Saturday, June 8, 2024

What about degrowth? Color me both sympathetic and skeptical. I'm thinking.

Jennifer Szalai, Shrink the Economy, Save the World? NYTimes, June 8, 2024. The article opens:

A rising tide and a bigger pie: Economic growth has long been considered such an obvious boon that it’s pursued by governments across the world as a matter of course. But in 2016, when a London professor warned an audience in Newcastle that Brexit would lead to a precipitous drop in Britain’s gross domestic product, that well-worn measure of economic activity, one woman’s heckling caught him by surprise. “That’s your bloody G.D.P.,” she shouted, “not ours!”

The eruption tapped into a suspicion supported by reality: Gains in economic growth have too often buoyed the fortunes of the richest instead of lifting all boats. Prosperity even in the most prosperous countries hasn’t been shared. But all the attention to inequality is just a crack in the edifice of economic orthodoxy. Now a much more radical proposition has emerged, looming like a wrecking ball: Is economic growth desirable at all? [...]

In 1972, the French theorist André Gorz coined the word décroissance to ask whether “no-growth — or even degrowth” in material production was necessary for “the earth’s balance,” even if it ran counter to “the survival of the capitalist system.”

While the idea of "earth's balance" is (at least superficially) attractive, I'm not sure what it means. It does seem to presuppose some line between "the natural" and "the human" such that the human has been messing up the natural. That strikes me as being too much like a repackaging of the idea of original sin. OTOH I've long been suspicious of an economic regime, like capitalism, that positively requires growth in order to function at all. Perhaps that suspicion is a repackaging of medieval Christian objects to usury? But it is also a recognition that we live in a finite world.

Continuing on:

For advocates of degrowth, it’s a core tenet that in high-income countries the constant expansion demanded by capitalism isn’t required to improve people’s lives; instead, the ensuing inequality and environmental havoc have frequently undermined them.

Take Hickel, an anthropologist who teaches in London and Barcelona and is one of the movement’s most spirited exponents. Like other contemporary critics of unfettered growth, he emphasizes the climate crisis. His book begins with scenes of ecological devastation: dying earthworms, declining crop yields, collapsing fish stocks. He points to the connection between growing G.D.P. and energy use, identifying an ideology of “growthism” that he equates with “a kind of madness.” He says that he is not promoting a deliberate reduction in G.D.P. But if G.D.P. stagnates or declines because we conserve energy instead of consuming it, so be it. [...]

Of course, such a sweeping pronouncement is far from uncontested. Economists like Paul Krugman and data scientists like Hannah Ritchie have maintained that technological advances mean that economic prosperity doesn’t have to lead to ecological degradation. But for all the debates over carbon pricing and parts per million and degrees of warming, the distinctive argument that Hickel and other degrowthers make is ultimately a moral one: “We have ceded our political agency to the lazy calculus of growth.”

What a piece of rhetoric: “... the lazy calculus of growth.” Color me sympathetic. Moving on:

As the economist Daniel Susskind notes in his new book, “Growth: A History and a Reckoning,” big questions that were pushed to the margins — about clashing notions of freedom, equality and justice — have roared back with a vengeance. Still, he sees this as cause for ambivalence, not despair. After all, growth has also emancipated much of the world from “an unforgiving struggle for subsistence,” Susskind points out. “Growth has an irresistible promise and an unacceptable price; it is miraculous and devastating; we need a lot more and vastly less.”

Although he denounces the blithe optimism of the economic establishment, Susskind is also highly critical of degrowthers, who are too dismissive of capitalism for his liking.

The article goes on to discuss the ideas of a Japanese Marxist philosopher, whose book, Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto, has sold half a million copies.

Saito admits that there is “some truth” to the argument that capitalism produces material wealth, and so he champions degrowth communism only for rich countries, not for poor ones. “Those in the Global North enjoy rich lifestyles enabled by the sacrifices of those in the Global South,” he writes. Degrowth would halt this injustice and offer a form of “reparations”: Reducing the resources and energy used by the Global North would allow the Global South to pursue its own economic growth instead.

Imagination, imagination, who's got imagination?

Even degrowth’s skeptics may find that Saito’s examples of grass-roots organizing sound agreeably democratic and improvisational. But the prospect of global apocalypse that degrowthers keep emphasizing also has the perverse effect of making local measures sound acutely inadequate. Still, Saito says that such experiments do offer something crucial: an enlarged sense of what’s possible. Degrowth’s critics, he writes, suffer from “a poverty of imagination that simply accepts the status quo as unchangeable.”

As it happens, Susskind says precisely the same thing but in the reverse: that it’s degrowth’s advocates who suffer from a “lack of imagination.” The mirrored accusations are striking. Maybe it isn’t a matter so much of imagination scarcity as of where that imagination is directed. Techno-optimists place their faith in innovation; degrowthers place theirs in social movements. Both sides lay claim to being the genuine realists. Each insists that we simply don’t have enough time to do what the other side wants.

Hey! I've got an idea. Let's create a super-intelligent AI and then let it solve the problem.

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