According to Dr. Jason Hickel, author of the book “Less is More,” such “growthism” is the very reason we’re experiencing environmental collapse in the first place. Suston reaches out to learn what Degrowth can mean for the outdoor community.
As many may be unfamiliar with your core concept – degrowth – perhaps you can first briefly describe what you mean by it?
It helps to start by understanding what “growth” is. We often think of growth as a synonym for social progress or improvements in well-being and so on. But that’s not accurate. In an economic context, growth is very narrowly defined as an increase in total production, as measured in terms of market prices. So, producing $100 worth of teargas and machine guns is worth exactly the same as producing $100 worth of education and healthcare.
Clearly it makes no sense to pursue aggregate growth as a goal, in and of itself. When it comes to human well-being and social progress, what matters is what we are producing (teargas vs. education?), whether people have access to essential goods, and how purchasing power is distributed. That’s what we should be focusing on.
OK, so would you say that there’s a distinction between good growth and bad growth then?
Clearly in some contexts growth of specific sectors is good and important! Obviously poor countries need to increase production of key goods and services to meet human needs. And in rich countries we need to produce more solar panels and wind turbines, for example. But that’s quite different from saying all sectors of the economy should increase production all the time, with no end point.
The problem isn’t growth as such, the problem is excess growth. In rich countries, excess production and consumption is driving dangerous ecological breakdown. Note there are huge sectors of the economy that are wasteful and unnecessary for human well-being: SUVs, private jets, beef, mansions, fast fashion, advertising, and the widespread practice of planned obsolescence. Degrowth scholarship simply argues that production in these sectors should be scaled down, to bring resource and energy use back to sustainable levels.
The exciting part is that models show rich nations can improve social outcomes with much less energy and resources than they presently use, by degrowing unnecessary sectors, reducing inequality and focusing the economy on what is required for human well-being: Universal public healthcare, education, public transit, affordable housing, clean energy, nutritious food. That’s what we call for.
A common response to these kinds of proposals – perhaps especially so in rich economies – is that they will “throw us back into the stone age.” How would you respond to this?
People often assume that degrowth is somehow anti-technology. This is totally incorrect. Degrowth scholarship embraces efficiency improvements and technological change. But it recognizes that this is not enough, in and of itself. Take the fashion industry, for example. There have been massive innovations and efficiency improvements over the past few decades. Great! But total use of materials, land and energy has continued to increase. Why? Because of growthism. Efforts to improve sustainability in the industry have been outpaced by the constant pursuit of growth. We can’t just ignore these facts. Efficiency is not enough: We also need to actively scale down less-necessary forms of production.
Degrowth seems to fly in the face of an ideology and driving force that has been central to several world civilizations’ idea of “progress” for a long time. What would you say to those who have grown up being told that “more” is synonymous with “better”?
Well, more is not always better, and progress is not driven by growth. Capitalism arose in the 1500s, for example, and over the next several centuries capitalist growth actually caused a decline in social outcomes around the world – mass dispossession of peasants in Europe, genocide in the Americas to clear the way for plantations, the Atlantic slave trade, policy-induced famines in colonial India – just to name a few. Meanwhile, most things we think of as “progress” – like public healthcare, education, and sanitation – is the result of progressive social movements.
Right now, we’re also facing the greatest threat to human progress in the form of climate change, and degrowth is extremely powerful when it comes to climate mitigation. Why? Because reducing production reduces energy demand and makes it easier to achieve a rapid transition to renewables. People often say that 1.5 degrees is dead, and that there is no feasible path to such rapid decarbonization. But this is only true if we assume continued growth in rich countries. If we abandon growth as an objective, 1.5 degrees is back on the table. We can achieve our ecological goals and improve social outcomes at the same time. That’s good news, that’s a future worth fighting for.
You have been invited to speak at the European Outdoor Summit later this fall. To what degree do you see degrowth as being relevant for the outdoor industry and outdoor enthusiasts in general?
Very relevant. I have been an outdoor enthusiast all my life: mountaineering, kayaking, packrafting, skiing, trail running, backpacking – I live for this. And like all of my peers in these sports, my heart shatters at what’s happening to our world right now. We’re watching glaciers receding in real time, whole landscapes being devastated by floods and drought and wildfires, staggering rates of species extinction. Communities – people’s lives – are being wrecked. This is happening not because we are ignorant, or because we don’t care, but because we are captive to an economic system that is structurally organized around and dependent on perpetual growth, perpetually increasing production. It is madness and everyone can see that.
People who work in the outdoor industry care about these issues. But the logic of the industry itself works in the opposite direction: More advertising, more production, more consumption, more stuff, more profits. We need to face up to this contradiction and do something about it.
Do you have any concrete suggestions?
One step is to produce goods that last many times longer and make them repairable. Think about it. If the average product lasted even just twice as long, we could produce half as many, with no loss in terms of human needs. Think of the power of this. That’s half as much land, half as much water, half as much emissions, half as much plastic in the oceans. To make this work, we can actively promote re-use and exchange, outlets should devote as much rack space to second-hand goods as to new ones, and messaging campaigns should encourage re-use. It’s not rocket science.
While many within the outdoor industry might agree with degrowth in principle, making the case in the board room might sound akin to company suicide. To what degree can business realistically lead the charge towards degrowth?
It’s hard, because any company that wants to take this approach is likely to worry about suffering a competitive disadvantage. The only way is with coordinated action. What we need is a binding sectoral agreement. The agreement should impose a hard cap on physical output and resource use in the sector and scale it down on a clear annual schedule. To achieve this in line with existing science, we should aim to cut the industry’s resource and energy use roughly in half over the next decade or so. That should be the goal.
I know this sounds radical. But it is also just obviously necessary, and 100% possible to pull off. The only problem is that what is obvious and possible also runs directly against the core logic of the industry. So… we need to change the logic of the industry. Growth, profit, shareholder returns – these simply cannot be the bottom line. The bottom line should be human well-being and ecology. That is all that matters. We need to reorganize the industry around these principles.
Such a radical departure from what has been the norm for centuries is difficult to visualize. Perhaps you can paint a picture of what an ideal scenario would look like if degrowth was successfully implemented?
Right, let’s imagine we accomplish a just transition to an eco-social world. In this world, the goal of government policy is improving social outcomes and regenerating ecology. We have clean and affordable public transit. Our cities are walkable and bikeable, and when cars are used, they are shared. We have high-quality universal public services. Inequalities are dramatically reduced. We have a strong living-wage floor, and a public job guarantee to enable people to participate in the most important collective projects of our generation such as building renewable energy capacity, retrofitting homes, and regenerating ecosystems. Our household technologies – fridges, laptops, washing machines – are efficient and long-lasting. We’ve stopped anthropogenic climate change. Forests and biodiversity are bouncing back. We have less aggregate production, but we live better lives as the living world recovers.
What about in the outdoor industry? The companies are run as democratic co-ops with a dual mandate: To enable people to enjoy the outdoors and protect it at the same time. Workers are paid a living wage. A sectoral agreement has ended advertising. Jackets and tents and sleeping bags are designed to last for 20 years. Retail outlets run repair workshops. Storefronts emphasize low-carbon activities: Hiking, skiing, and climbing instead of 4x4s and snowmobiles.
In short, we remember that it’s not fancy new gear that we love, but our wild and beautiful world.
Dr. Jason Hickel will be speaking at the 2022 European Outdoor Summit, 6-7 October in Annecy, France.