We live in the era of Economism. Human consciousness is deeply etched by economistic beliefs in individualism, materialism, property, markets, economic growth, and freedom as consumer choice. These beliefs are necessary to sustain the system that supports us. But the economy we have is unlikely to support our grandchildren. Natural scientists argue that we are in a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, where people have become the major force in changing the geosphere: the atmosphere, oceans, and land. But it is the economistic beliefs that describe the cosmos of most people, bind people together, support their particular behavior, and sustain the economic system. Economism is altering the physical processes of the geosphere and collapsing the diversity of the biosphere. Econocene is a more appropriate term for the new geologic era. Fossil fuels and their technologies have transformed agricultural and industrial processes, the mobility of goods and people, and the geographies of cities and rural areas. People’s values, ways of understanding, and social organization have coevolved with fossil fuels and their technologies, but it is economism that binds people together and girds the economic system we have. We need a new “ism”, a new human consciousness, to support a new relationship with Earth and its other inhabitants.
The state of planet Earth is widely recognised as in jeopardy due to a range of environmental problems relating to a dominant economic system that extracts resources and uses energy on an unprecedented scale in human history. A long-running claim amongst mainstream economists, defenders of unregulated capitalism and those favouring a regulated productivist economy has been that human ingenuity can find substitutes for all resources and technology can solve all problems allowing humanity to change and adapt to anything. These arguments are made in almost total ignorance of how the economy interacts with ecosystems and impacts their structure and functioning, how dependent economies are on the flow of low entropy materials and energy and what are the basic limits to humans as biological animals. Indeed even ignorance itself is ignored and reduced down to risk and probabilities.
Yet, that economies must change is no longer in question. That they will change is also no longer even an issue. The question is what responses materialise as resources, energy supplies and functioning of ecosystems do change? The options being put forward are numerous, but most aim to preserve some form of high-technology, capital accumulating, growth economy embedded in price-making markets, including: green economy, climate economy, low carbon economy, circular economy, knowledge economy, bioeconomy. Yet, none of these addresses the causal mechanisms of the current crises, or structural issues facing social ecological transformation; they are concerned only with controlling for impacts and adapting to consequences, not with the bio-physical relations of the economy with non-human nature.
This article provides an overview of the relationships between economic systems and the environment, human society and non-human nature, ecology and economy. It brings together various literatures with the aim of introducing the reader to the importance of biophysical reality for the operation of real economies, and therefore also for economics. In the next section, we explain the problems facing standard economic approaches if they are to address environmental problems, but more generally their inability to even understand the social ecological crises due to a limited scope and direction. This is followed by outlining the place of economies in the context of their social and bio-physical structural relations, a basic general ontology. More specific detail is then added on the lessons that can be drawn from ecological understanding in terms of ecosystems, materials and energy. The final section draws out the implications of this understanding for social ecological transformation of the currently dominant economic systems and the type of economics required to help achieve that transformation.
As the climate crisis worsens and the carbon budgets set out by the Paris Agreement shrink, climate scientists and ecologists have increasingly come to highlight economic growth as a matter of concern. Growth drives energy demand up and makes it significantly more difficult – and likely infeasible – for nations to transition to clean energy quickly enough to prevent potentially catastrophic levels of global warming. In recent years, IPCC scientists have argued that the only feasible way to meet the Paris Agreement targets is to actively scale down the material throughput of the global economy. Reducing material throughput reduces energy demand, which makes it easier to accomplish the transition to clean energy.
Ecological economists acknowledge that this approach, known as degrowth, is likely to entail reducing aggregate economic activity as presently measured by GDP. While such a turn might seem inimical to human development, and indeed threaten to trigger a range of negative social consequences, proponents of degrowth argue that a planned reduction of throughput can be accomplished in high-income nations while at the same time maintaining and even improving people’s standards of living. Policy proposals focus on redistributing existing income, shortening the working week, and introducing a job guarantee and a living wage, while expanding access to public goods.
As debates unfold around what these policies might look like and how to implement them, here I step back to consider the deeper economic logic of degrowth theory. On the surface, degrowth sounds like an economics of scarcity, as many on both the right and left have been quick to allege. But in fact exactly the opposite is true. A long view of the history of capitalism reveals that growth has always depended on enclosure. The Lauderdale Paradox first articulated by James Maitland holds that an increase in “private riches” is achieved by choking off “public wealth”. This is done not only in order to acquire free value from the commons but also, I argue, in order to create an “artificial scarcity” that generates pressures for competitive productivity.
Degrowth seeks to invert the Lauderdale Paradox. By calling for a fairer distribution of existing resources and the expansion of public goods, degrowth demands not scarcity but rather abundance (see Sahlins, 1976; Galbraith, 1998; Latouche, 2014; D’Alisa et al., 2014). I build on this insight to show that such an approach not only embodies an alternative to a growth-oriented economy, but in fact offers an antidote to the driving mechanism of growth itself, thus releasing both humans and ecosystems from its grip. By advancing a theory of abundance, degrowth provides a feasible political pathway toward an ecological economy fit for the Anthropocene.
We have many problems – poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction, climate change, financial instability, etc. – but only one solution for everything, namely economic growth. We believe that growth is the costless, win-win solution to all problems, or at least the necessary precondition for any solution. This is growthism. It now creates more problems than it solves.