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The scarcity machine

Expanding public goods and services is central to successful degrowth – Jason Hickel

This short item appearing in Real World Economic Review blogs [1] was extracted from Jason Hickels’ paper: Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance [2]

While the scholarship on degrowth has outlined the policy changes that would be necessary to achieve a safe and equitable transition to an ecological post-growth economy, the deep logic of such an economy remains undertheorized. Are the reforms that degrowth scholars propose in and of themselves sufficient to euthanize the capitalist growth imperative? Here I want to address this question by elaborating further on the argument that expanding public goods and services is central to a successful degrowth scenario. This argument is deeper and more profound than it appears at first glance, and opens up some fruitful lines of inquiry.

Let us begin with an example that is close to my own experience. In London, house prices are astronomically high, to the point where a normal one-bedroom flat may cost £2,000 per month to rent, or £600,000 to buy. These prices are fictional; they are no indication of the actual cost of building a house, or even of land, but are rather largely a consequence of the rapid privatization of the public housing stock in Britain since 1980, as well as financial speculation, zero-interest rate policy and quantitative easing, which has driven asset prices up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to the extraordinary benefit of the rich. Meanwhile, wages in London have not kept pace with housing prices. In order to purchase housing, then, many Londoners have to either increase their aggregate working hours or take out loans, which are effectively a claim on their future labour. In other words, many people are required to work unnecessarily long hours to earn extra money simply in order to access shelter, which they were previously able to access with a fraction of the income. In the process, they produce additional goods and services that must find a market, thereby creating new pressures for consumption – pressures that manifest in the form of, for example, aggressive and increasingly insidious advertising schemes.

The fictionally high housing prices in London therefore ultimately compel everyone to contribute unnecessarily to the juggernaut of ever-expanding production and consumption, with all of the corresponding ecological consequences that this entails.



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