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Utopia: A Series on Degrowth and Hope

Having come off a number of extremely depressing letters, I wanted to take some time to discuss how things could be better in the future–I know, that’s a weird thing for me to say. But we've been in the bad weeds for a while, and I've been seeing more and more talk about doomerism in my circles. Lately this talk has been critical (critical of doomerism, I mean), and as a proud (not really) doomer, I want to help counter that messaging by showing some nuance. Likewise, I've seen some pretty facile talk about hope on the climate change front, and I want to address that, too.

What the next few weeks, or longer, will look like is a dive into degrowth as a solution to our ills and a path toward a better way of life (interspersed with some more typical, topical content). But before we dig into how I think we could pry paradise from the jaws of defeat, let's get realistic.

Why Not to Lose Your Sense of Doom

Here is my breakdown of where things stand, briefly, and the conclusions that I draw from it:

Climate Change–The nutshell here is that the latest IPCC reports, and other recent findings, are not good. Some folks will tell you there is reason to be hopeful because the ceiling on global warming has fallen considerably, thanks in part to better modeling and thanks to what action world governments and people have already taken. Now, these things are true; we probably aren't going to see a world-ending rise in global temperature by 2100. And that is thanks, in part, to steps already taken by humanity.

However, the IPCC has reported that we are, in no uncertain terms, on the precipice. There is a miraculous scenario in which we all do better and the world staves off climate change, and warming is limited to around a 1.5C global increase in temperature. That is, technically, a possibility. But without that we meet our current climate pledges, build absolutely no new fossil fuel infrastructure, and still push ourselves to do more, climate change is not going to be limited to 1.5C. Realistically, 1.5C is virtually assured, and soon, and all the disasters that we're already seeing around the globe will only get worse. What's more, 1.5C is the estimated threshold for various tipping points, such as methane released from permafrost, after which it's possible that climate change gets entirely away from us. These things combined, we're on track for overall less warming, but more of it sooner and worse than expected, and there's still a good chance we drive the planet off a cliff–something that's going to hurt whether you're being optimistic or not.

The People Side of Things–First off, the world is in a precarious place. Inequality is rampant, millions are hungry, hundreds have 99% of the world's wealth. A world war is not outside the realm of possibility. But, without having to predict the future, I can tell you a few bad things. First, the IPCC report begged for no new fossil fuel infrastructure, right? Biden has signed the permits on thousands of new oil and gas operations. And beyond the US, virtually no government is actually on track to reach their climate pledges (which were insufficient anyway), meaning all those charts and graphs that show a not-entirely-nightmarish rise in temperature are seeing the world through rose-colored math.

Beyond how we all figure into climate change, there is the tepid simmering of fascism and authoritarianism around the globe and at home. Our own neoliberal media is foaming at the mouth to have another European war to cover, drums to beat, and reason to ignore the latest clarion call of scientists. The more faschy media members are swooning over far-right dictators and their recent victories abroad, and we have mini-despots doing their thing right in our backyard.  In the US, anti-Trans and anti-Queer legislation is virtually fever-pitched, with many bills poised to cause some serious, serious harm to kids across the country. Meanwhile, the richest among us have reaped actual trillions over the course of the pandemic, oil companies are making money hand over fist thanks to the war in Ukraine and refuse to change policy to help consumers, and supply chain issues and inflation continue to raise prices on basic necessities. I know I'm supposed to say something good about all this to seem objective but I don't really have good news to report. Here: it seems like COVID-19 is actually abating in the United States, thanks in part to nearly half of the population coming down with the omicron variant. So, we failed successfully. To summarize all this: I wouldn't be surprised if the revolution quietly began tomorrow.

Relevant Truths

  1. We currently grow enough food to feed more than everyone on the planet–some estimates say we already grow enough food, in fact, for 10 billion people. This article from the UN elaborates–and focuses on the fact that we still face issues of severe malnutrition and hunger across the globe. You know why this is the case.
  2. We are currently operating in gross excess of the energy capacity of the planet. The improvements that the world is making–and generally speaking, the slow advance of civilization is still occurring–are improvements the planet cannot afford. While other nations strive for Western-style consumption, this only drives us more quickly over the edge.
  3. Figuring out both 1 and 2 would require, despite what the UN says, the dissolution of capitalism and with it likely either a revolution or, surprise, collapse.
  4. The threat of climate change requires one of two things if we are to avoid calamity: carbon sequestration technology that doesn't really exist; or, people immediately quit emitting greenhouse gases. Both are virtually impossible.

Degrowth

If there is no magical technology coming to save us, if our governments will not suddenly listen to reason and scale down on the burning of fossil fuels and endless consumption of resources–and I think these "ifs" are certainties–then what is coming is collapse and/or revolution. Whether one or both of these occurs is, for the premise of these newsletters, unimportant–the entire point of this project is to be prepared for both. What matters is the behavior of the people following those tumultuous events. What matters is that we, as a species, are able to change how we live our lives, and that we do so in order to preserve not only ourselves but all the delicate ecosystems and wonders left on this planet. To do so, we must implement degrowth.

Degrowth is a system of thought that organizes society around a sustainable standard of living rather than a system that strives for continual economic growth. I've been saying here for months now that capitalism is incompatible with Earth because Earth is a finite planet from which capitalism requires infinity. Degrowth, then, seeks to shift humanity from this impossible task toward an economy that first provides for everyone. It's sort of like Thanos' snap-solution, if it didn't involve genocide so much as intelligences across the universe not burning the remains of ancient life to get around.

What's most important about degrowth is that it provides a way forward for those of us on the planet to try and work together to survive, together, aligned in our desires to provide for all. Now, central to degrowth is...degrowth. The economy as we know it, our lives as most of us know them, must contract. But, importantly, that isn't to say that we must return to the Stone Age, or eat nothing but tofu. We're going to talk about all these things, at length, but think of the sacrifices of degrowth as the return of the pumpkin spice latte–it's meaningful, it's a communal joy, its very luxury is tied to its temporality. (I promise this will make sense eventually).

There is enough food on this planet for everyone. If we do things right, this could continue to be the case even with climate change, peak oil, all the big bads. And while energy is wildly overspent by the West, there are solutions that will allow energy to be utilized in a more egalitarian fashion without issuing every American a single AA battery a day. We'll talk a lot about all this and more in the coming weeks. For now, when you hear the term degrowth, think less about not getting one-day delivery on your new Amazon GewGaw and think more about everyone around the planet, fed, warm, (relatively) safe, and waiting for pumpkin spice latte season.