Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Degrowth," Economic Myths and a Minimal Bioeconomic Program

«La décroissance est un mot-obus
La Décroissance is a "missile" word, a "bombshell" word -- that is to say, it is a provocation. As Serge Latouche put it, "The idea of a contraction-based society is just a way to provoke thought about alternatives." The meaning of the English word, 'degrowth,' has been lost in translation. It is, literally, a double translation whose source has often been misplaced.

In 1979, Jacques Grinevald and Ivo Rens translated into French Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's 1975 article, "Energy and Economic Myths", along with two articles on bioeconomics in a book titled Demain La Décroissance: Entropie – Écologie – Économie. The second edition omitted Demain from the title. Several authors have incorrectly identified the book as a translation of The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, which it is not.

In Grinevald and Rens's translation, the word décroissance first appears in the text at the end of the penultimate paragraph of a section titled, L' état stable: un mirage à la mode, originally, "The steady state: a topical mirage":
Cela met en évidence un point important quoique inaperçu jusqu'ici, à savoir que la conclusion nécessaire des arguments avancés en faveur de cette perspective consiste à remplacer l'état stationnaire par un état de décroissance.
Here is the original English of the last two paragraphs of the section critiquing the steady state mirage. I have highlighted the sentence that corresponds to the above translation and bolded the word which was translated as décroissance:
The usual arguments adduced in favor of the stationary state are, however, of a different, more direct nature [than equating it with an open thermodynamic steady state]. It is, for example, argued that in such a state there is more time for pollution to be reduced by natural processes and for technology to adapt itself to the decrease of resource accessibility. It is plainly true that we could use much more efficiently today the coal we have burned in the past. The rub is that we might not have mastered the present efficient techniques if we had not burned all that coal "inefficiently." The point that in a stationary state people will not have to work additionally to accumulate capital (which in view of what I have said in the last paragraphs is not quite accurate) is related to Mill's claim that people could devote more time to intellectual activities. "The trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heel" will cease. History, however, offers multiple examples -- the Middle Ages, for one -- of quasi stationary societies where arts and sciences were practically stagnant. In a stationary state, too, people may be busy in the fields and shops all day long. Whatever the state, free time for intellectual progress depends on the intensity of the pressure of population on resources. Therein lies the main weakness of Mill's vision. Witness the fact that -- as Daly explicitly admits -- its writ offers no basis for determining even in principle the optimum levels of population and capital. This brings to light the important, yet unnoticed point, that the necessary conclusion of the arguments in favor of that vision is that the most desirable state is not a stationary, but a declining one. 
Undoubtedly, the current growth must cease, nay, be reversed. But anyone who believes that he can draw a blueprint for the ecological salvation of the human species does not understand the nature of evolution, or even of history -- which is that of permanent struggle in continuously novel forms, not that of a predictable, controllable physico-chemical process, such as boiling an egg or launching a rocket to the moon.
Toward the end of "Energy and Economic Myths," Georescu-Roegen conceded that "The most we can reasonably hope is that we may educate ourselves to refrain from 'unnecessary' harm..." and dismissed notions of "complete protection and absolute reduction of pollution" as "dangerous myths." Acknowledging the impracticality of a "complete renunciation of... industrial comfort," he concluded his article with a "minimal bioeconomic program":
First, the production of all instruments of war, not only of war itself, should be prohibited completely. It is utterly absurd (and also hypocritical) to continue growing tobacco if, avowedly, no one intends to smoke. The nations which are so developed as to be the main producers of armaments should be able to reach a consensus over this prohibition without any difficulty if, as they claim, they also possess the wisdom to lead mankind. Discontinuing the production of all instruments of war will not only do away at least with the mass killings by ingenious weapons but will also release some tremendous productive forces for international aid without lowering the standard of living in the corresponding countries. 
Second, through the use of these productive forces as well as by additional well-planned and sincerely intended measures, the underdeveloped nations must be aided to arrive as quickly as possible at a good (not luxurious) life. Both ends of the spectrum must effectively participate in the efforts required by this transformation and accept the necessity of a radical change in their polarized outlooks on life.  
Third, mankind should gradually lower its population to a level that could be adequately fed only by organic agriculture. Naturally, the nations now experiencing a very high demographic growth will have to strive hard for the most rapid possible results in that direction. 
Fourth, until either the direct use of solar energy becomes a general convenience or controlled fusion is achieved, all waste of energy -- by overheating, overcooling, overspeeding, overlighting, etc. -- should be carefully avoided, and if necessary, strictly regulated. 
Fifth, we must cure ourselves of the morbid craving for extravagant gadgetry, splendidly illustrated by such a contradictory item as the golf cart, and for such mammoth splendors as two-garage cars. Once we do so, manufacturers will have to stop manufacturing such "commodities." 
Sixth, we must also get rid of fashion, of "that disease of the human mind," as Abbot Fernando Galliani characterized it in his celebrated Della Moneta (1750). It is indeed a disease of the mind to throw away a coat or a piece of furniture while it can still perform its specific service. To get a "new" car every year and to refashion the house every other is a bioeconomic crime. Other writers have already proposed that goods be manufactured in such a way as to be more durable. But it is even more important that consumers should reeducate themselves to despise fashion. Manufacturers will then have to focus on durability. 
Seventh, and closely related to the preceding point, is the necessity that durable goods be made still more durable by being designed so as to be repairable. (To put it in a plastic analogy, in many cases nowadays, we have to throw away a pair of shoes merely because one lace has broken.)
Eighth, in a compelling harmony with all the above thoughts we should cure ourselves of what I have been calling "the circumdrome of the shaving machine," which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on ad infinitum. This change will call for a great deal of recanting on the part of all those professions which have lured man into this empty infinite regress. We must come to realize that an important prerequisite for a good life is a substantial amount of leisure spent in an intelligent manner.

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