Of sun, rain and anti-utilitarianism: a review of ‘Degrowth’


Book review:
Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New EraRoutledge (2015)
Ed. Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria & Giorgos Kallis

So the question is not whether capitalism will survive the technological innovations it is spawning. The more interesting question is whether capitalism will be succeeded by something resembling a Matrix dystopia or something much closer to a Star Trek-like society, where machines serve the humans and the humans expend their energies exploring the universe and indulging in long debates about the meaning of life in some ancient-Athenian-like, high-tech agora.

I think we can afford to be optimistic. But what would it take, what would it look like to have this Star Trek-like utopia, instead of the Matrix-like dystopia?

— Yanis Varoufakis, December 2015, TED Global, Geneva 

The Greek ex-finance minister’s remarks illustrate quite well, I think, why a book like Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era is both timely and necessary — while also, perhaps, giving a clue to its limitations.

In our public discourse, the future still mostly involves endless economic growth, automation, gadgets, and a better life for all, with humanity spreading its seed to Mars and, in due course, the stars. The cornucopian vision goes almost unchallenged in the public sphere, even by opponents of global capitalism. Whether they are wall-building reactionary nationalists who love capitalism but hate the ‘global’ bit, progressive internationalists like Yanis and his Diem25 movement, or even progressive nationalists, precious few political figures dare admit openly that the sacred cow of GDP needs to be slaughtered as quickly as possible. And little wonder, when the alternatives to ‘growth for the masses’ are almost invariably presented as dark, apocalyptic, and deeply unappealing.

The truth, of course, is that positive and appetising alternatives to a global economy based on the fallacy of exponentially expanding consumption on a finite planet do exist, and always have; and people have been talking and writing about these alternatives for just as long. Yes, it is possible to live better by consuming less; in fact, it’s necessary: economic growth is actually ‘uneconomic because, at least in developed economies, “illth” increases faster than wealth’ (Daly, 1990, cited in Degrowth, introduction, p.6.) Most readers will not need convincing of this, and if they do, they should probably just go for a walk or hang out in the garden.

But Degrowth is the first book I’ve seen that really sets out to synthesise these alternatives to growth into a coherent whole. As the subtitle suggests, it presents a vocabulary of concepts related to degrowth in a series of 52 short essays by different authors on topics ranging from Peak Oil to Environmental Justice, Anti-Utilitarianism to Happiness, Eco-Communities to Unions. Broadly speaking, the first two-thirds of the book are devoted to ideas, the theoretical foundations for a degrowth movement, and the last third to actions.

There are some surprising omissions: the book has no illustrations to speak of (and no index), while topics like Transition, permaculture, and agroecology are mentioned only in passing. Some of this may be a matter of cultural perspective: the editors, and many of the authors, are based in Barcelona, from where I’m sure things look significantly different than they do from the Anglophone world. Some of the essays are pretty dense and theoretical. As someone who has spent ten years at the muddy, neo-rural end of the degrowth movement, my own selection of important vocabulary would have put far more emphasis on words like land, rain, sun, tree, house, work, build, dig or (perhaps ironically) grow. I don’t spend a lot of time chatting about anti-utilitarianism with my neighbours, though on reflection, now I’ve read about it, perhaps I’ve been ‘critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics’ (p. 21) in my daily life all these years without realising it; I call it ‘building a house and planting a garden while having fun with friends’. However, there’s an old joke that defines an economist as ‘someone who lies awake wondering whether what works in practice can possibly work in theory’, and if an elaborate theoretical structure is necessary to convince economists that degrowth can work, then so be it — for the rest of us, there is enough accessible material in the book to make it worth reading even if you skip the social theory.

The reviewer, pictured critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics

The reviewer, critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics

But even so, I think that a book like Degrowth will not have as much impact as it could, and should, on the way we imagine the future. I can picture the editors presenting the case for degrowth in Yanis’ high-tech Athenian agora, engaging in debate and convincing everyone, but only on an intellectual level: the level of the logos — light, left-brain, rational, logical, yang — of which the agora itself is an almost pure representation. And it’s telling that in order to conjure his vision of a future which is almost pure logos, Yanis actually had to employ mythos by presenting a visceral contrast between two opposing stories (Star Trek versus The Matrix) that have entered the collective consciousness.

As Charlotte du Cann puts it in Dark Mountain Issue 8: Technê (p.107), ‘to walk true in the world is to walk with “one foot in the logos and one in the mythos“.’ And where the mythos is suppressed, it will inevitably erupt in unwelcome forms: thus Donald Trump, who may well be the personification of the Norse trickster god Loki.

If the degrowth movement is going to get traction on the mass level, it’s going to need better stories: visions for a positive future that tap into the mythos. Stories to guide us down the steep slopes of the dark mountain to the shelter of the valleys beyond.

Robert Alcock is an ecological designer, self-builder and writer based in northern Spain. He and his partner Almudena lived for several years in the post-industrial Zorrozaurre peninsula in Bilbao, where they founded a citizens’ forum to promote sustainable alternatives for the area, which was faced with ‘regeneration’ from a Master Plan designed by the late Zaha Hadid—a story that can be read about in his book The Island that Never Was (2015). (abrazohouse.org/island)

They now live with their two daughters in a small village an hour west of Bilbao, where they have built an ecological home and study centre, Abrazo House (abrazohouse.org).

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8 thoughts on “Of sun, rain and anti-utilitarianism: a review of ‘Degrowth’

  1. “I think we can afford to be optimistic. But what would it take, what would it look like to have this Star Trek-like utopia, instead of the Matrix-like dystopia?”

    I think the one can not go without the other,
    from the ashes from that dystopia may arise some seed towards that sort of utopia.

    More positive stories?

    I’m more then welcome to see more and more people are standing up, looking for alternatives, restless, searching, …I welcome it like a blanket in a cold night.

    Degrowth has been on my radar for a while, while it might be a way to go, I see the car speeding up and up,

    they wont hear you, trust me, I have been there.

    I screamed too, even got out of that speeding car by cranking the exit in a rather uncivilized way,

    the car was not speeding like it does now, but it was already an life threatening challenge. I’m still recovering from those wounds…

    the positive story?

    I hear more and more passengers scream to slow down … I really hope someone finds the brake on this thing.

  2. I was at the launch of the Croatian translation of Degrowth, and had a chance to hear Federico Demaria explain why the book was structured as it is. Rather than presenting a coherent narrative, the idea was to provide a range of starting points for discussion, in order to engage more people in their particular area of interest. Apparently they faced a difficult struggle to select which topics to cover, and then which words to use to describe those topics – it made it particularly difficult for translators, because even “degrowth” doesn’t easily move between languages. It seems that the lack of accessible narratives was a strategic choice – most of the writers are engaged in recognisable “degrowth” activities – in order to have exactly this kind of discussion. Meanwhile Dark Mountain is doing a great job of delivering the stories that we might need when we get tired of panel discussions!

  3. wandering neone:

    I don’t believe in the Star Trek utopia for a minute: under the shiny facade it contains its own dystopia. Nice metaphor of the speeding car; the faster you go the harder it is to jump off safely…

    Paul C:

    Interesting perspective on how the book’s editors tried to consciously avoid the use of a single overarching narrative. I agree there couldn’t possibly be such a single narrative of degrowth, but rather a complex tapestry woven of many strands; still, the narratives do need to work on the mythic level.

    Dark Mountain is presenting a diversity of different stories, but it’s difficult to see how many of these could be translated across cultures. (Publishing a book in 3 languages, one of which I barely understand, taught me a thing or two about the pitfalls of translation!) But then, perhaps the challenge of translating concepts between cultures and languages could actually be a strength of a movement that fundamentally is in opposition to monolithic power structures.

  4. Hey Rob, thanks for the review, which I enjoyed. One of my immediate thoughts is that not everyone has access to land, in order to capture the sun and rain, or build housing, or grow stuff. So they struggle to imagine themselves in that kind of DIY Degrowth utopia. It is precisely because control of such key resources are so concentrated, and that we consent to a constant flow of resources to the controllers of these assets, that we remain hooked on growth. How else will the landless, assetless feed themselves, unless they work for the man, and win some of the rewards for growing output? And how else will the capitalist increase his profits unless he squeezes more and more out of every worker? That is a crude simplification, but still. What I would like to see the Degrowth movement do is to think in detail about how to get from a system based on concentrated ownership and accumulation, to a system based on sufficiency and sharing – without entirely crashing the economy in the process. This is primarily a political question, but also a technicial macroeconomic one. Is that question addressed by this book?

    • Hi Beth

      Well, yes. Many, if not most, of the authors concern themselves with precisely the kind of questions that you’re raising here… the neo-rural or “back to the land” side of degrowth is only really dealt with in a few of the essays.

  5. To Rob,

    Thanks for the comment around the metaphor, don’t really have much believe in the star trek utopia either in the end, but one can still dream you know?

    And I don’t want to squash your article in any way. I took a short straw onto your website and ideas/works, and I really admire what you are doing from the bottom of my heart. This book goes right on my to read list.

    But why does these things only pop up in the already converted “underground” as being one other tear on a hot plate? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0cO_aloPHE)

    When I watch the ordinary news all I see is the weight of a Kim Kardashian, a national soccer champion and the joy we must all feel, the breakup of some girls band, …while humanity (and diversity all round) is possibly in some great trouble …(All I start to see underneath is the potential polarization towards great conflicts)

    Why do these potentially great alternatives to try and prevent these conflicts from happening in the first place, from a genuine feeling of trying to be a constructive part in society being swiped away as being marginal, surreal, not realistic, …etc?

    No one is listening in that speeding car, although people are howling in desperation, more and more …

    damn, I hope I’m wrong.

    • Not watching the corporate news might be a good move to start with…
      There are some very hopeful things going on, people building movements for real change, “striking the root” as Thoreau said. And then you’ve got lots of people who are just doing their thing on the edge, trying to move slowly in the right direction. Arne Naess: “The frontier is long, go and do something.”

      • and cut me off that intense relief that Kim Kardashian found her weight again? I wouldn’t dream of it …

        I’m not sure you get what I’m trying to say, but that is quite all right.
        I ‘m glad you have found your direction, and keep it up I would say.

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