As the coronavirus pandemic grows, it brings a secondary economic disaster —unemployment, small business closings, local government budget shortfalls. Given the way our economy is structured, widespread job losses and plummeting consumer demand trigger a whole lot of suffering. But, as philosopher Barbara Muraca explained in 2013, the activist and scholarly movement known as degrowth is building a vision of a society where economies would get smaller by design—and people would be better off for it.”
These are the opening lines of Livia Gershon’s March 31, 2020 notes in JSTOR Daily’s webarchive on Muraca’s “Décroissance: A Project for a Radical Transformation of Society” (Environmental Values, Vol. 22, No. 2, special issue: Degrowth (April 2013), pp. 147-169; White Horse Press).
It makes sense to me. Smaller economies anchored mainly on local buy-sell networks and shorter supply chains, and which are minimally dependent on far-away sources of essential goods and services, would seem more able to sway, contort, and recalibrate their structures and dynamics to more resiliently absorb shocks. My economist friends tell me that in the 1997 Asian financial meltdown and in the 2008 global economic crisis, households and communities that were least connected to the wider cash economies and global markets were least disturbed, perturbed, and affected by the two events.
I can see why. I could not imagine that families in a remote place – whose sense of social and economic fulfillments are confined mainly to their immediate social networks and to what they could grow or exchange with neighbors – would care about the stock exchange, inflation, or the Monetary Board’s decisions on interest rates. Neither would they care if consumer goods from China, or rice from Vietnam would ever come to the country, or if they come on time. Yes, they probably use things that come from far beyond their neighborhoods (like holy books, utensils, clothes, noodles) but their survival is minimally, if at all, dependent on them.
Someone may say, “this is too idyllic a picture of an autonomously self-supporting local community and economy.” I get that. But let me stress that I am referring to families and communities that are not substantially nor existentially linked to wider markets and economies. They are only minimally linked and so are better shielded from the fickleness and vagaries of complex networks of exchange in markets and economic institutions that have many nodes of decision making and activities. When some nodes snap or are disrupted (like when synapses in our bodies’ nervous system misfire), there goes the flow of goods and services and pity those in the end point of that network (the consumers like you and me).
Our choice now is this: whether or not to move toward being local or continue being global. It is about whether or not we keep our growth momentum as a society and an economy toward what’s bigger and wider, or to “degrow” toward what’s smaller and confined.
These are questions that need to be asked and addressed because they could reshape our national life. They are public policy questions that I would not know how will be eventually resolved. But this I know: it would be harder for me to keep and maintain a car that’s been made in a country elsewhere and where its spare parts are manufactured than if I have a cart made by a neighbor using local materials. Even if I painted my cart with paint from China, I’d hardly care if that paint were to continue being sold in our country. Paint from China would not dictate my having the cart.
Many of us have things made elsewhere. This is not the point about degrowth. The point is if we’re willing to support degrowing our economic networks and interdependence to achieve higher resilience of our society?
I do. It’d be hard. But being so does not necessarily rob it of rationality .. and necessity.