Imagining and creating just and regenerative post-carbon futures: four recent books*
Northern Rivers, New South Wales, March 2022. Floodwaters rising fast for the second time in four weeks. Shattered solar panels sinking slowly in the mud. Broken corn and sunflower stems poking through the slime now smothering the permaculture garden. The gardeners themselves float through the ruins, wondering whether to rebuild or retreat, and also how best to contribute to accelerating climate action. Reducing consumption and a simpler way of life are, the gardeners agree, essential foundations for a just and sustainable safe climate future. But how do we deal with the harsh reality that all our hard and careful work has yet again been overwhelmed by the impacts and consequences of global warming?
As the risks of climate emergency and ecological collapse continue to deepen, so too does interest in a wide range of degrowth and voluntary simplicity strategies and ways of life. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the 2022 IPCC AR6 Climate Mitigation Report was a greater focus on the role of economic degrowth strategies in achieving emission reductions at the speed necessary to keep global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
For many degrowth advocates, deep reductions in production and consumption and a rapid, transition to a post-growth, post-capitalist economy are not just essential for accelerating the reduction of CO2 emissions. They are also the only viable pathway to a sustainable, democratic and regenerative safe climate future. Others, including many who are broadly sympathetic to critiques of growth-obsessed capitalism, see degrowth activists as tragically naive in their failure to fully acknowledge and address questions of justice, democracy and power. Recent updates of the evidence first presented in The Limits to Growth over fifty years ago continue to confirm the absurdity of the goal of endless growth on a finite planet. But what would the core values, relationships and institutions of a degrowth economy really look like? And what political strategies could plausibly create a pathway to a just and sustainable post-carbon future? The five books reviewed here all make valuable contributions to this urgent, fiercely contested conversation.
Boris Frankel’s Democracy Versus Sustainability begins by highlighting the need to integrate high speed emissions reduction with policies and practices designed to protect and restore the fragile, complex ecologies of the Earth’s operating systems. This means slowing the exploitation and consumption of finite material resources, halting the degradation of natural sinks, and reversing the pace of extinctions and the loss of biodiversity. Achieving these crucial ecological goals will also require decisive action to strengthen democratic control of key policy and investment decisions and overcome inequalities of income, wealth and power.
Degrowth advocates are, Frankel suggests, broadly correct in their critique of ‘green growth’, ‘eco-modernist’ strategies as fatally flawed, in both their failure to address social and economic inequalities and their heroic assumption that decoupling energy usage from production can reduce CO2 emissions at sufficient speed. A post-capitalist degrowth agenda focused on ‘reducing the consumption of material goods and services in order to achieve a safe climate, stay within planetary boundaries and create more just and caring societies’ would therefore seem to have much to recommend it. Frankel suggests that supporters of the degrowth project are, however, still struggling to answer four key questions.
First, what, precisely would be the speed, scope and impact of degrowth goals and policies? A well-informed, well-grounded debate about degrowth strategies needs to make clear the speed at which production and consumption of specific goods and services could and should decline. We also need to understand the likely impacts of this decline on workers and industries, households and communities in particular regions and countries. How fast, for example, would national and sectoral economic growth need to decline in industrialised and Global South economies in order to make a substantial contribution to emergency speed emissions reduction? And what would be the implications of degrowth policies at this speed and scale be for wages, working hours and unemployment in Australia, or India, or South Africa?
Second, what would the alternative relationships and institutions of a degrowth economy look like? Many degrowth social imaginaries provide a vision of locally connected households and communities embracing self-sufficiency and participatory democracy. This commonly involves small-scale artisans and permaculture gardeners producing and distributing goods and services through peer-to-peer and digital networks. Degrowth proposals are, however, often silent or vague about the role of public, private and civil society institutions in funding and delivering income security and health and education services, or in allocating the resources needed to address rapidly escalating climate change and ecological risks. The enthusiastic embrace of local networks common to many degrowth plans also needs to be tempered with awareness of the speed with which local communities can turn dangerously inward, becoming narrow-minded and parochial.
Third, how can we imagine the transformation of values underpinning degrowth worlds and pathways? One of the toughest challenges in visualising the successful evolution of degrowth projects is imagining the vast transformation in values and behaviour required for people from diverse backgrounds—and with very diverse interests—to embrace a simpler, less acquisitive way of life. How, for example might we broaden and deepen support for more reciprocal and co-operative relationships after decades of deeply embedded neoliberal messaging about the inevitability and desirability of hyper-individualism and consumerism?
Finally, what plausible theories of change could enable rapid, just and peaceful transitions to a degrowth society? Which social movements and political forces might realistically be capable of building a pathway to a post-growth, post-capitalist society, particularly one built at anything close to emergency speed? The organised industrial working class and its traditional socialist, social democratic and left Keynesian allies? Increasingly unlikely, Frankel suggests given the corrosive impact of privatisation, precarious employment and de-unionisation in hollowing out and marginalising labour movement and social democratic parties. Radical social movements like Occupy, Podemos, Black Lives Matter, DIEM 25 and Extinction Rebellion? All laudable oppositional initiatives but hard to see any of them developing the reach and capability to drive and manage society-wide economic and political transformations. Or perhaps a ‘post-carbon coalition’ of urban eco-activists, permaculture, slow-food and organic farmers, artisans and IT hackers, renewable energy technicians, health and care workers?
In his more optimistic moments Frankel wonders about the possibility and desirability of assembling multi-party political alliances sharing a minimum program of emergency decarbonisation, the sustainable use of material resources, employment guarantees and universal basic services. The recent success of the ‘New Ecologic and Social Peoples Union’ (NUPES) in France—and perhaps also emerging conversations between the labour movement, Greens and climate action independents in Australia—provide some tentative indications of the ways in which these possibilities might evolve. Of course, in an increasingly precarious ecological, economic and political landscape, it seems just as likely that financial and environmental collapse could favour the rise of right-wing, neo-fascist or neo-Trumpian forces.
Degrowth in the Suburbs by Sam Alexander and Brendan Gleeson insightfully grounds debate about these questions by considering ways in which voluntary simplicity and degrowth strategies might evolve in the suburbs of Australian cities. The time for avoiding ‘massive, disruptive adjustment’ has, in their view already passed, as ‘once-in-a-hundred-years’ fires, storms and floods yet again overwhelm the cities and suburbs of Perth and Adelaide, Lismore and Ipswich, Camden and Parramatta.
Solutions based on green growth, eco-modernisation, energy abundance and decoupling are all, they argue, increasingly dangerous delusions: ‘The next world is already dawning. Humanity will surely survive to see it. Political economic analysis of the causes of the crisis suggests that capitalism will not’. Our task now therefore is to manage the rapidly unfolding energy descent with ‘as much wisdom, creativity and compassion as possible’.
For degrowth advocates in economies like Australia, suburban communities are now becoming crucial sites for testing the possibilities and limitations of equitable and democratic energy descent. Given that it is not feasible to knock them down and start again, we need to reimagine, retrofit and resettle our suburbs so that they consume far less energy and produce far fewer emissions.
Alexander and Gleeson visualise and explore a broad array of post-growth, post-carbon suburban imaginaries, informed and underpinned by principles of voluntary simplicity, sharing and reciprocity, social justice and localised democracy. Key elements and priorities include:
- minimising household and industry energy consumption by reducing energy demands, improving energy efficiency, expanding electrification and rapidly shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy;
- revitalising cultures and practices of recycling and repairing, making and mending, borrowing and sharing;
- learning to live more frugally and use energy more responsibly through thoughtful, careful use of insulation, curtains and shading; heaters and air conditioners; washing machines and clothes driers;
- decreasing transport emissions as localised community networks and ways of life shift to a far greater emphasis on walking, cycling and public transport;
- enhancing the sustainability of food production by encouraging urban agriculture and backyard permaculture, and fostering closer connections with local farmers and food producers;
- protecting and improving the living standards of the most vulnerable individuals and households by guaranteeing access to adequate incomes, secure employment and high-quality housing, health and caring services; and
- devolving decision-making powers to local councils and co-operative enterprises, broadening and strengthening participatory and deliberative democracy.
Alexander and Gleeson are understandably sceptical about the likelihood of democratically elected governments driving and implementing degrowth policies. Recent experience of neoliberal corporate and media mobilisation to block even the most minimal social, economic and environmental reforms makes it hard to imagine any elected government being allowed to lead a proactive, well-coordinated, equitable energy descent. While keen to avoid romanticising the transformational potential of crisis and collapse, the authors argue that pathways to a degrowth future are therefore most likely to arise from the bottom up, as grassroots responses to widespread ecological and economic disruption. Their argument is not that such a grassroots response is inevitable, or even probable, but rather that ‘in regressive political contexts it is at the household and community levels where people have most agency’. It is, therefore, at this level that ‘we can embrace, or at least prepare for, an energy-descent future in the spirit of degrowth’.
Many of the key ideas underpinning degrowth proposals draw on learning and insights from the permaculture movement. Terry Leahy’s comprehensive review of the diverse histories and implications of The Politics of Permaculture therefore provides a timely contribution to degrowth debates. Leahy begins by noting that competing views on the political significance of permaculture in fact represent three very different stages in the evolution of permaculture ideas.
Permaculture One, written by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and first published in 1978, defined permaculture as a system of ‘permanent agriculture’ based on replacing annual crops with perennial plants. Drawing on learning from pre-colonial agriculture as well as more recent experiments in sustainable farming and land management, the authors argue that perennial ‘food forests’ require significantly less use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, water and fossil fuels.
Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (1988) shifts the focus away from gardening with perennial plants to emphasise two broader principles: i) the need for ‘the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems’; and ii) ‘the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way’. While still concerned primarily with improving agricultural systems, the Designers Manual also proposes a set of ‘permaculture ethics’ consistent with deep ecology principles that link ‘care of the Earth’ and ‘care of people’.
David Holmgren’s 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability references the work of systems ecologists like Lynn Margulis, James Lovelock and Donna Meadows in framing permaculture as ‘a design system for sustainability’ that creates ‘consciously designed landscapes that provide for local needs’. In broadening the scope of ‘local needs’ to encompass ‘people, their buildings and the way they organize themselves’, Holmgren makes it clear that the permaculture pathways he has in mind extend well beyond sustainable gardening.
As Leahy notes, many of the principles of permaculture design that Holmgren uses to organise the contents of his book—catch and store energy, use and value renewable energy, produce no waste, use small and slow solutions—have also become key catchphrases informing debates about post-growth, post-carbon and post-capitalist goals and strategies. This broader reading of permaculture is accentuated by Holmgren’s emphasis on the linkages between energy descent and the necessity of localisation. If energy descent is indeed inevitable then it makes good sense to rapidly reduce and localise the production and consumption of energy, along with other goods and services. This is an argument that Holmgren develops in greater depth, and with many valuable practical examples and proposals, in his 2020 publication RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future.
One particularly valuable feature of The Politics of Permaculture is the inclusion of interviews and examples which extend the conversation well beyond the inner suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney to include experiences and voices from both rural Australia and the Global South. Leahy draws on this wide variety of perspectives to demonstrate the growing diversity of permaculture-movement views about strategy and power. While many permaculture practitioners remain focused on creating prefigurative, self-sufficient households and communities, there is also strong interest in a broader range of political alliances that acknowledge and address the structural inequalities of class and gender, racism and colonialism.
As Leahy notes, the permaculture movement has already played a valuable role in exploring the practical implications of sustainable agriculture and settlement design, as well as in deepening understanding about the inevitability of energy descent and degrowth. These insights and understandings, he concludes, ‘will live on in permaculture as the movement adapts to coming circumstance. Or they will live on in whatever other social movements take up this space’.
Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living focuses on the question of how changing attitudes with regard to consumerism, progress and wellbeing might shape and drive the transition to a post-growth future. Starting from the assumption that technological innovation alone will be an insufficient basis for an adequate response to climatic and ecological crises, Soper’s ‘alternative hedonism’ argument proceeds in the following way. Framing reduced consumption as a tough but necessary sacrifice for the sake of future generations and other species is unlikely to succeed. Convincing large numbers of people to decrease their consumption will instead require deepening awareness that a post-growth way of life may in fact be more enjoyable and fulfilling than current ‘work dominated, stressed out, time scarce, high consumption’ lifestyles.
A new ‘post-consumerist political imaginary’ could, Soper suggests, provide a desirable and plausible vision for moving beyond a mode of life that is ‘not just environmentally disastrous but also in many respects unpleasurable, self-denying and too puritanically fixated on work and money-making’. Her hope is that the prospect of more time and space for caring and creating; making and mending; cooking and gardening; playing and learning might have growing appeal to those struggling with the stress and anxiety of precarious working lives, traffic jams, shopping malls, pandemics, fires and floods.
Post-Growth Living augments familiar post-growth social imaginaries of localised, self-sufficient communities with broader structural reforms in income security, tax and labour market policies enabling reduced working hours and improved access to affordable, high quality public transport, health and caring services. Soper also usefully acknowledges and addresses many of the most common criticisms of post-growth visions and proposals.
Doesn’t this sound like an argument for frugal, dreary, bleak asceticism? Quite the opposite, Soper responds, noting that her concept of ‘alternative hedonism’ has more in common with Nietzsche’s criticism of priestly ascetism ‘than it does with punitive self- denial of erotic and convivial pleasure’. As the architects of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness framework also note, a way of life less focused on scrambling for the money required to feed high consumption habits might in fact open up time for a far wider range of caring, creative and spiritual activities and ways of being.
Post-growth living and alternative hedonism might be appealing ideas for wealthy hipsters in affluent inner suburban Western cities. Low-income families in rural Queensland or Tasmania—let alone in India or Africa—are likely to be far more sceptical. Of course, all post-growth strategies and policies face a crucial test as to whether they can be implemented in ways that reduce rather than accentuate inequalities of income, wealth and power. Significant redistribution of resources via progressive taxation, as well as more democratic and diverse forms of ownership and control over production and consumption, and media and communications, will clearly be an essential basis for any equitable transition to a post-growth future. But the assumption that universal access to Western standards of living can remain a viable long-term political project reflects a profound misreading of the urgency of emissions reductions and the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet.
The prospect of large numbers of citizens in affluent Western societies embracing post-consumerist values is wishful thinking given the deeply embedded hegemony of consumerist desires and aspirations. While the fact that some affluent citizens made the choice to leave high-pressure jobs and high-consumption lifestyles during the pandemic provide some glimmers of hope that the grip of consumer culture may not be quite as tight as some believe, it would also be naive to underestimate the size of the crowds now once again surging through the shopping malls, airports and hotel lobbies of Brisbane and Sydney, Bali and Bangkok. The abiding question remains, however, the extent to which this behaviour reflects an innate human desire for consumption and novelty, spectacle and distraction, or a manufactured one. Perhaps, as their owners and shareholders no doubt hope and believe, the billions of dollars invested by the global advertising industry aren’t only aimed at shifting consumer preferences. They also help to embed and sustain capitalist cultural assumptions and economic relationships by reinforcing the tendency for many people to define and value themselves primarily in terms of what they can afford to buy and acquire.
Soper’s reflections also lead us to the question of whether political support for voluntary simplicity and low-consumption pathways might be strengthened by alternative ways of framing and articulating the degrowth narrative. Some ‘degrowth’ advocates argue that this term usefully emphasises the gravity and urgency of the ecological challenges we now face. Others wonder whether it risks missing the point, arguing that the goal is not necessarily to reduce growth in all goods and services. The world clearly needs less growth in coal, cars and cattle. Increased growth in forests, schools and hospitals—and in time to care for children and older people—is, however, likely to be highly desirable. Alternative framings such as ‘wellbeing economics’, ‘doughnut economics’ and ‘post-growth prosperity’ are all therefore potentially useful contributions to the development of visions and narratives that broaden support for simpler, less acquisitive economies and ways of life.
Post-Capitalist Futures, edited by Sam Alexander, Brendan Gleeson and Sangeetha Chandrashekeran, brings together a diverse ‘smorgasbord’ of eco-socialist, feminist, post-colonial and Indigenous perspectives to explore key synergies and tensions between post-capitalist, post-carbon and post-growth debates and strategies. To what extent, for example, is the state required to play a co-ordinating, leadership role in driving and managing a rapid, sustainable and equitable process of economic de-carbonisation? Or will the transition to a just, resilient—and genuinely democratic—post-carbon future in fact depend on a far greater emphasis on grassroots political action and localised economic relationships? How might eco-feminist critiques of gender inequality and social reproduction assist us in imagining and creating post-growth ‘Green New Deals’ that fully recognise the importance of growing and investing in the secure, well-resourced jobs required to provide universal access to high-quality education, health and caring services? How can we strengthen the capacity of citizens, communities and workers to design and create convivial and sustainable low-carbon technologies, industries and cities while also unveiling and challenging ‘the self-interested techno-utopian visions of Silicon Valley elites’? And how can we strengthen the visibility and impact of the many community economic initiatives that are already underway—and often hiding in plain sight—which can strengthen awareness that there are indeed desirable and viable alternatives to dominant neoliberal economic paradigms and ways of life?
Some of the most valuable and provocative chapters in Post-Capitalist Futures focus on learning from Indigenous and First Nations practices and insights. Jon Altman highlights, for example, the implications for post-capitalist, post growth—and post-colonial—economics of the hybrid combinations of customary, state- and market-based economic practices and relationships being explored by Indigenous landowners in northern Australia. Informed by goals of moving beyond extractive forms of mining and agriculture while also maintaining and enhancing biodiversity, the opportunities being explored by Indigenous communities include the deployment of customary and local ecological knowledge to enable sustainably managed savannah burning, zero-emissions renewable energy, cultural tourism, and the collection and sale of wild foods.
Altman foregrounds two critical challenges facing Indigenous communities seeking to build on progress made in repossessing ancestral lands while creating prosperous and resilient post-capitalist futures, asking ‘Where is the pathway, and how might such a transition be financed?’ Part of the answer to the first challenge, Altman suggests, ‘must be political activism for forms of resurgence and decolonisation Indigenous people desire’. Part of the answer to the second lies in ‘a combination of economic justice reparations to compensate peoples and country for damages done; plus, equitable payments for national and global benefits delivered’.
These key questions about the imagination and creation, financing, and governance of prosperous and resilient post-carbon communities are, as the authors of these five books forcefully argue, also vital starting points for the work required to strengthen support for reduced consumption and for post-growth ways of life. The urgency of this task is now surely crystal clear. While a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables remains essential, all plausible pathways to a just and regenerative safe climate future now also require significant reductions in the consumption of energy and materials.
The crucial choice we face—as households and communities still reeling from increasingly severe and frequent fires, floods and storms understand all too well—is whether to design and implement proactive, equitable strategies for reducing consumption and emissions at emergency speed. Or whether, as vested interests and the politics of predatory delay continue to stall decisive climate action, our cities and regions are increasingly overwhelmed by cascading ecological and economic crises with the poorest and most vulnerable communities paying the hardest, harshest price.
*Democracy Versus Sustainability by Boris Frankel (Greenmeadows, 2021), Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, by Sam Alexander and Brendan Gleeson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), The Politics of Permaculture by Terry Leahy (Pluto, 2021), Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism by Kate Soper (Verso, 2020), and Post-Capitalist Futures: Paradigms, Politics and Prospects, edited by Sam Alexander, Sangeetha Chandrashekeran and Brendan Gleeson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).
The winning essay for 2021 in Arena’s annual Alan Roberts Prize.