Everything you always wanted to know about degrowth but were afraid to ask

Recently I was asked for recommendations of books on degrowth, which is the socio-economic transformation that will have to take place to due planetary limits on the amount of water, land, energy and materials.  If everyone used as much of these things as Americans we would need five earths in order to meet the demand. So something will have to give. Technology and efficiency won’t solve the problem because it’s been shown that when you make things more efficient people just increase their consumption and so the total use – of electricity or raw materials or whatever – doesn’t actually go down.

Degrowth will mean separating human well-being from the notion of infinitely eternally expanding economic growth, which is such a ridiculous concept I can’t believe anyone ever bought into it. I was specifically asked for books rather than websites or articles so here you go…

Current figures

  • Tim Jackson – if you read just one book:  Prosperity Without Growth
  • Rob Hopkins – the one who’s not ivory-tower:  one of the few major figures in the field who is grassroots rather than a professor or think tank-er, yet unlike a lot of the “relatable” people you won’t find him suggesting that a few urban gardens here and there constitute an earthshaking social transformation, and he can hold his own with the socioeconomics wonks. His main thing is the Transition Network aka Transition Towns.

  • Kate Raworth – “doughnut economics”
  • Giorgos Kallis
  • maybe Jason Hickel; I’m skeptical because he’s published five books in six years and is only 40 which suggests superficiality and a lack of commitment to teaching (one book every six years is normal for professors), and just five years before the recent degrowth book his specialization was South African politics, and he’s an anthropologist rather than economist. But it may be fine. Haven’t read it.

Classics, but still relevant

Canonical works from the pioneers. I have a couple of their  articles and book chapters I can send if you’re interested.

  • E.F Schumacher – Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered The Magna Carta of the field (1973), where it all began. His influence is tangibly thriving in the form of what is probably the oldest and most widely-used local currency in the western world, the Berkshares in rural Massachsetts, and in his legacy institute which is located there. He was the first to introduce appropriate technology to industrialized countries and surely the only economist who ever cited both Ghandi and the 19th-century art historian-naturalist-philosopher John Ruskin as influences.
  • Herman Daly – Toward a Steady-State Economy (1973) is the foundation of degrowth but a better choice to read nowadays might be For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, which he co-wrote with an environmental theologian / philospher / systems theorist. AFAIK he’s still relevant and regularly cited.
  • H.T. Odum – A Prosperous Way Down, also, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century. Focus is on systems science, energetics and thermodynamics. The only one on this list who’s an actual ecologist; over time he shifted towards social systems and energy flows.
  • Donella Meadows and Dennis Meadows – The Limits to Growth  (free download here) is the other Magna Carta (1972). Just what the title says – it’s physically impossible for society and economies to keep growing infinitely. Interesting comparison to Schumacher. The Meadowses were systems analysts at MIT (he is still alive and active) and this was published by a stratospherically rareified think tank called the Club of Rome which is located in Zürich and seems to be for people who find Davos too proletarian. Yet unlike 50 years of Davos conferences, The Limits to Growth has made a valuable contribution to society.

Avoid

  • Bill McDonoughCradle to Cradle I mention this because you will see the name a lot and he surely sells more books than all the others put together. Not a fan; too neoliberal and pro-capitalism although some elements are worthwhile . Could be good as a gateway drug for business types who are scared off by the other stuff or just to see that side of the issue.

Maybe

  • Mathis Wackernagel – Ecological footprint as a concept was co-originated by him. Don’t know if he actually covers degrowth.

Help! All those old white men look the same! I can’t tell them apart!

  • Richard Norgaard, Ted Nordhaus, William Nordhaus, Bjørn Lomborg – More names that you will often run across and I always confuse them so here’s a guide: Richard Norgaard is the good one and the rest are garbage. Norgaard is a rightly esteemed ecological economist with a focus on social justice and is key to the degrowth topic but I don’t know if he addressed it explicitly. The Nordhauses are father-and-son neoliberal technocrat greenwashing ecological economists. (William did valid work earlier but got a Nobel prize for his later, pro-corporate-greed climate-destroying work!) Lomborg is a gay Danish vegetarian global superstar of heavily greenwashed climate denial. He is often revered among centrists, mainstream media and the corporate world while the science world has long rejected his profuse distortions and manipulations, and Danish authorities have investigated him for scientifiic dishonesty. Incidentally the latter three people were embraced by a certain Ivy League university I attended…

German

  • There are Germans working on the topic. That’s beyond our scope here but I wanted to mention one of the most prominent, Maja Göpel. I haven’t read her work but the talks I’ve seen were terrific and I believe she’s highly regarded.

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