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Utopia: Degrowth and Communalism

Last week we very briefly went over the basic premise of degrowth, conveying virtually nothing of what degrowth actually looks like while ensuring that any wayward hopepunks unsubscribed from this newsletter. But we did build a foundation for why degrowth is necessary, and we found out, in the broadest of terms, what degrowth is. Today, let's drill down a little further on why degrowth is the only realistic solution to our problems and then we'll begin to develop a picture of what it looks like in more practical terms.

To put a fine point on it, climate change became a problem because of unchecked capitalism, the societal advances of which only incidentally improve the lives of millions. Climate change, for many reasons, can be sourced back to capitalism, whether through the deceit of oil companies that knew of the looming crisis for roughly fifty years, the continued greenwashing of company practices to wring the last dollars from the earth, pushing automobiles over public transportation infrastructure, irresponsible upkeep of their own infrastructure–we could literally go on for hours. That's the rock–for the hard place, the end of our life-sustaining energy sources is rapidly approaching because of capitalism (and the fact that we missed our window to swap those sources from fossil fuels to renewables). Without these energy sources, (fossil fuels, if you were wondering) life will get much, much tighter. Presently, though, scarcity is almost always created by the market, not by actual resource shortage–this goes for everything from food to furniture. All these problems, and more, are created or exacerbated by capitalism.

If we accept these things to be true, it stands to reason that the thing to do is get rid of capitalism, which degrowth does and then some. While not explicitly an expression of anarchism, degrowth fits extremely well within the principles of green anarchy and other eco-centric libertarian socialist models. Not only does degrowth do away with the pursuit of profit, it is intrinsically egalitarian in that it makes necessary resources common property, rather than giving most everything to private owners. And while it's not necessarily a doctrine without hierarchy, it certainly lends itself to an absence of rulers by creating an environment in which people are on equal footing.

Limits to Degrowth

I go straight to degrowth (and anarchism) instead of making a pitstop at socialism because giving the world's means of production to the people and continuing to work, produce, and consume in the way we do now only helps us divvy up a poison pie more evenly. The dreams of Marx and, to a lesser extent, Kropotkin, are outdated, and would not do us much good in the long run (which isn't to say we can't learn from them). We have been put into a position which forces us, post-revolution or collapse, to keep about a dozen plates spinning at once, and perhaps most important of these is to quit doing everything all at once. Doing so while we still feed each other and remain sheltered is, of course, a feat.

Degrowth is a solution in the same way that a lot of the other "answers" to climate change are–meaning they would have to be implemented in a way that is instantaneous or otherwise miraculous to save the day. It only works as a solution with the buy-in of the masses, which makes it as effective in the present day as emailing your congressperson to ask that they please stop taking money from oil companies. It demands, like every other solution, a paradigm shift–simply saying the word degrowth doesn't help bring it into being. Despite this, I still favor degrowth as the way forward because it is one solution that continues to improve the world whether pre or post-collapse. It's a method of resilience that allows yourself and others to maximize the utility of your resources on a micro or macro scale. That robustness, that versatility, means that if we pick ourselves out of the ashes of capitalism, we can then begin to implement degrowth and scale it to bring civilization back in a way that helps everyone, rather than a select few.

Degrowth as It Is Played: Some Basics

Degrowth concerns itself, urgently, with the decrease of consumption and production to ecologically sustainable levels. This is its fundamental work, which contrasts with a philosophy like socialism, the aim of which is to put the means of production into the hands of the worker. So, instead of just shifting the who and how, degrowth changes the why and how much. Now, how this is accomplished and what it looks like around the world is an extremely varied and complex thing. One of the key ways that it can be implemented almost universally is through Bookchin-style communalism. Bookchin's communalism is mostly focused on how an independent body governs itself and relates to other bodies, but these bodies are themselves autonomous communities, completely independent of input from other communities–or very nearly so. This independence is achieved through a cleaving to the other tentpole of degrowth: centering the needs of people and nature.

Degrowth focuses on people over profit, and sustainability over all. By eschewing profit, there is no excess production or consumption–what is produced, or consumed, is that which is needed, and there's no reason to do more. With all goods, services, and utilities meted out to ensure not only survival but, optimally, happiness, there is no motive for hoarding. This creates a lean, autonomous community that exists in equilibrium with the environment. The lack of excess and profit naturally lends to that equilibrium, but degrowth goes far beyond creating an efficient community–the very presence of that autonomous community, and all others, renders the vast mechanisms of capitalism obsolete.

If a community is self-sustaining and has no need for profit, then there is no motive for, for instance, the outsourcing of labor. Say a community responsibly harvests trees, and in previous years this timber was cut by a company. The owner of the timber company cut trees down according to the market and shipped the wood out to be turned into lumber. The owner saved money by shipping that timber out to workers being paid the lowest wage for processing. That is no more. The wood that is harvested now is harvested according to need, and it is processed locally, obviating the supply chain that existed solely to increase profit. Not only does this enforce an equitable society, but the dissolution of that supply chain has eliminated a large source of CO2 emissions. Now expand that for every industry in every community, and you begin to see how degrowth topples emissions.

This is, of course, an utopic idea–that was the whole point of talking about degrowth. It demands, for those of us reading, a temporary suspension of disbelief. But whether it's implemented in our present via revolution, the crumbling of society, or it crawls out from below the outright collapse, degrowth is the answer to the question of our survival in a world that has been corrupted by human greed. We'll talk more about it in the coming weeks, going into more detail about its benefits and the sacrifices that have to be made, but these are the basics. Degrowth is, one way or another, how we get out of this. It's not a cure-all, but it is the way forward when all other options are narrowing, or being blocked off from our future entirely. The question is whether we choose it, or it is chosen for us.