Coronavirus puts degrowth on new, rapid trajectory


March 24th, 2020

SARS-Cov-2 has put the idea of degrowth in a new perspective and on a
necessarily more rapid time scale. Up to this point, those writing about degrowth
envisioned a contraction of economic activity over years or decades. But now
the global pandemic is requiring action in days, weeks and months.

The steps to quarantine, self-isolation or social
distancing in order to suppress a dangerous virus pandemic is a public health
motivated  strategy and it inevitably
brings economic degrowth with it. 

But degrowth has never been solely about economic
contraction. It is also about changing the current economic structure into
something better. But we don’t get to choose the conditions in which degrowth
will play out right now. We are being forced to change to stay alive.

The virus means staying at home – and thus not
using fossil fuel powered transport (including public transport and planes). It
means minimal shopping – only for essentials. It means not going to restaurants
or on holidays.

It means the temporary closure of many production processes, a reduction in the transport of many goods and a large proportion of world trade. Some of these production processes, trade and transport will never re-start and the associated economic organisations are likely to go bust.

Empyt shopping centre Photo: Pxfuel

Essential and
inessential production

Where such production is inessential and only
exists to allow rich people in an incredibly unequal world to preen and
celebrate themselves, this is no bad thing. The economy has overshot the
carrying capacity of the biosphere and this reduction is what is needed.

However, when this is all over, will inessential
and ecologically toxic activities restart? Some might but I doubt it for most
of them – this kind of historical process is not reversible. When businesses
are liquidated one cannot just start them up again – unless there is a real

The death and suffering brought about by the
coronavirus, the frosted glass in the lungs, of vulnerable people is a tragedy.
The inability to buy Gucci and other luxury fashion lines together with a
demand shock for luxury goods is not. It is to be welcomed.

What is true is that the workers in this sector
will be worried about their jobs, paying their debts and their future – I do
not wish to make light of their fear and distress. But from the point of view
of the environment and public health it is good if people start looking for a
change in direction in life and it is important that they are encouraged to do

It is not possible to degrow the economy without
a lot of people having to change their jobs and retrain. At the right time they
should be helped through the stress and financial turmoil. But these are
changes that have to happen.

When supporting people in fundamental occupational changes, the jobs that they should be encouraged to retrain for should be in fields where ecology and economy are not in conflict.

Food production
in the growth economy

Above all, it is the food sector that needs to
change most as this is where health risks largely originate. We will need a
massive transformation in sectors like food growing, food processing and
marketing focused on sites local to farmers.

Much of the case for re-localisation and degrowth
is motivated by the greenhouse gases arising in transport and farming. However,
what this crisis is also trying to teach us are frightening truths about the
ecological consequences of land use changes that have emerged as threats to our

If we are to slow down the rise of new diseases
like COVID-19, then we need to acknowledge that they are emerging from the ways
that industrial, agricultural and urban expansion have brought about land use
changes that are disrupting ecological systems.

Pathogens previously boxed into niches of
ecological systems are now interacting with monocultural farming systems and
human food chains. Bats are not just associated with COVID-19 but also Ebola
and it is the ecological disruption when forests are displaced by plantations that
have brought bats into closer contact with humans.

And that’s not all. The real estate markets of
cities are extending suburbia into the surrounding countryside. This has
consequences too – increased Lyme disease spread by ticks and hosted by mice
for which suburbia is an ideal habitat.

Climate change and economic development have
changed weather patterns and wild animals – insects, birds, mammals – have been
forced to adapt, bringing about new kinds of interaction with humans in which we
get infected by “novel” diseases.

Meanwhile, the Industrial farming of animals – the mass production of meat – has entailed fundamentally unhealthy (and thus cruel) ways of raising and treating animals. To prevent them from getting sick, antibiotics are routinely used to the point that they are losing their effectiveness as a medicine for humans.

Image by romanakr from Pixabay

Ideal of degrowth superseded by real life events

Self-isolation and distancing is the beginning.
It will bring the economy down and is already doing so. Normally, it is other
people and other species that carry the so called external costs of economic
development while corporate magnates reap the profits.

This time round a virus is unleashed that
destroys the very foundations of economic activity and the corporations too. Up
to this point, economists and central bankers could ignore the ecological
crisis but now they find that the ecological disruption is unleashing a Pandora’s Pox of problems for which they
have no answer.

In the long run, policies of social isolation and
quarantine will hopefully prevent a lot of people from dying before they need
to. But these temporary expedients are pulling the global economy down. In the
demolition site we will have to start again with something different. That’s so
we do not just go back to the same place this catastrophe started from.

If the process is badly managed and the
production of essentials goods and services collapse altogether then a lot of
people will die anyway. Managing this process both at the policy level and at
the personal level will be not be easy to judge. People will have to work
together to produce food – how much they will need to come together to frequent
restaurants and pubs is another matter.

How this is to be done is something that all of us individually and as households will have to work out as we go along. It is a time for improvising and making careful and distanced arrangements with neighbours.

Microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Photo: NIAID-RML

The new normal

Human and natural systems evolve in three dimensions
– productive capacity; inter-connectedness; and the degree of resilience or
vulnerability. In recent years the economy, society and ecological system has
become more vulnerable to domino chains of cascading collapse.

Over more than two centuries the high level of
complexity and connectivity in the economy has increased productive capacity.
However the high level of connectivity – where products are assembled from
components from supply chains spanning the globe – is very vulnerable and has
been collapsing.

The finance system is another highly connected
system that is very vulnerable which can collapse in a situation like the
coronavirus crisis. This throws people back, in extremis, to the resources of
their own household and its immediate environment.

Social support mechanisms and economic
relationships will be under pressure to minimalise. To take a trivial example –
we can still take deliveries at home which can be left outside the door for
collection (inclusive of arrangements for disinfection).

There will be no one size fits all ways of doing
it and each person will have to improvise during this crisis. At the same time
the ideal outcome is that improvisations will lead to fundamental changes that
start the re-localisation of economic activity, changes in the food system and
land use – and in general degrowth.

Forget about a return to normal – the normal was unsustainable and this is the

By Brian Davey

Brian is an ecological economist and has spent most of his life in the community and voluntary sector in the areas of health promotion, mental health and environment. He is a member of Feasta’s Climate Working Group and author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis. This article is abridged from a piece on the Feasta blog here.

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