The Lauderdale Paradox first articulated by James Maitland holds that an increase in “private riches” is achieved bychoking 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 pressuresfor 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
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 firstarticulated by James Maitland holds that an increase in “private riches” is achieved bychoking 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 pressuresfor 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 ratherabundance (see Sahlins, 1976; Galbraith, 1998; Latouche, 2014; D’Alisa et al., 2014).
The Paris Agreement and the degrowth imperative
In 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report outlining what it will take to prevent global warming of more than 1.5°C over preindustrial levels. The report concluded that global emissions must be halved by 2030 and reach net zero by the middle of the century. It is a dramatic trajectory, and requires a rapid reversal of direction for our civilization. There is at present no agreed plan for accomplishing this. The voluntary pledges made by signatories to the Paris climate agreement in 2015 entail no absolute reductions to global emissions, and set us on a path to 3.4 degrees of warming by the end of the century–significantly exceeding the 1.5 and 2°C limits established by the Paris agreement.
The primary reason for this problem is that economic growth is projected to drive energy demand up at a rate that outpaces the rollout of clean energy capacity (Raftery et al., 2017). This has already presented a problem in the 21st century. Today the world is producing 8 billion more megawatt hours of clean energy each year than in 2000, which is a significant increase. But over the same period, energy demand has grown by 48 billion megawatt hours. In other words, new clean energy capacity covers only 16% of new demand. It is of course technically possible to scale up clean energy output to cover total global energy demand (Jacobson and Delucchi, 2011). But the question is whether it is feasible to do so at a rate that is fast enough to respect the carbon budget for 1.5 or 2°C, while at the same time growing the global economy at the usual pace.
We can assess this question by looking at projected rates of decarbonization. If we assume that global GDP continues to grow at 3% per year (the average from 2010-2014), then decarbonization must occur at a rate of 10.5% per year for 1.5°C, or 7.3% per year for 2°C. If GDP slows down and grows at only 2.1% per year (as PWC predicts), then decarbonization must occur at 9.6% per year for 1.5°C, or 6.4% per year for 2°C. All of these targets are significantly beyond what existing empirical models indicate is feasible (see Hickel and Kallis, 2019). A few brief examples will serve to illustrate this point. Schandl et al. (2016) indicate that decarbonization can happen by at most 3% per year under highly optimistic policy conditions. The C-ROADS tool (developed by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan) projects decarbonization of at most 4% per year under the most aggressive possible abatement policies: high subsidies for renewables and nuclear power, plus high taxes on oil, gas and coal. In a recent review of existing evidence, Holz et al. (2018) find that the rate ofdecarbonization required to meet the Paris targets is “well outside what is currently deemed achievable, based on historical evidence and standard modelling.”
IPCC scientists and authors have been aware of this problem for some time. In the Fifth Integrated Assessment Report (AR5), they dealt with it by assuming the future existence ofspeculative “negative emissions” technologies. The theory is that while business-as-usual growth will cause emissions to exceed the carbon budget in the medium term, that is fine so long as we find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere later in the century. The dominant proposal for achieving this is known as BECCS, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. BECCS entails developing large tree plantations around the world to absorb CO2from the atmosphere, harvesting the biomass, burning it for energy, capturing the emissions at source and storing the waste underground. In AR5, the vast majority of scenarios for 2°C (101 of the 116) rely on BECCS to the point of achieving negative emissions.
BECCS is highly controversial among scientists, however. There are a number of concerns. First, the viability of power generation with CCS has never been proven to be economically viable or scalable (Peters, 2017). Second, the scale of biomass assumed in the AR5 scenarios would require plantations covering land two to three times the size of India, which raises questions about land availability, competition with food production, carbon neutrality, and biodiversity loss (Smith et al., 2015; Heck et al., 2018). Third, the necessary CO2 storage capacity may not exist (De Coninck and Benson, 2014; Global CCS Institute, 2015).
Anderson and Peters (2016) conclude that “BECCS thus remains a highly speculative technology” and that relying on it is therefore “an unjust and high stakes gamble”: if it is unsuccessful, “society will be locked into a high-temperature pathway”. This conclusion is shared by a growing number of scientists (e.g., Fuss et al., 2014; Vaughan and Gough, 2016; Larkin et al., 2017; van Vuuren et al., 2017), and by the European Academies’ ScienceAdvisory Council (2018).
Responding to these concerns, the IPCC (2018) has for the first time published a scenario for reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement that does not rely on speculative negative emissions technologies. Developed by Grubler et al. (2018) and known as Low Energy Demand (LED), the scenario works by reducing global energy consumption by 40% by 2050, which makes it much more feasible to achieve a transition to 100% clean energy. The key feature of this scenario is that global material production and consumption declinessignificantly: “The aggregate total material output decreases by close to 20 per cent fromtoday, one-third due to dematerialization, and two-thirds due to improvements in materialefficiency.” LED differentiates between the global North and South. Industrial production and consumption declines by 42% in the North and 12% in the South. Given improvements in energy efficiency, this translates into industrial energy demand declining by 57% in the North and 23% in the South.
The LED model represents a “degrowth” scenario–a planned reduction of the material and energy throughput of the global economy. Its inclusion in the IPCC report as the only scenario that does not rely on questionable negative emissions technologies suggests that degrowth may be the only feasible way to achieve the emissions reductions required by the Paris Agreement. This is a major milestone in climate mitigation theory. What is appealing about this approach is that it not only addresses emissions and climate change, but also reduces ecological impact across a range of other key indicators, including deforestation, chemical pollution, soil depletion, biodiversity loss, and so on (Rockstrom et al., 2009; Steffen et al., 2015).
There are a number of policies that would help to achieve reductions in material throughput in line with the LED scenario. One would be to legislate extended warranties on products, so that goods like washing machines and refrigerators last for 30 years instead of ten. Another is to ban planned obsolescence, and to introduce a “right to repair” so that products can be fixedcheaply and without proprietary parts. We could legislate reductions in food waste (as South Korea, France and Italy are doing), tax red meat to promote a shift to less resource-intensive foods, ban single-use plastics and disposable coffee cups, and end advertising in public spaces to reduce pressures for material consumption. Ultimately, however, to accomplish significant and sustained reductions will likely require imposing a cap on annual material use and tightening it year by year until it reaches what ecologists identify as sustainable levels (50 billion tons per year on a global scale, or 6-8 tons per capita; see Dittrich et al., 2012; Hoekstra & Wiedmann, 2014; UNEP IRP, 2014; Bringezu, 2015).
The degrowth hypothesis
The idea of degrowth was first articulated in the early 21st century by ecological economists and post-development theorists (e.g., Latouche, 2009; Victor, 2008; Jackson, 2009; Alier, 2009; Kallis, 2011; Kallis, 2018), and in recent years has captured public attention, even appearing in popular media outlets. The objective of degrowth is to scale down the material and energy throughput of the global economy, focusing on high-income nations with high levels of per capita consumption. The idea is to achieve this objective by reducing waste and shrinking sectors of economic activity that are ecologically destructive and offer little if any social benefit (such as marketing, and the production of commodities like McMansions, SUVs, beef, single-use plastics, fossil fuels, etc.).
Degrowth scholars acknowledge that reductions in aggregate throughput are likely to entail reductions in aggregate economic activity as measured by GDP, given the historically tight coupling between throughput and output (see Hickel and Kallis, 2019; Ward et al., 2016; UNEP, 2017). At first glance, this may seem a troubling prospect. Economists and policymakers have become accustomed to equating GDP growth with human progress and improvements in well-being, so it might seem sensible to conclude that a decline in GDP must necessarily entail a decline in well-being. After all, a reduction in GDP sounds like a recession, and recessions have a range of harmful social effects: firms lay off workers, unemployment rises, and as people lose their jobs they become unable to pay for access to housing, food, healthcare, education and other basic goods. Moreover, states, firms and households find themselves unable to pay debts, heightening risk of financial crisis.
A recession is categorically different to degrowth, however. A recession is a shrinkage of the existing economy (an economy that requires growth in order to remain stable), while degrowth calls for a shift to a different kind of economy altogether (an economy that does not require growth in the first place). The literature on degrowth argues that it is possible to reduce aggregate economic activity in high-income nations while at the same time maintaining and even improving indicators of human development and well-being. This can be accomplished with a series of integrated policy reforms. For instance, as dirty and socially unnecessary industries close down and aggregate economic activity contracts, unemployment can be prevented by shortening the working week and redistributing necessary labour (into cleaner, more socially useful sectors) with a job guarantee. Wage losses due to a reduction in working hours can be prevented by increasing hourly wages with a living wage policy. To protect small businesses that may find it difficult to pay significantly higher hourly wages, a universal basic income scheme could be introduced, with dividends funded by taxation on carbon, wealth, land value, resource extraction, and corporate profits. These policies have been successfully modelled in degrowth scenarios developed by D’Allessandro et al. (2018) and Victor (2019).
The core feature of degrowth economics is that it requires a progressive distribution of existing income. This inverts the usual political logic of growth. In their pursuit of improvements in human welfare, economists and policymakers often regard growth as a substitute for equality: it is politically easier to grow total income and expect that enough will trickle down to improve the lives of ordinary people than it is to distribute existing income more fairly, as this requires an attack on the interests of the dominant class. But if growth is a substitute for equality, then by the same logic equality can be a substitute for growth (Dietzand O’Neill, 2013). By distributing existing income more fairly we can improve human welfare and accomplish social objectives without growth–and therefore without additional material and energy throughput. A shorter working week plus a job guarantee and a living wage policy, as described above, are central mechanisms for accomplishing this. So too is investment in public services. By expanding access to high-quality, generous public healthcare, education, affordable housing, transportation, utilities and recreation facilities, it is possible to enable people to access the goods they need to live well without needing high levels of income to do so.
Existing empirical evidence demonstrates that it is possible to achieve high social indicators without high levels of GDP per capita. Past a certain point, the relationship between GDP per capita and social indicators begins to break down. Take life expectancy, for instance; while there is a general correlation between GDP per capita and longevity (countries with higher GDP per capita generally have better life expectancy), the relationship follows a saturation curve with sharply diminishing returns (Preston, 2007; Steinberger & Roberts, 2010). Longevity depends on other important variables besides GDP, such as investment in universal healthcare. For example, Costa Rica’s healthcare system allows the country tomatch U.S. life expectancy with only one-fifth of the U.S. GDP per capita (Sánchez-Ancochea and Martínez Franzoni, 2016). Similarly, there is a tenuous relationship between GDP per capita and happiness, or well-being (see Easterlin, 1995; Easterlin et al., 2010). In the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance, happiness levels have remained unchanged since the early 1970s, despite significant growth in real GDP per capita. According to the Gallup World Poll, many countries (Germany, Austria, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Canada, Denmark, and most notably Costa Rica) have higher levels of well-being than the United States does, with less GDP per capita.
The same pattern applies to many other social indicators. The GDP per capita of Europe is 40% lower than that of the US, and yet Europe performs better in virtually every social category, as European countries tend to be more equal and more committed to public goods. But even European countries have significant room for improvement. Inequality in Europe has worsened significantly since 1980. From a degrowth perspective, this represents an opportunity: there is no a priori reason why Europe’s social performance cannot be improvedstill further–without any additional growth–by distributing existing income more fairly and using progress taxation to expand public goods.
It is not just that GDP is not strongly correlated with human development after a point–it is also that GDP growth past a certain threshold tends to have a negative impact. Alternative metrics of economic progress, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), make this effect visible. GPI starts with personal consumption expenditure (also the starting point for GDP) and adjusts using 24 different components, such as income distribution, environmental costs and pollution, while adding positive components left out of GDP, such as household work. Kubiszewski et al. (2013) find that in most countries GPI grows along with GDP until a particular threshold, after which GDP continues to grow while GPI flattens and in some cases declines. The authors draw on Max-Neef (1995) to interpret this threshold as the point at which the social and environmental costs of GDP growth become significant enough to cancel out consumption-related gains (Deaton, 2008; Inglehart, 1997).
Of course, one might argue that economic growth is necessary for mobilizing resources to invest in the technological change required to shift the world toward sustainability. But there is no evidence for the assumption that aggregate growth is necessary for achieving this. If the objective is to achieve specific kinds of technological innovation, it would make more sense to invest in those directly, or incentivize innovation with policy measures (e.g., caps on carbon and resource use), rather than to grow the whole economy indiscriminately (which would include growth of dirty and destructive industries) while blindly hoping for a specific outcome.
The scarcity machine
While the scholarship on degrowth has outlined the policy changes that would be necessary to achieve a safe and equitable transition to an ecological post-growth economy, the deep logic of such an economy remains undertheorized. Are the reforms that degrowth scholars propose in and of themselves sufficient to euthanize the capitalist growth imperative? Here I want to address this question by elaborating further on the argument that expanding public goods and services is central to a successful degrowth scenario. This argument is much deeper and more profound than it appears at first glance, and opens up a number of fruitful lines of inquiry.
Let us begin with an example that is close to my own experience. In London, house prices are astronomically high, to the point where a normal one-bedroom flat may cost £2,000 per month to rent, or £600,000 to buy. These prices are fictional; they are no indication of the actual cost of building a house, or even of land, but are rather largely a consequence of the rapid privatization of the public housing stock in Britain since 1980, as well as financial speculation, zero-interest rate policy and quantitative easing, which has driven asset prices up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to the extraordinary benefit of the rich. Meanwhile, wages in London have not kept pace with housing prices. In order to purchase housing, then, Londoners have to either increase their aggregate working hours or take out loans, which are effectively a claim on their future labour. In other words, people are required to work unnecessarily long hours to earn additional money simply in order to access shelter, which they were previously able to access with a fraction of the income. In the process, they produce additional goods and services that must find a market, thereby creating new pressures for consumption–pressures that manifest in the form of, for example, aggressive and increasingly insidious advertising schemes.
The fictionally high housing prices in London therefore ultimately compel everyone to contribute unnecessarily to the juggernaut of ever-expanding production and consumption, with all of the corresponding ecological consequences that this entails.
This is a problem that is as old as capitalism itself. And it has a name: enclosure. Ellen Eiksins Wood (1999) has argued that the origins of capitalism lay in the enclosure movement in England, during which wealthy elites–empowered by the Statute of Merton of 1235 –fenced off commons and systematically forced peasants off the land in a violent, centuries- long campaign of dispossession. This period saw the abolition of the ancient “right to habitation”, once enshrined in the Charter of the Forest, which guaranteed ordinary peopleaccess to land, forests, game, fodder, waters, fish and other resources necessary for life. Inthe wake of enclosure, England’s commoners found themselves subject to a new regime: in order to survive they had to compete with each other for leases to farm on newly privatized land. Leases were allocated on the basis of productivity, and were reassessed at regular intervals. In order to retain their leases, peasants had to find ways to intensify their productionvis-à-vis their competitors (with whom they used to relate convivially and in cooperation as kin and neighbours), even if it was in surplus to their actual needs or even desires. Those who fell behind in the productivity race would lose their access to land and face starvation.
There are two things going on here with enclosure. The first is straightforward primitive accumulation, whereby the commons (land, natural resources, etc.) are acquired for free. This process is essential to the creation of capitalist surplus, or profit: capitalism always needs an outside, external to itself, from which it can draw uncompensated value. But there is also something else at stake here–something even more important, a more powerful and dynamic force. The emergence of the enormous productive capacity that characterizes capitalism depended in the first instance on subjecting humans to artificial scarcity. Scarcity –and the threat of hunger–created the impetus for competitive productivity and served as the engine of growth. The scarcity was artificial in the sense that there was no actual net depletion of resources: all of the same land and forests and waters remained, just as they always had, but people’s access to them was restricted. Scarcity was, in this sense, created in the process of elite accumulation. And it was enforced by state violence: peasant uprisings against enclosures were repeatedly put down by force, and often by massacre (Fairlie, 2009).