The changes spelled out as possible today can’t wait for the spoiled children of the middle class to feel “guilty” about enjoying economic rents in a world of growing inequality, or to realize once and for all that they’re not the center of the universe and quit pompously asserting that the fate of the species depends on their little acts of consumption. The changes that will make things whole and coherent, which will make a place for everyone, will be driven by those who love life and abundance, those who keep alive the dreams of Fourier and the utopians, of Lafargue’s The Right to Laziness and of the multispecialist, reborn and made visible by the Internet.
Partly as a consequence of the 15M movement , “degrowth” has become a new, hegemonic view. Argumentatively aged in French think-tanks and promoted on the peninsula by the local branch of the “peak-oil” movement, it quickly gained a foothold among ecologists, and then among the Left.
The degrowth approach was presented as a consequence of energy catastrophism at a time when the Iraq war and rising fuel prices had grabbed the attention of large audiences. According to its proponents, the exploitation of natural resources and especially of energy sources is unsustainable — not just over the long term, but even in the short term. An energy catastrophe (“oil depletion“) is imminent (in fact, “peak-oilers” have been announcing it regularly in cycles of between five and fifteen years since the ’70s, although, so far, it hasn’t happened on any of these occasions). The result of this catastrophe would be the end of industrial and postindustrial society, the end of long-distance communication, the return to a society with a total energy consumption of around 500W per person (including the energy needed to produce any kind of good or object we buy). The world’s population would be drastically reduced to about one billion people (less than one sixth of what it is now).
But let’s not be confused, in the degrowth narrative as it was proposed only a couple of years ago, the end of economic growth was inevitable, but not desirable. The narrative is focused on how hard or soft the landing would be, and implicitly on how challenging things would be for the surviving one sixth of humanity. They tell us this depends on each and every one of us (those of us who have the chance to understand, while the world careens blindly towards disaster) being sufficiently prepared, reducing personal consumption to a minimum and reorganizing the economy where we live towards autarky through voluntary degrowth of production and consumption, in the style of “transition towns.”
The fallacies of catastrophism
Generally, as the successive failures to predict the “advent” of the peak-oil catastrophe prove, the catastrophist accounts (which are based on a “Ricardian fallacy”) don’t turn out to be accurate. Since 1874, one estimate after another has been made of the total reserves, and each one is an upward revision. Reserves measure an economic amount — the amount of petroleum that’s profitable at certain prices and using certain technology — not a physical quantity of resources.
In fact, the biggest mistake in the catastrophist view is not understanding the role of technology and, above all, the social and productive system that gives it meaning moment to moment. As we saw in a recent post, even if the “end of oil” happened right now, its effect on the current system would be serious but limited (approximately between -0.2% and -2% of GDP in the worst-case scenario).
But above all, it doesn’t understand — or doesn’t want to understand — that an alternative mode of production would have a different relationship with Nature and therefore with energy sources. The world of distributed production is a world of distributed energy based on renewable sources in which peak oil wouldn’t amount to a turning point. Surely aware of this, catastrophist groups have emphasized spreading the idea that renewable energy could not, according to them, support a “consumer society.”
They postulate that productive scale will be maintained and even increased beyond levels that became dysfunctional years ago in all areas, and that technology linked to the P2P mode of production, against all evidence, will not be developed.
An argument based on such narrow postulations indicates argumentative desperation. Surely that’s why degrowth has been softening the the image of catastrophe, to set a new direction and to present degrowth, which is to say, the global reduction of production, not so much as something inevitable in the short term but rather, desirable in moral terms.
Degrowth 2.0 and its sins
And it’s easy to forget, for someone who feels guilty about their superfluous consumption, that almost four billion people live at a critical level of scarcity, that of those, 2.5 billion consume less than their basic food needs, and 1.2 billion don’t even have access to water. What’s more, it can be hard to admit that, in the houses of a good part of the working classes of developed countries, it’s difficult to find much that doesn’t have to with surviving and working, and workers have few luxuries beyond the occasional visit to a restaurant or bar, or the even rarer wedding or baptism, to psychologically deal with the rhythms of work, precariousness, and growing social decomposition.
The function of “the catastrophe” in the degrowth view played no small part. It’s not the same thing to talk about how one adapts to the inevitable (as terrible as it is) as it is to talk about what’s desirable or not in building an alternative social system. What’s more, if we take the dramatic population reduction which catastrophism describes as inevitable out of the argument, the numbers are overwhelming: not even maintaining current global production with an egalitarian distribution of income and wealth would give us a world without poverty. We must produce more, but in another way, and with new priorities. Producing less, even if it were redistributed, would kill more and more people through hunger and other suffering. It’s that simple.
That’s why today’s “P2P thinking” demands abundance, especially those who understood, right from the beginning of the P2P revolution, their connection with the development of distributed technologies and the reduction of optimal scales of production. And in that you can’t help but discover a much older tradition. Because the changes spelled out as possible today can’t wait for the spoiled children of the middle class to feel “guilty” about enjoying economic rents in a world of growing inequality, or to realize once and for all that they’re not the center of the universe and quit pompously asserting that the fate of the species depends on their little acts of consumption. The changes that will make things whole and coherent, which will make a place for everyone, will be driven by those who love life and abundance, those who keep alive the dreams of Fourier and the utopians, of Lafargue’s The Right To Be Lazy and of the multispecialist, reborn and made visible by the Internet.