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Less is More: Previewing a debate on de-growth

 Less is More: Previewing a debate on de-growth




I was going to review Jason Hickel’s new book on de-growth, but have found a better option. It is excitingly better: read to the end. The key point, though, is that development specialists need to engage with this topic.

As Beth Stratford argues in a recent blog for Open Democracy (linked to a report from the University of Leeds, of which she is co-author): 

‘The row about ecological limits to growth is back with a vengeance. On one side are those who are deeply sceptical about the idea of ‘infinite growth on a finite planet’. They argue that to be sure of offering a good life for all within planetary boundaries, we need to kick our addiction to consumption growth (in wealthy countries at least). These ‘green growth sceptics’ include those advocating for ‘degrowth’, ‘prosperity without growth’, ‘steady state economics’, ‘doughnut economics’ and ‘wellbeing economics’.

In the opposite corner are ‘green growth’ advocates who believe that the historical relationship between GDPGross Domestic Product and environmental impact can be not just weakened but effectively severed. For green growthers, the key to maintaining a habitable planet is decoupling — reducing the environmental impact associated with each pound or dollar of GDP. By deploying new technologies, and shifting the nature of our consumption, they argue we can do our bit for the environment while continuing to grow GDP, even in wealthy countries.’

Jason Hickel’s book deals with this debate. The book is rooted in Marxian economics, so there is a lot about accumulation, use value and exchange value. There is also a section at the end on how we are all one with nature. The ‘deep logic’ of the argument lies in the fact that in capitalist societies, artificial scarcity is created to justify accumulation and growth. But

‘If scarcity is created for the sake of growth, then by reversing artificial scarcities we can render growth unnecessary. By decommodifying public goods, expanding the commons, shortening the working week and reducing inequality, we can enable people to access the goods that they need to live well without requiring additional growth in order to do so. People would be able to work less without any loss to their well-being, thus producing less unnecessary stuff and generating less pressure for unnecessary consumption elsewhere. And with our extra free time we would no longer have to engage in the patterns of consumption that are necessitated by time scarcity.

The economy would produce less as a result, yes – but it would also need less. . . Exchange-value might go down, but use-value will go up. Suddenly a new paradox emerges: abundance is revealed to be the antidote to growth.

Some critics have claimed that degrowth is nothing more than a new version of austerity. But in fact exactly the opposite is true. Austerity calls for scarcity in order to generate more growth. Degrowth calls for abundance in order to render growth unnecessary. If we are to avert climate breakdown, the environmentalism of the twenty-first century must articulate a new demand: a demand for radical abundance.’

‘Radical abundance’ is certainly a radical idea. There are two main questions development people might be interested in, viz (a) how do we actually get there, and (b) what does this mean for poor countries.

On policy, Jason’s main recommendations have a strong flavour of the Green New Deal, but go beyond it in interesting ways: 

  • End planned obsolescence;
  • Cut advertising;
  • Shift from ownership to usership;
  • End food waste;
  • Scale down ecologically destructive industries;
  • Shorten the working week;
  • A jobs guarantee;
  • Reduce income inequality;
  • A wealth tax;
  • Rent controls;
  • Publicly funded (and provided) Universal Basic Services;
  • Debt Relief;

 As Jason observes,

‘This brings us to the real heart of a post-capitalist economy. Ending planned obsolescence, capping resource use, shortening the working week, reducing inequality and expanding public goods – these are all essential steps to reducing energy demand and enabling a faster transition to renewables. But they are also more than that. They fundamentally alter the deep logic of capitalism.’

On poor countries, the argument is lightly sketched, but reducing global inequality plays a big part. For example, on overall material use, we are told that rich countries consume 28 tons per year per capita on average, while poor countries consume only 4 tons. The sustainable global average is 8 tons, so poor countries have room to grow, provided rich countries reduce their consumption.

It is tempting to plunge into the debate, and it is one I have kept an eye on over the years. I have been particularly concerned to understand the impact on developing countries of sustainability transitions in developed countries. See, for example:

However, my better idea was to stage a debate in the pages of Development Policy Review, between Jason Hickel and a specialist in green growth. This would be similar to the debate I curated in 2009, between Justin Lin, then Chief Economist of the World Bank, and Ha-Joon Chang. That debate was on whether industrial policy in developing countries should conform to comparative advantage or defy it. The exchanges were detailed, illuminating and collegial. I had hopes of a similar exchange in 2021.

I am delighted to say that Jason has accepted the challenge, and that he will debate Stephane Hallegatte, Lead Economist at the World Bank, and author or co-author of several reports on green growth (including ‘Inclusive Green Growth: the Pathway to Sustainable Development’). Publication is expected by the summer of 2021.

This is going to be a complete block-buster. If you do not already subscribe to Development Policy Review, start here

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