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Utopia: Degrowth Begins

Utopia: Degrowth Begins

Today we discuss how we would start degrowth. "Start degrowth" is kind of an oxymoron. You might as well say "start stopping." Because a lot of degrowth, especially early on, is about inaction and ceasing action as much as it is doing something new. Some of the most important things we can do in terms of degrowth are...to stop doing a variety of things. Now, some of this may strike you as familiar–it's the kind of bullshit we were told to do in order to reduce our "carbon footprint" while oil companies keep pumping crude. But, remember, degrowth occurs in a cultural buy-in. We assume, because we're treading on the lighter side of things for a few weeks, that the world has defeated capitalism (or it has collapsed under its own rot). There are no companies exploiting the Earth. There's just us, a collective people, trying to live as best we can in the healing scars of empire.

Doing Less with Less

So you've killed capitalism–now what?

I don't presume to know exactly what the early days will look like. I assume there will be quite a bit of chaos as folk figure things out, and some cling to the old ways. But as the dust settles, as degrowth is implemented, what will probably become clear to you first is what's missing. As expected in a post-capitalist society, what's probably most obvious is the lack of jobs. I say "jobs" because while there will still be work, it won't be you reporting to a cubicle for a 9-5. There may still be a little of that sort of thing, but mostly, work is going to revert to the necessities–everything else, believe it or not, is a bullshit invention of capitalism. Insurance? Fake. Investment Bankers? Cryptids. What's left are professions that materially improve lives: farmers, builders, teachers, mixologists, artists.

So, here's a wild fact: serfs worked less than we do. They didn't have a commute, got a ton of breaks, and they took a third of the year off. They worked throughout the whole day, but they didn't work through the day. Work in a world of degrowth is going to be kind of similar–you'll work close to home, if not at home, and work will be organized around its utility. If you're harvesting crops in the summer heat, for instance, you are for sure taking yourself a siesta. And once that harvest is in, you've got some time to yourself. This is part of what I mean by doing less. There will be days during which it makes no sense to sit in the work chair, so you won't. It's not like money exists to be earned anymore.

Speaking of commutes; there will be a lot less travel, especially early on. Something that we will have to gather around and agree upon, immediately, is that whether you have a car or not, gassed up or charged or what have you, it needs to stay parked. There's going to be a lot of thinking in these early days, as communities figure out priorities, figure out what's fair to all. But not turning over an engine is a big, obvious one. So we'll be staying put, a lot of us.

This means, of course, that we'll be trying to do most things locally. We'll consume what's around us–what's in stores, what's in pantries, etc., first, so that nothing is wasted. This buys us a little wiggle-room–but probably not longer than a month or so before we have to begin to figure out how to feed ourselves. Which is a big problem! Imagine going from capitalism to degrowth overnight in the winter; you eat through all the local Wal-Marts in a month and then it's February and then what? Restarting civilization is a scary prospect when suddenly you realize you had no idea how anything worked. But take a breath.

Reinventing the Wheel

Let's assume you live in the former so-called United States. This continent is capable, even in rough times, of producing just a mind-boggling amount of food. We're a major world exporter, completely capable of self-sufficiency, and, pre-degrowth, we wasted 40% of food produced. The food that would normally be stocking shelves in that now-empty Wal-Mart is now unprocessed in grain bins and walking around in fields in the country just outside your city. Now, there aren't fresh watermelons and strawberries in February, granted, but there is plenty of food. Getting it from the countryside to the city is one of our first big hurdles. Do we lead a team of Teslas down the highway, collectively hauling a trailer full of corn? Do we use beasts of burden?

This is minutia. You might also be wondering how we get the farmer to part with his grain. Chances are, he's not super keen on this degrowth, anarchy stuff. But chances are also good that he's familiar with helping your neighbor, and knowing that you can count on that neighbor for help when you need it. That relationship, right there, is anarcho-communism in a nutshell. A farmer gives a portion of his crop to nearby cityfolk, knowing that his kindness will be remembered. When his partner breaks a leg, they can travel to the city for care. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

But we're still in Year Zero, Month Two, right? There are other things to figure out. Have we shut off all fossil-fueled power plants? Should we? The answer to that is probably no, not at first. We would greatly ramp down the energy produced, but cutting off all power is a great way to kill people with medical dependencies. Until a green grid can be sustainably established, we'll need to use a little of the old stuff to keep some of the lights on. Meanwhile, you folks at home are hopefully beginning to avail yourselves of local amenities for entertainment instead of just streaming Is It Cake? on your flatscreen–which, hopefully, you've given up due to its frivolity and energy consumption. Not everything is going to be sacrificed, but the important thing to realize is we're not going to be able to keep up our current level of consumption. It's not that things have to be bad–they just have to be less wasteful.

A Typical Day in Degrowth, Year Zero, Month Six

Let's say you're a resident of what was formerly a bustling city. You used to have a desk job, writing copy, tech support, a call center, what have you. There's not much of that anymore. With such a huge shift in life, it took you a little while to find something new to do–like a lot of folks. But you went to the local university one day after hearing there was a "job" fair and found a whole list of things you could do for your community and yourself: remodeling homes for sustainability, completing housing projects for the formerly unhoused, converting empty lots into future arable land, surveying, inventory, childcare, raising livestock, on and on.

You wake up to an alarm–we are, for now, still using clocks. The water in your apartment still works, because this isn't the post-apocalypse–one of the available jobs was water works, but you decided against it. You shower, dress, eat a couple of farm-fresh eggs, and walk several blocks down to your "job," which is half just watching a couple hundred chickens being chickens, half cleaning up the coops and readying the waste for composting. Your relief shows up after four or five hours, and you drive a pallet jack loaded up with a crate of compost to the nearest site of soil enrichment–formerly a used car lot, soon to be a quarter-acre of potatoes. You head home. Your apartment complex used to have a pool, but it's been filled in and the surrounding concrete tore up to make room for a garden, where occupants drew lots for the responsibility of caring for the crops. You were, according to some, unlucky, so you walk through the rows of corn and beans picking weeds, checking for bugs, and spraying a mixture of garlic and water on the tomatoes once you notice they've been picked at by some six-legged pest or other. This takes you about half an hour, maybe. And that's your day's labor. Up at dawn, done in the early afternoon. If you wanted you could absolutely work more, but if you don't want to, you're now free to do almost literally anything. Need to visit the doctor? Go for it. Need a few groceries? Grab 'em. Need to drop by the bank for a new debit card? No you don't, this is degrowth, baby!

It's getting hot, so you decide to nap with the window open, a luxury you didn't have back when your window faced a busy intersection. It's still busy, but the chatter is light and the traffic, at its heaviest, is a team of mules. You sleep longer than you meant to, and the sun is hanging just above the rooftops across the street. Your only question now is do you get up for the evening movie at the "drive-in" projected on the back of a grocery, the three-episode binge at the library, or stay in and read? You were leaning on the latter, until you heard the faint strains of guitar coming from down the street. You peer out and see an impromptu party forming, with folks dragging tables out into the thoroughfare, and lighting candles. Someone has decided today was worth beer–not every day is, or even can be, so early in our degrowth project–but today, coolers are being dragged from the nearby restaurants, and you hear your neighbor warming up their fiddle down the hall.