When we launched the Degrowth Commission in Govan almost a year ago we knew we’d meet some resistance. The idea of “growth” is so hard-wired into our brains it’s seen as an essential good.
Growth is everything. Growth is deeply associated with progress, both social and personal. Growth is assumed to be the thing that shares wealth. Growth is life.
How can growth be bad?
We said that growing our economy is costing us our future.
We were ridiculed, but mostly ignored.
The task of dragging the world into the reality that only degrowing our economy was compatible with a viable future seemed a long-term and difficult political and cultural project. Now, overnight, it’s our collective reality.
Boeing has shut down. Nobody’s buying anything they don’t need. The lockdown, which has seen three billion people under some form of restriction, has grounded flights, emptied buses and trains. The streets and shops are empty.
The coronavirus had the impact to temporarily reduce China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter.
Suddenly we’ve been thrown into the future we imagined was impossible to achieve.
We are so far off the map that political realities are being re-made. Our collective sat-nav has shut down.
Of course, it is horrific and nothing to celebrate, but it is uncovering so much about our society and our economy.
The first uncovering is social, not ecological.
As Rebecca Solnit writes: “The first lesson a disaster teaches is that everything is connected.”
The shared experience of a common global phenomenon is creating fear anxiety and panic. But it’s also manifesting residual and latent forms of mutualism and community, solidarity and collectivism that we thought had been completely extinguished under late capitalism.
While state action and co-ordination is essential, what we are also seeing is a parallel growth of decentralised neighbourhood action. Freedom lists the Covid-19 mutual aid groups in the UK here.
Its important to recognise that these ways of operating have their roots in anarchist forms of organisation:
“The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history. It was chiefly evolved during periods of peace and prosperity; but when even the greatest calamities befell men — when whole countries were laid waste by wars, and whole populations were decimated by misery, or groaned under the yoke of tyranny — the same tendency continued to live in the villages and among the poorer classes in the towns; it still kept them together, and in the long run it reacted even upon those ruling, fighting, and devastating minorities which dismissed it as sentimental nonsense.
– Peter Kropotkin (Mutual Aid, a Factor in Evolution)
While the virus presents opportunity for the most repressive regimes and reactionary tendencies it also presents unique opportunities for reimagining our economy. This isn’t easy in a world where people were more concerned that Wimbledon was cancelled than COP 26. It’s also not easy when these restrictions have been imposed rather than created and in a society where every outlet of the media yearns for a ‘return to normal’ and the recommencement of moron culture, bullshit jobs and dead ideas.
What does the virus reveal?
That GDP as a measurement, and endless consumerism and hyper-capitalism are destroying not just our planet but our experience of life.
The fragility and precarity of the economy we have endured has been laid open to us.
As the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel notes: “COVID-19 has revealed that key parts of our economies will need to be relocalized as much as possible, and removed from just-in-time corporate supply chains, including essential medical equipment and basic food supplies.”
“There is a bitter irony to the fact that we have all been convinced to use the word “growth” to describe what is ultimately a process of depletion and breakdown.”
The extent to which the growth economy has (and must) undermine the basis of our environment through resource exploitation and extractivism was well known. But what was perhaps less understood, generally, was the extent to which the gig economy and the systems of consumption have depleted our whole society.
Suddenly the task seems to be: Doing Everything that Should have Been Done Anyway.
From creating the re-localised resilient circular economy we only talked about, to ditching the measurements of GDP we only pretended to take seriously, to reclaiming our food system to being fit for purpose, to creating a universal basic income, to re-understanding our transport and travel culture, to understanding how to use the tools of digital technology in our interests, re-imagining what “productivity” actually is, and to understand differently our relationship between generations and what education is and what it’s for.
There are glimpses that some of this might be beginning to happen (‘Amsterdam to embrace ‘doughnut’ model to mend post-coronavirus economy’).
At a deeper level, questioning growth is also a matter of questioning progress, and this may be a more difficult but a more worthwhile learning from the covid crisis.
This is so profound we are only at the cusp of understanding it.
Of course there are immediate positive outcomes from this shared experience.
In the midst of lockdown, we are learning that profound, positive change is possible. In the midst of domestic isolation we are (re) learning the need for community and collectivism. In the midst of social distancing we are (re) learning the need for sociability and appreciating our need for nature.
But the dangers are obvious too.
As those studying the ecological / economic phenomenon in China have observed:
“Overall, the figures reinforce my estimate that China’s carbon emissions fell by around 25% over a four-week period, as outlined below, equivalent to around 200m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2). Demand slowly returned to normal levels over an extended seven-week period, bringing the reduction so far to around 250MtCO2, with emissions some 18% lower than usual levels.”
The demand to “return to normal” and decimate all of the ecological social and cultural gains will be overwhelming.
We will be complicit in this “return” unless we can articulate a response.
The dark tragedy is this:
We have been catapulted to the future we demanded and are presented with vast opportunity to create a radically different and ecologically viable economy. But all of the forces in society that benefited from the pre-covid world are working for a fast return to radical unsustainability and uncertainty.
Elite forces want us to return as soon as possible to a world hurtling to climate disaster, extreme inequality and hierarchy, pointless and useless work and endless growth. Capital wants us to return as quick as possible to constant consumption and mindless economic activity. We must resist this will all the force we can manage and with all of the enlightenment we have glimpsed at in our experience of lockdown.
A return to a growth economy and the numbing comforts of hyper-consumerism would be the worst possible outcome. As the author Arundhati Roy writes:
“Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Roy is right to see the pandemic as a “portal”, but if we aren’t careful, the portal will close as we stare blinking at the opportunities it presents us.