Embracing The Insanity Of Degrowth (Part 1)

by Nate

Even through the fog of a partially decolonialized understanding of the world, it is obvious to all but the most egregiously irresponsible that some part of the story of humanity is broken, false, and insufficient. How to rewrite the story is, perhaps, not yet clear; still the emptiness and illegitimacy of the current narrative is difficult to ignore.

It’s easy to see the inadequacies of our concept of civilization; the unavoidable plot holes in our story. It’s less easy to see any alternatives or imagine a better way to be in the world.

Decolonialization must begin with deprogramming for the medicine to take. It’s not enough -it’s not even relevant- to feel guilt for one’s colonialization; for two reasons. Firstly, we were all born into slavery through the social contract. It is unnatural to feel reciprocity towards the state because it aids in transferring wealth to the wealthy through debt; having stopped even pretending to ensure equality and opportunity years ago (if ever it did).

Our colonialization happened to us; and like Stockholm Syndrome, it keeps us clinging to the evils we know for the lack of anything more secure.

More importantly, feeling guilt is a practical waste of time compared to taking meaningful reparative action. Guilt, and particularly virtue signaling through public displays of contrition, is appallingly selfish -a self-centered activity in the face of the responsibility one has for one’s impact on the world.

“Taking responsibility” describes an activity; being responsible for one’s effect on one’s surroundings is implied. Contrition is for the penitent, not the culpable.

Here we are, the damned. All our attempts to forestall our obliteration are corrupted into satirical mockeries of their well-intentioned original selves. When every solution leads to more problems, it’s simply time to stop taking action and reevaluate.

Image: Ancient Civilization by Alessandro Paviolo

The Delusion Of Perpetual Growth

In his remarkable book, “Sacred Economics, author, speaker, and future-builder, Charles Eisenstein, presents an extremely compelling case for the immanence of a spiritual, cultural, financial, and ecological crisis; and traces its roots to our culture’s obsession with growth and imagining ourselves the conquering heroes of Earth (and beyond).

The story we tell ourselves, culturally, and its transformative potential, in the Global North, is of ascent -of gaining mastery over nature. We speak of this, and teach it to our children, as our birthright and duty. We celebrate and defend our right to extract any and all resources of “the commons”, as Eisenstein refers to it, and convert them into money.

But what even is money? Given the way we talk about currencies as stores of value, one might assume money is a representation of real value in some other form. In reality, money does not enter the world when there are more goods and services to transact but rather the exact opposite is true. Printing money “out of nowhere” forces the supply to increase regardless of the demand, in the hopes of paying off today’s debts tomorrow.

Usury is built into the very fabric of money today, from the moment of its inception. Money originates when the Federal Reserve (or the ECB or other central bank) purchases interest-bearing securities (traditionally, Treasury notes, but more recently all kinds of mortgage-backed securities and other financial junk) on the open market. The Fed or central bank creates this new money out of thin air, at the stroke of a pen (or computer keyboard).

For example, when the Fed bought $290 billion in mortgage-backed securities from Deutsche Bank in 2008, it didn’t use existing money to do it; it created new money as an accounting entry in Deutsche Bank’s account. This is the first step in money creation. Whatever the Fed or central bank purchases, it is always an interest-bearing security. In other words, it means that the money created accompanies a corresponding debt, and the debt is always for more than the amount of money created.

The kind of money just described is known as the “monetary base,” or M0. It exists as bank reserves (and physical cash). The second step occurs when a bank makes a loan to a business or individual. Here again, new money is created as an accounting entry in the account of the borrower. When a bank issues a business a $1 million loan, it doesn’t debit that amount from some other account; it simply writes that amount into existence. One million dollars of new money is created-and more than one million dollars of debt. This new money is known as M1 or M2 (depending on what kind of account it is in). It is money that actually gets spent on goods and services, capital equipment, employment, and so forth.

Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics

Economics, at the best of times, is confusing enough to make one’s head spin, but the basic idea is straightforward enough; if completely bat-shit insane.

“…at any given time the amount of money owed is greater than the amount of money already existing.”

We are forced grow perpetually to sustain our economy –and this is by design. Naturally, the architects of this system (and their descendants) benefit by greater and greater percentage over time; yielding them greater and greater influence over governments, society, and the narrative of the human story at the same time.

The principal way of doing so is to begin selling something that was once free. It is to convert forests into timber, music into product, ideas into intellectual property, social reciprocity into paid services.

Abetted by technology, the commodification of formerly nonmonetary goods and services has accelerated over the last few centuries, to the point today where very little is left outside the money realm. The vast commons, whether of land or of culture, has been cordoned off and sold-all to keep pace with the exponential growth of money. This is the deep reason why we convert forests to timber, songs to intellectual property, and so on. It is why two-thirds of all American meals are now prepared outside the home. It is why herbal folk remedies have given way to pharmaceutical medicines, why child care has become a paid service, why drinking water has been the number-one growth category in beverage sales.

The imperative of perpetual growth implicit in interest-based money is what drives the relentless conversion of life, world, and spirit into money. Completing the vicious circle, the more of life we convert into money, the more we need money to live.

Usury, not money, is the proverbial root of all evil. [emphasis mine]

Image: Overgrown City Cover Art by Rutger van de Steeg

With usury (interest) in our sights, we can blow a few more holes in the idea of perpetual growth. Many of the evils in the world today can be brought into the light that shines through these holes in our economic fantasy. The drive to consume is actually a drive to produce despite the fact that demand is diminishing, rather than growing. The continued upward transfer of wealth creates scarcity where none really exists, leading to a society driven by cutthroat competition rather than friendly collaboration.

The insufficiency of money drives us into competition with each other and consigns us to a constant, built-in state of scarcity. It is like a game of musical chairs, with never enough room for anyone to be secure. Debt-pressure is endemic to the system. While some may repay their debts, overall the system requires a general and growing state of indebtedness.

Constant, underlying debt-pressure means there will always be people who are insecure or desperate-people under pressure to survive, ready to cut down the last forest, catch the last fish, sell someone a sneaker, liquidate whatever social, natural, cultural, or spiritual capital is still available. There can never be a time when we reach “enough” because in an interest-based debt system, credit exchanges not just “goods now for goods in the future,” but goods now for more goods in the future. To service debt or just to live, either you take existing wealth from someone else (hence, competition) or you create “new” wealth by drawing from the commons.

The Alternative To Unsustainable Growth

Eisenstein is hopeful, at least in his published works, for the possibility of a gift culture with a decentralized economy that is, in his words, sacred. This magical combination of cultural and economic beliefs describes, and ultimately produces, rapid, revolutionary degrowth.

Degrowth is the inverse of growth; not death or stagnation, but growth back “on old wood”. It requires some significant shock to the system first (as we’re soon to find out). Still, life grows on…and when endless upwards momentum can’t be sustained, a reverse and retraction naturally occurs.

This is how we de-grow; by continuing to live within a closed system that becomes stronger while allowing for a healthy, natural reduction at the same time (embracing life and death, in a harmonious cycle).

Degrowth is a non-starter in a world with an inescapable debt ceiling; to even suggest such a thing is heresy. But the need is pressing and so we must commit the sacrilege and consider the opposite of everything we’ve ever thought to be true -that infinite growth is a fallacy and that radical degrowth is an inevitable necessity.

The question remains, practically, how does one assume a position on degrowth while living in a society built on the unquestionable premise of infinite growth?

Continue reading Part 2 Of “Embracing The Insanity Of Degrowth”

Featured Image: POST APOCALYPSE by Michaela Maria Wartbichler

You may also like

Leave a Comment