by Nathan Hutchinson Edgar
When Liz Truss came to power, she promised three things: “Growth, growth and growth”. How was she going to “grow” the economy? An environmentally catastrophic series of measures were proposed: repeal huge amounts of environmental legislature, set up investment zones on national parks, and allowing fracking (while banning solar panels across much of the country). These were the measures needed to pursue the neoliberal economic growth she had promised, and if the planet was going to suffer as a result, well that was just too bad.
The craziness of Truss’s government never played out in the real world, but nonetheless her vision highlighted one of the key dilemmas of our time: we can’t keep economic growth up without crossing planetary tipping points. It’s impossible to have infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources. It looks like a choice between the planet or the economy. With the cost-of-living and energy crises at hand, many people will intuitively choose the latter. You can’t worry about the end of the world if you’re worried about the end of the week!
Degrowing the Economy
That’s where the concept of ‘degrowth’ comes in. Promoted by economists such as Giorgos Kallis and Jason Hickel (author of Less is More), degrowth dares to imagine a radically different and new economic system. The usual narrative is something like this: “Growth is good! It is only by growing our GDP that we can create jobs and generate income.” Degrowth questions this narrative, asking whether we really need economic growth to improve our standard of living. On closer inspection, Hickel finds that we can improve our society, making it more equitable, while simultaneously shrinking our economy and consumption levels to within planetary boundaries.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted what was really essential to our society: people who work in healthcare, food production, and transport. Whereas these sectors of the economy are carrying out necessary services that help people in everyday life, other energy-intensive industries serve no function whatsoever other than continuing economic growth. The advertising industry, for example, has the aim of psychologically manipulating people into buying more stuff they don’t need. Most people could survive day to day without it. Or the arms industry, or the tobacco industry, or the SUV industry… the list goes on. The constant need for expansion driving these industries is also simultaneously exacerbating inequality. On a global level, the richest 1% have around 50% of the wealth, and growth normally just makes the rich richer. By shrinking some sectors of our economy, we can decarbonise faster, reducing resource-use alongside inequality to improve our quality of life.
“You can’t worry about the end of the world if you’re worried about the end of the week!”
Degrowth in Dublin
Although our society seems to largely favour a hyper-competitive constant growth model, there are already signs of movement towards more sustainable economic models. Companies around Dublin are starting to consider alternatives, such as Tropical Popical nail salon, whose founder has said: “Resources are finite … you can’t keep grabbing for more, the environment is just going to get worse”. She has called for a rethink around the purposes of our businesses, structuring them more around community values and less around the endless drive for profit.
This call was echoed by Stephen O’Dwyer of Tang, a sustainable café with 3 shops based around the Dublin area. Tang is committed to “operating within planetary boundaries” and while it does grow, the focus is on “internal need, providing roles for staff, running English classes, supporting families if they get in trouble”. This moves away from the idea of chasing growth for growth’s sake, to the degree that the company donates roughly 10% of profits to effective altruism, and also redistributes a proportion of profits amongst team members. Does he envisage a point at which Tang may stop growing? “That’s a really interesting question, if you look at the natural world, something grows, matures and then begins to die”. He’s right. It’s all about trying to maintain that mature stage. In nature, uncontrolled endless growth causes cancer.
A Post-Growth Community
In Less is More, Hickel suggests 5 steps towards a new society. Some of these will require government legislation, such as preventing planned obsolescence (that annoying thing when your iPhone is programmed to stop working so you have to buy a new one). Others can be more community led, such as a shift from ownership to usership. The principle is fairly simple. For example, how often do you use a drill? Unless you work in construction, probably very rarely. Yet most sheds in the country will contain several drills, lying there sad and unused for most of the year. Rather than produce so many drills, wouldn’t it make sense for everyone to have access to a communal drill which anyone in the community (be it a housing estate, a township, an apartment block) could use when they needed it? The same principle could be applied to lawnmowers, dishwashers, and even cars. Other ideas he suggests include reducing food waste (which we can all do) and restoring commonly owned land.
The idea of the eco-village seems to illustrate in practice, what a post-growth society might look like. These are community-based sustainable settlements that are focused on renewable energy, small-scale farming, and connection with ecology. The only eco-village in Ireland is found in Cloughjordan, Tipperary. Fig, a resident, described how it works: “The community farm where I work is a big one, members pay a monthly amount for as much vegetables as they want, and we produce them. The result is that the farm doesn’t have to be pushed to maximise production for profit or to scrape a living [so] we can use more regenerative growing practices.” This also takes away the stress of endless work “to scrape by … It’s refreshing to work in an environment where the board … aren’t pushing … just for endless turnover”. This leads to people working “on projects that improve life for the community rather than for money.”
“Trinity College itself has recently divested from both the fossil fuel and arms industries. These may be just the first steps towards shrinking some of the most damaging aspects of the economy”
System Change not Climate Change
While these community-based projects and individual reductions in consumption both fall under the idea of degrowth, we also need radical changes in legislation and structure. Currently, Local Enterprise Offices provide grants for businesses to expand, whereas when it comes to initiatives moving away from growth, there is much less support provided. There is “probably zero support for these initiatives” says O’Dwyer, in reference to the steps Tang has taken towards a community structured model of business. Surely there needs to be reform when it comes to government aims for growth in business, rewarding sustainability and services provided to the community and not growth for growth’s sake?
On the other hand, there is some good news. The Dutch city of Haarlem was the first to ban meat advertising in September this year. Trinity College itself has recently divested from both the fossil fuel and arms industries. These may be just the first steps towards shrinking some of the most damaging aspects of the economy, but if groups of people worldwide come together and call for similar radical solutions, a real movement could be created: a movement towards a better world, based on community, sustainability, and equality.