Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander
What is to be done? This is surely one of the central questions for those of us who are animated by what Charles Eisenstein calls ‘the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’; a central question for those of us with the fire of ecological democracy burning in our eyes. Yet, it is a question that demands engagement with three preliminary questions, the answers to which provide the necessary guidance for effective practical action. First, we must adequately understand the nature and extent of the overlapping crises that confront us today. Secondly, we must envision the alternative world, or matrix of alternative worlds, that would adequately dissolve the current crises and provide the foundations for a flourishing human civilisation into the deep future. And thirdly, having provided an accurate critique and having envisioned an appropriate and effective alternative, we must meditate deeply on the question of strategy – the question of how best to direct our energies and resources if we are to maximise our chances of building the new world we have imagined. Then, and only then, are we in a position to ask ourselves the ultimate question: what is to be done? If that question is asked prematurely, or if it is asked having answered any one of the preliminary questions inadequately, then there is a great risk that one’s action, motivated by the best of intentions, is directed in ways that fail to effectively produce any positive effect and, indeed, may even be counter-productive to the cause.
The publication of my two volumes of collected essays – PROSPEROUS DESCENT and SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY – represents an attempt to engage these questions as directly and as clearly as possible. The primary motivation for doing so arises from my concern that much of the literature on ‘sustainable development’ fails to understand the magnitude of our overlapping crises, and for that reason, the envisioned alternatives or solutions widely proposed tend to be fundamentally misconceived. Furthermore, when the critique of the existing world is off target and when the envisioned alternatives are misconceived, it should come as no surprise that the strategies proposed for achieving the stated goals are similarly flawed. If our map is poorly drawn and our compass is broken, we are unlikely to arrive at where we need to go. Is it any wonder humanity seems so lost and directionless?
Over the years of writing these essays my ideas and perspectives have naturally evolved in a dialectical relationship with other people’s ideas, and are constantly being refined further as my experience of the ever-changing world is digested and reflected upon. The human condition is such that the sands of thought forever shift beneath our feet. Nevertheless, having now spent the best part of a decade engaging the questions posed above, I notice that the evidential ground upon which I stand is firming up, providing me with confidence that the position I defend – radical though it may seem – is accurate, even if there may be matters of detail that will always be open to revision or refinement.
In this introduction I would like to state some of the fundamental tenets which shape the following essays, in the hope that this will guide the interpretation of those essays, especially at those times when these central ideas lie beneath the surface of a more focused discussion. As I am writing this introduction after having written the essays, there is also the luxury of having the full benefit of what I have learned throughout the writing process.
Here are twelve defining theses that shape my work:
1. Pursuing limitless growth on a finite planet is a recipe for ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. Despite the controversy that still surrounds the ‘limits to growth’ perspective, there is something strikingly obvious about the idea that if human population keeps growing, if our resource and energy demands on the natural environment continue expanding, and if our streams of waste and pollution keep growing, then eventually we will undermine the ecological foundations of our civilisation so violently that nature will fight back and bring things into balance. Let us face the fact, too, that ‘bringing things into balance’ is a euphemism for mass population die-off, signifying a prospective tragedy of unspeakable proportions. So the question is not so much whether there are limits to growth – of course there are limits to growth! – but rather when those limits will begin to impose themselves on our current ways of living and force us to live differently. It would be far better for people and planet that we anticipate these limits and begin working toward a post-growth economy now. Needless to say, this will not be easy. We have developed two centuries of industrial, growth-orientated momentum that will make it incredibly difficult to consciously redirect the economic trajectory so fundamentally. But transitioning ‘beyond growth’ is a transformation that is coming, one way or another. Better it be by design than disaster.
2. ‘Green growth’ is a dangerous myth that entrenches the status quo. When the limits to growth are raised in objection to the growth model of progress, many people seem comforted by the fantasy that science and technology will save the day. Current forms of growth may have ecological limits, these people acknowledge, but they then insist that the global economy can and should keep growing forever, if only we learn how to produce and consume more efficiently. This is nice in theory, perhaps, but it is biophysically naïve. It is of the utmost importance, of course, that we use the best of our technological knowledge to help us achieve a sustainable way of life through efficiency improvements. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. But efficiency alone cannot ‘decouple’ economic growth from ecological impact sufficiently to produce a sustainable way of life. The extent of decoupling required is simply too great. To be effective, the drive for efficiency must be shaped and limited by an ethics of sufficiency. That is to say, our aim should not be to do ‘more with less’ (which is the flawed paradigm of green growth), but to do ‘enough with less’ (which is the paradigm of sufficiency).
3. ‘Degrowth’ (i.e., planned contraction of resource and energy demands) is necessary in the developed nations in order to move toward a just and sustainable economy that operates within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet. When the extent of ecological overshoot is understood, and bearing in mind the fact that ecological room must be left for poorest nations to attain a dignified existence, there is no escaping the fact that degrowth is required in the developed – or rather overdeveloped – regions of the world. This is not a popular thesis, but it does reflect a biophysical reality.
4. Addressing poverty within a degrowth framework implies a redistribution of wealth and power on a much more egalitarian basis. Within the growth model it is assumed that poverty will be eliminated through continued growth of the global economy via some ‘trickle down’ effect. This is an ecologically unsupportable pathway to poverty elimination, because it relies on continued growth on an already overburdened planet. Once it is recognised that growth cannot solve the problem of poverty and in fact threatens to exacerbate it through climate change, continued ecological degradation, or economic collapse, it becomes clear that the only coherent pathway beyond poverty lies in a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power within a degrowth model of progress. This is not the place to argue how that could be achieved – there are many options. The present point is simply to acknowledge that it is a necessary feature of any transition to a just and sustainable world.
5. Degrowth implies radically reduced energy and resource requirements compared to overdeveloped nations. Among other things, degrowth means giving up affluent, consumer lifestyles and embracing ‘simpler ways’ of living that provide for mostly local needs using mostly local resources. This is an implication of the environmental predicament that few dare to acknowledge, since most people seem resistant to giving up the comforts and conveniences of consumer affluence. But given the extent of ecological overshoot, there is no way that the consumer way of life could be universalised. Consumerism was an experiment that failed. It led civilisation down a dead end. We are now being called to reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture and explore new conceptions of progress and prosperity. This does not necessarily mean hardship. It means focusing on what is sufficient to live well – and pursuing that goal with all the wisdom, creativity, and compassion we can muster.
6. It is not enough merely to live more simply within existing structures and systems. While challenging ourselves to live more simply is necessary, the even greater challenge is to begin building new systems and structures that support and encourage ‘simpler ways’ of life. We cannot wait for governments to do this for us. First and foremost, we must organise and network at the grassroots level and begin building the new world within the shell of the world.
7. At some point, when the social movement becomes powerful enough, there will need to be some democratic social planning of the economy to ensure that the necessary degrowth transition does not collapse the economy. Accordingly, to advocate for degrowth is ultimately to embrace a reconceived form of eco-socialism. This means that the most fundamental questions about what is produced and how it is distributed cannot be left primarily to market forces. While there will inevitably be a place for forms of private property and market exchange, any successful transition to a degrowth economy is going to require democratic planning of the economy, preferably in highly decentralised and localised ways. Many wasteful or damaging sectors of the existing economy – such as advertising, fossil fuel production, private motor vehicle production, and the finance industries – will need to be greatly reduced or repurposed. Other sectors – such as organic farming, renewable energy production, and public transport – will need to be ramped up.
8. Degrowth is thus incompatible with capitalism. Admittedly, this is a realisation that I resisted for some time, hoping that the social, economic, and environmental crises that human beings face would not require such terrifyingly fundamental change. Couldn’t we just reform capitalism? Eventually, however, I realised that there was no honour in deceiving myself and potentially others just because the challenge of replacing capitalism seemed, and still seems, like an impossible pipe dream. The first question to grapple with is whether capitalism needs to be replaced, not whether we will ever succeed in doing so, and the nature of capitalism is such that it is unable to deal with the crises we face. Capitalism has a ‘grow or die’ imperative built into its very structure. At every turn participants in the market economy are more or less compelled to pursue profit or else risk being destroyed by competitors running them out of business. The technologies and products that are developed under capitalism are the ones that promise the best return, not the ones that are most needed. Similarly, the distribution of resources is determined by who has the most money, not who needs the resources the most. The structures and incentives of capitalism also create constant pressure for individuals and businesses to externalise environmental and social costs, making it impossible to price commodities in a way that ensures ‘optimal’ consumption and production. The consequence is that the justifications of capitalism based on wealth-maximisation and efficiency are rarely if ever reflected in reality. Furthermore, the vast amounts of private and public debt that have been taken on in recent decades depend on continued growth for those debts to be repaid. For all these reasons, the idea of reforming capitalism in a way that deals with the crises of civilisation entails irresolvable contractions. Perhaps the most compelling reason for why capitalism cannot produce a just and sustainable world, however, is because capitalist economies would collapse if existing structures tried to deal with the necessary degrowth of resource and energy consumption. This is especially so in a globalised economy where it is becoming increasingly difficult for one capitalist economy to defy the neoliberal world order. Localisation and contraction of national economies in such a context will require democratic planning of the economy.
9. A swift transition to renewable energy is necessary to respond to climate change and peak oil. Be that as it may, renewable energy will be unable to sustain a growth-orientated, consumerist society. A society based on renewable energy is a moderate energy society, which means energy-intensive societies must prepare for energy descent. Given the close connection between energy and economic activity, the required energy descent necessarily means economic contraction.
10. Climate change and peak oil are not the fundamental problems. Rather, they are the symptoms of the cultures and systems of consumer capitalism. While it is absolutely necessary to work toward responding to climate change and peak oil as effectively as possible, we should not lose sight of the more fundamental challenge of replacing the cultures and systems that produce those problems. Otherwise we will find ourselves hacking at the branches of the problems, when we should be aiming for the roots. After all, a post-carbon capitalism would still be a growth economy that degraded the natural environment, alienated workers, and distributed wealth so unjustly.
11. Material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy, and fulfilling lives. Perhaps this thesis is the most fundamental, because any political or economic system is inevitably shaped by some conception of the good life. Currently, global capitalism conceives of human beings as consumers who can achieve happiness by purchasing goods and services in the market economy. On that basis, global growth is seen as the most direct pathway to human flourishing. By contrast, degrowth arises out of an alternative conception of what it means to be human. It poses the question, ‘What is it that makes life worth living?’ and answers that question by saying, ‘Something other than the limitless consumption of material things.’ Consumerism just does not satisfy the universal human craving for meaning, and the sooner the world realises this the better it will be for everyone and the planet. In short, I argue that the simple life can be a good life.
12. Chances of success do not look good. Despite the increasingly robust case for the necessity of a post-capitalist politics and economics – for the necessity of degrowth – we should not pretend that this revolutionary project shows many signs of achieving its ambitious goals. Although there are nascent movements based on notions of degrowth – permaculture, Transition Towns, intentional community, and voluntary simplicity – in the greater scheme of things these subcultures, promising though they are, remain small. Furthermore, despite the increasing prominence environmental issues are given in the mainstream media, there is a pervasive techno-optimism that shapes the discussion of these issues, meaning that the reality of the crises are understated and the proposed solutions (typically market-based) are misconceived. Under these conditions, a mass movement for degrowth seems highly unlikely. But does this mean that we should throw our hands up in the air and distract ourselves with television and consumer trinkets while the curtain closes on our civilisation? Surely not. As Wendell Berry says, we should not focus on the question of whether we will succeed; we should focus on the question of what is the right thing to do. And that means doing everything in our power to resist the forces that are degrading people and planet by prefiguring ways of living that respect people and planet. We should do this irrespective of our chances of realising the ideal of a degrowth society. We should do this because it is the right thing to do. Fortunately, there are two silver linings to this approach. First, even if we fail to stop the growth economy from growing itself to death, we should still be trying to prefigure a ‘simpler way’ to live here and now, because if we are to face economic collapse, then the more systems and practices of sufficiency we can get in place today, the better prepared and more resilient we will be should the status quo be disrupted for one reason or another. Secondly, and most promising of all, working on building the new world promises, if not a life free from strife and hard work, at least a life full of meaning, passion, and love. And that is something we can cling to even if it transpires that the story of civilisation does not have a happy ending.
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Before outlining the content of the chapters to come, a few more words are required on the vocabularies of degrowth, steady state economy, and sufficiency economy, which I use throughout these chapters, sometimes interchangeably. To avoid confusion, let me offer some clarification here, although context should also generally assist with interpretation. Degrowth, as I use the term, refers primarily to a macroeconomic model that is defined by planned contraction of the resource and energy requirements of over-developed economies. Obviously, degrowth is a transitional phase, not an end-sate, because an economy could not and should not ‘degrow’ indefinitely. Accordingly, the basic vision of sustainability that I subscribe to and defend is one in which overgrown economies initiate a degrowth process of planned economic contraction, a process that would eventually stabilise in a steady state economy operating within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet. I do not argue that this is likely, only that it is necessary. The poorest nations may need to increase their energy and resource demands to attain a dignified standard of living, but eventually they too would need to stop growing and also transition to a steady state economy. Within this broad framework, a ‘sufficiency economy’, as I use the term, is essentially a form of steady state economy, but I choose to employ the vocabulary of sufficiency to emphasise some issues that I find misleading or problematic in the work of most ecological economists, whom I otherwise admire greatly.
First of all, ecological economists rarely discuss the radical lifestyle implications of ‘one planet’ living. By employing the notion of a ‘sufficiency economy’, therefore, I hope to emphasise the fact that one planet living involves abandoning affluence in favour of a radically simpler way to live based on material sufficiency. Secondly, ecological economists have not always discussed the limits of renewable energy or the economic implications of energy descent in much detail, and in this regard I consider the ‘biophysical economists’ to have made an important contribution to the debate. A sufficiency economy is an economy based primarily or entirely on renewable energy, but due to the inability of renewable energy systems to replace fossil fuels entirely, this means significantly reducing energy consumption compared to the richest nations today. As noted above, given the close connection between energy and economy, significant energy descent has huge economic implications that have been insufficiently discussed by most ecological economists. Thirdly, most ecological economists, to my mind, tend to have too much faith in market mechanisms. As discussed above, if degrowth is truly what is required, then significant social control over the economy will be needed if economic contraction is to avoid an unstable descent into economic and social chaos. Primarily for these three reasons I use the term ‘sufficiency economy’ to refer to a degrowth economy that culminates in a steady state economy – but a steady state economy that is shaped by the three points of difference just outlined.