Welcome to Degrowth Max Rashbrooke

Max Rashbrooke is an important public intellectual in New Zealand, regularly commenting on issues of inequality, wealth, poverty, taxation and democracy. With his 6 May 2023 article on degrowth in Stuff, he has dipped his toe into the waters of degrowth and found them not quite inviting enough to swim in, or so he says. He seems to be on the fence when it comes to the question of the need for economic growth, enough to suggest a-growth (a disinterest in growth) as a better way forward. As I see it, Rashbrooke’s article is a provocation to the degrowth movement to convince him that the issues he researches could be better addressed through degrowth than through growth or his idea of a-growth. I think they can in future, and I see Rashbrooke - for his knowledge, integrity and powers of scrutiny - as an important ally to the evolution of degrowth thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand.

But let’s stick with the article he has written and examine his current position.

‘Is degrowth the planet’s saviour or a left-wing menace?’ seems to be an article unduly rushed out in response to the debate ‘How to Save the Planet: Degrowth vs Green Growth’ at Victoria University of Wellington-Te Herenga Waka on 3 May. The general public that reads Stuff may not even be aware of this niche debate and would have benefited from a more considered article by Rashbrooke. The New Zealand press has not, so far, made a good job of reporting on degrowth as a political phenomenon in Europe or in widening the net of opinion writing on degrowth to informed specialists, whether in degrowth itself as a research field or in the application of degrowth to any number of specific issues, ranging from food and housing to transport and energy. I make this criticism because the degrowth discourse in this country needs to be about a complex strategic project of radical structural reform to transition out of a global polycrisis. As degrowth grows in popularity, I anticipate mudslinging between impassioned activists and right-wing pundits. This will provide little more than clickbait and I don’t intend to get distracted by it. Hopefully, Rashbrooke and other serious public intellectuals will avoid that trap too.

Rashbrooke makes several points; some very good. He starts with a punchy line: “like many new movements, degrowth is intellectually chaotic”. Agreed; degrowth, on policy proposals, at least, has been terribly chaotic. Rashbrooke lands the right reference, too. Fitzpatrick, Parrique and Cosme’s systemic mapping of degrowth policy proposals (2022) concludes that “most proposals lack precision, depth, and overlook interactions between policies”. This is not a critique of degrowth from the outside, it is an audit by the inner sanctum. Building a better policy platform and models to test that platform are the hottest topics in degrowth right now, and I think Rashbrooke would be impressed by the speed of change in the field.

Tim Parrique, for instance, is a degrowth intellectual and advocate, highly active on social media and in the public debate on décroissance (degrowth) in France. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher on the Postgrowth Welfare Systems project led by Professor Max Koch at Lund University, Sweden. This project considers how welfare systems may cope in the absence of economic growth. Demographic changes in OECD nations will drive up welfare demand. At the same time, evidence mounts that “very few countries have managed to decouple economic growth from ecological footprints and greenhouse gas emissions, and even where this has been achieved, the rates of emission decline are too slow to match the Paris climate targets”. In other words, meeting global environmental goals will likely preclude economic growth, so we must find new ways to provide schools, hospitals and pensions.

At the Beyond Growth 2023 Conference being co-convened by several parties in the European Parliament later this month, Parrique and many others will present an open letter about developing and implementing a degrowth policy agenda in Europe. I’m currently studying degrowth policy design with Parrique as part of a master’s in degrowth at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Believe me, degrowth agendas are becoming better organised, better analysed, more risk aware and more compatible with existing policies. Degrowth policies suggested by earlier proponents were foundational parameters for the movement, getting it to where it is today, but we are entering a new era of degrowth design.

Other major degrowth projects include the REAL: A Post-growth Deal project to explore how to escape from a growth economy and ensure social welfare and planetary sustainability, led by Giorgos Kallis and Jason Hickel at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Julia Steinberger at the University of Lausanne, funded by a €10 million grant from the European Research Council.

Another project is the development of a set of system dynamics models addressing inequality in the context of declining growth rates and the financial and economic dimensions of a post-growth economy, being led by Tim Jackson and Peter Victor at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), University of Surrey. Note that Tim Jackson is on the Sustainability Advisory Panel at Air New Zealand.

Rashbrooke points out that the aforementioned Jason Hickel insists that the aim of degrowth is not to cut GDP, but to cut excess resource and energy use. Rashbrooke asks, “why, then, give the movement such an unhelpful name?” This is a question that gets asked a lot, and when that happens you know the name is doing its job. Degrowth deliberately attacks the notion that wellbeing relies on economic growth, exposing it as merely a belief paradigm cemented by hegemony. It is possible to imagine a thriving, prosperous economy without growth – which all those academic projects outlined above aim to elucidate. The objective of degrowth is not to contract GDP per se – no-one in degrowth asks for that – but to de-growthify the mind.

Rashbrooke then claims that “degrowth is also an excuse to promote various left-wing causes – co-operatives, shorter work weeks, wealth redistribution – that may be worthwhile, but are only loosely connected to the core theme”, which Rashbrooke insists is a reduction of GDP, despite Jason Hickel explaining otherwise. This is not a correct reading of the degrowth argument. Degrowth is widely defined as a democratically agreed downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions and equity. The degrowth argument is that environmental sustainability cannot occur without reducing resource and energy use. If resource and energy use can be decoupled from GDP growth, then great. If not, as seems likely, considering the empirical evidence, then we must reduce production and consumption in order to operate within environmental boundaries. That would likely cause GDP to fall, which under normal circumstances would cause a recession and negatively impact wellbeing. To avoid that outcome, we need a democratically agreed, just transition to a new political economy structured to provide and protect universal wellbeing within ecological boundaries – an ecosocial economy. Those “causes” – co-operatives, shorter work weeks, wealth redistribution and so on – are sensible policy proposals to deliver the social part of ecosocial.

It is worth noting here, I think, that the Māori economy is “an environmental economy” in which economic success must not come at the expense of people, future people or nature. Degrowth has an opportunity to learn from te ao Māori, as it also does from Ubuntu in South Africa, Eco-Swaraj in India and Buen Vivir in Latin America.

The core principles of degrowth, then, are environmental sustainability, social justice, democracy and wellbeing. Rashbrooke’s focus on inequality, wealth, poverty and democracy are absolutely aligned, so it’s not surprising that, in the end, Rashbrooke actually seems to argue for degrowth, yet wants it to go by another name.

First, he argues against prioritising economic growth. “Economic growth can, on its own terms, be a good thing. Up to a point, it is associated with higher wellbeing, increased happiness and longer lives. Developing countries need more of it. But it is not an end in itself. And of course it can – and has – come at the expense of the environment.” Absolutely right. Economic growth does correlate with better wellbeing up to a point, but that point of inflection after which economic growth is no longer correlated with increases in wellbeing is actually a very low GDP per capita – around $10,000 to $20,000 (see the Social Progress Index Report 2016, p19). Developed, rich nations are very inefficient with national income and the environment when it comes to delivering wellbeing.

Then, Rashbrooke argues not for reducing growth, but rather for subordinating it by insisting on “rock-bottom hard lines for the planet”, but proceeds to make the classic degrowth argument I’ve outlined above. “If, while respecting those bottom lines, we can have greater economic growth, that will often be a good thing; but if not, too bad. Rather than degrowth, this philosophy might be described as a-growth.” Rashbrooke clearly leans into degrowth, but seems awfully shy about the proper name. He wants to call it a-growth. “Once degrowth’s attention-grabbing label and false simplicity are set aside, many of its arguments actually amount to a-growth. And that’s a more fruitful concept. It encourages us, for instance, to better use the growth we do have, redistributing income so more people can live better within the current economic envelope, and prioritising the growth needed for medical equipment over that which serves pointless over-consumption.”

The problem is that a-growth doesn’t even have a definition, never mind a swelling grass roots movement behind it and a burgeoning field of academic research developing it. Degrowth does.

Max Rashbrooke, once your attention grabbing headline is thrown away, you sound like a degrowther to me. You would not be the first to switch codes. Jason Hickel “changed from being a “classical Keynesian” economist to a degrowther” when he was asked the question about whether a rich country needs to grow perpetually forever. The answer, of course, is no. The solution is degrowth.

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