growth sustainability

4 postgrowth blindspots

Since I first encountered postgrowth economics, I’ve had a hunch that there’s something inevitable about it. We will have a postgrowth economy eventually. What remains to be seen is whether that’s a carefully planned and sustainable steady state economy, or a collapsed economy that’s become postgrowth by default, pushed over the edge by expensive energy, debt, and a destabilising climate.

It would be so much better if we chose the first, rather than ignoring the issue and ending up with the second. But there are many unanswered questions and a long way to go in shaping, refining, and modelling postgrowth theories into something practical and compelling to those who would much rather not think about it.

Samuel Alexander is one of the people working on that, through the Simplicity Institute and the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne. One recent paper of his provides a literature review of postgrowth thinking, from its early roots to its current status. It’s a great place to start if you’re interested in where the ideas come from and how they have developed so far. He also outlines some areas that need to be looked at further:

  1. Language. How do we talk about this? I use the term postgrowth as a catch-all for whatever comes after growth, but there are at least four different visions for what that might be. Then there’s the tough PR job of selling a future beyond growth when growth is almost universally hailed as a good thing, and recession is the first thing that springs to mind when contemplating its absence. We need to find ways of talking positively about life beyond the growth imperative.
  2. Debt. Speaking of growth imperative, it’s key that postgrowth thinking addresses debt, banking and money creation in far more detail. As things stand, you can’t switch growth off and hope for the best. We’d be overtaken in short order by our debts, which rely on future growth to pay the interest. A postgrowth economy can’t function with a debt overhang, so until there are coherent ideas for dealing with that, we’re missing a vital piece of the puzzle. (Personally, I think it looks like a Jubilee, but that’s scarcely explored territory)
  3. Downshifting. As an overconsuming society in an inequitable world, it’s not enough to level off at our existing lifestyle. We need to make do with less – less stuff, less energy. That means lifestyle change. Postgrowth theory has to tackle consumerism.
  4. Transition. There have been plenty of attempts to describe how a postgrowth society might function, and far fewer outlines of how to get there. The transition beyond growth needs a lot more work. Where do you start? What policies get us moving in the right direction? One complicating factor here is that there is nothing inherently partisan about postgrowth economics, and there are different routes to the same thing. Some call for reform of free market structures to guide us towards sustainability. Others see a bigger role for state power and a form of eco-socialism, and others a more anarchist approach that focuses on self-organisation.

If, like me, you are interested in helping push these sorts of ideas towards mainstream debate, I can recommend Post-Growth Economics: A paradigm shift in progress as both a useful primer and a challenge to think through some of the gaps in postgrowth thinking.

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