G.Kallis' plenary talk in the Venice conference on degrowth
Talk on “Research on degrowth since the Barcelona conference: progress and prospects”
Presented at the Third International Conference on Economic Degrowth, Venice, 23 September 2012
The purpose of my presentation today is to review the progress in research on degrowth during the last 2 years or so since our last conference in Barcelona.
Before starting, let me clarify what this presentation is and what it is not about. First, I am concerned here only with developments in peer-reviewed research. I will not talk about developments in the social movement of degrowth, and I will not talk about the success or failure of degrowth ideas to influence public debates or political agendas. I constrain myself here in the scientific part and hope that speakers in this table will cover the other, equally important, components of degrowth. Second, I will cover only literature published in English. I recognize that important contributions have also come out in French, Italian and German. Unfortunately I am not competent in these languages. Third, since I have only 20 minutes, I will have to be very selective. I will refer only to few works that I myself happen to find most exciting. Obviously, this selection reflects my own personal interests and biases, not least my background as an environmental scientist and an ecological economist.
I provide this perspective from the vantage point of having co-edited recently three volumes on degrowth. The first was on the topic of democracy and the politics of degrowth. The second was concerned with degrowth in the agricultural, water and energy sectors and with employment policies. And the third dealt with the economics of degrowth. My review includes also other relevant contributions from economists, sociologists or anthropologists which were not necessarily conducted within a degrowth research agenda.
My presentation has three parts. First, I will highlight what I consider as the most important findings of research on degrowth during these last two years. Second, I will identify three priority questions for the near future, out of a total of twelve outlines in our recent article on the economics of degrowth with Chistian Kerschner and Joan Martinez-Alier. I will finally conclude with my personal take on the progress and prospects of degrowth research.
So, let me move now to some interesting findings.
The first finding comes from Peter Victor, who took data from the Canadian economy, and used a macro-economic simulation model, asking what would happen if Canadian incomes were to degrow by 2035 back to their 1976 levels. As expected, carbon emissions will fall significantly and will be 78% less than their 2005 levels. But so will public expenditures and paid work. To maintain full employment, Victor calculates that Canadians will have to work less than one 8-hour day a week. The government will have to cut its budget to 22% of what it would otherwise be. These are changes of a scale not always appreciated when we talk about degrowth. Worse, such dramatic changes will not even be enough. Canada’s 1976 income is still 5 times higher than what it should be in 2035 if the South is to grow and the North to degrow to an equal level at which global emissions do not cause climate change. Where does this leave us? We like to think that in a degrown world the State will continue to secure a full welfare system. But Victor´s analysis highlights some uncomfortable trade-offs: less production of monetary value means also much less resources for the State to redistribute. The inevitable and pessimistic conclusion is that if we are serious about the need to degrow equitably to a level necessary for global ecological sustainability, then this may entail a level of hardship much higher than what most people, including ourselves, are willing to consider.
The second finding is more optimistic. It comes from the work of sociologists who study alternative modes of production and consumption emerging within capitalism; new sets of practices and beliefs, which offer real-world alternatives to the growth imaginary. Carlsson and Manning refer to such initiatives as “nowtopias”, communities of outlaw bicyclists, vacant-lot gardeners and pirate programmers who consciously withdraw from capitalist culture and reject its value form. Conill and her colleagues document a new “economic culture” of sharing and cooperation emerging in crisis Barcelona with a flourishing of consumer-producer cooperatives dealing with organic produce, urban food gardens, non-money markets of exchange, time-banks, and various forms of sharing, from co-housing and squats, to car and bike sharing or couch-surfing and tool-sharing. My own anecdotal experience from Greece confirms a similar pattern, as well as a considerable movement of educated young people back to rural areas. This is not a marginal change, and should not be taken lightly. It is much more extensive and widespread than previous movements of voluntary simplicity, with the exception perhaps of the 1960s. It is also a more conscious and politicized move, compared to that during recent crises in other parts of the world, such as Argentina. Its values are permeating the whole of society. Advertisers are scratching their heads how to sell to youngsters, who unlike their parents do not buy cars or houses, not only because they cannot afford them, but also because they do not care to own them. From a research perspective we should not only document and celebrate these initiatives but study seriously where, why and how they happen, how durable and sustainable they are, and to what extent they can expand and provide solutions at higher scales.
The third finding comes from hapiness economics. Although I dont think that "hapiness" should be what societies strive for (what is the problem with being unhappy some times?) and even though I dislike the term "happy degrowth", I choose to highlight it for two reasons. First, because I think that the so-called “happiness or Easterlin paradox” is the Achilles’ heel of the whole body of growth economics. Analytically speaking, the finds of the research on hapiness are extremely important. Second, because this finding does not come from degrowth proponents, but from people within the economic profession, an unlikely ally to degrowth arguments. Simply stated, the happiness–income paradox is this: at a point in time both among and within nations, happiness varies directly with income; but over time, happiness does not increase when a country’s income increases. It is obvious why mainstream economists have rushed to generate studies that attempt to refute this finding: if growth does not deliver happiness then the whole rationale for pursuing it, and studying it, is in shambles. But a recent study by Easterlin and his colleagues puts all his critics to rest. This is the most extensive study ever done on this issue, including not only Western nations, but also African, Asian and Latin American countries as well as ex-socialist, transition countries. The paradox is confirmed: whereas happiness falls with recessions and increases with expansions, in the long-term it tends to stay the same. On the other hand, the distribution, rather than the total level of income, does make a difference on wellbeing. Reviewing theoretical and empirical literature, Verme concludes that inequality does reduce happiness. Indeed, as the magnificent book the “Spirit Level” from Wilkinson and Pickett documented, there is a strong positive correlation between equality and a variety of indicators of wellbeing, from life expectancy to physical and mental health, educational performance, levels of trust and lack of crime or violence. From a degrowth perspective a very interesting finding is also that of Bechetti and colleagues who studied a representative sample of 100,000 individuals from 82 countries. They found that the time spent for relationships has a positive and significant effect on happiness. This, they argue, can explain the happiness paradox: as a society gets richer, more and more people trade free time for income, and relational goods diminish. In reverse, one might argue that a degrowth of income would increase wellbeing, if it leads to more free time and more relational goods. This possibility has been confirmed theoretically with a mathematical model by Bilancini and D´Alessandro.
Let me now move to future research.
Economic growth is a recent phenomenon, one that came with industrial capitalism. Economists marvel at it, and ask why and how did the West get rich. Their assumption is that all other civilizations before us, wanted, but could not get, rich. Anthropology and history instead give us a broader perspective. The Earth has seen several flourishing civilizations. Not all of them shared the logic to accumulate or to constantly expand material consumption. We may ask: what were the institutional, cultural, ecological or organizational attributes of past, flourishing yet steady-state civilizations? The information to answer this question already exists. It is just a matter of collecting it, synthesising it, and seeing it with a different eye, a task on which we will need the help of cultural ecologists, environmental anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. The objective of course is not to argue that we should return to some idyllic, primordial type of society, but to extract ideas about organizational features that can be relevant for us today.
I am shifting now to a very different question, one mainly of economics. If, and this is a big if, productivity keeps increasing, as it typically does under capitalism, this means that less and less workers are needed to produce the same unit of product over time. Unless there is economic growth elsewhere to absorb this surplus labour, unemployment increases. Tim Jackson has highlighted some of the possible ways out of this conundrum. We may shift employment to jobs with low productivity but high social value; more teachers, doctors and masseurs, for example. We may also share work more widely, that is, have more people work, less time each. The New Economics Foundation in London has offered a vision for a 21-hours work-week. This will liberate free time for relations and for non-enumerated work, they argue, and it will reduce in this way material consumption. When I started looking at the topic of work hours, I was surprised to find how little rigorous evidence there is to support our case for a shorter work-week. The dominant economic narrative is that shorter work hours reduce productivity and as a result the benefits for employment are short-lived. It should not then surprise us that the current plans of the EU-IMF-ECB Troika for Greece is, in the name of labour market flexibility, to bring back the 6-day work-week, a foretaste of what may soon wait the rest of Europe. There are plenty of holes in our argument about shorter work hours. Sorman and Giampietro, in an article at the Journal of Cleaner Production, rightly point out that after peak-oil, productivity will decline, not increase, and we will need to work more, not less. Historically also, reducing work hours has been used to fuel consumer demand. When Henry Ford introduced the 5-day week in his factories, his idea was that his workers will have more time to drive his cars in the weekend, not that they will start planting organic gardens. Less work hours have gone hand in hand with more material consumption, not less. We need to do much more research, both to substantiate, and convince others, about the benefits of reduced work hours, while thinking more thoroughly through the modes of implementation of a shorter work-week reform. In addition, we need to look more closely at the proposal for a Basic Income. This refers to a monthly stipend granted upon birth to all citizens of a nation, and financed through taxation. A Basic Income could be a key institution for facilitating the expansion of nowtopian, new economic practices. Indeed, often people can engage in those precisely because they have complementary income from public sources, such as unemployment benefits, part-time employment in the public sector or income from publicly-financed non-profit organizations. Access to the free-of-cost public health and education services of the welfare State also helps. A key question, that brings us back to Victor´s work, is whether a basic income or a welfare state can be sustained if an economy degrows.
Finally, let me raise the question of democracy and of the politics of degrowth. Why and how may a process of degrowth deepen democracy, rather than simply erode Parliamentary institutions, opening up the way for totalitarian responses? In his contribution to our Special Issue, Onofrio Romano warns against lazy wishful thinking that degrowth and democracy go hand-in-hand. The limits espoused by degrowth advocates, Romano argues, can only be known by scientists; this creates a natural bias towards technocratic governance. Also why should citizens in a genuine democracy decide to limit themselves to the small community scale or to the low and responsible consumption espoused by degrowth advocates? One possible way to rethink democracy and degrowth is through Cornelius Castoriadis´ theory of autonomy. In an article with Viviana Asara and Emanuele Profumi we argue that by challenging the “iron givens” of liberal economics, degrowh opens up spaces for direct democracy, understood in a Castoriadian sense as moments of open-ended collective reflection and self-institution. Social movements, such as the indignados and Occupy initiatives in the West, or the indigenous and environmental justice movements in the South are interesting cases of processes of open self-institution, which culminated in demands for social and ecological limitations. The question here is whether and how do these movements incorporate the degrowth critique. Do they remain trapped within the growth imaginary? Further how, if at all, do they influence social, political and economic processes? This is part of a broader research agenda concerning the social processes and the social actors through which a degrowth transition may come about.
To conclude, let me give my personal and frank assessment of the state and prospects for degrowth research. First, I think we´ve gone a long-long way since the first conference in Paris four years ago. We have published novel research, we have brought more people in the community and we have made the degrowth proposal scientifically credible. More and more people outside our small community are paying attention to our work and feel obliged to engage with the degrowth proposal, even if only to reject it. Still, our work is miniscule compared to that of economists researching the origins of growth or the origins of the crisis. Save from some radical circles, our views have not registered strongly in the public and political debates about the crisis. Progressive views are dominated by Keynesian economics, oh irony, growth becoming again a catchword for the progressive left. We still lack concrete and rigorous evidence to back our claims. Where are the statistical studies to show that the crisis has something to do with ecological limits or over-growth? Where are the models or the empirical evidence to show that reduced working hours or resource caps can work?
I am afraid we are still too few to carry all this work. Fortunately we are not alone, and we do not start from scratch. There is accumulated knowledge in other disciplines. We are not for example the first ones to study accumulation in non-Western civilizations, employment policies or theories of democracy and social movements. The challenge is how to attract and bring to our community rigorous scholars from say cultural ecology, history, sociology, political theory or economics. Vice versa, the challenge is how to integrate degrowth-inspired questions to disciplinary research agendas. How many of us professors are ready to propose degrowth related topics to our new PhD students? Many of the young researchers who are otherwise degrowth activists, feel more comfortable working on established topics within their disciplines, keeping their degrowth research as a side-project that they present in our conferences. A clarification of a degrowth research agenda and a set of guiding questions is part and parcel of building a degrowth research community.
Finally, let me note that we are not a conventional scientific community. We are a community where action and research are intertwined and reciprocally motivated. This is a strength to the extent that our research is grounded in social reality and motivated by progressive social change. It can become a trap though if we end up confusing programmatic statements and calls for action with scientific analyses, or wishful thinking with objective assessment. It is crucial that we maintain and improve the rigorousness of our research, especially if we want to attract scientists from established communities. Good research asks “why” and “how” questions, not “what” or “how to”. Good research gives new, transformative and emancipatory explanations about what happens in this world. It does not provide dictats about what the world should look like. We are walking new ground here; our conferences have experimented with new ways of blending practice and science, politics and analysis, without diluting each along the way. It is crucial that we keep learning and getting better as time passes by.
Works cited in this talk
Asara, V., Profumi, E. and G. Kallis, forthcoming in 2013. Degrowth, Democracy and Autonomy, Environmental Values. accepted for publication.
Becchetti, L. Trovato, G. and D. Andres, 2011. Income, relational goods and happiness, Applied Economics. 43(3): 273-290.
Bilancini, E. and S., D’Alessando, 2012. Long-run welfare under externalities in consumption, leisure, and production: A case for happy degrowth vs. unhappy growth. Ecological Economics. in press, available on-line.
Carlsson, C., and F. Manning, 2010. Nowtopia: Stategic Exodus? Antipode. 42 (4): 924-953.
Cattaneo, C., D’Alisa, G., Kallis., G and C. Zografos, 2012. Degrowth futures and democracy, Futures. 44: 515-523.
Conill, J., Castells, M., Cardenas, A., Servon, L., 2012. Beyond the Crisis: The Emergence of Alternative Economic Practices. In: M. Castells, J. Caraça, and G. Cardoso, eds. 2012. Aftermath: The Cultures of the Economic Crisis. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch.9.
Jackson, T. and P. Victor, 2011. Productivity and work in the “green economy”: some theoretical reflections and empirical tests. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions. 1(1): 101-108.
Kallis, G., Kerschner, C. and J. Martinez-Alier, 2012. The Economics of Degrowth. Ecological Economics, in press, available on-line.
New Economics Foundation, 2010. 21 Hours, London: The New Economics Foundation.
Romano, O., 102. How to rebuild democracy, re-thinking degrowth. Futures. 44: 582-589
Sorman, A., Giampietro, M. 2012. The energetic metabolism of societies and the degrowth paradigm: analyzing biophysical constraints and realities. Journal of Cleaner Production. in press, available on-line.
Verme, P. 2011. Life satisfaction and income inequality. The Review of Income and Wealth. 57(1): 111-127.
Victor, P.A., 2012. Growth, degrowth and climate change: a scenario analysis. Ecological Economics, in press, available on-line.
Wilkinson, R. and K. Pickett, 2010. The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone. London: Penguin.