Recent discussions of environmental strategy, including in these pages, have tended to polarize around two positions, crisply summarized by Robert Pollin as ‘Degrowth versus a Green New Deal’.footnote1 The opposition presupposes stable and coherent sets of proposals on each side. Some have raised doubts about whether the presupposition is sound as concerns degrowth. Although sympathetic to the project, for example, ecological economist Herman Daly characterizes the degrowth movement as sloganeering in search of a programme.footnote2 True enough, there are no white papers identifying institutions to manage a deliberate economic contraction, nor the legal changes they would make. Programmes, however, can be proposed at different levels of analysis. The American Green New Deal, for example, is presently articulated in a 14-page resolution presaging a series of yet-unwritten laws.footnote3 Degrowth proposals tend to be pitched at a similarly general level. An influential paper calls for ‘an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, in the short and long term’.footnote4 Broadly speaking, degrowth proponents start from the proposition that the scale of world economic activity already exceeds the planet’s capacity to sustain it, and call for a managed contraction of economic life.

What follows poses a series of questions about degrowth theory, ‘naive’ in the sense that they are preliminary. Degrowth literature is maturing, its academic community consolidating.footnote5 The points raised here are not intended to foreclose the possibility that its advocates may develop adequate answers further down the line. The aim is to bring a beginner’s eye to degrowthers’ central categories—decoupling, material throughput, managed economic contraction—and to press the theory on questions of coherence and administrative viability. The essay examines first methodological, then practical issues posed by degrowth, before going on to probe the nature of the problem for which degrowth is the purported remedy and the nature of alternative solutions. To start with, however, we need to examine some of the assumptions underlying concepts of ‘growth’ and ‘consumption’.

Degrowthers tend to elide the colloquial meaning of consumption, as something like discretionary ‘retail therapy’, with the term’s economic definition: the final use of a resource as a good or service. The latter sense encompasses not only the ostensibly superfluous resource uses that degrowthers would reduce or ban, but also unambiguously essential ones: nutritious food, commodious shelter, healthcare and childcare.footnote6 As a rule, the capacity for more consumption is socially desirable, even if every individual instance of consumption is not. Some increases in consumption can be enabled by redistribution of existing wealth. But there will always be something whose growth would be, as Daly puts it, both desirable and possible, and reallocation is unlikely to exhaust this.footnote7 To illustrate, imagine that a technological breakthrough yields ‘Leviathan’, a maximally egalitarian artificial intelligence. Using its awesome superintelligence and capacity, Leviathan unifies the globe and enacts perfect egalitarianism. Avoiding economic distortions and administrative troubles in ineffable ai ways, Leviathan distributes the world’s net wealth of $360 trillion among the world’s 7.8 billion people—roughly $46,000 per person, slightly lower than the wealth of a median adult in Portugal. Leviathan also distributes net global income, allocating each person roughly $18,000 per annum, the median income in some European countries.footnote8 Leviathan has yielded an arguably decent level of wealth and income to all.

Would populations support affirmative measures to forego all future growth, in favour of statically maintaining the wealth levels provided by Leviathan? I think not. The benefits of additional wealth need to be considered at the margin: even at a decent standard of living, growth can enable more flourishing—a marginal year of health-span, a decision to have an additional child—and a more secure future for existing levels of flourishing: extra resources for r&d on the frontiers of biomedical research or basic science; more investment in state capacity and the processes of need-fulfillment. In principle, there could be a time when every human being is sated on every margin, and growth is no longer desirable. But to assert that that moment has arrived is to close one’s eyes to reality.

In conventional terminology, economic growth is a Kaldor-Hicks efficient transaction, in that it generates sufficient benefits for transactional winners to compensate transactional losers, thus potentially leaving no one worse off and some better off.footnote9 That does not make gdp growth necessarily desirable, for two reasons. First, not all economic effects are legible, and gdp data may misrepresent economic reality. Degrowthers are not alone in pointing out the deficiencies of such indices. The formulae for national reporting have been determined by sometimes arbitrary methodological choices, making gdp too narrow to capture all economic activity that is legible. More importantly, gdp figures necessarily exclude economic effects that remain unquantifiable, either because they are not accounted for in human knowledge or because they elude measurement and neat articulation. Transactions are embedded in a web of complex socio-economic relations—they can be exploitative, harmful and, importantly for this discussion, have detrimental ecological effects. Many of these innumerable externalities—positive and negative—are not understood, or even apprehended, and so cannot be captured in gdp.

Second, the desirability of growth is a political and thus a historical question. Discussion of growth’s desirability is meaningless if unmoored from the distribution of political power. The welfarist justification for growth is that the bigger pie can be distributed in socially desirable ways. Actual division, however, is decided politically—in the last instance, by coercion. When an oligarchy offers welfarist theory as an ex ante justification for pro-growth policy, one should anticipate ‘time inconsistency’—re-division of the enlarged pie may be endlessly deferred. However, if the balance of political forces is sufficient to bring about redistribution, everyone can agree to a Kaldor-Hicks efficient transaction. In a sense, this is a central wager of revolutionary thinking: capitalist development of the productive forces is Kaldor-Hicks efficient, and so is desirable if one is confident that it is maturing a future power available to redistribute the bigger pie. Any categorical—that is, ahistorical—statement about the societal impact and hence desirability of growth is necessarily an over-generalization. Growth can only be evaluated ‘as applied’.

Degrowth theory generally locates its critique of economic expansion in the environmental crisis of the 21st century. However, extra-ecological rationales are invoked in passing.footnote10 So far, attempts to articulate a moral theory of anti-consumption have largely served to illustrate the difficulties of the project. For example, degrowther Giorgos Kallis advocates a ‘culture of limits’, which he derives from Aristotle and the city states of Classical Greece. Kallis proposes a collective life organized around an ethics of ‘limitarian’ freedom, in which humans flourish to the extent that they discipline their desires and confine their actions to fulfilling ‘real’ needs, as opposed to illusory ones generated by hubris.footnote11 As a personal perspective, this sounds interesting, perhaps compelling. But degrowth is necessarily a collective undertaking; it occurs at the societal, likely global, level or not at all. Therefore, any case for degrowth must justify not only private preferences, but also public choices. It is one thing to choose to live by limitarian ethics, another to legislate it. Kallis envisages his limitarian philosophy being ‘autonomously’ imposed by the demos upon itself; if this is a prediction, it seems like a bad one. Even if one is inclined to some version of the austere life he describes, it is a leap to proclaim its universal applicability and to welcome its imposition by the state. Degrowthers may have a more persuasive moral theory in the pipeline. Until they provide one, a social strategy based on the extra-ecological case for degrowth would be fundamentally arbitrary, requiring a high degree of coercion.