In 2015, a major study of 24 indicators of human activity and environmental decline titled ‘The Great Acceleration’ concluded that, “The last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind”. We have all seen aspects of these trends, but to look at the study’s 24 graphs together is to apprehend, at a glance, the totality of the monstrous scale and speed of modern economic activity. According to lead author W. Steffen, “It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force.”
Every indicator of intensity and scale of economic activity — from global trade and investment to water and fertilizer use, from pollution of every sort to destruction of environments and biodiversity — has shot up, precipitously, beginning around 1950. The graphs for every such trend point skyward still.
The Great Acceleration is manifest everywhere, including many areas not covered in the study. It is impossible to directly, humanly appreciate the ghastly scale of change. Only statistics can do that. For example:
- Humans now extract and move more physical material than all natural processes combined. Global material extraction has grown by more than 90 percent over the past 30 years, reaching almost 70 billion tons today.
- In this century “global economic output expanded roughly 20-fold, resulting in a jump in demand for different resources of anywhere between 600 and 2,000 percent”.
- For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise. Today, around 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. “About two thirds of this is for packaging; globally, this translates to 170 million tons of plastic largely created to be disposed of after one use.”
- The global sale of packaged foods has jumped more than 90 percent over the last decade, with 2012 sales topping $2.2 trillion.
- “In the last 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares… has been taken over by four industrial crops: soya bean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. These crops don’t feed people. They are grown to feed the agro-industrial complex.”
Not only are the scale and speed of materials extraction, production, consumption and waste ballooning, but so too the scale and pace of the movement of materials through global trade. For instance, trade volumes in physical terms have increased by a factor of 2.5 over the past 30 years. In 2009, 2.3 billion tons of raw materials and products were traded around the globe. Maritime traffic on the world’s oceans has increased four-fold over the past 20 years, causing more water, air and noise pollution on the open seas.
While it may be correct, generically, to ascribe all these signs of the Great Acceleration to “humanity” or “human activity” as a whole, this ascription is also flawed. Indeed, the study concludes that the global economic system in particular has been a primary driver of the Great Acceleration. The graphs of economic activity (such as the amount of foreign direct investment or the number of McDonald’s restaurants) and environmental decline (such as biodiversity loss, forest loss, percentage of fisheries “fully exploited”, etc.) look identical from a distance — both shooting dizzyingly upward since 1950. The resemblance is not coincidental. The latter are a consequence of the former.
This expansion of global economic activity has been driven forward by the dynamics of capitalism and the pursuit of endless profits: by marketing and advertising; by subsidies and sops to industry of every stripe; and by the concomitant destruction of local, self-reliant communities around the world. In the process, much of “humanity” has been swept into the jetsam of the overall economic system. While this system may be the product of some human designs, to confuse it with humanity at large is to get the story backward.
One incontrovertible conclusion of all this, it seems to me, is that it is precisely the increasing scale of economic activity – of ‘the economy’ – that is the heart of the multiple interlocking crises that beset societies and the earth today. The relentlessly expansionist logic of the system is inimical to life, to the world, even to genuine well-being. If we wish to instead honor, defend, and respect life and the world, we must upend that logic, and begin the urgent task of down-scaling economic activity and the system that drives it. We must embark upon the ‘Great Deceleration’.
Nevertheless, from every organ of the establishment, where the commercial mind reigns, we hear that the challenge before us is not deceleration, but making the great acceleration even greater by ramping up production and consumption still further. Even as governments expound solemnly on the need to arrest climate change and promote Sustainable Development Goals, they are handing over nearly boundless subsidies to industry, pushing for the expansion of global trade, and otherwise facilitating the acceleration of the acceleration.
Projections based on the assumption that the great acceleration will continue ad infinitum show, for example, that the number of cars will nearly double from 1.1 billion today, to 2 billion by 2040; that seaborne trade will increase from 54 to 286 trillion ton-miles; that global GDP will climb from $69 trillion to $164 trillion; and so on. As a news article reporting the projections declares, “If there’s a common theme, it’s that there’s going to be more of everything in the years ahead”. By 2025, the output of solid waste is expected to grow 70 percent, from 3.5 to more than 6 million tons per day. Leaving aside the actual feasibility of such growth – given biophysical limits that are already well-surpassed – the very fact that the political and economic establishment takes such growth for granted and will continue to pursue it heedlessly is cause for grave concern.
In India, chemical and physical pollution occasioned by the frenzied rush of industrial development has become so treacherous that it is deforming air and water into poisons to be avoided at the risk of health and life itself. Mephitic mountains of plastic waste choke every town and city, clog drains, suffocate rivers and shores, fill the stomachs of animals. Pesticides have killed soil and farmers alike across the country. Despite these and so many other manifestations of ecocide, industry and the government — central and state-level alike — clamor for more of it, faster. Because it is a ‘developing’ country, we are told, the average Indian vastly underconsumes plastic, energy, cars, et al. Cultural traditions of thrift and sharing, wherever they still hang on, are seen as nettlesome but surmountable barriers to keeping the growth machine growing, faster. Replacing each and every one of those traditional practices with packaged, often disposable, commodities is an explicit goal of industry. Relentlessly generating novel needs is another. The current government’s ‘Make In India’ program, marketed to attract foreign investors and businesses, is the latest campaign to fuel this process.
No matter how polluting, how much land and water are required, how many communities will be displaced and livelihoods destroyed, the formula is basically the same: more mines, more coal and power plants, more tourism. More and more of everything. For every industry, every product, every process that has swelled to become a planetary-scale abscess, the normal prescription that should obtain — ‘stop the swelling!’ — is inverted. The out-of-control global economic system needs more and more growth just to feed and maintain itself.
In defense of this system one may hear some version of the refrain: “These are the unfortunate costs we must pay to alleviate poverty, improve human well-being, and provide enough for all.” This argument has become embarrassingly spurious. It is now widely known that not only has the great up-scaling bequeathed the planet and its inhabitants a legacy of destruction, ugliness, and waste, but its prodigious production and profit has failed to make a dent in the hunger and privation suffered by hundreds of millions. At the same time, it has unleashed a storm of junk food and diet-related diseases across the planet, which has persecuted the poor the worst. The menacing pollution attendant to the great acceleration also harms the poor the worst. It exacerbates poverty even as it churns the planet into money. Meanwhile, those most enriched in the process amount to a conference-room-sized group of individuals. The statistics will likely have grown even more outlandish by the time this is read: the world’s 62 richest people own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity.
This system of plunder and inequality has, unsurprisingly, left in its wake demoralized human souls. The great acceleration and loneliness, depression, anxiety and estrangement are two sides of the same sinister coin; paralyzed and tyrannized by a surfeit of superficial ‘choice’, by loss of meaning and connection, even the supposed beneficiaries of this system have been made miserable by it.
So the increasing scale and speed of the economy is, for the vast majority, the enemy of prosperity. This fact offers some hope, for reducing the scale and speed of the economy provides the possibility of relief and reclamation of contentment for those afflicted by affluence, while at the same time providing not ‘growth’ — which the poor have never and will never be able to eat — but the actual material needs that are being trampled beneath the very stampede of growth that is supposed to deliver those needs. The great up-scaling is a sybaritic saturnalia for an infinitesimally small and incomprehensibly moneyed elite. It is everyone else’s curse.
Downscaling the economy, therefore, is not only necessary to save and perhaps enable regeneration of our beleaguered earthly home; it is also a genuinely humane, anti-poverty agenda. This may sound counter-intuitive to those marinading in trickle-down theory.
Upsetting the great acceleration juggernaut will require innumerable, profound systemic shifts. Since the regnant system is not the consequence but rather the cause of consumerism, acquisitiveness, separation, alienation, etc., it will require first and foremost resistance to the forces that relentlessly propagate it — stopping corporate plunder of all sorts (from mines to minds); stopping and revoking neoliberal ‘free trade’ agreements; breaking up and dismantling corporate-state power and the legal frameworks that underpin it; and, challenging the fundamentalist logic of unlimited growth. It will simultaneously require the (re)construction of radical alternative systems, rooted in environmental ethics, ecological integrity, social justice, decentralization and deep democracy, beauty, simplicity, cooperation, sharing, slowness, and a constellation of related eco-social-ethical values.
But where will the motive to act either in resistance or in regeneration come from, if the values of commercialized growth societies — competition, individualism, narcissism, nihilism, avarice — are so deeply indoctrinated? How can the opposite values be resuscitated after decades or centuries of anesthetization and repression? The fact is that all over the world, there has always been and continues to be tremendous push-back against the system, along with nurturance of countless alternatives. This is testament not only to human resilience and common sense, but to the utter asynchrony of this system with the genuine well-being of people.
To acknowledge and celebrate this spirited and widespread push-back is not to be complacent or naïve about the terrifying hegemony and momentum of the great acceleration. It is, rather, precisely to disrupt the complacency and debilitation of ‘inevitablism’.
Thankfully, all over the world, vibrant movements of resistance-(re)construction both new and ancient are saying loudly, “we are ready to stop being trickled-down upon.” The Degrowth movement is assailing the status quo assumption of a cozy positive relationship between economic growth and well-being and even (weirdly) environmental ‘improvement’. Its many exponents and activists are broadcasting the reality of the obvious-to-all-but-economists inverse relationship between growth and well-being. Given that the economy today is vastly exceeding what the planet and its denizens can give and take, degrowth — as its name announces — promotes not merely slowing and stopping growth, but reversing it.
At centers like Can Decreix on the Mediterranean coast, the main argument of degrowth – that well-being improves and life becomes richer through sufficiency, commoning and technological-material downscaling – is practiced, demonstrated and shared. Human muscle and craft skill reclaim from machines simple, pleasurable subsistence work, done communally. Heat energy of the sun is used to bake bread and warm water. Music and fun become not something that must purchased on weekends, but part of the fabric of everyday. But it is not merely an escapist, ‘live your values while the world burns’ sort of experiment; on the contrary, its members are deeply involved in the broader political struggles (e.g. against ‘free trade’ treaties) that are a necessary corollary to living alternatively.
There are also many sister concepts and movements to degrowth, that, despite their differences, share some basic, fundamental values and perspectives. There is Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay emerging out of indigenous, eco-centric Andean cosmovisions, calling not for alternative development but alternatives to development, for affirmation and strengthening of traditional practices, knowledge systems, processes and relationships (human and non-human alike) that since time immemorial have embodied many of the qualities that movements (like degrowth) in industrialized locales are striving to re-create. On the Andean altiplano, most Aymara and Quechua farming families still nurture, process and eat a spectacular varietal diversity of tubers, grains, legumes and other foods. One farmer I stayed with near Lake Titicaca grew 109 varieties of potato, plus dozens more of oca, olluco, mashua, quinoa, edible lupine, fava, wheat, barley, maize, and much more. He and his family, like the majority of other farming families there, provide most of their own milk, cheese, meat and wool from livestock like cows, alpacas, goats and sheep. They live in houses fashioned from adobe bricks of local clay, roofed with local grass thatch. Their young children know dozens of wild medicinal plants. They do all this not as heroic, isolated survivalists, but in webs of community and earthly relationships of community, mutual aid, sharing and care. These communities have met their needs through local-regional economies – many based in barter – for centuries. Are they thus perfect and free of all troubles? Of course not. But many of their worst troubles are imposed by capitalist industrialism and other forces of ‘progress’.
Perhaps the signal movement synthesizing resistance and (re)construction, ancient and contemporary, South and North, is the food sovereignty movement. This movement turns on its head 500 years of colonialist food policy, which would have everyone give up their food autonomy and diverse traditions and have peasants moved off the land into cities to become factory proletarians or, if remaining in the countryside, to become plantation proletarians exporting food calories, water and labor power – receiving in exchange paltry wages with which to shop for packaged ‘food-like stuff’ in a global agribusiness supermarket. The movement inveighs against the political-economic forces that continue the war against peasants and subsistence economies, and demonstrates again and again the superiority (health, nutrition, productivity, ecological, social) of diverse, small, localized, cooperatively-worked, integrated polycultures of the sort that characterized food systems before the logic of the factory was imposed onto the land.
These and many other movements are pointing the way back from the abyss into which the great acceleration has hurled us, directing us towards the Great Deceleration necessary to live again with affection and beauty on this earth.
This essay originally appeared in In Praise of Downscaling: 21st Century Conversations on How Small is Still Beautiful.
Photo credits: Indian trash heap: Juan del Rio; Andes grain winnowing: Alex Jensen.
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