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Degrowth (wikipedia.org)
40 points by wslh on Oct 28, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 56 comments

One of the things this comes down to is whether our measures of wealth are sensible.

A country hot enough to require air conditioning will have an increased GDP, but this GDP is really just for bringing it to the norm of another country that doesn't require aircon. And should we count the extra economic activity generated from creating a new demand where there previously was none? [1]

If we optimise for the wrong thing, we end up with bad outcomes.

[1] http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-10-18/convincing-w...

I really dislike GDP as a measure, for this and other reasons.

Ultimately, GDP isn't what matters. We should care about wealth creation, about efficient use of resources (including labor), about happiness and enjoyment.

An inevitable consequence of abandoning GDP as a measure of economic progress (as we will, inevitably do) will be coming to terms with the fact that rampant consumerism and gross inefficiencies do not constitute 'growth'

Nothing stops you from doing this yourself.

Just don't expect the rest of us to appreciate being forced to do it.

We now theorize that on Easter Island, the societies that presided there destroyed their island's environment to such an extent that they themselves were essentially destroyed.

To prevent that from happening, it would have made no impact if a few individuals would have stopped the harmful actions. They would have had to change the whole culture of consumption, production, even religion. See where I'm going with this?

> See where I'm going with this?

Yes, you're constructing a "the end justifies the means" argument.

Lobbying for some change that's necessary to avoid a global scale catastrophe implies "the end justifies the means", thus should be rejected?

Depends on the nature of "something" and the value of "necessary". If somebody argued that to avoid global overpopulation and Malthusian catastrophe, we are to kill every 10th child born - you would probably reject this, even though the argument would be "it is necessary to avoid a global scale catastrophe".

So far all Malthusian predictions of global scale exhaustion reliably turned false and in most cases, laughably so, in hindsight. This teaches us that such claims should be taken with extreme skepticism and drastic measures proposed under these claims are most probably not justified.

This, of course, does not contradict the usability of technology (or non-technology means) for greater efficiency of energy use, conservation, etc. There's nothing wrong with recycling, reuse and energy saving. It just doesn't need to be turned to extremes under the slogans of future catastrophe that would never happen.

No. But that's not what the GP does.

> We now theorize that on Easter Island, the societies that presided there destroyed their island's environment to such an extent that they themselves were essentially destroyed.

Actually, it's a matter of dispute among anthropologists and archaeologists. A notable book came out on the topic last year that contradicts the "ecological collapse" view:


Do you live in a magical world where the two people vying for executive power in the most powerful country weren't scared of admitting to our failing ability to generate electricity efficiently OR in a green manner?

Most historians now believe that the population collapse on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was due to diseases brought in by European sailors and slave raiding by the Peruvians, rather than any ecological collapse.

> See where I'm going with this?

Down a slippery slope.

Nobody actually knows what happened on Easter Island. There are as many theories as there are people trying to peddle their concept of how the world will / won't end.

Your comment made me think: interestingly, "growth" as a key concept is being forced on all of us right now, no matter one appreciates it or not... (either directly or indirectly).

If I forget about the word itself (and being unsure of the cultural connotation associated with it outside France - which I have no idea of), I personally do relate to the following sentence in the wikipedia definition:


maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community


> is being forced on all of us right now

By whom?

I don't see men out the front with guns and dogs, demanding that I pop up to the electronics store to get the latest TV.

Or that the Buy Stuff Or Else Act 2012 had just passed through both houses of Parliament and received Royal Assent.

Well, a bank account is almost required for life in most Western countries now (unless you can receive all your income/benefits and pay all your bills in cash - not even an option for my salary or utility bills), and banks are only willing to give every Joe Public a current account on the assumption that they'll be able to make a profit on most of the money on the stock market before Joe wants it back, and the assumption that you can almost always make that profit is based on growth being an almost inevitable fixture of the universe...

...so yes, I think growth has forced its way into our day-to-day lives even if you are successfully ignoring any suggestions to buy the latest consumer gadgetry.

That is a seriously strange complaint. The reason a bank can provide a service to your for free is that it expects growth in society, therefore growth is forced upon you?

I read '"growth" as a key concept is being forced on all of us right now' to mean it's hard to opt out of a lifestyle which is dependent on economic growth as a given, which I agree with, and gave the above as an example. I may have misunderstood the slightly ambiguous quoted text; do you believe this to be the case, or do you still find my reasoning "seriously strange"?

Yes. Where are you being coerced to take any action you wouldn't have otherwise taken because of the way your bank makes money? Why would your life be less growthy if you happened to pay your bank a few dollars a month instead?

By the society we're part of, as a whole. This includes politics, industries, businesses, and ourselves.

Individual decisions only go so far - you can decide to "degrowth", but if the politics, or culture, or industries are oriented toward growth, this is pretty much a drop in the water (well until a given subject becomes suddenly important, like we saw with environmental issues in France a couple of years back).

If as a society we consider stability and sustainability to be more important than growth, then this affects a lot of our decisions: expectations of how long a given useful product should work (appliances etc), how we decide about things that are worth investing time and resources in, subjects to be taught at school, kind of jobs to be created etc.

Now a true "cultural" question: you mentioned that people should not "expect the rest of us to appreciate being forced to do it" - is that because in your country, there is an activism (perceived as negative?) around degrowth?

Honest question: I'd like to understand your initial reaction!

You're sort of grasping that no one agent is actually in charge of the whole shebang -- that it's an emergent phenomenon.

Any genuine attempt at degrowth will require some pretty unpopular policies. Folk like that their lives, on the whole, improve over time (modulo real estate in first world countries ... but that's another rant for another time).

So it's possible to degrowth at an individual level; but at a societal level, it would require force and cause more disruption than people realise.

And I'm agin' it.

The pursuit of economic growth shapes government policy, and although government may not always station their guns and dogs outside your residence, their decisions impact pretty much everything you do in some way.

So I'm 9 days late to this thread (don't know how I missed it, I must have been doing something), but I can't let this infectious antitruth stand.

There are indeed men with guns, dogs, and even armored vehicles forcing you to carry out most of your transactions in USD, thereby giving value to USD no matter how poorly it is being managed. Maximizing production through government spending and new money creation overdriving the economy is the thesis of Keynesian economics. What exactly does a 0.2% interest rate say about how we view preparing for tomorrow?

I think its interesting how productivity increases have led to increased consumption instead of increased free time. Maybe this is partially because consumption is viewed as nobel in the sense that it's what causes the economy to grow.

Does anyone have any thoughts on a technology tax? If say you're fired because your boss hired a robot to do your job, your boss pays a percentage of his increase in profits as a tax which is redistributed to everyone - much like in Alaska how everyone gets a check for the oil that is pulled from the ground, what if everyone got a check for the technology pulled from our minds? Maybe this would encourage people to value technological growth over consumption growth.

> If say you're fired because your boss hired a robot to do your job,

You're not seeing the whole picture: Being replaced by a robot is just the final step in an extremely long sequence of productivity enhancements that being with using a shovel instead of your bare hands. Why should the tax hit robots but not a power drill? Or a fork-lift truck? A washing machine? Or a computer? (don't forget, as programmers, we are parties to one of the largest eradications of jobs in the history of mankind)

What you're really proposing is a tax on increasing efficiency, by a long shot the best and most easily understood kind of growth. Interestingly, with reference to the movement's goals, little frees up more resources for family, art and music than getting the same work done in half the time.

> What you're really proposing is a tax on increasing efficiency, by a long shot the best and most easily understood kind of growth. Interestingly, with reference to the movement's goals, little frees up more resources for family, art and music than getting the same work done in half the time.

I think the real gripe with this is that, although automated production may be more efficient, it fosters greater wealth inequality.

As tools become more powerful, and come to replace rather than assist humans, those with existing wealth become yet more powerful. The evil factory owner can now produce their widgets five times faster, at half the cost, and they don't have an unruly workforce to rely on.

This already exists. If your boss is making more money, he will (theoretically) pay more corporate tax, and that goes to welfare for the unemployed.

It is worth repeating the main idea here: "Key to the concept of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring and a decrease in well-being. Rather, 'degrowthists' aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community."

HNers might find reading about Epicureanism and Stocism to be an enlightening addition to reading about Degrowth.

It's very rarely relevant to evaluate a movement's goals on it's own, especially when they are so lofty as here. What means are they proposing?

In France, it seems they are happily backing the near-total destruction of their economy. I struggle to see how this will allow them to "devot[e] more time to art, music, family, culture and community".

That sounds like something people might say about socialism too.

We need only look at the Soviet Union to see how that turned out.

That really doesn't sound like the Soviet Union at all - which was obsessed with growth through centrally controlled 5 year plans.

One of the many reasons the Soviets failed is that they channeled a huge proportion of their national wealth into their military (fearing as they did an attach from NATO) and away from improving the living standards of their citizens.

This is impossible because it will stop the investment loop: investment cannot exist in the economy which is contracting and is supposed to contract indefinitely, because average return on investment will be negative. This is why such conditions will never happen.

As for environmental concerns, huge successes by the Germans seems to prove that transition to renewable energy is possible, even with current or slightly better level of technology. This may take some 30-40 years for most developed countries, and about as much after that for the rest, but we seem to have that time given successes in development of shale gas, coalbed methane, and most recently, shale oil.

Germans are good example because if they are outliers given the conditions they have, they are outliers in negative sense: they don't have much of either renewable or non-renewable resources, they are rich and need to consume a lot of the both, and cannot afford having energy too pricey because their economy is based on industrial exports so they need to stay competitive. If they can do it, everyone can do it. Others mostly don't care so far, soon they will have to.

I find this fascinating as I am thinking more about how companies acting as Tumors. Growth for the sake of growth is the symptom of cancer. Larger economies do enable human collaborative feats like going to the moon and finding ways to live healthy and longer lives but it's engine itself driven by the fuel (mass consumption) of greed and desire rather than curiosity and joy. All signals seems to indicate that it has gone too far. We have to come up with a sustainable way to create large economies.

The difference is that tumours don't have to solve economic calculation problems: companies do. As they reach the limits of that capability they become increasingly inefficient until they are supplanted by smaller, nimbler competitors.

... or propped up by governments. But then the analogy is even more broken.

After jacques_chester comment, I wonder (for everyone): what is you country, and is degrowth seen as something positive or negative in general in your country?

In Denmark and the UK, the narrative is appealing, not because of its merits but because it provides an alternative to austerity. It seems to be mostly utilized by the same hard-left that has always been more concerned with distributing wealth than creating it. In both countries, the main-stream left has long since realized that there is no alternative to reducing the deficit and bringing back growth.

> In both countries, the main-stream left has long since realized that there is no alternative to reducing the deficit and bringing back growth.

Although behind the scenes this may be the case, the rhetoric remains.

In the UK we still have Labour bleating about the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition making spending cuts "too hard, too fast" when they are barely making a dent in the annual deficit.

Maybe it's not so much growth vs degrowth as short-term vs long-term? A country like China that's pursuing a very aggressive short-term growth policy is obviously endangering some aspects of their future with pollution, corruption, etc.

I don't have a problem with pursuing growth, so much as focusing on the next few years (or the next election) to the exclusion of anything else.

China's short-term growth objectives are hard to criticise given that a good ~10% of its population remain below the poverty line. Its economic modernisation has already reduced this figure by several hundred million head. Capitalism feeds.

This 'degrowth' ideology seems to be moreso redirecting growth towards things that are more real, necessary and sustainable. Growth is fairly natural and should be expected in any healthy and free economy - not just in our modern 'advanced' juggernauts.

Is long term growth qualitatively different from the integral of short term growth over the same period?

I think so.

On a several decades/century scale it's worthwhile to funnel at least a few percent of GDP into basic science research[1]. But, in any given quarter/year, it's almost certainly a net loss. The trick being that every few decades, you'll get nuclear power, the transistor, etc[2].

Or, as a 'local' example: non-trivial number theory had basically no benefit for centuries but humanity kept 'investing' resources into it - which a short term optimizer wouldn't. Then, cryptography came along and it suddenly 'paid' for the entire field a dozen times over.

[1]: Research is sort of like early stage VC - but with funds that pay out over 70 years instead of ~7.

[2]: I would love to write about many more examples in much more depth, but will omit for the sake of brevity. I roughly feel like the newtonian mechanics was directly responsible for the industrial revolution, relativistic physics for the nuclear age, quantum mechanics for the computer age (with similar analogues in the biological sciences).

The example Carl Sagan gives is Maxwell's equations. They seemed pretty abstract at the time, but well ... Radio. Television. Fibre optics. Satellite communications.

That said -- these didn't happen all at once. And every technological upheaval, no matter how large it has been in itself, has still appeared in the larger context to be only an incremental improvement.

No, but you can make decisions now which affect the rate of short term growth later.

Or to continue the calculus analogy, you divide your spending on growth between spending that increases the first derivative and second derivative of value. The former is current short term growth, but the latter may lead to more growth in the long term.

Serious question:

How does a country that embraces 'degrowth' defend itself militarily from a country that is still working on the high production paradigm?

The same way France has always defended itself.

Looking at their long history I would say that the French have been as good as anyone, and better than most, at defending themselves.

Of course, they lost to Nazi Germany, but unlike us Brits they didn't have a Channel to hide behind - after all it mainly took the huge sacrifice of the Soviets to eventually defeat the Nazis.

Not sure if you're being funny?

France has one of the highest rates of productivity per capita [0] and is the 5th highest military spender in the world [1].

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP... [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_e...

I think it's a joke based on the fact that was a relatively rich county in the 20th Century and had a poor record on self-defence. France was actually considered to have the strongest military in Europe in the late 1930's, but it didn't pan out for them (bad management).

Nukes? The French have a lot of them.

Having nukes works well as a deterrent to being nuked, but using them (even defensively) could only ever be as a last resort.

It's not hard to see how a country with nukes defending itself from a country with nukes AND a conventional military could be forced to make a whole lot of concessions.

That was pretty much why Britain was so keen to develop nuclear weapons - they are actually relatively inexpensive compared to the equivalent number of armoured divisions.

The fastest way to degrowth is creation of brain-computer interfaces that have realistic feel like in the matrix. Degrowthers should join the hacker movement in advancing that technology. The way to most quickly advance that technology is through computer vision technologies that allow the running of biotech experiments at an industrial scale. The key to computer vision is the application of machine learning (neural nets and random forests). The key to that is the creation of classifiers on image datasets on cloud computing infrastructure. Therefore, projects like microsoft kinect and google goggles in addition to vision guided industrial robots are the best degrowther strategies.

Spot on.

These civilizational sustainability benefits are much of why I'm starting an augmented/virtual reality glasses company ( http://vergencelabs.com ). The other reasons are related to education and to transhumanism.

But I don't think we need any invasive interfaces to achieve fully realistic immersion. Optics will suffice. We still want computer vision to do AR/VR and bio as well, but we don't have to wait for transhumanism to succeed before we can start obsoleting physical goods, monuments, commuting, etc using just wearable displays and haptics.

The fastest way to degrowth is [growth] ??

Focused growth. Instead of factories churning out designer handbags and pet food, have them churn out biotech experiments for brain-computer interfaces.

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