6 min read

Utopia: Degrowth in Maturity

I know nobody is thinking about this right now, but I'm tapped out on energy and I've got a few posts already written that were scheduled literally a month ago that I had to keep pushing back. I'm going to let those newsletters go up and take a little break. Maybe this letter about a better world will also serve as a break for you.

Closing out this long series on degrowth, let us picture, for today, a world in which degrowth has succeeded–in which we have succeeded. While the effects of climate change are still felt, its advance has been halted, and the excess heat is beginning–just beginning to fade. Despite this, some thresholds have been crossed that cannot be undone; sea level rise is locked in, much of the Arctic permafrost has melted, and ecosystems across the world are irreparably altered. This is a world of unknowns. With so much ice melted, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC, basically the conveyor belt of warm and cold water in the Atlantic) is grinding to a halt–North Atlantic cities and countries are about to see their climate change considerably, and for the colder. Food webs are balanced on a knife's edge. We're going to survive, but it's not going to be easy.

Vaster Than Empires, & More Slow*

*Which, it turns out, is the title of a Le Guin story of no relation to this.

The city is quiet, and for the most part, empty. It's been years since it was at full capacity, years since farmers drove in food, since you all worked hand in hand to build the place into something sustainable, something for everyone. As time went on, it made less and less sense to transport food to folk in the city, and more sense for the people to spread out, to go where the food is, to grow their own. Everyone has learned enough, now, to try their own hand at subsistence farming, and there's enough room these days for people to do it and preserve wild landscapes. It's harder to keep up with the demand for food and clean water in the city, now that there's not much fertilizer to be had, and what there is becomes more intensive to make and use. The people left here run a kind of bare-bones ecosystem. The big equipment of the hospitals cannot be moved, nor can it be reproduced for all the smaller towns that are filling up, so those with the knowledge to run the machines are still here, and those that know how to power those machines are still here, and those that feed all of the above. It mirrors, in a way, how the city used to be; it was a hospital town, before. And while you miss the camaraderie, the days of watching movies and TV together, of book clubs and impromptu parties and the people you met gathered around your neighbor's still, you don't mind watching the city turn into something new–that is, something old.

They call it "ruin value," the method of design in architecture which allows crumbling buildings to fall in an aesthetically pleasing way. And it was not something anyone had in mind when they built the buildings that are now, for lack of people to care for them and for lack of resources to maintain them, falling back into the earth. You take pleasure in watching things fall apart, though something tugs at you, needles you about it. The necessary buildings are kept up, of course, but you have seen on your walks the empty neighborhoods turn green, watched the growth of small trees in blocked gutters, morning glories flowering thick across streets. Your old apartment building, where you tended the garden, is now empty, and the garden has mostly gone to the weeds, and all the space around it, up to the walls and windows and patios. Small life scurried away from you, rushed through a thicket of perennial grain. Over the years soil has built up all on its own, and under your feet you can no longer feel the concrete where there used to be beach chairs.

You still tend to your birds, you and your partner, whom you met during the flood. There are enough people in the city that there's a demand for your whole flock's eggs, but not much more. A messenger on a bike comes by daily to take the eggs to the market. He checks on you and your partner, living, nowadays, at the outskirts of the peopled section of town. Years ago your partner was diagnosed with cancer, and it was a surreal thing to be in the hospital with them. Whole buildings dark, offices. The reception desk was fronted by a single person. There are no police, no accountants. There was no bill, no paperwork except a medical history. The surgeon operated, a doctor oversaw a treatment regimen. Wheeling through the halls with everyone, you realized you were seeing by fluorescent lighting for the first time in nearly a decade. There is still power in the city, but you'd disconnected from the grid long ago–by choice. Somewhere, you're sure, there is still someone reading late into the night, someone listening to music via computer, someone watching television. Just not many someones.

Almost fifteen winters ago you went on "vacation." A nearby town has a group of ranchers that raise mules, and naturally enough there's a wagonmaker in town that cuts apart old cars and uses the chasses to build fairly comfortable rides. People come through when they need to travel, and after your partner went into remission they wanted to go back to the home place, so you both packed a small bag and caught a ride out of the city, crossing over the river and through the cleared sections of fallen highway, until you came to the traveling hub. There you found a group of people headed south, gave all the eggs you could carry to anyone who wanted them and joined their caravan. It was a journey of weeks, stopping in towns like ones you left, ones less so, one that, strangely, asked you for money for lodging and food. You laughed and rolled on. Someone in the caravan heard tell of crime, and of course if it would be anywhere, it would be where you needed money, so knives were worn outside of pockets and boots, a shotgun rode at the front of the caravan in prominence. You were all unharmed. After weeks on the road you finally arrived in your partner's old hometown, found it to be washed away, empty. Signs warned of poisoned water from mine tailings. You and your partner traveled on foot around the countryside, asking after their family, until finally your partner, turning from a home, just smiled and said it was time to go back. The person at the door asked you in for supper, and you joined them, spent the night. You helped pull a stump for them in the morning, and they packed you some simple provisions and bid farewell. You were on foot for a long time, walking north, on roads that could hardly be called roads anymore. In the early mornings deer sprang away from your approach. You heard coyotes yowl at night, hugged each other close around your simple campfires. Neither of you liked to eat meat, so it was a lean journey until you found other travelers, dining on some late oyster mushrooms, roasted walnuts, bitter tubers from old burdock. But you made it, you found folks and joined them, rode on a wagon going north. You talk about that trip almost every day, one of the great adventures of your life.

You haven't been able to shake the feeling that you're witnessing the end. The sunset of humanity. But you know that everyone eventually feels that way, that they are special, witness to something final. It's, perhaps, your own sunset you feel approaching. You've hand-raised six generations of your flock. You've seen floods, a tornado, drought. From your apartment, in the old days, you could see the downtown skyline, and you watched someone wander through one of those empty skyscrapers, as window by window fires were set until the whole glass façade was alight and beautiful and terrifying in the dark. They never found who did it–there was no "they" to look. It was an old banking headquarters, and no one was hurt. Perhaps record of old debts, long forgotten, were burned, an act the arsonist wished had happened long ago. That building stood for years after, still dark from smokestains. Repeated flooding wore at the foundation and a maintenance crew took note and cordoned off most of downtown. Two buildings fell in a single day the next autumn, another that winter. You felt yourself lessen with their absence.

Then, one day, years later, it hits you; you felt, in some corner of your heart, your own life continuing in the progress of the world. Without that progress–indeed, with the regression of degrowth–you had lost that narrative. As a child you had thought we'd reach the stars, build gleaming towers of glass and steel and fly at leisure, but that never happened. Instead, in your twilight, you find yourself feeding chickens, cranking a spring in your record player like the Victrolas of old just to listen to music at night with your partner. There was a meanness in you from that, from that loss. That you had to be born into a generation that was told to shrink or perish. The immaturity of the next question is what snapped you out of it: why me? It's an idea so petulant it makes you take stock. Why did you have to be the one to live through a world-shaking change? Why did you have to learn to co-exist with the ecosystems around you? Why did you have to forego capital, profit, excess? Why did you find yourself with simple goods, why did you rarely want for anything? Why did you have to help your neighbors through disaster, through lean times? Why did you take part in the greatest change humanity saw since the discovery of fossil fuel? The why doesn't matter. You were there, and you're here. And what matters, now, is not the progress of the species or of the Earth; what matters is that all of it, now, has a chance to live on.