How long do you think does our economy need to grow year after year before we are finally happy? And what do you make of the latest IPCC Report that explicitly states that incremental change is not a viable option. It states that justice, equity and redistribution are essential to climate policy. It shows that we must abandon economic growth, which is the basis of capitalism."
Of course, this only applies to the economies of the Global North.
I mean, can there be an alternative to our current economic system and if so, what will it look like?
For more information on the leaked report by Scientist Rebellion click here.
The world is drowning in stuff.
The stuff we cram into our closets, store in our garage and acquire in malls, shops,
Stuff that gets thrown out and washes up on shore, and stuff that causes billions of tons
of carbon dioxide to spew into the atmosphere every year.
But all this stuff isn’t really necessary to live, indeed often we’re less happy because
So why do we buy?
But more importantly, how do we stop this rampant consumerism fueled by capitalist growth?
Today, we try to answer those questions by carving out possible avenues through which
we can end consumerism and craft a more just and ethical way of living well on this planet.
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Consumerism In the Global North, overconsumption runs
Whether a brand new Tesla Model S or nice pair of jeans, buying for status, acceptance,
desire, or because of an advertisement are all ingrained in our conception of success
and mental well being.
Under capitalism, we buy the right things as way for us to seek acceptance from and
connection with our peers.
The barrage of ads we encounter every day equate smiles with khakis, suaveness with
sunglasses , and even love with headphones.
But this drive to purchase that new swiffer wet jet or that new car is not an inherently
Our quest for more–our relentless overconsumption-- is a symptom of capitalism.
An economic system reliant on constant growth in order to create profits.
For a business to succeed, outcompete others, and ultimately rake in more profits, it must
One of the brainchildren of this profit/growth imperative is advertising.
A way to make new and useless products seem fresh, exciting, and even essential.
That new iphone, Bose noise canceling headphones, and basically all of fast-fashion are the
epitome of this phenomenon.
This advertising is not telling you what the company’s products are, but instead, what
you could be with their company’s product.
In this way, the products of the capitalist profit machine are foisted onto us, the consumers,
as life-altering goods that, in reality, change very little of our material circumstances.
In short, capitalism needs to make more and more shit to remain effective, so corporations
transform these products through marketing from goods that don’t need to exist into
necessities in order to get us to eat up what they’re making.
But more consumption and more income does not equate to more happiness.
In fact, this phenomenon is called the Easterlin paradox.
Studies reveal that after our basic material needs are met, any additional consumption
does little to improve happiness.
In addition to its impact on individuals’ self-conception & mental health, capitalist
overproduction and subsequent overconsumption especially in the Global North drives massive
waste, emissions, and pollution.
A country’s rise in emissions correlates strongly with their growth in GDP.
Same with energy consumption and production.
The capitalist growth model is incompatible with a zero-carbon world.
A fact which has been on display in the failures of decoupling strategies that try to use renewables
and techno-fixes like band-aids over a gaping wound.
We know that decoupling doesn’t work when we look at South Korea’s emission growth
after their green growth initiatives in 2009.
And we can see it in the fact that even though renewable capacity is at an all time high,
so too is fossil fuel capacity.
We’re emitting more than we ever have.
Decoupling strategies just don’t adequately address the overwhelming scientific evidence
that recognizes we need drastically reduce emissions quickly if we are to stay below
1.5 degrees celsius of warming.
So, if the capitalist growth/profit economy can’t exist alongside a zero-carbon, environmentally
ethical one, what other options do we have?
The Degrowth Solution Under the pressures of capitalism and consumerism,
certain people are grasping for some form of release valve.
Whether it be minimalism, zero waste, or slow living, those with the privilege to do so
are working to carve out some respite from the unhappiness of capitalist alienation.
All of these lifestyle choices correctly recognize the detrimental effect of capitalist consumption
on life and environment, but they lack a structural approach that recognizes the importance of
both the individual and the system.
This is where degrowth comes in.
Degrowth positions itself in an anticapitalist framework that seeks, in the words of Professor
of Human Geography, Mark Whitehead, the “downscaling of production and consumption” in a way
“that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity.”
Essentially, degrowth calls for a realignment of the economy from one based on overconsumption
and “obsessive accumulation” to one that produces goods to satisfy real needs like
housing, health, education, transport, and arts.
At its core, degrowth seeks the dramatic contraction of rich countries to allow for an increase
in well-being for poorer countries.
Models show that a world population of 10 billion people cannot exist on this planet
living the current capitalist North American/European lifestyle.
It now takes the Earth one year and eight months to regenerate what we consume in a
year, and by we I mean the richest 10% of the world, who are responsible for 50% of
So, degrowth completely reimagines what it means to live well in countries like the United
States or Germany.
It means buying less, repairing, reducing meat consumption, and no second homes on an
individual level, but ultimately degrowth cannot function as just individual lifestyle
Systemic pathways, like subsidizing all housing retrofits, shutting down the 100 companies
that are responsible for 71% of the worlds emissions, redistributing all food waste,
dramatically expanding public transportation methods, localizing food production as much
as possible, eliminating unnecessary marketing, and a robust emphasis on low carbon, care-oriented
jobs like educators, therapists, and in-home care providers, are just some of the many
ways to simultaneously improve the well-being of all while drastically reducing the Global
North’s consumption levels.
You don’t have to live in a cave Degrowth doesn’t mean going back to the
stone age, but it does mean a drastic reduction in energy and material consumption from the
largest historical emitters like the United States.
The stark truth is that to both avoid global warming above 1.5 degrees celsius while simultaneously
establishing a decent living for the majority world, consumption levels of the Global North
need to plummet.
One study modeled that countries with the highest per-capita consumers could cut their
energy consumption rate by 95% and still live well with a combination of efficiency technologies
and alternative lifestyle choices.
In addition, they found that a global reduction of energy consumption by 60% is not only feasible,
but also could be done in a way that brings a comfortable lifestyle to every single person
on this planet.
And if you’re thinking that a 60% reduction or even a 95% reduction would mean living
in caves, you’d be wrong.
The paper asserts that this contraction means reverting back to 1960s levels of consumption,
and that would mean a 1960s lifestyle not just for the U.S., but for everyone on the
This new reality would look a lot like what Annie Raser-Rowland describes in her book
The Art of Frugal Hedonism.
A life for all that centers people and experience in well-being instead of relying on extra
stuff to manage our emotional health.
It would be an economy based on mutual care and repair.
But this economic reality cannot happen under a state capitalist economic model.
Indeed were degrowth to be handed down in policy from the ruling class it would look
the same as austerity measures or even the conditions we’re now living through now
in the pandemic.
Because, under capitalism, no growth means recessions, the consequences of which inevitably
fall on the working class and the marginalized.
Which is why degrowth is just one piece of the puzzle.
Towards Ecosocialist Degrowth: While degrowth does a sufficient job recognizing
the inherent destruction of our current capitalist growth/profit system, it needs to be in conversation
Ecosocialism cannot work without degrowth, and degrowth cannot function without ecosocialism.
A synthesis of the two creates a steadier path away from capitalism.
The seizing of the means of production by laborers and the masses, and the subsequent
full democratic control of the workplace and the state is essential to implement any measure
Reducing consumption must bubble up democratically from the many, otherwise it can quickly fall
into draconian measures of economic oppression.
Which is why ecosocialism is essential, it allows for the reconstruction of the economy
not based on profit and ultimately endless growth, but one based on needs–ultimately
handing the working class agency and liberation.
In the words of Marx, without a constant need for work in order to live or to “have”,
we can actually start “being.”
We can start asking questions like why do we burn 800 million gallons of gas every year
in the U.S. just to mow our lawns when we could have an abundance of communal gardens
Why does work need to be the thing that defines our life?
Why is it so much easier to buy than to repair?
Faced with the realization that capitalist decoupling is not working as we continue to
increase global consumption, an ecosocialist degrowth intervention must happen.
After all, what could be more enticing than a life with more time to be with the people
you love and do the things you want to do.
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