I’ve been having a lot of conversations on both postgrowth and degrowth and there seems to be an ongoing debate as to which word works better. I’m not really interested in the academic debates (for now) as to the differences between the two. Rather, I’d like to make a simple argument as to why we should be using postgrowth more often in public. To be clear upfront: I support both movement and both are needed. This essay is simply about which word we – climate activists, academics, writers, anyone who wants things to be better – should be using most of the time, especially in public.
In a recent essay on Solarpunk I discussed the crisis of the imagination that has often plagued the environmental movement. Give it a read first if you can as it will help explain the following too.
One mistake that I think is still common among climate activists is the fear of being perceived as alarmists. As a result, we’ve tried to maintain a balance between screaming about how urgent our global crisis is versus not freaking people out. This ends up making us feel more exhausted because it can feel like everyone else is gaslighting us while we all sleepwalk into incredibly grim realities.
The problem, however, isn’t really that. We need people to be alarmed about the climate crisis because it is an alarming situation. It is an emergency, and it must require many more people to take it on for what it is. It requires drastic – by our current standards – changes. This is barely debatable at this point. We know that growth is a big part of that problem, hence why degrowth became a thing in the first place.
But the case for using postgrowth is this: it feels better. We know now that how words make us feel influence our perception of them. I think a lot of academics and activists are still in denial of this because, despite our best intentions, we are still vulnerable to the myth of homo economicus and ‘perfect rationality’. We don’t want to admit that we are all capable of ignoring the facts if they make us feel too uncomfortable or scared. We don’t want to fully acknowledge the consequences of things like shifting baseline syndromes, even as almost all of us have already shifted our baselines as it would be impossible to live in 2021 otherwise. It’s time we move beyond those obstacles.
Postgrowth is an inclusive term. It seeks to move beyond growth, and y’all are all invited to this new world. You should be alarmed by what’s happening, but this doesn’t mean that there is nothing on the horizon for you to work towards. This is why I promote Solarpunk as well. We need to be telling better stories of our present and our future if we wish to make it easier for everyone to join us in this existential struggle.
A postgrowth world is very possible, and even groups like the European Environment Agency are (slowly) acknowledging that ‘green growth’ (a nonsensical term) is ‘unlikely’ and calls for post-growth and degrowth alternatives to be integrated into EU policy. The EEA called it ‘growth without economic growth’, which is in itself good evidence for how the word ‘growth’ maintains its appeal even when it has to be followed with without economic growth, which is what ‘growth’ is usually associated with in the first place.
The EEA writes:
“Economic growth is closely linked to increases in production, consumption and resource use and has detrimental effects on the natural environment and human health. It is unlikely that a long-lasting, absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures and impacts can be achieved at the global scale; therefore, societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress and their meaning for global sustainability.”
There’s already a word for that, and it’s post-growth. There will always be aspects of our world that requires us to ‘grow’ – medicine, as an obvious example, or education, or care work, and hundreds of more examples – but this cannot be done within the framework of seeking to ‘decouple’ economic growth from “environmental pressures and impacts”, which is a euphemism for ‘environmental disasters.’ Economic growth is the problem, but the word ‘growth’ gives this extremely damaging phenomenon a linguistic way out. It provides a kind of false bargain. ‘Yes, there will be some costs (environmental disasters) but we promise that you will one day benefit from it. It will protect you.’
‘Degrowth’ can lead us to largely emotional debates about ‘who needs to do it first’. We’re already seeing this happening even within the context of the framework ‘sustainable growth’ which, despite being an oxymoron, continues to dominate ‘debates’ about the climate crisis. Governments and corporations easily appeal to the usual ‘why us? why not them?’ “Why Switzerland? Surely China and the USA need to do it first.” I know many think this is ridiculous what-about-ism but ridiculous what-about-ism is a significant component of our politics worldwide today, and we can’t just wish it away. We don’t have time. We need the best words to help us frame the climate crisis as quickly as possible.
By advocating for postgrowth, we put major polluters in a more defensive position. They will have to come up with reasons why they oppose an obviously better vision of the world. They do not have the tools at their disposal to tackle this because doing so requires dismantling their own business models, and they will never do that unless they have no other choice. They are fine with hijacking the word ‘sustainable’, and have done such a mess of it as to effectively render it almost completely meaningless. BP and Shell and co are all very pleased with the word sustainable, and I think they will be equally pleased if the main word opposing their destructive practices starts with the negative ‘de’, as in degrowth. They simply use it to their advantage by saying that ‘unlike those environmentalists, we want everyone to benefit from growth.’ We cannot win that ‘debate’ because it is rigged against the facts. It is entirely predicated on the belief – which is false, but that doesn’t matter in practice – that ‘I’ have to sacrifice my well-being for something that will remain abstract for most, despite the catastrophes already being caused by climate change, for a very long time.
I don’t see these corporations and the governments subsidizing them having the same kind of responses to a popularization of postgrowth as a broad umbrella term encompassing a more inclusive vision of the world. They would be forced in a position where they have to oppose the future because they’re so busy destroying the present. Greenwashing would no longer be as easy because postgrowth already includes the we-are-all-in-this-together-ness that these corporations and governments promote as a false ‘alternative’ to ‘climate alarmists who whine about traveling less and not eating meat.’ They thrive on us already feeling guilty about what ‘we’ are doing, even as it is mostly them doing it (slight generalization for the purpose of this essay). They make ‘us’ complicit in destroying our world world, giving us the incredibly cynical ‘option’ of ‘choosing’ between ‘jobs’ and ‘the environment’.
They cannot do that with ‘postgrowth’, they can do that with ‘degrowth’, and we don’t have time to let them try. As the EEA kinda acknowledges, we have to explore both postgrowth and degrowth alternatives wherever one is more relevant. There is and will be room for both postgrowth and degrowth to grow (annoying pun intended) as movements, practices and policies, but in order to do that we must make sure we are the ones framing the ‘debates’, and we can no longer let polluting corporations and the governments subsidizing them decide the terms of such ‘debates’.