Alternatives to Capitalism, Part 2: Climbing Down From Growth

One alternative to free-market capitalism is degrowth, which Louis Marion in A Fitting Idea for Fateful Times describes as “a rallying cry for the preservation of our world.” Richard Heinberg in The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Reality thinks the limitless growth paradigm of industrial civilization is colliding with non-negotiable natural limits. He believes that resource depletion, environmental impacts and crushing levels of debt force us to question the validity of capitalism.

Degrowth advocates, as the term suggests, even see “sustainable development” as a contradiction in terms, “a way to maintain profits and avoid making substantive changes to our habits.” Buying a fuel-efficient car, for example, is still buying a car and perpetuating the myth that we can’t do without one. Fuel-efficiency is, after all, only one aspect of the automobile’s environmental legacy, the similar use of raw materials to make both it and a conventional car being another.

Marion and others’ degrowth model suggest such values as a return to local economies, freedom from reliance on big energy producers, use of clean energy sources such as small wind and solar, ecologically sound infrastructure, free public services, guaranteed minimum income and short production and consumption cycles. It respects the limits imposed by global warming, and champions an ecology-based taxation system. It espouses the use of non-accumulable local currencies such as exchange of goods and services, and the sharing of durable goods. Degrowth asks the question: What ought to be produced? (or not produced) and curbs the use of environmentally and socially noxious forms of production. It considers the needs of future generations.

Is a degrowth economy a manageable alternative to a growth economy? Heinberg and others think it is. “A well-managed degrowth economy with relatively minor adjustments to our social structure would enable us to avoid ecological catastrophe and enjoy a secure existence- without the frills, of course, like a car or two in every garage.” Degrowth advocates believe we can share the pie without creating a bigger pie. (A friend who is a history buff shared his belief that humans have always been greedy, and that is never going to change. But are 400 humans really justified in withholding a tolerable existence from billions of fellow humans?)

There is undeniable scientific data, as well as overtly obvious climatic events such as record-breaking floods, droughts and wildfires, which betray the folly of the fun-while-it-lasted but ultimately destabilizing effects of an economic joyride based on unlimited growth. Planet Earth’s biosphere, on which we humans and all living organisms depend for life, is fast approaching the need for life-support. The industrial world’s fossil-fueled growth economy is in need of palliative care.

By continuing to keep a capitalist economy alive with ever-increasing doses of fossil-fuel energy is, ironically, tantamount to pulling the plug on future generations. By acting on alternatives to growth such as degrowth, perhaps it isn’t too late to breathe new life into both the economy, and the environment.

Scott Harris