Why Degrowth sucks
We need to grow our economy to save the planet and abundant clean energy is the key
When I was in my early teens, I was obsessed with the idea of backyard self-sufficiency. The idea of being able to grow my own food, especially, seemed enchanting. I started my own compost heap and grew heirloom tomatoes while my grandmother cultivated fragrant roses and dahlia the size of dinner plates in the front yard. The fact that those tomatoes were the best I’ve ever tasted seem to confirm that I was on the right track. How amazing would it be to control everything that I needed…and not need anything I could not control?
Of course, I didn’t really think things through. If I didn’t buy the tomatoes I certainly bought things to grow and tend them with. And even if I did not, I cannot have tomatoes year-round. And even if I figured that out, I cannot live on tomatoes alone. Most seriously of all, even if I figured out how to eke out a living as a throwback cottager, I would be immensely privileged, because if everybody tried to live like that, the world would not have enough land to sustain its current population.
So of course I recognize the appeal of degrowth. While it does not go as far as my teenaged self in encouraging people to go back to subsistance farming, it seems to offer a way out for people who, for whatever reason, feel suffocated by our current economic system, which offers an abundance of choice but little agency. Anyone who’s gone pants shopping only to realize the cut they like is no longer “in fashion” and all they can buy are 500 different shades of skinny jeans that makes your legs look like overstuffed sausages will know what I mean. (Can our fashion overlords bring back 90s style bootcut jeans? Please?)
So you end up with something like this tweet:
All those things she talked about are good actually. But they have nothing to do with degrowth! If anything, they are (or should be) the fruits of growth. After all, if I’m going to have a bottle of beer, which one adds the most to the GDP? An industrial can of Natty Light, a locally-crafted artisanal brew or a beer I made myself (with supplies from the home brew store)? Take a guess. Having leisure time, having enough excess income to save, people who say “remember to breathe”…all tend to be consequences of growth.
When Degrowthers talk about their utopia, they’re kind of describing a place I wouldn’t mind getting to. It kind of sounds like Denmark? The problem is, the way they want to get there is complete nonsense on every single level.
For the underdeveloped countries, the only ethical path is growth
This I hope is fairly self-evident. People living in the so-called Global South (kind of a yucky term to me smacking of geographical determinism…why did we start using it?) needs more wealth to bring up their standards of living. If we believe that each household on earth should have at least running water, decent lighting at night, stable electricity and god-forbid a washing machine, we are already talking about how to grow the world economy tremendously, not degrowth.
The more sophisticated degrowthers recognize the tremendous injustice in imposing their ideas on the impoverished. Which is why they say degrowth is the global north bringing down their growth while the global south are allowed to continue to grow.
But the global south is so much more populous than the global north. Following the degrowther’s logic…higher GDP inevitably leads to higher emissions. Allowing the global south to continue to grow will then doom the world to catastrophic climate change.
Even the Global North has a responsibility to grow
Indeed, despite the fact that the developed world is responsible for most of the world’s historical emissions, this will not be the case going forward. In the future just China and India will produce so much greenhouse gasses, it might not matter if the US or Europe curbed their output, which is naturally moderating in any case. Unfortunately, the historical climate sins of the global north has already been released into the atmosphere.
Instead of devolving our economy to meet the level of the global south, the best role the global north can play is to do something only wealthy countries can do: invest, develop and popularize new technologies that will allow everyone to live more sustainably and abundantly. To quote the excellent Pepijn Vloemans of RePlanet, “living in a rich country brings a moral duty to accelerate the search for better, cleaner technology.”
The hypocrisy of degrowth when it comes to nuclear power
One of the problems with degrowth is that even degrowthers argue about what it is exactly. But I will take the words of Jason Hickel, author of Less is More, as a leader of the movement:
Many of the objections to degrowth have to do with the term itself. Some people worry that degrowth introduces confusion because it is not, in fact, the opposite of growth. When people say ‘growth’ they normally mean growth in GDP, so one might reasonably assume that degrowth is likewise focused on reducing GDP. Proponents of degrowth are therefore condemned to perpetually clarify that degrowth is not about reducing GDP, but rather about reducing material and energy throughput.
Hang on a minute though! If degrowth is truly about reducing material and energy throughput, why would the degrowthers be (as they almost always are) against nuclear power? Megawatt for megawatt, a nuclear power plant is going to be the thriftiest power generation method when it comes to reducing material throughput after all. Smallest footprint, least amount of fuel used. Why isn’t every degrowther advocating nuclear energy to take over from solar and wind?
Could it be because widespread use of nuclear power somehow IMPLIES higher energy throughput somehow? Or am I overthinking it and it’s as simple as…the vibes are not correct?
The more I look into degrowth (and I do think it’s worth understanding due to its disturbing recent gains in popularity), the more it seems like an economic cure for a psychological problem. A lot of people in modern society do feel disconnected and stressed. This is a problem I want to take seriously, but it is NOT a problem we can solve by banjaxing our economy.
The road to sustainable abundance
Frankly speaking, if we wish to reduce material throughput, the best way to do so is to massively increase energy throughput with nuclear power at scale. Ironically, the number-one advocate for conserving materials that I know of is. Like the degrowther, he recognizes that the world simply has a limited amount of certain material resources. Unlike the degrowther, he reached the fairly obvious conclusion that nuclear energy is then the obvious choice to conserve those precious atoms. I don’t completely agree with , but at least his position is consistent.
What I believe is, if we had that power at our fingertips and made it cheap, we’ve just created an incredible resource, not just for decarbonizing our future consumption, but for reversing past harms. Carbon capture, which is basically a joke right now, has a chance of becoming functional only if we have a massive low-carbon source of energy to power it.
It’s even possible to imagine a scenario where abundant energy can reverse material throughput. We are probably forgoing a lot of recycling that can be done but simply isn’t efficient from an energetic point of view.
With abundant energy, it just might be good value to save the planet.
Angelica, help me sharpen my thinking on growth and de-growth. I backed into this whole discussion from the POV of the mining industry. I never considered myself to be anything like a de-growther at all. I do observe that Diesel Fuel / Jet Fuel are limiting factors for Civilization because of:
1. the efficiency of the Diesel and Jet Engines;
2. because we source almost all fuel for these from crude oil;
3. only a tiny fraction of crude oil makes diesel/jet fuel; and
4. making diesel/jet fuel produces about 2x or more gasoline for each unit of heavy fuel.
Solely because of the above, Civilization's current growth is limited. It's foolish to abandon our two best engines. Therefore, the best path to abundance and growth is to focus attention on manufacturing heavy oil e-fuels via nuclear power using any feedstock other than crude oil. I also note that the petroleum industry is the world's largest consumer of process heat.
My argument is all about using nuclear power for non-electrical energy applications to attack Civilization's current growth limiting factor: Abundant, cheap, low-cost, Diesel and Jet fuel so we can have plenty of food and afford a vacation.
In my mind, this is a growth plan. We need to stop limiting nuclear power to electrical energy (which should be 100% NP but is only 15% of world energy). 500C to 1000C is best applied to the industrial sector, which is 85% of all energy.
I am interested in feedback.
Well said! 💚 🥃