Degrowth is inevitable. But what is it and what does it propose?
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A spectre is haunting not Europe, but the whole world. The intertwining of the pandemic with previous structural problems is causing a supply crisis that is already affecting a multitude of sectors throughout the global production chain. In addition to the shortage of chips or raw materials, there is a rise in the price of the various energy sources, which will inevitably fluctuate, but with an upward trend. This in turn feeds back into the previous process and makes life more expensive. Without energy, there is no life. If the former becomes more expensive, so does the latter.
On the other hand, global warming continues to accelerate in the face of the passivity of most governments and the uselessness of the Climate Summits. And it is producing more and more extreme and frequent phenomena. If we add to these enormous problems the tremendous biodiversity crisis or the fact that economic inequality is reaching unprecedented levels, it seems clear that the frameworks through which we govern ourselves, the system and its inertias, are not only incapable of tackling the problems we have listed, but in many cases exacerbate them due to their own internal contradictions. The system and its inertias, as the scientific community already recognizes, rather than helping to solve the problem, they are the problem..
When so many crises are accumulating at the gates, it is undoubtedly time to consider that the whole system is obsolete, outdated, poorly designed. Well, actually well designed, but only for a few.
That we cannot grow indefinitely on a finite planet is something that even a five-year-old child understands. However, mainstream economic theory still finds it difficult to accept something so obvious.
Dematerialization, decoupling, efficiency, are just some of the words used to avoid looking the elephant in the room in the face. elephant in the room. But they are all demystified. Hardly anything is dematerialized, certainly not at the necessary pace. There is no such thing as efficiency if you consider that there is a Jevons paradox. When was a vehicle engine more fuel efficient, now or 50 years ago? When is quantitatively more fuel consumed? There are no further questions, your honor. Efficiency improvements are diluted in the voracious cravings of an inefficient system that needs to grow like a human needs to breathe. The supposed decoupling of emissions -that trick of the tricksters- should be directly called delocalization.
Anyway, let's stop with the words and get to the point. Only once we understand the impossibility of solving all our problems with technology - and this is precisely the mentality that has brought us to this point -is it possible to understand what should be done in times of degrowth. To maintain what is essential, to forget a good part of what is superfluous. Degrowth would not apply equally in all countries, nor in the same way to all people. The economic theory that defends these ideas is based on redistributive ideas and social justice. Those who have more should pay more, only some countries -those responsible for having generated the problem- should decrease, not all. And of course some more than others. That is why in Latin America they call it Buenvivir.
To understand what is being defended by the theory of degrowth, we must think of a key word. Equity. As anthropologist Yayo Herrero continually reminds us, degrowth is a fact. It is going to happen. That is why the economic theory that bears this name defends a series of proposals aimed at generating an equitable response -to each according to his or her possibilities- to face this certainly traumatic fact without the usual people paying for it. What the theory defends is not guaranteed to happen, on the contrary, it will be difficult, and it is necessary to fight for it to be so.
A change of system as radical as the one proposed by the theory of degrowth cannot not be traumatic. It is a real revolution to stop using so many fossil fuels, to stop growing economically, to adapt to more local circuits of production and consumption, and to do all this in barely a decade. But even if it is traumatic, it is possible and necessary. Otherwise we will decline, but by force. And this will generate such problems that those who believe they will benefit because they are in privileged positions may end up much worse off than if they share the spoils a little. There is nothing more insecure than being at the top of a collapsing pyramid.
What proposals would be part of a decrecentista program? There are many ways to redistribute. The most obvious one is to generate progressive taxes that tax more those who earn more, in order to be able to raise money to make that transition. It will also be necessary to decomplexify and simplify the structures of the State, although first it will be necessary to rely on it to put a stop to the excesses of the economic elites. Democracy will also have to be opened up. To broaden it. Citizen assemblies, the more concrete the better. That stimulate collective intelligence settled in the territory. It is evident that we are moving towards a certain deglobalization, with less energy, this is also going to happen, so it would be good to anticipate and that political decision making is also relocalized.
Other proposals that can help are social currencies anchored to a territory -they facilitate the process of short production circuits and provide diversity to the local economic system. The proposals for basic income and guaranteed work would be another pillar: through them we can generate a guaranteed minimum quality of life and at the same time direct the labor force to where it is most needed: regeneration of ecosystems, primary sector, energy transition, etc.
All these proposals would have an inescapable triple axis: we must tackle the climate emergency while achieving energy stability thanks to renewable sources, and at the same time, we must try to balance a world that tends towards ever-increasing inequality. And this is very well studied. In previous civilizations that have collapsed, among the main causes is economic inequality. It is crucial to tackle it. Otherwise, the middle classes are not going to assume a process that they will feel as an attack against their position, and furthermore, the elite - who usually have a lot of weight in the decisions of a civilization - are immune to the signals, they live in their bubble thinking that nothing is happening, until it happens.
Approximately 1500 years ago, the Roman Empire split in two: on the one hand the Western Roman Empire, which collapsed, on the other the Byzantine Empire, which simplified itself -reduced the army, the complexity, the territory it controlled- and managed to hold on for another thousand years. Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. It is up to us what we want it to rhyme with.