Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The De-Growth Economy and Lifestyles

Paper produced for Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18/19th April 2008


The transition to a de-growth economy cannot be effected in gradual incremental change and will be experienced by most people as a lifestyle transition from one life style "package" to another. Most of the time people manage their lives in largely stable routines in which they more or less hold in balance an age related job with a pattern of skills and abilities, a level of income (and debt), habitat and domestic arrangements including their diet, a state of health and disability, a network of emotional and instrumental relationships. All of these reflect and give rise to a corresponding mind-set of assumptions, aspirations, expectations and social and community values. Inside this interrelated complex structure there is an inertial weight which bestows on certain behaviours addictive features. For example the network of relationships and geographical habitat make it difficult to break consumption patterns that are shared by peers without risking damaged relationships - e.g. meal routines and rituals with close relations provide security in a changing world or again a routine weekend leisure journey may provide the binding features to a close relationship.

A transition to a de-growth economy caused by oil and gas peaks, responses to climate change and the credit crisis will create radical disjunctures and a break up of these routines for millions of people in a way that will be frightening and disorientating for many. There is a danger that groups will channel their anger at scapegoats - perhaps led by demagogic thugs with simple explanations for the crisis that blame vulnerable people and foreigners. Millions of single unsupported people will find it difficult to cope. Practical movements like that of the UK Transition Towns are needed to provide people with new models for their lifestyles in order to avoid a community health crisis. The Transition Towns are beginning to provide a social network in which people support each other to develop new skills to conserve resources and supplement their means of living close to their habitats. They help collectively develop alternative energy and resource-light lifestyle packages and community focused value systems. A movement like this will be needed to provide people with an alternative basis for self respect and dignity as more and more recognise the futility and destructiveness of living according to the values and goals of the debt burdened consumer society.

End of Abstract

"The great advantage of being in a rut is that when one is in a rut, one knows exactly where one is" Arnold Bennett - British novelist and playwright 1867-1931


It is sometimes by re-examining the most mundane and obvious, that which we take for granted, that we learn the most.

Most of the time most people live in routines which are the constants, the stability in their lives. It is very difficult not to - no individual and no society could function if all its members were constantly on the move, constantly changing jobs, constantly changing instrumental and work relationships. Although nomadic lifestyles and a range of agriculture and pastoral skills can make for great variety even they must happen in known locations. They must involve arrangements between people in conformity to routines imposed by the seasons and nature - the need to sow and to harvest at the same times of the year. Matching temporal rhythms are also necessary if people are to sustain relationships - to be in a relationship people must not only spend time together they must to a degree synchronise their emotional states and practical inclinations. Thus it is that to find their identity people must hold in balance a habitat with all its domestic arrangements and chores of eating, sleeping, toilet and hygiene with their work and income and their network of instrumental and emotional relationships. These are constituted as interrelated patterns - as a generalisation we cannot have a large habitat without a large income. The number and quality of our relationships will depend upon the size of our habitats. Our income will depend partly on our work and skills. Our work, skills and incomes will determine our relationships. These in turn will affect our state of health, our morale and aspirations. How these arrangements are managed together depends on our age, gender, state of health and disability. They also embedded in spatial, economic and cultural arrangements which will affect what kind of neighbourhood or settlement we live in, how it organises the supply of essential means of life, how far we must travel to work.

Lifestyles considered as "packages" and lifestyle transitions

Because the different elements in our lives have to be managed as a package - as interrelated elements which must be consistent with each other - the routines and the ordinary features of our lives can be thought of as having an inertial character. To be sure, even a routinised lifestyle will have some variety and novelty in each day, up to a point - however, beyond that point, adjusting one aspect of our lives to a greater extent will mean that we must adjust other elements in our lifestyle package. In turn this will is likely to bring with it a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. To take an example - if we decide to move where we live then we will be faced with different financial circumstances and that will have a knock on effect on work, relationships and so on.

As is obvious periods of comprehensive lifestyle change are of different types. There are some changes which are inevitable age specific processes - the obvious cases being late adolescence and early adulthood when most people start living independently, move from education to a job (if they are lucky) with an independent income and set up their own adult sexual relationships. As they are doing this all at once it is a difficult and challenging time - but it is happening with all the others of their age group. At the other end of life there are the challenges associated with retirement. In between there are also typical lifestyle transitions triggered when children leave home, parents die, people evaluate their lives so far and perhaps have a mid life crisis, deciding if they really want to live as they have been doing for the rest of their lives. As should be clear there are situations where a life style shift is happening to all one's peers - for example when a firm goes bust and there is mass redundancy which affects an entire community and there is the rather different situation in which only one person, or a family, decides to launch out in a change of direction. There are situations too which are willed, which are entered into deliberately and those which are entered into because people are forced to change - as in the redundancy situation.

The risks of launching into the unknown

Now it is clear that all these situations share in common that they involve largely launching out into the unknown. As such all these situations involve risks. As the English author Arnold Bennett expressed it:

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” Arnold Bennett

At its worst a change in life launched into with insufficient skills, resources and friends can go badly wrong. Indeed there are arguments that mental breakdowns sometimes have this character. The stresses, tedium and limitations of an existing lifestyle may become too much and a person decides to launch into new territory - risks leaving a job without a new one, risks changing where they are, leaving a relationship and giving up a secure habitat in the process. To others this seems like a crazy choice as they do not have the resources and skills and support to make the move - and indeed they fall in the process. Their emotional turmoil therefore becomes greater. This is described by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr in psychological terms

"Suppose that I become dissatisfied with my habitual self, or feel that there are areas of experience or self understanding which I cannot reach. One way of exploring these is to remove myself from present surroundings and see what emerges. This is not without its dangers. Any form of new organisation or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganisation. No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former pattern will be succeeded by something better". (Anthony Storr, "Solitude", HarperCollins 1994 page 35)

This is a very good description of how madness might arise in a lifestyle transition that goes wrong. Sometimes the new surroundings and new setting are not better and the people in the old relationships resist or counsel against the change. Sometimes the change, which has financial implications, is badly managed. Sometimes the new surroundings requires skills and an orientation that we do not have. In those circumstances the psychological stresses that have impelled our movement become even worse in our new surroundings. To those who observe the process it appears that we have gone mad, that we have chucked ourselves recklessly into a new lifestyle for which we are not suited and not equipped.

Degrowth as a political-cultural movement for lifestyle transitions

In so far as the idea of "de-growth" becomes a cultural movement that inspires people to change their lifestyles it is enormously helpful that there are other people who are treading the same path and helping each other along the way. This gives some sense of what to do and what to expect. In this sense de-growth as a movement, with complementary and similar movements like permaculture, can be a powerful support for change. The risks are that much less when one is not on one's own in the change process. It is perhaps for this reason that movements that form around causes can be so intoxicating. Although one knows that change will be challenging and discomforting the fact that other people are making these changes in the services of a cause is actually making it easier.

“A cause may be inconvenient, but it's magnificent. It's like champagne or high heels, and one must be prepared to suffer for it.” Arnold Bennett

Without such causes the danger of being stuck in a rut is that one does not explore sides of oneself and that by staying in situations of safety one limits what one can become.

“The real tragedy is the tragedy of the man who never in his life braces himself for his one supreme effort, who never stretches to his full capacity, never stands up to his full stature” Arnold Bennett

It is in this way that one can understand the attraction and the possibility that people would decide to adjust their lives and be prepared to sacrifice their income and purchasing power to be able to do so. The attraction of de-growth is clearly that by having less income and purchasing power to acquire consumer goods one will be able to get certain experiences and satisfactions in life that money cannot buy directly. Perhaps it is more time to spend with one's children as they are growing up. Perhaps it is too learn a new trade that is regarded as more interesting, more challenging and more socially responsible. Perhaps it is to engage with social and community responsibilities. At such times the absence of work and contractual obligations may free people up to be more creative and use their time better. The purchase of freedom by less money is often a very good bargain.

Downshifting and upshifting

The number of people who have made this choice over recent years, for a preferred lifestyle at a lower income, is not inconsiderable in rich industrial countries. The term "downshifting" has been used to describe what is happening. In his book, 'Growth Fetish', Clive Hamilton, reports a number of studies on the extent of downshifting. For example 19% of the US adult population declared that over the previous five years they had voluntarily decided to make a change to their lives that resulted in making less money. This fifth excluded those taking a scheduled retirement. A similar survey in Australia found that 23% of 30-60 year olds had downshifted, citing as their reasons a desire for more balance and control in their lives, more time with their families and more personal fulfilment. ("Growth Fetish", Pluto Press, 2004, page 206)

For all of those people who have chosen to make a lifestyle change of this type there will be others who want to make this kind of change but who, whether because of a lack of support, knowledge or resources may lack the will to take the plunge. Perhaps, with more support, they can be persuaded to do so. However there are also people who will have only recently entered into lifestyle choices which are fundamentally antithetical to a de-growth agenda - perhaps they will just be starting or consolidating a lifestyle which is fundamentally growth focused and within the mainstream values of the current economic system. After all there are powerful forces encouraging them to do so. Perhaps they will be too tightly bound into the messages and values of the growth system, its routines and its obligations, particularly debt and a consumption lifestyle to even consider or be aware of a degrowth approach to life. At the moment it has to be said that this group probably constitutes the majority of the population and this group are only amenable to change messages at those points where they are going through fundamental changes - like moving job or house, or having a child, which compel a re-evaluation of self and behaviour.

Growth and mainstream institutions

This group are bound into a relationship with the mainstream institutions of our society who can only run smoothly if the future is predictable and mostly organised in bureaucratic routines. Growth gives the arrangements and routines of an increasingly complex society leeway for adjustment and for coping with stresses and change. Access to additional resources is typically seen as the way to solve problems and these resources are seen as arising out of extra income, extra production or through borrowing. In the last case extra resources to solve problems are generated by shifting payment into the future and paying an interest payment to buy the right to do this. However any macro growth of output and real income is ultimately only possible through an increase in physical energy available to the economy multiplied by the efficiency with which the energy can be applied to the production process. Once the amount of energy available is no longer rising the scope for real output growth dries up. At that point solutions for problems cannot be found in extra resource availability but must be found in greater ingenuity for improvised solutions working with the same or less. This means more psychic work and stress levels may rise.

Downshifters as a pioneering minority

This majority are however currently stressed and challenged by the difficulties of the economy. So far this paper has described the situations of people who have decided to change their lives in a degrowth direction. These people may be acting, whether they are aware of it or not, as the leaders and pioneers of new life styles. They create the community gardens, the social enterprises, the community exchange systems, the cultural arrangements which provides seeds for a new de-growth economic order. Hopefully those who have voluntarily changed their lives will have created the lifeboat institutions and arrangements which can support millions who are compelled to change when the existing economic system can no longer continue.

Degrowth as an involuntary process

As is obvious some life transitions are not voluntarily entered into. Sometimes abrupt lifestyle shifts take place across society that most people do not want. In the early stages of wars and economic catastrophes people may watch with interest the novelty of things going seriously awry. They may even, perversely, celebrate in the hope that change will make a normally humdrum existence more exciting and dramatic. However grim experience may take away the excitement, replacing it with unwanted and unpleasant experiences that had not been expected. Fundamental change may confront a lot of people with painful and frightening challenges.

This possibility cannot be avoided. Most people are likely to be forced into degrowth lifestyle changes that they have not wanted. They may enter the process enormously stressed, very angry, frightened and unhappy. This would be very dangerous - historical experience suggests that millions of people can be mobilised by channelling their emotions of frustration and fear against scapegoat minorities and foreign enemies. We are already seeing how shortages of oil and gas are being conceptualised by governing elites and the media as "energy security" issues in which nations are pitted against each other. Military intervention to secure oil and/or gas fields and pipeline routes has inflamed and polarised cultural and religious divisions. Such conflicts are in the short term interests of armaments manufacturers, aerospace, military logistics, security companies and the builders of gaols. Opportunities for profit in these circumstances will increasingly arise out of what Naomi Klein has termed 'disaster capitalism' or 'shock capitalism'. The degrowth movement will have its work cut out to develop a positive alternative to this frightening scenario of increasing conflict and destruction.

Reaching the limits to growth

Degrowth as an involuntary process which people are flung into looks increasingly likely as the outcome of both the credit crunch and the oil and gas supply crisis. The degrowth agenda derives from the sustainability agenda. 'Sustainability' has been a word in circulation for over a decade and the people who use the word have mostly lost sense of its original meaning. To be sustainable means to be able to continue. If something is unsustainable then it cannot continue and comes to an end. If there are limits to growth then, at some point, growth will no longer happen.

The climate crisis occurs with a time lag which has lulled political and economic elites into a false sense of security. However, the increasing costs of recovering depleting fossil fuels compared to the global demand for those fuels is taking place in real time. The credit crisis, which is as an over extension of the globalised banking system, is also taking place in real time. Together with imbalances arising out of the uneven development of the global economy these processes look set to throw millions of people into a period of economic chaos. Taken together they will compel lifestyle changes which provide the possibility and necessity to change to a de-growth economy and society.

There is thus no doubt that degrowth will happen - but not mainly as the result of a political and cultural degrowth movement but, rather, because of the consequences of passing the peak of global oil production, then global gas production, and because of the overextended position of the global financial system which cannot any longer be propped up.

The financial system has 'dis-credited' itself in both senses of the world - though a radical loss of reputation and as a loss of its ability to lend into an economy where debt had reached its mathematical limits of financial sustainability. In the financial newspapers we read over and again the idea that the banks do not trust each other. This is ironic because the original meaning of the word "credit" is trust and belief. Without trust and belief the financial system cannot continue to expand and it will not continue to expand - it will collapse.

This does not mean that the promotion of degrowth economics and politics has been a waste of time. To prevent the coming collapse turning into a catastrophe we need the prior development of a movement which can show how a degrowth economy and society might be managed. Without this ability to show how things might be organised differently we will be tipped into a catastrophe of wars and conflicts. We need arrangements to manage life within the capacity constraints of the global ecological system in ways that are felt as equitable and fair. Otherwise the eco-system will be destroyed and society will tear apart.

Common resources which we share must be managed in the interests of everyone in contemporary society as well as in the interests of future generations. For example, in rationing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the scarcity rent for permits for using the earth's atmosphere should go to citizens directly - not to the state and certainly not to the big companies. The atmosphere is a commons and should be managed as such - that means propertising it but not privatising it. A Global Atmosphere Trust should be under a legal obligation, enforceable by the courts, to manage the atmosphere in the interests of everyone equally. The monetary system can also be regarded as a common arrangement that should be managed in the interests of all. Currency trusts with duties, enforceable by the courts, need to be set up to manage the money system in the interests of everyone in a currency zone equally. Instead of debt money, repayable with interest, created and owned by private banking corporations, with an inherent growth dynamic, we need a non debt money supply made available for and through the people, including at a local level.

These are the kinds of overarching framework institutions that we need in an ecological society. They will complement the local projects and arrangements to meet basic needs that people will be forced to make to try to re-stabilise lives which are in turmoil. That means creating initiatives like local community gardens and food arrangements; make do and mend initiatives for clothes; mutual aid and simple support for building and rebuilding structures to make them energy efficient; arrangements to help people share resources, tools and skills for energy light lifestyles. We need to create local renewable energy systems where we can. We will need cultural and artistic programmes for people to find new reasons for living and simpler pleasures.

Transition Initiatives and the Degrowth Process

In the UK the Transition Initiatives movement is beginning very much to occupy the space for this movement. The prospect of energy famine requires the organisation of a response and Transition Initiatives are a way of preparing at a community level. There are now many Transition Initiatives springing up around the country - initially in small towns like Totnes, Stroud, Lewes, Falmouth, Penwith but increasingly also in cities like Bristol, inner city areas like Brixton and in Nottingham.

The thinking behind Transition Initiatives (formerly Transition Towns) is simply that settlements using much less energy and resources than we presently consume could, if properly planned for and designed, be more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than at present. Transition
Initiatives develop Energy Descent Action Plans as a tool for designing a positive timetabled way down from the oil peak AND as a response to climate change.

The basic formula for the development of Transition Initiatives is a number of steps

1. Awareness Raising about peak oil and gas as well as climate change and its implications.

2. Lay the Foundations of groups and networks to respond to the crisis.

3.The Official "Unleashing" - telling the public with much publicity that you are there and what it is all about.

4. Forming Groups - for example around food and peak oil, transport, health and social welfare and the support of vulnerable people etc etc

5. Use Open Space - this is a way or organising meetings where the agenda is not pre-fixed but is created by and from the people who have come to the meeting.

6. Develop Visible Practical Manifestations of the Project - for example in Totnes they have started to plant nut trees as a way of re-developing local food sources. This should not be a talking shop!

7. Facilitate The Great Reskilling helping people with the skills they will need in the very different economy that will develop on energy descent - e.g. skills to grow, cook and prepare food, repairing bicycles etc.

8. Build a Bridge to Local Government - obviously we want support if we can get it and need a harmonious working relationship. At some point we will need policy support - the sooner the better.

9. Honour the Elders - elder people will still have skills developed in a less energy intensive era. (They will also be vulnerable in energy descent)

10. Let it Go Where It Wants to Go and Reflections…not pre-planning or trying to fix or steer such a big process too much.....

To conclude with another quote from Arnold Bennett:

“Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.”

Brian Davey
March 2008

1 comment:

Kamil Pachalko said...

Hi Brian
I read your entry on the
and it seems to me you can frame in words what I can feel only at the moment. I'd like to stay in contact with you and follow your entries on there and maybe other websites. I can subscribe to this blog but to read your other entries could I ask you to send me an email or do you have another idea? Thanks anyway.