most easily measurable? Can capitalism ever be “sustainable” or does its prioritization of short-term gain by individual private parties always come at the expense of the overall collective good? What level of resource consumption do we actually need in order for everyone to live well? How much is more than our fair share? What is the “right size” for an economy, if it’s not “as big as conceivably possible”? Hickel has answers to some of these, and I have my own, but the questions are not asked nearly enough. Degrowth is not really a particular prescription for the right amount of growth; it’s an attempt to focus our attention on the difficult matters that “growthism” overlooks. 

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