I was listening to a recent Frankly with Nate Hagens as he talked about the Beyond Growth conference and the degrowth movement generally. Leaving aside that maybe these aren’t the same things — it’s possible to be ‘beyond growth’ and yet not embrace the need to shrink, or ‘de-grow’, our economic activities — I was at first in agreement with Hagens’ reasoning. (I’m also choosing to ignore the whole incongruity of a conference of people who have to travel from all around the world to sit and talk about de-growing the global economy…but I digress.) Hagens made points that make sense if you don’t look at them too closely, but I’m notoriously bad at that. I chew on things. Apparently even when I am asleep. Because often I will wake up with a completely different perspective on something with no conscious input from the reasoning brain. This was one of those mornings. It was provoking enough that I immediately wrote down a brief essay arguing against the very points I had agreed with the previous night.
You can go listen to Nate. But I’ll just summarize: it is a short rant on the ecological and economic obstacles to shrinking a large (bloated) economy like our own. One main point is that if the US (the bulk of the bloat) were to redistribute its wealth more evenly around the globe, there would be a rapid increase in economic activity, as states and regions who have largely not enjoyed the fruits of capitalism were to suddenly have access to that wealth. These actors would spend those dollars building out an economy just like ours with all the attendant resource use and waste generation. I understand that this might be a concern for someone who genuinely believes that this planet has the resources left to build out more bloated economies all over the globe. However, I don’t believe that there is enough stuff left to build anything within a capitalist framework. I also have qualms with the ‘Give them money and they will just spend it’ argument against reparations. It sounds a bit too colonial for my tastes… Still, churning more of the planet into waste in the name of economic activity is the opposite direction we need to be heading. So at first, I was nodding along despite my qualms.
Then he talked about reaching the limits of what wealth can be shared out without toppling the structures that enable sharing. And yes, this is a problem — not so much for the world at large as for those who have wealth and who would therefore prefer that this economic system continue to produce that wealth. Still, it is a problem. Only so much can be taken out of the system before it will crash, and we don’t know where that crash-point is. Given past experience with economic crashes, we know that there are non-linear tipping points. Non-linear and pretty much irrational tipping points — ergo unpredictable tipping points. A crash could start with something innocuous and small and seemingly unimportant. It could happen next decade or next week. It could be slow and invisible until suddenly there is no center to hold anything. Or it could be an instantaneous implosion following just one of many known potential too-big-to-fail failures. Or it could completely come out of left field with no warning. BAM! No more economy!
If wealth and resources are intentionally removed from our economy, the system will reach a point where it can no longer function. This may happen in a controlled manner, maybe. I’m fairly certain that the degrowth advocates believe that this shrinking process can be managed in such a way that the parts of the system that they’d like to see preserved will be preserved. Somehow. (The degrowth folks are not the first to invoke magic as a central pillar of their economic theory.) But I think it’s far more likely to be an economic disaster, as those who have wealth and status in this system begin to see that they soon won’t have either and begin to act in desperate — ergo unpredictable — fashion. When the system begins to founder, I don’t know that it will be possible to save much of it from within the system. I think whatever is left in the system when it topples will topple with it. That’s why I advocate building localized shadow systems and extricating ourselves as much as can be from the current system while it still exists. Building up communities that can meet our needs now, before we need them — because the one we’re in now is not only bad at doing that meeting needs thing, but it also is going to fail. I rather think it is failing already. And when it gets too far into failure, it will destroy everything within it, at which point it will be too late to save or build anything.
In any case, Nate was saying that we can’t share the wealth because that will lead to having no wealth to share. And, yes, I agree. But there are really big caveats…
Let’s first sit with the ‘give them money and they will spend it’ argument… Because it’s not at all obvious to me that the rest of the cultures in the world want to emulate ours. It sure does not seem inevitable that they will spend a windfall of redistributed monetary wealth on trying to be like the US. There is rather a lot of criticism of us out there in the non-English-speaking world, you see. It looks to me rather more like they don’t want us to exist. (But that could just be my take…)
Still, it’s difficult to see how cultures that do not believe in unlimited self and wealth would want to throw much energy into creating this nonsense for themselves, nor how peoples who believe that they are viscerally connected to the more-than-human world would agree to participate in our culture’s rape of that world. Furthermore, they don’t need our version of wealth; they already are wealthy. Their needs are met — as long as we stay away. I mean, what does a Buddhist want with an ugly mcmansion stuffed with tchotchkes? Does an Ainu really want to vacation in Maui? And what use are paved roads in the Bush?
It doesn’t seem likely that any culture but ours would churn the globe into wealth for a few and waste for everyone else. That just isn’t a thing in any other culture. In fact, that kind of gluttony is specifically proscribed in most cultures. These are not folks who are going to spend money on building out new bloated Americas all over the planet. These are folks who would like America to leave them bloody well alone. They want us to get out of their hair and let them live as they want. Which… does not include a great deal of monetary wealth. Because that’s just not applicable to their reality.
Other cultures, those that are not defined by our values and are outside looking in at us, can plainly see that a lot of our wealth is just purely imaginary. To a Navajo, it’s a plain fact that billionaires have more money than can possibly be spent on goods and labor. Billionaires have more money than they could ever trade in on real value within their lifetimes. It may be that there isn’t even that much stuff and capacity for work in the entire world for all time. But there is certainly more money than there is value in a world with billionaires. We, in this culture, don’t see that, but most other cultures can see that money is illusory. They understand that money could vanish completely and that most lives would not be affected. In the absence of our culture, money is worthless.
But for the sake of argument, let’s ignore this little cultural bias. Let’s say that all cultures believe in money the way we do. Or, at least, they would if they had the money to believe in. Will moving money to other parts of the world result in a rapid industrialization of those places? Will giving monetary aid and reparations cause an increase in resource depletion and waste generation? Superficially, to those of us within this system, that seems a logical conclusion. But we live in an illogical illusion. We can’t see that there is also the problem of reality: to wit, it just isn’t possible to turn money into resources and labor in every individual community.
Without this global economic machine, each place only has what is available locally. And a community that has access only to locally derived resources and locally derived labor can’t transform mere money into a bloated consumer society full of real things. Money is not real things, nor real doing. It is a promise to acquire that stuff — if that stuff already exists and is accessible. And stuff is not spread evenly all over the world. The only way our economic system keeps going is through sourcing labor and resources at a global scale. Less euphemistically, our economy is only made possible by stealing labor and resources from the entire planet. Money only works as an unlimited substitute for value when there is a similarly unlimited pool of resources and labor. (Hence, now that both are shown to be all too finite, our system is falling apart…) So it’s just not possible to create more Americas. There isn’t enough stuff in every place. And no place — willing or otherwise — is going to be able to repeat the American heist of the entire globe. That globe’s worth of valuable stuff is gone.
In fact, we, ourselves, are not going to be able to keep it up much longer. And this is where I really disagree with Nate. He talks a good deal about biophysical limits, but he doesn’t truly acknowledge the fact that limits imply an end, that this system is going to stop working because there are limits that are being breached. Right now. Our economic system is surrounded by brick walls and it will crash. Full stop. Literally. Probably sooner than later, given the level of strain that already exists and the stresses that are piled on daily. This will happen because, on a global scale, we are running out of cheap stuff and we have reached the end of the free labor pool. If there is not a global siphoning of resources and labor into our economic system, then it all stops. Further growth is not possible. Maintaining what we have is unlikely the longer the time scale considered. And degrowth isn’t a matter of choice in a depleting world. It will happen. The trick is to make it happen with the least possible pain.
Which brings me back to the ‘give them money and they will spend it’ theme, in a roundabout manner… The idea that there can’t be any more industrialization in the world because the world is already as messed up as it can bear to be and so those who missed out on the EuroWestern round — because they were victims of that EuroWestern round — can’t have all the ‘nice things’ EuroWesterners have is profoundly unfair. And that’s not as whiny and juvenile an argument as it sounds in English. That unfairness is just the state of things and that rational grown-ups know to resign themselves to that unfairness is another cultural distortion. There’s this English trope: ‘nobody ever said life was fair’. It is used to explain apparently intrinsic inequity — that’s just how life is, inequitable — but this phrase has always sounded disingenuous to my ears. Because what it really means is that those without privilege must just learn to live with that — and nobody is at fault. That’s just their unfair lot in life. No hard feelings, you know, it’s just your luck — when luck has nothing to do with it.
This idea that life is intrinsically unfair and that many people are going to be hurt by that natural inequity through no fault of anyone else is another mask worn by our culture. It hides a system that is specifically designed to create and maintain inequity — because wealth is always gained at the expense of others. It’s not life, but our system that is unfair. But, rather than point fingers at those who have benefitted from our loss, the imbalance is blamed on an imagined unfairness of life — which, itself, is also a fallacious product of EuroWestern thought. Life is nothing but fairly balanced. It is only the creature who wants it all forever that sees inequity in ecology.
In any case, ‘we used it all up so you can’t have nice things’ is really not a reasonable argument to present to the rest of the world. Not least because we took those nice things from the rest of the world. Those things, that wealth — it is theirs. They have far more claim on our wealth than we do. These are global resources worked by hands other than ours. Our wealth is not ours to claim, and we need to give it back, with the labor of our own hands working to make that transferal possible.
This is not to say that we need to make automobile factories in Uganda and steel plants in Bolivia. We need to give other peoples their land and the freedom to use it, along with aiding them in fixing the many problems we’ve heaped upon them. We don’t need to give them money and our stupid ‘nice things’. We need to give them what we have taken from their homes. We need to make it possible for them to live again. And this means helping them fix what we have broken and sharing what real wealth we’ve managed to create in all this mess.
Ugandans (real people, that is, not the Western-sycophant ‘leadership’) probably don’t want car factories, but I bet they’d like ubiquitous health care clinics equipped with modern medicine. I’m pretty sure Bolivians harbor no desire for steel manufacturing to foul up their beautiful land, but they’d probably like free access to seed stocks that will produce food in a changing climate. And everyone everywhere would like the resources and labor to improve water access and rectify water pollution, remediate soil and slow biodiversity loss, build infrastructure that can withstand increasingly violent weather and make real homes for people where they can meet their own needs — without any assistance or imposition from money.
When all is said and done, I think maybe, in essence, I don’t agree with anything Hagens said. On the surface, yes, he’s factually correct… in a certain fashion. But the deeper issues? The meaning underneath his analogies? The reality of the world, rather than the illusion of economics? It’s just not right.
It’s an acutely unjust way of looking at the world. But it’s also just wrong. The rest of the world does not share our cultural values and is in no hurry to become Mini-Me Amercias. Even if they were, there isn’t enough stuff to allow that to happen. And the kind of things that do need to happen, the nice things that the rest of the world wants, are generally not things that can be bought. We all have to make the new world. Preferably before the old one comes crashing down on top of our heads.
In any case, the basic point is that degrowth is going to happen. To all of us.
And it’s because of limits, not despite them.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023
1 thought on “The Daily: 24 May 23”
“This is not to say that we need to make automobile factories in Uganda and steel plants in Bolivia. We need to give other peoples their land and the freedom to use it, along with aiding them in fixing the many problems we’ve heaped upon them. We don’t need to give them money and our stupid ‘nice things’. We need to give them what we have taken from their homes. We need to make it possible for them to live again. And this means helping them fix what we have broken and sharing what real wealth we’ve managed to create in all this mess.”
I listen to Hagens now and then when he has on a guest I want to hear, but otherwise avoid him because, like you said, while he is correct on the surface, I don’t think he gets it deep down. He clearly doesn’t if he thinks reparations to the global south will do more harm than good and they will just spend all the money to be like the US..
I 100% agree with you about creating a local shadow economy. Capitalism can’t be fixed in any way and it’s pretty impossible to just do something else on a large scale. Government could help in making the transition less painful, but that’s not likely to happen, at least on the national level.
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