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Degrowth or Decadence
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Thinking in terms of degrowth does not mean breaking with growth, but rather with the ideology of accumulation. Degrowing means a decision to revalue things and our relations with our surroundings. It's worth asking ourselves which we would choose: a calm degrowth or an unsustainable social pressure? By Ramón Alcoberro.


7th September 2012 - Published by Mother Pelican / Barcelona Metropolis

Philosophers are not greatly enamoured with the economy because it shows the most brutal side of us humans. Or, rather, they do not like the moral of avarice (one of the Christian sins) that underlies a conservative economy and, above all, they detest the liberal anthropological presupposition that is trotted out as if it were a dogma of economic faith. Conventionally, liberal economists presuppose that their science is founded on the existence of a model individual called homo oeconomicus, whose nature we might roughly define as being intelligently selfish. In theory, markets are governed by the decisions taken by a subject defined as being nothing less than a person who ‘maximises his/her options, rational in decision making and selfish in behaviour'. The hypothetically rational market revolves around the decisions taken by this abstract vision of a human behaviour that supposedly acts as a hyper-rational calculator when it comes to choosing between the various options available. And to hammer the point home, people would have to be "completely mad" - according to Adam Smith - if they did not act consciously to their own advantage.

The debate about human nature that underlies the ideas of the liberal economists is fascinating. If every person seeks happiness - argue the classical economists - and supposing that money brings happiness since it permits security and possession, then human beings ought to be defined in terms of their accumulation. This, then, would be the real world no matter how much philosophers - in the end, featherbrained dreamers ­- rattle on about how human beings also have the capacity to express solidarity and have communal virtues that can not be explained by a theory based on rational accumulation. Philosophers enjoy themselves greatly coining phrases like "we are homo sapiens, not homo oeconomicus", though when it comes down to it, they behave just as rationally and acquisitively as everyone else. Accumulating and growing constitutes "the be all and end all" of liberalism, but it is what everyone does - even the readers of Pierre Bourdieu - whether their conscience is troubled or not. Let's be clear: homo oeconomicus is not miserly. At most, miserliness might be an antecedent, because avarice, like it or not, is a passion with a blind spot; good economy, on the other hand, is based on rational calculation and prudent husbandry. Avarice smacks a little of the failings of the Ancien Régime for, in the end, it is short-sighted, too immediate and predictable. Plutarch said that "drink allays the desire of drink, food is a remedy for hunger, yet gold never allays the craving for money". The old miser thought in terms of acquiring, accumulating, without necessarily putting the money to any good use. On the other hand, for an oeconomicus, a child of the Enlightenment, the economy is fluid and it is no longer a question of selling your soul, but rather of getting the highest price. And to do this, you need very little: basically, to compare alternatives and be coherent in your choice, always choosing the option in which income is greater than expenses. That, and nothing else, is being ‘rational'.

The difficult economy of the philosopher

A good oeconomicus, however, would not allow himself to be dazzled by gold, nor by the sub-primes, because he knows that the economic world is governed by laws of longer-term rational strategy. As somebody once said about the soul, the most he might be willing to do is to rent it out, not sell it outright. It is clear that the moral philosopher sees little difference between the attitudes of the miser and the homo oeconomicus, qualifying both of them as moral idiots since they confuse wealth with happiness, and the part with the whole. In Chapter 4 of Utilitarianism, Mill spelt it out explicitly: "money is not desired in order to achieve an end, rather it forms part of the end; [however] from being an end that enables happiness, it has become the main ingredient in some individualistic conceptions of happiness".

The philosopher would rather have a moral economy that did not focus on productivity, but on happiness, and can not help wondering, a little naively to be sure, why increases in economic growth should be accompanied by an increase in the consumption of tranquilisers. In addition (apparently this is known as the ‘Pareto optimum'), it turns out that from a certain level of use of a good, the pleasure to be obtained from that good begins to decline dangerously, to the extent that an increase in accumulation does not necessarily lead to greater happiness. In other words, if we have one jumper, buying or otherwise obtaining another one will double our sense of well-being; but when someone has thirty jumpers, getting a new one does not make them any happier and, at most, means they will have problems finding somewhere to put it. In these conditions, the question the philosopher poses is very simple: once you have obtained a certain level of well-being or happiness, is it worth striving for more, or would it not be better to live a more relaxed life devoted, perhaps, to pleasures of a more immaterial kind or, at least, to ones which are difficult to express in quantifiable terms?

The question, of course, might be disregarded as cynical, but that takes nothing away from its relevance. It is almost a cliché now to recall that in Greek there were two words to describe what we now call economics: oikonomia was simply the prudent administration of the household and, by extension, the city, the ‘common home'; on the other hand, krematistiké involved something dishonourable since it dealt with mere acquisitiveness without any reference to the quality of life. The economic gurus say that when krematistiké gets out of hand, the only thing it leads to is a period of speculative growth followed by drastic contraction, in the form of an economic crisis. The philosopher, we know, is ill-prepared to accept the impurities and dross of the world.

When discussing ethics, though, the liberal economist has some arguments to deploy against the moral philosopher. If the ideology of growth has reigned supreme since the time of the industrial revolution, this cannot simply be fortuitous. It forms part of the very logic of the Enlightenment - the promise of a better life on earth rather than in heaven. And increasing the size of the cake is the only way we know that ensures this possibility. Asking people to ‘voluntarily impoverish themselves' can even seem to contain a touch of cruelty when the memory of misery and hunger, especially in countries like ours, so recently admitted to the club of wealthy nations, is still too fresh. In the final analysis, supposing that a ‘moral order' is in principle preferable to an economic order means taking for granted many things - for instance, the knowledge that such an order will neatly fit we imperfect humans rather than saints and prophets. Something that is, to say the least, difficult for the philosopher to demonstrate.

Growing, degrowing, sustaining ourselves?

However, in the current debate about ecological thought, the philosopher is beginning to find he is no longer so alone or misunderstood. Not only Daniel Kahneman with his behavioural economics has demonstrated the centrality of emotional factors in economic decision taking. The more traditional studies about ‘ethical economics' (which looked at social responsibility, ethical banking, the cooperative movement...) have opened the door to the debate on degrowth. This began in France instigated by Serge Latouche, who picked up on the studies by the US-based Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, author of The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971).

More and more economists are convinced that the classic growth model is taking us down a dead-end. Indefinite growth is incompatible with a finite system (such as the planet Earth), because inevitably resources will run out. Growth produces jobs and wealth (at least short-term wealth), but also prejudices the future of the planet and is leading us to destroy our environment (a form of capital we are squandering), in such a way that we are ‘consuming as if there was no tomorrow'. Without economic growth, poverty increases, but with economic growth the destruction of the planet accelerates. And so far we have found no way out of this contradiction.

At the moment, there are three macroeconomic models squaring off against each other: growth policies, sustainable development and degrowth policies.

Growth policies today correspond to the logic of oeconomicus: they are characterised by the idea of promoting consumption in a more or less Keynesian way; that is, with the direct participation of the public authorities through policies that make private saving impossible ("today's rentier is a current account holder"), obligating people to consume or else run the risk of their money losing its value. Consumption produces jobs and it is necessary to consume no-matter-what, with all kinds of psychological control mechanisms (marketing) being employed to that end. Public works (roads, water distribution systems) help big business, promote private transport and, above all, promote a key concept: that of ‘built-in obsolescence'; things have to have a short working life to ensure spending remains high. Meanwhile, fashion and the media act as allies in the task of increasing consumption by creating necessity. The question is whether this position, in the long run, is sustainable and, above all, what kind of happiness can be derived from living in this way.

But if the path to growth raises doubts - and not just in Barcelona, but all around the world - perhaps this means that the time has come to think about a reformist alternative of ‘degrowth': a personal decision to opt for voluntary simplicity that, like it or not, will be bound up with education, with a preferential concern for those who suffer and a lifestyle that, though still that of only a minority, is perhaps convenient. Degrowth can draw on the experiences of minority groups who for many years now have practised voluntary sobriety. It might be worth considering at the moment as an academic option rather than a political option, because of the very obsolescence of the concept of growth at a time of climate change and expensive energy (to say nothing of the banking crisis). The question is whether ethics (the rational brain) can impose itself on the reptilian, acquisitive brain.

The Marseilles ship

Please don't think me anti-patriotic if I say that one of the most depressing days in Barcelona in the last few years was 15th May 2008, when a tanker loaded with drinking water arrived in the city's port from Marseilles. The water was to supply a city that was going through a chronic drought, and an even more chronic episode of fear. It is not a question of self-flagellation, but that day, something snapped in the interior of many people when they were made all too aware of the feebleness of their supplies, the dreadful lack of institutional support and the political complicities involved in that ‘great bewitchment' ("for all your failings, you are ours, ours!") that reached a new nadir during those days.

The cycle of the Olympic myth (so beautiful while it lasted) was broken by one of the harshest and most unusual droughts this country has seen in the last one hundred and fifty years. If the philosopher were Hegelian, he would say that the antithesis was imposing itself on the thesis. Afterwards, of course, our unpredictable climate ‘normalised itself' (a Catalan word to describe something which is impossible!) and my fellow citizens forgot about the Marseilles ship. If we have learnt anything from the nightmarish drought, it is that in our calculations not everything can be an addition. Some dreams of growth secretly carry with them the announcement of an even more unbalanced and decadent (meaning irreversible) crisis than that implied by the philosopher's polite suggestion that perhaps one day we might need to accept our limits.

The nightmares of the arrival of the AVE, the climatic problems, the blackout of July 2007, the difficult transformation of an industrial city into a post-industrial one (thinking about 22@), etc., apart from confronting us with the unpleasant reality of the loss of many of the complicities we thought we had, and that turned to dust, might also help us to question ourselves about how we should situate ourselves from now on in this new period in which the city has shown itself to be vulnerable and far from happy with itself.

Degrowth: an ugly word or a necessity?

I am well aware that degrowth is a very harsh word, one that to the bien-pensants sounds almost like an insult. Further, I know that in what was, just thirty years ago, a ‘developing country', degrowth might even sound cruel. Yet it seems to me urgent that we start thinking about degrowth before an environmental crisis imposes it on us in the form of an emergency, and who knows, perhaps a violent one. Before the city becomes excessively aggressive and it is impossible to enjoy life because it has become too expensive, it is worth asking ourselves what ‘cost/city' we are prepared to put up with (in terms of pollution, discomfort, etc.) before we simply have to say stop. My becoming a supporter of ordered degrowth should not be taken to mean that I've turned into someone who favours a rural life (when all is said and done, when the residents of Barcelona arrive in l'Empordà they bring Barcelona with them), and even less that I am demanding the creation of a ‘green city' (I am all too aware that cities are grey) or that I have fallen for some, more or less naïve Rousseauian illusion. Simply, I am one of those who think that we need to voluntarily place some limits on growth before our obsession with growing turns into a nightmare, and one with a lesser or greater shortage of water.

I accept that the very word ‘degrowth' has something depressing about it. Brought up on the theory that says ‘the more, the better' and convinced that only big things are powerful, proposing that we choose to degrow seems like an attempt to justify a priori a defeat. But be careful, you objectors to the word: ‘our' degrowth has got nothing to do with ‘your' economic recession. Rather, the opposite; it is growth that produces crises. An economic crisis is often sudden, even brutal, in an emotional sense. Degrowing means trying to think about how to produce a soft landing, and about putting the emphasis on the welfare of people and the quality of life.

Crises come when almost nobody is expecting it, and sometimes they come so quickly that they can block or impede medium-term thought; on the other hand, degrowth can only come in a pre-meditated way, by freely opting for a different model, one that stresses human relations and the quality of life rather than productivity. Neither is it a matter of making pedagogy out of a catastrophe. If a recession occurs, it's because of a mistaken model, not a cosmic design. Simply, an economic model has been chosen that is designed to maximise growth - one that confuses great with grandiose - and not to procure the well-being of people. Put even more simply, having reached a certain level of consumption, the only thing we can expect of this model are contradictions, for consumption no longer resolves necessities, it creates them.

Crisis, or soft landing?

Thus, to expect that degrowth will arrive in a sudden, brutal way (as a result of economic collapses, or bound up with uncontrollable levels of unemployment, for example) is, apart from being cruel, completely unjustified. One of the biggest mistakes of the ecologists is their absurd ‘pedagogy of catastrophe'. History demonstrates that when confronted with catastrophes, victory normally to the most outrageously selfish, or in the worst cases, to the totalitarian solutions of a Hitler or a Stalin. When we speak of degrowth, the proposal is very different: it is not a matter of confessing (shamefacedly) that the city ‘can not', but rather of proclaiming (proudly) that the city ‘doesn't want to'. Faced with a bleak situation (unemployment, closure of factories), it is necessary to take some time to design a civic form of degrowth that takes nourishes the idea of the amiable city, that puts the rights of children and the elderly before the rights of cars, with (if necessary) a bit of demagogy.

Growth and degrowth are not concepts that are mutually contradictory. Rather, the opposite: there is danger in a chaotic degrowth if we continue thinking in terms of an economy that has lost sight of the human dimension, and the antidote must be knowing how to degrow appropriately, eliminating the absurd mannerisms of the nouveau riche that, now we are on the subject, seem to me to be a direct attack on a plural and Mediterranean way of life. A way of life perhaps less rich in monetary terms, but infinitely richer in terms of the social capital known as community well-being.

Thinking in terms of degrowth does not mean breaking with growth, but rather with the ideology of accumulation. Degrowing means a decision to revalue things and our relations with our surroundings. If we were to think about what price we would put on our emotional equilibrium, it might well be much easier to understand that, having reached a certain level, having ‘more' might end up meaning having less.

I understand that a discourse in favour of degrowth represents an attack on what is understood to be ‘good practice' in terms of the economy, but having come this far, it might be worth asking ourselves if the ‘standard of living' is not becoming incompatible with the notion of quality of life. Could we not promote community experiences (at the neighbourhood or city levels) that are not necessarily evaluated by the quantity of money spent, but rather by the happiness or emotions that might be unleashed as a result?

The real choice that can just be glimpsed on the horizon is not that between growth and degrowth, but rather between recession (wild degrowth) and (civic) degrowth. Of course the mirage of growth will continue to form part of the official discourse, and not because of any supposed hypocrisy on the part of the politicians, but rather because the social democratic cliché, that the only way to diminish poverty is to increase the size of the cake, continues to circulate. Growth is a sedative for social tensions, say the manuals. According to official economic theory, only growth guarantees the reduction of inequalities and, since we are richer, diminishes the urgency of facing the question of wealth distribution - the concept of justice, to put it in classical terms. Degrowth might prove to be problematic because it places in the very centre the unavoidable question of the criteria of justice. But between you and me, even worse would be the scenario of expensive energy, unemployment, political demands and ‘anti-rich' strikes, if I can put it like that.

Voluntary degrowth or recession?

It's worth asking ourselves which we would choose: a calm degrowth or an unsustainable social pressure? The question we must face is whether the consequences of changing the model would be worse than those of maintaining a system that conceives of people as mere factors of production, that stimulates the use of antidepressants and that, in short, atomises us by denying us the qualitative and community dimensions. Degrowth should not mean ‘doing well' (well for the environment, for example) that which capitalism does in an ill-tempered and sad way. Just the opposite: it means going against the logic of acquisitiveness that produces so much unhappiness in people and so many gleeful statistics.

Degrowth means opting for the development of quality of life in the lives of real, specific people (the people of my neighbourhood, for example), rather than the empty discourses of abstract solidarity. Degrowth is refusing to see everything in economic terms, terms that know about numbers but ignore the pain of individual people. Degrowth means freeing yourself from what today is defined as the necessity of owning cars and televisions and deciding instead to read (a form of entertainment without commercial breaks), to watch street theatre and to converse. Degrowth is about asking yourself what the point is of a mobile telephone and why we have to eat vegetables produced with pesticides. Degrowth is about opting for the train, for consuming local produce, for vegetarianism (or, at least, for reducing the amount of meat we consume). Degrowth is about refusing to accept that all reality can be summed up by reference to economics. Or, if you prefer, it's about struggling against mental confusion. As Epicure suggested, perhaps the best way to increase our happiness is to reduce our needs. Those wise old men never get it wrong. 


Ramón Alcoberro is Professor of Ethics at the Universitat de Girona, Spain. He is the author of several books on philosophy and ethics, and administrator of the Filosofia i Pensament website.

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