“Your recession is not our degrowth”
egrowth has interested me for quite some time. The essence of degrowth is that if we want to create a better, more habitable, world for ourselves and future generations to live in – a world that is fairer, sustainable, and happier – then we are going to have to ask ourselves serious questions about this societal obsession with economic growth.
We will need to consider de-growing
Economic growth – an increase in the ability to create stuff that can be exchanged in the “market” for money by those who need/want that stuff – has long been criticised as a reliable marker of societal progress. Not only is there more to the human experience than how much stuff we can produce and consume but economic growth seems to sometimes benefit only a privileged minority, comes at a cost to the environment that we all share, and doesn’t seem to be bringing anyone much extra happiness.
But could degrowth do any better? Quite possibly
It’s not certain that degrowth could solve the issues that humanity faces at present – degrowth hasn’t been tried on a societal scale. But over the years I’ve met many people, typically privileged (e.g., western, educated, affluent), who are in a position to explore elements of degrowth at least on the personal level.
Choosing to make instead of buy, choosing to experience instead of consume, choosing to cycle instead of fly, going slower, and stopping to help. This is the essence of degrowth – living a more fulfilling existence yet using less resources.
Of course we have recessions – when an economy shrinks – but this is not the same as voluntary choosing to downsize our own personal lives, or degrow our economies on an equitable basis.
Recessions are involuntary and are mostly destructive and painful. Recessions often mean that things can be taken away from people that they didn’t want taken away – jobs, houses, security – and the burden of loss often hits those who are the most vulnerable and impoverished. Yet time and time again it is argued that to help vulnerable and impoverished individuals, those that are suffering from recession, then we just need more growth, particularly to create jobs. But there is plenty to go around if only there was the political will to redistribute and it is not jobs people need but fulfillment and the freedom to find that in a way that suits them.
My personal path to degrowth
I was drawn to degrowth through my research into well-being and the conversations that have come from my research. For about ten years I’ve been trying to understand what factors are the most important to creating a happier and more satisfying life. Some say it’s all about the money (here is an overview of the money and happiness question). Of course we need to meet our basic needs and money can often seem essential for that. But the most important contributors to our well-being are our relationships with our-selves and others, stability in our work, and our mental and physical health. We can also meet many basic needs by simply have strong supportive communities. By giving what we can, and taking only what we really need. In the economic growth paradigm it is easy to forget what the important things are.
On a personal level I have tried to incorporate elements of degrowth into my life (living in tent for a bit, hitchhiking, living richly without being rich). However, I have to admit my decisions to move toward a degrowth lifestyle are based on mostly indirect evidence. It is fairly clear from the research that relationships, stable work environments, good health, are more important for our well-being than how much we earn. Thus once our basic needs have been met it seems sensible to focus on our relationships or health. This is what I’ve tried to do in my own life. It is not necessarily easy choosing something different. A lifestyle that goes against the message we hear on a daily basis from those benefiting from the growth paradigm – first we must work and then if we’re lucky enough we might be able to nourish the minds and bodies of ourselves and others.
We’d all like to see direct evidence
But is indirect evidence good enough. Not for everybody. Some researchers I come across will only ever consider direct evidence. They expect very tight causal methodology showing that one thing caused another. This is a very sensible and important strategy. I’d like to provide direct evidence that degrowth improves people’s lives but I’m not sure if I can. I’m not sure anyone can. Not because the hypothesis, that a degrowth society would be a happier one, is not true, but simply because we live in a growth paradigm. The people that have chosen to downscale their lives have not been randomised to their situation in a way which would satisfy researchers interested in causality. People have chosen to take action to downsize their lives, whilst others have had no choice other than the fact that they are disadvantaged and vulnerable.
Voluntary simplicity (degrowth) and involuntary simplicity (recession).
However, just because something like degrowth can’t be shown directly doesn’t mean that the idea should be dismissed altogether and that we should continue “business as normal”. It has not conclusively been demonstrated that the current “business as normal” is good for well-being in any case. And so at some point we might find it necessary to take a different path.
How much growth can the planet take? Eventually perhaps there won’t be the resources to live the lifestyles that many have become accustomed to. Eventually perhaps there will be no choice but to step back. Perhaps we won’t even have the option to do reduce our resource use voluntarily, equitably, and sustainably. And that will be sad and painful, very sad and painful indeed.
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