Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

The future is Degrowth – A Guide to World beyond Capitalism

Schmelzer, M., Vetter. A. and Vansintjan, A. (2022). The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism. United Kingdom: Verso.

The future is Degrowth - book cover

I’ve carefully read the The Future is Degrowth a couple of times and also skimmed it in preparation for this review, yet still feel I would benefit from reading it again – such is the density with which the principles, ideas and analysis around degrowth are packed in.

The first chapter – Introduction – is an analysis and overview of the actual term degrowth – outlining what it is and, just as importantly, what it is not. Degrowth is described later in the book as a “contested and multivalent concept”, but nevertheless the authors do go on to provide a definition which bears repeating here:

A degrowth society, we propose, is one in which, in a democratic process of transformation:

  1. enables global ecological justice – in other words, it transforms and reduces its material metabolism, and thus also production and consumption, in such a way that its way of life is ecologically sustainable in the long term and socially just;
  2. strengthens social justice and self-determination and strives for a good life for all under the conditions of this changed metabolism; and
  3. redesigns its institutions and infrastructures so that they are not dependent on growth and continuous expansion for their functioning.
Schmelzer, M., Vetter. A. and Vansintjan, A. (2022). The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism. United Kingdom: Verso. (Page 195.)

When I first read this book as a relative newcomer to the subject of ecological economics, I was a bit bamboozled by the the terms social metabolism, material metabolism and social-ecological metabolism. The book does detail the concept of social metabolism when it is first introduced, summarising it (after Marx) as “the material and energetic exchange that allows society to reproduce itself, produce stabilize and grow”. That’s all well and good, but the other terms are used later in the book without elaboration. By assuming equivalency I managed to get by, but reading elsewhere that there are subtle differences between the concepts I would have liked further explanation or the consistent use of one term.

Chapter two – Economic Growth – is devoted to describing what economic growth is with reference to three interlinked processes: growth as an idea, growth as a social process and growth as a material process. It also discusses the idea that growth in advanced economies is coming to an end, whether we like it or not. Chapter three – Critiques of Growth – is, for me, one of the outstanding features of the book – a comprehensive account of the seven main (interrelated) critiques of growthism that together form the foundation from which the requirement for degrowth springs, powered by a central thrust for global justice. The seven critiques are summarised in a table in the book from which the list below is drawn:

  1. Ecological critique: economic growth destroys the ecological foundations of human life and cannot be transformed to become sustainable.
  2. Socio-economic critique: economic growth mismeasures our lives and thus stands in the way of well-being and equality for all.
  3. Cultural critique: economic growth produces alienating ways of working, living, and relating to each other and nature.
  4. Critique of capitalism: economic growth depends on and is driven by capitalist exploitation and accumulation.
  5. Feminist critique: economic growth is based on gendered over-exploitation and devalues reproduction.
  6. Critique of industrialism: economic growth gives rise to undemocratic productive forces and techniques.
  7. South-North critique: economic growth relies on and reproduces relations of domination, extraction, and exploitation between capitalist centre and periphery.
Schmelzer, M., Vetter. A. and Vansintjan, A. (2022). The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism. United Kingdom: Verso. (Page 78.)

The critiques which resonated most with my own view of economic growth – at least before I became interested in the concept of degrowth – are the first three, so I got most value from reading about of the last four: everyone will take something different from this section, depending on their prior life experience. The chapter does not stop with a description of these seven critiques but also makes a cautionary detour into critiques of growth outside the degrowth debate, e.g. green facism and anti-modernism. This delivers a salutary warning that vigilance is required to ensure that arguments for degrowth keep the values of global justice and a good life for all at their core and to be wary of these arguments being hijacked by movements with contrary values.

Up to this point, the book is mainly about examining why growthism is not working. Almost everyone will be able to evaluate many of those arguments and critiques with reference to their own lived experience. The remainder of the book is more challenging, dealing with ideas and proposals that stretch our thinking and imaginations beyond the paradigm shaped by lifetimes of exposure to the hegemony of growth. Chapters four to six are all about making degrowth work: chapter four – Degrowth Visions, deals with with the desirability of degrowth; chapter five – Pathways to Degrowth – tests the viability of degrowth; and chapter six – Making Degrowth Real – lays out ways in which degrowth could be achieved. Each of the three chapters examines – in successively less abstract and more detailed terms – the concepts and ideas that could help us realise social and economic changes to enable just, rewarding and good lives for everyone without the ecological destruction wrought by economic growth.

The ideas discussed in these chapters are generally split into two categories: bottom-up approaches referred to as nowtopias and top-down approaches referred to as non-reformist reforms. Most of the ideas for realising degrowth that I’ve read about elsewhere can be characterised as top-down approaches, so I really appreciated reading about the bottom-up approaches here. Nowtopias are also referred to as interstitial approaches because they operate in spaces within the current economic system. They can be thought of as laboratories trialing some of the concepts of degrowth and include (among others):

  • Transition towns and ecovillages.
  • Community-supported agriculture.
  • Collective kitchens and food recuperation.
  • Time-banks and regional currencies.
  • Repair cafes and open-source hardware.

One or two examples of nowtopias are discussed in some detail, for example: The Catalan Integral Cooperative – an “amorphous network whose main mission is to ‘antagonise’ Capital by building cooperative structures in the Catalan economy”.

The rather confusing term (to me at least) – non-reformist reforms – refers to top-down approaches that go beyond what could be regarded as simple reforms. Simple reforms make changes that aim to fix problems whilst leaving the overarching system in tact, but non-reformist reforms aim to go beyond that by altering, in some way, the system structure itself. Non-reformist reforms aim at changing institutions and policies. Examples discussed include (among others):

  • Reducing working hours.
  • Guaranteed housing.
  • Universal basic services.
  • Universal basic income.
  • Ecological tax reforms.
  • Income maximums.

The interaction between top-down and bottom-up approaches is discussed at some length – they are framed as complementary, rather than competing, approaches. For example non-reformist reforms can change the political and economic environment in ways that promote the expansion of nowtopias. At the same time nowtopias can change the way people think about and live their lives, making them more open to more radical top-down changes. The authors refer to the task of changing people’s minds about growth as developing a counter-hegemony to growth in order to “[build] people power against growth”.

The final chapter – The Future of Degrowth – recognises that there is still plenty of thinking and research required within the degrowth movement, for example: to ensure that class and race issues are not overlooked; to ensure that the geopolitics and imperialism is factored into degrowth analyses; to address how digitalisation will impact the practise of degrowth; and to engage more fully with the democratic planning process. The book ends with an exhortation for the degrowth paradigm to be considered as a broad, well-developed set of tools for addressing our deepening ecological and social crises, whilst recognising that there is room for further development and that it is not the only approach that has a part to play.

If The Future is Degrowth lacks something of the engaging narrative of Less is More, it makes up for it with the comprehensiveness of its coverage and the scholarship of its presentation. In fact, I would recommend The Future is Degrowth and Less is More as companion books – the reading of one much enhances the reading of the other.