Degrowth notes in Nov 2016: Jeremy Heighway

Why does nobody else say my lines? The things I say can often spend years being things I’ve said, before I end up actually hearing them as well. Now I don’t mean stuff like proverbs and sayings which I might come up with, but the positions I take on technological or societal issues. As far as what I do hear goes, I often hear certain thinking only in English for quite a long period, or only in German. After a time, the thought seems to make it across the Channel and I hear or read about it in both languages, only for it to then possibly go out of fashion in the country of origin. I suppose it’s the nature of fads and trends that they are often not in sync as they are ‘discovered’ and go through their life phases in different places. However, I often watch discussions go by in various places without people stopping to smell the flowers or tweak the workings where I do. It seems to take ages for me to flag anybody down and find agreement on certain things, or for people to stop in the same place off their own bat.

Admittedly I guess I move along the margins. I think about whether our new Anthropocene epoch (eons, eras, periods, epochs, ages) should actually signal a change higher up the order, for example. To elaborate just a bit here, we used to split up our more recent geological history after the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous into the Tertiary and Quaternary periods, with the latter beginning 2.6 million years ago.  The Tertiary has now been split up into two separate periods, but we are still calling our current period the Quaternary, which has been divided into the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, plus our new Anthropocene.

So, what are my thoughts? Well, at the time of writing this paragraph we have not yet entered the Trump Age, but others have made films with titles such as “The Age of Stupid” or begun to say that we are now living in a post-truth era. There is also the new degrowth movement in town, calling for a massive sea-change in how we live on this planet of ours. However, I’ve not seen anybody calling for this to be a new degrowth age or era, just that we need to massively change our ways. Such a change would surely usher in something worthy of at least being an age, though. Also, depending on what we do over a really short time scale geologically speaking, we do have the potential to inflict something as high up as a new period on our planet, in my opinion. Or, we can save ourselves from naming and shaming ourselves with a new Anthropiary Period and get down to the business of taking up the Anthropocene, accept our culpability so far by nominating an Age of Stupid, and then moving on into an Age of Enlightenment. At least these phrases already exist – except for the Anthropiary Period one. But ok, maybe the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) needs to wait a few years before declaring that we have come to our senses, or not.

So, what are the mechanisms that will enable a successful degrowth society the world over? Well, first of all, I would call something successful if we get to choose it for ourselves with a minimum of suffering and hardship, and if it is actually sustainable – meaning able to sustain it. That’s another little phrase I never see from anyone else, by the way. I’ve seen heaps of definitions of the word sustainability, or what a sustainable society should be like, but nothing that says that the word should actually be considered self-evident: that things should be able to go on as they are indefinitely. It’s not as if street-level humans are not capable of understanding suffixes or grasping concepts around them – “so, I get it that growth has been attainable until now, but is that sustainable?” No. it isn’t!


However, within our growth as a species we have now developed our technologies to a point where we can harvest large amounts of energy from solar and wind power and even grow food with continuous output indoors and vertically if we want to. We do need to transition ourselves into different ways of doing things, but we could break free from using fossil fuels within the next couple of decades if we chose to do so. What is unclear, though, is what steady-state world we wish to create in other respects: quality of life, life expectancy, equalities and so on.

The degrowth movement has been having varying problems even with its very name of late. It is so much more than literally degrowth, and in many areas almost all supporters would actually like to see a massive growth in better ways of behaving towards each other, towards animals and towards the planet. However, looking for a different name is problematic too. It is almost testimony to the power of television, especially in the UK, that people might feel slightly awkward about wanting to call themselves part of the Good Life Movement, as many people will think of, and in some way relate to, the extremely popular television sit-com which first aired in 1975. It is such a charming series about a previously ‘normal’ couple in a London suburb, trying to become self-sufficient in the hope that it will make them happier. Despite loving the show, and at the time actually knowing a real-life couple who moved to the countryside with similar ambitions, I have always felt an accompanying embarrassment which I have never been able to get rid of, nor really explain. And yet I would love to live in a society where more was done with a deep-felt caring and appreciation for values which money cannot buy. I wonder if it is particularly British for me to be disjointed between my rational, logical self, and lots of my feelings. There, I’ve said it!

Anyway, the degrowth movement comes across as being warm, but fuzzy. Maybe there is no name which can satisfy what it really feels like, but I do like that the name is directed against an equally unclear mindset which seems to have growth, growth, growth as one of its underlying pillars. However, when going up against people who believe in clear figures (even if they make no sense in the long run), I think we do need to be more than fuzzy. We need to have an understanding of the mechanisms which drive lots of people, and systems which perpetuate or preserve patterns of behaviour, even when these are unhelpful. We need to be able to propose alternative systems that will function well and gain support, despite being contrary to some of the disjointed settings we find within ourselves. Also, I think it is better to tackle some of our contradictions head on as well, person by person, which is why I like certain expressions such as ‘less is more’ as clever irritants, for example. Are certain statements fallacies, or not?

When it comes to clearly understanding things, however, I do believe that more is more. For decades now I have wanted to make more informed choices. This doesn’t mean I always want to choose the ‘best’ option, but I want to know what I am doing, as it were. If I walk or ride to work, then take the lift up to the fourth floor instead of the stairs as part of ‘regaining my breath’, what am I doing to both my own energy balance and to my balance relative to others? I don’t want people to have to pay attention to dozens of ‘small details’ in their daily lives if they are not so inclined, but I would like people who are to have the opportunity to be more energy-aware, for example.

In essence, I would like to know more about the environmental and social cost/benefit factors of choosing a regional product over an imported one, for example. However, the price tag tells me almost nothing about the energy required to make the product, let alone about the social or environmental conditions surrounding the process. For decades now there has been talk about internalising the externalities, i.e. that all products and services should cost the manufacturer a ‘true’ price for the product, which should then be reflected on the price tag. Environmentally speaking, this is also known as the polluter pays principle. If what a company is doing is causing any kind of harm, then it should have to pay for it (and the customers) and not society at large. One consequence would be that companies which put in the effort to be clean would no longer be at a clear disadvantage over those that don’t. But unfair imbalances are not only to be found in environmental matters. Companies which hire a lot of workers will pay higher national insurance contributions than companies which choose to automate their processes. As unemployment benefit is a part of national insurance, companies who hire fewer people end up paying less towards this, which increases the burden on companies which are actually providing more of the jobs. Do good and be penalised, do bad and benefit from it; this is a fundamental flaw in many of our systems which is now even affecting institutions such as social services and adoptions, for example.

And yet, while the degrowth movement scores very highly on activists’ genuine care about how much better things might be if we could all be nice to oneanother for a change, I have so far seen very little work looking at the pressures put on people both privately and at work to go down undesirable pathways when looked at within the overall scheme of things. And while it is nice that more and more individuals are trying to take a step back from harming others by finding alternative ways of doing things, it is often part of the very nature of being quiet-spoken and tender that they are ignored by the vast majority of people. For years, one of my philosophical questions to the world has been: Why do people follow loudmouths to the slaughterhouse and ignore the whispers of the wise? I also began to see how much of an insult possibly lay behind the label once provided by an extremely popular author: the phrase “Mostly harmless”. Indeed, part of me really does associate the word harmless with being irrelevant, not needing to be considered a threat. Oh Douglas, I miss you so much! …

So – and I say the word in an attempt to regather my thoughts, and not in any way to be rude – what about tackling those flaws in the system that are deeper than those of following growth? The (re)distribution of wealth and resources is a major subcurrent in degrowth thinking, and one of the most promising approaches in my opinion is the Universal Basic Income (UBI) idea. I probably do not need to extol the (perceived?) virtues of this here; I too see a lot of positives in the concept. However, while I see the removing of certain negative pressures on people as a good thing, this does not necessarily remove the benefits of behaving badly (as described above) of your own free will.

Without having studied it in any detail, I take the view that peer pressure has probably usually been a force for good within most social behaviour contexts, and results in the creation not of firm rules, but of codes of conduct. However, modern societies have become a lot more disjoined and separated into different groups, and can also create unhealthy peer pressures. Whistle-blowers, for example, may be generally celebrated and supported by the public at large, but can experience huge negative pressures from the group they used to be a part of.

I would thus like to see much more consideration of what types of pressure can be justified in post-growth thinking and whether some actions should be forbidden, monetarised or merely frowned upon in order to achieve the desired effect. With regard to the UBI, I do think it will be necessary to introduce monetary measures which aim to protect the environment and society. I do not wish to see irresponsible consumption rise as a result of redistribution, nor do I wish to see mass unemployment become even an more “acceptable” condition if it against what people actually want for their own lives.  A responsibly planned UBI will thus have to incorporate or acknowledge other large system changes in my opinion. There is much more to this than eco-taxation, for example, and yet even this subject is hardly being mentioned by UBI groups. At best, eco-taxation is mentioned within the framework of financing mechanisms for an UBI, but I believe this is massively understating its relevance and importance.

Before I summarise, I feel I should return briefly to the subject of the polluter pays approach, which I would like to expand to the concept of “the participant pays principle”. It is part of the desire to internalise current externalities, as mentioned earlier. If you are responsible for causing some kind of cost, then you should pay for it, whether you are a company or an individual. While I see the merits behind this, the concept does clash, however, with what is known as the solidarity principle. This is a highly contentious subject and touches the very core of how different mentalities believe people should organise systems together. Our insurance systems are based on everyone paying in an amount and receiving help in the unfortunate event of needing it, but the basic principle has been watered down over the years. Teachers may benefit from lower car insurance premiums, for example, on the grounds that statistically they cause fewer costs to the insurance system in the first place. Young drivers, however, are also lumped together as being of a higher risk to insure and have to pay higher premiums. Such splitting up into groups does go against the idea that “we are all in it together”, replacing it with “some of you are in it together”, and the dividing line is often based on wealth too. That is one advantage of being fuzzy; you tend to be warmer the less precise you are. With this in mind, I would like to approach new societal mechanisms with the warmest possible precision! Possibly, an UBI could provide a valuable solidarity principle element right up front, and the colder steps of costing, balancing and deciding on individual behaviours such as energy consumption could then be present too, but without being as harsh on the poor as they often are today. 

To summarise, we need more participant pays mechanisms, which will involve identifying and monetarising  the use of resources and pollutants. [As an aside, no, CO2 is not a pollutant in the general sense of the word. Then again, neither is salt, but I don’t want salt to find its way into my coffee, thank you very much, nor for more than threshold amounts to enter freshwater streams and rivers. It would have undesirable effects there!] We need to find new ways of evaluating the consumption of energy, for example, and of taking into account both the direct individual use of energy as well as the energy embedded in products and services. This could be done via types of taxation or a secondary tier of payments which incorporates energy quotas and energy accounts (e.g. TEQs). An UBI would play a big role in making sure that poorer people in society would not suffer from certain higher prices/taxation. We also need to look very hard at what work is, the nature of employment and being employed, and the frameworks associated with this extremely important element of our lives. What will meaningful participation look like in future, sustainable, degrowth societies?

Ed:  Jeremy Heighway currently lives in Leipzig, was an active participant at the degrowth conference in 2014, and took part in the basic income GAP sessions. He also wrote a stirring paper on infrastructures for a parallel GAP. In his day job, Jeremy mostly does translations from German to English in the field of renewable energy.




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