Urban Metabolism and Degrowth, part 2


It continues Part 1’s discussion of two readings: “Democracies with a future: Degrowth and the democratic tradition,” by Marco Deriu, and “De-growth: Do you realise what it means?” by Ted Trainer

Co-authored with Robert Bailey

Manif EPR Lyon Bellecour banderole décroissance

The Party for Degrowth, rally in Lyon, 2007. © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

How We Get to Degrowth

Degrowth is not austerity. Austerity aims to rescue growth economies during “bust” periods by controlling consumption, i.e. it seeks to maintain growth over the long run. Degrowth, by contrast, aims at establishing a new equilibrium such that the system does not need to grow more. In terms of metabolism, degrowth is akin to dieting (not, that is, to starving), so that the economy or organism avoids being “overgrown” or “overweight.” Degrowth and austerity are deceptively close, because both involve reduced consumption. But they fundamentally differ in that austerity makes economies safe for growth, while dieting helps organisms stop growing.

Existing, familiar notions like “lean,” “stripped down,” and “streamlined,” help convey how degrowth will feel, and, ironically, as Trainer notes, growth-based economies already possess mechanisms for generating efficiency that can be repurposed toward degrowing. Accordingly, terms including “thrift,” “modesty,” “moderation,” “discipline,” “responsibility,” “appropriateness,” and “frugality” help convey which attitudes and behaviors can foster degrowth. But like austerity, degrowth can appear undesirable; telling people to expect at-home DIY waste processing is not good rhetoric. Composting toilets don’t sell social change.

Framing degrowth as something like a “civilizational diet” pushes two concerns to the fore. First, how to convince people with diverse interests that “dieting” supports these interests? Second, how to confront the inevitable backlash against that conviction? It may be easier to take these questions in reverse, for approaches to convincing people should preempt perceivable obstacles.

Capitalism and the culture that enables it are the major sources of backlash. It seems highly unlikely that, at a time when economic forces operate with extraordinarily lax regulation and oversight, any capitalist economy is likely to pursue a program that fundamentally runs counter to its most basic motive: profit. Degrowth is something of a euphemism for anti-capitalism: it seeks to counter the greed and gluttony that put the capitalist process into perpetual motion and expansion, melting, in Marx’s famous image, material environments “into air.” Moreover, capitalism does a very good job convincing people to think and act against their own best interests. Evoking Deriu, we should also sniff out political unfreedom masquerading as economic freedom.

Bastille - a la gloire - décroissance 2386

Graffiti for degrowth on monument at the Place de la Bastille, Paris

Given this, it seems fair to ask whether contemporary conditions allow for something like Deriu’s proposed democratic revival to flourish and curb growth. It might be that only a more authoritarian and minoritarian political takeover—presumably through violence or the threat of violence—could feasibly enact the changes necessary for degrowth. In today’s United States, which represents about 5% of global population but controls about 25% of global wealth, 60% of people have a positive image of the term “capitalism” as opposed to 35% who feel positively about the term “socialism.” The fact that a majority of millennials has a negative impression of capitalism leaves us more hopeful, though just 33% support socialism. Still, the world’s billionaires enjoy an hegemony that automatically reproduces itself, in part by the retention of growth as the preferred metric of economic health. Obviously that would have to change for degrowth to take hold. Something like quality of life or justice must replace a measurement that inherently skews toward the perpetuation of the status quo. As things stand, the game is rigged in favor of growth and against any consensus-based approaches to politicizing the economy. Any serious effort to de-emphasize growth would probably be countered by capitalists unwilling to forfeit their privileges.

In the face of inevitable backlash from forces invested in growth, how is it possible to convince people that degrowth is better? The best checks against growth are people phobic to it who accordingly maintain institutions that oppose it, and thereby reproduce that very phobia. Most diets are fads, however, and few people possess the self-discipline required to curb their own worst impulses. They revert to bad habits. The educational and moral changes that Deriu and Trainer recommend can certainly help, and will eventually be necessary to maintaining degrowth as a civilizational program. But other-than-democratic means may be necessary to jumpstart degrowth; notably, democracies tend not to be founded democratically.

Here, the metaphors of metabolism become helpful for envisioning means toward the ends of degrowth and associated social goods. One key function of metabolism is determining which intakes are nutritious and which are poisonous, and these vary from organism to organism. If degrowth is to be undertaken, convincing people may be less important than discovering which substances are poisonous to capitalism but nutritious to a non-capitalist economic system. Of course we are not suggesting poisoning individual capitalists! The point of the “metabolism” metaphor is that it encourages thinking about inputs and outputs of the economic system; the idea is to make the continued pursuit of growth undesirable and ineffective, like eating tainted food or overdosing on medication. To make degrowth preferable, growth must acquire the tinge of toxicity.

The Politics and Economics of Urban Metabolism

Degrowth can be construed as the outcome of pursuing the “reduce, reuse, recycle” (the “3 R’S”) philosophy of resource usage. Ultimately, from the “metabolism” perspective, at issue is how inputs and outputs get managed. This involves processes that occur at various scales, ranging from the individual human being’s consumption of energy and materials to consumption and production patterns at the level of the species as a whole. The more that the 3 R’S are pursued, the sooner degrowth and conjunctive socio-political transformations will arise.

  1. Small: Individuals can make decisions about the metabolic effects of their own activities within larger systems. Decisions can take place at work: strikes, slow work, work-to-rule, sabotage. They can also happen in consumer spaces: boycotts, refusals, campaigns. Other activities where resource use is self-consciously managed—home gardening, composting, converting unused space into useful space, reusing unused objects, and so forth—can also be effective. Such actions require no consensus. Individuals can choose to take them alone or with other similarly inclined individuals. But not every person is able to take them, and their impact is extraordinarily small. Whether or not one person uses their air conditioner irresponsibly merely impacts that person’s electricity bill and Freon usage.
  2. Medium: Within an individual’s immediate social context are various institutions in which they take part. Workplaces, interest groups, communities of worship, cooperatives, civic organizations, publicly traded companies, and so on are all groups in which individuals can advocate for degrowth; they are also institutions within which people make collective decisions about resource usage. At this scale, transformations can still be affected quickly, as only tens, hundreds, or thousands of individuals are involved and procedures of direct democracy can be advocated and employed. This speed is counteracted by the still relatively limited impact of decisions made and the increasing possibility of compromised decisions because individuals have to work toward consensus.
  3. Large: This is the scale of entities (like nations and corporations) that possess sovereignty and are therefore law-giving, law-enforcing, and law-interpreting powers. It is the level at which some of the most important decisions can be made. However, they are also among the most difficult decisions to make, as the competing interests of individuals and organizations begin to conflict, making consensus difficult or even impossible. Cities, nations, and other intermediate sovereign bodies can require or prohibit certain actions concerning resource usage. Regulation is the keyword here, and it is up to those who represent others to regulate human activity in ways conducive to degrowth. Unfortunately, this is also the scale at which real competition from the agents of growth begins to make consensus difficult, and at which individual influence dwindles to insignificance.
  4. Extra-large: At present, this scale does not exist in a significant enough way to have a meaningful impact on growth. Nevertheless, we can speculate about what it would look like. Analogous to the medium scale’s relation to the small scale, the extra-large scale would be the location for a consensus-making mechanism for institutions at the large scale. That is, it would include a set of institutions larger than nations and corporations that have legally-binding authority over otherwise sovereign entities. Models for such super-entities exist: the United Nations, the WHO, the World Bank, and so forth. However, their meaningful impact as a curb to the wants and desires of entities such as cities and nations are not as significant as, for instance, a workplace’s demands on the individual. What we lack at the species level are the kinds of deliberative bodies capable of making binding decisions about resource usage that would supersede the sovereignty of entities currently allowed to withdraw from climate treaties or disobey tribunals. The December 2015 Paris climate accords, for example, are entirely voluntary.

Achieving the extra-large scale will require consensus making at and between the other three scales, driven by some compulsion. We recall Cindy Rosenthal’s observation on this blog that when the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, some U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh, declared they would re-join, thus putting cities alongside nations in a consensus-building process. We also echo Gabrielle Hecht’s recent call to recognize the politics of scale and develop “interscalar” approaches to knowing and inhabiting the Anthropocene. Because our economy is global, it is time for global governance capable of politicizing that economy in the interests of people. Paradoxically, we might need a kind of institutional growth—the emergence of the extra-large scale—to achieve degrowth. The persistent localism advocated by Trainer and Deriu tends to cloud the need for coordinating smaller-scale with larger-scale work. We thus return, in a way, to older ecological calls for planetary action on a planetary scale.

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