Link to full paper here:
- Mauro Bonaiuti
The first conclusion is that the basic objective of the economic process, i.e. the unlimited growth of production and consumption, in being founded on the use of non-renewable sources of matter/energy, contradicts the fundamental laws of thermodynamics. This objective must, therefore, be radically reconsidered. Furthermore, the empirical evidence concerning the effects of unlimited growth that has been accumulated over the last thirty years is well-founded and consonant. Data can, undoubtedly, always be contested, but looking at them impartially as a whole they show quite evidently how the biosphere is already unable to sustain the global system of production.
Even ecologists have not paid enough attention to the question of scale despite the fact that influential scholars have pointed it out. In the 1970s, authors such as Ivan Illich (1973), Ernest Schumacher (1973) and Gregory Bateson (1979) clearly stated the idea that, once a certain threshold is crossed, social structures also generally undergo structural changes from which unforeseen negative consequences may derive.
Everyday life shows that this is a common situation: access to the Internet cannot be a good substitute for someone who has no access to drinking water, just as the bread distributed by humanitarian groups cannot satisfy someone who desperately seeks justice and dignity.
Contributions from highly different fields of research, from biology to anthropology, from social sciences to psychology, teach us that true welfare consists in multiple dimensions, each of which is irreducible to the others.
Classical Chinese culture is an interesting counter-proof of this: it was forged in a non-expanding environment (as exemplified by the Great Wall), and in fact it presents strong, non-individualist and non-competitive traits.
What characterises biological and social systems, and distinguishes them from physical systems, is their capacity to form “representations” of the universe in which they live. Animals are certainly capable of forming an idea of the environment in which they live and of making decisions when faced with certain stimuli (signaling). Even single-celled organisms, for example, are able to monitor their own environment, estimating the presence of a certain chemical compound, and may move towards the area where the compound is greater. However, what characterises human socio- cultural organisations is their ability to negotiate such representations, giving rise to shared representations . Unlike what happens in the homologous activity in the field of biological systems (signaling), in negotiation semantics is important. The message may be totally new in form, yet the person sending it expects the receiver to be capable of interpreting it. In order for this to happen, it is extremely important that socio-cultural organizations should share the “attributions” and “narrative forms” on which messages are based (D. Lane, D. Pumain, S. van der Leeuw, G. West, 2009).
In other words, and more generally speaking, the formation of shared representations is the premise necessary for common action. As we shall see, this type of consideration is of great importance if we are to enquire into the problem of the (circular) relationship between social imaginary and institutional change. (Castoriadis, 1998, 2005).
Nowadays the sciences of complexity permit us to interpret the relationship among growth, accumulation and innovation in a radically different, far more promising light. First of all, innovation, as Schumpeter had already intuited, consists in a process of “discontinuous change”, transforming both the goods produced and the productive processes. In other words, growth implies the emergence of qualitative transformations that, as G-R claimed, can hardly be implanted in the arithmomorphic shape of neoclassical theory. Furthermore, in this perspective, particularly in competitive situations, growth, accumulation and innovation are part of the very same self-increasing process, where not only does technological progress sustain growth, but growth becomes the source of further innovations, precisely in a recursive, self-expanding spiral.
The first has been memorably described by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation. It concerns in particular the phase that characterises the passage from an economic system based on agriculture to an industrial one. Polanyi describes how some processes of structural change – from enclosures to the creation of a labour market – are necessary for the process of accumulation to begin. The simple fact that labour could be bought and sold like any other goods, something practically unknown to any previous form of social organisation, was not a chance occurrence.
Making labour (and nature) a commodity, subject to the rules of the self regulating market, involves such a deep social change that, quite comprehensibly, the outcome of this process was the emergence of not only another economy but also of another society.
Profiting from the scale economies connected to mass production of the Fordist type, enterprises capable of making the most profit incorporated the weaker ones, moving towards the concentration of production within a few large companies. This growth in size strengthened their scale economies, permitting, by means of cost reduction, further increases in profit. In this way, too, a process of positive feedback was set in motion.
At a later stage, the profound transformation in the organization of labour within the Fordist context, thanks to the increased strength of the trade union movement, particularly in Europe, raised the cost of labour, reducing profit (and savings) with a consequent reduction in growth rates in the more advanced countries, inducing the enterprises to transfer significant parts of their production to those countries where labour costs were lower (outsourcing). This process has caused the large transnational groups to renounce their direct management of the productive process, yet at the same
time increase their control over financial activities, which have thus become strategic. This process has led financial organisations to play a leading role and increase their dominance over the real economy (Dore, 2008). The emergence of this new kind of economic structure permitted financial organizations to bypass the regulatory mechanisms instituted by national states.
However, this continual racing ahead does not escape the laws of thermodynamics: a new product is nothing but a “new” combination of matter/energy/information and thus its production involves not only the irreversible degradation of a certain amount of energy but also the “loss” of a certain amount of available matter, which, in actual fact, cannot be recycled at the end of the process. We can sum up the underlying causes of the ecological crisis in this dynamic (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971a). This “bioeconomic criticism” is the first pillar of degrowth.
This apparent paradox can, however, be clarified within a systemic approach: as we have seen, the process of growth and accumulation has a self-increasing nature. The ever-increasing number of investments of western countries since the dawn of industrialization has generated faster and faster technological progress, which has brought about both increases in productivity and continual innovations. Given the competitive framework of international markets, it follows that those areas which have not succeeded in keeping pace with innovations and technological progress find themselves facing a technological gap that is increasingly difficult to be bridged. It is now clear that productivity has reached such levels that a minority is capable of producing all that the world economies require. The others, those “shipwrecked by development” (Latouche, 1991) (both as ndividuals and as entire nations), are unable to take part in this match because they are not efficient and competitive enou In the course of time, this competitive advantage has been accumulating in structures such as the military, financial, transport and media institutions, which tend to maintain and increase the positional advantage they have gained. If this underlying dynamic has characterized the parabola of development up to now, it comes as no surprise that we are confronted with a polarized world where the contrast between the centre and the peripheries is becoming more and more marked.
It is on this scale that the circular relationship between growth and positional consumption becomes, ecologically speaking, unsustainable. As is known, about 20% of the world population consumes the 82.7 of world production. A very significant percentage has so far been excluded from positional competition but is knocking at the door and wants to take part in the game.
Nowadays the “intermediate 60% of the world population consume only the 15.9 of global production.” No sophisticated calculations are needed to conclude that it is impossible to extend the life-style of the richest 20% to the “intermediate 60%”, even considering a complete exclusion of the remaining 20% when, at the present rate of consumption, the ecological footprint already exceeds the regenerative capacity of the planet by 30%. From this we may conclude, contrary to what Hirsch maintained, that not only does the existence of social limits not diminish the relevance of ecological limits to growth, but that, on a global scale, there is a close relationship between the social and the ecological crises.
To use the words of the great economist, the economy advances on the desertification of society. In other words, it is through the multiplication of giving and taking that social ties are maintained and strengthened. n contrast, what characterizes market relations is their impersonal nature. Market relationships are based on what economists call “exchange of equivalents”. The equivalence of what is exchanged makes it possible for market relationships to cease at the same time as the exchange takes place, therefore without any personal ties being formed as a result. As Milton Friedman, the Chicago school ideologist of neoliberalism, cleverly said: “In the great global market it is not necessary to know, let alone to sympathise with, one another.”
This process further increased in speed from the early 1980s along with neoliberalism and the globalisation of the markets, as many sociological studies have recognised. In Bauman’s interpretation (2005, 2007), the disintegration of social ties today can be seen in the form of social liquidity. It is not merely by chance that modern, liquid society is “a consumer society”, that is to say, a society in which all things, goods and people are treated as consumer objects, hence as objects that lose their usefulness, appeal and, finally, their value very quickly. Liquid society is thus a mobile, transient, precarious society where anything of worth soon changes into its contrary, human beings and their relationship included. All in all, according to Bauman’s description, modern society reaches levels of the disintegration of social ties that were hitherto unknown.
First of all the process of the progressive dissolution of social ties may be seen as a common framework for different kinds of social malaise: a loss of satisfying human relationships, a loss of security (Beck, 1988, 2009), precarious conditions of life and work, problems connected to migration and drug abuse are just a few example of problems that social scientists split into different categories but which can be tied to the same long-run historical process.
The dynamic of the progressive dissolution of social relationships may in its turn:
- be significantly responsible for the loss of well-being that contemporary societies show,
- lead to a loss of resilience of social organization when faced with external stress (such as
- economic or ecological crises).
- offer us a first clue to comprehending why contemporary societies seem to show very little
- reaction when confronted with the multidimensional crisis we are facing.
As we have seen before, what characterises biological and social systems, and distinguishes them from physical systems, is their capacity to form “representations” of the universe in which they live. In particular what characterises human socio-cultural organisations is their ability to negotiate such representations, giving rise to shared representations (D. Lane, D. Pumain, S. van der Leeuw, G. West, 2009). In other words, the formation of a shared imaginary is the premise necessary for any common action.
What marks common experience in all modernity if not uncertainty and fragmentation, transience and a sense of chaotic change? In the words of one of its greatest exponents, “being modern means finding ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth and the transformation of ourselves and the world, and yet at the same time threatens to destroy everything we have” (Berman, 1985, p. 25). Basically, the passage to post-modernity has done nothing but accentuate this tendency.
Hence, the fragmentation of the imaginary is (recursively) linked to the multiplication of the artefacts characterising consumer society. We must realise that the objects we surround ourselves with, thanks to the time we spend with them, and for them, become for each of us a source of meaning and identity, however restricted and fragmentary. There can be no doubt, without going into this question in detail, that enterprises employ many resources in order to feed this process. The budget relative to marketing and publicity is inferior only to that of military expenses and, as
experts in this field are well aware, the might of the media system is such that the efficacy of a “campaign” is never questioned. Contrary to what many post-modernist intellectuals claim, the capacity of the media system to colonise the imaginary is boundless (Brune, 2005). Must all this, therefore, lead us to the conclusion that there is no shared imaginary in a liquid society? As Serge Latouche warns us, this would be a thoughtless mistake (Latouche, 2006, 2009).
Of course, some compensatory processes are possible, as some scholars of complex systems also remind us, attributing new functions to the artefacts that issue from the capitalist cornucopia : It is possible, for instance, using information technology, originally planned for military purposes, to promote the formation of social or solidarity networks, or, just to give two extreme examples, to use advertising against advertising (i.e. Adbuster, Casseur de Pub). Yet, these reactions are not able to counteract the power of the processes of fragmentation and colonization.
There can be no doubt that homo consumens has an unbelievable freedom of choice at his disposal, yet the consumer-citizen can make his choices only within predefined frames (Goffmann, 1974; Lakoff, 2008) and cannot determine ex ante the set of things from which to choose (Bauman, 2007). Technology undoubtedly is to be found within this set. This means that decisions relating to "how” and “what” to produce in a certain area, under what social and ecological conditions, are out of the control of communities, territories and even states. In other words, the market system promises freedom (on a micro scale) but diffuses dependence (on a larger scale).
We now come to one fundamental aspect: the question of the imaginary is clearly closely linked to that of autonomy (Castoriadis, 1987, 2005), and autonomy to that of scale. Unfortunately, very little attention has been paid, within both the mainstream and the Marxist traditions, on the fact that dependence and autonomy are closely linked to the scale of the processes: basically, no autonomy and no chance of any real participation and self-determination are possible in the long chains of global economy.
Although it is far beyond the aim of this essay to elaborate future scenarios, it is reasonable to imagine that in the face of increased resource costs (peak oil, climate change, social conflicts etc.), not to mention the approaching framework of declining marginal returns in many crucial organizations (Tainter, 1988; Wallerstein, 2009; Beinstein, 2009), it is likely that the capitalist system will not be able to relaunch another long-term phase of growth and global expansion. In this critical context, it is important to understand that the institutions that have been perfectly well suited to the context of long-term growth will find themselves having to face an increasingly critical situation.
In conclusion, although the bioeconomic relationships that we have recalled will constitute in a certain sense the material framework within which future choices will be made, it will be social dynamics, and above all imaginary representations, that will play a crucial role in determining which path, among the various possible scenarios, humankind will follow. What is by now certain is that if the analysis proposed here is correct, any bland reforms tied to policies of sustainable development will not be enough to overcome the crisis; rather, it will be necessary to imagine a profound revision of the ecological, social and cultural conditions of the production of wealth. In other words, it will be necessary to risk a transition towards a sustainable degrowth society.
Just pasted some of the key excerpts....
Understandable why it is not a very popular opinion.