"The environmentalism of the 21st century must articulate a new demand - for radical abundance"
Those who argue against economic growth as not just a treadmill for humanity, but a contributor to global climate meltdown, are often challenged as unrealistic. Because, in the critics’ mind, a “degrowth” economy would be a commitment to permanent austerity - a narrowing of consumer options, a constant monitoring (and surveillance) of our economic actions.
And what weary, yearning modern person would ever vote for that?
Well, here’s a counterintuitive view, from the brilliant anthropologist Jason Hickel, a key member of The Rules collective. His new paper Degrowth: A theory of radical abundance (PDF), wants to argue that it is actually capitalism that generates and depends on scarcity - pricing what should be reasonably available at unreasonable levels, and generating an absurd high-work, high-waste society as a consequence.
By contrast, a world in which public, common and social goods were of high quality and cheaply available is actually one of abundance - liberating people into lives that they actually feel fulfils them, that they can control, and that don’t toxify the planet.
Jason gives a concrete example of how this works, by look at the London housing situation:
In London, house prices are astronomically high, to the point where a normal one-bedroom flat may cost £2,000 per month to rent, or £600,000 to buy.
These prices are fictional; they are no indication of the actual cost of building a house, or even of land, but are rather largely a consequence of the rapid privatization of the public housing stock in Britain since 1980, as well as financial speculation, zero-interest rate policy and quantitative easing, which has driven asset prices up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to the extraordinary benefit of the rich.
Meanwhile, wages in London have not kept pace with housing prices. In order to purchase housing, then, Londoners have to either increase their aggregate working hours or take out loans, which are effectively a claim on their future labour.
In other words, people are required to work unnecessarily long hours to earn additional money simply in order to access shelter, which they were previously able to access with a fraction of the income.
In the process, they produce additional goods and services that must find a market, thereby creating new pressures for consumption pressures that manifest in the form of, for example, aggressive and increasingly insidious advertising schemes.
The fictionally high housing prices in London therefore ultimately compel everyone to contribute unnecessarily to the juggernaut of ever-expanding production and consumption, with all of the corresponding ecological consequences that this entails.
We would recommend a full read of the article. Jason does an amazing dig into economic theory and history, and uncovers some early commitments to the establishment of property and factory relations as ways of inducing dissatisfaction and scarcity into the lives of the populace. But it might be fun to cut to his proposed solutions, by reference to his London housing situation again:
Imagine if we were to even just partially decommoditize London’s housing stock; for example, imagine the government was to cap the price of housing at half its present level.
Prices would still be outrageously high, but Londoners would suddenly be able to work and earn significantly less than they presently do without any loss to their quality of life. Indeed, they would gain in terms of time they could spend with their friends and family, doing things they love, improvements to their health and mental well-being, and so on.
And by needing to work less they would contribute to less overproduction, and therefore ease concomitant pressures for unnecessary consumption.
The same thought experiment can be applied to all social goods that have either been made to be artificially scarce or that would otherwise be simple to manage as commons.
And here I have in mind not only healthcare and education, which are already generally well-recognized as public goods by most social democracies, but also other key goods that are essential to people’s well-being, like internet, housing and public transportation, as in the vision of Universal Basic Services outlined by academics at University College London (paper, PDF).
On top of this, new “utilities” like Uber and AirBnb could be taken into public ownership, or public alternatives could be created, thus enabling the emergence of “platform commons” which would allow people to exchange their material resources (cars, homes) without having to pay exorbitant and unnecessary fees to private monopolies. [Editor: See our blog earlier this week on the FairBnb cooperative].
Employment too could be considered a common good – and indeed this would be crucial: a shorter working week with a job guarantee and a living wage, plus legislation to ensure that all productivity gains are delivered back to workers in the form of higher wages and shorter hours.
And by banning advertising in public spaces we could reclaim our streets (and attention) as commons and liberate people from the sense of scarcity that advertising induces.
By de-enclosing and expanding the commons, and by redistributing existing income more fairly, we can enable people to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income (and therefore additional growth) in order to do so.
People would be able to work less without any loss to their quality of life, thus producing less unnecessary stuff and therefore generating less pressure for unnecessary consumption.
Meanwhile, with more free time people would be able to have fun, enjoy conviviality with loved ones, cooperate with neighbors, care for friends and relatives, cook healthy food, exercise and enjoy nature, thus rendering unnecessary the patterns of consumption that are driven by time scarcity.
And opportunities to learn and develop new skills such as music, maintenance, growing food and crafting furniture would contribute to local self-sufficiency (see this by Alexander and Gleeson).
Liberated from the pressures of artificial scarcity, the compulsion for people to compete for ever-increasing productivity would wither away. We would not have to feed our time and energy into the juggernaut of ever-increasing production, consumption and ecological destruction.
The economy would produce less as a result, yes – but it would also need much less. It would be smaller and yet nonetheless much more abundant. In such an economy private riches (or GDP) may shrink… reducing the incomes of corporations and the very rich. But public wealth would increase, significantly improving the lives of everyone else.
Suddenly a new paradox emerges: abundance is revealed to be the antidote to growth.
If austerity represents the apogee of when public wealth is sacrificed for the sake of generating private riches, what becomes clear from the above is that degrowth is the very opposite. This is an important point.
Some have attempted to smear degrowth as a new version of austerity, this time promoted by the left rather than the right – an extreme manifestation of old-school environmentalists who want to force everyone to live miserable lives.
But exactly the opposite is true. While austerity calls for scarcity in order to generate more growth, degrowth calls for abundance in order to render growth unnecessary.
Abundance, then, is the solution to our ecological crisis. If we are to avert climate breakdown, the environmentalism of the 21st century must articulate a new demand: a demand for radical abundance.
We would only note, in addition, that “radical abundance” is often the war-cry of the transhumanists and singulatarians - the father of nanotechnology Eric Drexler wrote a book with that title. Our friend and fellow-traveller David Wood (A/UK archive here) has also written about on “Sustainable Superabundance” which perhaps looks towards radical technology as much as a rejigged theory of economics as the generator of abundance. But we open our arms wide at A/UK…