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Degrowth: how much is needed?

Ted Trainer

Recent authors in The Conversation, Pearls and Irritations and ERA Review have stated the need for fundamental change if we are going to solve the big global problems. These include Mark Diesendorf, Michael Keating, Ian Dunlop and Ian Cribb. Dr John Hewson’s Commission for the Human Future is making the same point. However the degree of change needed is far greater than these statements have indicated.

If the amount of change is relatively modest, as most green people seem to think, then human society might be able to retain the present basic economic, political and cultural systems involving lots of heavy industry, globalisation, travel and transport, trade, financial activity … all still driven by the quest for growth and affluence within a capitalist system.

But what if we would be obliged to cut rich world per capita resource use by 90%? My study [1] shows that something like this is what would be required if all people are to live sustainably. If that’s true then most present industry, investing, profit making, trade, travel etc. would need to be phased out. The economy could not possibly be capitalist, given that capitalism must have growth, and it could not be driven by market forces and profit given that these ignore needs and do what richer people want. That is, we cannot save ourselves unless we shift to some kind of what I call The Simpler Way [2],[3].

The surge in interest in the Degrowth movement is most encouraging, but even within it few recognise the magnitude of the challenge, and there is negligible discussion of strategy. Most of what there is on that topic focuses on trying to get the state to implement policy changes.

In my strong opinion, it is a waste of our time trying to get governments to adopt radical degrowth policies, even in the long run. The capitalist classes have far too firm a grip on everything (Warren Buffet said there is no class war…there was but his class won it) and capitalist ideology is overwhelmingly dominant. Governments know only one way to save us, i.e., crank up the GDP … by assisting the rich to do more good business.

But here’s how we might make it. [4] As Marx foresaw, capitalism is in the process of self-destruction now, being killed off by its internal contradictions. The limits to growth and the pandemic predicaments are helping. We are heading for a mega global breakdown and a large “collapse” literature says that it is likely to be terminal. As the situation become grimmer and governments become less able to provide for angry masses, fascism is the most likely outcome. However, people will be forced into going local, realising that they must organise their own collective and frugal solutions. This is happening in eco-village and transition towns movements. A most impressive example is the Catalan Integral Cooperative, involving thousands in running many operations including food supply, eye clinics and employment agencies, determined to have nothing to do with the state or with the market system. I call this the “turning away” strategy. Millions in poor countries are not trying to get justice from the state, they are turning away from their government and conventional “development” to build their own collective, traditional systems. Our hope has to be that a Goldilocks depression jolts enough people towards some kind of simpler way to be able to build sustainable and just systems as the dust clears.

My belief is that this society is totally incapable of saving itself; it does not even understand that its cherished greed and growth commitment is the basic cause of its problems; it refuses to even think about this. Thus, the chances of us achieving the above transition are very poor. But it is the goal to be worked for, and the most important thing to do right now is to talk about it, to help more people to adopt the Simpler Way vision.

[1] Degrowth; How much is needed?

[2] The Alternative; The Simpler Way.

[3] Eco-socialism is not the answer.

[4] The Transition.

Dr Ted Trainer is an ERA patron. He has published widely on global problems, sustainability issues, alternative social forms, and the transition to them.

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