Academic journal article Environmental Values

De-Growth Is Not a Liberal Agenda: Relocalisation and the Limits to Low Energy Cosmopolitanism

Academic journal article Environmental Values

De-Growth Is Not a Liberal Agenda: Relocalisation and the Limits to Low Energy Cosmopolitanism

Article excerpt


Degrowth is identified as a prospective turning point in human development as significant as the domestication of fire or the process of agrarianisation. The Transition movement is identified as the most important attempt to develop a prefigurative, local politics of degrowth. Explicating the links between capitalist modernisation, metabolic throughput and psychological individuation Transition embraces 'limits' but downplays the implications of scarcity for open, liberal societies, and for inter-personal and inter-group violence. William Ophuls' trilogy on the politics of scarcity confronts precisely these issues, but it depends on an unconvincing sociology of individuation as a central process in modernity. A framework is advanced through which to explore the tensions, trade-offs and possibilities for a socially liberal, culturally cosmopolitan and science-based civilisation under conditions of degrowth and metabolic contraction.

KEYWORDS Degrowth, limits to growth, anthroposphere, liberalism, cosmopolitanism, communitarianism, Jeffersonian, Norbert Elias, civilising processes


If we accept the thermodynamic basis of both economy and ecology, then the growth and expansion of human activities and artefacts on the Earth will come to an end. For thousands of millennia, the expansion of the 'anthroposphere within the biosphere' (Goudsblom, 2002) has been a consistent feature of both human evolution and social development. Certainly the pace changed at various times, increasing with agrarianisation, and even more so with petromodernisation. Although the balance between extensive and intensive growth has been tilting steadily in favour of the latter, the overall direction has been unwavering (Quilley 2004). 'But now it will stop and go into reverse--possibly in my life-time and almost certainly in the life-time of my children.

The end of growth should be blindingly obvious to anyone who has even a vague understanding of the exponential function. (2) But nowhere do the strategic dilemmas of 'de-growth' inform the ping-pong debates of mainstream politics. The reasons for this wilful blindness are poignantly clear. The future 'politics of scarcity' (Ophuls 1977) is not an enticing prospect.

Over the plus longue duree of social development humanity has boot-strapped its way to the peak of a 'Mount Impossible'. On this vertiginous plateau we have constructed a globally integrated, complex and expanding civilisation, which is already too big relative to the biosphere upon which it depends. The mountain won't bear our weight and we need to come down quickly. But captivated by the view, most policy makers and citizens find it hard to focus on the fissures opening up beneath their feet. More clear-sighted individuals (Schumacher, Georgescu-Roegen, Boulding, Daly, Ophuls, Odum, to name a few) have drawn attention to the problem, and identified an alternative to compulsive growth. We can even see the place we need to get to--the 'Improbable Valley'--way off down the mountain. The problem is how to get there. Over the last three years, with the global economic recession, the debate has sharpened around a new concept of 'degrowth' defined as 'the socially sustainable and equitable reduction (and eventual stabilisation) of society's throughput' (Kallis 2010: 874; see also Schneider et al. 2010, Martinez-Alier etal. 2010).

Although, from ecological economists such as Herman Daly, we have some idea of what the steady state economy might look like, there are enormous questions about:

i). whether the maximum scale of economy compatible with biosphere integrity overlaps with the minimum scale necessary to sustain the order of social complexity prerequisite for a democratic and science-based civilisation;

ii). whether continuing technological innovation is compatible with de-growth; and

iii). …

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