Degrowth #1

Degrowth? Challenge Capitalism

Demographic and economic growth, hallmarks of the Anthropocene over the last century, must ease in the face of climate change, ecocide, and future climate-related calamities.

I start with a critical distinction between two distnict trends

  1. Population growth has already slowed and will continue to do so with the advent of middle-class high-consumption life-styles, urbanization, and perhaps regional overshoots as population exceeds carrying capacity.
  2. Material/monetized (capitalist) growth has already slowed but will continue as a secular trend — which requires close attention in this blog.

Further, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) provides a poor metric, except perhaps to indicate the deepening penetration of capitalist, market-driven societies into the metabolism of the Anthropocene. This specific form of growth, a measure of capitalism on its own terms, must relinquish its central role in making the future: Capitalism must be severely curtailed and modified, soon. This is the challenge of Degrowth. But how? When? By whom? Where?

Conventional capitalism cannot and will not deliver shared prosperity, nor restore ecological damage, nor axiomatically improve human well-being. A legitimate role for capitalism to foster targeted and defined improvement in standards of living can be defined. Thus an enveloped capitalism might provide a powerful toolkit to be wielded democratically, transparently, locally, and deliberately. Might capitalism be reinvented to provide a path to outcomes resembling Degrowth? Time is short.

Capitalism will, and must, substantially fall short of its historical growth performance, far short. Capitalism will not generate substantial increase in GWP (Gross World Product), except perhaps in the regions where shared prosperity has lagged — where material development, as qualitative improvement,  must be done right. (Note, GWP is itself a measure of capitalism on its own terms, not of its benefits to humankind. Learn to distrust GWP and GDP. I have.)

Economic growth, the principle material benefit of capitalism, will fade. Thus the concern over Degrowth partially dissolves, becoming manageable.  If so, the popular support for capitalism wanes but capitalist profit deflates, creating a deadlock — if not a nightmare scenario of capitalism going cannibalistic (Klein).

However, about two billion humans lack basic Earth-hospitality, immiserated in conditions of abject poverty. I will refer to these good people as the Multitude, a diverse population inhabiting various corners of the Earth, mainly in the Global South, often in former colonies. Their pressing unmet needs must be addressed. Hence, the improvement in standards of living must entail targeted GDP growth. This will show up statistically as the convergence of GDP per capita, which Piketty forecasts. This, too, must be unpacked conceptually. However, under the normal dynamics of capitalism, the vast proportion of GDP growth will not benefit the Multitude, a fundamental flaw of capitalism.

Thus, my concern for Alternative Capitalisms:  Certainly, the system dynamics of capitalism exhibiting declining profits must be pondered (Shaikh). This approach to Degrowth will get complicated.

I anticipate that my discussion of Degrowth will extend to several blog posts:

  1. Population growth trends, slowing unevenly but lowering consumption and material stress on the Earth.
  2. Economic growth will also slow, but will introduce complex interactions that need to be gamed out. As investment diverts to armoring regions and as consumption stalls, profits will fall: Profit drives capitalism.
  3. Capitalism can take many historical and institutional forms, but all versions must cope with a changing planet and adjust to resource scarcities, shifts in investment and consumption patterns, and compete for capital with a warming world.
  4. As climate change approaches and as its impacts unravel civilization, capital accumulation of infrastructure and investment in clean energy must accelerate — itself a major challenge to capitalism and to capital markets. However, disaster-driven profit opportunities could subvert such efforts. The direction of needed capital accumulation will be contested.
  5. The interactions of all of these trends with climate change must be thought through around a critical systems perspective. Otherwise, militarized, wall-driven approaches supported by reactionary movements allied with disaster capitalism and the arms trade may prevail (Klein).

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