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Rhyd Wildermuth has just published an excellent article on degrowth (paywalled).

Put as simply as possible, degrowth states that the relentless expansion (“growth”) that capitalist economies rely upon to survive (and to outrun the crises they create) has a limit. Once that limit is reached and can no longer be postponed, they will then contract in often violent and tragic ways.

And he uses an excellent analogy with credit cards:

Readers in the United States will already be familiar with the analogy I’m about to use for this, while European readers will no doubt struggle with some disbelief that such a thing is even possible. In America, it’s possible to get a credit card without sufficient funds or collateral to show you can pay back what you borrow. Wilder still, once you’ve spent the limit of that first card, you can then get another one from a different provider, max it out, and then get a third, fourth, and even more. You can even use the credit from one card to pay down the minimum balance on another or even transfer balances, constantly juggling your debt load until you’ve gotten yourself into a terrifying abyss.

What often happens for the person using this strategy is that each subsequent credit card comes with a higher interest rate than the previous ones, and there’s a system of debt tracking (a “credit score”) which determines what this rate will be and what the credit limit will be. The more in debt you get, the higher the interest rate you’ll have to pay back, and eventually it all catches up to you.

Degrowth asserts that this is precisely what capitalist societies have been doing since the very beginning: borrowing against a future moment in which they hope they’ll be able to pay it all back.

Fossil fuels are the best example of this problem. They function as a line of credit to allow increased production, consumption, and accelerated technological change, while their invisible consequences (atmospheric carbon release) accumulated the way compound interest on a credit card does. We’re now starting to max out this line of credit, and will soon need another line.

Solar, wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear are potential alternatives, but again as with the credit cards, they each come with their own hidden fees and variable interest penalties. For all those alternatives, you need a large initial input of energy just to build them. The minerals required to build solar panels and the batteries involved all require energy to mine, refine, and create, while uranium mining and refining also require large initial energy inputs.

Where does that initial energy come from? Currently, fossil fuels — from one line of credit to another — all to make sure we can keep increasing the amount of energy available for technological solutions to the other problems our technologies cause.

Degrowth looks at this problem the way most of us might view a friend constantly getting new loans to pay back other loans. Just as we might ask, “why not cut back on your spending?” degrowth proposes we question the core value of capitalist expansion. It then asks what life might be like if we tried to live within our limits, tried to pay down the debts we’ve accrued (in the form of environmental damage and resource depletion). What might it be like if we stopped borrowing against the future?

My first real introduction to degrowth was Jason Hickel’s book. And based on Rhyd’s article, looks like I need to read this book by Kohei Saito.

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