Honey, I shrunk my life - Taking “degrowth” seriously

“If economic policies have been failing for 30 years, then why don’t we invent a new way of life? The desire for that is suddenly there.”

– Kohei Saito

A New Playbook

Of all the problems facing humanity, there’s arguably only one that really matters: how do we achieve carbon-neutrality quickly enough to save our bacon?

People who haven’t just flat fucking given up (looking at you, Paul Kingsnorth) mostly count themselves as tech optimists; they believe we can science our way out of this mess – by pivoting to renewable energy, and tweaking our consumer behavior in the ways that matter most.

But more and more people whose opinions count say such measures are doomed to fail. They amount to tapping the brakes, when there’s just not enough runway left for that. We need to slam on the emergency brake, as the Japanese philosopher Kohei Saito puts it – to avert environmental and social catastrophe.

We’re talking about a major, really unprecedented paradigm shift. Which exposes the question under the question: Can it even be done? Is material growth inevitable? Or is it, as Wendell Berry once put it, “evitable”?

Growth is a funny thing: it’s great until it isn’t. There comes a point, in every natural system on Earth, where growth triumphantly peaks. After that, more growth starts doing more harm than good. It becomes “malign, cancerous, obese and environmentally destructive,” as the Canadian research scientist Vaclav Smil said in his seminal book, Growth: from Microorganisms to Megacities. The curve of growth’s effects looks like an upside-down smile, and all the developed countries are now on the downslope, in the zone of what Smil calls “anthropogenic insults to ecosystems.” In other words: a shit storm on the horizon, about to make land.

So for humans, Smil and others would say, the only way forward is to pull back – via a potent (but terribly named)phenomenon called degrowth – a term you’re guaranteed to be hearing much more about as the air comes out of everything else.

Degrowth might be defined as a voluntary pullback of consumption and production. Basically, it means attaching a retro rocket to consumer culture to decelerate it enough to bring it safely back down to Earth. All in the name of protecting nature, and saving the species in the deal.

A simple idea. But obviously not an easy sell in the move-fast-and-break-things era, especially in a country like the US, whose citizens’ very identity is built on the promise of growth, social mobility, improving your lot and your children’s it’s all up to you, bud.

Degrowth has been a fringe movement for nigh-on twenty years, its constituency not much bigger than its sister movement on the other margin, so-called Effective Accelerationationism, dedicated to the balls-out pursuit of technological progress. No longer. Degrowth has to be taken seriously. That’s thanks partly to the five-alarm global eco-catastrophe, and young academics like Georgos Kallis and Jason Hickel and the Japanese philosopher Kohei Saito who have managed to put words to our utter inability to contain it with the usual tools in the shed.

Kohei is emerging as the new Thomas Piketty – the economist who rocked the world a decade ago with the declaration “it is time for socialism,” and converted many skeptics with a simple, brain-bending equation that seemed to explain why capitalism is toxic.

Kohei is convinced capitalism is doomed by its own internal contradictions. His recent book, a surprise smash hit in Japan and Europe and forthcoming in English, paints a vision of a future where we all get to, you know ... survive. And also of his own journey to arrive at this vision.

As a young dude growing up in Japan, Kohei was deeply effected by two events that shaped his politics. The first was the financial meltdown of 2008 (when he was 22) and the second was the Japanese tsunami and Fukishima disaster three years later. The first turned
him into a socialist, and the second turned him into an environmentalist. Humans, he became convinced, needed to craft a new relationship with nature – something no political or economic system had really been able to manage. Because boundless growth was central to pretty much all of them, none could adequately contend with climate change.

And then, in a twist worthy of The Da Vinci Code, Kohei discovered that Marx, late in life, had left a trail of breadcrumbs to the promised land.

In some notebooks written when he was an old man — and later suppressed for various reasons by various groups — Marx dug deep into ecological science. In an attempt to square the circle, he began to sketch a vision that took into account a finite Earth. In this light a new kind of Marxism emerged, so different from USSR-style version it should probably be given a different name. (Kohei calls it, pretty inadequately, “degrowth Communism.”) And Kohei’s belief in “green growth” went up in smoke.


Green-growth sounds like the silver bullet of sustainability, a “balance” (as the Nobel-winning economist William Nordhaus put it) between environmental stewardship and peppy economic health. But the seductive veneer crumbles when you give it a shake. The idea that you can “decouple” the carbon economy from everything else, and slow down only the bad stuff; the absurd logic of carbon capture (putting “gobs of money into these huge factories that do nothing but take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that shouldn’t have been put there in the first place.”); the devil’s bargain of “efficiency,” which serves to goose consumption — as things become cheaper, we make more of them, gobbling more energy and resources. Green growth is still growth, and growth takes more than it gives. What seems ingenious turns out to just push problems into a future our kids will have to figure out.

Green-tech “solutions” are super-seductive. And that, Kohei says, is the problem. Small virtuous-seeming actions – from recycling to eating less beef – give folks a false sense that they are meaningfully tackling the problem. Which “can end up causing more harm than good.” Kohei calls Green New Deal thinking “the new opiate of the masses.” It soothes and distracts from the pain of “the reality that must be faced,” namely that we are in the soup. Half-measures aren’t going to cut it. They’re like “damp January” – a dilution of the exercise that kills the point of the exercise.

For awhile Kohei himself was a believer in the Green Growth middle way. But at a certain point he threw his arms up and said, Fuck it. You can’t get there from here.

We must change how we live.

Engineering a Mindshift

“The future is an idea we have to conjure in our minds, not something that we perceive with our senses. What we want today, by contrast, we can often feel in our guts as a craving.”

– Bina Venkataraman

The equation for human happiness is actually quite simple, the psychologist Arthur Brooks maintains. It’s What you have divided by what you want. So there are two ways to get happier: increase the numerator or decrease the denominator. The first way – acquiring more haves – gives you a sugary buzz that quickly fades. The second way is the real jam. We can become happy, permanently and securely, by wanting less.

Shockingly, even Charlie Munger recently came to almost the same conclusion. Just months before his death in November at age 99, Munger, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man and one of the main faces in the shop window of American capitalism, said something at the Berkshire Hathaway AGM that must have hit the arena full of shareholders like a gut punch: “I think the best road ahead to human happiness is to expect less.” “Expect less” and “want less” aren’t quite the same thing, but in this company it’s staggeringly heretical; and in any context it’s a start, because expecting less can put pressure on you to want less, if only to resolve the little war in your own id.

So let’s dig into whether that’s even possible for an appreciable chunk of the human population to pull this off. The question we all have to ask ourselves is, What would it take for me to commit to playing a much tighter game for the rest of my life? Could I survive in a no-growth society? Would I feel life is worth living under these conditions?

How much lessness could I actually handle? Is “today” me willing to take a bullet for “tomorrow” me? Can I be a “good ancestor,” planting trees whose shade I will never live to see, if it means considerable sacrifice right now? Can I really hold off on eating the marshmallow?

If giving up some creature comforts is part of the deal of “the switch,” as Piketty calls it, there needs to be some psychological payoff in doing that. The reward may be at a deeper level than simple pleasure. A recent Gallup poll rated which countries’ citizens reported their lives were most meaningful. At the top were Sierra Leone, Togo, Senegal, Ecuador, Laos, Cuba and Kuwait. The last one aside, those are poor countries. “GDP ... may have an inverse relationship to meaning,” the psychologist Paul Bloom noted. It’s possible religious belief is a factor in those results, Bloom allows. But a more likely explanation is that “meaning results from struggle.” When everything is at our fingertips there can be no lasting satisfaction. “It’s no surprise that many citizens of affluent countries find that their lives lack purpose.” Fulfillment lies on the edge of just-manageable difficulty. Meaning requires at least some degree of suffering. In this case, by giving things up.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is going to be a tough sell for folks who scratched and clawed to arrive at where we are now. As the deep-sea fisherman says, “Get all you can, and can all you get.” American-style appetites seem to be bred in the bone. Many believe those in the rich North simply do not have it in them to make such a pivot – to give up on the idea that we can still have it all. That we can find a way to de-carbonize the world while still maintaining our current lifestyles.

“Americans might well find themselves happier and more secure in an ultra-low-carbon communal economy in which individual car ownership is heavily restricted, and housing, health care, and myriad low-carbon leisure activities are social rights,” wrote Eric Levitz in New York magazine not long ago. “But nothing short of an absolute dictatorship could affect such a transformation at the necessary speed.... Humanity is going to find away to get rich sustainably, or die trying.”

Indeed, a sense of progress is so central to what humans need in their life that it arguably can’t be squelched entirely. But maybe it can be reframed.

Like so: We don’t have to stop growing. We just have to grow ... differently. In ways more meaningful to the human spirit. In ways the GDP doesn’t measure – like sustainability, equity and well-being.

Looked at in this way, degrowth isn’t a bitter pill but a sweet opportunity. You’re tapping into the best of human nature, the parts of us that capitalism actually suppresses and stunts.

This bears repeating. You can’t think of the degrowth shift as an “austerity” move. That’s bad marketing and it’s not even true. When we ease off of consumption and production, what we end up with is something much more positive, what the economist Tim Jackson calls “prosperity without growth,” and the anthropologist Jason Hickel calls “radical abundance.” This is a bounty captured not in material metrics like GDP, but in things like basic income for all, universal medical care, the decommodification of goods like housing that people need to live dignified lives. That kind of abundance can be the new foundation for culture going forward, says Kohei, because it is about equality. It’s about unlocking the commons, and unleashing a flood of new value many people did not realize was there.

Sounds radical, but even John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and economist who first hatched the idea of a “steady-state economy” in the mid-19th century, glimpsed the spiritual promise in a program of ratcheting back GDP. “There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress,” he wrote. In fact there’s more room “for improving the Art of Living” when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”

From saver to “savor”

What would a degrowth existence look and feel like?

The pace of life would slow. We’d work less, or at least working differently. Make a conscious decision to “lose” something—productivity—in order to gain something, the thing most people would say is the most precious thing of all: time.

Time is freedom.

Say you work a day or two less a week. You can look at that as time stolen from you. Or you can look at it, as Hickel and others do, as time returned to you.

Time to do what? Maybe we spend it with the family, Kohei says. Maybe we garden, go running. We can volunteer, ramp up our political engagement. In the workplace our jobs may rotate. “We can use our skills and abilities and time not simply to make money but also to build communities and bring up new generations.”

We can pursue hobbies, the things that make us feel most alive. (Kohei spends a day a month puttering in a community garden.) A young Einstein spent a full year just ... loafing. Burning daylight, no endgame at all but to dream. It’d be hard now to call that time wasted.


There’s a John Green line: “People were created to beloved. Things were created to be used. The reason the world is in chaos is that things are being loved and people are being used.”

This is capitalism’s self-destruct code.

No one ever says it explicitly, this is what so much art is about. Science too, if the scientists have a little poetry in them.

In his book The Order of Time, the esteemed physicist Carlo Rovelli carves up the world into objects and experiences. Objects exist somewhere; they can be collected and hoarded; they persist in time. Experiences exist nowhere; they happen and are gone. If objects are stones and experiences are kisses, the project of a degrowth world is exchanging stones for kisses.

Of course, everything is impermanent if your timeline is long enough. “A stone is just some sand that has come together for now,” as Rovelli puts it. So it should really make no more sense to try to hang on to stones than kisses. This is the aspirational state of non-attachment that Buddhists speak of, and there’s evidence that people are generally happier when they try to live this way – savoring experiences and letting go of things.

Once we start thinking kisses, not stones, a great weight seems to lift off of us. And the world starts to make a little more sense. Every thing is really a relationship between something and something else. A web of kisses is better than a pile of stones.

In a degrowth world, people would be less stressed. The steam valve of individual financial pressure would be eased. You wouldn’t be, as so many are now, one unlucky break from living on the street. There’d be some sort of housing assurance, a minimum guaranteed income.

Easing off of high-carbon activities like driving and into low-carbon activities like caregiving makes sense in a way your body understands. The tradeoffs that come from giving up your hyper-consumptive lifestyle might not seem a good deal on paper, but you try them and by god they feel like a bargain. Maybe you could handle life without a second car but a better relationship with your neighbour.

At the root of our continual craving for more more more is the loss of connections, Kohei says. We’ve busted the bonds of family and, one level up, of neighborhoods. When you lose community you create a void, which you try to fill by buying more shit. It’s a vicious cycle.

So then: less consuming and destroying, more learning and conserving. Slowly, we recover a sense of common purpose, the antidote to the snakebite of individualism.


We got a hint of what some of this might feel like during Covid – at least those of us who weren’t front-line workers on the firebreak. “During the pandemic we learned we can dramatically change our way of life overnight,” said Kohei. “Look at the way we started working from home, cooking at home, spending more time with our families. This new lifestyle – planes grounded, consumption down – was demonstrably reducing carbon in the atmosphere. We proved that working less was friendlier to the environment and gave people a better life. As we slowed down, we had some room to reflect on our previous lifestyle. We realized it actually wasn’t bringing us all that much happiness. We just did it because we were used to it. But we could change it.”

In the end these epiphanies did not stick. The paradigm shift never really materialized. “Capitalism is trying to bring us back to a ‘normal’ way of life,” Kohei says. Normal, but somehow worse. People reborn into a post-Covid world more fragile, tribal, bellicose.

The Big Picture

It really is a psychological shift that’s on the table here. Buying in will require a little bit of a Buddhist turn of mind. Grasping that “grasping” is itself the problem. Suffering is caused by fear, “the fear of what we might lose, have less of, or never have,” as Arthur Brooks put it recently. “But the fear of having less is worse than actually having less. “Look,” Brooks said, “I’ve studied evolutionary psychology and I know that the drive to acquire more stuff is in us. You can’t erase it. But what you can do is strive not to attach yourself to what comes from your striving. You can’t erase the drive. But you can re-engineer your reaction to what comes of it. You can detach from the outcome. Once you’ve done what you can, you let the chips fall.

“If we cannot live happily without an assured future,” as Alan Watts once put it, “we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world.” Degrowth has to be something we undertake for the right reasons. It can’t be an exercise in ego-stroking high-mindedness, moral peacocking, virtue-signaling ... whatever you want to call it. It has to pass the test of, If no one were around to see me doing this, would I still do it? The answer must be yes, because it just feels better. It feels right. This behavior sits easier on my heart. It lowers my blood pressure. It makes life simpler, in a way that opens up possibilities.

The thing about capitalism is, it hides the damage from us. As a first step we need to move from “I can’t see this truth” to “I won’t see it.” We need to own our complicity. To stare at it. To survey our lifestyle of “wellness” in the rich North, and the South’s lack of it, and connect the dots. Only then, like the elephant suddenly alive to the squeal of the mouse it just rolled on top of, can a true mindshift happen.

“Don’t we know deep down that our comfortable lives come at the expense of others forced to live in comparative misery?”

– Kohei Saito

Jason Hickel would say we’ve been bamboozled by the terms of capitalism the way they’ve been laid out. Who will go first? If any industrialized country can pull off a “steady-state” economy, it’s Japan. “They’re already halfway there,” the economist Herman Daly told me, in the last interview he gave before his death last year. “The elements are in place. They’ve a stable – even slightly declining – population. They have natural limits on resource extraction as a small island nation. And they’re already doing things to rein in inequity, like imposing limits on the earnings multiples of executives to employees.” Because the alternative is living with the disintegration of our very souls.

Scaling back, you soon find yourself out of the red and into the black. Awash in abundance.


And so this is all good and useful to think about, as we grapple as individuals with the mindshift that seems to be required of us personally. But it’s also important to remember we don’t have to shoulder this transition alone. To think we do is to let governments off the hook. "Achieving degrowth equilibrium,” Kohei says, “is less about personal choices and more about changing overarching political and economic structures.” More sharing, less growth and concentration of wealth.

There are actually mechanisms available to governments that could nudge a degrowth future into being. These ideas seem radical, and implementing them would take some serious feinschmecking, but they would do the job of suppressing carbon overshoot by manipulating consumer behavior. They would include things like “true-cost”pricing, where every harm involved with bringing a good or service to market would be built in to the the price you pay at the till. Or a progressive “size tax” that’s slapped on corporations as they reach Brobdignagian proportions. Or a ban on flash-trading to cool international money markets. All these maneuvers together, along with others like them, would slow galloping capitalism to a canter, in a way that mere virtuous swerves by individuals could not.

As Kohei Saito was working on his new book, he came to think of it as a kind of love letter to his own nation. When Japan’s economy crashed in the 1990s, he saw his people hanging their heads in shame. The baked-in honor culture made them take the slump personally. They adsorbed it as a moral failing. Like: we should have worked harder. We should made wiser choices or figured out how to be more efficient. We were not equal to the challenge. This is on us.

Actually no, Kohei says, it isn’t, because that story is not true. It’s not the moral strength or failings of individuals that determine the outcome of this game: it’s the house rules. We trade or we share. Capitalism went all-in on “we trade.” “We share” never really got a look in. It’s not you who are bad, Kohei wanted his countrymen to know. It’s the system that is rotten to the core.

Even the most ardent exponents of degrowth allow that it can’t be cookie-cutter dogma. We have to suppress growth, yes, but selectively. “In some places (rich industrialized nations) we have to foster de-growth, but in other places (much of Africa) we have to foster growth,” says Vaclav Smil. The developing world is just now climbing out of this lobster pot. Degrowth does not say it should fall back in and die. It’s rich countries that are overshooting the most so need to shrink the most. But to Jason Hickel there’s an element of historical redistributive justice in the mix too – the Global North has most of the cumulative damage to the climate, so it’s incumbent on them to pull back more, in order to allow poor nations to keep growing.


So to return to the big question from earlier, What will take for a significant number of people make such a monumental change? How desperate will things have to be?

In some quarters it’s already happening, as countries tiptoe toward a kind of middle way anchored by degrowth. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ahearn’s government promoted the idea of “just-enough” growth. Growth per se isn’t the goal of the economy, she said: “enough” is. Enough for everyone to live as good a life as possible under the constraints of the environmental ceiling.

This is what Kate Raeworth called Donut Economics. The “donut is a zone of sustainable living” – between the deprivation of the “hole” and the overshoot beyond the glaze.

Smil thinks a mass shift to degrowth is totally doable. “We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s,” he told The Guardian. “We could cut down without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or ’70s Europe. People from Copenhagen would no longer be able to fly to Singapore for a three-day visit, but so what? Not much is going to happen to their lives. People don’t realize how much slack in the system we have.”

Living by a growth mindset, as we do now, “will become something like smoking,” Smil believes. It was everywhere and then it was by and large gone as people realized the clear link to cancer. Governments snapped into action. Restrictions were placed. Taxes were slapped on. “The same will happen when people realize where material growth is taking us,” Smil said. “It’s just a matter of time, I think.”

Who will go first?

If any industrialized country can pull off a “steady-state” economy, it’s Japan. “They’re already halfway there,” the economist Herman Daly told me, in the last interview he gave before his death last year. “The elements are in place.They’ve a stable – even slightly declining – population. They have natural limits on resource extraction as a small island nation. And they’re already doing things to rein in inequity, like imposing limits on the earnings multiples of executives to employees.”

In a way, Japan seems to have been preparing for this historical moment for thousands of years. It is equipped with language and rituals to accommodate a degrowth future.

There are Japanese words that uniquely capture the character traits we’re going to need to pull this off: Words like mottanai (rough translation: “What a waste!”) conveys a sense of regret over pissing useful things away, and the imperative to conserve energy and resources; or wabi-sabi: the idea that things get more beautiful, not less, as they age. This is the anti-consumerist ethic in a nutshell. Ancient rituals like the Japanese tea ceremony convey deliberately slow and mindful harmony with nature and one another. Haiku and other art forms lean on the ethic of subtraction. Subtraction adds intensity to what remains. This is how less can indeed become more.

All this pretty much runs counter to the capitalist idea of “progress.” Capitalist growth changes the environment. You’re making something new from the pieces that came in the box. And each successive generation has a dimmer memory of those original pieces.

Young Japanese sense the genetic drift from their country’s original DNA. The environment is being disrespected – in away that’s totally orthogonal to ancient Japanese traditions. So it may be time to “eat bitter,” again. The Japanese can do it. They’ve proven it. “Until recently it was such a frugal and disciplined society,” Smil said, “that people there can tolerate what others would not accept.”


The Franciscan monk Richard Rohr has some thoughts about a life well lived. You spend the first half of it acquiring things, and the second half giving them away. And the new space you have in the container, having got rid of your stuff, you fill with other people.

If such an idea scales, we might come to think of the last century of escalating consumerism as the first half of life; it was all about acquiring power, consolidating our career, etc. And now we’re entering the second part ... a move from “I” to “we.” From building to sharing. From an ethic of power to an ethic of care.

You have to take an idea like that seriously.

Because the alternative is living with the dis-integration of our very souls.

—Harry Flood

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