The Never, Never, Neverland of Degrowth

Those following the most mature conversations on the subject know that, if there was ever any chance of keeping this planet habitable, it would be not through solar panels and EVs.  It would be through a major downsizing of our entire civilization in order to reduce its impacts not only on emissions, but on all elements of overshoot that have crossed into red territory.  We have entered a precipitous age where we very quickly need to completely shift from spending our time and energy achieving, doing and building, to finding ways of undoing, simplifying and deconstructing many of our previous generations’ so-called “accomplishments”.

This dire message of downsizing was at some point carefully packaged into a new and mysterious word called “degrowth”, in order to avoid references to economic stagnation or contraction, which would cause alarm.  But this term is an oxymoron, consisting of a positive and a negative.  So let me spell out to you what degrowth means:  it means contraction, downsizing, downscaling, or at least, not growing.  And there are huge problems with it.

The first problem is that contraction has never been done, in fact not even attempted, ever.  Despite its short history, the human race has over the ages given rise to many civilizations, every single one at some point facing a big challenge of continuing to service its increasing demands for resources.   Every time these resources dwindled, there was very little strategy in place to conserve them, or to manage demand.  In fact, no civilization has ever come even close to making the type of radical changes humanity today needs to avert catastrophe.  Like stubborn patients refusing critical life-saving surgery, all of our civilizations eventually became sitting ducks, simply waiting for their collapse. 

Instead of addressing the level of demand itself, humanity has always been incredibly inventive in finding new ways to cater to its escalating needs, and provocative ambitions.  We’ve always gone to great lengths to secure the immediate supply of water, food and other resources. What all of our civilizations failed miserably in however, was questioning, predicting, managing and ultimately controlling demand to a sustainable level.  On every single occasion, we preferred to leave the future wide open, abandoning future generations to fend for themselves in whatever world we pass down to them.

There are very clear learnings from our history, which follows a terrifying pattern of repetition.  Looking at how past human civilizations dealt with their growing pains, there are three main strategies through which they managed to mutate, evolve, and defer their problems into the future.  Neither of these strategies, which I am about to explain, are available to us today. The future that those civilizations deferred to, is here, now.

The first is war.  Declining empires would manage to earn themselves a few more hundred years of lifetime extension by invading resource-rich neighbors with poor military capacity, as well as defenseless natural habitats home to millions of species.  From ethnic cleansing to the annihilation of entire ecosystems, humans have used extinction as the preferred method to clear space, create economic opportunity, as well as clear their memory of any crimes they may have committed in the process.  This delightful strategy is not available to us today as there are no resource-rich areas left on the planet.  On top of this, the climate crisis is impoverishing both the rich and developed world and even making areas of the planet around the equator completely uninhabitable.  The economic system is also too interconnected and globalized for any large power to benefit from war.  We all need each other, more than ever before, and in more ways than ever. 

The second strategy which empires followed was to abandon their land altogether and move their administrative and economic center somewhere else on Earth, either within or outside of their territory: in other words, find some other place to exploit and destroy.  The problem with this strategy is that again, it is not available to us anymore.  Humans have overrun the planet, and there are very few untouched places left to exploit and destroy, and a sure far cry from what would be needed to support an 8 billion-strong consumer base that is ever more demanding.  Those who advocate moving to another planet will also be disappointed, as very soon the problems here on Earth will be too cataclysmic for any resources, industry and budget to exist for such big projects.  We are more likely to destroy this planet way before we are technologically advanced enough to abandon it, a blessing for neighboring solar systems who would be next in line to become recipients of our appetite for destruction.

The third strategy is technology. Both the agricultural and industrial revolutions were game changers for empires.  Sadly, both of these strategies depended on resources that do not exist anymore.  We have already farmed all the farmable land that is out there, and we have upscaled and automated industrial production to a point that both the manufacturing and supply chain systems are extremely sensitive to break down, due to globalization and the complexity of advanced technology.  The world is much more likely to be fighting with China in the near future for access to its rare earth metals, rather than being lucky enough to innovate and invent itself out of permanent recession.  Besides, the technological future of humanity looks bleak if anything, given the increasing risk of us being surpassed and/or terminated by successive non-DNA based civilizations evolving out of artificial intelligence.

You will notice one common attribute of the three strategies mentioned so far:  they are all growth-based, which is of course why they are impossible for a degrowth strategy.  This highlights the impossible conundrum degrowth enthusiasts find themselves in.  The challenge is both our current economic system, as well as human mindset.  The latter is enslaved to the former.

All three of the strategies I mentioned above had immediate benefits to the economy, and they therefore all had respective stakeholders, “owners” and champions who would go ahead and support these solutions.  Whether they were feudal landlords, slave traders, fossil-fuel oligarchs, clothing sweatshop CEOs or blood-thirsty warlords, there were always enthusiastic champions behind these growth-based strategies.  These ruthless business egomaniacs will always expect others to pay the price for their poor decisions. Our karma-illiterate, narcissistic civilizations have always been led by them, firmly keeping their eyes and ears shut not only to nature, but to the future: in our present case, to the pleas of the next human generation which may be the last, and who is already coming of age. 

So who are then, the champions for degrowth?  Where are they hiding?  There are none, for the reason that the only stakeholders of degrowth are the voiceless 8 million species being made extinct, and humans from the future, who are also voiceless.  These are the voiceless champions.

The entirety of humanity is against degrowth, for the simple reason that degrowth means no economic profit, despite the fact that degrowth would, for the first time in millions of years, begin to replenish the BOE’s (Bank Of Earth) balance sheet of natural resource capacity.  By today’s toxic economic paradigm, degrowth is as close to a utopia as Never Never Land is to an adult human.  We are lacking both the stakeholders and champions, because there is no immediate profit to be made. 

This means that solution number four, renewable technologies, is also not a solution, given that it is based on growth.  Renewable technologies are not a degrowth solution as they have so far only catered to meeting an increasing demand for energy, rather than addressing the problem of escalating demand itself.  Moreover, they are profit-motivated, and this is why they do in fact have plenty of stakeholders and champions, who belong in the list of usual suspects and criminals mentioned earlier.  These stakeholders are in it for the money, and they do not represent Earth’s biome, or future humans. The renewables industry is necrocapitalism all over again, and this is why these oligarchs are trying to sell it to us, along with the promise of jobs and a life of luxury, as these are the only messages the public wants to hear. Imagine what would happen if one morning suddenly people woke up realised that the Green New Deal they had been sold was an investor fairy tale, and that Earth was in fact doomed unless we scaled down literally everything, starting with our own use of resources.  It wouldn’t go down very well.

It is clear from this that any solution that relies on profit, and on stakeholders who are only interested in profit, is not a solution.  Yet at the same time, it is evident that there is no immediate money in degrowth, and it will never be implemented by an economic and political system which only puts forward ideas which exclusively aim in boosting GDP and the pockets of oligarchs. 

The problem therefore is profit itself, the very notion of money, and an economic system which keeps humanity hostage to its own incoming Armageddon. We are addicted to profit.  At every turn, this civilization consciously opts for meaningless short-term lifestyle benefits, at the expense of existentially disastrous future consequences. These are the exact same priorities as those of a drug addict.  Our system of necrocapitalism is indeed the thief, the oligarch who still operates at large, and who never got caught.  It has been running a negative balance for centuries, living on credit from the BOE. Humanity aggressively took over the formerly sustainable company called Earth, ascending into CEO with the sole purpose of devouring capital, ripping off stakeholders, and liquidating what’s left. The Leadership Board, composed entirely of humans, is a criminal organization.

Technologies that can help us do exist, and our problem is not their implementation, but who implements them, and how. There are many truly renewable and sustainable solutions, such as trees, including some which are human-invented technologies. They all immediately become un-sustainable and un-renewable however, when implemented with growth, profit and investment in mind, by people who have absolutely zero interest in saving this planet. 

At the same time there is an incredible amount of naivety in the business world regarding sustainability. Most feel it is a case of ticking a few boxes, rather than a massive sacrifice and transformation, which no growth-driven business today is prepared to sustain.  Rather than emulating the sustainable ebb and flow of “profit” witnessed in the natural world, global corporate cultures are pretending to be sustainable while still delusionally fixating on the futility of growth, and unrealistically hyper-performing employees.  If this civilization had any chance of continuing, it would need to stop laying foundations for a new, bigger empire, and start learning the lessons from mourning the one which is currently already collapsing. 

The first such lesson is that profit is toxic, and we cannot grow ourselves out of problems.  As tragic and unlikely as civilizational collapse may sound, it has happened before to every single human civilization.  It is the most natural, predictable and most probable outcome for an exponentially overgrown economic system simply being brought back down to size by its own physics.  But scaling back our presence on the planet is an action contrarian to everything our civilization has stood for, during the entirety of our history.  Unless we realize the immensity of this challenge, degrowth will become another greenwashing term adopted and weaponized by the renewable energy industrial complex to mask all the greed underneath. The huge problem with degrowth is that it is a principle, not a technology.  Humans are great with technologies, not so much with principles.  The latter become distorted and corrupted. 

The second lesson is that true degrowth means reducing all aspects of our presence on Earth.  This includes the most important one of all, and the most carbon-heavy, which is our population.  The idea of 8 billion planet-eating humanoids continuing in a world of diminishing resources is yet another ludicrous religious and economic fantasy. True environmentalists and economists should talk about the monster of overpopulation. Earth’s system did not evolve to cater for a single species at this size.

Scaling back our impact on this planet goes against everything this civilization was founded upon: scaling up greed, scaling up population, scaling up natural destruction.  Degrowth is only possible if we de-criminalize contraction, simplification and ecological restoration.  For an ecologist, scaling down our consumption, energy use and population growth means finally living in balance with the planet and the climate. For most politicians as well as the public who vote for them, these critical steps will be labelled as a gross infringement on human rights.  Those who support these steps simply won’t get the votes.  

How can degrowth be implemented under these circumstances?  It would require everyone having to “wake up” simultaneously.  Contrary to much of the activism, the world is not only being led astray by “elites”, “corporations” or a handful of “bad guys”. The world is enslaved to a system of unsustainable greed in which each of us is an essential participant, whether we benefit from it or not.  What will likely never be communicated to us by politicians is that true degrowth involves no investors, job creation, green new deals or fancy EVs. It is a sacrifice, which cannot be and should not be sugar-coated to the voters.  But we will never hear the truth.  In the 80s the food industry lied to us, replacing fat with sugar rather than advising us to eat less overall.  In the 2020s, the renewables industry lied to us, replacing fossil fuels with Tesla cars, rather than telling us to drive less overall.

I laugh at economists and politicians who still think they can plan, who think they will have access to budgets in the midst of natural disasters, massive global migration, social unrest, hunger and nuclear war. They will be lucky to simply have a job, if governments still exist.  They have already become peons of the renewable energy industrial complex: rather than coming clean to voters about the gravity of the situation, they are trying to sell the beautiful golden sunsets of a Green New Deal, sponsored by the same oligarchs and psychopaths that have been running the world for the last few hundred years.

Degrowth is not a series of boxes to untick. It requires a fundamental change in how we define happiness. It requires the burying and mourning of a lifestyle and colorful vision of our civilization that we all falsely thought was normal, and sustainable.  A controlled dismantling of the most wasteful and destructive pieces of our civilization is the bare minimum we ought to do to slow down the climate crisis and ecological overshoot. The alternative is to suffer the most cataclysmic apocalypse that all four traditional solutions presented here would result in, and which would surely erase everything we hold dear.  Human civilization is like a brilliant firework. It may take a lot of science, patience, love, technology, cooperation and hard work to set it up, but this doesn’t mean it can’t immediately go off in one, split second.

George is an author, researcher, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons or enjoy his books

15 thoughts on “The Never, Never, Neverland of Degrowth

  1. Dead-on. An essential post for the world.

    If you want the latest, greatest fantasy speculative fiction for the last, best ,and now only hope for humanity, check out Christopher Ketcham’s piece on “Truthdig,” which also aligns with Andrew Nikoforuk’s similar one on “”
    Truth, and resilience, are relative concepts, I guess. No one really wants to hear what they are, or have become, for our time.

    It’s really “Degrowth-tinted glasses,” and it’s everywhere on our side. Good luck getting any of them to respond.

  2. Thanks again and again George for being brave enough to tell the truth about our fantasy life in the “Cult of Make Believe”. Our collective blind spot is huge. We have been conned and infantalized into be(lie)ving that we are the crown of creation fashioned by GOD. In GOD’s image. To eploit each other to the best of our ability. To propagate, lie, cheat, kill etc, etc, etc. We are the clever snake eating it’s own tail. No free lunch. Love Rick

  3. Yes, to survive we have to have degrowth. But to have that, we first need to experience a radical transformation of consciousness. As Einstein famously said: “We cannot solve a problem in the same thinking within which we created it.” Therefore, to survive, we have to shift. That is my work. I have spent forty years learning how to do it. I can now show someone how to shift in as little as two hours. Then, they experience a radical transformation of consciousness. Then, with a few months of practice, they can learn how to sustain it. And then, they can teach others. In my view, we have only about ten years within which to make that shift. Otherwise, we are heading for near-term extinction!!!

    1. The only “Degrowth” on offer is the cataclysmic, mass death, step-over bodies kind, but, hey, knock yourself out with your efforts.
      I won’t be signing up, that’s for sure, for any Esalen stuff, but in my place, feel free to offer your programming gratis to Jamie Dimon, Elon, Xi, Bolsonaro, the MarA- Lago gang, some Obmas, the Buahes, whoever stays out of prison of the last US nazi administration, Gwyneth, Sam the Ai guy, Zuckerberg- you know, the humanoids with actual species-condemning social power.

      1. When I muscle test, I reckon we currently only have a two percent change of waking up, shifting consciousness, changing our lifestyles, and surviving. I am optimistic enough to believe that that will change in the next ten years. I’m either the most optimistic man on the planet, or the most stupid. Take your pick!!!

      2. I was trying to be an absolute keyboard,asshole, which is not really ethical since the esteemed host of this phone line site said he agrees with you.
        The problem for me is that I am utterly opposed to the delusions that people tell the world or themselves to justify their particular grift in the supersystem. I grew up in a college town at the tail end of the 60s, so I was surrounded by the religion of ivory tower nobility and self-importance. The west coast Esalen-centered consciousness-raising certainly had its presence there, too, and that very tainted legacy is what you are fighting against and through in engaging in that practice of focus on the individual and not on the sociology of collective power that is going to fly us over the cliff.
        Remember, the esteemed host of this blog called “Degrowth” Never-Never land, it I don’t speak for him. I can recommend you lurk around r/collapse to see that I’m not the only asswipe macrofutilist around, and I will cop to the charge that I had my own grift in the supersystem, which, unlike your vocation, involved a fair amount of lying.

      3. Thanks, George. If you will give me your permission, I will test you seven main energy centres (chakras) and see how open or blocked they are. I can do this remotely, if I have your permission. Then, if you want, I can show you how to clear any that are blocked. The clearing process only takes a couple of hours.

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