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Designing a de-growth strategy

Andrew McKillop | 16 February 2011

Perhaps the largest, most ramifying but also highest level problem of the inability to change to an inclusive, sustainable economy, is the Global Economy. Why this is a problem generator, not solver, is obvious: it is in permanent unstable equilibrium due to needing permanent growth of output, predominantly based on the throughput of depletable and depleting natural resources.

Pricing of production and supply passes through the distorting lens sloganized as the markets will decide which in the real world means frenetic speculation on any and all basic necessities of organized social life, like food prices. This is one facet of the global economy that must be eliminated. The global economy has no single 'master brain”, nor master plan, but through a complex of human desires, past practices, established processes and infrastructures, it pursues impossible goals for world per capita mineral, energy and bio-resource consumption and has no effective feedback in the shape of adaptive response.

Nearly all the complex of resource, energy and environment challenges we face are linked with or generated by the global economy. Several of them are directly generated, while others are indirectly linked, for example uncontrolled and explosive urbanization, culture change towards a global uniform, simplified model devoid of humanism, with the unsurprising result of this one size fits all delivering anomic societal states and loss of identity, intensified social, community and inter-generational conflict, and an inevitable loss of economic output, profits, and growth of turnover. These direct and indirect diseconomies then “hurt” the continued growth of the global growth economy.

There is a growing body of social, community, political, NGO and other opponents of the global economy, from a very wide set of standpoints, but solutions or alternatives to to it are usually sketchy. The basic weakness is usually the avoidance of clear quantitative and qualitative goals for a process aimed at replacing the global economy. This in itself presents dangers, ironically because of two major traits of the global economy:
1. Operation of the global economy is exclusive of, and destructive to any alternative or preceding model for economic organisation;
2. The global economy is structurally unstable and can quickly collapse, almost black hole style, but with no existing plans and programs for an agreed and organised transition to an alternative model.

Focusing the cultural and social reasons and requirement for de-growth, or the antithesis of the global economy we can start “upstream” with its cultural impacts, finding that the so-called “No Alternative” of the global economy exerts a strong degenerative impact on all societies and their formerly diverse cultures. Homogenization, uniformity and simplification are the monolithic trends for society and culture within this single economic framework and model. The bulldozer cultural impact of the global economy makes it difficult for either social groups, or individuals to exercise freedom of choice in their value systems, mores and lifestyles, or to retain and develop traditional value systems, mores and lifestyles.

A basic premises can be outlined. First cultural regeneration is intrinsic and basic to replacing the global economy, and economic de-growth is basic to problem solving and the creation of a long-term stable future.

There are a large number of rhetorical tricks for sidelining the basic concept of de-growth. The de-growth strategy that we must develop and define must avoid the pitfalls of being able to be discredited as “yet more harmful de-growth”, must particularly address employment, the satisfaction of basic needs, and a place for everybody in society.

Due to resource, environment and climatic limits on conventional economic growth, and for both social and cultural reasons, planned and organized de-growth is a key solution, as well as a solution generator and multiplier, for transition to the long-term sustainable society. Cultural value restoration is basic to the mission. Without the constant pressure to produce more and consume more, and constant competition to find and keep a job, the creation of multiple and self-reinforcing structures tending towards a more stable and homeostatic environment. This sets the human, social and cultural parameters to the foreground, and requires their integration in all plans and programs for de-growth.

This is because the negative image, and the negative impacts of current "de-growth", which in fact is economic decline and economic recession, only generate pent-up demand for further and faster conventional economic growth, and the search for new or better-paid jobs once the period of "de-growth" ends. In other words, real and beneficial de-growth is above all not permanent economic recession, nor social and cultural regression. In addition, de-growth will not be a temporary condition, but a long-term stable economic framework for an entirely new and regenerative social and cultural process.

Defining culture in its broadest sense to include technology, the arts, communication and politics, the homogenization, simplification and impoverishment of choices, options and variety is itself a factor that will certainly and surely undermine, or even destroy the global growth economy, with time. De-growth is therefore in fine the only option due to the global economy and globalizing culture and society being locked-on to a trajectory of final breakdown, perhaps with very grave geopolitical sequels, and possibly within as little as five years.

We could for example posit a plausible and possible capping of world total energy consumption within 5 years, with initial de-growth of OECD energy intensity and total consumption compensating continued energy demand growth in other countries, the OECD bloc simply applying programs similar to the EU's “20-20-20 plan” which includes a target of 20% reduction in EU-27 fossil energy consumption by 2020. Following the achievement of zero energy growth worldwide, the de-growth plan could target a 2.5% annual reduction of world total energy demand. Continued at this rate from about 2017, this could result in a halving of world total energy demand by around 2040, relative to demand in 2011. Very obviously, if demand is cut, both CO2 emissions are cut, and remaining reserves of fossil fuels will be stretched, for long periods if the de-growth program is sustained.

Under this de-growth scenario, the stretching of world fossil energy lifetimes will provide much more elbow room for decision makers facing the challenges of maintaining the stable and sustainable world society through the second half of this century, from 2050-2100. Maintenance of the growth economy, and energy transition is one clear reason for the ineffectiveness and high cost, and economic unworkability of recent attempts to force the pace of energy transition.

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