Notes on Progress: Degrowth and the monkey's paw
Fifteen years ago, when I worked in the “social innovation” field, there was a world-view that was very popular among my colleagues about what was wrong with society and how to fix it.
The idea was that people and governments needed to stop seeing economic growth as a good thing, and that by doing so, we could build a world that paid more attention to important things like environmental sustainability and happiness. By the later 2000s, this view seemed well established among British progressives, with support from reports by think-tanks like the New Economics Foundation that fleshed out a vision of a “Great Transition” and how “Growth Isn’t Possible”, and books like Tim Jackson’s best-selling Prosperity Without Growth.
There were a few distinct flavours of the degrowth vision. There were the optimistic pragmatists who thought we could fix things through practical projects like teaching schoolkids meditation and measuring Gross National Happiness. At the heavier end, there were the cool but slightly scary Dark Mountain guys, who thought the apocalypse was inevitable and that the best we could hope for was to cultivate a sense of equanimity while the world burned.
But everyone seemed to agree that economic growth needed to take a back seat, and that as the pursuit of GDP receded, it would make space for nobler things, like environmentalism and self-actualisation.
The other thing everyone tacitly agreed on is that this vision would be good for the left in a broad sense, that it was “progressive”, and that people who opposed it had a bad Tory vibe. Even the actual Tories seemed to agree—to the extent that the Cameroons embraced this agenda (hugging huskies and instructing the Office for National Statistics to measure wellbeing), it was clear to everyone that this was a break from their traditional image.
So, a decade and a half later, how has this vision panned out?
Well, the “abandoning economic growth” bit has gone surprisingly well. If you’re in the UK, you’re probably familiar with the ONS’s statistics showing what has happened to productivity—the UK’s output per hour worked—since the late 2000s. They make grim reading for economists, with growth close to zero, and far below the pre-2008 trend.
But from a degrowth point of view, this looks like a success story. If you turn the graph upside down, they actually show that the UK has been remarkably successful in weaning itself off its growth addiction. I’m surprised that supporters of degrowth don’t celebrate these charts more.
What they certainly don’t show is a country addicted to growth at all costs, a charge you sometimes hear levelled at Britain.
But progressive supporters of degrowth would no doubt argue that the rest of their agenda has not been delivered. They argue that the UK’s economy still produces an unsustainable amount of carbon and consumes an unsustainable quantity of resources. The economy seems to be doing an even less satisfactory job at meeting people’s needs, with stagnant wage growth and housing dramatically less affordable. And the cultural climate of the UK has developed in ways that degrowth advocates generally dislike, from a rise in anti-immigration politics to the virulence of the so-called culture wars—and of course, Brexit, which the progressive growth-sceptics I know mostly opposed.
For the most part, they blame these bad things on the forces of economic growth. Our economy is still dirty and wages are low because capitalists are addicted to the pursuit of ever-increasing profits. Housing is expensive because of gentrification and financialisation, both of which they associate with the pursuit of economic growth. And the culture wars are a psy-op, a confected movement created by capitalist villains like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers to distract voters from their (bad, pro-growth) economic machinations. The implication is that we just need to push even harder against the forces of economic growth, and the vision of a greener, nicer world would be realised.
But I can’t help thinking that there’s a different explanation for what has happened. Perhaps, when my friends wished for degrowth and thought it would lead to environmentalism and to a focus on what really matters, they were correct—just not in exactly the way they expected. Perhaps their wish was granted, but the Monkey’s Paw twitched.
Take the environment. The UK economy has been getting greener since 2008, but, it seems, not fast enough to meet its targets. So why is it hard to decarbonise our energy systems? The rules against wind turbines and solar farms weren’t lobbied for by top-hatted capitalists, but by campaigners who think of themselves as protectors of England’s green and pleasant land: not BP and Shell, but the CPRE and the RSPB and countless local groups, and politicians seeking to accommodate them.
The backbone of these groups is largely comfortably-off people who have no desperate need for economic growth, and who sincerely believe they are protecting nature and the environment. For many people, “the environment” is less about ppm of atmospheric carbon and more about the view when they walk their dog; this is after all, a venerable environmental tradition stretching back to William Morris and beyond. They are pursuing what they see as a just environmental cause, and they don’t mind if it reduces growth—it just so happens that this particular flavour of environmentalism increases rather than reduces carbon emissions.
The same logic plays out when it comes to housing. If you accept the argument that Britain’s high housing costs have anything to do with our inability to build enough new housing to meet demand, you have to reckon with the fact that opposition to new building comes from people who for the most part claim to stand for protecting communities, protecting the countryside, and opposing “corporate greed”. It’s precisely the sort of altruistic social action you would expect to see in a post-growth society—it’s just that it exacerbates a major social problem and, most likely, is a major driver of inequality.
These trends seem to have been on display in the recent local election results, where we’ve seen remarkable wins by the Green Party not in trendy bohemian towns, but in rural areas (like Mid Suffolk where they took control of the local council) in no small part by opposing housing development.
And then there are the culture wars, the endless fighting over “wokeness”, Brexit, and a whole host of social justice issues. I’m generally sceptical of the claim that these debates are confected by the media, or by some other malign elite actors: casual empiricism suggests that significant groups of people really do care about these issues, and sincerely disagree about things they think are important. If this is true, it seems to me that intense culture wars are exactly what you’d expect in a post-growth world, in which people focus less on the pursuit of material things and more on culture, community and what matters to them.
It’s just that people don’t agree with each other on what matters to them: for some people, what really matters might be nationhood and sovereignty, or traditional gender roles, or being surrounded by people of the same community and ethnicity, just as for other people what matters might include diversity, inclusion and social justice. By this logic, the culture wars aren’t a fake phenomenon made up by growth-oriented media moguls to distract people from the negative consequences of economic growth, they’re entirely earnest, and the predictable result of people having a lot more mental bandwidth to worry about “what really matters”.
As the last pagan Roman emperor lay dying, contemplating the demise of the old gods and the end of the ancient world, he is supposed to have uttered the words vicisti, Galilaee—“you have won, Galilean”. Perhaps we should acknowledge that the advocates of degrowth have won, at least for the time being, and the world we see around us is—perhaps inadvertently—a world of their making.