How Degrowth Can Save The World
Our world is dying. Or more accurately, it is being killed. Fish populations and marine ecosystems are collapsing rapidly as the consequences of industrial activity, such as eutrophication, global warming, ocean acidification, and aggressive overfishing wage scorched earth style warfare on marine life.
Forty percent of the planet’s soil, so rich and life-giving, has been decimated and degraded by industrial agriculture into lifeless dirt, 100 times faster than it can regenerate itself. Our avian, mammalian, reptilian, insect, and amphibian populations have dropped by more than half since 1970, and a quarter of all species are at risk of extinction. Collapse has been upon us for a long, long time.
The flooding in Jakarta, in Pakistan, in India, and elsewhere and the drying rivers around the world are exemplary of that fact. We have known the cause, yet little has been done to solve the problem. Why? It is an undeniable fact that the primary responsibility for this collapse falls squarely on capitalism.
Our overreliance on fossil fuels, our unfettered and uncritical embrace of our sprawling industrial supply chains, the disinformation campaigns surrounding the compounding issues that contribute to collapse, and the lobbying efforts of fossil fuel corporations are all symptoms of this economic system, built on the concept of private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism observes one constant, prime directive: growth. Historically, from enclosure to colonisation to the slave trade, the process of appropriation has been what fuels growth. It is no different today, where capitalism continues to demand constant expansion, pulling ever-increasing quantities of nature and human labour to fuel that expansion. Technological innovations have played a major role in the extraordinary acceleration of growth, because new technologies have enabled capital to expand and intensify the process of appropriation.
And we continue along this trajectory, with ever-increasing levels of industrial extraction, production, and consumption for the sake of it, with no discernable endpoint. This system runs on the destructive ideology of growthism. Thinking of growth as a damaging ideology may seem strange at first.
Plants grow. Animals grow. People grow. But while it’s true that growth is a natural part of life, it never goes on and on. Organisms grow up to a certain point and then maintain a healthy equilibrium.
Growth for its own sake is cancer logic—it’s deadly. And yet that sick logic is exactly what the capitalist economy relies on. There’s no such thing as too much growth, too much money, too much stuff. Every economy, every sector, every industry is expected to keep growing their economy, keep growing their GDP, no matter what, on an exponential curve.
This isn’t just caused by greed, as some people assume. In fact, capitalism structurally incentivises negative human attributes like greed, feeding into people’s flawed perception of human nature. There are structural imperatives to growth that capitalism maintains. Let me explain. Capitalists own capital. Duh.
Whether it’s real estate, factories, machinery, intellectual property, financial assets, or the money they use to make more money. But capital that is stagnant is capital that is losing its value. So they look for things to invest in so that they can grow their capital. They seek out companies that have growing profits year after year, so that their capital will grow year after year.
If that growth slows down, they pull out and look elsewhere to invest. Companies that fail to grow will lose their investors and collapse, so companies do everything in their power to maintain growth so that they can maintain their investors, regardless of how much havoc they wreak upon the world. After all, if you don’t grow, you die. And if any barriers prevent that growth, you do everything in your power to dismantle and destroy them.
Environmental protections are barriers, so capitalists lobby against them. Labour laws are barriers, so capitalists fight against unionisation. Protectionist policies are barriers, so capitalists get imperial powers to fight on their behalf. The commons were a barrier, so they were enclosed. Indigenous populations were a barrier, so colonisers tried to wipe them out, and when that became a barrier, they supplemented the labour force through the Atlantic Slave Trade. All of these acts of violence opened up new frontiers for appropriation and accumulation, all in service of capital’s growth imperative.
These days, we measure a country’s “successful” pursuit of capital’s growth imperative through GDP or Gross Domestic Product, first developed by the American economist Simon Kuznets in 1934 after the Great Depression devastated the economy. He developed an accounting system that would reveal the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in the economy in one metric. But even Kuznets was careful to emphasise the flaws in GDP, because it doesn’t care whether an economic activity is useful and sustainable or damaging and destructive. GDP is coupled to energy and resource use, so as it continues to grow, more energy, resources, and waste are churned out every year, devastating our world. You can poison rivers and decimate ecosystems while the GDP goes up. You can use child labour and abolish retirement to make the GDP go up.
GDP provides no indication of the costs associated with its rise, no indication of the pollution, sickness, social despair, and death that fuel its rise and push us over the brink of safe planetary boundaries. And it also provides no indication of the beneficial activities that aren’t tied to monetary value. Self-sufficient communities aren’t nearly as profitable as communities that are reliant on capitalists for everything. And yet, after the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, this flawed metric became enshrined as the primary indicator of economic progress. When the OECD was established in 1960, its primary objective was to promote policies designed to achieve the highest sustainable rate of economic growth, and they didn’t mean sustainable in the ecological sense. The goal was to keep growing, indefinitely.
And when growth began to slow down in the 70s and 80s, because high wages, strong labour protections, and access to health and education made labour too expensive for capital to maintain high rates of growth, those barriers had to be bulldozed, by the rise of neoliberalism. This rise took place not just in the West, but all across the global South, where Western powers intervened in the newly independent countries that had been trying to recover from centuries of colonialism. Structural adjustment programmes forcibly liberalised the economies of former colonies, leaving them open for the exploitation of foreign capital, which takes far more resources and money out of these countries than they put in. These countries are also often blamed for the bogeyman of overpopulation, the supposed real cause of climate catastrophe.
But the global population is on track to stabilise, and even potentially decline. Not to mention, we know what it takes to stabilise a population: reproductive freedom, education, and access to proper women’s and children’s healthcare. In every single historical example of population stability under capitalism, material use continues. The real issue lies in consumption, not population. To blame the populations of countries in the Global South for the consequences of growthism and capitalism is to compound a gross injustice.
As hurricanes batter our islands, heatwaves scorch our farms and our cities, and floods and wildfires sweep through our countries, the damage being inflicted upon the Global South has been truly apocalyptic in scope and extremely disproportionate to what we have contributed to the planet’s current trajectory. We are all suffering as a result of the enforcement of capitalism and growthism on a global scale and we all have a role to play in the transition away from the systems responsible and the healing of the Earth that will need to occur. But the blame does not fall on all of us equally.
Especially not when the globe-spanning supply chains that feed into the high rates of consumption in the Global North leave human and ecological casualties in its wake on a daily basis. We know exactly what needs to be done in order to avoid near total environmental collapse: we need to cut global emissions in half in less than a decade and reach net zero before 2050, massively scale down total energy consumption and transition to renewables, completely revamp our urban and suburban infrastructure to eradicate car dependency, localise our supply chains as much as possible, reestablish millions of square kilometres of marine and forest ecosystems, completely overhaul industrial agriculture, and of course, end capitalism. There is no green capitalism. There is no salvaging this planet under capitalism. Capitalism with renewable energy and electric cars is not a solution. We’re not going to “decouple” growth in GDP from ecological annihilation.
If we treat renewable energy the same way we treat fossil fuels, to power continued growth in extraction and production capacities, because “oh, is clean energy,” we will continue to expand, fill our landfills, wreck our soils, raze our forests and fisheries, and decimate the biosphere. Cobalt, copper, neodymium, silver, indium, dysprosium and lithium are all critical ingredients in renewable energy, and if we continue along the trajectory of growthism, we will require an explosive increase in mining, which will not only exacerbate our consumption of already limited rare earth metals, but will also drive ecological collapse and perpetuate inequality. Cobalt mining in the Congo is keeping the people down to a state of slavery and lithium production in the Andes has deprived farmers of the water tables necessary to irrigate their crops and poisoned nearby freshwater ecosystems. Following the ideology of growthism will only make these situations much worse, giving rise to “clean energy” companies just as violent and destructive as their fossil fuel forebearers. Nuclear is no solution either, considering the time it takes to get new power plants up and running and the dangerous vulnerabilities that nuclear power plants have to extreme weather conditions, a staple of our current and future climate.
Don’t get it twisted, we do need technology and improvements in technology in the fight against ecological breakdown, but not when that technology serves to feed a growth-oriented economy. We simply cannot keep growing our economies, i.e. raising our GDP, i.e. increasing our energy demand, while trying to heal the planet, and capitalism cannot survive without constant, exponential growth. It keeps us trapped on this death treadmill of growth with the threat of recession. That’s why, despite knowing exactly what needs to be done to avert total apocalyptic catastrophe within our lifetimes, very little has been done.
On the contrary, capitalists and politicians are relying on growth to somehow save us. Growth that will create innovations that will make growth “green,” or at the very least allow us to counteract our destruction with geo-engineering. Our rulers would rather attempt to manipulate the atmosphere, block out the sun, and change the chemistry of the oceans, than give up their pursuit of growth. Even if, and that’s a big if, geo-engineering schemes could work, they wouldn’t change the fact that constant growth in material use cannot last forever. And geo-engineering schemes will not work. One of the primary methods of geo-engineering proposed has been BECCS, or “Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage,” featuring prominently in the IPCC’s 5th assessment report and in many governments’ approaches to reducing emissions.
The problem is that BECCS alone will not work to solve the other issues we’re facing regarding the planet’s crises, it faces the same issues with the damaging extraction and depletion of rare earth minerals that renewables face, we don’t know if BECCS is actually capable of sucking up 15 billion tons of CO2 every year, and we don’t know if we can even build the 15,000 new facilities around the world that it would require to maybe possibly work in time to make a difference. With so much at stake, it’s not a gamble we should be willing to make. Yet it’s a gamble so many have been willing to make because it embodies the same arrogant logic that got us into this mess. The hubristic mindset that treats our Earth as a mere arrangement of materials that can be conquered and manipulated to our whims. As something we are separate from and exist above.
It’s a manifestation of the ideology of dualism, which arose alongside the system of capitalism and the ideology of growthism to conquer the planet. We’re taught to think of ourselves, of humanity as separate from nature. The philosophical lens of dualism, developed and used by the likes of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, places humans as subjects with spirit and mind and agency, while nature is an inert, mechanistic object for us to lord over and manipulate as we see fit. For capitalism to succeed, it not only needed to strip us from the land, but also to strip us of more holistic ways of seeing the world. Capitalism had to see the downfall of animism.
It had to render the Earth as a mere stock of resources for the taking. Animistic ontologies see no fundamental divide between humans and the rest of the living world. On the contrary, they recognise a deep interdependence with the land, the water, the flora, and the fauna that constitute the Earth, in some cases even regarding them as kin. And when you view the non-human creatures and places in the world as your relatives, it fundamentally changes how you behave. It prompts you to enter into a relationship of reciprocity, not domination. Animism has been disparaged as primitive, but the fields of biology, ecology, and psychology have come around to recognise that all of us, from the microorganisms in our gut that help us digest our food to the plants that heal our wounds to the trees that network over large distances underground, are all part of a planet that operates like a living superorganism.
Nature is not out there and apart from us; we are deeply intertwined within it. The story of animism and dualism is worthy of its own video, but for now, I just want to highlight that the dualistic philosophy bears some responsibility for the hubris that has led to our ecological crisis. (skit) This video is sponsored by Gates Notes, a personal blog of Bill Gates. Because there’s nothing more important than the artificially amplified opinions of a billionaire. When I traveled through the Global South, I kept wondering what is it that makes poor countries so… poor. What is the core problem with countries like the democratic republic of Congo, Niger or Haiti? It can’t be a history of colonial and neocolonial exploitation.
The real issue is the lack of energy. In our foundation, we aim to create a world where every person has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life—as wage labourers fully assimilated into capitalism of course. All these countries need is reliable energy for their clinics, offices, factories, and call centers to make them healthy and productive, following the same path of progress as the West, and joining such powerhouses of health, prosperity, and productivity like Qatar, Kuwait or Singapore. While my background is in software, not climate science, that shouldn’t matter.
Again, I’m rich. I'm now super-focused working on global health, development, and U.S. education. And I'm always trying to learn more. I know what you’re thinking. Well, Bill, isn’t your carbon footprint absurdly high? TRUE! But I am taking steps to reduce it.
In 2019, I divested all of my direct holdings in oil and gas companies - and I hadn’t had money in coal companies in several years. In 2020, I started buying sustainable jet fuel for my private jet, and in 2021, I fully offset my family’s aviation emissions. I'm not aware of anyone else who's investing more in direct air capture of CO2. See, it’s okay to emit it, as long as I offset it later on.
I know. The meaning. Of sacrifice.
Look at how much I’ve sacrificed. Sorry, that wasn’t very productive of me. We don’t need degrowth.
We just need a greener capitalism. It’s not realistic to strive for real social change. Just make green stuff cheaper. GatesNotes, keeping you healthy and productive.
A proud sponsor of Andrewism. [accelerated] While the segment was a parody, the main points are taken from Gates’s book almost verbatim. We wish we were joking. [/accelerated] (end of skit) We need to recognise that we do not need the ideology of growthism to flourish as a species. We do not need capitalism to improve the welfare and life expectancy of people across the planet.
In fact, the long rise of capitalism caused immeasurable suffering and deprivation. Capitalist propaganda extols the prosperity it has allegedly brought to humanity, yet for the vast majority of the history of capitalism, economic growth didn’t improve welfare, it worsened it. Enclosure, colonisation, and slavery, the foundation of accumulation that fuelled capitalism’s rise, all spread human suffering and created artificial scarcity, which capitalism continues to depend on in order to push desperate people into the labour market to be exploited so that their basic needs could be met. The real source of the recent rise in human welfare came from improvements in sanitation, healthcare, education, vaccinations, and safer living conditions, all improvements which do not require capitalism. You don’t need a high GDP per capita to achieve high levels of human welfare, you just need to establish institutions that prioritise meeting people’s needs.
The default assumption that growthism promotes is that growth is good for everyone, but in reality, the vast, vast, vast majority of economic growth only benefits the rich. Over the past 40 years, 28% of all new income from global GDP growth has gone to the richest 1%. And that’s just income. Half the global wealth is in the hands of the 1%.
It’s time to shift our perspective from that of capital to that of life. From the welfare of capitalism to the welfare of the living world. To recognise that what we’ve come to consider growth is primarily a process of our eventual destruction. We need to move away from the ideology of growthism. We need to dismantle the system of capitalism. We need to shift our priorities.
We need degrowth—a planned, collectively organised restructuring of the economy and downscaling of energy and resource use to transition the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just, and equitable way. The term degrowth has gotten some flack due to its potentially negative connotations of poverty and deprivation, similarly to how the term anti-work has been received as a dismissal of any form of labour. The English term degrowth arose out of the first international degrowth conference in Paris in 2008. In French, they use the term la décroissance and in Italian, la decrescita to refer to a river going back to its normal flow after a disastrous flood.
While I believe it is important to present ideas in a way that challenges dominant cultural norms and it’s best to use the established terms when introducing the ideas in this context, hence why I use the terms anti-work and degrowth, in both cases, I care very little about the label and far more about the substance, so I would gladly advocate for a post-work, post-growth library economy. The aim is to build a new economic system. An economy that is under the direct control of all involved in it. An economy that is organised around human flourishing instead of around endless capital accumulation. An economy that is distinctly ecological and distinctly human.
Rather than operating within an economic system geared toward creating constant need and filling that need by producing for profit, we can shift toward an economic system geared toward meeting needs by producing for use, which will drastically scale down on total energy use. However, there is a necessary caveat to this objective. There are many parts of the world that live far, far below planetary boundaries and do actually need to increase their energy use in order to meet human needs. I believe movements in the imperial core must work in solidarity with movements in these places to give reparations in the form of resources and labour where requested to support the people in these places as they work to meet their needs and develop a better path to a healthier, more caring economy and ecology. The colonised people of this world do not need to follow the same destructive roadmap as the places we consider “developed” in order to flourish.
To quote the Martiniquan intellectual Frantz Fanon: “We must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe. [...] So, comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her.
Humanity is waiting for something [other than] such an imitation.” The onus is primarily on the Global North and other countries that have exceeded planetary boundaries to scale down energy consumption. But how do we build it? How to degrow? Think about all the energy it takes to extract, produce, and transport everything in this world. Think about all the inputs and outputs that run this global capitalist economy. It’s quite the energy-sucking behemoth, and it has been organised around one purpose: fuelling economic growth. We need to take on this behemoth and change how it works fundamentally.
To slow it down and bring it in line with the limits of the biosphere. It sounds difficult, because it will be, but a few relatively simple guiding steps will put us on the right track. Here’s a small part of what it will take to establish a post-work, post-growth library economy: First, we need to put an end to planned obsolescence. Household appliances, computers, tools, furniture, and other products have been designed under capitalism to break down and require a new replacement after a relatively short period of time in order to increase profits. Planned obsolescence actively stifles the innovations we need to make the things we need last longer and prevents us from being able to repair instead of replace our stuff. By putting an end to those deliberate manufacturing decisions and developing long-lasting, modular products, we can greatly reduce our material and energy use worldwide.
Next, we need to gut the advertising industry. Most advertising simply serves to generate social divisions, highlight class divisions, and manipulate people into consuming stuff they don’t need. It’s constant psychological warfare.
It’s no secret that I hate it. Everywhere you walk, everywhere you scroll, everything you watch and listen to, it’s all trying to sell you something. It’s constant noise and it’s bad for us.
Get rid of it. Shut it down. Thanks to the internet, we can search for information about the things we need without ads, and in fact, ads make the search experience much worse. There are some beneficial ads, such as PSAs, but we really don’t need most ads. Tear them down and watch consumerism perish. Another step we can take is to shift from ownership to usufruct.
One of the three foundational concepts in my video on the library economy was the concept of usufruct, which refers to the freedom of individuals or groups in a community to access and use, but not destroy, common resources to supply their needs. For example, rather than each individual in a community of a hundred people owning an electric drill, we can keep three or four electric drills in a tool library to effectively serve everyone’s need for a drill when they need it. When we get rid of car-dependency, we can share the few electric vehicles we manufacture to serve needs that cannot be filled by bikes or by our newly-transformed public transportation systems. And so on and so forth. Watch my library economy video for more information. Another way to reduce energy and material use is to transform our agriculture systems.
The way we currently feed the world is unequal, inefficient, environmentally degrading, and energy wasting, especially when current patterns of consumption lead to up to 50% of all the food that’s produced in the world being wasted each year. We cannot keep treating farms like factories. It is incoherent with the demands of the living world. We can either rapidly scale down to more localised permaculture- and regenerative-based agricultural systems, supported by nearby communities through cropsharing and supplemented by urban gardens, hydroponics, cultured meat, and aquacultures OR we can continue as we going with the old agriculture systems until we run out of fossil fuels, our soils are all dead, and the population starts succumbing to the greatest famine the planet has ever seen.
It’s our choice. I for one will be advocating for and trying to build food autonomy in my area as much as possible and fighting for whatever it takes to cut down on waste so that we can rewild more farmland and sequester more carbon to recover the Earth. Lastly, we need to scale down or get rid of certain especially destructive industries.
Agriculture was just one example, and even within agriculture there are certain particularly harmful offenders, such as the beef industry, which is responsible for the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Getting rid of the beef industry alone would liberate over 28 million square kilometres of land, almost the size of Africa, and cut down on nearly 20% of annual emissions. Factory farming as a whole is very environmentally destructive. We need to cut down on meat consumption and ideally replace it with cultured alternatives as much as possible. The pandemic has already shown us which industries are actually essential.
The fossil fuels industry, the arms industry, and the private jet industry, all need to go. Obviously. The automobile industry and commercial airline industry have to slim down drastically. We can reduce all of these industries and more, thereby reducing the flows of material goods, thereby reducing the stocks that support those flows like factories, warehouses, and trucks, thereby reducing the amount of energy and infrastructure required to produce, maintain, and operate all of it, all while directing our efforts and energy toward things that actually improve human welfare.
These steps to scale down total energy use should be taken by a broad range of affinity groups and especifist organisations in mass movements, popular assemblies in communities, and unions of all varieties, not waiting for the state but going beyond it. Some of these steps may be achieved by concessions won from the state, but let those concessions fuel us to go further still, not slip into the complacency of electoralism, until we are in direct control of all the spheres of our lives. Workers cooperatives, councils, and unions can collaborate to transform, reduce, or eliminate their respective industries, freeing more and more people of burdensome, unnecessary, and bs jobs.
Like I spoke about in my anti-work video, we need a quantitative and qualitative shift in work. Quantitatively, we need to cut down on the amount of work being done, by a significant margin, because most work today is simply useless, if not actively damaging, and unnecessarily time-consuming. We don’t need the 40 hour work week.
Qualitatively, we need to take the activities we enjoy and need to do to promote human welfare and self-organise them, through cooperatives and other groups, in ways that promote self-actualisation and community. We don’t need bosses. The whole concept of full employment, which is impossible to achieve under capitalism, would be turned on its head. No one would necessarily be “employed” in the traditional sense, but through flexible self-organisation everything that needs to get done gets done while people are free to engage in caring, learning, socialising, exercising, crafting, building, creating, and everything else.
This kind of post-work, post-growth library economy can only function through the establishment of an irreducible minimum, which is the guaranteed provision of the means necessary to sustain life, the level of living that no one should ever fall below, regardless of the size of their individual contribution to the community. This includes access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare, internet, and transportation organised through the commons by affinity groups and popular assemblies. The commons can only succeed through collective decision making power; we cannot outsource this revolutionary transition to government agencies, corporations, or parties. Without a renewed access to the commons, a reversal of the enclosure of common wealth and creation of scarcity that allowed capitalism to rise to prominence, we cannot achieve a post-growth economy. The abundance of the commons are an antidote to the growth imperative. We can use community land trusts (CLTs), food and clothing banks, libraries of things, and cohousing cooperatives to lay the foundation of those commons as our social revolution is building its momentum.
It’s important to emphasise the social aspects of this revolution. Not only will we be liberating ourselves from the growth imperative in the economic sphere, but we will also be liberating ourselves from the ways that the growth imperative has shaped our technologies, education, identities, institutions, and even our cultural norms and values. Our mindsets will need to shift, our relationships are going to evolve, and while such a necessarily rapid transition may be disorienting for many, I believe it will be a worthwhile shift. Believe it or not, the Earth can recover. Scientists have found that across ecosystems, it takes an average of only 66 years for a forest to recover 90% of its old-growth biomass.
That’s within many of our lifetimes. In some cases, the transformation has even happened in less time. Rainforests in Costa Rica were able to regrow in as little as 21 years, pulling an extraordinary amount of carbon out of the atmosphere. If we act quickly, we can see change sooner than we think.
Through degrowth, we can open and expand spaces for healing, recovery, and repair. So to summarise, my interpretation of degrowth or post-growth, is essentially an anti-capitalist idea that challenges the dominant growth imperative and prompts a planned, collectively organised restructuring of the economy and downscaling of energy and resource use to transition the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just, and equitable way. Degrowth means a reduction of production and consumption in the Global North and liberation from neocolonial exploitation in the Global South so that we can self-determine an ecologically sustainable path to human flourishing. Degrowth means decolonisation of lands, of people, and of our minds.
Degrowth means the creation of open, connected, steady state, and localised library economies. Degrowth means the establishment of autonomous bodies of democratic decision-making in all spheres of life. Degrowth means an economy and a society that sustains the natural basis of life. Degrowth means striving for a self-determined life in dignity and abundance for all.
All power to all the people. Peace.