Our growth fetish has its roots in material and cultural transformations; so too will degrowth
Editors’ Note:The following is a modified excerpt from the authors’ book, The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to A World Beyond Capitalism, released last year by Verso Books.The complete book is one of the most detailed expositions currently available of the ideas behind the degrowth or décroissancesocial movement, which seeks to replace economic growth with various notions of communal well-being as the main measure of economic success owing to their belief in growth’s inextricable link to increased biophysical throughput (i.e.to greater exhaustion of resources and output of waste by human society) and so to ecological destruction. Rooted in the ideas of ecological economics, degrowthers tend to advocate for reducing overall consumption in the rich countries by the replacement of individualist consumerism with communal luxury (for example, the use of cars by public transit) and strict regulation on output and emissions (such as via a shorter work-week, right-to-repair laws, and localized supply chains), while supporting technological aid as postcolonial reparations to poorer countries (which are both less responsible for climate change and more vulnerable to it) so they can develop without the use of fossil fuels.In this extract, the authors outline the history of the growth ideology’s deep origins in material and cultural transformations closely tied to the rise of capitalism in Europe, in doing so raising a fundamental challenge to its assumptions and values –even when these appear in a socialist guise.Degrowth is one of several emerging theoretical frameworks –others include half-earth socialism, social ecology, and green developmentalism–vying for influence within the ecosocialist Left. Each of the Editors agrees and disagrees to varying degrees with these and other such left-wing perspectives on the ecological crisis; but we are in agreement that degrowth is an important part of the picture, and that the Left has up to now failed to place these perspectives into a serious and good-faith discussion with one another. Hence, we publish this extract in hopes that it will spur just such a conversation; we intend to explore the full range of democratic and socialist points of view on this existential issue over the coming years.
It may come as a surprise that the concept of economic growth has only existed since the 1940s. Before that, the idea that an economy should grow, or even that there is such a thing as the economy at all, was foreign to most. This changed after the Second World War, when the United States faced a resurgence of labor movements at home and pressure from communist countries and national liberation movements abroad. It was in this period that the Gross National Product—what later became known as the Gross Domestic Product or GDP—would be introduced as a way to measure economic activities and the success of capitalist accumulation, eventually becoming discursively linked to the idea of progress and modernity. Economic growth, as measured by the GDP, became an ideological device in the elite toolkit to defer demands from organized labor (“we cannot redistribute wealth until we grow”), measure capitalist countries against socialist ones (“the socialist experiment is a failure because those countries are not growing as much as their capitalist neighbors”), and impose structural adjustment on the global South (“we cannot give you loans until you strip your country of its assets and public services to stimulate growth”).
But growth is far more than an increase in GDP. In fact, GDP is only the tip of the iceberg, the surface phenomenon of a whole set of social processes related to capitalist accumulation that drive growth and ever-increasing biophysical flows. To see the whole picture of the role of growth in our lives, we must go much further back than the twentieth century, way back into the early days of the Enlightenment. During this period, the idea that white men are superior and can control nature to create progress came to justify the plunder of the colonies, the subjugation of women, and the exploitation of nature. It was this idea that, in turn, made the invention of economic growth in the current neoliberal and neocolonial era possible.
In this essay, we describe the ideological roots of growth. We analyze growth as a social process: a specific set of social relations resulting from capitalist accumulation, which not only drive the reproduction of capitalism but act as a central stabilizing mechanism in modern society. By tightly linking ideas of emancipation and progress to economic growth, the growth paradigm became the normative ideal of modernity – not just in liberal circles, but also in socialist thought. This myth became so powerful that it captured most intellectual currents and social movements on the progressive Left that want to overcome capitalism – which, as put by Eric Pineault, “have remained imprisoned in the imaginary of growth.”1Eric Pineault, “The growth imperative of capitalist society.” Degrowth in Movement (s): Exploring Pathways for Transformation (2020): 29-44. See also Matthias Schmelzer, The hegemony of growth: the OECD and the making of the economic growth paradigm. Cambridge University Press, 2016 and Giorgos Kallis, ‘Socialism Without Growth’, Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, 2 (2019): 189–206.
The history we describe below underlines how we cannot just confine ourselves to a critique of capitalism but need to expand our analysis toward a critique of growth itself. This deeper understanding of the nature of growth also distinguishes the “degrowth” perspective from more vague critiques of the economic growth that focus on the pitfalls of GDP alone. Degrowth is the proposal that not only do we need new measurements of well-being, but we also need to radically restructure and, in many sectors, downscale production and consumption—and thereby allow a pluriverse of alternative kinds of development to flourish. As we show in our book The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide To A World Beyond Capitalism, the strength of the degrowth perspective is that it approaches the problem of growth holistically, weaving together feminist, decolonial, anti-capitalist, and ecological critiques of growth—amongst others.
Growth and the birth of capitalism
Growth is not just an idea. It is a specific set of social relations resulting from capitalist accumulation, which not only drive the reproduction of capitalism but act as a central stabilizing mechanism in modern society. In this section, we begin by discussing how capitalism emerged and analyse how growth led to specific class structures which, in turn, brought about a dynamic relationship between class formations and material growth. We argue that “dynamic stabilization” is a core feature of modern societies. In order to remain stable and reproduce their social structures, growth societies require continuous economic growth, technological innovation and escalation, and social-cultural acceleration. Dynamic stabilization explains how and why growth societies are fundamentally dependent on growth.
Homo sapiens have lived on this planet for about 200,000 years. For most of human history, all humans have lived nomadically as hunters and gatherers. Agriculture existed for about 10,000 years as a regionally dominant production method, and since then phases of social development have alternated with phases of decay in various regions of the world. However, there was no, or close to no, economic growth in its modern sense. Similarly, for most of human history, communities have reproduced based on systems of mutual obligations, power, or wealth, but not on the logic of capitalism, the ceaseless accumulation of capital. Over thousands of years, humans have experimented with a vast array of social formations, some of which included large and complex civilizations organized on surprisingly egalitarian lines, others involving merchants investing in the expansion of trade – yet on the whole, those dealing with capital remained marginal to those societies. This also started to change with the rise of capitalist enterprise, colonialism, and the emergence of the “world system” in the sixteenth century.2David Graeber, and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
At that time, young venture capital companies, driven by the arms race of the early modern European states and their enormous capital requirements, financed expansionary voyages to the Americas, importing raw materials such as cotton and silver. From these early colonial enterprises, trading companies emerged, which later developed into joint-stock companies whose central purpose was, and remains, the endless accumulation of capital. Increasingly, capitalists started to invest in agriculture and industry, thus permeating the world of human labour with the logic ceaseless accumulation and – where they could, as with the plantation regime around cotton – remaking the entire mode of production to their benefit. By appropriating raw materials and based on both slave and wage labour, and by integrating these through trade flows that spanned from Europe to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, they created a dynamic world system that has since reshaped the entire planet.3Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021); Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015); Fabian Scheidler, The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization (Ridgefield: Zer0 Books, 2020); Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
This accumulation took place at the expense of people in different parts of the world in different ways. In the Americas, genocides were perpetrated against Indigenous peoples, and millions of people from African regions were sold into slavery. The entire colonial enterprise, so intricately linked to the emergence of capitalism, was justified by racism – the systematic dehumanization of certain groups of people for the benefit of others – which came to form an integral part of the social dynamics of capitalism to this day. Through the privatization of the commons, the rural population in Europe lost the basis for their subsistence production. These enclosures also created the everyday scarcity that is still the basis of capitalist growth today – limiting people’s ability to use their surroundings for subsistence and generation of communal wealth. Stripped of the land and their means of subsistence production, people were forced into wage labor – a process of violent “primitive accumulation” (Karl Marx) or “Landnahme” (Rosa Luxemburg)4i.e., a landgrab; literally “land-taking” in German. –Eds. that continues in ever changing forms to this day. States played a key role in all of this – not only in the ‘war capitalism’ of the earlier period, but also by driving land seizure around the world, by using their powers in the “cheapening” of key resources, in imperial wars underlying capitalist development, or in guaranteeing the property rights that made capitalist production possible in the first place.5Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004); Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik, Capital and Imperialism: Theory, History, and the Present (New York: NYU Press, 2021); Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944); Moore, Capitalism and the Web of Life; Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Hartmut Rosa,Stephan Lessenich,and Klaus Dörre, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique (London: Verso, 2015).
The entire dynamic within the world-system changed when, beginning in the eighteenth century, the plantation revolution in the Americas became linked with the emerging industrial capitalism in Europe, which in turn started to be increasingly powered by a truly revolutionary technology: coal-fired steam engines. This not only laid the foundation for the emergence of what can be described as “fossil capitalism” (to highlight the specific importance of fossil energies) but also for the immersion of capitalist logics into entire societies, the beginning of steady increase of economic growth, and for the “great divergence” – making Europe much wealthier than other regions.6Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
These social and economic changes went hand in hand with the emergence of a set of perspectives and ideas that legitimized, enabled, and even drove the expansion of the world-system – and which also laid the foundation for the later development of the modern growth paradigm. To begin with, the idea of the “development” or “progress” of human societies in a linear course of time had to be actively produced. Most known cultures of the past – as well as some contemporary communities – had a cyclical understanding of time of “eternal recurrence”, interpreted their present as an abandonment from a mythical ideal past to be restored, or had some other non-linear conception of time. Yet beginning with the Renaissance and building on Christian apocalypticism, which had started assuming an absolute end point of human societies with the Last Judgment, concepts of abstract time and space emerged. The spread of the mechanical clock promoted changes in the understanding of time as objective, linear, and countable. Geometry and cartography also enabled a new conceptualization of land and territory as abstract, borderless, uniform, and measurable space that can be emptied or filled as needed, clearly demarcated, and traded as merchandise through property rights.7Scheidler, The End of the Megamachine; Dale, ‘The Growth Paradigm’; Malm, Fossil Capital; Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and Scientific Revolution (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1980). Early modern natural sciences not only promoted the idea of abstract nature but also argued that humans could dominate nature. In a mechanistic view of the world, nature was conceived as a mechanism governed by laws and correspondingly manipulated and controllable.8Merchant, The Death of Nature; Radkau, Nature and Power.
Concepts and practices of linear time, abstract space, and mechanical nature became key ideological building blocks of the capitalist colonization of the planet. The practical treatment of all things and living beings as comparable, interchangeable, and tradable, as well as the mechanistic understanding of nature based on linear thinking, were consolidated in colonialism. The plundering of the planet was thus justified by the idea that land, natural resources, the work of women and the colonized, and all life are to serve mankind (and this was usually meant only the white man who claimed ownership of it)9White is not a biological property, but rather the dominant and privileged position within the dominant structures of racism. Alan H.Goodman, Yolanda T. Moses, and Joseph L. Jones, Race: Are We So Different? (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2019); Cedric J. Robinson, On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance (London: Pluto Press, 2019). and can therefore be possessed, exploited, and changed at will.10Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse; Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (London: Penguin UK, 2014).
Beginning with the seventeenth century, these ideas underwent a secularized reformulation. A linear narrative of progress divided people into “civilized” and “primitive” based on racist metrics, thus legitimizing colonial expansions. At the height of imperialism and in early “development” discourse, poor countries were seen in need of outside intervention by European or American experts, to speed up their “development” on a linear path of social and economic improvement. In the twentieth century, the linear narrative was economized, as general social progress was increasingly conflated with the expansion of production. Under capitalism, growth became the secular promise of redemption.11Escobar, Encountering Development; Walter Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); Gilbert Rist, The history of development: from Western origins to global faith (London: Zed Books, 1996); Schmelzer, The Hegemony of Growth.
The mechanistic understanding of nature also laid the foundation for eighteenth-century European economists’ understanding of “the economy” as a separate area of social life that is measurable and predictable like clockwork – and related changes to the world of work.12Dale, ‘The Growth Paradigm’; For more historical literature, see Giorgos Kallis et al., ‘Research on Degrowth’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 43 (2018): 291–316. This sector of the formal economy was characterized throughout the nineteenth century by the spread of gainful employment as a male-dominated sector separate from the rest of life. At the same time, unpaid reproductive work became “housewifely” – devalued, but necessary for the reproduction of labour power. Thus the invisibility and appropriation of unpaid reproductive work associated with wage labor still characterizes gender relations and the world of work today.13Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy (London: Zed Books, 1999); Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books, 1993); Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life; Ariel Salleh, Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern (London: Zed Books, 2017).
Different disciplinary technologies, manifested in institutions such as factories, the military, prisons, and schools, promoted the proletarianization of labor. This change in work led to the monetarization of more and more spheres of life and was accompanied by the suppression of relationships of reciprocity.14David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018); Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World This proletarianization of previously subsistence-based communities, rooted in the system of wage labor, created a lock-in effect, where workers, too, depend on growth to satisfy their most basic needs as they are no longer able to survive outside of the capitalist system.15Pineault, ‘The Growth Imperative of Capitalist Society’; A. Biesecker and S. Hofmeister, ‘Focus: (Re)productivity: Sustainable Relations Both between Society and Nature and between the Genders’, Ecological Economics 69 (2010): 1703–11.
The social implementation of abstract concepts of time and space, a process that took centuries to reach the entire globe, symptomatically stands for the abstract logic of capitalist modernity: the practice of the scientific and above all economic production of equivalences between completely different concrete realities. The fact that labor, land, and many other things were made measurable and comparable, largely by means of an abstract standard of comparison expressed in money, created the conditions for exchanging everything for everything else.16Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1996). Growth, in this sense, is also a process of the relentless and often violent commodification and repeated colonization of natures, life worlds and reproductive activities, all of which became increasingly shaped by market-mediated social relations – a process that is still ongoing.17Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017); Jason Hickel, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (London: William Heinemann, 2020).
Growth as dynamic stabilization
Modern societies dynamically stabilize through a continuous process of expansion and intensification in terms of space, time, and energy.18Rosa, Lessenich, and Dörre, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique; Radkau, Nature and Power; Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life; Hartmut Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019). This means that modern societies inherently rely on growth to stabilize their institutions. These dynamics, while being based on processes of appropriation and exploitation as analyzed above, did provide material prosperity to more and more people. While initially largely reserved to white men in the upper and middle classes of Europe, these sustained dynamics of growth also enabled successful social and political struggles that made this material standard of living accessible to an increasingly large proportion of humanity – especially in the Global North, but also in the middle and upper classes of the Global South. This increasing democratization of material prosperity – from consumer goods such as sugar and tea for European workers in the nineteenth century to larger private homes, household appliances, cars, and travel in the twentieth century – again laid the foundation for a further acceleration of economic growth. And as a stabilizing mechanism for capitalism, the promise of rising levels of material prosperity through economic growth served to pacify social conflicts and to create the technocratic, consensual, productivist politics of growth societies.19Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: Harper Perennial, 2017); Schmelzer, Hegemony of Growth; Kallis, Degrowth; Tim Jackson, Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet (London: Earthscan, 2016). This does not only apply to the capitalist core countries. Even the real existing socialist societies of the twentieth century were – albeit under different circumstances – fundamentally productivist growth societies. Under the pressure of competition between Western and Eastern blocs, they also needed increasing economic and technical efficiency and growing material prosperity in order to guarantee their social stability.20Radkau, Nature and Power; Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis; Chertkovskaya and Alexander Paulsson, ‘The Growthocene: Thinking Through What Degrowth Is Criticising’, Entitle Blog, 19 February 2016. And, as we will explore throughout the book, the promise of a better life through growth also legitimized and thus stabilized uneven development globally.
Furthermore, dynamic stabilization goes beyond material prosperity. In fact, many of the social and political achievements people in modern welfare states have access to today – such as the right to vote, a minimum wage, healthcare, and a five-day workweek – were fought for by strong social movements and trade unions in the context of expansive and fossil-fuel driven modernity. The power of the strike in the twentieth century, for example, was closely linked to the need for the labor force to operate the facilities necessary for the mining, transport, and processing of coal and, consequently, their ability to effectively paralyze them. To highlight the intimate entanglements between the material properties of coal, which enabled coal workers to become the spearhead of a strong workers movement that successfully fought for welfare and participation, and the resulting mass democracy, the historian Timothy Mitchell has even termed modern representative systems “carbon democracies.”21Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011). The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty makes a similar argument: emancipation movements went hand in hand with the dynamics of fossil fuel powered growth and were based on it: “The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use. Most of our freedoms so far have been energy-intensive.”22Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 208. And similar arguments can be made regarding other welfare state achievements. Indeed, the public institutions of modern societies – including the welfare state itself, which sought to pacify and constrain capitalism and which emerged from the great emancipatory struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – stabilize themselves through economic growth: they emerged within, contributed to, and are structurally dependent on expanding economies.23Rosa, Lessenich, and Dörre, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique. This includes institutions such as pension systems, health insurance, unemployment benefits, long-term care insurance, public education systems, universities, and public infrastructures (roads and railways, water and sewage pipelines, electricity and telecommunications networks). Increasing production created surpluses and thus facilitated struggles for the distribution of wealth, the shortening of working hours, and social security systems.24See, for example, Bernd Sommer and Harald Welzer, Transformationsdesign. Wege in eine zukunftsfähige Moderne (München: Oekom, 2014); Rosa, Lessenich, and Dörre, Sociology ; Szeman, Imre, und Dominic Boyer. Energy humanities: An anthology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. As also argued by Thomas Piketty, the structural tendency within capitalism to increase inequality could historically be counteracted in phases of high growth.25Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
It must be noted, however, that these achievements, rights, and freedoms were not the direct outcome of capitalist growth, but rather resulted from struggles from below. As the economic historian Stefania Barca points out, “health, wealth, longevity and security are not the result of global trade and capital, but of those forces which have opposed them”.26Stefania Barca, Forces of Reproduction: Notes for a Counter-hegemonic Anthropocene (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 17. Nonetheless, these struggles did occur within the context of economic growth and were fundamentally shaped by it.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the economic and social model of an expansive modernity, characterized by growth, was thus not only very successful in material terms but also enabled rising and hitherto unknown levels of social, political, and cultural achievements and rights, mostly within the early industrialized capitalist centres, but in parts also in emerging countries and globally. Key democratic, social, and cultural rights were thus fought for in the context of expansive modernity, and within the growth paradigm societal progress became conflated with GDP growth. This has laid the foundation for a powerful common sense based on lived experience that social improvements do indeed require economic growth and the related development of the productive forces.
This applies in particular to the Fordist regime, which prevailed mainly in industrialized countries from the 1920s to the 1970s. Even after decades of neoliberal welfare cuts and austerity, the social memory of this period still powerfully links hopes of social improvement to growth. Fordism was a constellation of production methods and power relations based on standardized factory labor (largely male breadwinner), rising productivity (based on fossil fuels and standardization), and rising wages (which enabled increasing mass-consumer markets to absorb the rising output), which temporarily pacified the conflict between capital and labor mainly in industrialized countries. The very high growth rates of this period were creating a consumer society build around a work-and-spend ethics and ample markets to increase production, which was key for capital to expand – as put by Henry Ford himself: “Cars don’t buy cars”. At the same time, high growth rates did translate to a certain democratization of prosperity – it was the period in which Western lifestyles of building houses in suburbs, driving cars, and everyone owning washing machine became dominant.27Eric Pineault, ‘From Provocation to Challenge: Degrowth, Capitalism and the Prospect of “Socialism without Growth”; A Commentary on Giorgios Kallis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, no. 2 (2018): 1–16.
This experience of a democratization of prosperity, which was powerfully associated with growth, became the formative experience of entire generations in industrialized countries. It has recently been analyzed as the ‘imperial mode of living’ to describe how this way of life, which stabilizes capitalist centers, requires an uneven, imperial global structure that ensures global access to cheap resources, energy and labor, while at the same time externalizing its ecological costs to global South regions and the future. Since the 1990s and driven by the global spread of its media representation, the imperial mode of living, with all its fossil-fuel comforts and capitalist consumer goods, also became a global dream for many, even in the peripheral regions, who so far had labored to provide the foundations of this prosperity but were excluded from its benefits.28Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2021). It is this experience of Fordist democratization of prosperity and this attachment to consumer lifestyles which the critique of growth today has to work its way through, at least in the early-industrializing countries. In fact, the legitimating narrative of the progressive nature of growth and the development of productive forces is so powerful, that it also shapes the outlook of parts of the Left. And the function of growth as a stabilizing mechanism remains one of its key justifications.
However, this common sense is increasingly eroding: contemporary growth since the 1970s is showing diminishing social returns – in the capitalist centers, ever higher economic output has failed to translate into a proportionate increase in well-being; this growth has not led to more equality (except in parts of Asia), because the fruits of growth have largely been captured by a small global elite; and, most importantly, continuous growth and the spread of consumer-oriented lifestyles throughout the world are producing ever more visibly devastating ecological and social effects globally.29Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman, World Inequality Report 2022 (Harvard University Press, 2022); Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011). Continuous growth stabilizes social conditions in the core – where its benefits accrue – and can mediate some of capitalism’s class contradictions, in particular the conflict between capital and labor on how output is to be distributed. Yet, this comes at a price: the contradictions are displaced towards other spheres of life and to the global South. In effect, the globalization of the ‘imperial mode of living’ threatens to destroy the very achievements on which its ideological power rests. Growth is a powerful stabilizing mechanism of capitalist modernity – yet it also destabilizes the ecological foundations of human life on this planet.
The future of growth is uncertain not only because of the crisis-tendencies inherent to the social process of accumulation, but also due to the various ecological, social, and material limits of growth. As we look towards the next decades, we will be facing multiple, simultaneous crises, each a result of a global society based on growth – and increasingly one based on growth in crisis. While some hope that growth could lead to a less materially intensive economy or to GDP decoupled from environmental impacts, this is far from the case and there is no evidence of this occurring within the timespan needed to avoid catastrophic global heating. Beyond climate change largely caused by carbon emissions, many parts of the world are facing ecological breakdown and public health crises due to ecosystem degradation, pollution (air pollution and plastics), and high levels of toxicity in food and the environment. All these ecological crises hit the poorest – as well as those oppressed by intersectional hierarchies such as race, class, and gender – first and hardest. These multiple crises are the result of a system dependent on, and driven by, growth.
In this essay, we have discussed growth as a social process of mutually reinforcing and dynamically stabilizing forces of acceleration, escalation, and intensification. In our book, we also extensively explore how growth is an idea, which emerged recently and has had new and profound impacts on how we conceive of governance and wellbeing. We also discuss how growth is a material process, a metabolic interaction between society and nature which, in ever faster rhythms, allows more and more resources to flow through “the economy” and then be transformed into waste and emissions. On all three fronts, growth ultimately undermines the foundations on which it is based. Yet the hegemony of growth still persists. For a critique of growth to be satisfactory, it has to confront these three, interlinked dynamics. First, we must take seriously the material dimension of growth in all its complexity, drawing attention to what this means for a future of global justice. Secondly, we must seriously examine the question of how the self-reinforcing growth dynamics of expansive modernity can be overcome without jeopardizing the social, cultural, and democratic achievements that have been accomplished, largely through social struggles, but in the context of growth societies. And third, we must critically engage with and dismantle but also transform the promises, myths, and hopes associated with the growth paradigm. Above all intellectual currents, it is the degrowth movement that has advanced the most thorough critique of this dynamically stabilizing growth machine and offered salient alternatives to it. If only for this reason, it should be honestly engaged with, if not taken up by social movements today. ~
Matthias Schmelzer is a Berlin-based economic historian, social theorist, and climate activist. He works at Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena and is active in various social-ecological networks and movements. He has published The Hegemony of Growth and edited Degrowth in Movement(s).
Aaron Vansintjan lives in Montreal and writes about food, cities, politics, and ecology. He is the co-founder of Uneven Earth, a website focusing on ecological politics. He has been published in The Guardian, Briarpatch Magazine, Red Pepper, Truthout, Open Democracy, and The Ecologist.
Andrea Vetter is a transformation researcher, activist, and journalist, using degrowth, commons, and critical eco-feminism as tools. She teaches transformation design at Braunschweig University of Art. She is editor of the magazine Oya and lives in and is co-founder of the House of Change, a transregional rural space for art, learning, and co-creation in Eastern Germany.