Overview:

Degrowth came under fire in two pieces by fellow OnlySky writer Adam Lee. I disagree with his arguments, so in this article, I explore degrowth and use Lee's pieces to highlight missteps we can all learn from in our own argumentation around such themes.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

In Livermore, California, there is a light bulb that never goes out. It was installed in 1901 in a fire station that didn’t realize for many decades what a wonder it had on its hands. The bulb was made by the Shelby Electric Company, with a patented-coil carbon filament eight times thicker than the tungsten standard, and it has survived in working order through multiple moves. If the idea of a light bulb still in full-time operation 121 years later surprises you, that’s because we live in a culture of planned obsolescence. And you can thank a literal light bulb cartel for contributing to such economies, which the more recent degrowth movement looks to address.

The Phoebus cartel, a group of European and U.S. manufacturers, met in December 1924 to hatch a scheme to increase sales. The plan? Standardize a lower life expectancy for their products (1,000 hours instead of 2,500) and engage in price-fixing. And it worked for fifteen years, until World War II disrupted general operations.

Heck, it worked a lot longer, in the grand scheme of things. In 1951, a report delivered to British parliament credulously endorsed the cartel’s claim that 1,000 hours was the only reasonable standard for light bulb manufacture. In the U.S., it wasn’t until 2007, via a bipartisan bill under George W. Bush, that light bulb efficiency was mandated upward. And even then, the gradual roll-out had a January 1, 2020 completion date, so related industries lobbied the sitting president in 2019 for changes. Successfully, of course. When the Department of Energy rolled back energy-efficiency standards in September 2019, it chose industry lobbyists over reducing costs to the U.S. consumer, and over reducing U.S. reliance on coal-generated electric power.

From praxis to theory

Anecdotes like this are fun, aren’t they? They can help to concretize abstract ideas, and remind us of the human factors at play behind even the most elegant economic theory. There’s a significant cultural myth, for instance, that market forces always yield superior products, and that more elaborate technology is always needed to bring about a better world. But many of the world’s crises already have plenty of solutions, as I noted in my World Water Day piece on the abundance of drought-fighting tech. The problem is that in the U.S. (as in so many other places) shareholders and industry lobbyists play an outsized role in the regulatory game, and hold back the level of innovation we could achieve in an economy with different priorities.

This brings me to the economic questions recently raised by a fellow OnlySky writer. While I was busy introducing solarpunk humanism, Adam Lee published “Why degrowth is wrong,” a piece with which I vehemently disagreed. But I was happy to see commenters engage with the column, and went about my business (plenty of dissent to go around!). This week, though, Lee published “Why degrowth is (still) wrong”, a response to degrowth-specialist Timothée Parrique’s critiques, and… I still disagreed.

So here we are. Healthily dissenting on what it will take to build a better world.

For the new arrivals: What is degrowth?

Degrowth emerged in the 1970s, but really took off in the 2000s, in conjunction with rising concerns about climate change, income equality, and global development. It has a significantly French history, which is why many in the U.S. might have missed the boat when it first coalesced (around the same time that France and the U.S. disagreed over the legitimacy of war in Iraq). Degrowth emerged in 2002 around a UNESCO-site conference, and found purchase in the journal S¡lence, which published a book on the theme the next year. A dedicated newspaper and journal emerged thereafter, and the idea spread to receptive European states.

At the first international degrowth conference, in Paris in 2008, degrowth was defined as a “voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society.” Today, the same organization has a more nuanced statement:

Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions. Such societies will no longer have to “grow or die.” Material accumulation will no longer hold a prime position in the population’s cultural imaginary. The primacy of efficiency will be substituted by a focus on sufficiency, and innovation will no longer focus on technology for technology’s sake but will concentrate on new social and technical arrangements that will enable us to live convivially and frugally.

Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of GDP as an overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption, a shrinking of the economic system to leave more space for human cooperation and ecosystems.

Research & Degrowth

In the context of climate change, this broad ideal gains added urgency. As population-dense nations rise on the back of transitional, highly polluting technologies, the already high-emitting Western world needs to scale back to offset the former’s impact, and to help the world reach key emission-reduction targets. This means reckoning in large part with our fixation on GDP, a problematic measure for human well-being (i.e., one with diminishing returns), and an ethical nightmare. (Especially when one considers the rising role of financial sector growth in its metric, a phenomenon that hinders real growth—but that’s a post unto itself.)

Alternative models emphasize the importance of reducing income inequality, increasing localized democratic action, and moving towards ecologically sound, sustainable practices by building cultures that prioritize sufficiency and bypass consumerism to excess. Implementations include work-sharing and work-reduction schemes, decentralized action models to reduce community consumption, and the development of more robust welfare states to reduce income inequality.

And of course, moving away from greenhouse-gas-emitting energy sources.

This is where Lee’s posts on the subject come in.

Lee’s anti-degrowth arguments

Two principles are essential when we review others’ argumentation. The first, of course, is that we want to present their arguments as accurately and robustly as possible. What’s the point of knocking down an impoverished version of their claims? The second principle is less often discussed, but still useful: We need to identify the target audience for the piece. Who is this argument for?

First principle: No straw-men

In his first piece, Lee presents the Western lifestyle as consumerist to an extreme that rising nations covet. But if their billions live like us, it will wreak havoc on the environment. Degrowth, as he introduces it, calls upon the West to reduce its lifestyle. Ditch the cars! Leave the big suburban homes! Take up locavore vegetarianism! This, he argues, is awful, but thankfully also unnecessary. What we really need to do is invest in Industrial Revolution 2.0. Although there’s a risk that clean, cheap energy will lead to people using more of it, the technological innovation it powers will surely change the world. And after all, there are those billions of suffering people to consider. As Lee argues, “Humanity needs more economic growth if we’re to have enough for everyone, rather than just a handful of the rich and privileged.”

In his second piece, Lee responds to Timothée Parrique’s critiques. Here, Lee changes his position on the awfulness of ditching cars, increasing urbanism, and healthier diets. He focuses instead on the idea that reducing the economy isn’t necessary: redirecting economic growth is. Industrial Revolution 2.0, with cheap clean energy and automated labor, will offer lives of greater abundance for all. He disagrees with Parrique’s critique of an alternative to degrowth, the idea of “decoupling.” Decoupling suggests that a country can be weaned onto clean energy and still have a robust GDP. And why not? With the cost of clean energy dropping faster than earlier estimates, Lee argues, what could possibly stand in the way?

Lee then concedes that decoupling might not happen fast enough to meet climate-change-reduction targets, but argues that degrowth won’t happen fast enough either. How can it, when it requires a sweeping overhaul of Western lifestyles? People would have to give up malls, e-commerce services, “large private houses,” and supermarkets of plenty. Whole industries would collapse. Tens of millions would have to retrain.

Parrique argued from COVID-19 response patterns that sweeping overhauls can happen, but Lee feels that this data overlooks the temporary nature of pandemic and the resistance even these measures met within certain places. He presents a “proof of concept” for absolute decoupling: a bar graph by Zeke Hausfather that depicts GDP going up as CO2 emissions go down in 32 countries. He closes by noting that there are environmental problems we’ll still need to address, but that he has confidence we can rise even to challenges on that scale.

Second principle: Identify the audience

What struck me, when reading both of these articles, was which parts of the world were centered, and which were not. Arguing for the horror of having to give up cars and “large private houses” with backyards implies a reader who already has or expects to have both. E-commerce delivery companies are part of a gig- and Amazon-based economy that keeps millions underpaid and hustling, but those struggling with income inequality aren’t the target audience, and neither are the vegetarians. And it certainly isn’t the billions of vaguely referenced suffering global citizens. So who is it?

The answer is two-fold. First, these pieces address a comfortable slice of a Western culture that is already, collectively, more affluent than many others. People, in other words, who might have the most to lose in being asked to downsize for climate change. Second, these pieces routinely invite us to imagine that technology will fix all our problems, if we just let economic growth continue to generate innovation: an exciting concept for some technological enthusiasts.

A comprehensive counterpoint needs to acknowledge this target audience, too.

My disagreements with Lee

I think some of my disagreements might be obvious already. Lee’s forcefully-titled pieces argue that degrowth is “wrong,” but the text only ever addresses a thin slice of the degrowth equation. Its democratizing and inequality-reducing components, which are also strongly connected to decentralization of GDP as our key social metric, are not addressed. And the idea of uplifting billions of the Global Other? Not accurately described in his opening depiction of the problem with Western emissions.

Degrowth theorists absolutely recognize, after all, that many nations are in the middle of high-polluting industrial growth that is current unavoidable in the push to lift people from poverty. Western degrowth isn’t meant to dissuade other countries from improving. It’s meant to give these rising billions a better chance of getting through that messy uplift phase, without incurring the consequences of an even worse climate change that we know will hit and devastate their regions more than ours.

Lee also wavers significantly on the consumerist component, at times invoking the fear of losing a comfortably materialist lifestyle and at other times saying that reducing consumerism is a nice, if tangential, idea. But his approach to technology is in more serious error, because his argument holds that economic growth nudged toward green energy will surely reward us with a technological utopia. This paints a benevolent picture of the GDP, and of industries that fuel this national-status metric. Lee’s claim that more economic growth is necessary if we’re ever going to have enough to support everyone is also unduly generous. We already have enough. Its unequal distribution is part of the income-inequality bolstering GDP, which degrowth seeks to reform.

And absolute decoupling?

I’ve already noted, though, that GDP is a troubling metric fueled in part by a financial sector decoupled from real growth, and that growth economies do not intrinsically yield the best technologies anyway. Indeed, there are very strong incentives in a growth economy for companies to skew regulations in their favor, and to suppress innovation and law that could prioritize object sufficiency in product design.

So let’s just focus on the chosen data point in defense of decoupling. This relates to my last piece, on the importance of using caution when raising up individual case studies, and looking carefully at methodology. One consistent problem with arguments for protecting GDP growth by shifting to green energy is the difficulty of leaping from “relative decoupling” to “absolute decoupling.” The former is like improving a car’s fuel consumption: the vehicle still consumes the same fuel, but less of it, while getting its driver where they need to go. (And as a result, the driver might become more ambitious, and want to go further than usual). The latter involves changing the fuel in the tank entirely. And heck, maybe even changing out the car for a bicycle.

Both have a constructive impact, but relative decoupling doesn’t offset overall emissions by nearly enough (in part, because of consumers’ eagerness to use something that costs less). No, the system of “sustainable development” requires absolute decoupling to pay off. And yet, we don’t have robust evidence for the viability of growing GDP while also sufficiently reducing emissions. A 2020 meta-analysis of 835 peer-review articles on decoupling noted the following:

We conclude that large rapid absolute reductions of resource use and GHG [Greenhouse gas] emissions cannot be achieved through observed decoupling rates, hence decoupling needs to be complemented by sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets. More research is needed on interdependencies between wellbeing, resources and emissions.

“A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights”

Did you notice the term “sufficiency-oriented?” There’s a reason degrowth language is present in this meta-analysis. The team broke decoupling literature into three groups:

(1) Green growth, if sufficient reductions of resource use or emissions were deemed possible without altering the growth trajectory. (2) Degrowth, if reductions of resource use or emissions were given priority over GDP growth. (3) Others, e.g. if the role of energy for GDP growth was analyzed without reference to climate change mitigation.

In other words, degrowth is still present even in some decoupling-focused models. It’s a misstep to treat this issue as a matter of strict binaries.

Nevertheless, Lee presents an up-down bar graph by Zeke Hausfather, of The Breakthrough Institute, that shows 32 Western countries with upward-trending GDPs in conjunction with downward-trending territorial emissions from 2005 to 2019. My McNamara fallacy spidey-senses always tingle when I see data visualizations (we humans are nothing if not easily impressed by numbers), so I took a look at surrounding commentary. Lee himself acknowledges that this data point is intended more as a proof of concept: Hausfather zeroed in solely on the countries that seemed to reduce emissions and increase GDP in the same time frame, because he wanted to show that absolute decoupling was not just possible, but happening.

But two issues leaped out immediately. For one, 2005 is a contested start date, an era when emissions peaked in many countries, which can juke the stats around causation for the ensuing decline. 1990, a date related to key international climate change accords, is a more common standard starting point for long-term analysis. And then there’s the way the graph is labeled, and presented. “Territorial emissions” is a catch-all, but in a comment responding to someone’s corrective data for France, Hausfather confirms that he’s only looking at CO2, not all greenhouse gasses, because the latter data is not consistently available. The respondent rightly notes that this should yield more caution in his conclusions about absolute decoupling in action.

In other words, we’re looking at a 3 out of 4 scenario for McNamara Fallacy. Or, as sociologist Daniel Yankelovich described it:

1. Measure whatever can be easily measured. 

2. Disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value.

3. Presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important.

4. Say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist.

Daniel Yankelovich, “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business” (1972)

Lessons for us all

Is Hausfather’s creative graphing an interesting way of sifting through the data to illustrate an economic possibility? Sure. Could there be more robust data in this vein down the line? Absolutely. But at present, we simply don’t have the data to suggest that absolute decoupling is a viable alternative to address even the one, slender portion of degrowth that Lee’s articles argue so forcefully against. It is, at best, a highly ambitious and imaginative starting point: just like the many different pillars of degrowth.

Meanwhile, Lee and I are not experts on this topic, which means that it’s extremely important for us to exercise even more caution than the relevant experts in these fields. Now, caution doesn’t have to mean being tentative, exactly. We’re going to have opinions! But I would argue that it means being judicious about when we choose to make decisive claims such as “X policy position is wrong.”

And yet, I do appreciate that there are many people a) worried about losing their way of life, and b) eager to have automation create a new utopia. I see Lee’s intended audience, and I’d say to them three things:

  1. Change is not the same as zero-sum loss. As our lifestyles shift, so do our opportunities to delight in new forms of wealth, particularly along the lines of social well-being, and homegrown innovation.
  2. Economic growth does not always yield the best technological innovations. We have a terrible track record for top-quality goods precisely because the economy is shaped by far more than a single, highly industry-gamified metric.
  3. Climate change is happening. That’s a given. Some parts of our lifestyles are going to change no matter what economic model we choose. So, we have to make sure we’re embracing adaptation well, and proactively.

This has been a terrific opportunity, though, for reviewing key fallacies and weak argumentation styles to which we’re all susceptible. My original plan today, after all, was to post about my own biases, with respect to knee-jerk responses to the use of indigenous methodologies in anthropology. And I’ll certainly still do that vital work of self-interrogation for you folks next week!

But one of the best parts of being in a community of secular people, with different strengths and weaknesses, biases and subjective truths, is that we can also build better corrective models. We can decouple the accuracy of our opinions, however widely shared they might be, from our core value as human beings. And… that’s also part of the degrowth movement, actually: the idea that we are more than our output.

I look forward to working with more of you, to dream bigger about how we get there.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.