When US tanks crossed the Iraqi border on 20th March 2003, they trundled along sandy roads and desert-scapes. How do we square this with the Fertile Crescent of Antiquity, that cradle of civilization running between the Tigris and the Euphrates that gave us the legendary Hanging Garden of Babylon?
There are two explanations. Firstly, climate change over several tens of thousands of years gradually warmed the area, reducing rain flow and restricting plant life. The second explanation is that human agriculture damaged the fragile ecosystem of the area. Irrigation channels dug led to the accumulation of salt and other minerals in the topsoil. Over time this reduced the soil’s ability to absorb water, led to flash floods, and desertification. The specifics of each explanation are beyond me, but if you are interested in reading more I recommend the following Ask Historians thread.
The human-agency explanation is most intuitive (and popular) but is apparently controversial. It is rooted in early colonial writers, who unable to understand how the cities of antiquity could have developed amongst the deserts they saw, assumed the unenlightened natives had ruined it all. Detractors argue low-intensity ancient methods could not have had such a profound impact on the region.
Today, we’ve resolved the debate by the dubious privilege of satisfying both explanations at once; industrialisation has allowed us to undermine local ecosystems while also changing long-term climate patterns.
The Fertile Crescent reminds us that politics has historically been intimately linked to questions of water and food. Industrial agriculture has consigned that to distant memory for many in the developed world (although not for many others). One of climate change’s consequences is likely to be the steady repoliticization of these issues again.
For those unfamiliar with the topic (who didn’t click on the link) a few snippets from his introduction:
Human civilization is presently overshooting a number of critical planetary boundaries and faces a multi-dimensional crisis of ecological breakdown…
Unfortunately, green growth hopes have little grounding. There is no historical evidence of long-term absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use (as measured by material footprint), and all extant models project that it cannot be achieved even under optimistic conditions…
Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource throughput designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being…
It is important to clarify that degrowth is not about reducing GDP, but rather about reducing throughput… Of course, it is important to accept that reducing throughput is likely to lead to a reduction in the rate of GDP growth, or even a decline in GDP itself, and we have to be prepared to manage that outcome in a safe and just way...
Degrowth or Deflation?
Jason addresses a third of the essay to the accusation that degrowth would be austerity, deflation, and recession by another name. Reducing energy and resource usage and, by association GDP, sounds rather painful; no one is enjoying today’s Covid-19 induced recession. The world has lived through many deflationary periods, and few furthered the cause of justice or well-being important to advocates of degrowth.
He argues degrowth can be managed equitably and justly by the application of familiar welfare state tools like job retraining and public investment. As polluting industries are wound down and not replaced, an expanded welfare state will cushion people’s livelihoods through the transition.
What struck me most was how unobjectionable this sounds, its a version of Keynesian counter-cyclical logic. More ambitious in scale? Yes. Revolutionary? No. To be clear, the trigger is revolutionary. Where counter-cyclical policy is activated to compensate for unexpected economic shocks, degrowth would deliberately induce these shocks.
The Global South
The second point he addresses is one close to my heart, and my primary quarrel with degrowth: how does a program of energy and resource reduction confront material deprivation in the Global South?
I have heard prevarications that argue a Global North standard of living is not necessary or desirable for people living in the Global South. Perhaps. But it stinks of Noble Savage when people in the Global North suggest it.
Thankfully Hickel simply argues that degrowth does not apply to the Global South:
Again, because degrowth is focused on reducing excess resource and energy use, it does not apply to economies that are not characterized by excess resource and energy use.
Instead he calls for a combination of developmental states in the South, and wealth transfers from the Global North:
Degrowth in the North creates space for Southern economies to shift away from their enforced role as exporters of cheap labour and raw materials, and instead on developmentalist reforms: building economies foucsed on sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and human well-being.
He is a little vague on how these wealth transfers would work, but I presume he has covered it elsewhere. The main mechanism he mentions in the article is fair prices for the Global South’s labour and goods exports. He thinks this dynamic might also help accelerate degrowth in the North, presumably as higher import prices reduce consumption (whether this would then kill developmental export industries is not addressed).
I was surprised by how familiar the paper felt. The idea of degrowth is revolutionary, but the mechanisms it proposes are not. Transfers to the Global South, whether in exchange for not polluting or simply outright, are not new. Noah Smith has advocated something similar for a while now. Welfare states today are certainly unambitious in comparison, but the fundamentals of his proposal – a state overseen redistribution of resources and productive capacity – would not be inconceivable even for sober suited Social Democrats.
Growth reduction sets degrowth apart, but with the policy toolkit overlapping so much with the more conventional Green New Deal, I am left wondering where the differences lie in practice? Two quotes are suggestive:
If GDP growth did not come along with an increase in material consumption, people would not pursue it (what’s the point of having a higher income if it doesn’t enable you to expand military spending, buy bigger houses and faster cars, or pay people to do things for you?).
It seeks to scale down ecologically destructive and socially less necessary production (i.e. the production of SUVs, arms, beef, private transportation, advertising and planned obsolescence), while expanding socially important sectors like healthcare, education, care and conviviality
I cannot shake the feeling that advocates of degrowth are fundamentally uncomfortable with modern society: its advertising, its beef, and its plastic wrapped utensils. Look at the dismissive characterization of material consumption: “bigger houses and faster cars.” For a worldview clearly indebted to Marxist dependency theory, it is strangely dismissive of the material.
I am uncomfortable with the moralism that pervades degrowth. It is unabashed in its view that whole parts of modern society are broken, perhaps even corrupt, and certainly incompatible with a sustainable future. Consider the argument that production of the “socially less necessary” be scaled down. I get a twinge of discomfort. What exactly is socially less necessary? There is a trace of the eschatological about it all that makes me uncomfortable; a coming apocalypse, a world in sin, and a purificatory trial before redemption. I accept this might be a bridge too far, more a reflection of the conversations I have had with degrowthers than Jason’s article itself.
Society needs herculean efforts to survive with nature intact for the next generation. The GFC and now Covid-19 have shown that Central Banks and Governments have many of the tools we require and it is unconscionable that they continue to pretend otherwise. This will require the kind of radicalism that history shows us is always in short supply. I will keep an eye on degrowth, because I do agree it is too easily dismissed. For now though, I continue to spend my radical coin on a Green New Deal.