6 min read

Utopia: Degrowth in Adolescence

Last week we imagined a member of a community in the infancy of degrowth. The world is greatly changed, but for the better; people have what they need, they're consuming less, and they have more time to simply be people. That won't change, but degrowth, despite being envisioned here as a kind of utopia, is a methodology contra extinction. The stakes are high, and they'll remain high for a long time.

Let's move forward ten or fifteen years. It's now 2040, or thereabouts. Despite our best efforts to counter climate change by degrowth-ing, we found that science is complicated and disasters keep happening. The world is going to continue getting worse–that's not the fault of you or me or degrowth, it's just that a certain amount of warming is baked into the planet for a while, and cooling off isn't really a thing that's going to happen appreciably anytime soon. The warming that we're stuck with is more than enough to make things hard from time to time, or more often than that. So, with the world embracing degrowth, we're also fighting against a world that's becoming more inhospitable; the loss is cutting both ways. On top of that, we have got to keep one eye toward the big C Collapse, because even with degrowth as our modus operandi, it's still coming.

Less and Still Less

Our lives will continue to get smaller. We will live in smaller houses, or more condensed apartments. As we settle into this new world, people will forego the big house with the tall ceilings and giant windows--they'll see it, hopefully, as ostentatious. They'll be content with a smaller place, because where we want to spread out is among others, not huddled up in ourselves. (Unless you're a shut-in. Just hopefully you're a shut-in that doesn't mind a small home.) We will need to be carefully efficient in all areas, not just housing. Heating, cooling, how we build energy infrastructure, how we move goods. We'll need to be careful about these things. This era, after the shock of culture change wears off, is crucial to how we survive later; do we use up the last of our "allowance" of fossil fuel products in order to keep things more comfortable for everyone, or do we wean ourselves off these resources to distance ourselves from Collapse, and to make it more of a crumble than a crash?

The key resource here is fertilizer. Everything else in the face of this is a luxury–air travel, combustion engine travel, even cooking and heating with fossil fuel energy–is something we can do without, or substitute, or fix with muscle. Soil management, however, the most boring possible problem that could make things extremely terrible for everyone, is vital. Our budget for fertilizer made with the Haber-Bosch process must be managed extremely carefully in order to feed everyone while keeping ourselves within the CO2 emissions boundary. While in degrowth we will be breaking the hold of fossil fuel agriculture, we're still going to rely on it to some extent as we slow down. The little green spaces we make in our cities, the garden plots in front of apartments and the acres of corn and potatoes in empty lots–those are all going to be grown without artificial input. We can't rely on fertilizer or soil that comes from a bag or a jug. What we have left of those resources have to go to the big growers out in the country–the people growing food for folks who live in a more dense urban environment, or one that's less conducive to farming due to pollution or climate change. Basically, we're walking a tightrope between making the world uninhabitable via climate change and making it uninhabitable because there's no food on it.

What power we're able to draw sustainably is probably locked in by now. Solar panels will last twenty or so years–the first generation will be aging out soon but some places might have a second secured–or might not. They're a pretty resource-intensive method of getting electricity, when it comes to the initial input. Most renewables will require batteries, and batteries require mining, which usually requires pollution and/or exploitation. In the world of degrowth, both are hopefully near to non-existent, but that doesn't mean we should get to have a little, as a treat. De-electrifying sounds dismal, I know, but we've got to power down bit by bit until we reach a level that we're certain is sustainable.

Despite the belt drawing always tighter, things aren't all bad. Even though climate change continues, the more immediate effects of heavy industry will have disappeared; skies are clear, water runs pure(r). Ecosystems will start to bounce back. We'll be eating microplastic for an eon or so, but at least we're not making more. And, critically, marine life is being given a respite.

As for people, things should be settling. We may be able to spread out a little, since we've learned how to live without combustion-based transportation. Communities will have learned what they're good at, and what they need to lean on others for. Supply chains will be established, insofar as they're needed. And, on a more personal level, we have hopefully all realized by now that there's no need to pursue advancement in your life. There's no need to gun for a promotion, or a raise. You don't need to be director of chicken operations after years on the job–hopefully you're just better at taking care of the birds. One of the big gifts degrowth gives us all is time.

The Summer of High Waters

You wake up too early, confused. It's still dark out but it shouldn't be, and you hear the rain slapping at the window of your house. You'd moved into a little place next to the birds and took over as a full-time caretaker for them, a flock of nearly a hundred birds on what used to be, in the before times, a Sonic parking lot. It's been raining for weeks, it seems, and you've been repairing the coops as they need it, as water finds its way in from the roof, the eaves, as it pools under the little ramps the chickens use to get in. Then you hear it again: a siren. It cuts, and a there's voice. You don't hear much of it over the rain, but the horn spins your way and it's clear, "flash flood warning, Oak Hill and Bridgecrest must evacuate to higher ground."

You don't live in Oak Hill or Bridgecrest. You're up above the banks of the nearest river by thirty feet and a quarter mile away. But you've heard enough. You know by now that even if all this rain doesn't wash those neighborhoods away, it's likely the river is going to crest its banks and flood to the south, just as it did in years past. You light a couple candles–you got into candle making after befriending the local beekeper–to dress, put on a rain slicker and waders, and step out.

You find others had the same idea. Folks are everywhere, stomping through puddles, wading down the running gutters. You see each other, give a nod. You check on the birds before following after your neighbors. The doors are wide at the community center down the street, and an organizer is on the radio just inside the doors, waving you all in out of the rain. They say the streets due south are underwater but if you head west you can get to the bridge safely and cross. It's not safe to help at Oak Hill or Bridgecrest but they are filling sandbags across the river. You, and about a dozen others, head back out into the rain.

Volunteers fill and stack sandbags along the riverbank, the water rising appreciably while you do so. A ridiculous sight–nearly an apparition–appears crossing the bridge above you: a pedal bar, the lone rider moving quick enough to fan water from its wheels. The rider steers the bike and its wagon your direction. A boom box plays but you can't quite make it out over the rain. You and the volunteers quit for a moment, stand up straight, and the rider climbs into the bar, bringing up stacks of towels, a sideline cooler, and clearly heavy steel pot. As many of you as possible surround the bar, under the awning. You get dry, you drink cool lemonade, and eat gazpacho. None of you have any idea who the driver is, but when you've eaten your fill and step away they just wave, pedal on down the street.

The volunteers debrief with the project leaders in a nearby park. You're thanked for your help and welcomed back so long as the weather keeps up. Before you can be dismissed the radio on their hip chirps and someone comes over it, saying that the dam is expected to fail upstream. One of the leaders looks panicked, while the other simply says, "Who's got room at home?" And you all raise your hands.

The summer goes by in much this way. Some critical infrastructure was unsalvageable, irreparable, and though the floodwaters have receded, an entire neighborhood is now permanently at risk. You and countless others in the community offer up your labor and homes to help rebuild what can be rebuilt, relocate what can't, and to plan for what happens next.