I appreciate the generous, astute responses and thank their authors. They draw attention to some of the biggest questions about what policy will be needed to direct the general remaking of the global order, and as such defy quick, easy answers. Some of their questions are addressed more fully in my book Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (2020), notably issues relating to inequality and the rationale for my focus on affluent consumption. In the space I have here, I’ll reply as succinctly as I can to the most crucial issues that were raised.
In Robert Pollin’s advocacy of the Green New Deal, as well as in Will Rinehart’s defense of what he terms “the abundance agenda,” the major issue is raised about the role of “growth” in delivering a green renaissance. Jayati Ghosh also addresses this, albeit more circumspectly, with her advice against obsessing over GDP. I agree with Pollin that degrowth within an unrevised capitalist economy is disastrous for the majority, and may not do much to reduce carbon emissions. I also accept that in any transition beyond that economy, growth will be needed in key areas of industry and social provision.
This forum response is featured in The Politics of Pleasure.
The central question, however, concerns its conceptual status within any economic argument on the future. Are we viewing “growth” in some areas (renewable energy, housing provision, education, and caring services, for example) as needed forms of productive expansion within an economic system that is being redesigned in order to foster ways of living very different from those of profit-driven, capitalist consumer culture? Or are we viewing “growth” as an essential and permanent dynamic of any effective economic order, and thus as both compatible with environmental conservation and enduringly sustainable? If the latter, I, along with a growing number of economists, reject it, and would cite in support the many studies exposing the folly of thinking that growth is consistent with conservation (see, for example, the 2019 “Decoupling Debunked” report from the European Environmental Bureau, and a similarly damning verdict in the same year from the European Environmental Agency). Indeed, it is not those who support the degrowth transition who have to prove the wisdom of their case, but those committed to a decoupling project for which to date there is no evidence.
In line with this, while I certainly accept Rinehart’s point that the required level of decarbonization is daunting, my concern is how we build political enthusiasm for the changes of lifestyle it will require. One way we might do so, I suggest, is to place greater emphasis on the gratifications that would follow—for us and all future generations—from a radical break with consumerism.
Pollin and Rinehart, by contrast, present the “greened” economy as continuing to deliver capitalist-influenced ways of living (flying, driving, full employment)—and this is maybe also implicit in some of the other comments. That avoids really engaging with my argument for alternative hedonism, which questions not only the enduring ecological viability of that degree of “business as usual,” but also the presumption that it serves a “natural” way of life that we (all of us?) shall always want and seek to preserve. Pollin, for example, speaks of raising “mass living standards.” I am asking, among other questions, what we might understand by the phrase, and whether we might want to rethink these “standards” in the light of ecological breakdown. So, yes, I support workers caught in the transition from the fossil fuel economy—but I would like us to do so within a context of promoting a less work-centered, growth-driven view of economic health. On this point, Pollin is right to challenge me on the role of unions: I should have noted (as, indeed, I do in my book) that some are now incorporating greener policies. A few even advocate a shorter working week—a move that would help to reduce energy and resource use and allow for more free time and personal autonomy.
As indicated here, I do not subscribe to Ghosh’s view that “green growth” and “degrowth” endorse “similar, if not identical, policies.” But she and Nanjala Nyabola are quite right to draw attention to the stark inequalities of the current global order, and to the immense disparities between richer and poorer nations and peoples in their respective contributions to environmental degradation. I completely agree with Ghosh on the priority that needs to be given to providing the means for a decent, dignified life to the 80 percent of the global community currently deprived of them.
If I seem—mistakenly, in the view of both Ghosh and Nyabola—to focus too exclusively on the most affluent minority, it is precisely because it is their consumption that is most accountable for environmental collapse, and they whom I view as most needing to take the lead in shifting to more sustainable ways of living. Nyabola charges me with not speaking “to the whole world” and contrasts my “nibbling with lifestyle questions” with her own call for a revolutionary movement against capitalism. But the fundamental question for me is one of agency: Who is to begin to forge that revolution, and can it be set in motion without significant support from those resisting the consumerist way of living within the richest nations?
My hope is that, by altering conceptions of self-interest among the most affluent, alternative hedonism could help to set off a relay of political pressures for creating a fairer and sustainable global order. It might also contribute to the critique of neocolonial “development” orthodoxy. In this critique, past ways of living and working should not be romanticized, but nor should the unsustainable and vandalizing consumerism of the richest nations be glamorized as any kind of model for the future.
Western affluence has delivered benefits for health and longevity, but it can no longer be allowed to dominate ideas of progress and well-being. Globally now, we need to look to other sources to shape a “politics of prosperity” for the future—whether it be past methods of provisioning, the knowledge and experiences of poorer nations and marginalized communities, or the less growth-driven imaginings of thinkers, technicians, and cultural workers, wherever they are to be found. Its priority will not be to secure ways for the more privileged to continue to fly and drive as before. But it also cannot be achieved by abstracting from consumption and simply advocating “harmony,” since consumption is essential to the meeting of even the most basic needs. I share much of Nyabola’s despair over the fetish of money and its dominant role in defining value. But I am aware, too, that were we to be rid of that role and to move to something more akin to Marx’s “second-stage socialism” of “distribution according to need,” we would still need agreement on what we mean by “prospering,” and on what is to count as “need.” Money is a curse. But to dispense with it is not to dispense with politics.
I agree with Lida Maxwell that capitalist ideology seeks to persuade people that poverty is self-induced rather than the outcome of exploitative relations. I am happy, too, to go along with her general point that we should conceive of desire not as lack but as “fullness” (although I am not sure I have entirely understood what is meant by that). Certainly, I myself am speaking to an alternative view of desire and its aspirations. In particular, I am trying to strengthen the bridge between the disaffection people so frequently voice about the most visible effects of affluent consumption—stress, ill health, time scarcity, pollution, waste—and an explicit politics of degrowth. And, yes, I conceive of alternative hedonism and its associated desires as directing attention to collective conditions and political structures. The promotion of a less individualized consumption and a more citizenly, community-oriented understanding of pleasure is central to its outlook.
Last but not least, I am grateful to Jackson Lears for his stimulating comment, on two main counts. First, Lears provides an insightful historical survey of the reasons underlying the post-1970s dissolution, in both eco-writing and campaigning, of the linkage between environmental conservation, improved happiness, and human well-being. I had not much thought about this disappearance, but find his reflections on this, and on the resurgence of an associated “technophilia,” interesting and persuasive.
Second, I am grateful to him for noting the brevity and inadequacy of my mention of the war in Ukraine. This was due in part to the war still being in its earliest days when I penned the article, but Lears is certainly right to draw attention to the fearsome impact of the continuing hostilities in “normalizing” nuclear war, drumming up a war fever on both sides of the Atlantic, and eroding international cooperation on the environment. As someone who has been an active campaigner for nuclear disarmament (especially during the 1980s with the European Nuclear Disarmament movement), his remarks strike a chord. The current situation at Zaporizhzhia should give pause to those arguing for more nuclear reactors as a path toward global greening. I look with horror on the current standoff between the major powers, which brings back all the terrors of the Cold War—but, as Lears says, made more terrible because of the absence of diplomacy, and because of the ignorant, gung-ho attitudes of several of those with fingers on or near the button.
My fear has always been that, in the absence of the needed economic and political changes, climate-induced migration and global competition over resources (including livable space) will precipitate major conflict—possibly nuclear, in which case almost certainly terminal—well before global warming in itself sets us on the path to extinction. The war in Ukraine—which itself must be viewed in the context of Kremlin alarm over net-zero carbon policies, given Russian economic reliance on gas and oil exports—has greatly increased that risk.